Enjoying the cosiness of a small town like Leuven

I’m such a big city person that it’s been a refreshing change to live in a small town like Leuven for a time, where after a few months I know the layout of the town pretty well and have lots of favourite haunts that I frequent with friends. I also bump into people I know on the streets most days and I’m even starting to recognise faces of people I don’t know. My world used to be so much smaller once upon a time, and it’s nice to come back to that sort of environment again. Of course, I miss a lot of things about being in a big city, which is partly why I’m besotted with Brussels at the moment, but the great thing about Leuven is that it’s close to a big city but has all the advantages of a small town. (I’m sure it has all the downsides of a small town too, but I won’t be around long enough to experience it in this way.)

Noir Koffiebar on Naamsestraat (uses fresh milk!)
Noir Koffiebar on Naamsestraat (uses fresh milk!)

I suppose the last time I felt this kind of geographical cosiness was during my undergraduate studies in Sydney, where I spent four years of my life on a huge campus and was always seeing people I knew. It’s actually a comparable experience in some ways because the whole city of Leuven is basically one big university campus too. It made my morning the other day to visit the theology library and bump into someone I know from my Italian class, which has otherwise felt quite disconnected from other parts of my life since I haven’t made any friends from there.

Thanksgiving potluck dinner
Thanksgiving potluck dinner

On Saturday night, I went to a gathering at a nearby home in my suburb, and I made spring rolls for the first time which were a hit. This followed another gathering two weeks ago at someone else’s place for Thanksgiving, also lovely. I seem to be deriving a huge amount of pleasure from the mere fact that most of my friends live within walking distance, and I guess what that suggests is that I love being part of an actual old-fashioned community. This isn’t something I have at home, not exactly, where most people I know live a bit too far to walk, and they don’t all know each other either. My usual sense of community is partly formed by the internet so it’s almost as big as the entire world really.

Yesterday morning I attended mass at a beautiful church a 10 minute cycle away. I’m not a believer, but having gone through the motions of being Catholic, I still enjoy going from time to time. I’m a thoughtful person prone to contemplation, and churches are a good space for that sort of thing. I don’t pay too much attention to theology, aside from academic interest, but I do appreciate a good sermon that touches on the more spiritual dimensions of life. There are also bits of mass I enjoy, such as shaking hands with the people around you and singing together. I completely get where Alain de Botton is coming from with his idea of athiests needing a ‘temple’ as well.

St Quentin's church / Sint-Kwintenskerk
St Quentin’s church / Sint-Kwintenskerk

In any case, I went to church yesterday because one of my friends, Emilia, was singing in the mass and she invited me along. I’m so glad I dragged myself out of bed after a too-short sleep because it was lovely to see her perform in the choir. In fact, it was one of the nicest services I’ve ever been to. It balanced formidable tradition with new believers, mostly students, expats and migrants. The church itself – St Quentin’s – was magnificent and had a sense of being well-loved and well-used, unlike so many of the grand churches of Europe. It was high on ritual, with lots of incense wafting out of the thurifer, and the local bishop was visiting, which added a special note to the occasion. I looked over to the side where all the priests were — I imagine they were all there because of the theology school at the university — and it was interesting that they looked like they were largely from places like India and different parts of Africa. Only one was fair and I thought he looked Polish; someone later said he was Ukrainian, so I wasn’t too far off. In any case, it was a visual reminder about the demographics of the priesthood in the Catholic church — a Belgian bishop probably not so far off from retiring, and fewer and fewer Belgians hearing The Call, let along heeding it.

After the service was over I recognised my philosophy tutor (a PhD student from The Philippines), who I don’t think I’ve otherwise bumped into on the street. “I didn’t know you were Catholic,” he said, after I said hello. He was heading off so didn’t join us for the nearby reception after mass, but I went for a short while with Emilia and two other friends of hers also from Poland, who had sung in the choir as well.

There was a lovely spread of cakes baked by the congregation, along with tea and coffee. The room was packed, especially when all the priests came in without their official robes. It’s one of the cosiest gatherings I’ve experienced while living here. I’ve been to packed pubs here but that hardly rates; this was actually an international community coming together. That’s the thing about Leuven — for a small town it feels exceptionally vibrant, because there are a lot of people coming and going from all over the world.

Just before I left, I said hello to a woman who had spoken at the service and whose Australian accent was unmistakable. She was an older woman, vivacious and chatty, and I felt curious about what she was doing on the other side of the world like me. “I’m from Sydney too!” she said, and somehow it felt like the most natural thing for me to be there on Sunday morning, at a reception after mass, talking to someone who is also part of a community in a small town in Belgium more than 16,000km from home.

I'm going to miss this town when I leave next month
I’m going to miss this town when I leave next month

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