A Train From Brussels

Sarah Thomas


© Copyright 2023 by Sarah Thomas

Photo by Anh Tuan: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-man-waiting-on-bus-stop-during-nighttime-10901975/
Photo by Anh Tuan at Pexels.

My time at the Van B. family home as the au pair was over. The children were ready for bed and lined up to say goodbye. Their mother would not be driving me the ten minutes to the bus stop. No, the housekeeper Yvonne and her husband the groundskeeper, Izaak, they would drive me. It hurt my eighteen-year-old feelings that Frau Van B. would not drive me, but it really was more fitting for it to be Izaak and Yvonne.

Yvonne was the closest thing I had to a friend that fall. She was kind to me and motherly, though she was still young about ten years older than me. She was always ready with a smile and kind word. I suggested once when we first met, that talking to her would help me learn the language. She laughed and smiled her beautiful smile saying in German that she wasn’t much better off than me. She and her husband were Polish and had been living in Germany for several years. They had an eleven-year-old daughter back in Poland that lived with Yvonne’s parents. Yvonne was warm and open and happy to know me, and she did get to know me in the three short months I was in that household. I think for the purpose of my story, that is the biggest difference between her and our lady employer. She chose to know me. I am so grateful for the humanity she showed me.

Yvonne and I bonded over coffee breaks, ironing laundry and babysitting. The baby preferred her, naturally. I was a relative stranger. I miss her company. She once invited me to go grocery shopping with her in the evening, ‘just to get out’ she had said. I am still fascinated by the efficiency of the German’s recycling system. The store entrance had a receptacle where I watched her deposit her glass recyclables and then a receipt was given for cash value to go towards the groceries she would be buying. She insisted on buying me a chocolate bar. We talked as she did her shopping and I remember thinking she seemed tired, but she was still playful and cheerful. Grocery shopping with Yvonne was the most fun I had for weeks.

Yvonne had her daughter very young. The pregnancy had been outside of marriage and they married quickly as was expected of them. She was very matter of fact about all this, neither proud nor ashamed. He was attractive like her. They were both in their late twenties or early thirties, a young, fit, blonde couple. I would see the two of them running on the farm roads in the mist of the early morning. He was curt in his manners, and I found him a bit rude and stand-offish. I didn’t really get to know him well. He was somewhat intimidating. The way many men can be in my experience. In retrospect, as a grown woman and a wife, the way he treated me was exactly appropriate. Izaak was an all-around handy man on the property.

Apparently, the positions were good for them both. Yvonne went home every 6 months for a month or so of leave to be with her daughter and parents. She told me she had been a professional of some kind in Poland. There weren’t enough jobs or maybe it didn’t pay enough. She was a nurse or teacher, my memory fails, but to do that in Germany she would have to go to school again. She worried her language skills were lacking for getting through school. I encouraged her to try but she didn’t seem to want to. She was Catholic. This was something we sort of had in common as I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools.

At the bus stop in Kiel, I said goodbye to Yvonne. I don’t remember what was said but I hope I thanked her for her friendship and her kindness. What I do remember is that Izaak was gentleman enough to get out of the car and help with my suitcases. I imagine Yvonne prodding him to do so as I turned my back, but who knows. Yvonne hugged me tight and kissed my cheek. I was excited about the adventure and the familiar faces I was going to see but I felt a sadness in the goodbye, knowing it was unlikely we would ever see each other again. I got on the bus in the dark. The sunset was at four pm at that time of year. It was around seven or eight p.m. when they dropped me for the bus. The ride would take eight hours through the night and would take me all the way to the train station in Brussels. There I would catch a train to Louvain la Neuve.

My cousin would be waiting for me at the train station. She was going to college abroad. She had been an exchange student in Belgium during high school. She was fluent in French now and from my perspective living this amazing European life. It was November and we planned to spend Thanksgiving together. Her sister, my other cousin, would be arriving a few days later and together we would cook a big Thanksgiving meal, a first for our generation. We proudly served it to a big group of Belgian college students, turkey and dressing, pies, scalloped potatoes and more.

I climbed on the bus in Kiel. I walked toward the back without looking anyone in the eye, until I saw a clean cut young blonde girl about my age. She welcomed me with a smile and offered the seat next to her. She spoke some German but also English! I learned that she was from Denmark. She was riding that very bus all the way to Paris. There she planned to get a job as a waitress while she found acting roles. She was pursuing big dreams of being an actress. She was gorgeous and so hopeful. I remember thinking she was too perfect to be my friend. It’s a stupid thought but I was eighteen. I wondered if everyone in Denmark was pretty and lighthearted. I was glad to have her as a riding companion and thankful she wouldn’t be getting off before me and leave her place for some weirdo to fill. She excitedly told me all this about her plans. She already had her bus ticket to return home in a month for Christmas. With home only a bus ride away from all the possibility of Paris, why not? I was pleased for her and slightly envious. It was an uncomfortable emotion along with the acute feeling of failure. Failure about the way my own adventure was turning out. Still, it wasn’t over.

After growing tired of talking, we sat in silence or read. Eventually my new companion and I slipped in and out of sleep during the jostling bus ride. The night passed slowly as the bus made its way south. As we arrived in Brussels early the next morning I was awoken by chatter and the sharp turns of the bus on the streets of Brussels. Another passenger across the aisle was speaking to the Danish girl in English and this was his stop too. I decided I should try keeping pace with him when we got off the bus so I could ask him for directions inside the station, in English. Brussels is a bilingual city. I spoke neither Dutch nor French and I was growing anxious as the bus came to a stop. I quickly exited the bus into the morning that was still dark. I had grabbed my belongings under the seat and hurried after this guy who I hadn’t passed two words with, not caring that I was basically stalking him. He could translate for me, that was my only concern. I followed the young stranger inside the train station and up to the ticket station and asked him where I could buy a ticket to Louvain le Neuve. It was obvious, really, once I got there. My anxiety had been for nothing, what’s new. There aren’t that many things to purchase at a train station. The building just seemed so huge from the street, I was sure I’d never find my way.

