How do you prefer to be groped…?

It’s the wrong verb.

That’s what is scratching at the back of my brain throughout this alcohol lubricated conversation. It’s a housewarming party in the suburbs around Brussels, at a gorgeous house of an acquaintance in the small town of Lustin.


Seriously – movie quality home.

And we’ve all been drinking a little bit, the Europeans and the visiting Americans. They’re rolling their own cigarettes and have themselves decoratively draped over lawn furniture like so many Ikea mannequins. I have this theory that Europeans, especially French speakers, like to see what American limits are in terms of conversation topics. To see if we’re as Puritanical as our stereotypes make us out to be. Then again, it could be because I am a woman, and love to talk. Who knows the inner workings of the human mind…?

That is why, in the setting sun on the hillsides, full of beer and/or wine and sausages, I find myself discussing the nuances of breast fondling.

It didn’t start there. First I got ribbed for going to Charleroi. The general consensus is that I’m very foolish to think that 1.) I would find anything of interest in a poor town like Charleroi and 2.) That I thought I would find anything about my family. I explain that I did not anticipate meeting family out of the blue, but that I wanted to see where my family lived. This prompts some more gibes about being from Charleroi. To any of my readers who have a less than savory neighborhood around their city, imagine being teased for being from there.

Charleroi – first you tear down my ancestral home to build a shed, and now you don’t have the decency to have a good reputation!

But back to the breasts. I’m not sure how we got there, really. I just assume that because there were Americans present the Europeans decided to see if they could make us blush. Jokes on them (not really – I would have ducked out if things got too raunchy or uncomfortable. It makes me sound a heck of a lot cooler if I don’t admit that though.)!

I’m trying to keep things clean – as clean as possible. I am, after all, and ESL certified teacher. English vocabulary is one of my strong points, and the nuances of the language appeal very much to my writer’s sensibilities. The two gentlemen in question – and to a lesser extent, the three women with us – are trying to get information on the proper way to touch a woman’s breasts. Surely, we are all unique?

Yes, the woman from Antwerp prefers the underside.
Yes, the woman from Brussels prefers the top.
(You don’t get to know mine unless you get to know me and I deem you worthy.)

But ultimately, under it all, there’s something bothering me about the whole conversation. It’s not that the questions are intimate, or that they’re very forward for casual acquaintances. I actually think it’s best to discuss intimacy with acquaintances, since you are unlikely to see them again and don’t have to worry about such revelations coming back to haunt you.

No, it’s the word, or to be more specific, the verb. See, the men keep using the verb “groped” as though it’s a good thing. No one has explained to them that when one “gropes” one is searching for something they can’t find, most usually in the dark. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you grope about. A woman who is groped is often groped without her permission, by some jerk (male or female) hoping to grab a bit of mammary.

For all you ESL students, “to grope” can have a negative connotation when applied to the human body. It implies – heavily – that you don’t know what you’re doing.

Better verbs for describing what you would do, once given permission of course, include:to stroke, to fondle, to caress, or even to touch. These are, in my opinion, better words, and as such convey a far more romantic idea than groping, which is what that one man did to me on a tram once. That memory is not a pleasant one.

Back to the backyard discussion – I eventually reach the above conclusion, that it’s the verb that makes the idea unattractive. This leads to a raucous series of miming verbs, where I try to pantomime groping, and they in turn provide very unattractive interpretations of touching a woman’s chest. Laughs are had by all. One of the men (who I learn later is the mistress [note: I need to find out if the male concubine is called a mistress. It’s not a gigolo because he’s not getting paid] of one of the women) proves his sophistication is really an act because he’s giggling like a young boy as we, the women both European and American, lament the fact that these are the reasons we are dissatisfied with the state of affairs.

So much more entertaining than teaching adverbs to teenagers, though….

I hitch a ride back with one of the men, who turns out to be a complete gentleman. He neither fondled nor groped me, and it was just the two of us and a long ride to Brussels and a full moon and everything. Eh voila!

So it is past midnight for the second night in my brief stay in Belgium. Jet lag and general fatigue are wrestling about in my bloodstream. I’m either faking being awake, or I’m dead asleep. The bed doesn’t care one way or the other, and at this point neither do I.

