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

A Single Man, a short story from Belgium.

A Single Man a short story from Belgium

A Single Man, 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.

——

It was a few weeks after my breakup with Lucie that I woke up one morning in my little student room and realised I was actually happy! This was a surprising development on several fronts. First, there was my accommodation, a single dingy room containing little more than a desk, a sink and a dubious bed that collapsed when I rolled over in the night.

Moreover, I had to share the toilet, bathroom and kitchen with a pair of local girls and an eccentric Iraqi called Zaid. He was quite the character, a 40 something man who spent his days struggling to learn Flemish and living off Belgian social benefits. More on him in a later chapter. 

Leighton Travels travel reports short stories.

Secondly, I found myself enjoying my crappy call centre job. Despite the fact that Paktel had proven itself a soulless corporation from day one. And that it treated its employees like cattle. Furthermore, the very mechanics of what we had to do on a daily basis was exceptionally tedious. Customer after unsuspecting customer called in to complain about their faulty printers, cameras and projectors. More often than not the product in question was a matter of months, weeks or even just days old.

Foolishly believing their warranty entitled them to a brand new replacement, it was my job to explain that I’d be sending out a second hand piece of crap that looked like it had been dragged through a hedge backwards. Oh, and If they were lucky, our incompetent carrier might deliver the thing in time for their retirement.

A Single Man, a short story from Belgium.

Crappy old printer.

“I’m so sorry to hear your printer isn’t working properly sir”.

“Where’s my bloody printer!!!” roared Mr. Anderson, a man whose package should have reached him back when Thatcher was still in power. Staring nonplussed at a blank screen that was supposed to shed at least some light on its whereabouts, I was always thankful to have the verbal abuse card to fall back on.

“I’m sorry Mr. Anderson, but if you continue to speak to me like that, I have no choice but to end the call”.

Short story from Belgium

A Single Man, a short story from Belgium.

So why then, you may wonder, was I in such high spirits? Well, I’d fallen in love with the city of Leuven. What’s more, my Paktel colleagues were a colourful bunch who never failed to make me laugh from one moment to the next.

I worked in the UK Logistics team next to a Belgian-Scot-Irish hybrid called Ian. I remember him as a “don’t-give-a-fuck” biker with a striking array of body rings and tattoos. Responsible for the department’s high-level complaints (of which there were many), Ian went about his work in an efficient if disinterested manner. Which left plenty of time for online gaming, tattoo sketching and listening to heavy metal on his headphones.

Frodo Lord of the Rings.

“No sir, it’s actually refurbished printer!”

On my other side sat Christian, a gruff young Norwegian who looked like Frodo from Lord of the Rings. Directly opposite him was Rasheka, a coquettish Jamaican girl who, rumour had it, was generally available to anyone who might be interested. I was not interested. 

My favourite colleague, by a Belgian country mile, was the sweet and kindhearted Caroline Henderson. She was a matronly woman much loved by everyone at Paktel, an unofficial mother to all. Although twenty five years my senior, Caro and I got on like a house on fire and she soon became a very close friend.

A Single Man, a short story from Belgium.

A Single Man, a short story from Belgium

Nikki: An artist’s impression.

The team’s standout character was a fiery young single mum called Nikki. A bleach-blonde Londoner with the most severe case of potty mouth I’d ever heard. Day in day out she’d arrive at the office in a hailstone of swear words. From there she would pretty much “fuck” and “shit” her way through the entire day. Not at all shy in letting people know how much she despised the job.

“Fuck this fuckin’ place!!!” she yelled at regular intervals, slamming her phone down.

She flung her mouse across her desk and kicked the wastepaper bin across the floor. Notoriously unreliable, Nikki would call in sick at least once a week, sometimes more. And while her absences certainly increased the general workload, the office floor was at least a calmer place when she wasn’t around.

However, as angry at the world as Nikki clearly was, she also had a soft side. From time to time, she’d bring us all biscuits and cakes and was known to staunchly stick up for her teammates in times of need. All in all, working with Nikki became a kind of love-hate affair, and I’ve always considered it something of a miracle that she never got fired.

