A slightly different angle (8)

Somewhere in my street is a youth hostel. A small building the format of a simple house, but prominent, with bricks painted black.

The atmosphere below is peculiar. Dark and solid but playful. The reception desk faces the entrance at one side and the bar in the back. The entrance-side is a plank with coffers stacked beneath, an old piano that many visitors feel tempted to probe, some prie-dieus and tourism books. The bar has some wooden black tables and chairs and worn Louis Quatorze fauteuils.

I never saw the rooms upstairs, but I heard someone complain recently about the heat inside during the last and seemingly eternal heatwave. There is no airco like in most hotels, nor ventilators (they got stolen by customers). But prices are cheap.

A fake giraffe outside signals that the hostel is open for anyone (customers can always take the backdoor). And when the weather is nice, some folding tables and chairs stand outside, coloured like those delicious Dutch sugar sprinkles (they call it ‘hagelslag’) that remind me of camping vacations as a kid.

It’s my favourite place to spot life in the street. Young people here and older folks in the outdated bakery nearby with a terrace bordering the busstop. The communist’ grey beton hospital in front that for some political reason has never been in use (except the upper floor for – o irony – the depressed). A view on one of the many churches in and around my street, morphed into a cultural centre, and a building that once must have been some kind of farmhouse.

I revel in its multicoloured ambiance. Africans, Asians, Middle-Easterners; sometimes very beautiful women. I also see all walks of life; students, workers, families with buggies, elderly and disabled people with crutches or wheelchairs. The main street nearby, with mostly women gazing at shop windows, feels monotonous in comparison.

A bit further up there’s a community house for black people of a region unknown to me. Discussions inside sound always heated. It’s not the kind of place where you could walk inside and ask questions; I would definitely feel like an unwelcome intruder. With warm weather, they loiter outside.

Somehow, the youth hostel reflects the variety of my street. Young people eager to explore the world, located in the middle of what feels like a microcosm.

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Categories: My work, poets, Stories

Four short poems about her.

 

Citylife

 

The city a chicken

strutting plumage.

 

Feathers 

moult unnoticed.

 

 

Either everything or nothing has a purpose

 

Nihilism is a relief 

from too much meaning

swerving around. 

 

Her hands tremble.

 

 

Risotto

 

She glances at cookbooks

the epitome 

of starting a home.

 

 

Lovely Ariadne 

 

Streets hiss

corners kiss.

 

Direction 

 

lost.

Categories: My work, Poetry, poets

A slightly different angle (7)

Not far from the curiosity shop, there’s a hotel. Not a charming place, rather a tin box in an impersonal chain of hotels. But after so many good espressos and teas in their plastic lobby, I came to love the place. The tin box might annoy you, but the staff and some of their regular clients turn it into a breathing space. 

The staff is a fascinating breed. Receptionists work in shifts, among them a tall and sturdy Romanian guy, quite intimidating to the janitors – all of them tiny Phillipino women. Deferent by nature, they are the ideal cleaners. They don’t easily wreck their back. Small giggling circles well up whenever they take a break. The technician is Iranian. The manager is ‘homemade’, of course. These must be about all the visible jobs. 

Even more intriguing are the types of visitors. Many people stay in the hotel because some family member needs the local hospital, a place renowned in and around Belgium. Some need to be there frequently, for long-term treatments, regular follow-ups, or recurring illnesses. Stress, anxiety, desperation, hope, relief, tears and smiles, they all traverse the bar and its wonderful staff, that often receives thank yous and hugs for its spontaneous support. ‘Part of their job’, they would say smilingly. But I’ve seen many eyes blinking later. For some patients and their family, the hotel became a second home. Sometimes their final home.

There are the many conferences and meetings going on in and around my city, organized by universities or companies. Some have a bad reputation and avoid to pay, toying with an awkward logic; sales people get a fee whenever they attract many people to the hotel, hence they are keen to attempt so – whether the company pays or not. 

