Sunday, June 20, 2010

Chapter two - Brussels

Chapter two - Brussels

Is it wise to say I never felt a lot of love from my parents. Isn't this just the standard narcissistic dribble for many of us? Is this not an excuse for victim-hood? A line for many? What got in the way of love was religion - a right way, a perfect way, a proscribed way to be with a child. My parents were religious, to say the least, and rather than spontaneous loving, there was prescription for loving. All the bureaucracy of the right way to be got in the way.

I learned early that I was bad and sinful and needed to make amends. I was imbued me with a sense of guilt. It came with their religion, like sand with a beach. I also learned a fear, for I was constantly reminded that God was looking over my shoulder. God knew what I was thinking, knew what I was doing, even if I didn't tell. Even if they didn't know. Every hair on my head was counted. To them it meant, every sin was counted.

Guilt made all my thoughts fearful. I always felt controlled, even when alone. I was being watched, and could never get away. Fear left an ugly, permanent residue. Sitting on my father's knee through seminary classes, I got deeper sense of the importance of religion than most children. The classes were full of adults, and they were serious. These were the men that would someday save the world. It wasn't just idle chatter for them. They were going to do it. I might add that no child was going to stand in their way. I sat in the seminary classes and heard and felt the gravity.

Even as a small child, I doubted their ability to change the world. I didn't believe they could do it. I already knew what my Dad wanted to do, but he couldn't even save me. My terrors were real. His loving was more terrifying than redemptive. Their discussions were sidetracked by literalism, like how many angels could sit on the head of a pin. They got the letter of the law down pat, but they missed the spirit of it. I knew this because I lived with him. All that Bible study just made them more right, less fallible.

During the course of these studies my mother gave birth to my brother Carl and sister Janis. Now I had others to be responsible for. Any time one of them got in trouble it was my fault. I was told that If I had set a better example, what happened wouldn't have happened. They wouldn't have done it. It was burdensome to feel this. I was not only responsible for being bad myself, but somehow for them as well. I didn't want this responsibility, but it was thrust upon me anyway.

We children were just a another crop of people carrying on in original sin. This sin needed to be acknowledged at least, beaten into us through guilt and then penance. Being the eldest child was too much responsibility. I had enough trouble dealing with my own guilt.

While in seminary my Dad got the conviction that we were to be missionaries to the natives of Africa. A scary thought to me. But I knew that whatever Dad decided became law. That's the way it was in those days, and our family was no exception. I can't tell how my mother felt about it. She stayed in the background. I tried in my childish way, in vain, to make Dad see differently. I begged. But I had no clout. Family objections thrown aside, missionaries we would be.

It was 1957 and we were going to the Belgian Congo. I imagined being eaten by savages. I was young enough that I wasn't convinced that fairy tales were just that. Perhaps as children we are more in touch with our primeval fears. At the age of seven, I had certainly not learned to repress them. To go to the Congo, we first had to spend a year in Belgium. Since the Congo was a Belgian colony, we first had to qualify. Entry was not just a formality. Visas were only granted if you proved yourself serious enough to spend time in the "Mother County," and learn the language, the culture. This was discouraging to many, but not to missionaries.

Belgium preferred that Protestants not travel there. The Catholic priesthood preferred that Protestants not go there. The Congo was still a Belgian colony and Belgium was a Catholic country. They were very opposed to having protestants in the Congo, competing with the Catholic nuns and priests. But Dad was determined and so we went to a special language school in Connecticut to learn the French language. Before we left the U.S. for Belgium, we spent at least six months studying French. During this period my second sister Lancy was born.

We left from the docks of New York City, a black and white city, with tall black buildings covered with soot standing against white cloudy skies. Even the harbor water was dark, like a black and white picture. Many relatives came to see us off. They stood below us, from our view from the deck of the ship, lined up below on the pier, at the waters edge, like little statues, waving. We waved back from the deck. At least I felt important up on deck, looking down at them. I was going, I was traveling, I was adventuring. They were such small static figures.

We sailed across the Atlantic for two slow weeks. It was a frightening trip for me. I spent much of my time worrying about a brother or sister falling overboard. I was especially concerned for my little brother, Carl He was wild, and had no sense at all. He thought the railings on the side of the ship were jungle-gym bars. He did flips and stunts on them, hundreds of feet above the ocean. He hung upside down and dared me to pull him off. "I'll let go," he would yell. From my point of view, I was more concerned about my responsibility after he fell overboard. I was traumatized by the thought that I would be expected to jump in after him, to save him. I didn't think I could save him even if I did jump in after him. But if I didn't jump in after him, what would my Dad do? Kill me? It was a no win situation.