A Single Man a short story from Belgium

At Paktel with Ian, Caroline and Nikki.

On the weekends I spent my time lounging around Leuven. I’d pick up breakfast at a local bakery before heading to a favourite bench on Ladeuzeplein Square. From there, I’d usually go and do some reading over coffee at De Dry Coppen, a tranquil bookstore café on Schrijnmakersstraat. Or maybe head for Sax, a fantastic record shop on Parijsstraat where I could while away an hour leafing through potential purchases.

A Single Man, a short story from Belgium.

De Dry Coppen, Leuven.

Much to my delight, I was able to catch live Premier League football games at Time Out on the Square, a multi-screen sports bar run by a butch, bald, Arsenal fan called Chris. Over time, I became such a committed regular he would gift me the occasional free beer. He also made sure the QPR game was shown, even though I’d be the only one who wanted to watch it.

A Single Man, a short story from Belgium.

Marcus Bignot QPR.

Q.P.R. Live in Leuven, Belgium.

In those early Leuven days I received a visit from my old friend Ben, whom I’d met during my teaching days in Slovakia. On what was a long overdue catch up, we diligently worked our way around Leuven’s impressive Oude Markt Square.

We had Stella at Café Cadi, a pitcher of Hoegaarden at De Weerelt and a dizzying round of Grimbergens in De Bierkelder. I loved the Oude Markt’s relaxed atmosphere, where people drank to be sociable rather than to simply get drunk. A million miles away from the aggressive drinking culture back in Britain. 

A Single Man a short story from Belgium

With Ben in the Oude Markt. November, 2004.

Before long, I began acquiring an eclectic group of friends. There was Ash from Sheffield, a plainspoken IT specialist with a voracious appetite for reading. Chris from London meanwhile (not Arsenal Chris), was an Everton fan and music aficionado in town on regular business trips.

There was also Henry from Warwick, a fiercely intelligent guy finishing a PhD in International Macroeconomics. Most of our meet ups were based around televised football games. Although we also spent plenty of time sampling the city’s excellent restaurants. One of our favourites being the wonderful Hotel Professor, which had a killer cocktail bar. 

A Single Man, a short story from Belgium.

Hotel Professor Leuven Belgium.

Hotel Professor, Leuven.

By this time Lucie had left Leuven to go and live in L.A. Her exit was a huge relief for me, providing the closure I needed to move on and fully embrace my new Belgian life. Consequently, I became open to the idea of meeting someone new.

Quickly, I set my sights set on Heidi, a beautiful Finnish girl who worked in Paktel’s Scandinavian team. Vivacious and flirtatious, I found her English accent captivating. The highs and lows of her melodic tones attracting more than a few glances across the office floor. Heidi and I connected from day one, mainly due to our ability to talk and laugh about anything. A pet topic was classic TV shows, particularly the Australian series Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, a Heidi favorite.

“Click click click!”

“What’s that Skippy? The kids are trapped down the old mineshaft?”

She would often goad me into acting out that scene. In fact, I ended up doing it so many times she even started calling me Skippy. Our conspiratorial closeness raised multiple eyebrows at work. “Ere Leighton!” scoffed Nikki one day between calls, “are you doin’ Heidi or what?”

Skippy The Bush Kangaroo.

A Single Man, a short story from Belgium.

Unfortunately, Heidi and I weren’t doin’ anything, despite the amount of time we spent together. One night, during a movie at my place, I finally plucked up the courage to ask her out on a proper date. But then, at the exact moment I was about to pull the trigger, the conversation changed direction and she began confiding in me about a Paktel admirer called Ronny.

“He wants to be more than friends!” she whispered, leaning in so close I could taste her perfume. “He’s a nice guy, but I told him I’m not interested in anyone right now. The last thing I want is any kind of relationship, you know?”

“Yeah, of course!” I replied, through gritted teeth. 

Short story from Belgium.

With Heidi at a house party in Leuven.

With all hopes of some Finnish fun biting the dust, I soon found myself on a date with a Belgian girl called Ella. She worked behind the bar at Time Out on the Square. I’d spotted her reading Stephen King’s The Shining, thus we ended up talking horror for an hour before hitting the cinema together. The date went pretty well but, as usual, it wasn’t meant to be. 