Belgium: A leaf in the windy wind

You know those ads that encourage you to follow the leaf? The stories in the commercials are often uplifting or silly. A woman discovers her grandmother helped free slaves in the Civil War. A man finds out his family was full of barbers.

Forget that – I went to Belgium to find my family roots.

The result?

They never show you an ad where a person looks into the camera and says, “It turns out, my family disappeared at some point and there are no records of them anywhere and all the ‘research’ done by an extended family member seems dubious.”

To take it further – I don’t know if anyone found their old family address, only to find that there is no house at that number – just a storage shed and an empty lot.

They paved paradise, and put up a shed...

They paved paradise, and put up a parking…storage shed…

No wonder my family left for America.

I should backtrack. After spending the morning absorbing as many Brussel’s sights as I could in the immediate area around the train station/ hotel (more on that on another post), I traveled to the city of Charleroi. I had done a little research before hand – a coal town before the war, Charleroi was a working class, blue collar sort of town. I had my maps to the address on the research . Both of them – it turns out there was a left and right bank version of the street, so I decided I’d hoof it to both.



I did not get my hopes up too high. Upon arrival I was pleasantly surprised by the cleanliness of the new train station and the history plaque of the town. But walking revealed exactly what I expected – a roughness around the edges. It makes sense – my Belgian people were machinists and coal miners. Still, as I walked by small chalets, I couldn’t help but speculate.

What if my address led to a chalet of sorts?


What if my address led to a house with a fun, artistic exterior?


What if my address led to an outdated, functional space?


Turns out, there is no answer to this great musing. Because my address did not exist anymore. What is one to feel when, upon trekking across the world to the ancestral homeland, one finds that the lot has been turned into storage?

Turns out, not much. I walked the street from one end to the other, past the Greek restaurant, up to the small plaza and locked up church. I verified the street with a nice woman who was leery of a stranger. I walked back and forth, up and down the block, double checking street signs and numbers.


No wonder my ancestors left – we were living in a garage.

But no, I was not done yet. There was, according to my research, a second Rue de la Regance in Charleroi, on the other side of the river. And so I started trekking again. Finding the center of Charleroi involved a healthy uphill climb through a far more commercial area, past shops and many a bar and café. Eventually I came to the center of the town, with its own Hotel de Ville and Cathedral. It was solid, but old and not quite beautiful. I don’t wish to sound mean, but the workaday is not a tourist attraction.

Charleroi town center.

Charleroi town center.

Up another street, another Rue, and through construction and Halal markets, love hotels and abandoned restaurants. This whole experience is not reaching rewarding levels I think, as I find the general region of where my family’s house should be. There’s a gutted three story brick front. At least I think that’s my house – there are no numbers on any of the buildings, save for a “40” a few houses up.



Thus did my adventure end with a whimper. I trudged back down the hill, sort of taking in the sights.

Not all adventures end in epic moments, or even connections. I knew that I would not find family living in those apartments. We immigrated. We left. Even my extended ancestors left Charleroi. That is not what I was looking for.

I wanted to see where I came from, to see in person where my roots started – or as close as possible. I know that I have no royal blood in my line. I know that in my more recent family history, the Belgian side of my family shunned my Grandma Bert because she was Croatian, and they thought her beneath my grandpa (who died when my father was a baby). I guess I wanted to see where they came from.

Perhaps I should have stuck to chasing leaves…

So it was that I headed back to the train station to wait for my train. I stopped at the bar and got a beer. A construction worker bought me a beer as well. He was an older man who spoke no English. I told him I would be happy to practice my French, and we sat down. He told me of his daughter, who left Charleroi to be a teacher. He was so proud of her.

The drunk woman on the other side of the bar – who I was convinced was actually a pickpocket – sidled up and started complementing my French. She switched in and out of English with her son, who looked equal parts embarrassed and engaged. She slurred her words and offered to buy me drinks. She said Hillary “deserved to win because she was a woman.” I did not point out the problems with that idea. She thanked America for helping during the war. Given France and the US’s differing stance on the current conflicts, I assume she was talking about World War II.

