When we announced that we are settling down in Brussels, people said it was the dumbest idea ever, but at least they could expect Belgian chocolates for Christmas. This body is being reshaped by Brussels’s waffles, spice bread, abbey cheeses, marzipan, and midnight french-fries and mayonnaise. It’s not meshing with the wardrobe I rediscovered when I unpacked my boxes from NYC.
I’ve had to disappoint family in maintaining that no, we did not choose this town in order to pull my resident sister back into the fold. Nor am I trying to mend my family’s dreams. We’re here until we’re no longer here. We’re looking for work. I’m trying to figure out how to apply my skills to my passion for arts advocacy, and how to make a difference with that. In the meantime, I explore, I learn, I get back in shape, I impose on the patience of the Belgians, I speak French until I have a headache from the effort. I try to understand, What is cultural heritage, why does it matter, and whom is it for?
My eyes feast on Art Nouveau. The Horta lines curve, the gilded tiles on the façades highlight a Mucha bas-relief. They help the eye soar out of too-narrow grey streets and toward the even darker sky. Brussels keeps its bonhomie. When you visit us, don’t expect Paris. This is more secretive.
Each fold of land yields a gem: an abbey, the sharp blade of its steeple springing out of a green nest hidden amidst the high-rises. A gloomy medieval hollow road used by generations to walk between villages through the woods — burgs now become surrounding communes of Brussels. A foggy vale strings three ponds. Between them floats a monastery dating from the 1300s that now houses art studios.
We walk the Vallée de la Pede tucked in the rolling hills of Brussels’s countryside. The landscape has not changed much from the time that Bruegel painted it, 450 years ago. The same stream banks, the same watermill, the same church tower are visible on his canvases. In Belgium, I easily travel back in time. To the 1980s when I grew up here. To the 1920s, when Brussels bustled, to hear Brel describe it. To the religious wars of the 1500s. This place has a long, layered story. It’s a battleground for profit, ideas, faith, and dynasties. With and without a government, it has remained verdant, productive, and generous. It has welcomed me a second time, even more graciously than the first. There is nowhere else I could be.
Perhaps this is a dream, and I’m about to wake up still in Dallas, December 2018, with an hour to spare on the morning of our last exam before Christmas break. But I graduated a long time ago. I can never go back, even if it looks like I am doing just that. Brussels has moved on from 1986, and so have we, even if some wish it weren’t so.