Jane’s house in Brussels, on the prestigious Avenue Moliere, was a white townhouse with five floors. Inside and out, it was decorated with beautiful moldings and designs. It was the most beautiful house I had ever lived in. I lived on the top floor, in a big bedroom with a mattress on the floor and a large bathroom.
The moment I arrived as the nanny, Jane told me that she didn’t get custody of William that summer after all. “But I want to pay you to be my Gal Friday.” Jane was the best boss I ever had. We were friends and confidantes. Jane told me that having a baby was like “shitting a watermelon.” That I could imagine. When I gushed about the house, Jane said, “You know, it costs the same as the house in San Francisco.” The house in San Francisco was a small ranch house in the suburbs.
Jane often cried about William and I tried to comfort her.
“We’re going on vacation to Greece!” Jane announced. I was traveling to all the places in the news. There had been a riot at a sports stadium in Brussels and Reagan told Americans not to travel to Greece. Jane wanted to be with her lover and I was to travel around the country by myself visiting small towns where no one spoke English, which frightened me.
A travel agent tried to show me a map of the buses I would be taking on my travels. I couldn’t pay attention. “You’ll be fine,” Jane reassured me.
Every time I got off the local bus a swarm of young men like flies would try to get me to stay with them instead of a hotel. In one town, I liked the look of the marble lobby, although Jane had warned me that marble was so prevalent and cheap in Greece that it was like linoleum. I was taking a siesta (in Greece everyone stops work and goes home to have a large lunch, creating four traffic jams per day) when three feet of water gushed into my room. I ran down to the lobby and tried to communicate with the owner to come upstairs. Finally I grabbed her hand and led her upstairs, and she became frantic. They upgraded my room and put me on a higher floor.
I knew the symbol for alpha in Greece so I looked for buses with that symbol to get back to Athens, where I saw a leper on the street. I didn’t know lepers still existed, and he was frightening to look at. I stayed at the YMCA and immediately befriended a group of French girls, and we went out at night to the Plaka, the old section of Athens which Plato frequented. We drank and were called up on stage to dance. The American men at the next table were comparing my curvy body with the body of an extremely thin girl, and were arguing over our various attributes. As we left, I shocked the men by yelling, “I’m an American and I understood every word you said!”
When we returned to Brussels, where men did not wear sneakers but shined shoes, Jane told me she had to move back to the states. New people would be moving in. “But I told them only on the condition that you could stay on the fifth floor. I’ll give you the rest of the money in my bank account, and you can stay here until your plane leaves.” A young African American man and a girl in her 20s moved in, and we rarely saw each other. That is when I began eating cookies for dinner.
I took an intermediate French class in the morning, but I had to fill up the rest of the day. So I had this brilliant idea of putting an ad in the paper looking for people to speak french with while I would teach them English.
I met Francois in a coffee shop that sold pastries, a distinctly European place before there were any Starbucks. “Why are we meeting here?” Francois, a man in his 30s with jet black hair, neither attractive nor unattractive, asked. “This place is for old ladies.”
“Your french is horrible,” said Francoise. “You need to go to a speech therapist because your mouth and tongue are not pronouncing the French vowels.”
He picked me up every night at the house. He would berate me for not speaking French properly, then ask me about idioms in English. “We have a saying here…what is that in English?” I was at the point where I was losing my English and slowly progressing in French. He wanted me to tell him sayings my Mom always told me, like “That’s the way the cookie crumbles” and “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”
“Why don’t you work?” He would ask me over and over again. I explained in French that I was starting a teaching position in the fall at a University. “You need to get a job, ” he said.
One day we met outdoors at a cafe. I had a framboise, beer with raspberries at the bottom. Everyone in Brussels had a special implement they carried with them to crush the fruit at the bottom of their beer. Francois ordered me a strange dish, cream cheese with a whole scallion and something else I can’t remember. I began eating the scallion whole.
“Non non non” Francois screamed in French. He took my plate and minced the scallion, and went through a whole process of how to eat the dish, which I could never have known. I was getting sick of Francois.
We sat at his house watching a movie in French. He asked me to describe the movie. I had a slight idea of what it was about and told him the story. He flew into a rage. “That is not the plot of the movie! You have it all wrong!”
The next time Francois came to the door, I told him I didn’t want to see him anymore. He protested. I slammed the door in his face.
I decided to meet someone else at a cafe. As I approached, I saw a man waiting there with no eyebrows. I ran the other way. I was finished with strangers.