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Chocolate, soup, and Antwerp atmosphere: two weeks at the Translators' House

Colleen Higgins spent the first half of May at the Antwerp Translators' House. This is her enthusiastic report of two interesting and delicious weeks.

A warm welcome

When I arrived at the Translators' House, I was welcomed by my housemate Rolf Erdorf, who gave me a tour of the neighborhood and fed me delicious homemade soup.

Colleen Higgins with fellow translator and roommate Rolf Erdorf

During my visit, I started work on my translation of 'Essential Fat', a non-fiction book by Mariëtte Boon and Liesbeth van Rossum. The filtered light in my workroom at the back of the apartment was pleasant, and with the heating on and a candle lit, my surroundings were cozy and warm and conducive to work.

Early in my stay, I had the pleasure of visiting the Flanders Literature offices and meeting Karen Thys and the other staff members. Later on that week, Rolf and I were treated to a lively lunch at our apartment when Karen and crew showed up laden with salads and breads and cheeses. This was a very pleasant way to get acquainted in an informal setting, and I enjoyed hearing my tablemates talk so enthusiastically about food, one of my favorite subjects.

Letting the Flemish language seep in

I love listening to Flemish, and its musicality and colour remind me of Irish English. I was also aware from earlier visits to Flanders that I sometimes couldn’t understand what I heard due to dialect or the way my brain is programed. I regularly needed time to understand what I heard. So one of the things I’d looked forward to during my stay was hearing Flemish around me and doing some benign eavesdropping. This would allow the language to seep in without having to respond immediately. And I could make discoveries. One discovery I hadn’t expected to make was that people often had a hard time understanding me when I spoke Dutch, and a couple of times I was confronted with blank stares and no response.

Antwerp culture and history

In my free time I did some exploring, both in the neighborhood and beyond. Taste of Antwerp was on that first weekend, and the following Saturday I spent some memorable hours at Chocolate Nation and got the happy chance to try ten different types of warm melted chocolate side by side. I also walked extensively through the city, looking at the buildings and squares. One of my favorite places was the Begijnhof (Beguinage), very calm and green and tucked away.

I love listening to Flemish, and its musicality and colour remind me of Irish English.
Colleen Higgins

Our own Zurenborg neighborhood had a special atmosphere. There were the striking buildings and the Dageraadplaats (Daybreak Square) and the whimsical street names like Grote Hond, Kleine Hond, and Dolfijnstraat (Big Dog, Little Dog, and Dolphin Streets). There was the palpable Jewish presence, on the streets, on the doorposts, in the buildings and businesses. During my stay, I was reading Mazel Tov by Margot Vanderstraeten – which is set in Antwerp and this neighborhood. (Will by Jeroen Olyslaegers is on my list.) After returning home, I watched the film "Left Luggage" again, by Jeroen Krabbé, set in Antwerp and what seems to be Zurenborg. I bought cheese pastries and pumpernickel from Kleinblatt’s bakery and fresh herbs and kasha from Grosz kosher supermarket.

Rolf and I discovered we had both translated the same texts for the Sint-Jacobskerk (St James Church) in Antwerp (Rubens’ parish church) – Rolf into German, me into English – and one afternoon we took a field trip to visit the church and see our translations on the interpretive panels. We also biked to Middelheim park to look at the sculptures and magnificent old trees, and had supper at the wonderful Beni Falafel.

I was very lucky to have Rolf as a housemate, and our shared interest in food led to interesting conversations and good meals, as we ended up taking turns cooking on most days. He is a master soup-maker.

Heartfelt thanks to Karen for taking good care of us with such warmth and kindness, and to Flanders Literature for making my stay in the Translators’ House possible. Thanks for everything!

Jun 6th, 2019