Monday, September 25, 2017

Welcome Home: Belgium

Between high school and college I was a Rotary Exchange Student in Liege, Belgium. Out of any year, that is probably the one year that changed me the most. It was my first time away from my family and the familiar. It marked the end of my ever living with my parents and sisters and the family. It was the first time I had to function on my own, but with the safety net of strangers.

Somehow as the years passed, I forgot that. I forgot how important that time was to me. I forgot how important those people were to me. Perhaps it is because my daughter is nearing the age I decided it was time to return.

My trip back to Belgium was magical from before I left the States. I contacted my host sister, Sophie, who lived in New York while I lived in her room, and she invited me to stay with her family. I then reached out to my second host family and they said the timing was perfect -- they were returning from a pre-planned trip to Italy two days earlier and would love to see me.

I then put it all in their hands, along with God's hands, and for once did not micromanage or worry. I'm an adult with credit cards and a cell phone -- two items I did not possess when I met them years earlier. Two items I did not need at all this time, either.


My first host family and I at a family wedding. Glad I packed a nice dress before I left New Jersey.

 The photo my second host family sent me to introduce them to me. I have a couple of pictures with my host mom and sisters, but none with my host father. 


I stepped off from a First Class TGV car with my way too big suitcase in the brand-new Liege train station into the arms of Andre, host father number two. I don't remember telling him my car number (assigned seating), even if I had each car has two exits. I do remember this feeling of awe that this trip was going to be magical. Spoiler alert: it was!

André and his wife, Renée, drove me to their house in the countryside. The home where I lived with them for several months. He took my suitcase out of the car, which confused me because I thought I was staying with Sophie. He gave me the best gift at the moment: a chance to brush my teeth and clean up after my overnight trip from New Jersey to Iceland to France to Belgium. Sometimes it truly is the little things in life.

The house now has red accents and solar panels. The empty field next door is now a working farm, but I would recognize the house and the family anywhere. Ironically the families remember me taking way more pictures than my photo albums prove. At the time I was using a disc camera. I have no pictures of my third host family. My hunch is I ran out of film by then and poor Rotary student could not afford more. I didn't develop any of it until I came home in June.

After a simple dinner, followed by a simple dessert of chocolate (yes, they remember me well), we chatted. My French felt stronger than it did 30 years earlier when I was a high school student. My demeanor is definitely more confident. They treated me like their daughter. They filled me with love. I am already dreaming about returning so next time I can visit their daughters, grand-daughters (petite-filles, not grande-filles), and son-in-law.

They kindly drove me back into Liege where I stayed with Sophie, Christophe, and Sarah. The, too, treated me like family. Like a sister or an aunt. It was the most awesome experience I have had in a long time. Sophie and I have only met a couple of times. The first was at the airport when I was a bug-eyed 18 year old away from home for the first time. Then there was a visit a few years later when I was in college. She took me to a club where I met her boyfriend at the time (not Christophe).

That evening I slept so well. I was tired from traveling, and relaxed from knowing I was loved.

The magic continued the next day when Sophie's mother, Huguette, invited us over for lunch. Huguette has moved out of the countryside into an apartment facing the Meuse River, only a 10 minute walk from the train station. The view is intoxicating.

Not only did she invite me for lunch, she also invited Andre and Renee, giving me more precious time with them. Lunch was an assortment of fabulous cheeses and fresh bread. The kind of meal that exudes a relaxing European afternoon. She also provided pastries -- the chocolate one was for her fille de sa couer -- a very charming sentiment. The weather was perfect (a gr
âce à Jacquie). 

André and Renée took me for a quick stroll in Liege where we passed my old haunts. The school I attended. Where I collected my Rotary allowance. Probably where the Rotarians met. The bar I hung out at during lunch (I was 18, 16 was the bar hanging out age). The cathedral. Where I caught the but to go home to the second host family. Where the festival of Wallonie takes place each October (I was told to plan my trip better for next time). It was all so familiar, and yet different at the same time.

We saw the giant stairs -- montagne de BEUREN -- but did not have time to climb them. La prochaîne fois. Next time.

We met up with Huguette for a drink -- tea for me, beer for the rest of them. C'est la Belge. I felt like the child of divorce whose parents were getting along just for them. André worked with my first host father, Henri, who died about 25 years ago. The families connection was only through me, yet they spent a delightful day together just for me.

Sophie and her family picked me up for a quiet dinner en famille. Christophe normall works in Luxumbourg four days a week (a two hour drive each way), but Wednesdays he works closer to home. Sophie took the day off from work to be with me. Sarah, a charming 19 year old college student, told us about her day at school. She is studying to be a phlebotomist, or something else medically related. She drew blood from a dummy's arm that day. Having had blood drawn, I could follow the conversation.

Christophe made Liege Meatballs (it has something to do with the sauce) and frites on the stove. The last time I remember having homemade French fries was at Sophie's parents' house.

And, of course, another pastry. When in Belgium ... 

I slept well again at their house. Sarah woke early to drive me to the train station. Mme Huguette met me with even more chocolate, which Ashley and I are still savoring -- one piece at a time.

A magical ending to a magical step back in time.

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