When I was 15, we moved from Germany to Belgium. I was completely against the entire endeavor, and made my statement by refusing to enjoy any moment of the adventure, at least outwardly. My parents, of course, simply smiled and said, "We're sure you'll find something you love here."
We went with my parents on a little search to find a rental, we four girls who were not yet escaped to college, plus the oldest, Liz, who had escaped from college for a while. I quietly surveyed the emerald green countryside and beautiful old European homes as we drove, trying not to give my parents the gift of a small smile that was struggling to come out. We stopped at the house of a very tiny, very French old lady named Madame DuPont. It became obvious right away that she was a shrewd businesswoman, determined to get the money she wanted for her duplex. My parents talked back and forth with her for a little, got the keys to her duplex, and we drove on to go inspect it.
As we pulled into the little village of Erbaut, my heart was surreptitiously singing. Here were old houses, weird little corners, secret pockets of interest and history. I could imagine myself in some bust-enhancing corseted dress, feeding the horses, cows, and sheep. I was deliriously daydreaming. We turned onto the street where the duplex was, and I couldn't help but gasp. To our right was a beautiful, spooky old church, complete with a graveyard. And just a little ways past was a forest with a stream riddling through. A forest of tall, green trees, past the end of which was a field of unbearably open nature. I was mentally running through that field (in my busty dress) when we pulled up to the duplex.
A dark red garage, a mustard yellow front. A wrought-iron fence, stone walkway, and stone fountain. A dark red door. I was in silent heaven, though I'm sure my parents heard my glee. We put the key in the lock and walked in. My parents laughed, and I felt as giddy as if I'd just received my first kiss. This was a house.....the floor was hard and cold and painted with beautiful designs. (Marble? I don't know.) The doors were dark painted wood, with mottled-glass inserts. On the right were double-doors leading to what would ordinarily be called the living room, but which I deemed the ballroom.
It was enormous. One huge window faced the street, which was old and cobblestone-ish. I was transported to another time, some other time when I didn't have to move every two years and could show off my budding fourteen-year-old bosom in a corseted dress, entertaining guests in our ballroom, living on bread and cheese and wine and escargots.
My parents left me and my oldest sister, Liz, to quietly enjoy the living room together. We weren't quiet, though. The room was full of drama, and immediately she and I began a little soap opera together, with me turning to the window and with a grieving sob, saying, "Katherine, I just can't do this anymore." Liz played along perfectly. Liz, who was 20, but could still play with the oblivion of a daydreaming fifteen-year-old girl. She slipped into her role perfectly. "But....but....I don't understand! Why, Klevin? Why?!" Her tortured words rang out and rested in the sunlit air for a minute before I turned and shouted with laughter, "Klevin?! WHAT kind of name is that?!" And by the time the rest of the family was done touring the house, we were still standing there laughing, with tears rolling down our cheeks.
Our parents walked in, and my dad said triumphantly, "Well! You've decided to break your silence, have you? This house is pretty ridiculous, isn't it?" I immediately rose to its defense, partially mad to have had him discover me laughing when I was very busy being mad at him and his Army career.
I said, panicky, "I love this house! What do you mean, it's ridiculous? I want it! We have to rent it, Dad, we have to!" (Oh, my fifteen-years-old drama.) He beckoned for me, smiling, to come tour the rest of the house. It was no use. The things that made my parents groan or laugh out loud were only beautiful and charming and fairy-tale to me.
The narrow, steep staircase....the rocket-looking shower in the huge bathroom, which was actually two small bathrooms right next to each other. The windows that were near floor-level. The seventies-green carpet, the wallpaper that was surely fifty years old. The strange locks and strange doorknobs, the slanted walls in the back-bedroom. The two steps down into the kitchen, which was mint-ice-cream green, complete with a little bathroom, too. The laundry room that seemed to belong in a horror film. And the backyard, which I would have been torn from with screams and gut-wrenching pleas, had my parents not decided to humor us girls, who had been thoroughly romanced by this weird old house.
