Sunday is the day of rest in Belgium and most businesses are closed. Although at first I found it jarring, I now enjoy having a day where I’m essentially forced to slow down. So I spend most Sundays at home and when the weather is bad, it’s perfect being indoors reading a book. But today was dry and after spending most of the morning at home Skypeing and studying, I decided to get out for a bit on my bike, to get some fresh air and exercise.
Although I’m appreciating the autumnal colours and the chance to experience more extreme cold weather than what I’m used to, I can feel the winter gloom is beginning to take hold of me and I’ll need to keep shaking it off. I also wanted to make the most of the light while it lasts; the sun seems to set around 5pm and the days are becoming shorter and shorter.
Although I’m undertaking my Erasmus Mundus program at the university in Leuven, I actually live in Kessel-lo on the other side of the train station. It’s a bit more village-like and suburban and it’s nice to be away from the hustle and bustle of the main town. From what I’ve been told, Kessel-lo has always been a less affluent neighbourhood compared to Leuven, though over the years it’s become more gentrified.
I’d started off with a slightly skewed idea of Kessel-lo because I live in a fancy new apartment but the more I’ve spent time here the more I can see its history in the buildings. Right near where I live there is a huge abandoned factory, and most of the houses around here are narrow and attached, homes for workers. Heverlee, on the other side of Leuven, is where the wealthier have always lived and its history is also clearly in its buildings. It was obvious catching a bus through there one day, because we drove past beautiful grand homes as well as a bonafide castle, which has since been repurposed.
My landlord had told me about the big park in Kessel-lo not long after I moved in — “even people from Brussels come to the park on weekends” — and so I was happy when a local friend proposed a walk there last month. When we got there I was completely bowled over by its beauty and its extensiveness, including playgrounds and lakes teeming with birdlife. Given the quick change in season, I thought I might try and see the park once more before I’m snowed under by study and the icy winter ahead. So today the park was my destination…but my poor sense of direction led me down some unexpected paths. Looking at the map now, I see how close I was the whole time, but I’m glad I lost my way because I found some unexpected treasures. I felt like Alice today, going down the rabbit whole — “Curiouser and curiouser”!
I had a quick look on Google maps before setting out, mentally noting that I had to go down the big road near where I live — Diestsesteenweg — and then sort of take a left…and the “sort of” bit is where I went astray. I was riding along until I came to the edge of a football pitch and on the other side of the road I saw groups of people on their Sunday walk — surrounded by horses, tractors and crops. Who would have thought that I lived so close to farmland?
I decided to just go with the flow, cycling on narrow paths through fields, breathing in the crisp autumn air and enjoying wearing my winter gear — blue cloche hat, puffy magenta jacket and warm winter shoes from Germany. After a short while of going nowhere in particular, I ended up on a quiet street where I could see what looked like a church in the distance…and it struck me that maybe that was the building in the official town logo (first photo in this post).
I decided to investigate…and that’s how I discovered Vlierbeek Abbey, a bit off the beaten track. It’s incredible to think that there’s a huge 12th century abbey right near my home — that’s Europe for you! No one ever talks about the abbey when there are other glories to be seen a few kilometres away. I wandered through the large graveyard surrounding the abbey, feeling deeply moved by the fresh flowers crowding the gravestones. It reflected well of the local Belgians who remembered their dead. There were also well-kept gravestones from World War I and looking at the inscriptions I was suddenly reminded how Belgium had been a bloody battleground. There could hardly be a family in Flanders who wasn’t personally affected by the Great War.
The abbey is no longer in use as an abbey and I wasn’t able to go in to have a look, but the grounds are lovely and across from the abbey was a local tavern which was actually open on Sundays. There were people having drinks and snacks and I’ll have to come back in the future, though I don’t have that much time left really. I can’t help but feel sad when I realise that I’m already halfway through my stay here in Leuven. As they say, time really flies when you’re having fun.
The light was fading fast and I decided to get a move on — which meant asking for help. I cycled past family homes, peering into their windows and looking out for passers-by I could talk to. Armed with about a dozen words of Flemish and an understanding of quite a few more, I’d pull up to the kerb and ask, “Excuseer, waar is Provinciedomein? Links? Rechts?”– gesturing with my hands to indicate directions. I haven’t studied Flemish so it wasn’t fully grammatically correct but my question was obvious enough. Everyone gave me quite imprecise directions for some reason — and a few stops and starts later, I realised how close I’d been before being distracted by the country fields and abbey. The Provinciedomein — which I guess means ‘provincial park’ — was full of Belgian families. Today I felt like I was really seeing Belgium as it is on a Sunday — people going for walks, playing with their children in parks, finding joy in the company of friends and family. Golden leaves fell on my shoulder as I cycled around the lake, and I smiled, thinking how lucky I was to have this afternoon to myself.
After exiting the park, I was disoriented again and saw an old man walking his dog. “Waar is Diestsesteenweg?” I asked, and he responded, in Flemish, “Oh, you turn right until you hit the big road, then you go right again and then <incomprehensible Flemish>. Good day!” I just nodded politely although I’d stopped understanding about half through. “Dankuwel!” I said, and kept going, roughly following his instructions until I knew where I was again so could afford to veer off…
…and then just like that I was back in the urban reality of Kessel-lo, with big graffiti and building projects and infrastructure. My nose was dripping from the cold and I wiped it with the back of my glove as I waited at the traffic lights. Cycling back to my apartment in Kessel-lo, I started missing my family home, where I had grown up next to a huge park with lakes. Somehow, quite unwittingly, I’d moved to a similar environment here in Belgium. I guess at heart I really am a suburban girl.
A few weeks ago I had a long conversation with one of my philosophy professors at KU Leuven, and he told me that his son was currently in Australia participating in the World Solar Challenge “but he is missing home.” I asked him how long his son had been over there and apparently he’d only been away for a few months and was returning home soon.
“Oh,” I said, surprised, “why is he missing home already? It’s only been a short time.”
“We Flemish like to stay close to home, we’re not that internationally minded,” he said with a slightly embarrassed laugh.
His comment squared with one of my theories about the Flemish because I’ve been thinking how in most of my travels, I hardly ever bump into Belgians outside of Europe — and even fewer expats. And being here, most (many?) Flemish don’t move that far from where they grew up, opting to move to another part of the region, an hour or two away at most from their families. Probably even more stay right where they grew up. Living here in Belgium, I think I understand this phenomenon a little better. Since this small country is about people enjoying a lot of life’s small pleasures, perhaps there’s no need to go out in the big wide world to find them…after all, they can be found right here at home.