It was with great relief that I greeted the port of Rotterdam in Holland. I had made it without having to jump into the sea to rescue my little brother. Rotterdam didn't seem primitive or old, as I expected. To my childish view, the rest of the world outside the United States, was all primitive and savage. I don't know if that was due to American schooling, or if I had got Europe mixed up with Africa, but there was no way I could call this port primitive. There were all types of barges, ferries and sight seeing boats. The hustle and shear mass of activity on the water was incredible. I had to admit that America wasn't the only developed country in the world. Compared to New York, Rotterdam was a bright cheery port. But then again, the Dutch are noted for their cleanliness. Even the water seemed cleaner.

My father hired a limousine to drive us from Rotterdam to Brussels. It was a grand old car, sleek, black and shiny. It had a stately little trailer hitched behind it, just big enough for our luggage. I couldn't wait to ride in grand style through the Dutch and Belgian countryside. The chauffeur was dressed in a black uniform, and a tidy dapper chauffeur's cap. He made me feel protected, like I was in good hands. He was a big stocky Dutchman. He packed our bags, and held the door as we all piled in. We were soon on our way, zooming along countryside that was altogether foreign.

Holland was beautiful, green and flat, and the dikes we rode along gave a clear veiw of the pastures on either side. The thatched roof houses seemed warm and rustic. There were windmills with arms raised high, turning in wind. They seemed to welcome us with these big silent arms. At some point I began to count them, but there were so many I eventually gave up. We had to stop at the Belgian border to get our passports checked. I liked seeing all the official looking solders and border guards. They looked like they had things well under control. They smiled at me and I felt important. After waving us on, we crossed into Belgium, where the countryside changed almost immediately. Belgium is not as clean and cheerful like Holland, but dirty and dreary. One mile across the border the change was evident.

Belgium, unlike Holland was not bombed during the Second World War. The Belgians were run over in three days. Giving up that quickly saved their buildings. It left all the old things standing. The buildings are old and grey and unpainted. Everywhere there were old cement and stone walls, gray with age. Belgium is a country covered in mist. When it is not misty it is raining. It rains three hundred days a year. Coal smoke and mist gather together and make the cities gray. The towns smell of sulfur from the burning coal. The smoke clings to the houses. Old factories look the same as they did a century ago. Most days it rains at least some and today was no exception. We drove in the mist and then into rain.

We came upon an accident on the highway. Our chauffeur did not want to stop. He had a job to do, getting us to Brussels. He argued that stopping would interfere with his getting us to Brussels in decent time. Consider also, that his being Dutch and us being in Belgium, didn't propel him to get involved. However, my father insisted, so he stopped. The Volvo was wrapped around a tree. My father investigated and did what he could to help, but there wasn't much he could do. The driver was dead and his wife was dying. An ambulance was called and after it arrived we all proceeded. The rest of the ride to Brussels was somber and quiet.

We arrived in Brussels late in the night and we ate at a place close to the Pension where we were staying. We soon learned that kids don't drink a lot of milk in Belgium. They don't stock it pasteurized and cold. They keep it warm, boiled and bottled, so they don't have to keep it refrigerated. It tasted terrible, hardly like milk at all. I knew this augured bad times. But what else could I do? I was too learn incredible patience, soon enough. Finding an apartment in Brussels was difficult. We spent most of our search driving around in a small Volkswagen bug. We didn't look in the paper because we could hardly read it. There weren't any other missionaries there at the time to help us. We were really on our own, and it was a humbling experience. We kids were frightened seeing our Dad nervous and scared. I don't know how Dad kept going, but he did. With the five of us crunched in that little VW bug, he drove around for hours, looking for "For Rent" signs.

Most of the time I sat wedged on the hard plastic seat next to my sister Janis. She was such a baby, crying every time we stopped and were refused a lease. Lancy was the youngest and smallest so she got to sit up front on my mother's lap. Dad was not to be questioned during this ordeal, as he was getting far too irritable. He was approaching the end of his rope and it showed. I felt sorry for him, as I often did. He was always so responsible, so burdened, and so persistent. We felt like a spectacle, driving around in this foreign city, not knowing the language, looking for "Rent" signs. The people on the street would stop and stare at us, literally. Crowded into our little car, we were dirty and covered with sweat. Janis's face was tear streaked and red. She looked like an abused child. They didn't know that she almost always looked that way. She had a penchant for crying and carrying on.

Every time Dad stopped we would all be screaming to be let out. We wanted to stretch and breathe some fresh air, but he always made us stay in the car. It was very hard for us to sit still for so long. When one of us would spot a "For Rent" sign we'd yell and Dad would would go in and inquire. Mostly we were sent away because there were too many of us. Belgians typically had families with two children at the most. Many of them had dogs and no children.

