Brussels in winter is an eternal grey November. On a lightless Tuesday that flattens people and their shadow, my heart sings. I disappear down a sunken green-clad cobblestone road. I’m not going to the faeries, but close. I’m going to medieval school in the Forêt de Soignes, at the Rouge Cloître founded in the fourteenth century. Tucked away in a dell, shored up between two marshes in the woods, crumbles an old monastery. The footprint of the chapel, built in 1384 and burned in 1805, is still visible. From its image in the Bernard van Orley tapestries in the museum, it was a flamboyant gothic gem. The fountain, unearthed below three feet of soil, has sputtered back to life from its seventeenth century incarnation. The millhouse, straight out of a Thomas Kinkade Painter of Light® miniature, is my destiny home, though Alrik and the municipality haven’t been informed yet.
Elderly Bruxelloises are initiating me to bobbin lace and to correctly interpreting the ways of their culture. I spend days learning a cat’s cradle of cotton and linen thread, with wooly brusseleir words woven in. I have many bookmark ribbons so far but I won’t be producing tablecloths, even for recently married couples. I’ve had to lower my expectations. I don’t have fifteen years to consecrate to this full-time. I taught myself to knit, but this is different. It takes a lot more concentration, but overthink the movements and you’re lost. I’m making fast progress. Another thirteen years and I should be able to keep up a conversation while tossing the bobbins.
When everyone has arrived, exchanged news and kisses, unpacked and gotten to work on this medieval spell, we sigh collectively. We know we’re fortunate to be here and to do this, hidden away from the 20th century, let alone the 21st. The workshop in the garret of the coach house overlooks the stables and the steaming piles of soiled hay. The donkey brays and the Belgian Draft horses clomp their hooves as hikers start passing through, looking for a bathroom and hot coffee, which they won’t find. No potable water here. Let’s not mention HVAC.
Handmade lace is perhaps not well, but at least it’s alive in the Brussels and Flanders regions, thanks to the presence of the dentellieres working in the Bruxelles Grand Place until the 1990s, the curators who brought their passion for the topic to life in excellent exhibits, and the dedication of the Bruges lace museum. I’m taking charge of the communications program to let museums and curators know that the Rouge Cloître dentellieres are here to stay. It might be my entrée into the profession of cultural heritage in Belgium.
Secret treasures all over this big burg are waiting to be re-used for the benefit of brusselois, both long-timers and new communities of foreigners, many of which are school-aged. How can I tap into the burgeoning field of project management for historic sites? It struggles to interact with its concerned publics such as school groups, artists looking for space, inconvenienced neighbors, outdoors enthusiasts, at-risk youth, students of trades, crafts, and history. . . Ren Fairs all over North America attest that your family wants to spend a day basking in the drama and otherworldliness of the 16th century (minus the religious wars). Brussels has the real deal.