For the most part, she didn’t get my sense of humour. Possibly my jokes were lost in translation. Or perhaps I just wasn’t funny. There were also moments when she would descend into an unbearable quietness. Finally, with any rapport we’d had petering out to the point of nonexistence, Ella confessed that she’d recently spent time at a psychiatric facility. Naturally. she didn’t feel ready for a relationship, and that was that. 

“Makes sense” laughed Nikki the next day, handing me a lump of her sugared waffle. “She’d have to be fucking crazy to go out with you!”

The Dating Game.

With the summer sun giving way to a chilly autumn, things went quiet on the dating front and for a while I lost interest. Then, out of the blue, I found myself hosting an old flame. Sine and I first met on a ferry from London to Denmark in 1998. I was 20 years old, while she was just 17!

It was my Uncle Dave’s bachelor party and I was dressed up in a charity shop outfit of appalling 70s clothes. I’m talking bell-bottom trousers, an Afro wig and a dodgy, home-knitted jumper. It was only once we were onboard the boat that Dave told the group that there wasn’t really a 1970s theme and it would be just us dressed like idiots. 

Looking back, I think it was a miracle Sine didn’t run off as soon as I tried to talk to her! Somehow we got chatting at the disco and I discovered she lived in a small town near the port city of Kalundborg. Before disembarking in Denmark we exchanged contact details and ended up becoming pen pals.

A Single Man, a short story from Belgium.

Short story Belgium

With Sine on the ferry to Denmark, 1998.

Four years after we met on the ferry I went to Denmark to see her. But any hopes of continuing our romance were dashed when Sine told me she wanted things to stay platonic. Since then our contact had been sporadic. So I was more than a little surprised when she got back in touch to say that she was coming to Leuven.

Hopelessly idealistic and naïve, I thought it could be the beginning of something. That perhaps our time had finally come. And while things ultimately didn’t work out, it was nevertheless great having her around.

Heverlee Leuven Belgium.

A Single Man, a short story from Belgium.

I showed Sine all my favourite Leuven haunts and we took a day trip to Brussels. When Frodo threw a party at his place in Leuven, I took Sine along and she met the Paktel crew. There were winks and nudges from Ian. An “ooh she’s lovely!’’ from Caroline and genuine warmth from her fellow Scandinavians. It was just after midnight when we made our excuses and headed home. I’ll never forget Ronny stopping me in the doorway as we left.

“Do what you have to do!!!” he boomed in his deep voice, clamping a hand down firmly on my shoulder.

Visit The Grand Place Brussels.

With Sine at The Grand Place, Brussels.

By the time Christmas came around, Sine’s visit had dissolved into a seemingly distant memory. And so I was solo again, at exactly the wrong time of the year. With a sense of loneliness setting in I began seeing Helena, a Paktel Swede who I didn’t even find that attractive. “Oh Leighton, you’re scraping the barrel now!” growled Nikki. One day, Heidi even felt moved to weigh in. 

“Skippy, you do know Helena really likes you?” she said with a cocked eyebrow, a disapproving tilt of her head.

We’d only been on a couple of dates, but I knew I had to put an end to things before they got messy. When I gently let her down one evening she just glared at me with a quiet, controlled fury. It was the last time she even looked at me, let alone talked to me. I supposed I deserved it.

On the bright side, the Helena debacle served as the wake up call I’d so badly needed. Taking stock of the past months, I realised that having a girlfriend wasn’t essential. That I should focus on the positives of my strange and amusing Belgian life. “No new flavour of the moment?” cackled Nikki one morning. “Are your dandy days over?” 

A Single Man, a short story from Belgium.

Being single is ok.

“You’ll meet someone Leighton,” chirped Caroline. “And it’ll happen naturally, just when you least expect it”. Good old Caro, she always had a way of making you feel better. “Thanks” I replied, popping my headphones on.

With a deep breath and a steely resolve I returned to the disgruntled Mr. Boreham, who’d been impatiently waiting on hold. “I’m sorry sir,” I said robotically, “but according to our records your printer is still in transit. I’m going to look into this for you and call you back”. It was a full thirty seconds before I was able to speak again. “Mr. Boreham, if you continue to speak to me like that I have no choice but to end the call”.