After a day touring the town looking for a permanent residence, we would go back to our "pension". It was a small place in a row-house and we had two rooms. The continental breakfast was a life saver. Morning would come and before we could get down the stairs we could smell the aroma from the dinning room. What a wonderful variety of delicious French breakfast rolls they had, with jams and jellies and hot chocolate. Dad, being a true bread lover, was impressed. I imagined him living here permanently just to eat the breads and pastries. Mom and Dad would drink espresso coffee and sometimes tea.

Breakfast made me feel good even in this strange place. As soon as we were done, it was back on the road. But after the first few fruitless days of looking, we kids begged off and let dad go out on his own. We told him he might have more luck looking if we weren't along, there were so many of us. This way at least he could get a conversation going and make a good impression before he dropped the bad news of how many children he had. We stayed in our rooms and looked out the windows and played games, and counted cars.

Dad would come back for supper, tired, pale and grimy. His hands would be shaking. This always happened when he got tired and stressed. When I saw him this way I was very frightened. If my father couldn't handle the situation, what hope was there for me? But he didn't break down, and finally found a place. He was very happy and pleased with himself. I was glad to see him relaxed. He asked us if we wanted to see our new place. We could hardly wait. He took us right out, even though he hadn't eaten supper.

The landlord was an old gentlemen with snow white hair. His head shook constantly and the pipe in his mouth rattled against his teeth. His teeth were yellow but he had a great smile. I could never figure out why he rented to us. Maybe he was so wealthy that he wasn't bothered by the damage we might do. Maybe he just felt sorry for us. It was a typical Belgian row house on a cobblestone street. We had an upstairs apartment with a view of the street. Trolleys and buses and tiny European cars passed by day and night. Brussels was a busy town. Since there wasn't a yard to play in, we stayed in-doors most of the time. Carl and I spent many hours looking out the window at the street. I sat on one side and he on the other. We counted cars, buses and trolleys, to pass the time. It was soon after the war, and we saw many men savaging in the garbage cans. It made us fear being left or lost here in this town.

Across the street stood a large Cathedral. We were impressed. It was ominous, foreboding and domineering. It was particularly foreboding because it was a Catholic church. We hadn't seen any protestant churches anywhere. I felt lonely and isolated. What were we doing here? What was Dad doing here? Had he lost his mind? This was no backward, third would country where we were well received, like liberators. We watched the old ladies go in and out of the cathedral. I guess after their husbands died they needed to pray and light candles. That's what we saw when we were invited in one time. My dad accepted an invitation from a priest and we went over as a family. They knelt on their knees, lit candles and played with beads. I can remember how my scabby knees stuck to the wicker chair. We wore shorts in Belgium as that was the custom.

School in Belgium is taught in French and Flemish. I spent the whole first day walking around saying the only phrase I knew in French, "Moi Americain," which was "Me American." It took me what seemed hours just to find my class. When I got there I was starred at and talked about without understanding a single word. After a week or two I could find my way around, but that didn't help much, I still fell very quickly behind in my studies.

Especially hard was writing. In the U.S. I had started out printing the alphabet in pencil. I had just begun learning cursive penmanship before we left. But here they had started doing cursive in the first grade. And they wrote with ink pens, the old fashioned kind. The pens were dipped into inkwells at the top right hand corner of the desk. Each line had to be blotted properly. so it would not spread and smear. The black ink was permanent. I knew, because I got it all over my clothes. My ruined pants adn shirts made my parents furious. They did not have the money for new clothes, and there were no church groups here to give us any. My parents could hardly believe my tale of ink wells and dipping pens, so my dad actaully came to school and checked out the classroom. I showed him the inkwells imbeded in the desks, and I showed him the pen I had to use. Seeing that I told the truth, he still couldn't help me. I was on my own, ignorant and ashamed of being so far behind.

I was overwhelmed by the Belgian school system. I just couldn't catch on quick enough to feel competent. I felt like a failure because the Belgian students were so much better than I. They caught on so quickly. I tried, but I couldn't keep up the pace, they were just too fast. There was no way out. I couldn't run away at eight years of age in a foreign country. The system was very unforgiving and I was soon known as the American idiot. So I just doodled in class. I drew cars, planes, forests and daydreamed.

The situation got only worse because of how well my younger brother Carl was doing. Since he was just starting school he began at the same place the Belgian kids did. He started right in learning cursive and using those dip pens. He did well and learned the language very fast. This made me feel worse. My parents couldn't see the advantage he had and would compare my brother's success with my failure. They couldn't see how devastated I was. Carl just did his best. It wasn't his fault that he made me look bad.

end of Chapter two - Brussels
(rev. 6/20/2010)

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