The summer I spent with the aforementioned Belgian family (see Modeling School) was the one after I’d graduated from high school, and those six weeks were full of the new and the strange, especially since I had never been outside of the U.S. before and thus was in no way worldly-wise.
The Belgian parents were in their fifties and when I was there the two daughters were probably 17 and 19. Host Mama was petite and platinum blond with leather-brown skin courtesy of the tanning bed in her boudoir; she liked to wear tight-fitting blouses and Capri pants and ring her eyes with black liner. Host Daddy was an affable Teddy-bear type, with a paunch and saggy skin under his eyes. Daughter One was big and busty, with curly honey hair and a caustic smile; Daughter Two was small and slim and sharp-faced. I liked them and felt resonances between their family and mine. But they were also so different, so European, and I did not feel at home.
The Belgians lived on a busy street in the northern Flemish town of Turnhout and ran an appliance business from the bottom floor of their building. To reach their apartment one had to enter through the store — packed to the rafters with equipment in various states of repair — to a small door at the back that opened into a cramped staircase. Every time I opened that door and went up it felt like I was Alice in Wonderland (“Just then her head struck against the roof of the hall: in fact she was now more than nine feet high”). The stairway deposited visitors in the family’s living and dining area, dominated by heavy oak furniture and doilies.
Past the dining room The Belgians had an eating nook. I often discovered the family dog lounging on the table there — it was a black Puli with the breed’s distinctive corded coat and it snarled at me every time I came near. Past the nook was a kitchen that opened onto a charming back deck. The deck overlooked a prison and sometimes as we sat outside in the afternoons eating scampi we would see prisoners weeding the lettuce. Just down the way from the family’s apartment hulked the castle of the Dukes of Brabant (circa 1100) and a bit further beyond stood a beguinage, where, Daughter One told me, rich medieval men had put their women in an effort to protect their virtue.
The Belgians treated me kindly and took me all over the immediate area. We visited Antwerp, and under the statue of the hero Silvius Brabo, who cut off the giant Antigoon‘s hand and threw it into the Scheldt River, we ate chocolates molded in the form of hands. We tiptoed around Madurodam, a miniature model of a Dutch town in The Hague. We drank many, many cups of cappuccino and countless pints of framboise (Belgian lambic raspberry beer) and we ate numerous plates of steak frites and croque-monsieurs. We trudged through pouring summer rain in southeast Belgium to visit Reuland Castle (on that particular day, I was wearing jeans and Capezio flats with suede soles. I was not a happy camper). We dropped in on The Family Grandma, somewhere in the Belgian outback; to my consternation I discovered that she kept ferrets. We drove out to a neighbor’s farm — he raised sheep and in the dark cloudy afternoon he caught one and wrestled it to the ground just so I could dig my fingers in the wool and feel the lanolin.
Staying with The Belgians exhilarated me and exhausted me at the same time. Here I was, in Europe, on my own! but there I was, in Europe, on my own, and at times the amount of energy required to interact with a new culture and an extroverted family wore me down to a nub. Throughout the visit I felt a prickly combination of freedom and constriction. Sure, I was far from home and could experiment with new versions of myself, even if just for a month-and-a-half (the Kate who smokes in European cafes; the Kate who confidently boards trains to far-flung Belgian seaside towns with her Belgian chaperone, Daughter One; the Kate who speaks passable French). But Host Mama wanted to keep me safe, and thus tended toward overprotection, so I almost never had time alone. Only once did I persuade her to let me bicycle around town, circling the castle a few times before I headed back.
My alone time came at night, when I lay in the fold-out bed in the spare room, listening to sappy rock ballads on my Walkman and pining for my boyfriend. All the pretenses fell away in the dark, and I was not a poised young adult at all. Sure, I’d felt homesick before — I was one of those kids who cried herself to sleep at summer camp for the first few days — but being on another continent gave the feeling a peculiar, echoing dimension. I didn’t want to go home early, yet I counted the days until my departure.
More than 20 years later I look back on that summer and know that when I visit a new place, I’m able to experience it more fully, without the homesick haze. A few years ago I was in Mallorca for a writing retreat, and though at times I really missed my family, I was more than able to find ways to comfort myself so that I could enjoy the experience without the flashes of panic I felt that summer in Belgium. What’s ironic, of course, is that it’s only because I took that first trip to Europe at 18 — barely self-aware, thrilled and terrified — that I can be all kinds of grown up now.