"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

Muntstraat, a short story from Belgium.

Muntstraat restaurant and bar street Leuven.

In the autumn of 2004 I found myself suddenly relocating to Belgium, at the expense of an attractive job offer in Italy. It was one of those major forks in the road, the kind of big decision that could transform a life. Which, for better or for worse, is exactly what it did.  

I’ve had loads of homes in my life. So many that I couldn’t name them all if I tried. From this multitude of mostly temporary habitats, two stand out head and shoulders above the rest. As a kid growing up in England, I’ll never forget the magical 12 School Lane, Old Amersham. It was a cosy little three bedroom council house right next door to St. Mary’s, the primary school I attended. Opposite my front door sat a large park, with playground, lawn tennis courts and the local youth club. I loved that modest little house, which served as HQ for my idyllic childhood.

12 School Lane Old Amersham Buckinghamshire

12 School Lane, Old Amersham. 1989.

As an adult, the two years I spent living in Leuven’s Muntstraat were equally special. After eighteen months in my little student room near the train station, I remember being unspeakably excited to be moving into a cosy one-bedroom apartment. Situated right behind the town hall, Muntstraat was a narrow, pedestrianised street home to a clutch of the city’s best restaurants and a scattering of tiny, atmospheric bars.

Muntstraat Bar and restaurant Street Leuven Belgium.

Muntstraat restaurant and bar street, Leuven. August 2007.

My landlord was a pompous old professor named Luc, a military expert and minor Belgian TV personality. Occasionally hauled in front of a TV camera, he’d be asked to give his opinion on this in Afghanistan, perhaps say a few words about that in Baghdad.

Landlord Luc.

Luc was also something of a local property mogul, owning and renting out a bunch of apartments across Leuven. A pernickety bird-like creature with condescending spectacles and grey thinning hair, he had the air of a man who might spend his free time perched at a beloved antique desk. There, he would spend hours reading newspapers and rearranging his collection of fountain pens into ascending height order.

Luc de Vos Leuven.

Landlord Luc: He’s spotted another cobweb.

On the mercifully few occasions I had to deal with Luc, he’d lecture me on my responsibilities as a renter and make a big fuss over little things. No matter how inconsequential to the average eye, nothing escaped Luc’s attention. It could be an offending, out of reach cobweb up on the ceiling in the broom cupboard. Or an expression of disapproval that I’d put up a few nails to hang pictures. But while he clearly wasn’t the kind of guy I’d want to have a beer with, Luc was, in all fairness, an honest and decent landlord. In the end, he actually taught me a lot about the pitfalls of being a renter in Belgium.

Muntstraat, a short story from Belgium.

Happily, said pitfalls turned out to be few. I loved everything about the apartment, especially its tiny balcony overlooking the leafy courtyard below. Even the crappy plastic cubicle shower in the bathroom had its charms, despite its precarious location plonked next to the epileptic washing machine. 

On the subject of frenzied sounds, there was plenty of entertainment courtesy of my upstairs neighbour. She was a leggy redhead, who seemed intent on broadcasting her sexual exploits through the building at least twice a week. Seemingly unconcerned by who might be listening, this girl possessed a really impressive pair of tonsils. When I bumped into her one day in the communal hallway, she introduced herself as “Binky”. It’s a wonder I managed to stop myself from laughing right into her face. Not only because it was a silly name, but also because I’d initially thought she said “Boinky’’.

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Muntstraat, a short story from Belgium.

“I’m proud of you,” he told me.

A few weeks after moving in, my dad drove over from Scotland in a small van, my modest earthly possessions crammed inside. Among this ramshackle collection of stuff stood my treasured music collection. Which we subsequently unloaded into a line of shiny new Ikea units in the living room. “I’m proud of you,” he told me, as we strolled down Bondgenotenlaan. It was an unexpected announcement and for a minute I wasn’t sure what it was I’d done to make him proud. Maybe it was because I’d stayed in Leuven after the Lucie debacle. That I’d stuck it out and forced my way through the shit times. Whatever the reason, it was a nice moment that has stayed with me over the years.

Short story from Belgium

Muntstraat, a short story from Leuven.

“Hey Leighton, De Libertad tonight?” asked Vicky one morning. It was a Saturday and she’d caught me down in the communal hallway on my way to grab coffee and bagels from Nosh. Vicky lived downstairs with her boyfriend Steven and we quickly became friends. Like me, they were crazy about music and film, thus we wasted no time in convening for movie nights. Lazy Sunday afternoons meanwhile were all about hanging out on our balconies listening to music. Their friendship soon became integral to my Leuven experience. I’d occasionally meet Vicky for lunch at a nearby cafe, while Steven and I built up a quiet bond through weekly squash sessions and my ongoing discoveries of Belgian indie bands.

