The day I moved in to my new flat, the landlord looked out the window onto the square and said, almost to herself, “This is a great apartment. You will never feel lonely here”. And she wasn’t wrong. Being right in the thick of all the activity and excitement in the centre of town, there’s never a dull (i.e. quiet) moment.
Despite the sweeping view of the Place Sainte Catherine and its namesake church from the bedroom window, I somehow failed to notice at first the giant bell tower immediately opposite. The first time I heard the church bells ring, I rushed to the window in excitement. I felt like a tourist in prime position!
The church bells rang again an hour later. And then again an hour after that. I soon discovered that they ring every hour, on the hour, with the number of rings corresponding to the hour (so the bells reach their peak at noon, with 12 rings). There’s also the single half-hourly bell, thrown in for good measure. And every Sunday morning at 10h15, the bells toll double-time for a whole seven minutes (I’ve timed it) – I call these “the crazy bells”, and assume these signal the beginning of Sunday mass.
A novelty at first, the bells were quickly absorbed into my daily routine, sometimes even passing unnoticed. This was also the case with the raft of sounds of the city that drift through the apartment – the groups gathering at the Mer Du Nord seafood bar in the square for lunch on weekends; the trolley cases being dragged through the cobbled pavements as guests of the hotel next door arrive for check-in; the whoosh of cars passing through the cobbled street three floors below; and the incessant beeping of council trucks as they clear the gutters and empty garbage cans in the early hours every morning.
I suppose it would be easy to be put off by all the noise (and I certainly was at first). But I find instead that the constant activity breathes life into the apartment which only adds to my experience of Brussels. My windows provide a bird’s eye view of all the activity that takes place here. And even when the curtains are drawn, I see life unfold through the sounds that drift through the apartment: the old friends catching up over oysters and wine in the square, the exhausted yet excited backpacker arriving in Brussels for the first time, the council worker earning his living to provide for his family, and the church-goers sitting in pews, waiting for the church bells to mark the beginning of mass on Sunday.
I was warned before arriving that we would be living close to church bells. I pictured a bell on top of a church like you see in the movies, with somebody short pulling on a piece of old rope every hour while bouncing off the floor, holding onto the ropes like his life depended on it. I even thought about becoming an apprentice bell ringer, and wondered what sort of training might be involved. I imagined I’d have to work my way up before actually being able to ring the bells – sweeping floors, fetching coffee, polishing the bells – but I figured it would be worth it.
When I saw the bells for the first time, I was excited. The bells are housed in a custom-made clock tower dating back to the late 19th century, complete with golden clock hands and numbers. The clock is pretty much right next to our bedroom window and after a few days you get used to the bells ringing every half hour. The longest ringing sound, lasting about five minutes, only happens when mass is about to start. It’s basically an alarm clock for congregation who are running late.
So when I had the chance to visit the church, I took the opportunity to find out more about the bells and how I might volunteer my bell-ringing services. There was a reception desk at the church entrance which was manned by a priest named Jeremie Schaub. I asked him who rang the church bells and he told me that it was automated. He explained that it was a complex system that involved programming the timing, intervals and length of the ringing. I was shattered. The bells haven’t sounded the same to me since.