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. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Let Freedom Ring

It's that time of year again. Pool parties, hot dogs, extravagant displays of pyrotechnics. Singing along off-key to every patriotic song imaginable. Celebrating the 4th of July overseas, however, can look a little different than it does at home. While the long weekend might not be full of neighborhood BBQs and baseball games, toasting America's independence with fellow expats and explaining its significance to foreigners has become one of the highlights of life abroad for me. This year, though, will be one for the memory books. 

A strong appreciation for liberty, freedom, and independence is deeply-rooted within Belgians, and never is it demonstrated more than during this time of year. In honor of the Fourth of July, the Manneken Pis statue in downtown Brussels was dressed up like Uncle Sam. Belgium is a free country today, in part, because of our brave, and Belgians aren't shy about expressing their gratitude for the sacrifices made by the American military on their soil. 

This country is a history buff's dream. Battle memorials dot the countryside from Waterloo to Bastogne to Ypres, and many more towns in between. I'm embarrassed to say I'm not as well-versed in World War I and World War II history as I should be, but that's something I plan to change during my stint here. When I was offered the opportunity to serve as the Embassy representative at a commemoration ceremony for a Belgian town's liberation by American GIs, I jumped at the chance. Getting to venture outside of Brussels and learn a little bit of history at the same time sounded like the perfect way to spend an afternoon. What I wasn't expecting was just how moving the day would be. 

The charming village of Remicourt, located on the outskirts of Liege, hosts an annual wreath-laying ceremony in homage to soldiers who lost their lives while liberating Belgium and reconstructs a military camp with authentic material used by the US Army during WWII. Standing in the town square, flanked by older gentlemen bearing Belgian and American flags, I felt as if I had been transported back in time. A contingent of young men were dressed in American and Allied WWII military uniforms. US military jeeps and cargo trucks filled the background. The stars on the American flag dancing in the breeze only numbered 48. 

In a town official's speech to kick-off the ceremony, he offered profuse thanks to the young soldiers "who should have been dancing, playing, living life" but instead came to Belgium to fight the German occupation. He expressed deep gratitude for all the Americans had done for Remicourt and Belgium, and reiterated what was inscribed on the memorial : "to those who gave their lives for peace and liberty, we will never forget."

 After we paid our respects at the monuments for American and Allied forces, followed by the Belgian resistance, we made our final stop at the monument for the liberation of Remicourt. On September 6, 1944, the German army invaded the small town and rounded up all of the townspeople, who were then taken hostage and locked in a church. One of the flag-bearers recounted the incident, saying the Germans intended to burn the church down with all the residents still inside. At this point of the story the gentleman began to get choked up, as he described how the American GIs came to their rescue on September 7, riding into town, defeating the Germans, and liberating Remicourt. He stood up straight, looked me square in the eye, and thanked the American armed forces for saving his home and family. Excuse me while I go get a tissue. 

It was in the shadow of this same church where Remicourt's monument was built. As the flag bearers stood at attention and the crowd looked on, I climbed the stairs and placed a wreath at the base of the memorial. As the official US representative, and sole American in attendance, the town wanted me to have the honor of paying tribute to what my countrymen had done for them. They reiterated how grateful they are to Americans, and repeatedly thanked me for all the United States has done for Belgium. I had never encountered such sincere and earnest pro-American sentiments abroad before. I realized that I was much more accustomed to images of American flags being burned or anti-U.S. messages being broadcast, and was a little taken aback by the overflowing love and support being expressed. 

Bowing my head in prayer, taking a moment to honor the sacrifices made, I was embraced by the silence that had befallen the gatherers. A moment later, the haunting notes of a trumpet pierced the air, as a lone musician played the Star Spangled Banner. I placed my hand over my heart and softly mouthed the words, while the rest of the group stood in respectful silence. Gazing at that church, with the notes of the anthem ringing in the background, chills ran down my spine and tears filled my eyes. Standing on that hallowed ground, I felt like I was truly experiencing what freedom really means. Remicourt and its residents exist today because of American servicemen, doing what they have always done and will continue to do, coming to the aid of those searching for liberty and independence. This town is grateful everyday for the opportunity to live freely, the memories of occupation still sharp in its collective memory. 

