I’ve been struggling and released. In darkness and light. Lonely and yet, never alone. This is the impact of Coronavirus in 2020.
“You know Mama, they said at school a major pandemic happens every 100 years or so,” my 10-year-old daughter told me. Really? This is news to me.
“This is the most major illness since the Spanish Flu,” a friend of mine had texted me when debating about the pros and cons of canceling the March Monthly Meeting for the American Women’s Club of Antwerp. After consulting with one of our Programs and Hospitality Directors, we canceled the meeting the night before the Thursday event. Just to be safe. They canceled school on Friday.
I awoke on the following Tuesday morning with sunlight streaming through the windows of the house I had lived in, and loved, for three and a half years. With boxes stacked in every room, I weaved through them with an oppressive feeling in my heart and chest. Vinny took the kids to school – according to the rules, if no parents were at home, they could enroll their children in school. It was a grey area of two days, in retrospect, and we did what we needed to do. Vinny dropped them off and we, along with two strapping hired Belgian men, a hired elderly gentleman, and our best Belgian buddy, moved from one house to another.
I greeted the masked, gloved movers into my home. “I guess I’m not supposed to shake your hand,” I said, and they recoiled. I understood and nodded. But wasn’t it strange? The simplicity of a greeting. Like a peanut butter sandwich in America. . . all of a sudden, a handshake is deemed. . . offensive.
On that Tuesday morning in March, the movers were more informed than us. . . “We have a friend with the police,” they told us. “He said that today was going to be the last day we work for some time.” I greeted this statement with a head tilt. And an eyebrow furrow. But I had boxes to move.
My husband and our friend Dennis carried the furniture down the stairs from the third floor to the second. I took boxes and smaller furniture to the open window on the second floor as well. We moved and we hauled. We were organized and yet, it always seems like we were still missing something. I put the most precious and fragile valuables into our car – my grandmother’s wedding crystal and china, our TVs, our sheets – and said – I’ll meet you there.
I drove the short distance into the city. It’s only a couple of miles – but crossing “the loop” is a bit of an anxiety-inducing practice but yet, a right-of-passage. What’s so funny – is that the more I travel the world, the more I realize that it’s ALL THE SAME. Back in the day, Dallas-ites didn’t want to live beyond the “loop of 635”. In San Antonio? Loop 410 defined the boundaries until 1604 came into play. So now in Antwerp . . . we moved from outside the ring to inside. And that means smaller square meters, but more. . . Charm? Culture? Access?
I weaved our European-equivalent of a family car into our neighborhood and my hands gripped the steering wheel with intensity. I took a right onto our street lined with cars on both sides. Vinny had ordered signs blocking off the narrow street – indicating that no one should park along the curb between the hours of 9 and 5, but clearly. . . this message was ignored. The signs were up, but a row of cars lined the curb outside of our house. If the cars were not moved, the elevator, which hauled our furniture up and into the second and third floors of our house, would not be able to operate. I started knocking on doors.
“Pardon, ja, ik ben jouw buur. . . , oh whatever, I’m your new neighbor – I’m trying to move into the house at 41, are any of these cars yours?”
My neighbor told me there was a Whatsapp group for the street and he posted a message for me. No one seemed to own the cars blocking my house.
The movers came with my truck-load of heavy American furniture and boxes of toys/art supplies/Christmas decorations for the basement. They surveyed the scene quickly.
“Have you called the police?” they demanded.
Shit. Like I even know HOW to do that, and really. . . is this what I need to do?!? Like I know about signs and police and how this all works, besides the fact that I’m moving houses in the middle of a pandemic and my kids are at school when school is shut down, and I’m pretty sure that not all my furniture isn’t going to fit in this cute but so-much-smaller-house in the city. . and. . . and. . . and. . . I’m at my wits end (as any woman would be!) in the middle of moving to a new house and home, and then the Belgian police situation is my responsibility?!?! OH NO. I raised my 5 foot-nothing self. I squinted up into the eyes of that tall Belgian mover and told him. “You call them.”
Marten eyed me up and down. Raised an eyebrow. I knew he has a wife and children. He’s seen this manic woman before. His eyes softened. “Oke’ I call them.” He spoke his deep wavy Flemish into the phone and it was . . . taken care of.
“I don’t think all this furniture is gonna fit,” the other Belgian mover said to me as he unloaded my endless nightstands, accent tables, and beds into my new house.
“Really? Don’t you, too,” I said to him. “This is stressful enough, don’t you make it worse,” I pointed to him. He put his arms up in surrender. I did note how much heavier American furniture is than their European counterparts. Maybe Europeans are on to something. . .
At the end of the day, we threw sandwiches at the movers and bid them farewell. Dennis put together our beds before he left. He promised, “the first thing you need is a proper bed to sleep on the night you move” and he made that happen.
I picked up my kids from school that afternoon. The Principal, well. . . she was the lady who stood up in the middle of the Christmas program and told the parents to stop clapping after every song. It was just going to take too long. A lone clap, accompanied by stifled adult giggles, lifted into the air of the church as she returned to her seat. She followed me to the gate after I’d picked up my kids. “Mevrouw! Mevrouw!” the way she says it just makes me feel like she’s saying. . . well. . . something quite rude.