I had to leave to catch my train. Turns out, the bar clock was slow. I missed my train by two minutes, and had to wait an hour and a half for the next train.

And so I am here. Stuck in Charleroi, the home of my ancestors. I can drink no more beer for my wit’s sake. I will be late for the party tonight. And I will be stuck in the transfer station for another hour too.

C’est la vie!

More drinks than one girl can handle and still catch her train apparently. Didn't even get drunk *sigh*

More drinks than one girl can handle and still catch her train apparently. Didn’t even get drunk *sigh*

Belgium: Flight of Fancy

It’s been awhile since my last update. I did not write about the rest of my Mexico adventure. For this I am sorry – it was a wonderful time, and I realized that I have many reasons to be content with my life. It was powerful, but also awkward in a “well what do I do now?” kind of way.

Turns out I travel. That is usually the answer in my life. I go somewhere else and see what there is to see.

In researching my family history, I learned that we have ancestry in Belgium. I have never had a reason to go to Belgium, though my Dad and I have talked about visiting for a couple of years now. Then I learned a friend of mine was going to Brussels because a mutual acquaintance had moved to Belgium and was having a housewarming.

Student loans will be there till I die.
I will never be debt free.
So why not go to Belgium
And see what there is to see?


I presented the trip as a family history project, which is how I convinced my Dad to help me financially with getting to Belgium on short notice. I’ve done it once before – I went to London to search out the woman who corresponded with my Grandpa during World War II. That trip did not yield fruit – all I got was a cool National Archives ID and I scared a man who probably thought I was the immigration police.

This time I would do better, I thought. I have a whole binder and a bunch of useful documentation done by an extended family member. I was going to find Charleroi, Belgium, and explore the homeland of my ancestors. I surprised my friend by asking if I could crash the housewarming party – though naturally I offered to help with the set up and such. She agreed. Dad agreed. I agreed, and off I went!

And so it was I arrived in Belgium on minimal planning – the closest thing I’ve ever done to just up and going somewhere. A weekend bag, my passport, and a giant binder full of photocopies. I arrived with the dawn. My first impression was good – a mix of village and city. My hotel was in Brussels, and a very good deal for a place near the EU Parliament buildings. It all went by in a bit of a blur, which I think is true for all airport to hotel transfers. Everything blurs in highway and the backside of buildings.

On the drive over, my Taxi driver Mr. Kiss (no joke) gave me a brief introduction to the city. It was a good opportunity to warm up my French, as I haven’t spoken it in some time. We chat about the transformation of the capital, the new and old architectures vying for attention and space. He offers to be my driver for my stay, but I demure. I plan on using trains and the metro for the bulk of my travel. Also I am on a strict budget, and the luxury of a personal driver is not one in which I care to indulge.

I decided that, given the short nature of this trip, I needed to hit the ground running. So upon arrival I immediately connected to the wifi and found the hours for archives. There are several branches of the archives in Belgium, with several in Brussels, so I was a little intimidated. Luckily, through some quick research and cross-referencing, I found the archives which would most likely have information on the birth records for churches in the Charleroi area. I took photos of Google maps for my phone (which did not work in Europe) so I could find the metro, and then the archives. I downed a bottle of water, and headed out.

A good use for the cell phone when maps are not readily available.

A good use for the cell phone when maps are not readily available.

I could feel jetlag gnawing away around my edges even in the morning – a consequence of not sleeping well on the plane. But there was no time for drooping! I was on a tight schedule.

Impression of Belgian metro – relatively clean but expensive for a metro. More expensive than Paris, at least (unless Paris has upped the fares for single tickets).

With increasing bleariness I locate the Archives. They are closed for lunch. This was not mentioned on the website. I sit out in the sun by a canal and drink caffeine. This area of town seems more workaday than tourist, and there is a air of slight neglect on everything. Beer bottles and trash are tucked into corners of broken concrete, and there are the bits of graffiti here and there, but the streets and the canal waters are clear.

I’m stalling out on the bench. The pleasantly warm sun is not encouraging me to stay awake. It’s reminding me how much I love afternoon naps. There is nothing to do in the immediate area – no park or monument to distract me. No grocery or gift stores. Just a series of dark brown brick residencies built above halal shops and travel agencies. I can’t play games on my phone because I need to preserve the battery for looking at maps (I don’t plan on getting back to the hotel until late).

