Tales from the Bowery

August 31, 2018 at 3:10 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

‘His favourite sound was the click clack of typewriters […] He knew exactly how much words cost and what consequences they can have: how they can start but also stop the opened organ of the heart.’

‘The Lonely City’ by Olivia Laing

The above book has kept me spellbound this month. An elegant, erudite look at intimacy (or lack thereof) through the prism of artists in New York City, Laing’s reverences for the words she selects is exquisite. This is such a moving, beautiful book to read.

The first time I saw the skyline of New York was through the window of a Greyhound bus, fat full moon hanging low over the skyscrapers. All the breath was sucked out of me. I had flown from Australia to meet a pen pal I’d been writing to from an online feminist punk collective, Erica, and we explored the area I knew would forever more be my NY stomping ground, the Lower East Side.

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The Bowery, New York City, 2006

Four years later I returned, again with Erica, and smitten by the Bowery, I booked us into a hostel opposite CBGB’s that was so foul I’ve just spent a very entertaining fifteen minutes reading online reviews of its horrors. From the drunk men passed out on the floor of the lobby that we literally had to step over, to the blood stains on the sheets and walls that only reached head height, it remains the worst place I’ve ever stayed at. Even the reception cat had a broken leg and coughed up a furball of warning at my feet when I checked in. I do have a dollop of fondness for it, however, as it became the topic of my first magazine publication, a clipping I still have in a drawer somewhere.

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New York City, 2009

New York

New York City, 2012

That trip I had a backpack stuffed with diaries, linguistic textbooks and my university degree. I was moving to Brussels, having left my boyfriend, my 18-year-old cat and my whole life behind in Melbourne. It was in Brussels, living in a medieval house in the Street of the Candlesticks with blood red floorboards and my makeshift altar in the corner, that I had my first taste of the loneliness that Olivia Laing writes so hauntingly about.

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In Rue des Chandeliers, Brussels, 2006 – click here for story

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In Rue des Chandeliers, Brussels – click here for ABC audio story

I’d lived in Brussels as a teenage exchange student for a year, and fallen in love with both the city itself, and the glorious bliss of solitude and independence. When I moved there again at 33, it was to put down roots and carve out a life of Flemish freedom. Or so I thought. The news that the man I left behind had moved on with a new partner, three months after I left, broke me apart. I drank whiskey for breakfast, I lost weight; I stopped speaking. I had no-one to speak to anyway, to be honest. I practised my broken French and Flemish on the alley cats. But the words did come out of my fingers too, and I wrote my way above ground again.

‘Art was a place where one could move freely between integration and disintegration, doing the work of mending, the work of grief, preparing oneself for the dangerous, lovely business of intimacy.’

‘The Lonely City’ by Olivia Laing

Being alone in a new city has immense challenges, but for me, the rewards are undeniably rich. Many of my travels have been solo adventures, loner that I am, including uprooting my life and moving overseas twice. I love to dine alone, with a book and a wine and a full heart. Some of my happiest memories have been me, in a new city – Helsinki, Albuquerque, Hong Kong, Reykjavik – walking the streets with the knowledge that no-one in the world knew where I was at the point in time. But I know the flipside also, and finding it within the cover of Laing’s book reminds me in beautiful, painful ways.

The protagonist in my novel knows this also. Iceland is a precarious place to find your feet, and she falls between the cracks in the language, the culture and society. But lord, how I love finding the words to describe it.

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Ólafsfjörður, northern Iceland – click here for ABC audio story

My love of my hometown, Melbourne, has also been on display this month. I was delighted to be one of the writers selected for the Melbourne Writers Festival this year, with my story for the Reading Victoria project being recorded and played on an audio loop in the Star Observation Wheel. I took my Wolf on the wheel, and the joy of hearing my own voice tell of my love for my city, while we soared above it, was one I won’t forget. Being part of the celebration of Melbourne’s 10th anniversary of our UNESCO City of Literature designation is also a joy.

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On the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel with the Wolf 

I keep thinking of New York. My last trip, in 2016, was for the ridiculously exciting reason that one of my audio stories, ‘Almost Flamboyant’, had been selected as a finalist in the inaugural Sarah Awards for International Audio Fiction. I was so stunned when we won that I pinched my producer, hard, and then gave a bemused speech where I named all my taxidermy. Waking up to our photo in the New York Times the next morning is a jewel I keep taking out and polishing, and admiring the light that shines from it. New York sure looked good that trip.

New York Times

Picture from the New York Times

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Celebratory dirty martinis, New York City

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To hear our winning story of a taxidermy flamingo possessed by the spirit of Tom Waits, click here 

So that’s August for you! Next month I’m heading interstate to perform at the Write Around the Murray literary festival in Albury, New South Wales…more travel, more words, and always, always, more stories to report.

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Smiling like a honey cake horse

December 30, 2013 at 4:28 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

Grinsen wie ein Honigkuchenpferd – To grin like a honey cake horse (German idiom)

I love placing my boot against the wheel, and kicking the new cycle into being: December is my favourite month. When else can I indulge my taste for nostalgia, and review a whole year’s worth of diaries without flinching?

