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

Car Crash Girl Part II, a short story from Belgium.

Car Crash Girl Part II a short story from Belgium

Car Crash Girl Part II, a short story from Belgium.

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.

——

In many ways things between Lucie and I began to disintegrate right from the day I arrived in Belgium. Touching down in Brussels, she was on hand to collect me at the airport before leading me outside to meet her father, Tom. Tall, slim and tanned, he was as dapper as an L.A. talk show host in his freshly pressed shirt and trousers.

Mr. De Smolden smiled, shook my hand and was courteous enough with his rusty English. Nevertheless, there was something about his detached demeanour that suggested life in the family home wasn’t going to be as welcoming as I’d hoped.

Still, as we sped off towards Lucie’s hometown in his fancy car, I told myself to try and be positive. After all, it was only for a few weeks and then we’d be getting a place of our own. Having conquered the trials and tribulations of my adventures in Qatar, Slovakia and India, I mistakenly believed that a couple of weeks in the north of Belgium would be a piece of cake.

Mol in Belgium.

The town of Mol is a pretty little place in the province of Antwerp, some fifty three kilometres northeast of the Belgian capital. Driving through its spotless tree-lined streets, we passed scatterings of charming old cottages, family-owned shops and a traditional wooden-beamed pub. It was all rather pleasant in a harmless, one foot in the grave kind of way.

Car Crash Girl Part II, a short story from Belgium.

The town of Mol Belgium.

One foot in the grave: Mol, Belgium.

The De Smolden family residence was in the suburbs, a further ten minutes from Mol’s town centre. Turning into a quiet country lane, nothing had prepared me for the sight I was about to behold as a pair of mammoth electric gates buzzed open. And then it came into view, a gargantuan structure that was basically a castle masquerading as a house. Beyond the property, I half expected to see a game of Quidditch underway on the stretch of land they called the garden.

All I could do was sit there with my mouth half open, taking it all in. Finally, I turned to look at Lucie, who was smirking at me as we came to a stop on the stone drive. Climbing out, a grizzled old dog came padding over to greet us. “Georgie!!!” cried Lucie, rushing over to fuss him. “He’s been with us since I was a kid”. And then she was leading the way towards the drawbridge of a front door, Georgie trotting happily by her side.

Leighton Travels travel reports short stories.

Car Crash Girl Part II, a short story from Belgium.

Inside, we arrived in a wide, high-ceilinged hallway, with what looked like priceless art hanging from the walls. Suddenly, a palpable sense of despondency swept over me as I spotted her mother standing motionless at the bottom of a giant staircase. A pale hand resting on its iron railing, she regarded me cooly. Her sculpted grey hair and pursed smile bringing to mind an older, even icier version of Cruella De Vil. 

“Hello” she said aloofly, holding her position. “Did you get a good journey?”

Doing my best not to show my discomfort, I told her that I had and thanked her in advance for letting me stay. “Of course” she replied distantly, floating away into the kitchen. Standing by my side, Lucie took my hand and gave it a squeeze. “Don’t worry about her!” she giggled, nudging me in the ribs. “She has everything she could possibly need in life but hates the world. This place is big enough that you won’t have to see her much”. Oh how I wished that had been true.

Cruella de Vil.

“Did you get a good journey?”

The summer of 2005 was one I’ll never forget. Lucie and I enjoyed an idyllic existence in the picture book countryside of The Scottish Borders. Based at my parents’ cottage with the family dog Inde, we spent our days going on long, rambling walks through the fields and staying up late watching movies.

We caught each other up on our childhoods, shared our secrets, revealed our ambitions and admitted our fears. “If you really wanna go to Italy you should,” she said one night, the pair of us sprawled across the living room sofa with a tub of popcorn. 

“But you should know that I can’t do another long distance relationship”.

Sweethope Hill The Scottish Borders July 2015.

The gentle slopes of Sweethope in The Scottish Borders.

Terminally indecisive by nature, I didn’t want to make any kind of hasty decision. Hence I just sat on it, my mind ticking away uselessly. One day, during a visit to the nearby town of Kelso, she came right out with it. “You should come to Belgium and live with me. My dad has an apartment in Leuven, we can stay there. I’ll go to Uni, you can teach”.

From that moment I knew there was no way I could go to Brindisi. That the Italian job just wasn’t meant to be. Greg would be gutted of course and I’d feel guilty as hell, especially as I’d be letting him down at the last minute. However, the more time I spent with Lucie, the more certain I felt we belonged together. 

