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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