Choose Your Own Charlotte

August 26, 2014 at 11:17 pm (Uncategorized) (, , )

If you spend your pocket money on punk records and poetry books, turn to page 24.

If you play netball and whisper about the bad girls of Croydon High, turn to page 33.

When I was sixteen, I was called to the principal’s office. No-one was more surprised than me. My blue hair, tattered Sex Pistols t-shirts and permanent scowl hid – I hoped – the fact that I was a straight-A student, with an application pending for a language exchange in Europe. I ran all manner of scenarios through my head as I skulked along the corridor…did they know I’d been sneaking into TISM gigs, or drinking bourbon from the bottle in city alleyways?

The message was short but perplexing: call your father. I did so with nervous hands, dialling a number I still know off by heart over twenty years later. He told me that I’d been offered not one, but two places in Europe, and they needed my decision now.

If you smoke bucket bongs while listening to Guns ‘N’ Roses, go to page 41.

If you wear ripped lace dresses and army boots from flea markets, go to page 55.

Twenty minutes later I watched my dad drive into the school car park. He had an atlas under one arm, while the other reached out for a huge congratulatory hug that seemed to last forever. Then we spread out the atlas on the bonnet of the car, and opened it to Europe.

We stared at it, frowning. I had been offered a year’s language exchange in Belgium or Spain. I knew little about either country. I’d wanted Switzerland, but no placements were available, so my dreams of chalets and chocolate were to be replaced by…well, what, exactly? All I knew about Belgium was that it had funny names like Antwerp and Flemish, and gave the world the Smurfs. As for Spain, I didn’t know a single word of the language, but had once made paella in home economics class. It was going to be a tough decision.

We were out there so long I missed gym class, but for once it was ok. Dad put his hand on my shoulder and told me to trust in my decision, neither of us verbally acknowledging that I was now Officially Leaving. I looked at the sprawl of countries, so many names and beckoning adventures, languages stretching across both pages like ribbons.

And I chose Belgium. I think my main reason was that it was closer to London, and my ferocious little punk heart filled at the thought of wandering the same streets as Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Not the best rationale by which to choose your home for the next year, but there you go.

If you ride bicycles over canals as the snow falls, go to page 64.

If you soak up the sun on a stroll down Las Ramblas, go to page 78.

I left one week after my seventeenth birthday. It was one of the most pivotal years of my life; challenging in ways I’d never imagined, yet rewarding in aspects I’m still discovering today. It threw me into the world utterly on my own and instilled in me both a fierce independence and a passion for languages that led to my degree and career in linguistics. I fell in love with Belgium – moved back there in my thirties, in fact – and miss it so much my heart aches every time I think of it.

But it took my little sister to point it out: did I think that in choosing a country where the winters were dark and cold, and I could stay holed up inside to write and daydream, that it helped form the character I have now? Which is, to be blunt (as my lovely little sis can be, bless her), rather wintry and introverted itself. What if I’d chosen Spain, and the year I turned into an adult filled with sunshine and sangria, socialising in the streets and hearing the purred constants fall from my mouth…how different would I be?

I used to love those Choose Your Own Adventure books when I was a kid. I never cheated. I always read the whole story, following every strand until it shook me out the other end, wherever that may be. I made a monumental decision in a school car park, one of the first to shape my adult life. And I now know that I chose my own adventure wisely.

I recently wrote a CYOA story myself, and it’s just been published at the wonderful literary magazine Corium, so go take a peek at ‘Choose Your Own Charlotte.’

If you want to play cheesy French pop and look up the history of the Smurfs, go to google.

If you want to read about a teenage girl with bad posture and an even worse attitude, go here.

corium

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The countdown to Wouter’s Bowling Alley

July 4, 2013 at 2:38 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , )

Not many people have a medieval torture chamber at the end of their street.

I wasn’t proud of it, you understand. Most of the time I’d be walking past on my way home from the supermarket, wondering whether to add juniper berries to the salad, or if I had enough goat’s cheese. My life in Brussels was not a complicated one, and these were my concerns. Then I’d see the turret loom in front of me, and I’d stumble, and try to right myself on the cobblestones. The crumbling tower held stories, that much I knew, even though it was now unceremoniously wedged between petrol pumps and Wouter’s Bowling Alley.

