Sunday, December 22, 2013

"We Take Care of Our Own"

One of the reasons I bid on Brussels was to feel independent again. To live on my own, outside of a compound, and away from bodyguards, armed vehicles, and the watchful eye of the entire embassy community. I was looking forward to my apartment having a revolving door as I welcomed guest after guest to the heart of Europe. And that's exactly what I've been up to these last few months. Sharing adventures and laughs with friends and family as we explored the vineyards of Champagne, attempted to climb church towers in Flanders, and taste-tested the best Belgian food Brussels has to offer. My first six months here have really been one for the memory books.

When I bid on Western Europe, people said that the posts wouldn't have a strong sense of community, that it would be just like going to work in any office building in DC. That people would not look out for one another. And, sure, settling into life in Brussels has had its challenges and its somber moments of anonymity, but saying that this embassy doesn't band together when one of its colleagues is struggling couldn't be further from the truth.

While I was home in Arizona for Thanksgiving, I awoke one morning to a message that most of us dread receiving while away from home. The voicemail said they were calling from our security office and I was to contact the embassy immediately. My stomach was in my throat...what could possibly have happened? Had there been a fire? Were the cats hurt? There was no way the person was calling me while on leave to offer some good news. After a few minutes that seemed like hours, I learned that my apartment had been broken into and robbed over the weekend. The perpetrators had seemingly scaled my balcony, shattered the glass door, and rifled through the whole apartment. I was speechless. It was Monday and I wasn't scheduled to go back to Belgium until the following Sunday. Who would care for Mish Mish and Sprinkles? Was the apartment secure? I was simultaneously sick to my stomach imagining my vandalized place and traumatized cats, and thankful that I hadn't been home that night to encounter the intruders.

As I was feeling utterly helpless at my mom's house in Tucson, an army of colleagues came to my rescue and took charge. The co-worker who had discovered the break-in didn't give a second thought to taking Mish and Sprinks home with her, despite owning a very large dog herself. Since my living floor was covered in glass, her paramount concern was ensuring they stayed safe. The burglars had left my front door open and she found Mish three floors below, huddled on a stair crying. Sprinks had predictably hidden herself under my bed. She rounded them up and for the next two weeks graciously kept them in her guest room. Another colleague tirelessly liaised with the police, escorting the CSI team as they meticulously dusted for fingerprints and processed the crime scene. Others worked hard to secure my balcony, boarding up the shattered door, and ensuring the landlord agreed to tighter security measures.

After nearly a week of anxiety-ridden anticipation, I headed back to Brussels. The same co-worker who took the cats in also agreed to take me in, as my apartment wasn't ready for me to move back in. Bleary-eyed from the overnight flight, we dropped my bags at her apartment and headed downtown to face the wreckage. At a post where people supposedly didn't care for one another, this colleague refused to let me go back into the apartment alone. She wanted somebody to be by my side as I surveyed the damaged. Walking slowly from room to room, I took in the destroyed balcony door, the open drawers, the rifled papers. But it wasn't until I got to the bedroom that I really lost it. Seeing my clothes, purses, and jewelry strewn across the bed is an image I won't soon forget. The closet doors were still open, the fingerprint dust still coated the furniture, illuminating hand prints all over the room, touching my most personal possessions. I can still feel the chill that ran down my spine as I imagined the people standing in my bedroom, upending my stuff, stealing heirloom jewelry given to me by my late grandmother.

This last month has been somewhat of a blur, an emotional roller coaster I never thought I would experience. Anger, frustration, loneliness, fear. An overwhelming sense of violation. But through it all, the embassy has been there for me. Offering comforting words, emails, phone calls, dinner invitations. Helping me move into temporary quarters. Always available when I needed to talk or just wasn't comfortable being alone. I've gone back to the apartment several times since I returned to Brussels, but I still can't shake the eerie feeling of the burglars' presence. Every little noise makes me jump, wondering-no matter how improbable-if somebody else is trying to climb the balcony. Every time I enter my bedroom, I see my clothes and jewelry ransacked. No matter how secure the apartment is made, I know I won't be comfortable there again.

The decision to move wasn't an easy one, but in the end it was the right one. The little downtown apartment that I loved so much and that had finally started to feel like home was now a constant reminder of vulnerability and loss. The tiny balcony, with its spectacular view of the cathedral and where my brother got engaged this summer, now served as a reminder of people scaling wrought iron and shattering glass doors. The home that had welcomed so many visitors, that had been filled with so much laughter and love, was now filled with discomfort and unease. But again, the embassy community rallied around me in support, urging me to move forward and get a fresh start. Nobody wanted this to ruin the next year and a half in Brussels. Neither did I.

