I’ ve just spent the past two and a half hours walking around Leuven, taking photos of pretty things. We arrived in Belgium yesterday in the middle of a snowy afternoon – everything was blanketed white, and the few locals we spoke to told us that it rarely snows so much over here, as evidenced by the fact that 400km of traffic was backed up in neighbouring areas as a result of the weather. As the plane touched down, we saw rabbits darting along beside the tarmac; one peeked up at us over the top of a bush, ducked back down as we rumbled closer, then tentatively began to re-emerge, ears first. On the train from Brussels to Leuven, everything outside was a white blur, and once we alighted, it was tricky to find a cab, because of the snow and the number of outside roads that were closed. Once we arrived at the hotel, though, everything was fine, and we went for an afternoon/evening walk through the falling snow. The lights from the churches, Christmas trees and shops turned everything golden.
Today, I walked through a Christmas Market, through parks and sidestreets, and was everywhere amazed by how beautiful a place this is. Perhaps it’s just the lingering snow and the bright blue sky, which conspire to make even mundane sights extraordinary; but it’s also the architecture, and the fact that everyone is friendly, with children, students and adults alike all stopping in groups to throw snowballs at one another. When I went to the ATM, I heard a familiar accent and realised that the woman in line behind me was also Australian; we chatted happily for a few minutes, and discovered that both our husbands were here to visit the university. Slush, slurry and ice cover every scrap of path and road; when I slipped, a random stranger travelling in the opposite direction stuck his arm out and kept me from falling backwards.
I bought a cup of hot chocolate with whipped cream and a proper European sauasge in a roll for lunch in the Christmas Markets, and listened to carols being piped through a soundsystem at just the right volume. There are evergreens everywhere, covered with lights and clumps of snow; it’s the first time, I think, that Christmas iconography has ever made sense to me, or seemed appropriate, or done anything to generate a sense that This Is Christmas in a way that doesn’t relate to commercialism. Cars, bikes, rooftops and benches are all covered with layers of snow, and in the markets, every second stall is selling Stella Artois, Irish coffee, Italian spirits, European beer and mulled wine to keep out the cold – when I bought my hot chocolate, even, it was a struggle not to ask for the version which came with Baileys and Amoretto, a temptation I resisted only because I hadn’t yet eaten anything. Later, when Toby has finished giving his paper, I intend to investigate it more closely, in conjunction with the many chocolate and waffle stalls.
There’s something I’ve heard people say before, that you can visit a place and leave part of yourself behind. I feel like that about Leuven. Everyone here seems to speak at least two of the four ambient languages – German, French, Flemish and English – such that it’s impossible to feel like an outsider, or anything but welcome. We’re only here for three days, but hopefully, we’ll be able to return at some point in the future – if only for another helping of the delicious Flemish-style rabbit I had for dinner last night.