I don’t know what kind of torture they inflicted, but I could imagine. Oh, could I imagine: writers tend to be good at that. I’d sit with a koffie verkeerd in La Sorciére, The Witch, and tried to believe that this was where the wise women would come to whisper their spells, velvet gowns dragging on the stones. Of course everyone in the Middle Ages wore velvet…please don’t spoil it for me, ok?

I’d sift through silk scarves and chew sunflower seeds with the old Moroccan men in the flea market at Place du Jeu de Balle, the rather unsavoury section of Brussels where the thieves and whores were sent when the prisons overflowed. I’d gaze around the square and dwell on the fact it was on the site of a leper colony, back in the day when the bodies would hang high on Gallow’s Hill above the market square.

I imagined a lot of things in those days. Europe can be a sensory overload for an Australian – any building in Melbourne over a hundred years old gets a plaque, and a round of applause. My house in Brussels was built in the 1500s, and had a cellar so sinister I could never bring myself to enter. The stairs were so narrow and rotting I had to climb to my room with my feet pointed sideways. I didn’t mind, in the end. It seemed a small price to pay.

Sometimes I’d sit at my windowsill, pen raised, and get lost in daydreams so long that only the church bells would rouse me.

I enjoyed that, very much.

Brussels is a weird place. I love it more than anywhere on earth. The slang is filthy, the beer sour, and the people some of the most eccentric I’ve ever met. Torture chambers are strewn amongst bowling alleys, to call someone ‘you twisted architect,’ is one of the worst insults imaginable, and walking the streets you can come across a museum to Jacques Brel, Art Nouveau architecture or the Smurfs, all in one block.

And in seven weeks today, I’ll be packing my Flemish dictionary and heading back.

That makes me more than a little bit joyous, I have to tell you.

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Street of the Candlesticks

January 6, 2011 at 12:54 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , )

You never know where a story will come from.

I watch people on the tram and notice the bruise on his forearm, the way she bites her lip as she reads. And I’m a chronic eavesdropper, loving the snatches of conversation that get flung my way.

Let’s do it naked, and feed the horses on the way – overheard at Bar Open, Fitzroy.

I once lived in a five hundred year old house with blood red walls and slanted attic poking high into the Belgian sky. Brussels is my favourite place in the world, a city where a daily flea market is held in a former leper colony, thick syrup waffles are sold from crumbling medieval stores, and I can sit on the cobblestones where heads once rolled, sipping coffee and reading.

The last time I lived there it was on Rue des Chandeliers, Street of the Candlesticks. I couldn’t have written a more poetic name myself. My bedroom looked out onto the narrow cobblestone alleyway that snaked its way down the hill, an ivy-covered pedestrian street first listed on city maps seven hundred years ago.

I spent so much time sitting at that window, notebook open, waiting for stories to walk by.

And lord, did they come.

Tuesday

I hear her before I see her. She is crying in deep bursts, the howls starting down low in her chest. The tremor in her voice slays me as she croaks into the phone ‘Je ne suis pas encore prêt pour rentrer á la maison’, I’m not ready to come home yet, and I close my windows with trembling hands.

Wednesday

I’ve started to count the men pissing outside my window; he’s #18. Neither he nor the previous seventeen have any shame, unzipping with the drunkard’s sway. The stench outside my window brings out the scowl in me and I practise my Flemish with a harsh bark that sounds utterly at home in the language: ‘Wat doe je daar, schramoelenbak?’ What are you doing, trash bag?

Thursday

Her moans wake me and I know not to turn on the light. He has her pressed up against the bricks, his thigh between hers, a hand on the back of her head. No-one ever thinks to look up at the windows.

One of my proudest moments was when this story, Street of the Candlesticks, was adapted for performance on Radio National here in Australia. When I first heard it, I was in my darkened flat with a glass of red wine. Listening to the actors recite my lines, to the sound effects of a thunderstorm and a kitty miaowing, to my slice of Brussels brought to life, my hand was on my throat the entire way.

The reason for this post is that Radio National is replaying it this Saturday, January 8th, at 2:05pm. It’s part of a program called City Nights, and my seven daily vignettes are separated and interspersed throughout the one hour show. Radio National is at 621 AM in Melbourne, and you can find frequencies for other cities here, as well as more City Nights information on their website.

I highly recommend a glass of Belgian black cherry beer as you listen…damn, how I miss that glorious city and its indulgences!

Rijn Collins

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