“How do you feel about two kids?’’ she asked, running her fingers through my hair. We were sitting on a bench in Kelso Square, watching the locals busying around us. “Jesus, Lucie!” I laughed. “Um… one day yeah!”

Car Crash Girl Part II, a short story from Belgium.

Kelso Square Scotland.

Kelso Square.

A few days later our summer adventure got even better when an old friend of mine joined the party. Jon is a charming Jeff Goldblum lookalike from Nashville, Tennessee. We met in Slovakia where the two of us had been teaching English. Striking up a firm friendship, Jon and I ended up sharing an apartment in Bratislava before embarking on several trips together across Central Europe.

When Jon arrived in Scotland, it had actually been two years to the day since we’d parted ways in the Hungarian town of Siofok. “Off to Belgium huh kid?” he drawled, lighting up a cigarette. The three of us were in Kelso polishing off dinner at Oscar’s, a trendy bar restaurant just off the square. “Do you think we’re crazy?” asked Lucie, dropping her hand onto my knee. “Sure!” smiled Goldblum, taking a swig of his beer. 

“But no more crazy than say… obsessing over your front lawn or a career in telesales”.

Car Crash Girl Part II a short story from Belgium

Lucie and Jon at Kelso Abbey.

I was so happy that Lucie and Goldblum hit it off. We all had a great day walking into Kelso from the cottage at Sweethope. On arrival, we played pool over drinks at The White Swan pub, before wandering through the ruins of Kelso Abbey and the graveyard.

Heading into Tesco’s to show Jon some curious Scottish snacks, he was highly amused to discover an alcoholic beverage called Bucks Fizz. The name had been a long running joke between us ever since he’d watched Making Your Mind Up, the hilarious 1981 Eurovision-winning song by the British pop band Bucks Fizz. “Ridiculous!” he eventually gasped, wiping the tears from his eyes.

“But soon you will find that there comes a time…
…for making your mind up!” 

Car Crash Girl Part II a short story from Belgium

Car Crash Girl Part II, a short story from Belgium.

The carefree atmosphere we’d had evaporated when my mum and dad returned to Sweethope a few days later. Although uncharacteristically diplomatic, it was clear they were less than enamoured with Lucie. “She’s got a lot of energy!” my mum tactfully commented one day in the kitchen. “So you’re not going to Italy?” asked my dad, peering at me from behind his newspaper. “What are you going to do in Belgium?”

In a fortuitous case of excellent timing, it was time for Lucie to return to Belgium. Thus, the next day, we bade each other farewell on the platform at North Berwick Train Station. “See you in two weeks!!!” she called, the train slowly rolling away. Little did I know it, but that would be the last day we were truly happy together.

Car Crash Girl Part II, a short story from Belgium.

Short story from Belgium

Life at Castle De Smolden was an absolute nightmare. There were emergency crisis talks that very first evening when Lucie’s parents summoned her to the living room. I was not invited. Trying in vain to make sense of their guttural exchanges from behind the door, I could only pick out an exasperated “Leighton this” and “Leighton that”, interspersed with the easily translatable “niet goed”.

When Lucie finally came to bed, she didn’t hold back in levelling with me. “She thinks you’re not good enough for me. That we’re young and stupid and don’t know what we’re doing”. As dreadful as Cruella De Smolden clearly was, it would take me a few weeks to realise that she was spot on with at least one of her statements.

The following morning, I met Lucie’s wiry sister and her fiancé, a bespectacled man who looked like a nineteenth century accountant. “Hello” I said when Lucie introduced me. I got a brief smile from the sister, who quickly moved past me on her way into the kitchen. The guy meanwhile merely sniggered, conversing with Lucie in a way that sounded less than complimentary. “What did he say?” I asked, after he’d shuffled off.

“He said, you don’t even know how to say hello in Flemish”.

A few days later I returned home from a walk in the woods to find half my clothes missing. Unbeknown to me, Cruella had taken it upon herself to dig around in my suitcase to see if anything needed washing. Pulling Lucie to one side, she explained that many of my T-shirts were “too old” and that there were “not enough underpants”. As if this wasn’t bad enough, she then brought me a pile of her husband’s boxer shorts, insisting that I take them. Totally humiliated, I refused, telling her that my underwear situation was nobody’s business but mine!

Car Crash Girl Part II a short story from Belgium

A few days before we were due to leave for Leuven, Lucie and I were called into a meeting in the kitchen. In a move I’d seen coming from a mile away, Tom told me that I couldn’t stay at the Leuven apartment for free and that I would need to pay rent like a normal tenant. I said that I was more than happy to pay my way, which promptly led to the subject of employment.

