The Indian summer air shimmies through the wide boulevard of the Meir – leaves on the towering trees dance. Shop lights glow in the twilight as the final shoppers are deposited, hands full of bags and eyes wide with excitement – the Saturday evening beckons. My dress bounces around my knees and high heels click on the pavement I’ve so often passed over – always pushing a stroller laden with cups, snacks, and a discarded jacket, shoe, or both. Tonight, a tiny gold purse dangles from my wrist. Freedom. I grab my husband’s suited arm and we sashay towards the building I always passed with a raised eyebrow – but never had the courage to explore with wild children in tow. With a final nudge from the Belgian winds at my back, we pass through the arched ceiling and into the Paleis op de Meir.
The golden light of the lobby wraps around us. At the foot of a luxurious curving staircase stands the welcome desk. Warm smiles and embraces are extended my direction from women I’ve only known for a few months, but it already feels much longer. The nature of expat life – a life without borders lends itself to beautiful openness of friendships. After pinning our nametags on ourselves, we ascend the carpeted winding staircase – my manicured hand gliding along the ancient wooden bannister. Beneath sculpted ceilings, I blink at the elaborate chandelier with anticipation. I hang my sweater and breathe. Wipe my hands on my new dress.
“You look great, it’s going to be great,” my husband’s breath tickles my ear.
“Oh I know, I’m just so. . . excited? nervous? So many new people. . . my first FAWCO event. . . I just. . . don’t know what to expect. . . ” and he squeezes my hand and we enter the Spiegelzaal, the Hall of Mirrors.
Three heeled steps into the hall and I freeze on the parquet floors. My jaw drops and I gaze at the opulence of the elegant room – glistening chandeliers anchor the moulded ceilings. My shocked reflection stares back at me from shining mirrors of every wall. Gold leaf highlights the sensual curves of the room. A young woman in a red dress wakes me from my fog of amazement, “Would you like your photo taken?” she asks.
“Yes! Yes, we would,” thankful for landing back in reality.
My husband and I smile, snap a few photos of our own, and head toward the center of the room. We linger and catch the attention of another wanderer – grey haired and wild-eyed, she has a smile as wide as the Atlantic Ocean. We learn she’s a FAWCO member from Germany. She asks us the standard questions, “Where are you from? What brought you here?” My husband and I answer with longish-brevity – explaining he was Dutch and born in the Netherlands, but his parents moved to the US when he was two, we had a three-year rotation in the Netherlands, returned to Texas for 18 months, now we’re back in Belgium. We lob the ball back to her side of the court.
She takes us on a journey across time zones, continents, and decades. The litany of places she’s lived in – breathed, experienced, loved – was extensive. As she illustrated every new chapter in her life, our heads leaned closer, our eyes peered deeper, and our heads nodded. At the end of her story, we all stood tall and took a deep breath. An appreciative smile tugged at the corner of my lips. I gazed at her from the tip of my nose and blinked. She was a woman of not only expat life – the true definition of courageous, strong, and defiant – but also what I am quickly learning to be a FAWCO woman – one who takes all that knowledge and energy to transform it into something more meaningful and worthwhile than her own agenda.
“So – where now, shall we find the champagne?” she squints with a devious smile, and I agree. At the very least, this woman deserves a toast.
With a flute of bubbly in my hands, I linger around the elegant hall – saying hello and kissing cheeks. A soft touch rests on my shoulder, “Let’s everyone find a seat, dinner is to be served,” and I smile back.
A flurry of excitement whips through the room as everyone adjusts their plush chairs, greets their dining partners, and nod as the waitresses fill the first glass of wine.
Under a warm glow and surrounded by appreciative applause the evening opens with a welcome from the American Women’s Club of Antwerp hostess – Marja Reunis-de Rechter. She captivates the audience with her words – the energy of the room bounces from the mirrors surrounding us. Amongst smiles and nods, a team of starched shirted men and women place plates of smoked salmon with avocado & cucumber with a dressing of curry mango before us. My husband and I smile at the pretty package on a plate and dive in. Everyone around the table nods and attempts to carry on conversation while indulging on the delicious juxtaposition of flavors before them.
The waitstaff clears the dishes and the microphone is handed to the Royal Ballet School of Antwerp and he introduces his students. His name is Alain. Each word, spoken from his lips, has been transformed by his heart. He grips the microphone, talks slowly, and blinks at the hundreds of eyes before him. With a hand on his chest, he begins his speech. His eyes pierce his audience through the glasses he wears. With measured English words, he articulates the story of his appreciation of the American Women’s Club of Antwerp – their support and generosity. Breath is held. Smiles widen. Heads tilt. He completes his speech and after thunderous applause, a beautiful girl – pencil-thin and dressed in black – approaches the open space at the front of the room. The music begins.
She is a moving work of art – she stretches, leaps and expresses herself and the music. Tiptoeing across the historic parquet floors in time to the music she paints a portrait with her body and expressions in her face. (In the meantime, I stretch my neck and shoulder muscles. Jealous of her young body. But moving on. . .)
Two boys enter the floor – Gritted Teeth, I believe he called it. The movements were the opposite of their female counterpart – intense, calculated, defined. We all blink as the muscular young boys dance underneath the glimmering chandeliers.
The performance ends and the room erupts with applause. Bouquets are presented. Bows to the audience given.
“What is guinea fowl?” I ask my co-chair sitting next to me.
“Oh, it’s like chicken, but a little richer – you’ll love it,” she winks and I nod at the meal on my plate. I feel so elegant and ignorant all at the same time, but she’s right. It’s tasty.
Before dessert Carol, the head of the Caring Hearts Project, takes the stage and she introduces a doctor from a local hospital. “I remember, many years ago. . . and the patient had a young son, around six years old or so. . . and I had to tell him his mother was sick. He screamed and hid from the ‘man in the white coat’, from then on. . . I never wore my white coat when I had to talk to people,” and tears brimmed at my eyes. Carol spoke about the starkness of the rooms which good or bad news was delivered – it seems like such a simple thing, but it’s so significant. The doctor spoke of creating a children’s’ corner his lounge. My husband and I cast sideways glances at each other. Everything with children is difficult – from grocery shopping to talking on the phone – our hearts broke at the thought of receiving and processing terrible news while indifferent children beg for attention. We nod a silent approval.
A check, for 10,000 euros is presented to him by the club’s President, Kanika Holloway, and the cheers and applause fills the beautiful room.
“Do they know what a check is, in Belgium?” my husband whispers in my ear and I elbow him in the ribs.
Dessert is served – Dame blanche – and our already-full-bellies make room for the icecream and chocolate.
The room swells with laughter and camaraderie. Women throw their heads back with smiles spanning their faces, lean into each other’s ears, and dance fingertips on each others’ arms. The evening concludes with well wishes – promises of visits to Spain or Germany and a swap of business cards between the men.
As I descend the spiral staircase into the warm glow of the lobby, I am caught by the beauty of a statue. A woman – with a baby in her arms and a child tugging at her leg stands in marble between the windows of the evening. I smile, snap a photo and nod. A woman’s position is complex – an unrelenting desire to care for others, more than ourselves – but her expression on her face was calm, peaceful, and elegant. Arm in arm, my husband and step into the Antwerp evening and wave our goodbyes to the guard. As the wind once again caresses my heeled bare legs, I turn around to cast a final glance at the Paleis and smile. Inspired by the beauty of the evening, we click our heels down the Mier, towards the cathedral of the Antwerp Train Station. From here, the messages, hopes, and inspiration of the evening will be cast into the world.