After my late night frites from Robert La Frite, Charleroi’s finest friterie, I had a much needed lie-in. I spent much of the morning in the large new comic shop near the hotel; Belgian (and French) BD stores are really incredible. They love their hardback comic books, and I get very inspired by the artwork. It made want to get drawing. I have daydreamed about returning to Charleroi and drawing as much as possible. I spent a year there with hardly any drawings, so I always felt I needed to return to catch up. I did want to walk through the fancy new Rive Gauche mall though. Now I know where all the shopping has gone since the stores all closed down in Rue de la Montagne. Despite the novelty, it didn’t feel like I was in Charleroi at all, so I left and headed out with the sketchbook. I went straight up to Place Charles II, and drew the Église St. Christophe, the large rusting-green domed church dominating the round plaza. But wow, it was already really hot.
Any football fans among you may remember the Euro 2000 tournament. Incredibly that was twenty years ago now. In that tournament, which was held in Belgium and Holland, there was a famous game in which England played Germany right here in Charleroi. This plaza saw the English hooligans running wild before the game, throwing chairs and giving all that old little-Englander nonsense about St George and yelling obscenities at anyone foreign, and in one case I witnessed a drunk Englishman hilariously kicked one of those concrete balls (which had been dressed up to look like footballs at the time) hurting his foot in the process and spilling his beer, but Charleroi is a place that did not care for that sort of thing at all, and they just pulled out the water cannons and sprayed them all over the place. I’ll never forget, some of the local bars decided not to open up that day, but they still sold beer from lemonade stands outside, because Belgians don’t give up on beer. Once all of the losers had been washed away, the evening following England’s victory was one of the best nights in town, and I met some great English lads staying up all night to catch the morning train and ferry, and showed them to all the places the locals love. I though back to all of that while drawing the church, glad that it was two decades in the past.
Charleroi is not a place awash with tourists (even though the town was literally awash with cannon-sprayed football hooligans once), but there is a tourist office right here on the Place. I went in to look around, picking up some badges and a few postcards. I was suffering from the heat and so came in to cool off. I got talking to the guy working in there, talking about all the changes in Charleroi, he told me about all the new cool stuff in town, new breweries, while we also reflected sadly on the state of some of the old shopping streets. I said that I was intending on sketching the city and that I had always wanted to promote its image, being that big overlooked city in Belgium, and we talked about how the city always was and still is a place of art; Magritte of course lived round here, and then there are the comics, the famous Marcinelle School. I also said that I have been following a photographer online whose work actually inspired me to come back here, ‘Charleroi Zoom‘, they really show the best of the city. The guy was a bit shocked – it turns out that Charleroi Zoom is him! He shook my hand and couldn’t believe I had been inspired by his photos to come from California back to Charleroi, but it’s true. I was just as gobsmacked. Always nice to meet someone who loves the place. I went back out into the Place Charles II and drew, in what shade I could still stand in, the Hotel de Ville (above).
The heat was unbearable, and moving about the city was slow and ponderous. I wandered down to Parc Reine Astrid, looking a little shabbier than twenty years ago but this was where I used to come to relax and read books. On the edge of the park is a statue of the cowboy Lucky Luke, another BD hero who originated here. I thought I’d draw in pencil for a bit, it was a bit quicker in this heat. The more animated style of sketching it gave is probably appropriate for the Marcinelle School (also called the Charleroi School), which was the house style of Spirou back in the 1940s or so. This style, also called ‘comic-dynamic’ was said to be in opposition to the very precise ‘ligne claire’ style of other Belgian books books like Tintin.
I was saddened to see that Lucky Luke has really weathered a lot over the years. He used to be so shiny, but hasn’t seen a lick of paint in years. Here he is below, in 2019 (left) and 2000 (right).
Further up the road near the stadium is Boule et Bill. I didn’t sketch Spirou, also nearby, but I had to draw these two. Boule is wearing the black and white stripes of Sporting Charleroi, the local team. Of course, I ahd to visit the stadium. The last time I went there was for a game at the end of the 1999-2000 season when Charleroi drew with Anderlecht to just about stay in D1. They were never a very good team, although this season 2019-20 they have been playing brilliantly. I bought the new season’s shirt, I love my football shirts, and then walked back up to Square Hiernaux.
Square Jules Hiernaux is where I lived twenty years ago; I could see into the Charleroi stadium from my window. It’s not a square but a large roundabout – the ‘vicious circle’ I used to call it, when I would watch the Belgian drivers aggressively battle their way around it – but in the middle is yet another local BD hero, the long-tailed leopard-like creature Marsupilami. My little neighbour friend was looking good.