A small, unassuming building housing rows and rows of history

A small, unassuming building housing rows and rows of history

Now dragging instead of skipping along, I manage to make it through the hour and return to the Archives building. It is now open, and I drop off my belongings in a locker and get buzzed in. The building is low and cool. Most of the lights are off, and sunlight filters through windows along the top of the back far wall. There is no one in the space under fifty (and that’s me being generous).

There does not appear to be an information area, so I approach a white-haired man behind the only counter visible. I ask about birth records for Charleroi (I’m super proud of myself for looking up the words “birth records” in French), and show him my binder. After some back and forth, I learn that there is a gentleman going through microfilm who might be able to help me. I also learn that there is not a soul in the building who speaks a lick of English.

Normally this would not bother me – I can muddle through enough French to get my ideas across. But this would require a highly specialized vocabulary set that most French courses would not think to teach. There is no chapter in my high school (or college) French texts that contain “Useful vocabulary for researching lineage.” I looked up some key words I thought would be useful, but beyond that I’m stuck using context clues and hoping for the best.

A tall man with halitosis shows up and takes an interested look at my binder. I point to Charleroi, and then we’re off in the microfilm. It’s exciting – I haven’t used microfilm since I was a nerdy elementary school kid at the library. Microfilm has such a lovely old-timey feel to it. It won’t tell you anything itself – you must look for your information. You have to know what you want before you think to go scrolling through those rolls of film. Granted, it’s more time consuming and finicky, but I can appreciate that in research.

In the process of going through the film on the monitor, we (me and tall man) collect a curious collection of aged researchers. They look at my binder, and talk among themselves since I’m falling deeper into jet lag stupor and admitting that my French is falling along with me. They ask why I did not call ahead, why I decided to just visit instead of communicating through e-mail. I explained that the fun is in the doing. Anyone can just write back and forth these days. I like to put my hands on things. I don’t think this impresses them – I detect a note of something like bafflement. They’re totally confused as to what I think I’m doing, or why I’m going about it in such an old-fashioned way.

Don’t they understand that the point is to go out into the world to find things?

We don’t find anything. The records for the registry in my binder do not reveal anyone with my surname from the towns listed. I’m too tired to follow it fully, but it sounds like there is some debate about the spelling. Monfort vs. Montfort. Perhaps there is an error in the immigration papers? The identification of the town? Am I staying around for the week? No, just the weekend. The nice woman who has been chatting with me shakes her head. The archives are closed over the weekend. It’s a pity I’m not staying longer, but perhaps I could e-mail them my information when I get back to the United States. They’d be willing to help me search.

Ah, e-mail. Traditional overseas correspondence these days. Not hands on, but long distance requests. There’s not much else I can say to that. I know that I interrupted all of their projects. Seriously, they were all deep in their own work when I showed up. The tall man with bad breath said he could take a few minutes to help me. The lookers-on just stopped what they were doing. And then the cheerful American with her fat binder yielded no results, and their projects needed to resume. I shoved all self-centered thoughts deep down so that they wouldn’t pop out (they were very vain thoughts about fuddy-duddies and no sense of the moment).

It’s 3pm. Time to head out to meet my friend and the acquaintance.

The canal near the Metro - pretty pinwheels on both sides broke up an otherwise dull cityscape

The canal near the Metro – pretty pinwheels on both sides broke up an otherwise dull cityscape

Isla Mujeres: Whale of a Tale


That is the sound our boat makes when it crests a wave but doesn’t clear the valley to the next one, dropping hard into the valley. A gentle floating sensation is the only warning before an abrupt, hard landing. It’s been like this for the past forty-five minutes, and I’m worried. There was rain before I arrived, pushing the plankton down. The whale sharks followed, and there was some concern that they would not be resurfacing for a couple of days. In fact, sightings had been down compared to last year overall, to the point that a couple of sightseeing groups had removed their guarantees.

