When I first arrived in Belgium in the winter of 1987, it felt like God had simply spun the globe with his eyes closed and pointed his finger at a random location. I recall reassuring myself that six months among the cows and geese and sheep wouldn't be all that bad, let alone the climate, which in January and February alternated between days of snow or rain or both. And so it was that I lived in Grand Rechain, Province de Liège, spending 6 months with the Michels, my host family. I knew nothing of Belgium, only that I was there to live with a family and learn French for a semester. What I gained over the course of 6 months was far greater than an education in the French language.
Perhaps it was pure luck that I ended up in this remote funky little country village that no one outside of Belgium has ever heard of, and then grew to know a group of friends here intimately, some of whom are nothing like me, some of whom rarely leave this community. But every time I return, it’s always unique, and my visit reminds me of the limitless value of true friendship.
When I arrived on Friday, Annette and José and Annick had organized a giant dinner party. They had the table set for seventeen people. The table looked like a typical dinner you might see on a family farm in a Dutch painting. I accompanied my friend Bartho, the only one who escaped the country and lives in Brussels, on the stoop while she smoked, shooting the shit, and one by one, familiar faces trickled in. Some faces had changed considerably, others not at all. We drank Jupiler and Leffe Brune and it felt like the good ole days when I lived here in the 80’s, like nothing had really changed. A kid from the village who must have been really bored decided to perform pop-wheelies for us on his motorcycle. I took pictures of him as he passed by a half dozen times. He finally pulled over and asked to see how the photo came out. Maybe that’s what I like best about going back to Belgium. It’s like no other experience I would voluntarily seek out.
We were called à table for our pasta dinner. I sat in between Vincent, the ultimate dragueur, and my high school sweetheart Boris, now married with two sons. The food (as well prepared as it was) seemed to be something to do in between the bottles of wine we guzzled down, and apparently we finished off twelve bottles, in addition to Lord knows how many beers.
About midnight, Vincent proposed the idea of continuing the party at the local discothèque. We rallied the party crew (about six of us) and tried to motivate the group out the door. Vincent and Bartho drunkenly exchanged a piece of gum in the doorway, so we ditched the lovebirds, and I took off with Hervé, Boris and his wife Teresita. We arrived at the smoky club, and immediately hit the dance floor. After about a half an hour, the cuckold Vincent showed up sans Bartho, free once again to hit on any girl he pleased. Bamboula ensued.
You know how a song can remind you of an old sweetheart, and the moment you hear it, you’re taken back to that moment in time, and the way he or she made you feel? “Boys Don’t Cry” by The Cure will forever make me think of Boris (please say his name with a French accent, it sounds so much sweeter). So as soon as we heard the first riff, it seemed like fate that I was here twenty years later, at this random club privé in the countryside, hearing that song again with the person who made it heavy with nostalgia for me. Boris grabbed me by one shoulder and Hervé by the other, Vincent and Teresita somewhere in the mix, and we danced like crazy huddled together in a close circle, drunkenly loosing our balance as if we were in a mosh pit, falling onto the other people out on the floor, all of us singing the lyrics at the top of our lungs, transported back in time, to that moment when we were sixteen, when we became friends, or when we became lovers, in this very small place in the world at a very special moment in time.
Later on, I stepped away from the dance floor and watched my friends, now twenty years later, dancing and jumping and singing and hugging each other, and I thought how unique it is that I even know these people from this remote and unknown place, and that they know me, and that twenty years from now, we will remember this crazy night together and laugh.
We took off about 3 am and went to Liège in search of frites, but instead found pitas. Teresita was passed out cold in the car, while Boris, Hervé and I ate our pita sandwiches in quiet exhaustion in the plaza in front of the police station, with daylight making its grand entrance in the sky. By the time Boris dropped me off at the Michels it was after 4 am, so I quietly tiptoed upstairs so as not to wake my host mom and dad, and went to sleep to the sound of birds chirping.