Above all, Cruella was deeply concerned that I hadn’t found a job. And she definitely wasn’t shy in expressing her anxieties. “What kind of situation is this?” she asked Lucie. “Is he trying hard to look for a job?” “What will the neighbours say?” All I could do was sit there like the village idiot waiting for Lucie to translate, everyone talking over and around me. As Lucie and I made our way upstairs to bed, her father took me to one side. 

“Leighton, we are thinking of you too. You know with Lucie… she always gets boring… nothing stays”.

So now he was warning me off. Indeed I had noticed a change in Lucie throughout our days at Doom Towers. Obviously under pressure from her parents, she’d become increasingly moody, less affectionate and at her wit’s end with my lack of progress on the job front. I assumed things would pick up once we got to Leuven. That reclaiming our privacy and shaking off the wicked witch would help us get back on track. In contrast, things only got worse, and she started flying completely off the handle over the tiniest frustration. 

First, there was a huge row over the fact that I’d arrived in Belgium with minimal savings. “If I’d have known you were broke, I wouldn’t have let you come!!!” she screamed one night, an outburst that left me speechless. In another eruption, she claimed that my arrival in Belgium had brought nothing but bad luck! This was in reference to the recent death of Georgie the dog. Which obviously had nothing to do with the fact that he’d been fifteen years old.

Car Crash Girl Part II, a short story from Belgium.

RIP doggie.

Before long, I came to realise that Lucie and I were fundamentally different people. That the adrenalin of our summer romance had blinded us both, casting a paper-thin band aid over the gaping cracks between our incompatible personalities. I was far too passive and pensive for her liking, while from my side I felt she had too much of her evil mother in her. Soon enough, I got tired of being managed, judged and criticised at every turn. Of being told that I lacked ambition, used too much toothpaste and couldn’t cut potatoes properly. 

By the time I’d started the call centre job at Paktel, I was already planning my escape. “I think we should live apart,” she announced one day. We’d been walking in miserable silence through Leuven’s postcard-perfect Grote Markt, her statement bringing us to a stop in front of the magnificent town hall. I loved that building, a stunning giant wedding cake structure that looked like something out of a Tim Burton movie. 

Car Crash Girl Part II, a short story from Belgium.

The Town Hall Leuven Belgium.

Leuven Town Hall.

“Ok…” I managed, my heart beating fast, a huge wave of relief sweeping over me. “Look, I still wanna be with you” she said unconvincingly. “But maybe we need some space, take a step back”. Oh yeah some space, I thought, that’ll stick some wind back in the sails. I think she knew as well as I did that it was over. And yet, for whatever reason, we both seemed reluctant to admit it.

I moved out of Lucie’s apartment the next evening while she was out at the cinema with a friend. Wandering the streets rather hopelessly, I stumbled upon a cheap room for rent in a student block on Jean-Baptiste van Monsstraat. My quarters were small and basic, but clean and functional. I had to share the kitchen and living room with two Flemish girls and a mysterious Iraqi man called Zaid. It’ll do, I thought, and that was that. 

The night after I moved in, I walked to a local internet café for a catch up with friends and family. “How are things with Lucie?” asked my mate Steve. “Well… the whole thing’s been a car crash from start to finish” I admitted glumly, the scale of the disaster only just beginning to sink in. “Come home!!!” cried mum upon hearing my predicament. But I really didn’t want to be a quitter. 

Car Crash Girl Part II, a short story from Belgium.

Jean Baptiste Van Monsstraat Leuven.

Jean Baptiste Van Monsstraat, Leuven.

I guess most people would have packed up and left. But as down in the dumps as I was, I found plenty of reasons to hang around and see how things panned out. First, there was the job at Paktel. Despite my initial fears, it wasn’t all that bad. Secondly, my colleagues were a young, multicultural bunch trying to find their way in Belgium, just like me.

Moreover, there was Leuven itself, a delightful little city that continued to charm me on a daily basis. I loved the laid-back café culture, with its cobbled squares and narrow streets. I found a sports bar that showed Premier League matches and an Indian restaurant that did a killer Chicken Tikka Masala. There was even a cool record shop on Parijsstraat. Thus, after chewing it over for a few days, I decided to give life in Belgium a go and stay in Leuven. 

‘Car Crash Girl Part II’ is the second installment from my short story collection Based in Belgium.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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39 Comments

  • Mary Phillips

    Good ending, both to the story and the relationship! Enjoyed Part II.

    January 17, 2016 - 5:13 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Mary, you’ve seen all the variations of this story over the years. Fairly confident I can let the Belgian series rest as it is now.

