Last night we went to dinner at a chef friend‘s house. There were ten of us in total; five of whom I’d never met before. During pre-meal cocktails (which reminds me, I need to go shopping) we exchanged some basic personal information, including, as is normal in gatherings in Brussels, a potted history of where we came from, where we’d lived before, and what we were doing in Brussels (six of the ten present, myself included, were immigrants to Belgium).
Then one of the native Belgians, a lady probably in her late 50s or early 60s, mentioned that her maternal grandmother was Russian (at first I thought she’d said “mother” but that doesn’t fit with the timeline so maybe I misheard and she actually said “grandmother”). Apparently she had been smuggled out of the country aged three during the upheavals of the Russian revolution and sent to live in the safety of a Belgian convent. She spent the rest of her life here, never spoke Russian, and was never able to re-establish contact with any of her family back in Russia, even assuming they’d survived. There was no paper trail and any contact with the authorities hit a brick wall.
What struck me about this was how much I take for granted that my ancestors, as far back as records exist (which in my case is several hundred years) are known. I have names, in some cases photographs, and in a handful of cases living memories through my mother. But for this lady there was nothing prior to the two previous generations. Her grandmother had started from scratch; a refugee orphan cut off from her culture, history and family.
How many of the child refugees from places like Syria will have similar experiences now? Parents dead or lost during civil war or during their flight across Europe in search of safety, their memories hazy and fading, they’ll have to hope that they’ll be given the opportunity to make a new life for themselves elsewhere, to create a new history and a sense of cultural identity.
Compare and contrast: Last Saturday I went to a friend’s birthday party. I had a few beers and got home around 1:30. I slept until 5:30, then woke with a pounding head. I was awake until 7:30 when I was sick. The pain was sharp, located in a precise spot just at the base of my skull, and impervious to Paracetomol. The usual “never again” thoughts passed through my head. Now when I’d had the drinks (although they were stronger than I’d anticipated) I knew that a certain quantity would be enough to have this effect the next day. But somehow that’s never enough to stop you.
Then yesterday I took my kids for vaccinations in anticipation of our trip to Sri Lanka at the end of December. One of them in particular was very upset about the idea of a small amount of brief pain, even knowing that it would be over in a matter of seconds. The suffering, at least in terms of physical pain, was much less than mine, and yet the emotional stress was that much greater. It’s like the opposite of those old “delayed gratification” experiments. We’re more upset at the idea of a little pain right now than the strong possibility of maybe even greater pain in the future (even if only a few hours in the future).
My kids take the school bus every weekday morning. It picks them up from the end of our road and, traffic permitting, they’re at school 15-20 minutes later. I’d let them go to the bus stop on their own but our youngest is still only 5.
If the weather is too inclement for cycling I then take the metro. There are often children sat around me on the metro making their way to various other schools across town. Most of them spend their time studying or revising for tests; quizzing each other on Flemish or English vocabulary and grammar. I resist the temptation to help them with their English homework.
I attended two different schools as a child. The first was a ten minute walk from home so I managed that on foot alone. From age twelve onwards I attended another school on the other side of town. This involved taking a public bus from the end of my road into the centre of town and then changing there onto another bus to the other side of town to where the school was located. No one else from my school lived in my area so I never saw any classmates on my journey. I don’t remember ever doing homework on the bus. I think I probably just stared out of the window.
There was a recent film about the journey children in different countries across Africa and Asia make in order to get to school. I missed it in the cinema but just found it on YouTube. I’ll show it to the kids one of these days as I’m sure they’d find it interesting.
Last night I spent two hours sat in a bar, alone. I don’t just mean that I didn’t have any drinking companions: I mean I was the only one there.
I’d taken my daughter to her stage musical rehearsal. Usually this happens on a Tuesday night but because of Armistice Day they shifted the date, which also meant using a different location for a change, so we found ourselves in the cultural centre of a small town half an hour east of Brussels. Like our usual location the centre had a bar. The difference this time was the the bar was on the ground floor and the stage was on the top floor, so I was the only one who stayed down there while everyone else stayed upstairs singing and dancing, only occasionally coming down to buy a drink and take it back upstairs.
I had a good book to keep me company, but still something about the place’s ambiance kept distracting me. In many respects it’s a typical Belgian café/bar. Not one of those places that attracts the tourists because it has 300 beers on tap, but one of the plainer neighbourhood bars which cater almost exclusively to locals, run by an elderly man or woman, decorated in varying shades of 1970s-era brown.
The barman spent most of his time pottering around in the kitchen at the back, although at one point he sat down at one of the tables, coughed repeatedly for about ten minutes, and then leant on the table as if to have a brief nap. Later a friend of his came in and all of a sudden he came to life and became garrulous and gregarious.
We have one of these bars at the end of our street. I only went in there once; just after we’d moved into our house. Everyone stopped talking and turned around to look at me, and the lady behind the bar eyed me with barely-concealed contempt. I haven’t been back since, although whenever I pass by, whatever the hour, I see guys inside nursing their pints, playing on the fruit machine. Some evenings I see one of them stagger out the door and weave his way up our street.
Some time back I found a website full of great photos of this kind of bar and I posted it to Facebook, but Facebook makes it very difficult to search back through your own timeline to find things again, so you’ll have to make do with the iPhone pic below of the seat and wall behind me. If I find that link again I’ll post it here.
EDIT: found it!
I was sat in the work canteen, eating my lunch while reading a book about English habits. Specifically I was reading the section on how the English are reluctant to strike up conversations with strangers, except under certain special circumstances.
I put the book down so as to cut up my food and the man sat opposite me – an Englishman, no less – noticed the title of the book and started asking me about it. We chatted for some twenty minutes, comparing experiences as English expats and noting cultural differences. Maybe we’re exceptions to those rules to some extent, due to having spent prolonged periods abroad and having been contaminated with foreignness, but still, the irony of the timing couldn’t have been better.
Had dinner in Bouchéry last night. Decided at the last minute that I couldn’t be bothered to take any photos. That maybe, just maybe I don’t need to document all my meals.
Well, I did take a photo of the menu, but only because once we’d ordered they took it away and I wanted to be able to refer to it and remind myself what was coming next.
The first two courses were the best; the last two slightly disappointing.
In the small and intimate dining room we were sat next to two middle-aged English men who spent the evening discussing the music industry in great detail. At the table across from us sat a young woman who seemed to be there for no other reason than to chat and laugh with the waitress (friend, girlfriend?), play with her phone, and occasionally take small bites from a small plate of cheese and salad. I guess she felt she had to order something to justify occupying a table.
I took a second, final photo of the restaurant’s business card, because I liked the textures.
Queueing at security in Charleroi airport. A kerfuffle up ahead, and suddenly a man who’s already been through the scanners comes bursting out, running past us and back into the airport. Security guards shout after him that he can’t go back once he’s been through the checks, but he ignores them and disappears into the terminal.
A couple of minutes later he comes back to the queue, notably in less of a hurry and looking a little peeved. When asked by the security staff to explain himself, he says that after going through the scanners he suddenly realised that he’d left his iPad in the toilets outside, so he ran back to get it. It wasn’t there any more…
By the way, my wife just bought an iPad.