Words on a winter wing

July 20, 2019 at 10:05 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

I asked Emily which was her favourite in the museum. She led me back to a Monet water lily, the first she’d ever seen, from 1919.

This is when I let her in on a secret: it can be yours. No different from falling in love with a song, one may fall in love with a work of art and claim it as one’s own.

‘Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me’ by Bill Hayes.

This gorgeous passage in Bill Hayes’ memoir brought my favourite artwork instantly to mind: the Betrothal of the Arnolfini by Jan van Eyck. At the age of seventeen I flew from Australia to Brussels for a year-long student exchange, and began a lifelong love affair with everything Flemish; the painting, the language, the architecture, and the divine black cherry beer. The first time I stood in front of van Eyck’s masterpiece in The National Gallery in London, my septum threaded with silver, my ripped stockings and army boots below a tattered punk t-shirt, I was instantly catapulted back into the Middle Ages. Its power was startling to me; still is, in fact.

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‘Betrothal of the Arnolfini’ by Jan van Eyck

Ownership of your artwork does not come free. One must spend time with it; visit at different times of the day or evening, and bring to it one’s full attention.

Van Eyck led me to delve into the witches of Goya, the intricate rabbit sketches of Dürer, the apocalyptic torment of Hieronymus Bosch, and the wry humour in Brueghel. As Hayes explains, it’s not just paintings that can provide these stories and their inspiration, but also books, songs, photographs, architecture…it can be anywhere, if you know where to look.

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Hieronymus Bosch

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Albrecht Dürer

Perhaps the best part about possessing art in this way is that what’s mine can be yours, and vice versa. In fact, I would not be surprised if half of New York City has also put dibs on the Monet that Emily chose. This made it no less hers.

There are streets in Brussels that belong to me. Rue Chair et Pain (Street of Flesh and Bread) is where I bought my coconut incense in 1989, my backpack full of French homework I didn’t quite understand. Rue des Renards (Street of the Foxes) spills its cobblestones into the site of an old leper colony, then a flea market, where I haggled for a tartan ‘mini jupe’ skirt in 2002 that made a workman lay his pipes on the road to slowly applaud me as I walked past. In 2006 I often walked through the Place de la Vieille Halle aux Blés for a gingerbread salad and sweet rosé at Café Coco opposite the Jacques Brel museum, writing postcards home to Melbourne. And in 2011 I stood outside a red-walled house on Kandelaarstraat (Street of the Candlesticks) and beamed up at the window of the bedroom I dream I’m still living in.

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Brussels windowsill (photo by Lisa Jewell)

Which brings me to music. I don’t know if you can share ownership of a song, but if so, I’m going to claim Big Mama Thornton. I love her blues so much I wanted it played at my wedding a few weeks ago. Chris listened to the sultry sighs and moans in the song I’d chosen. ‘Is that really a wedding song, babe?’he laughed. ‘Your dad is going to be there.’ I hadn’t thought of that.

In the end we went with David Bowie’s ‘Word on a Wing’ as I walked down the aisle in my red velvet dress. I barely heard the songs we chose, I was so spellbound by Chris’ beautiful face waiting for me at the altar. We wrapped a red silk ribbon around our wrists in a witchcraft hand-fasting, and these two writers promised each other a life of words and their wonder. Etta James’ ‘Loving You More Every Day’ played as we signed our marriage certificate; Nick Cave’s ‘Breathless’ saw us back down the aisle and out of the chapel.

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Wedding photos by Rebecca Murray

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Our honeymoon is in Brussels in four weeks. We’re going to visit Brueghel’s house and play Jacques Brel songs. I’ll take him to the flea market, sit him down with a black cherry beer, and see if I can still haggle in Flemish and French.

I cannot wait.

But don’t be hasty. You must be sure you are besotted. When it happens, you will know. 

I brought Emily in closer to her new acquaintance: ‘Emily, meet your Monet. Monet, Emily.’ 

Words did not fail her. ‘Hello, beautiful,’ she whispered.

The morning of our wedding was damn cold in the mountains outside Melbourne. The witch in me had chosen the Winter Solstice, after all. I woke early, before him. We’d stayed up with whiskey and tunes the night before; our rings were ready on the bedside table, my dress hanging on the bathroom rail. I watched him sleep. His head was turned away from me on the pillow, his arms wrapped around himself.

I leaned down and gently kissed his sleeping shoulder.

‘Hello, beautiful,’ I whispered.

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The unexpected redhead and her deer

January 23, 2013 at 11:38 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

I once wrote a story about a woman with a ventriloquist’s dummy on her lap.

She knew she belonged in the circus somewhere, but her audition as the knife thrower’s wench hadn’t gone so well. And the less we say about the elephants, the better.

I printed out photos of vintage ventriloquist dummies and stuck them to the walls surrounding my writing desk. This was not a good idea. Having eyes follow you around a room is less disconcerting when it’s a poster of Brigitte Bardot than when it’s, say, this little feller, and I think you’d agree.

For Bless, set in Reykjavik, I needed some music to accompany my steps down to the harbour to watch my first Arctic sunrise. And for two weeks, I found myself humming an eerie Icelandic cover version of ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ every time I brushed my teeth.

For Splinter, I rang my Dad to ask what type of rifle one would use to shoot a kangaroo, and had anatomical diagrams of them, from their rostral to their caudal, laid out on my desk. I think he still wonders if I’m going to ask him to take me out hunting one night, despite twenty years of vegetarianism.

I’ve needed to know how to call someone a ‘dirty pig’ in Flemish, how to propose a toast in Swedish, ask someone to ‘pick a card’ in Estonian, and how to break hearts in half in Czech.

I wrote a story about being mistaken for a member of an Eastern European reality TV show in a bar in Vilnius, I like your deer’s moustache, and other Lithuanian tales. In it I thought it necessary to use the phrase ‘Is your deer vicious?’, for reasons that I’m pretty sure made sense at the time. When it was recorded for performance on American radio and the producer asked me for advice on how to pronounce it, I had to tell him ‘I have no idea, I don’t actually speak Lithuanian…never even been there, in fact.’ He was surprised, and asked ‘You mean, you made the whole story up?’ I was somewhat taken aback; I’d thought that was my job.

We’re only three weeks into 2013 but the searches I’ve typed into Google already include:

–          Does a mandrake scream when you pick it?

–          How many bones are in a rib cage?

–          What’s the nearest psychiatric hospital to Cunnamulla?

–          How do you make a voodoo gris-gris charm?

–          Which Nick Cave songs mention snow?

–          Were witches burned or beheaded in medieval Brussels?

–          What’s the phobia name for ‘fear of one’s reflection’?

–          What are the symptoms of belladonna poisoning?

–          Do redheads really have a higher pain threshold?

Ok, so that last one was for personal interest – I read it in a newspaper today and was curious. That said, it’s bound to end up in a story of mine somewhere.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve left a character stretched out in a paddock in an outback Australian town, deciding whether or not to pick some datura. I’m about to hit the two thousand word mark, and have no idea yet how it ends. Bliss!

And in case you’re wondering about the Lithuanian for ‘Is your deer vicious?’, should you ever find yourself in dire straits with a woodland creature in the Baltics, try asking ‘Ar jūsų elnias piktas?’

It could happen, you know. Best be prepared.

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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?

Rue Haute

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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