So tonight I'm packing my up my temp quarters, taking down my little Christmas tree, and tomorrow afternoon I'm moving into the new apartment. Although the walls will still be bare and the bookshelves will still be empty, this new apartment will welcome a house full of visitors for the holidays and new memories will be made. My home will once again be filled with laughter and love, a new chapter of my time in Brussels ready to be written. I am so grateful for my embassy colleagues, my Foreign Service family, my home away from home. The mantra that they each echoed time and time again, and was evident in everything they did, was "we take care of our own." I appreciate, more than I can ever express, their kindness, generosity, patience, and fortitude. Thank you for making one of the worst experiences of my life more bearable, and for proving that valuing a sense of community is still at the core of the Foreign Service. No matter where in the world we might be.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The King of the Belgians

Since arriving in Brussels, most Sunday mornings have been spent sleeping in, drinking coffee, and maybe milling around a farmer's market if I feel like leaving the comfort of my balcony. But on July 21st-also known as Belgian National Day-I added a few additional items to my usually lazy routine: wishing King Phillipe and Queen Mathilde congratulations as they assume their new roles as King and Queen of the Belgians. 

I happen to live almost across the street from the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, which is where the Belgian family holds weddings, funerals, and for the first time in their monarchy's history, an abdication. Well, the technical abdication took place later in the day with signing official paperwork and taking the oath of office at parliament, but the cathedral bore witness to the Te Deum mass that blessed King Phillipe's upcoming reign. I figured instead of watching the ceremony from the tv, I'd cross the street to see if I could catch a glimpse of the action. What I didn't expect was to be able to walk right up to the front of the line and watch the royal family pull up to the church. 

In total contrast to the US, there was hardly any security at all. No metal detectors, very few security guards, and the king and queen seemed to roam as they pleased. The small size of the crowd was also a bit mystifying. You would think that the very first abdication of a Belgian king, the inauguration of his son, all coinciding with Belgian Independence Day, would generate a bit of interest. Not so much. The few people who were there were really passionate, as in wearing Belgian flags as capes and shouting "Long Live the King" in French and Flemish, but for the most part it seemed the country wasn't that interested. The southern Francophone province of Wallonia demonstrated much more interest than the northern Flemish-speaking province of Flanders. Traditionally, the monarchy has been seen as much more closely affiliated with the Francophone community, and there are strong Flemish political parties that want to see the end of the royal family and the creation of a republic. They don't really feel much loyalty to their king, and the pomp and circumstance surrounding the monarchy is on a much smaller scale than in the UK for example. It's kind of hard to comprehend the seeming lack of nationalism and split identity between the regions, and King Philippe has his work cut out for him to help unite the country. He isn't called King of the Belgians for nothing though. 

And of course, it wouldn't be a holiday without the Manneken Pis dressed up in another costume. This time in a Belgian military uniform in honor of Independence Day.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Christmas in July

Reunited and it feels so good....

After nearly 11 months of living in temporary housing, last week I finally moved into the apartment I'll call home for the next two years. It's adorably charming, cozy with a flair of Old Europe charm...and right now a complete disaster. On Friday morning my HHE from Beirut was delivered, and since I packed it out nearly a year ago, I forgot exactly how much stuff I actually own. Let's just say it's way too much. And on top of the HHE, my UAB out of DC was also dropped off, so my foyer looked a bit like a loading dock...2,200 lbs of memories shoved into 47 boxes sat piled in various corners. And suddenly what had felt like cavernous rooms with too much space for just one person was teeming with cardboard and paper. I was at risk of being buried alive by falling boxes and I'm pretty sure I lost the cats a time or two.

Against my better judgement, I decided to do the bulk of the unpacking myself. I let the movers handle the really heavy and bulky items, but I figured it wouldn't be that big of a deal to go through the rest at my own pace. Plus it would be fun to rediscover stuff I had forgotten I even had. And there were some fun highlights-my handmade Syrian furniture made it without a scratch; the Persian rugs aren't moth eaten; and possibly most importantly, my heated foot bath is ready for at-home pedicures! With pedis starting around 40 Euros-without nail polish included-I have a feeling that bath will be getting a lot of mileage...

There were also some rather astonishing discoveries. Three boxes of shoes? A couple boxes worth of purses? I seriously own more than 50 scarves? Pretty sure this qualifies as an accessory addiction. There were also a few items that made me question my packing strategy back in Lebanon. Did I really need to bring a gold tambourine or glitter mask from NYE? How did all this cat hair get on my (supposedly) clean sweaters? Why is there a random almond at the bottom of this bag?

But what really got me was the packing paper. Apparently anything that appeared even the slightest bit breakable required four sheets of paper. Now this wound up being a great tactic as everything made it in one piece, but the aftermath translated into piles and piles of what amounted to a small forest in my entry way.

I've spent this past week clearing pathways, filling closets, and attempting to sort through years of souvenirs and memories. Even though I'm still surrounded by boxes, it's starting to feel like home. Books are on the shelves, art is ready to be hung, and my dresser is filled with scarves. It might take me a little while to get everything arranged just the way it should be, but at least I'm here to stay. Until the next packout anyway.