And here is La Vigie, the student living quarters for the Université de Travail (UT), the tower that was my home from 1999-2000. I worked as a teacher at the UT, in the attached building, during my year abroad from my French degree. It was an interesting experience living there; I remember that for months the showers were freezing cold, and we had no hot water even in the sinks. There was nowhere for me to refrigerate food or drinks so I didn’t eat a lot of dairy that year (outside of chocolate or the mayo on my frites), but I would cook pasta and noodles in the small kitchen in the basement. My neighbours were mostly from central Africa, friendly guys who would often cook spicy-smelling dinners on a little electric stove-top in the corridor, while playing Congolais music. The neighbour right next door to me however was more into Celine Dion, and would play “My Heart Will Go On” at full blast on repeat EVERY SINGLE MORNING. For MONTHS. I remember how glad I was to bring my guitar over to Charleroi to counter this musical monstrosity. I wrote a lot of songs there that year, that’s what I used to do instead of drawing. That’s what you do when you’re 23 and don’t know many people. It was an entire lifetime ago, but it looks like the building has not changed a bit, except for the new white neon sign on the roof.
I took the photo below the evening before, looking up to my old bedroom on the thirteenth floor. I really wanted to go inside, and go up to the rooftop to look out across the Caroloregion, with the giant ‘terrils’ (old slap-heaps now turned into grassy hills) dotting the landscape. I perhaps should call ahead some day and arrange this. This time though I thought I would just pop in and ask the custodian if it was ok. The door opened as someone was leaving, so I went in to ask.
But nobody was there, and it didn’t look like the custodians were working that day. It was the summertime, so they probably have a limited schedule there, while most of the students are gone. Ok, well maybe next time. I went to leave, but the door would not open. I remembered that to get in years ago you needed a little electronic badge, but you also needed it to leave the building, inexplicably. They have not changed their system in two decades, so for now I was stuck in there. The doors would not budge; I knew that from experience. Twenty years before I was stuck outside in the snow one night after returning from a work visit to Brussels, when the doors were locked while the custodians went wherever they would go. I tried everything to prise the doors open with my frozen hands, to no avail, and got into an argument with the custodians when they finally returned an hour and a half later. I wasn’t going through that again, so I just waited. Nobody was coming, it was the middle of summer. What was I going to do, stay there in the lobby all night? I couldn’t get further into the building without an electronic key so I was stuck in this small lobby. There wasn’t even anything to draw. After half an hour or so I thought I would try the door to the canteen, which I was certain would be locked like all the other doors, as it led into the main university building. To my surprise it was unlocked! I wandered into the canteen area, where years ago they would give me free dinners (of grated carrots or weak soup; I could not eat anything meaty as I was ‘le vegeterien!’). Amazingly the door from the canteen into the main university was also unlocked. I was wandering through an empty building I had not stepped foot into since my early twenties. You know when places from your past like this show up in the dream space when you sleep, morphing into those buildings you have to try and somehow get out of, well this was where I was in real life. It was surreal. I remembered my way to the main entrance, which of course was locked. I found another entrance, and that too was locked. I was still stuck, and really wanted to get on with the rest of my day. And then I remembered that years ago there was this one door in a stairwell that led outside which for some reason was often left unlocked, if I could just find it. Since nothing else here had changed over the years, maybe I had a chance? And I found it, and of course it was unlocked, and I was finally outside. Typical Charleroi, still messing me about years later. I had one more sketch to make, the Waterloo Metro entrance right outside the front door. I think I was just about done with La Vigie.
I headed back to the hotel (picking up a delicious “mitraillete de dinde” on the way from Robert La Frite) before coming back up this way to sketch La Cuve. However, La Cuve was closing early due to nobody being there, so I wandered the town a bit more, taking some pictures of the dramatic summertime sky.
There was one place I used to go that I wanted to check in on – the Irish Times Pub. I remember when this place opened in early 2000, a new pub in town that the locals made sure kept very busy. Again, it has not changed in the slightest. I had many late nights here back in 2000, so it was fun to spend time working on a bar interior after all that time sketching out in the heat. Naturally I had to give in a drink a Westmalle Triple, the beer I first tried in this very bar which I always knew was trouble, one that you definitely can’t have many of.
And that was my brief visit back to Charleroi. Definitely some mixed feelings about the old place, but it was nice to finally be back. The next morning I was to be up and away to catch the train to Amsterdam; little did I know that the intense heatwave was going to make that journey very difficult…