Inescapably, the hotel figures in criminal activities. People entering with a wallet stuffed with 200 euros are suspicious. Drug dealers hide there sometimes. The police often turns out to be lame, prefering parking fines above serious matters. I hear the staff often grudge. 

Then there are the sexual clandestine dealings. Hookers that avoid interaction with the staff, let the client take care of everything (and pay). Horny people that sneak in and want to use the restroom as carnal palace (I wonder whether they go to the restroom for males or females). For some reason, that always makes me think of one of Chagall’s flying couples. Of course, cameras detect their furtive run. A resolute knock on the door bends pleasure into shame.  

A friend of mine knew the place before it became a hotel. It’s not that old after all. Though buildings in stone tend to look eternal. 

Categories: Stories

A slightly different angle (5)

The coffeehouse is cozy. Noisy sometimes, when too many students feel like a latte at the same time. But cozy at best. There’s a doner kebab resto across the road, with that typical gigantic revolving spear of meat.  A child plays at the window in the room above, before-behind the curtain; the window half open, the child protected by a cast-iron balustrade. 

Belgian balustrades are discordant things. Solid iron decorated with flowery motifs, neglected by passers-by. Futile efforts to please. A bit like the black-and-blue stalks of Matisse’s Red Room that overflower tablecloth and wall, infiltrating the mind of maid and viewer without their knowledge. Neglected things are always there. 

In summer, I imagine the sun throwing long shadows in the room behind the baluster. Below, a woman waters some flowerpots at the yard in the back. On dark winterdays, I don’t see the door to the yard. A flatscreen usurps all attention. It must be trite inside. Sometimes I see a man serving there working out in the gymn. Strong, sturdy, a bit grumpy. Shadow-boxing is his favourite pastime between two exercises. 

There’s a square behind the coffeeshop. One of those neglected spaces. It’s no more now than a parking place and a church out of use. No doubt city developers will discover it within ten years, if not there are plans circulating already. Plans for yet other cozy places.  

Categories: Stories

A slightly different angle (6)

I pass a curiosity shop almost every day. I rarely look inside during the day, as it faces a busy busstop. But at night, when it’s closed and internally lighted, it’s a fascinating and ever changing constellation of curiosities, most of them long out of use, while some have never been employed. 

One of the showpieces is a phonograph with a megaphone as speaker. The megaphone looks like an autonomous instrument. Kind of a horn with an orchestra inside. 

Another is a massive wooden propellor with two blades. Taller then the window, it poses aslant. I had to look up ‘propellor’ to see that wooden propellors have actually been in use. The thing looks so solid that the idea of it cleaving through the air feels a bit eerie. 

There stands the bust of a dog with a helmet, glasses and scarf, as if driving a motorbike or luxury cabrio. Next to a bust of Beethoven, with that head designed for busts. There lies a marble crocodile (it’s probably another – cheaper – type of white stone). There walks a wooden mini-elephant. 

Rotating globes, with a light bulb inside, became collector’s items too. And mammoth atlasses too large to keep in your hands. One had to lean over them, as if supervising parts of the world; a posture that became otiose in digital days of swiping and zooming. 

A box with a glass cover with colourful butterflies. Insects in jars with chloroform, frozen in action and still slightly frightening. Lugubre yes, but probably once – maybe still – coveted by biologists. 

A video of Verdi’s Trovatore lies there for ages. It looks cheap, but that’s the music I actually imagine in that room, ringing through that megaphone.  

It’s a thin line between things that once have been in use and things that never had a function, between reality and phantasy. Like seeing a house and wondering what happens inside. Like viewing a street and figuring out its actions. Like capturing all travails that keep citylife going. 

Like … I’m zooming out. The globe is a curiosity shop after all. Most fascinating when it’s closed. 

Categories: Stories

Walking disabled in Louvain

(I wrote this for my new coach and his wife, Trevor and Misty Wicken, and for the MS gym ‘tribe’. But as it’s also about Louvain, it has a place in my ‘slightly different angle’ series too).