      April 13, 2022 - 9:22 pm Reply
  • Staples

    How many pairs of underpants did you have?

    January 17, 2016 - 5:38 pm Reply
  • natty4t

    Reblogged this on natty4t's Blog.

    January 17, 2016 - 8:14 pm Reply
  • Eromonsele Emmanuel

    Whoa! This was deep Leighton. Love is never really as it seems at first. I’m happy you learnt something from the experience and self worth! That’s a cool bonus.

    April 10, 2020 - 6:06 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha, yes! These kind of life episodes teach you a lot. Thanks for reading!

      April 10, 2020 - 9:03 am Reply
  • wetanddustyroads

    Is life really all that glamorous and happy in a “castle” … that’s what comes to mind when reading about Lucie’s parents’ house 🤔. Sorry, but I had to laugh at the underwear story … that’s now a proper invasion of personal space I would say! Ah well, you know the saying … stick with each other in good AND bad times … if that can’t happen, it’s not meant to be.
    Just a few final thoughts … the Leuven Town Hall is impressive and it was great to read about Jon again (he feels like an old friend of mine too). And now I know for sure, you’re no quitter – I would have left with the first plane/train/bus … but look at you, still wants to discover the beauty of Leuven 😉.

    March 29, 2022 - 9:29 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Wise words Corna and I guess this whole affair was one of life’s early lessons. How nice that you remember Jon, which makes me realise you’ve followed our friendship through my Slovak Files stories and Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga and Chicago travel reports through to this Belgium chapter. Thanks, as ever, for your loyal readership.

      March 29, 2022 - 9:43 am Reply
  • Little Miss Traveller

    Beautifully written and a gripping true story Leighton. Enjoyed every word of it as your words flow off the page. M.

    March 29, 2022 - 11:03 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you Marion, hope you enjoy the rest of the series, which includes a few stories which are very dear to me. Hope all is well with you in your part of the world.

      March 29, 2022 - 11:30 am Reply
  • travelling_han

    Oh wow, what a gripping Part II, you really do write so well. What an absolutely ridiculous situation for her mother to be giving you underpants – I can’t even comprehend! I am appalled and shocked in equal measure.

    March 29, 2022 - 11:45 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha ha it was, as you suggest, “appalling” and “shocking” at the time. I was beyond mortified. Looking back though, it’s pretty funny and I got to bring some humour to the story. Thanks again Hannah.

      March 29, 2022 - 11:49 am Reply
  • WanderingCanadians

    Oh gosh, I can’t believe the mom went through your suitcase to “see if anything needed washing” and then gave you some of her husband’s underwear. Thanks, but no thanks.

    March 29, 2022 - 12:07 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha ha right? Thanks for finishing up this take of romantic woe. Looking forward to sharing my other Belgian stories over the next few weeks.

      March 29, 2022 - 12:08 pm Reply
  • kagould17

    Yikes, meeting the girlfriend’s/boyfriend’s family for the first time, always a judge-y adventure. Luggage rummaging and underwear donations show there are no boundaries there. Somethings just aren’t meant to be and looks like you were rescued in the end Leighton. Thanks for the tale. Allan

    March 29, 2022 - 2:03 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I’ve had a few rough experiences with parents and in-laws over the years. Happily, Sladja’s parents are lovely and wouldn’t dream of sifting through my underwear. Cheers Allan!

      March 29, 2022 - 2:19 pm Reply
  • Sheree

    You were well out of that Leighton.

    March 29, 2022 - 3:09 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha ha thanks Sheree, I think you’re right 😉

      March 29, 2022 - 3:13 pm Reply
  • salsaworldtraveler

    Sometimes horrible experiences make the best posts. “That we’re young and stupid and don’t know what we’re doing”. Ha ha! So what’s the point? You sure can pick ’em my friend. Episodes like this one make finding a real relationship sweeter.

    Thanks for the map. Leuven is a town I’d wondered about since learning the story of Augusta Chiwy, a young Belgian/Congolese nurse who became one of the heroes of the Battle of the Bulge in WWII. While visiting family on a break from St. Elizabeth General Hospital in Leuven, she was trapped in Bastogne with American forces. Augusta and another nurse (the Angels of Bastogne) volunteered to help a young, overwhelmed American Army doctor. It is a tragic story in many ways. Although it took many years, the story ended in triumph like your liberation.

    March 29, 2022 - 3:37 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      And ‘Comment of The Day’ goes to… drum roll… I’m sure at the time I felt my tribulations were equal to that of a World War II nurse. Seriously though, that sounds like an incredible story and one I have bookmarked to look into further. Leuven is a fantastic city, wish I’d taken more photos.