2013 held six days in Russia, three meals in the Literary Cafe with bowls of violet borsch washed down with vodka, and a fair few tears shed in the library where Pushkin died. Visit to Berlin: my ninth. Hours spent on the balcony of my apartment in the old East Berlin imagining moving my life there: inestimable.

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Year since I first lived in Brussels: twenty-four. Years since I last lived there: seven. Number of hand-on-heart-moments walking down my old street there, Rue des Chandeliers: five or six. Number of penpals filling our Prague apartment with red lipstick, punk music and bottles of Bohemian Sekt champagne: four.  Our amazing holiday then concluded with visits to three of Kafka’s old houses, eleven  potential band names, and six seconds of twerking in front of the astronomical clock in Prague’s Old Town Square.

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The year also held nine hours of tattooing, countless swear words, and three blood red Louisiana swamp flowers curling around my right arm. New pieces of taxidermy acquired: one.  German classes: twelve. Number of awkward banjoed up German country songs I sang in class: one, and that was more than enough, believe me. Gigs in Melbourne watching stellar blues bands: thirteen. A blues dancing workshop of eight hours left me with a multitude of new dance moves and many aching muscles. New dances attempted: two, Balboa and Shag. Beats per minute of the latter: 190. Number of bras needed whilst dancing it: two. New cocktail frocks to dance it in: three. Ok, four. Current count of high heels now snaking in a line around my bedroom: 31. And climbing.

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The Year of the Snake has also been deeply, richly rewarding for my ink. There were twenty-eight stories submitted, with eight accepted, seven still pending and five emails from editors with personalised feedback. My work was included in two exhibitions in Melbourne, as well as one festival in Chicago. Number of mulled wines before I was ready to climb onto the stage with a cello accompaniment and read my story: three. Placements in short story competitions: two, for the ABC and the University of New Orleans. Mail from a literary agent in the US complimenting my work: one. Exclamations when I opened and read it: uncountable. Number of short stories written and in consideration for a collection of my work: over one hundred.

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Excitement at stepping into 2014 and all the stories it’ll contain: inexpressible.

But lord knows, I’m going to try and express it anyway…it’s my job, after all.

May you step into the new year with a straight spine, warm heart, and ink on your fingertips.

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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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The curse of the black cherry witch

March 26, 2011 at 2:30 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

The word Flemish always makes me smile.

While for some it might bring up jokes about phlegm and Antwerp, I think of a place where beer is made from cherries, the humour is dark and deprecating, and the medieval architecture looks straight out of a Brueghel painting.

And lord, how I love it.

The last time I lived in Brussels, it was in the Marolles. This notoriously down and dirty area first came into being in the 1100s, when the criminals, whores and troublemakers were excluded from the inner gates of the city. Just in case they forgot their place in the world, they were exiled to an area consisting of a leper colony presided over by Gallows Hill, where bodies were left swinging from the noose.

Why would I live anywhere else?

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Flea market on the Place du Jeu de Balle

My street - Rue des Chandeliers/Kandelaarsstraat

Brussels is largely responsible for my linguistic degree and pursuits. I first moved there at seventeen to study languages, and fell headfirst in love with its glorious mix of Flemish and French. I learnt to smoke Gauloise cigarettes, drink my coffee from a bowl, and begin a sentence in French, slide a few Flemish words into the middle, and flip back to French without even noticing.

But the Marolles dialect still floors me.

Marols is totally indecipherable to the foreigner (which covers everyone not born in the Marolles) which is probably a good thing as it is richly abusive.

Louis Quievreux’s ‘Dictionnaire du dialecte Bruxellois’

The dialect of this fascinating former leper colony is a rich stew of Flemish, French and even Spanish; utterly unique and almost impenetrable. There’s a quaint cafe on Rue des Renards that holds poetry and song evenings in Marols. When I took my friend Hilde there, whose mother tongue of Dutch gives her command over Flemish, she took in all the posters and turned to me with a facial expression akin to mine whenever someone attempts to explain the offside rule in soccer to me, or the appeal of Dylan songs….babe, what the hell?!

Traditional Marollien cafe on Rue des Renards

And lord, do they love to swear.

Some choice insults include:

Scrapings of a monkey’s testicles – afkrabsel van mettekouwskluûte

Bacon-shitter – spekscheeter

Bag of lice – loïesenderm

And like all good storytellers, Marolliens like a drink and apply careful consideration to their degrees of drunkenness.

Schijlzat – fairly drunk (squint drunk)

Duudzat – dead drunk

Strondzat – shit drunk

Crimineelzat – criminally drunk

Strondcrimineelzat – criminally shit drunk

Bordijlegzat – whorehouse drunk

Their greatest insult, however, is enshrined in the name of a pub. Hundreds of years ago, many Marolliens were forced to leave the area due to the building of the gargantuan Palais du Justice on top of Gallows Hill. This monstrosity was for a time the biggest building in Europe, admired by Hitler and hated by the locals. It’s said that a Marollien witch cursed the architect, who then went mad and committed suicide just as the building was completed.

So if you’re ever down near the flea market on the Place du Jeu de Balle, pull up a stool and order a Duvel beer at the pub whose name is now spat at wrongdoers with hundreds of years of fire and venom.

Schieven Architek…you twisted architect.

 

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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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