He was standing in line at the same ticket counter. I got in line and breathed deeply, relieved. I began to look around the expansive station and watched people toting their rolling luggage. Suddenly, I realized I had left my own luggage in the storage compartment on the bus outside. Adrenaline coursed through my body. “Oh my gosh.” I said under my breath. I immediately headed back out the way I had come and then thought, well at least I know where to buy a ticket, as though no one else in the entire train station spoke English. I rolled my eyes at my own stupidity and prayed that the bus was still there. Please, please God. I descended the stairs in the front of the station and turned the corner where I remembered the bus had been parked. How long had it been, I wondered? Five minutes? Fifteen? I had no idea. Then I saw it. It was still there in the dark on the curb in front of the station. A few people were standing near it. “Hi” I said awkwardly approaching the driver, “I’m sorry, I forgot my luggage. Can you help me?” A pained grin was plastered on my young face. The bus driver chuckled with eyebrows raised as he reopened the luggage compartment, and I pointed out my three cases. I thanked him too many times before heading back.

I turned to the expansive stairs I had just descended with such ease and was immediately overwhelmed by the amount of luggage I had, one rolling suitcase, one small duffle and my violin case had been under the bus, plus I had my purse and black and green Jansport backpack that I had since sixth grade. As I reached the first short platform, I saw a trash can. I was overcome with loathing for all this crap, and I had to offload something. I got a few looks as I riffled through the backpack. I dramatically threw the worn brown Vans into the bin. The laces were tied together, and one shoe caught the edge of the bin, and with the small duffle weighing down my arm, I struggled just to shove the other one in. I clumsily made my way up the concrete steps one by one. Once finally inside I stood in line awkwardly moving my mountain of stuff every time the line moved. I bit my lip and looked at the signs in French and Dutch and thought back to my cousin’s instructions:

Take the train to Louvain le Nueve. Be careful not to get confused with Louvane, so and so took that one and it took them hours to finally back track.

Ok yes, got it, I thought. I’m taking the train to Louvain le Nouve. I was finally able to buy my ticket. Now where to go? Oh yes go back and ask that grumpy teller lady. OK. Yes. Upstairs again. Up that giant staircase. This is going to be fun. I must have looked pathetic because some kind-eyed stranger helped me up the enormous staircase. I dug up one of my few French words and said “Merci. Merci beaucoup.” I made it to the platform and waited. I was surrounded by my piles of luggage and thankful to sit. Finally, the train came. I called my cousin to tell her my train departure time etc. so she could meet me at the station.

When my train arrived, I got off with all my suitcases and looked around for where to go. I called my cousin who said she was there and was looking for me. I looked for signs to tell her which platform I was on and figure out how to get out. Then she said, “Wait, Sarah are you in Louvane or Louvain le Nueve?” “Ugh, I remembered you said to be careful, I’m sure I asked for Louvain le Neuve.” then in disbelief I read a sign and realized yes, I was in Louvane. She sighed, “Oh. Okay, it’s going to take you at least several hours to get here. I will come back when you’re getting in. Let me know what time you are departing there.” Well, I obviously wanted to cry at this point. I saw a man in a railway uniform and asked him, eyes shining, how I could get from here to Louvain le Nouve. After gesturing to the ground with index finger and telling me that this was Louvane, he finally understood and directed me towards the ticket office.

When I finally made it to my destination mid-morning, my cousin embraced me on the platform. I felt the relief of knowing I could let someone else navigate now. I realized why she had known right away that I wasn’t here. It was much smaller. There wasn’t much to the station in Louvain le Nueve, just a few platforms lined in brick between the tracks. The sky was gray on my arrival day just as it was during my entire three week stay in Belgium. It was cold but I felt warm under my wool coat from lugging my suitcases. I was thankful to now have my cousins help. There is simply no way to walk with that much luggage and not feel awkward. Especially in Europe where you sense that they already think we Americans are frivolous and superficial. To be fair I did expect to be in Germany a whole year, not a mere 3 months, but that’s another story.

She took me and all my luggage to the flat. She told me I would be sleeping ‘somewhere’ there tonight. She shared the flat with about four other University students. A mix of girls and guys. There was her boyfriend, and his best friend, another friend, the girl next to him who was quiet and rarely home, and there was another girl who was never home for the three weeks. This was where we would be hosting a real ‘American Thanksgiving Dinner.’ My cousin made a pallet for she and I on the living room floor our heads were sort of in the kitchen. We slept there that night. I later found out this wasn’t even her apartment. After a few nights on the kitchen floor, we moved ourselves and my excessive luggage to her real apartment, which she shared with a whole other group of strangers including two handsome Italians who made nice coffee. But for now, I was here in my cousin’s boyfriend’s apartment, and it was as good as home after my journey.

I woke up to coffee and cereal. Most of the roommates had already gone to class. She didn’t have class that morning and we would be picking up her sister from the airport that evening. I had no idea how long I was staying. No return ticket to anywhere and no clue if I would even go home from there. I was just excited about the adventure and being with my cousins after the lonely months in Germany.

Sarah Thomas is a freelance writer from Texas. She and her husband are raising their children on a small farm in coastal Texas. She spends most days homeschooling her five children, growing veggies and flowers, and creating with words or various other mediums.

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