‘A Single Man’ is the third part of 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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33 Comments

  • natty4t

    Loving the pics Leighton! I adored hotel professor and the whole vibe of Leuven. Thomas had a cocktail called Custard’s Last Stand. It was ming and he was gutted as ours were fab!

    January 24, 2016 - 10:07 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hotel Professor was such a great little cocktail bar!

      April 1, 2022 - 9:29 pm Reply
  • Sheree

    This is why it always pays to be nice to call-centre staff!

    April 1, 2022 - 8:52 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Right on Sheree. It wasn’t much fun working that job and sometimes it was one irate customer too many. Thanks for reading!

      April 1, 2022 - 9:00 am Reply
      • Sheree

        Always a pleasure Leighton

        April 1, 2022 - 9:05 am
  • WanderingCanadians

    I’m imagining your call centre job to be a lot like the tv show “The Office”. Even though the company (and the product) was awful, sounds like you worked with some interesting characters.

    April 1, 2022 - 12:41 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      There were definitely some office-like characters and situations in that old Leuven gig. It’s one of those jobs where I kind of hated it at the time but looking back, it was a lot of fun, thanks to those aforementioned characters.

      April 1, 2022 - 3:21 pm Reply
  • wetanddustyroads

    Ha, your post should have read “A HAPPY single man” … 😄.
    Nikki probably had the right attitude for working in the call centre (I was for 11 years in customer service and I don’t – often – swear, but I did use some ‘dirty’ words several times a day)! But then … fortunately, I have a good sense of humour (and some great colleagues). I think that’s how I conquered this one (and walked out just before I went completely insane)!
    You had a great bunch of friends here: From over-the-top Nikki, to the lovable Caroline, Heidi (what a lovely name) and then there always have to be someone like Ronny 😉.
    Love the song at the end – thanks Leighton, I enjoyed another great story from you!

    April 1, 2022 - 1:20 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Ah Corna, it seems you know ‘exactly’ what I’m talking about with the call centre job. Getting out just before one goes mad is spot on, that’s precisely the stage I was at in the end. So glad you enjoyed this instalment with its cast of motley characters (myself included). The next story, which focuses entirely on one of my old colleagues, is very dear to me. Until then…

      April 1, 2022 - 3:26 pm Reply
  • Lyssy In The City

    It’s funny how your coworkers can make all the difference in a job! You sure have met so many interesting people in your lifetime, I enjoy reading about them all

    April 1, 2022 - 2:13 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      You’re right Lyssy, coworkers can make or break a job. I think the bond we had back then is what made us willing to stay for as long as we did. Until the whole thing went completely to hell that is ha ha. More on that in the next story.

      April 1, 2022 - 3:36 pm Reply
  • kagould17

    Great story Leighton, even if all the memories aren’t that great. It helps to at least be in a good city if the job was not your first choice. When I worked for the Bank, I always heard the horror stories of life in the Call Center, monitored calls, peer to peer coaching, management coaching and the number of people who said they would rather be unemployed than working in the Call Center. They soon were. Not a great place to be unless you have good mates and your mates have your back. Thanks for sharing and Happy Friday. Allan

    April 1, 2022 - 2:53 pm Reply
  • Leighton

    Those “horror stories”, as you put it, are on the mark. And you’re also right about the people. Take that camaraderie away and there wasn’t much left. Indeed once that had gone, I was gone too. Cheers Allan!

    April 1, 2022 - 3:43 pm Reply
  • Monkey's Tale

    You certainly have had interesting jobs and interesting coworkers. I thought it very kind of Heidi to tell you she wasn’t interested without making you feel bad. Maggie

    April 1, 2022 - 3:51 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading Maggie. I remember hearing, through the office grapevine, that Ronny was “absolutely devastated” that Heidi wanted to stay footloose and fancy free. Guess I got off lightly in more than one sense.

