Alan asked me to meet him halfway between Brussels and Paris, at a restaurant around the corner from the Lille train station. I was the first to arrive. Mirrors hung on every wall in the room. I took off my trench coat and placed my soggy umbrella on the wooden floor. The leather banquette felt like ice beneath me and I had cold feet.
I must have known what Alan was going to ask me. Or ask of me. And I feared I’d be so distracted by our reflections in those mirrors–at the two of us that became ten of us, then hundreds of us–that I wouldn’t be able to look him in the eye and give him a straight answer.
* * *
We had lived in Brussels for over a year, but I’d never been to Lille before. Alan had come down here to tour one of Biopharmaceutica’s research labs, and had asked me to join him for dinner afterward. Before he left this morning he made a point of telling me, “Make sure you take the train to Lille, France–not Lille, Belgium.”
I had laughed. But Alan knew me too well. It would be just like me go north when I was supposed to go south, and instead of meeting my husband for dinner, end up stranded by myself in the wrong city.
* * *
Belgium. France. Before Alan got transferred, I stupidly thought they were like the United States and Canada–different flags, almost-same country. I pictured Brussels as Paris without the Eiffel Tower–handsome men sitting at sidewalk cafes sipping wine and smoking Gauloises and chic women running even their most mundane errands to the corner bakery or supermarché in Chanel suits and Hermès scarves.
I’d been disappointed when I found Belgium was more Dutch than French, and that Brussel/Bruxelles, which sat on the linguistic dividing line, was not seeped in Gallic romance. The city was all business. The Eurocrats and the men working for the dozens of engineering and chemical and pharmaceutical corporations with websites ending in .be–wore stiff blue suits, navy ties, and wingtip shoes. The women wore wool skirt suits beneath double-breasted trench coats and rubber-heeled booties. Here even children always carried black umbrellas.
Alan was fluent en français. But my French–which previously had consisted solely of singing along with Paul McCartney as he crooned Michelle, ma belle–developed at an escargot-like pace. I confused waiters and store clerks. The butcher and the fishmonger gave me annoyed looks when I stepped up to the counter. At a dinner party I made the mistake of tutoyer-ing one of Alan’s bosses and from his stern look of disapproval I feared I had cost my husband his Christmas bonus.
The whole country seemed to frown at me–at least until I discovered the Ex Pat Club. We were Southern belles and Long Island princesses and California crystal gazers married to engineers and chief operating officers and diplomats whose tours abroad would last only as long as the current presidential administration. Back home we never would have gotten to the point of tutoyer. But stranded without work permits in a country whose nickname was The Battlefield of Europe, we became the best of friends.
The Ex Pats went on weekly field trips to charming postcard-perfect towns dotted with bridges and windmills. We dodged bicycles in Bruges, marveled at the altarpiece in Ghent, and toured monasteries, breweries, and chocolate factories. Over our pain au chocolat and café au lait, we complained about the gloomy weather, the dour storekeepers, and the manure-y smell of the polders so strong it penetrated even the thick steel walls of the Eurostar trains as they hurtled us north toward Amsterdam or south toward Paris. We talked, way too much, about how we wanted to go home.
“My only ticket back,” one wife said, “is divorce.”
I adored Alan and would never dream of leaving him. So each morning when I woke I told myself living in Brussels was an adventure. But then I stepped outside and the sky was gray and the rain came down in sheets on the cobblestones and I thought to myself, they don’t call this the lowlands for nothing.
“We’ll give Europe a year,” Alan had said–eighteen months ago. Long enough for the surly charwoman who always seemed to be sweeping our front steps to finally acknowledge me with a grudging, “Bonjour, Madame.” Long enough for Alan to switch over from his plastic frames to what I thought of as “European eyeglasses.” Long enough so that the other day I heard myself answering the phone in French.
At this point, I might as well take a shovel, push past all the tourists and their selfie sticks blocking the corner of the Rue du Chêne, and dig a grave for my American self under that foolish fountain of the little boy peeing. Oh, what did it say about my adopted country that the rest of the world wanted to reduce Belgium to three things: chocolate, waffles, and Mannequin Pis?
* * *
When Alan came in, he swooped down and gave me a kiss on the cheek, took off his scarf and trench coat, and sat on the opposite banquette.
“How did your tour go?” I asked.
Went where? I wanted to ask. But then the waiter–who up until this point had been content to ignore l’Américaine sitting by herself in the corner–hustled over to attend to my husband in his navy suit and European eyeglasses.
Alan and the waiter exchanged half-recognizable words about the wine selection and evening specials.
“Et pour vous, Madame?” the waiter asked.
This was the moment when I usually clutched up, looked over at Alan, and silently begged him, Can you please tell the waiter I want. . . . ?
But now I looked at the chalkboard over the bar where the menu was written in elaborate cursive, and out of some urge I didn’t fully understand, I ordered the national dish of Belgium: steak frites.
* * *
I should have known better than to order a Belgian dish on the other side of the border. The steak was rubbery and the fries soggy–which didn’t keep Alan, who had ordered the much healthier second national dish of Belgium, steamed mussels, from stealing half of them.
The waiter cleared our plates. Finally came the time when–had we been real Europeans–Alan would have taken out a pack of cigarettes and lit up. Instead, he took off his silver eyeglasses and wiped the lenses with his handkerchief.
I gave off a nervous laugh. “I’m not sure I like the sound of that, Alan.”
“Mais écoute moi bien.” He put his glasses back on. “I’ve been asked to stay.”
“Another year?” I asked.
I closed my eyes for a moment. It was just as I thought–and just as it should be, given how hard working and conscientious and indispensible Alan had made himself to his company. Of course they wanted him to stay.
The question was: did I?
The answer ripped me in half. On the one hand, I was so homesick it hurt. I missed hot dogs and lobster rolls and signs in supermarkets that screamed BUY ONE, GET ONE FREE! I wanted to eat my French fries with ketchup, not mayonnaise. I longed to roam the Rubbermaid aisle at Wal-Mart and to say “you” without pausing to consider which version of “you” was the right one. I wanted my money to be green and my coins to bear the heads of Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln. I wanted my children–when I had them–to say yes, ma’am instead of oui, Madame. I wanted their flag to be red, white, and blue instead of black, red, and yellow. I wanted to read them The Adventures of Curious George instead of Les aventures de Tintin.
I wanted to shove my passport in a drawer and go back to who I was–who we were–before we came here. And yet I knew I would ache for Europe if I left it. No sooner would I land in the states would I think: oh, give me a good windmill, creamy white buildings that look like castles, kebab joints and waffle stands and cobblestone streets! I would miss my morning bonjour from the surly charwoman. I might even miss Mannequin Pis.
I opened my eyes and saw us–dozens of us–reflected in the restaurant mirrors. Then I looked down at the battered wooden table and saw that Alan hadn’t just reached for my hand. He had taken both of my hands in his and was holding on so tightly his pulse thrummed through my knuckles.
If this were a movie, now would be the moment when Jacques Brel would begin to mournfully intone Ne me quitte pas. Alan–no, mon cher Alain–would implore me never to leave him. He would ask me to be the shadow of his shadow and promise to bring me pearls of rain from countries where it never rained.
I could have told him–no, begged him–Let’s go back. Instead I said, “Let’s go home.”
“Home-home?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Chez nous. Where we belong.”