Until thirty, I spend my years in Belgium and most of them in an urban environment. I was born in Beveren, a community of nearly 50.000 inhabitants, and moved to Sint Niklaas when I was two years old. My parents and I lived in a suburb, together with 80.000 other people. Bornem became my hometown when I was ten, I had some pitoresque corners in biking distance. My daily life, dominated by secundary school, was still centered in Sint Niklaas, which I reached by train each day. When people would ask me which city determined my image of a city, I would never say Sint Niklaas or Beveren. These towns just had streets and houses, without life, without a soul. Antwerp, twenty kilometers northeast of where I lived, was the real thing. As a family, we would go there twice a year to shop christmas presents or walk along the river. I remember we bought a videoplayer in a shop in the Huidevetterstraat, our first one, it felt like returning home from treasure island with a heap of gems.
Antwerp was a world beyond anything I could understand as a child. The ring road appeared to be endless. At one of the exits, we saw, gazing through the car window of our ravaged 1976 Toyota Corolla Liftback, the Holiday Inn building, a 15- floor-high hotel with a huge portal roof. According to my mother, only the very rich could stay there. We visited our uncle Guido in his big house in Borgerhout, the ceilings appeared to be higher than the first floor of our own house, they were decorated with relief and glass lusters. Another uncle lived at the left bank, during the school holidays he took me and my brother to the museums of Antwerp. I was so excited to see an Egyptian mummy in “het Vleeshuis“, to hear the legend of the foundation of the city in “het Steen“.
But there was more than these inspiring highlights a few times a year. I was a comic lover, and Antwerp was heralded by the comic artist Willy Vandersteen, who made the “Suske en Wiske” series. I read these comics during the many rainy afternoons in the grey reality of Sint Niklaas. Vandersteen transported the cathedral, the history, the famous past inhabitants of Antwerp, like Pieter Paul Rubbens, to the realm of phantasy and magic. I still get goose pimples when I read “het eiland amoras“, “het dreigende dingens” en “de raap van Rubbens“. There was another drawer, het manneke Jef Cassiers, who adored Antwerp. I adored his animated movie “Jan zonder vrees” in return. These tributes to Antwerp intermingled with general stories of knights, battles, kisses and pirate ships and everything that made me dream about the wideness of the broader world, the deeper history.
Later my love, my fascination for Brussels and Gent grew. Brussel was the stage of another Vandersteen comic, “het spaanse spook”. It is the capital of our diverse country, of the whole continent! Gent got in my heart because of the young and vibrant student atmosphere. Antwerp, however, still is the benchmark town of my childhood.