“Nee, Nee, Goodbye! Have a good evening!” I said to her. Both of us pretended like we don’t understand each other. She starts speaking to my children in Flemish, which of course they respond. . . then as they slow their pace to listen to her. . . she switched to English.
“So. I saw you brought your children here today,” and I stared at her. I had been hauling boxes since 8:00 a.m. I did not know where my sheets, my toothbrush, or my wine opener was. At the time, I was responsible for two houses, both of which were in total and complete disarray. My stare-of-death pointed in her direction did nothing to phase her. She continued, “So. We are asking the parents to not drop their children off if they are at home.”
I looked her square in the eye. Just as I had with Marten earlier in the day. “That’s right. We were moving houses today. Which is hardly the ideal situation. At all. As far as being at home? You’re right. No. My husband and I were NOT at home today because WE HAVE NO HOME!” my voice raised to an unattractive pitch. But she took a step back.
“So you are moving houses? Yes? So are your children still going to be going to school here next year?” she asked, trying to call foul on a paperwork technicality.
An ocean of breath escaped my lips. “Yes, they are planning to return to the school. It was the most important factor in choosing a new home – we wanted our children to stay at the same school.” Because of the wonderful teachers, I thought. I narrowed my eyes at her.
“Well, just so you know. . . it’s very dangerous that they are at school,” she shrugged.
“Yes of course, but you know, it’s not exactly like we have a lot or. . . any family nearby that we can ask to take care of them for a day. You understand, right?” I shifted my 5-year-old from one hip to another. He felt like a shield in the face of animosity.
“Ah ja. Oke’” she said. And I marched my sweet little kids out of the school. Loaded them up in the car. And cried. I don’t cry often, but that woman. . . defines everything I dislike about women’s competitiveness/living in a foreign country/trying to be a good mother and yet feeling like I’m totally and completely failing. After wiping my tears, I drove my kids to an unfamiliar house in an unfamiliar neighborhood with boxes of familiar things they were yet to discover. My friend Joan brought us a casserole of macaroni and cheese and gelato from the shop in the square. . . who would, as fate would have it, be closed for the following two months. That night, my husband and I drank wine (after unearthing the corkscrew) and gazed at the disaster that was our new home. He flipped on the TV and we watched the Belgian news. Just as the movers had expected, we learned that the shut down was to begin at noon. The next day.
Most say we were “lucky” to get in the day before the shut-down. At the time, I wasn’t so sure. I loved our old house – it was big and beautiful and had a huge garden. It was the core, the center of our life in Belgium. We’d had birthday parties, Girl Scout slumber parties, Christmases there. . . and now, it was if all those were wiped away.
“Mama! This doesn’t feel like home,” my kids said as soon as the lockdown began, and I had to agree. It felt like we were locked in an AirBnb where a bomb had exploded. Nothing was organized, nothing was defined, but more than that. . . we had no memories.
I unpacked with the fury of a woman whose clothes were on fire. I’ve said this before but growing up, my Dad was a homebuilder in Texas. When he couldn’t sell a house, my family moved into it. All my homes in childhood were grand, beautiful, custom-built homes (by my Dad!) and they were always for sale. I grew up in a model home and it always had to be show-ready. Everything-in -its-place was the rule.
After moving amid the pandemic, I went to work making this house a home. The movers were right. My furniture was not going to fit. Unless I became super creative, which I am. My Grandma Willaphene, who is my love, my guide, and my muse to this day, was a master decorator and I incorporated all her tricks. She taught me to angle furniture. She taught me to decorate with delicacies, the things you love – birdcages, photographs, and jewelry boxes. She taught me to make the most of every inch/centimeter available.
We moved in and we made it all work. Except for maybe an extra box spring that won’t fit down the basement stairs but whatever. We’re in and we’re happy.
Last weekend was the first time, after two months, we were allowed to have friends over. Dennis, our friend who helped move us back in March, his wife, and daughter came over for dinner. Dennis, like the movers, had his doubts on how I was going to make everything fit.
After the grand tour, Dennis admitted, “You did a good job,” and I smiled. He’s the only person in the world that saw the disaster and the outcome. But yet, we’ve all been through a disaster. Waiting for the outcome.
“This house suits you more,” his wife and my friend Gio said. I’m not sure what that means, but I’ll take it.
“This is a happy house. With lots of warm energy,” the Canadians said, who lived here before us, and despite a global pandemic, despite the fact that we’ve been together 24-7 for more than 60 days, I think it’s true.
My kids’ complaint, “This doesn’t feel like home!” no longer applies. You will always remember the house you were ‘locked down in during the Coronavirus”. This is our home, cozy and quaint. Loving and together. We will someday remember it as the home where we conducted virtual board and monthly meetings, on-line chats with the kids’ teachers, and ZOOM calls to friends back in the Netherlands and in Texas. We’ve celebrated birthdays, an anniversary, and Mother’s Day. We’ve had countless, seriously countless, meals around the tables. Sharing and caring, eating and celebrating, with a little bit of crying or yelling in between. (Let’s be honest). That’s what family is. And within two months, our home in Zurenborg is exactly that. Home.