All things come to a beginning

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


This morning, I drove for over two hours with a woman I had never met. Last week, we both received an email sharing the sad news of a friend: her father had passed away and we were invited to come to a small ceremony on Tuesday. Seeing as I don't have my license just yet - I'm working on it, though, had my first driving lesson this past weekend - but really wanted to make it, I emailed all the other recipients and found someone who was driving there from Leuven and had an extra seat. We had a nice chat, about her British husband, the time she spent in the US, about Canada and living abroad and marriage and jobs...all the big themes. Once we'd come to our destination, we greeted the family and were led to a big room that was soon filled to the brim with people. The noise level slowly rose as I sat and watched. I don't know if this makes me a terrible person, but at funerals, my thoughts inevitably drift to what it would be like if it were someone in my family that we were saying goodbye to. And I imagine I would be furious with all those people. How dare they chat and smile and laugh and cough and yawn and chew gum and have nice clothes on like nothing special is going on? Do they not understand that life has come to a complete halt for me? That someone is gone? That I will never be able to hear them talk again or hold them or be annoyed by something they're saying or the music they're playing too loudly? I know you can't expect other people to feel your pain the same way you do - you don't want to wish unhappiness upon others. And yet...for some reason, i predict fury.

The ceremony itself, to which so many people showed up some had to watch from the doorway, was beautiful. Under an hour, mostly music and a few texts by the widow and her five children. No religious dimension to it, and I didn't even miss it. It's probably not like this for everyone but I am touched much more deeply by a melody and lyrics than by a prayer or a psalm. I don't cry very often, but today, as soon as the first song came on, I crumbled. I never met my friend's father, but a lot of what was said about him reminded me of mine, who's about the same age: a love for Paris (where my parents lived for a while), a love of French music (Brel, Yves Montant), the opera (especially La Traviata, which my dad took us to see live in Italy once), getting great joy out of the simple things in life, like working around the house, fixing things, cooking, dining with friends. One of the things I associate with my father the most is music. Walking into the living room on a Sunday afternoon, while he's taking his nap and hearing which cd he put on this time. Or when something I say remind him of a song and he goes "Oh, do you know that one song, I forget the title, it goes..." and then belt out some obscure lyrics right there at the dinner table. Like yesterday, Charles Aznavour, one of my mom's favorites: "Emmenez-moi au bout de la terre, Emmenez-moi au pays des merveilles, Il me semble que la misère, serait moins pénible au soleil". I can't handle the thought that maybe one day I will be the one sitting there, selecting songs and writing texts, thinking back. The trips I've made and the ones I would like to still go on, I go on confidently knowing what I can come back to. I am arrogant enough to think like that. To not recognize that at any moment in time, the people I rely on and lean on can be snatched away.

