Haven’t Forgotten

I’m working in Purgatory.

Purgatory, in case you were wondering, is beige. It’s beige and there is no art on the walls. There is, however, a camera that watches how often you get up from your desk, measures the time of your stretches, and calculates how long it takes for you to use the restroom.

For all that China drained me and made me sad, at least there I could hop on my scooter in the afternoon and go driving on my own. Not at this place. I’ve found a job that requires me to do the exact same thing every day. I mean that literally – the exact same task everyday. I’m working on a white collar assembly line, and nothing is expected of me except to fall in line and never deviate.

I thought this is what I wanted. I know now that is not the case.

So, readers, this gal is taking her moxie and going to shake things loose. I feel a wind in the air that’s calling me out from this soulless, oppressing box that has not even a motivation poster to cheer me. I think it’s time to smell the wind, chart the stars, and move on.

Wish me luck!

Not forgotten

I haven’t forgotten you.

I’ve made a mistake and now work in a writer’s sweatshop. It’s hard to find time to think for oneself, let alone write it down. I’ll do better. I should also write this on my other blog…and my journal is suffering too.

We make miscalculations. Mine has been going on for three months.

Three months of regulated bathroom breaks.

Three months of being monitored by cameras.

Three months of writing thousands of words every day, and being told I’m not a good writer because I left the date off a letter, and have a tendency to use “dramatic” words.

Three months of not exercising, writing, creating, or doing anything other than going to work and working.

So it goes, according to Vonnegut. I think perhaps I need to make a change.

SO DON’T LEAVE!
Things are about to get interesting again…….

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.

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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 Ancestry.com 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 ancestry.com 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 parking...storage 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.

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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?

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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