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.

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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*