In the late 1960s, the Catholic University of Leuven threw out all its French-speaking students and academics, in line with the social reforms sweeping Belgium at the time. Suddenly homeless, the French speakers decided to set up shop in their own part of the country. They found a field in the middle of nowhere (ie smack bang in the centre of Belgium) and solved the problem of its being on a hillside by building a sprawling multi-storey car park jutting out from the hill. Once they had shoved the necessary faculty buildings on top of that and scattered about all the usual sundries associated with a town - such as shops, cafés and plenty of cheap high-rise accommodation - Louvain-la-Neuve1, or LLN hereafter, was born and its new Catholic University of Louvain was ready for business. The entire town is owned by the university - even the cinema doubles as lecture theatres. Among other things the town boasts its own man-made lake, a sports centre, a Catholic church and more parking than you can shake a baguette at.
Yes, Louvain-la-Neuve is literally a university town on top of a car park. In certain places it is even possible to fall off the edge of the town - as one student did, to fatal effect, in the 1990s. One such point can be found in the main square, which is dominated by the Faculty of Philosophy & Letters. The faculty's clock tower chimes Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' every hour, just like the one back in Leuven. There are also loads of little squares tucked away in the concrete jungle, with modern art sculptures - such as disembodied limbs and so forth - on display. You'll need plenty of stamina to get round all of these, since most of the town's residential areas aren't near the car park section and there are an awful lot of steps to navigate when you're not on level ground. Not even a car can save you from the physical exertion caused by this excessive hilliness. The town is almost wholly pedestrianised and the only people not out of breath are the death-defying scooter riders.
A small proportion of the population in Louvain-la-Neuve live there because their work is in some way connected with the university. However, it is the town's part-time residents who dominate the town and for whom LLN is most noted.
If you're not a student, or you're not willing to pose as one, Louvain-la-Neuve really doesn't have much to offer you. If you go there for a spot of study, though, here's all you need to know about student life in the town...
With a lack of responsible adults around once lectures are over, the students really let themselves go. Thursday night is the big party night. On Fridays the students go home for the weekend as in a country the size of Belgium, home is never that far away. Many of the students are scout leaders, charged with taking their packs as far from civilization as possible and pretty often this means bringing them back to LLN. So stay away at the weekend unless you really want to be stampeded by several hordes of uniformed adolescents. Louvain-la-Neuve's many international students don't go home at the weekends, of course. But if they're not hard at work they are likely having a good time somewhere else. After all, seeing the world is what a year abroad is all about.
Kots à projet (KAPs)
The kots à projet (KAPs) act as societies. The students living in a given KAP organise activities around a theme which is their projet. There are KAPs for a range of nationalities and cultures, a few for Belgium's national obsessions - such as cartoon strips and scouting - and some which offer services, such as helping out foreign or gay students. A few favourites are the fancy dress KAP 'Kotstume' and 'NetsKAP', a sort of live-in internet café.
A cercle is a clubhouse run for students by students, and there is one for each faculty. To be initiated into a cercle, freshers (bleus) undergo months of abuse at the hands of sadistic senior students. This makes for an excellent spectator sport. At the end of the intitiation the bleus get to wear a lab coat covered in graffiti, sputum and other substances best not thought about. This coat is usually a treasured possession for life, even if it is a little smelly. There is a further initiation to allow the bleus to wear a velvety hat, and very senior students get to wear a cloak in a parody of academic dress.
Trains terminating at LLN come from nearby Ottignies and train journeys to nearby towns like Brussels or Wavre, tend to take around ten minutes less than they would by bicycle. The trains do not run very late into the night.
If you want to live it up in LLN, you need to visit between a Monday and Thursday during term time. Be sure it's not the blocus (exam/revision period) since all the public amenities close down, including the cercles. Outside of this timescale, you're better off hitching a ride elsewhere.
Belgian French has a number of idiosyncrasies. Here are some words peculiar to LLN:
|initiation ceremony for the bleus
|fresher (US: freshman)
|communal area of a kot
|to have a communal meal in the kot
|kot à projet (KAP)
|to live in a kot
(eg Tu kotes où? Where are you living?)
|student living in a given kot