      April 1, 2022 - 4:19 pm Reply
  • grandmisadventures

    It reminds me of the saying that everyone comes into your life for a reason or a season and it sounds like the girls you dated and your co-workers were both as they got you through and then helped you to move on down the path. And being happily single is far better than being unhappily stuck with someone whose mother bought you underwear 🙂

    April 1, 2022 - 4:21 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha! You made me laugh out loud there. Yeah, being single was just fine when weighed up against many of the alternatives. Mostly I look back on those days as such innocent times, if that makes any sense. Cheers Meg!

      April 1, 2022 - 4:28 pm Reply
    • Memo

      Can’t picture you in a call center and I can’t picture you as a dandy but totally enjoyed your coworkers.

      April 11, 2022 - 1:58 am Reply
      • Leighton

        Thanks for reading Memo. I wasn’t really a dandy of course, just going through one of those lost, floaty periods we all experience when we’re young.

        April 11, 2022 - 9:28 am
  • salsaworldtraveler

    Well done, Leighton! I’m referring to the post and dealing with the trials and tribulations of single life and working for a terrible employer. This experience was before many companies instituted workplace no-fraternization policies. Those policies, of course, are pretty much ignored by the vast majority of employees. Skippy sounds like a series I would have enjoyed.

    April 1, 2022 - 5:38 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks John. Skippy the Bush Kangaroo was a riot, talk about a product of its time. Just a quick look on YouTube will give you a good sense of where that show was coming from. Office romances are rarely a good idea but as you say, it goes on all the time. I guess the odd one here and there works out without any major casualties.

      April 1, 2022 - 9:06 pm Reply
  • Little Miss Traveller

    Enjoyed this instalment and all these interesting characters you manage to write so.vividly about. Working in a call centre you must need to have the patience of a saint as I doubt most people are as polite as you or me!

    April 1, 2022 - 7:08 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      We used to get some awful abuse Marion. I remember taking it to heart in the beginning, then eventually being blase. Then finally just hanging up on people. I know a few guys who worked there for over 5 years. I think I’d have been certified by that point. Appreciate your readership!

      April 1, 2022 - 9:22 pm Reply
  • ourcrossings

    Yet another great story, Leighton! I had to look up where is Leuven and what it looks like. I had no idea it is the capital of Flemish Brabant and a pretty one. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva

    April 1, 2022 - 7:20 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Leuven is just gorgeous, I really should go back one of these years and retread my old steps. Thanks for dropping by Aiva.

      April 1, 2022 - 9:25 pm Reply
  • NattyTravels

    Another great story Leighton. I enjoyed reading about all the interesting characters. The part about Nikki made me laugh, because there’s always a Nikki 🤣

    April 1, 2022 - 9:18 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha ha thanks Natty. One of the characters in this story takes centre stage in my next post. Hope you enjoy that one too.

      April 1, 2022 - 9:23 pm Reply
  • Rebecca

    This is one of my favorites from you, Leighton, due to many factors that I can relate to. My current job is essentially taking calls all day, sometimes dealing with difficult clients– I’d be damned if I didn’t curse at least once a day from a bad call! I also could relate to your dating experiences, as I’ve been going through it for these past 2-3 years with attempts at dating around. Not to forget that dating apps are a huge thing now…ultimately, you did end up with someone (hello, Sladja!), and it really is true that love does come at unexpected times. Looks like Belgium prepared you for that!

    April 2, 2022 - 4:36 am Reply
    • Leighton

      I had a feeling this one might pull your chain Rebecca. It was a fun story to write up and see what I could remember from that colourful cast of characters. Glad you can relate and yes, “just when you least expect it” is often the way, both with the good and the bad. Have a great weekend in (presumably) sunny L.A.

      April 2, 2022 - 10:16 am Reply
      • Rebecca

        It’s actually cloudy here, haha, but I appreciate the well wishes!

        April 2, 2022 - 5:50 pm
  • ThingsHelenLoves

    Great memories! It’s funny how the most random bunch of folk can be knit together to make a work family.

    April 12, 2022 - 4:43 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Right Helen, sometimes a bunch of misfits like us can make it work under awkward circumstances. Thanks for reading!

      April 12, 2022 - 4:47 pm Reply

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