The Leuven Hundreds

Portraits of a city's people, today

We’ve joined forces with Leuven to highlight 100 local people, places and projects that contribute towards making the city what it is today. From artists and architects to producers and professors, these are the driving forces powering Leuven forward one ingenious initiative at a time.

Carmien Michels

Carmien Michels

Author and performer (1990)

Can you describe what you do?

I’m an author and performer, originally from the Matadi neighbourhood in Heverlee. I’m currently living in Antwerp, but still have a lot of ties to Leuven: my family and friends from school and youth organisations, of course, but I’m also quite rooted in Leuven’s cultural and literary networks. At the moment I’m M-Museum’s official resident storyteller, but I also often collaborate with 30CC and other organisations based at OPEK. I’ve had various stints hosting, and often present my new published works, but perhaps I’m most well-known as last year’s European Poetry Slam champion. Several years ago, I ran many workshops for organisations such as Urban Woorden, WiSPER and Artforum – but nowadays most of my time is committed to performing. I also teach for various social or community projects, like those which address the needs of migrant newcomers. I love to mix a lot of jobs and disciplines, and thoroughly enjoy collaborating with other artists.

How do you perceive Leuven?

To be entirely honest, when I was young I had quite a negative perception of the city. It felt like too much of a “safe place”, and a very predictable one at that. I didn’t like the massive student events held during the week, nor the emptiness of the streets on weekends. I felt quite trapped by it all. I love the city more now though, since I don’t live here anymore. A lot has changed; and I’m certain it’s mainly my own perception and reflection on life which has evolved. In the last ten years the city has grown quickly in diverse ways, and its qualities have multiplied. Leuven Klimaatneutraal, for example, is an ecological initiative which represents the ambitions of a small city to make a difference in our polluted world. Leuven Leest marks the city on the map, as a proud ambassador of culture and literature. Leuven MindGate combines companies and initiatives from the region, who are health, high-tech and creative world leaders in their own rights. And of course, you have a lot of cultural hotspots popping up in the city landscape, like OPEK. Leuven is innovative and sizzling, and I’m very proud of its commitment to social issues, the environment and its cultural scene.

What would you say is Leuven’s main appeal as a city?

I just love hearing the older generation speaking in local Leuven dialect. As an artist, it’s also rewarding to perform in Leuven, because the public here is always attentive, interested and enthusiastic. Foreigners visiting the city always note the same things: its beauty and pleasant locals.

Leuven is innovative and sizzling, and I’m very proud of its commitment to social issues, the environment and its cultural scene.

How has Leuven contributed to making you who you are today? What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?

Although I have spent the last decade in Antwerp, Leuven has always given me a huge amount of support, from my very first steps onto the stage. After my first novel was published, my former neighbours went from door to door to promote it. I even heard of neighbours asking in local bookstores why my books were not presented in their window-fronts. Also, a lot of the previously mentioned cultural organisations provided me with some challenges to overcome. Over the last few years, I’ve received quite a lot of recognition and offers from said organisations and city delegates. Leuven is a modest city – but at the same time it’s also very proud of its offspring.

On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?

Leuven is a wealthy city: because of the University and the high-tech industry, it appeals to those who can afford to live in the lovely and green inner-city. For instance, I didn’t exactly meet many people with a weaker socio-economic background during my time at my alma mater Paridaens. And like so many other attractive cities in the world, the housing prices are very high. For a lot of young families, artists and impoverished in general people, it’s simply not an option to buy one of the nice new flats in the Vaartkom neighbourhood. Leuven’s big challenge is to close this gap between the affluent and poverty-stricken; to include all the different layers of society in each neighbourhood, school and cultural space; and to find a way to make the housing prices of the city democratic again.

If you had to take out-of-towners to one place that truly symbolises the city, what would it be?

I would certainly take them to the Park Abbey in Heverlee, because of its picturesque old buildings and biodiversity all around its lakes. I grew up in its vicinity, and spent a lot of time in and around the Abbey: playing hide and seek at birthday parties, walks with my grandparents, school play rehearsals with classmates, morning jogs around the lakes… The cemetery in the park is also the resting place of some people from my childhood, so it holds a lot of meaning on a more personal level too. A visit to the restaurant De Abdijmolen – with its exquisite views – is also an absolute must. Overall, the Park Abbey symbolises the old character of Leuven city, just like the beguinages found in the inner-city do. In the evening, I would bring visitors to some newer neighbourhoods, like the aforementioned Vaartkom, to watch a theatre play by Het Nieuwstedelijk company, followed by drinks at the OPEK bar. And to top it all off, I would take them to one of the old bars in the centre of course.

That’s what I see when I think about Leuven: a city with a lot of emancipation and commitment, without having to brag about its realisations and opportunities.

A local legend, neighbourhood anecdote or urban myth that, to you, encapsulates the spirit of the city?

The myth of Fiere Margriet, or Proud Margriet is one of the most famous stories connected to Leuven. In short: during the 13th Century, a young girl named Margriet helps her uncle and aunt swap their inn venture for a modest monastery life. On their last night in the inn, some late-night travellers bundle in, asking for a meal and accommodation. Yet as fate would have it, these travellers were in fact ruthless bandits, raping women and killing anyone that came across their paths – and Margriet was sadly not saved from this outcome. They threw her body into the Dyle river, from which a miracle was said to occur: her body floated against the stream, passing by the balcony of the Duke of Brabant, who consequentially captured and punished the bandits. From then on, Margriet was honoured and commemorated, and was even beatified by the Pope himself in 1902.

Although it’s a rather cruel story, I see correlations with the city itself – specifically, its Roman Catholicism. Leuven in general is soaked in Roman Catholic history – one just needs to consider the countless chapels and churches in the city. The hospitality of the city, with its open doors for students and researchers from other cities and abroad, is also reflected in the inn owned by Margriet’s aunt and uncle. I tend to think of Leuven as quite a safe haven – perhaps thanks to my carefree childhood – whilst the bandits of the story could represent the outside world with its challenges and dangers. The figure of the young maiden Margriet is helpful, undertaking and rather modest. And that’s what I see when I think about Leuven: a city with a lot of emancipation and commitment, without having to brag about its realisations and opportunities.