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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If you need to hug reindeer…

March 1, 2011 at 11:25 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

I collect phrasebooks.

I also collect red shoes, snake tattoos, and musician ex-boyfriends, but that’s a whole different story.

Matt Burke Photography

I was fifteen when I found a 1967 edition of ‘Teach Yourself Norwegian’ in a secondhand bookstore. Always drawn to the exotic words of snowy lands, I taught myself how to order black coffee, croon endearments to reindeer, and ask for a lift to Sweden.

Then, on page 147, the author was apparently compelled to teach me ‘You will be shot at dawn.’

Hmm, curious.

A few pages further, it read ‘If you continue, I will shriek loudly!’ (Varer det stort lenger, skriker jeg høyt!), and the enigmatic  ‘The first thing I saw was a pig’ (Det første jeg så, var en gris).

Really, what kind of holidays did they have in the sixties?!

All it took for a word wench like myself was that one intriguing spark, and my collection began to grow. I can’t pass a secondhand bookstore without scanning its shelves for more quirky old phrasebooks and their gems, and now I have the joys of the internet as well, I doubt I’ll stop anytime soon.

How could I resist, with treasures such as these?

* I don’t mind watching, but I’d rather not join in (No me importa mirar, pero prefiero no participar) – Spanish

* My hedgehog is not stupid! (Min igelkott är inte dum!) – Swedish

* Je suis desolé de vous quitter, mais je dois acheter un chapeau (I am sorry I have to leave you, but I must buy a hat) – French

* Oho! Tota noin … Eihän se vaa ollu’ sun ajokoira? (I’m awfully sorry … was that your hound?) – Finnish

* Nár fhág sé a chlaíomh ar an mbord? (Didn’t he leave his sword on the table?) – Irish

While it’s entirely possible I spend far too much time diving into dictionaries and chuckling at the sheer magic of words, who hasn’t been in a situation where you’ve looked around and thought, damn, wish I knew how to say I want to hug that squirrel in Esperanto? And because of course you now need to know, it’s Mi volas brakumi tium sciuron.

But my absolute favourite has to go to those glorious Germans, who thoughtfully provided us with this priceless line:

* I am not a conference delegate, nevertheless I would like a penguin (Ich bin kein Mitglied dieser Konferenz, dennoch möchte Ich einen Pinguin).

If you’re anything like me, I bet you’re dying to work that into a conversation.

For more delights like this, try out and http://www.omniglot.language.

 And if you ever get to use them in a real life travel context, by all means, let me know!

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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.


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.


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?


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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