Revenge of the Squash Nerds.

Muntstraat a short story from Belgium.

Revenge of the Squash Nerds: With Steven.

Encouraged by my Flemish neighbours, I became hooked on Deus, a fantastic alt-rock outfit from Antwerp. Not to mention the brilliant Admiral Freebee, a Neil-Young inspired singer songwriter bursting at the seams with tight melodies and unexpected quirks. Thankfully, I was able to feed my new addiction at a handful of Leuven record shops, namely Bilbo on Ladeuzeplein and the rickety, rummage-friendly shelves of Sax on Parijstraat. I could lose myself for hours in those places and both played a pivotal role in my musical education.

Muntstraat, a short story from Belgium.

De Libertad meanwhile, was an amazing little Muntstraat bar just a few minutes walk from the apartment. A magnet for music lovers, they played everything from Bowie, The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, to more underground artists like Pavement, Cornelius and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Hip, smoky, friendly and refreshingly unpretentious, it instantaneously achieved local dive status and my friend and I enjoyed a myriad of nights within its magical walls. From time to time they hosted live music and held the odd quiz night. Above all though, De Libertad was a place for intimate conversations and passionate debates. Were The Police overrated? What’s your favourite Coen Brothers movie? Who played Chunk in The Goonies? Wasn’t he a Cohen too?

The Libertad music bar Leuven Belgium.

De Libertad, Leuven.

That first Muntstraat year flew by, punctuated as it was by wave after wave of visitors. Never before in my years living abroad had so many people come to stay. No doubt buoyed by the fact that I was finally settled and within reach. In March 2006 my sister came over from Scotland with her boyfriend Thomas. It had been years since we’d hung out, hence I pulled out all the stops with a home cooked curry, drinks at De Libertad and boxes of fresh deli bites from Saha, the Moroccan arts & crafts studio/gourmet food shop on Pensstraat.

Muntstraat Leuven Belgium March 2006

Muntstraat, a short story from Leuven.

Soon after, my dear friends Pierre and Mireille paid a visit from Ghent. Reminiscing about old summer camp days in England, we spent an evening together at the wonderful Pata Negra bar, knocking back cocktails and playing Jenga. In June my old friends Ad and the Steves popped over from London. Camping out together at Time Out on the Square Sports bar, we spent our days playing pool and watching The World Cup. It was the perfect environment in which to suffer England’s underwhelming performances.

The Old Market De Oude Markt Leuven June 2006.

The Old Market Square in Leuven.

Muntstraat, a short story from Belgium.

When my mum and brother flew over to Belgium for my 28th birthday weekend a few weeks later, we marked the occasion by eating ourselves into an ice-cream coma at Hotel Professor. We weren’t the only ones celebrating, because the city’s Italian contingent rejoiced noisily throughout the evening after the Azzurri lifted The World Cup. Thanks in large part to Zinedine Zidane’s inexplicable headbutt.

Ice cream Hotel Professor Leuven Belgium.

Ice cream insanity at Leuven’s Hotel Professor. June, 2006.

When there weren’t guests around it seemed like Leuven always had some kind of event on to compensate. There was the Jazz Festival in March and the M-idzomer Arts performances in July. Featuring comedy skits, dance acts and colourful, energetic street concerts. In August the city’s yearly music festival Marktrock consumed the old square. While in December the charming little Christmas market did a grand job of getting me into the Yuletide spirit.

Midzomer Arts Festival Leuven Belgium

The M-idzomer Arts Festival, Leuven.

Before I knew what had happened, it was 2006 and I woke up one January morning feeling particularly blessed with how everything had panned out. Sure, I wasn’t jumping on camels anymore or backpacking through rural Hungary. But in its own quiet way life in Leuven felt just as thrilling. And for perhaps the first time since landing on Belgian soil, the place was really starting to feel like home.

‘Muntstraat’ is the fifth part of my short story collection Based In Belgium.

You can also check out my travel report on the city of Leuven. 

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  • Mary Phillips

    Thanks for getting my day off to a good start. I loved reading this story. I wished I’d known you then (or did I?). Would have loved to visit.

    February 28, 2016 - 1:00 pm Reply
    • leightonliterature

      Yes you did know me, this was a few years after Bratislava and just a year and a half later you and Bill came to see Leuven for yourselves.

      March 2, 2016 - 7:18 am Reply

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