As the breeze carried away the trumpet's final tune and I descended the stairs, several people emerged from the crowd, asking for a moment of my time to introduces themselves and share their personal stories. One man, dressed in an American flag button-down shirt, said his father was an American GI who had returned to the States after the war. After decades of searching, this gentlemen discovered he had brothers and sisters in Ohio and proudly displayed family photos taken during his recent trip to meet them. Another man described how his mother had taken in wounded American soldiers and secretly nursed them back to health so they wouldn't be captured by the Germans. One of the soldiers located his mom 50 years later and traveled back to Belgium to thank her. There were several stories likes these, each one offering a unique glimpse into the narrative that has helped build such strong ties between our two countries. 

I don't think I'll ever look at the 4th of July the same way again after this weekend. When you are blessed to grow up in a country where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are boldly proclaimed in its Declaration of Independence, it can be easy to take such freedoms for granted. And while I have lived in and visited many places where such freedoms aren't permitted, much less enjoyed, I had never really set foot on liberated land before or met people who remembered what occupation was like. Stories of hard-won independence had always taken place somewhere else, far from home, and, I'm embarrassed to admit, had had minimal personal impact on my life. But now that's changed. I will never forget the people I met in Remicourt, the faces of the children I saw who would not be alive today had their grandparents not been liberated from that church. Whenever I hear our anthem, I will remember that trumpet belting the Star Spangled Banner for all the world to hear. An enduring declaration. Let freedom ring. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Remembering One of Our Own

It's hard to believe I arrived in Brussels almost three weeks ago. Three weeks already? Only three weeks? I'm not sure how it's possible to feel like I've been here for both an eternity and just a blink of an eye, but it does and I do. I've spent these couple of weeks wandering around wide-eyed and in awe of the history and grandeur that surround me. At times, the sheer freedom to go where I choose, when I choose, without body guards or armored vehicles, has been almost suffocating. I've thrown myself into work, pouring over files and cables, eager to learn as much as I can in order to become a productive and contributing member of the team as quickly as possible. 

The rigorous nine months spent slogging through French training in DC have started drifting into the background, slowly fading into nostalgic memories of a time spent in the States getting paid to learn a beautiful language. Constant reminders of the amazing friendships and bonds forged with colleagues over our struggles with French grammar (I still detest subjunctive) and pronunciation (why can't I distinguish between vin and vent?) have become less frequent. Not because I no longer care, but because adjusting to this new life has taken nearly all the energy and enthusiasm I can muster. I assumed this was the same for the other "Frenchies" too, as we all start to drift to our remote (or not) corners of the globe, making it on our own yet inextricably bound by all those months pacing the halls of FSI. I thought so, that is, until this weekend. 

On Saturday, June 29, our tight-knit group of pseudo-Francophile FSOs lost a member. Not even two months after her arrival in Haiti, Antoinette was tragically killed in a car accident. Even writing this down doesn't make it feel real. News of her passing traveled around the globe at lightening speed, from the Congo to Guinea, Mauritania to DC. Even colleagues here in Brussels, who hadn't been in French or even had the pleasure of knowing her personally, had heard the crushing news and were lamenting her death come Monday morning. Despite the horrifying circumstances, this was a comforting reminder of what the Foreign Service family really means. In times of happiness or sorrow, abundance or need, celebration or mourning, it comes together. We come together. No matter where we are or what we're doing. Emails go flying, phone calls are made. Who can do what for whom? Checking on each other, leaning on each other. No matter how much time has passed, this is how it's always done. For whatever irrational reason, I've maintained the naive notion that when tragedy strikes it won't be close to home, won't hurt anyone I know. But it always hurts somebody's home, hurts somebody's loved one. And this time, it could happen to us. It did happen to us. Antoinette was one of us, part of our family. 

I'm afraid whatever I could say here won't do her memory justice, but I want to try anyway. I want her husband and two sweet little babies to know that we are heartbroken over her loss, shocked by a life taken far too soon, made raw by the thought of the agony her loved ones are now enduring. Spunky and funny, with a quick smile and an infectious laugh, Antoinette always brightened my day with a witty line or sarcastic remark. Her passion for development work and excitement over her assignment to Haiti was evident after just minutes of chatting with her. She was a committed public servant, caring, generous, and thoughtful. She was also a marathon runner and proud mama. I am honored to call her a member of our family, and am humbled by the ultimate sacrifice she and her family have made. Thank you, Antoinette, for serving our country with grace and dignity. Your kind spirit shall never be forgotten. 

Please click here to read the condolence statement issued yesterday by USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.