For years I walked from the city to my former home. Which must be about a three km walk. I had to take a little care of footdrop, stumbled a few times, but never fell. I twisted my ankle once quite badly, but that happened in streets I was not familiar with, in another city.

Roads and pavements are so different. Some are spacious and even, spreading a feeling of ease over the passersby. Others are small, cramped, twisty and constantly interrupted by doorsteps, busstops, shops that display their merchandise, traffic signs, driveways, entrances to parking lots, the list goes on. Not to mention the oh so picturesque cobblestone alleys.

Many streets are too small for the ongoing chaos of trucks, delivery vans, buses and cars. Trucks have a kind of grumpy heaviness, while busses are swift traffic animals; much lighter and less solid than trucks. But scarier: when two buses need to cross, they often drive with two wheels on the pavement.

Louvain is a student city. Young and reckless cyclists pop up everywhere. I’ve seen so many skid and fall, look dazed for a while but crawl back on their bike on the way to class, like ants that won’t change course as long as some of their legs work. Others walk with headphone and gaze buried in an Iphone. Heaps of bicycles gather all over the city in improvised parking lots. Till the police keeps a razzia and brings them all to a gigantic barrack somewhere outside the city. That happens a few times every year, even when I was a student – now 25 years ago.

It’s also a city of immigrants – at least some parts of Louvain, like the neighbourhood I live in. I see women in bourka in the park nearby, even though politics forbids bourkas. Crimes often happen at night in unenlightened streets. Every year some naïve students end up heavily beaten or stabbed. Roman beggars and fiddlers appear everywhere as soon as the sun comes out. They are an insensitive tribe. Problems or tiny moments of inattention around them are nothing less than opportunities to make money. Nobody has sympathy for them.

This is the city I moved in all my life. Though progressively, moving became a problem. Sometimes I walked around with limbs that felt heavy like elephant legs without the power to lift or steer them properly. Sometimes, they went adrift and I had to force them back. The other day they felt brittle like pieces of plastic. What a funny condition! Inevitably, attention shifted from the beautiful woman before to the grey pavement below me. The pavement that constantly attempted to drag me down. Again and again, I had to pull myself up, a bit like Baron Munchausen who desparately pulled on his hair to get out of the water. I decided that the best way to advance was to imagine my feet kissing the asphalt beneath me. But there are nicer things to kiss …

Recently, I became fascinated by slums. It’s incredible how many people are living in slums and what their living conditions are like. There can only be many people with neurological conditions in such filthy places. How hard it must be to live there if you can barely move!

It went on and became worse. I had an ‘appointment’ with my mother once to buy new shoes. She knows more about good shoes than me. But what are good shoes? Some solid ones felt like heavy pieces of wood on my feet. While sportshoes made me bounce around like a chicken. That choice symbolized my despair at the time. I did so many things that improved my condition significantly, but apparently, it was not enough to beat that relentless monster. I cried silently. Nobody noticed, but my mom. What mothers can do to middle-aged boys! We will never forget that moment.

Months later – I really can’t remember how – I found the work of Trevor and Misty. A man whose vast theoretical and practical knowledge of moving with MS blew me away. A gigantic toolbox opened up for me as if it were self-evident. I only had to open my arms and do the work – but who wouldn’t do the work? A woman whose motivatinal powers are a delight. A couple that cheers my days.

Now and forever. There is no way back.

#aslightlydifferentangle

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Categories: Stories

Soft boundaries

Dancing is her way of disappearing
into life’s soft boundaries.

She barely touches the creaking floor.
Oh, it supports her caprioles
and carries her whirling mind seamless
into forgotten memories.

Her aching knees no longer bother;
they only raise her gorgeous form
like scissors that leave shreds of rag
after an ornamental paper cut.

Every turn foretells
a new beginning,
a novel day
replete with elegance.

Sometimes, life feels right,
like the shape of a leaf.

Categories: Poetry