All this ran through my head as we sped out at 7am from the Bay of Cancun north along the island, then east out into the Caribbean Sea. We stopped to see turtles mating – awkward but also cool – but mostly it was fast travel over gentle swells. Flying fish dart out around us, gliding over waves for long stretches before disappearing into the blue. They are far more graceful than we are.

Enrique and Jesus stop every so often to listen to their radios. That’s the level of sophistication. There’s a general area where the sharks go, and then the fishermen report what they see when they go out, and the tour boats follow suit.

I’m nervous, but only generally so. I’ve planned this trip pretty well. I put the whale shark tour first thing, in case we don’t see any. That way I can plan a second outing. When attempting to complete a bucket list item, it’s probably best to have a contingency plan or two.

WHAM! My lower back snaps at me for incorrect timing as the boat makes a sudden turn eastward and the rolling gets stronger.

Our whole party grew silent about forty minutes into the trip. The young diver and I shared our favorite dive sites and stories. We politely listened to the husband describe the YouTube videos he found particularly funny, as his wife tried to gently silence him. We joked about Enrique riding the prow like a cowboy, holding the line for balance as he scanned the horizon. Now we are all slightly nervous. Isla Mujeres is no longer visible, and neither is the mainland. It occurs to me that I will get sunburn. I’m only halfway in my wetsuit, and we aren’t allowed to wear sunscreen – it disrupts the plankton.

So it is with a mind full of minor worries that Jesus gives a call and points to a growing speck – two boats growing fast. Enrique motions to don our wetsuits. I pull mine on, and my excitement fizzles around me. I feel lighter, buoyant. I haven’t felt giddy in a good long time. When the others see the sharks before me (something about which I am still dubious), I all but walk out onto the water to look. I can see why joy is dangerous. I have to mentally force myself to be mindful of the space, lest I tumble over my or one of the other swimmers bags.


The whale sharks are skimming the surface of the sea in slow motion. Giant dorsal fins swish back and forth, ineffectual in the air. Unlike whales or dolphins, their heads don’t break the water to breathe (they’re fish, not mammals). I am bouncing up and down inside – and probably outside too. I dash from one part of the boat to another. My travelling companions laugh at my childishness.

As we drift closer, Enrique announces for the first group to get ready. I start strapping on my fins. At the same moment, my “buddy” falls backwards into the water and starts off. Now, normally this is not what you do. If you have a buddy – diving, snorkeling, etc. – you both go in together, or at least in quick succession. He wanted “unobstructed” photos of the sharks. This meant he did not need my fat, bright whiteness messing up his frames. Enrique clicks his teeth in disapproval. It’s not good etiquette, and it means I must rush to catch up.

Trying to handle extreme excitement while getting rushed and trying to be mindful is confusing. I swing my legs over, mask on. I can’t quite make out where I’m expected to go, but Enrique starts shouting, “Now! Now! GO!”

And I go, and nearly land on top of a whale shark swimming towards the boat.

I don’t have time to get my camera out for an epic close up. I don’t have time to process what is happening. I have time to twist and kick. My only thought is to not bother the shark. This did not come from a place of fear, but of conservation. Whale sharks are gentle, and the idea of colliding with one violated all my naturalist principles. I guess I should have been more worried about the shark hitting me.

Liz recognizes this before I do. “Honey, look out for that tail! It’s right by you!” I get the impression of a giant tail swinging towards me – four feet of unconcerned fish tail. I give a second kick, and my ocean fins (which I’ve had for a very long time), do their job and give me distance. The shark had simply adjusted its trajectory so it was nowhere near the boat, which was already gentle moving away.


I will not lie. This is not how I pictured my transcendental moment. I had an idea in my head of a gentle entry into the water, and this giant creature swimming near me. I would have my camera ready, just in case, but I would be in so much awe that the world would stop for a moment of pure peace. I’d float in the sea and be transported.

The panic, the rush, the confusion, the lack of camera, the shouting – not exactly transcendence.

In times like these it is best to take a deep breath and refocus. I do so, blowing out saltwater through my snorkel. I’m a swimmer. I’m a diver. This is my bucket list. I am not going to let this be anything other than what I want it to be.

I put my face in the water and swim with the whale sharks.