      March 29, 2022 - 9:14 pm Reply
  • ourcrossings

    What a fantastic story, Leighton! The agonising awkwardness of meeting your other half’s parents for the first time is an event very few people look forward to as you never know which way it will go, but it seems like yours was a deal-breaker from the start. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva

    March 29, 2022 - 3:39 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading Aiva. You’re right, it was doomed from the get go it seems. One of life’s “character building” experiences.

      March 29, 2022 - 9:16 pm Reply
  • grandmisadventures

    Holy awkwardness Batman! What kind of crazy person goes through her daughter’s boyfriends suitcase and then buys him underwear!?!? What a terrible ordeal all around.

    March 29, 2022 - 5:30 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Glad you enjoyed these tales Meg. It was actually a lot of fun writing them up and an explosive start to the Belgian series. I hope you are already feeling the benefits of Spring across the pond!

      March 29, 2022 - 9:21 pm Reply
  • Travels Through My Lens

    Well written and very enticing; well done Leighton. Unbelievable about the underwear! Lucie’s dysfunctional family, cold and distant parents explain a lot about her irrational behavior. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

    March 29, 2022 - 5:55 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you for reading this two-part opener to my Belgian short story series. After the Lucie debacle I made some wonderful friends in Belgium, really looking forward to sharing those stories over the coming weeks!

      March 29, 2022 - 9:41 pm Reply
  • Lyssy In The City

    You crack me up with how you are describing Lucie and her family! I wish we could have a tour of the house, it sounds pretty epic haha

    March 30, 2022 - 1:16 am Reply
    • Leighton

      It was a bit like a museum. Spacious… cold…. and you weren’t allowed to touch anything. Thanks for reading Lyssy!

      March 30, 2022 - 7:52 am Reply
  • Rebecca

    Although I don’t even know her, I never liked Lucie since Part I– I know it’s how you conveyed the story, but the red flags were there. Love is such a powerful emotion, and it can blind us to not see the practical signs of incompatibility (as I’ve also learned in my dating/relationship journey). Honestly, her family and your family were wise in their judgement, and even though the relationship didn’t work out, the opportunity to stay in Belgium (which is such a beautiful country) was a blessing in disguise! I’d like to see what more you get up to in Belgium in due course!

    March 30, 2022 - 4:35 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Spot on all round with your analysis Rebecca. I’m so glad I decided to stay in Leuven because I ended up having some great years there. More Belgian instalments to come…

      March 30, 2022 - 8:43 am Reply
  • ThingsHelenLoves

    Cruella is a lesson in ‘How Not To Mother in Law’ and Lucie would seem to be an apple that didn’t fall far from the tree. I wonder how life worked out for them all?

    March 31, 2022 - 1:26 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Helen, so glad you appreciated this tale of doomed young love. The last I heard, many years ago, Lucie worked in marketing and had an American boyfriend. And from there the trail ends.

      March 31, 2022 - 2:03 pm Reply
  • Memo

    Ah, Brindisi, Italy will never know what it missed. The rest of us are eternally grateful for their sacrifice. Loved the sense of foreboding and choice in imagery. “One foot in the grave” cities, Tim Burton castles, Cruella, really build a mood. A failed Buddhist monk once told me that “you don’t have to die to be reborn.” It always sounded like it meant something. Keep the stories coming!

    April 3, 2022 - 1:55 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha ha love it, that monk had it right on the button. Thanks for the kind words Memo and for your unfailing readership.

      April 3, 2022 - 9:06 am Reply
  • rkrontheroad

    Well written–I could imagine Lucie’s personality and followed your ups and downs. I can’t imagine how you could consider staying with her parents a moment longer! Were I in your shoes I would have endless regrets about the Italy possibility, but I’m saying that in hindsight, since I knew the relationship wouldn’t last. 😉

    April 3, 2022 - 5:50 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I was a bit sore about Italy in the few years that followed. But in the end I had an amazing time in Belgium. It was also a time that changed the entire direction of my life for the next ten years, and all for the better. But yeah it definitely took time for me to get over my so-called wrong decision. Thanks for reading Ruth!

      April 3, 2022 - 6:02 pm Reply
      • rkrontheroad

        I’ve had a few decisions I regretted later, but always tell myself I would not have had certain really good things happen that put me in a new direction if I had made other choices. Always makes you think, though!

        April 3, 2022 - 6:09 pm
      • Leighton

        I totally understand, all we can do is process it and ultimately look on the bright side. Not easy, as certain decisions end up shaping our life direction.

        April 3, 2022 - 6:12 pm

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