The backyard. A long stretch of grass with a stone pathway leading through some secret stone wall; trees that would bloom with wisteria, and honeysuckle bushes; a pond, which was filled two feet up with fetid water, but which had a stone bench nearby underneath the overhang of the wisteria tree. This backyard was made for daydreaming girls. A statue of some winged god perched obvious and naked in the green grassy part of the yard. We speculated about future outfits for him, and went through the doorway in the stone wall. I was immediately lost in my daydreams, no longer surrounded by my four sisters. It was weed-clogged and somewhat deadened, but held four benches and five trees, and I could picture myself under each one, kissing some beautiful boy. Just beyond this stone-walled secret garden was a section full of mostly nothing, but with a wire fence on one side. I knew that I could easily spy on the neighbors through that fence. In fact, I did spy on my neighbors through that fence--a very old couple. The woman was almost deaf, so we'd hear her calling in French to her husband. One day, I spied him in his yard, feeding birds. He spoke tenderly to them and let them eat the seeds out of his hands, and while I hid and watched, spellbound and holding my breath, he said softly, "Ah, ma petite famille...." His little family. I didn't let out my breath until he walked into his house, and then wept because it was just too beautiful.
The house was perfect.
With all its hilarious imperfections, nonsensical features, and old nature, this house was exactly the balm I needed. My parents smiled in good-natured defeat and returned to Madame DuPont, who was shocked to hear that anything had been even slightly unsatisfactory to my parents. Perhaps she, too, had been won over by the romance of this ridiculous house, imagining herself in the same dress with the same boys and the same beautiful life.
The back-bedroom with sloping ceiling/wall became mine. It was the smallest, but I didn't have to share. There were two huge bedrooms along with it on the top floor, each of which was shared by the older girls and the younger girls. I liked my hideaway, liked that I could hear the neighbors yelling to each other--and loved, most of all, my view from my window. From up there I could see our backyard, and the open field stretching beyond. I could clearly view my neighbors left and right, and I could watch my sisters in the yard below.
Soon after moving in, we discovered the garage attic. A pull-down ladder led to the dustiest room I have ever been in. My mother let me claim it for writing purposes, sweet nurturer of romance that she is. In that attic were magazines in French, magazines from the forties and fifties. Newspapers, too, with mysterious articles, many of which I happily assumed had to do with the creepy graveyard down the street. I sat at a little desk, with light pouring in through one window and a skylight--dust-covered light, but perfect, nonetheless. Sometimes when I couldn't write anymore, I'd peek out the window at my sisters in the backyard below. In that attic, I was Elizabeth Bennett, Jo March, Jane Eyre....
I should also mention that there was a skylight in the slope-ceiling two-bathrooms-in-one lavatory upstairs. We liked to open the skylight and stand on a stool, poking out of the roof from the waist up, and shout to whoever was in the yard below, "Hey! Guess what? I'm pooping!"
I explored Erbaut with my imagination soaring, feeling quite safe in that closed little village. The forest was eventually cleared away, with me standing on the side of the road sobbing, while the Belgian workers looked on, placidly smiling. (They must have had fifteen-year-old daughters at home.) But none of its appeal left; I ventured into the graveyard by myself one very-typically-grey afternoon, and enjoyed being spooked and saddened by the tombstones. Sometimes I left wisteria picked from our tree. Sometimes I cried, feeling that I would have liked to know all these dead stories, would have liked to recognize these names written in French and Flemish.
Once, my little sister Q and I ventured into a different section of town and discovered a beautiful public courtyard, beyond which were several properties. We walked along the road, feeling that perhaps we were trespassing, when we heard a hair-raising scream. We froze, terrified into paralysis. Then my sister began to laugh, and I followed her gaze to see three peacocks in the yard to our right. Peacocks, screaming, making our limbs shake with relief and residual adrenaline.
There were open fields everywhere with cows and horses and sheep; homes that looked so old you could be sure they housed Mozart's friends. On a lonely outing one day I found myself staring at a cow that was extremely close to the fence. I got as close as I dared--a foot away--and stood perfectly still, visions of possible bovine violence in mind. But it was perfectly harmless; it stuck its tongue in one nostril, out, and then into the other nostril. My laughter must have been like a shout, because it turned and walked away, probably with visions of possible human violence in mind.
We made ourselves at home. We were on everyday-pleasantry status with the neighbors across the street, who had sheep that bleated in a belching way every time we walked past; we usually told them to shut up. The winged statue in the backyard received a gift of purple underwear, sunglasses, and sometimes a jaunty hat. We became so used to him that we were momentarily confused when friends would look out the window and laugh in surprise. My attic continued to offer sanctuary, whether it meant writing stories full of intrigue and sadness, or perusing the pages of parchment-like newspapers, searching for names to match those on the tombstones down the road.
I had very few good friends while in Belgium, and our home and its surrounds were my favorite friends. Not anywhere stateside have I seen anything to compare to its charm, and it still lights my imagination on fire to remember it.