Let me tell you, it was beautiful. Imagine a creature thirty feet long ambling by, mouth open for tiny sea creatures. They are beautiful school busses, dappled in white spots. They move with the ease of all fish, something we will never achieve no matter how much we practice. But they’re so big, the ease is almost disconcerting. Forty feet moving quickly next to you. They are faster than I thought. I have to concede in the first go around that trying to catch a whale shark is futile. They’re not only faster, but they can dive down into the blue depths and disappear.


In the second and third entries, Enrique offers to pull me along. He’s a very strong swimmer, and he wants us to get our money’s worth. I refuse at first – I’m a decent swimmer and don’t need to get right up on the sharks. But then I think it might be considered rude not to accept, so I finally accept. He is a stronger swimmer than I am, after all. And he does pull me up right along the head of a giant shark so I can take photos.

The transcendence, if I want to be precise, comes in small bouts. A brief moment where I’m not being directed to go somewhere or look at something I’m not seeing – a minute where, in the deep blue water, I can see the outline of a great whale shark swimming lazily just inside my field of vision. That’s what it looks like – they look like visions when they’re at a distance. I don’t have to be two feet from one to appreciate it. I’m happy in the silence of my own breathing and the presence of so large a creature.


And there’s the pleasant unnerving feeling that comes from not being able to see the bottom of the Sea. The world becomes so impossibly big when you can’t see the boundaries around you. Anything might be in those depths, the space in front of you which you can’t see. It’s what makes the dark basement scary – the idea of more space than we can see. Here there is nothing to hear but the faint hum of the boats and the calls of the other swimmers.

I like being made to feel small in the world. It’s comforting, in its way, to feel unimportant. It releases tension. It takes some of the pressure off to be in charge and in control.

The morning winds down, as it must. I could have stayed all day, but there are other tours and the waters are getting crowded. We head back to the island, stopping on North Beach for fruit and beer. Then back to the dive shop for a lunch of red snapper, ceviche, and guacamole. It’s been an incredible day.

I’ve been writing a lot already – I’ll pick up more tomorrow. In the meantime, the hammock is calling.


Drop in the Bucket

I have a goal in mind, a goal that has been brewing for several years now. Goals simmer in my brain for long stretches of time, and then I just do them.

Whale sharks.

When I was a child, I would read all the shark books at the library. Our county library had a great collection of individual shark books. Mako sharks, nurse sharks, thrasher sharks – I could tell you about shark attacks, shark teeth, shark eggs. This passion for dangerous fish waned as I grew older, replaced by a general interest in the ocean. My middle school health teacher convinced me I’d make a terrible marine biologist due to my chubby frame and home base in the Midwest, and because I trusted authority figures whole-heartedly I trusted him and put the ocean out of my mind. This was just before the internet, and in a small rural town – I lacked outlets and gumption. Oh, if only I were able to go back now and tell chubby little me to tell Mr. *** to suck on a rotten orange. It’d be worth the twenty punishment push-ups.

So I did other things with my life, but marine life has always been in my periphery. When the parents were stationed in Greece, I discovered SCUBA diving. It was magic. It was like being in a wall-less aquarium, with infinite possibilities (within safe dive depths, of course). Still, learning to dive was just a first step. I did not have the time in school, or the money in general, or access to locations (again) to pursue diving or the marine world in any meaningful way.

When I was in graduate school, I admired a photo in a National Geographic belonging to a friend. He gave me the page, which I thought was nice. The photo was of a whale shark, and the great fish was arched toward the surface. The sun was sort of above the creature – there might have been a diver in the shot – but both were in silhouette and the water was green – I can still see it. Looking at that photo, I sensed a check box forming in my mind.

Note: I found the photo I think. It’s of a whale shark in the Arabian Sea. Or it’s this other one of a diver and a shark. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that picture.



For eight years this check box sort of fogged around my brain. It was a cool idea, which became a longing, a wish, a goal, a plan. Then, in 2014 I learned of a whale shark festival in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. The check box solidified and refused to leave. It was now a decision. And once I reached decision, it was a matter of research and logistics.

Isla Mujeres, QR. Mexico. I am going to swim with the whale sharks.