Instead of a card with a picture, everyone got to take home a small buxus or box wood plant. That's what my friend's father had asked for. And it's a great illustration of the entire theme of the ceremony: remember, keep things alive, go on, enjoy, grow and nurture, don't stop and wilt. Once I got back to Leuven, I ran a few errands, carrying the little plant in my hand like a Torontonian would a Second Cup cup. Strangely, several people commented on it - apparently it's a conversation piece. The Belgian version of a chihuahua in Los Angeles. First, at the bank a man standing behind me (looking fairly sleazy and generally unattractive) said something to the effect of "Taking your flowers to the bank, are ya?". In part because I was getting frustrated at the slow service (Yes, Alli, I agree, Belgian banks make me want to die a little bit too sometimes - the lady kept chatting with a client about traffic and the weather when there were at least 5 people waiting, ugh! When the client f.i.n.a.l.l.y turned around and saw the line, she looked a bit startled and apologized, to which the bank lady responded "Oh, it's fine, don't worry about it". WTF? I'm not saying I always got great customer service in Canada, but Belgium is ridiculous sometimes. We're not in Spain, okay? I like things to get done quickly and efficiently, I'm a bit of a tight ass when it comes to that, sue me. And you better worry about completely ignoring the presence of me and 4 other people - unless I'm mistaken in thinking that it is our money that helps keep the bank in business? Anywho. Sorry about that) So, in part cause that was pissing me off and in part because my plant is none of his business and his cheery tone was not what I needed at that point, I snapped "Actually, I got these at the funeral I just attended". Small talk over.
Afterwards, I went into a store and put the plant on a table so I could get my wallet out of my bag. While I dialed the code of my bank card, the lady who owns the store commented on how pretty it was. This time without a trace of venom, I told her I got it at a funeral instead of a card. She liked that idea a lot and told me to take good care of it - and I promised her I would. With the help of my mom, who has much greener fingers than I do. Then finally, as I was walking home I walked past two British men (tourist season has definitely begun) and one of them asked me what plant it was. I told him the Dutch name, and he asked me if I was a biology student. "Oh no, this was...a gift." For some reason, I didn't feel the need to drop the word "funeral" in the lap of this unsuspecting, talkative stranger. And for some reason, I didn't experience his question as intrusive, the way I did at the bank. I was beginning to like that people took notice. My friend's father's plan is working like a charm: within hours after the service, a girl he never met has already taken his goodbye present all over town and discussed it with three other people. When my parents come home tonight, they'll hear the story too and throw all sorts of gardener jargon at my head on how to take care of the little green one. And so he is present still, making a subtle, gentle impact on people's lives. May that never cease to be the case.

Friday, June 23, 2006


There's a word in Dutch, 'verliefd', that I've never been able to translate into English. It is a state of being that does not carry as much weight as 'in love' and yet is less throwaway than 'have a crush on' or 'have a thing for'. It can be simultaneously extremely tender, like when it's said of an 80-year old couple spotted holding hands. But it can also be very light and fleeting, like when it's said of two inseperable 4-year olds who pick each other flowers. You could use it in a sentence referring to someone else, or to yourself (though rarely without a hint of embarrassment).

The philologist in me wants to look at the different components of the word to try and figure it out. 'Lief' is an adjective meaning 'kind', 'sweet' or 'nice'. It's also used as a term of endearment, like 'dear' or 'sweetheart' or it can mean 'boyfriend' or 'girlfriend'.
The 'ver' prefix and the 'd' at the end add a resultative dimension. There are plenty of Dutch words that follow the same pattern. A fairly sinister one that pops into my head is 'vermoord' (murdered) of the verb 'moorden' (to murder). 'Ik ben vermoord' would thus translate as the unlikely phrase 'I have been murdered' (at some point in the past).
But then there is also 'verdwaald' (lost) of the verb 'dwalen' (to wander). Unlike with the murder example, 'I am lost' would be a statement referring to a present and ongoing state of affairs (the wandering will continue until an arrow, a friendly passer-by or dumb luck turns the lost into a found). 'Vermist' from the verb 'missen' (to miss) is like that too: currently missing. It is this word you read on those chilling posters stuck to public phones and messy notice boards. In bold black letters, with underneath the black and white photo of a young girl, a gap-toothed smile, unaware of the attention that would one day be paid in the media to the exact details of her clothing, her behavior and her whereabouts during "those final hours".
'Veranderd' ('changed') from the verb 'veranderen' (to change) is different in terms of timing. A change has taken place, and while the result is visible in the present (I have changed), the process in itself has come to an end, it is completed.

The ver-d words do not necessarily refer to just one person or item. Two people can say they have 'verbroederd', from the noun 'broer' (brother), meaning they have become like brothers. Two separate objects can be said to have 'vergroeid', from 'groeien' (to grow) meaning they have grown together to the point where they are one.

So how does 'verliefd' fit in? Another ver-d word based on an adjective is 'verkild', from 'kil' (cold, icy). To be 'verkild' translates as to be overcome by cold, when the wind has crept into your bones. So is 'verliefd' to be overcome by sweetness, kindness, niceness, love? I guess the meaning of 'verliefd' touches on all the other meanings. I could see how it is the result of a past event, as well as an ongoing process. I could also see it as having a sense of completion and irreversibility. And as having an aspect of you having become part of something and something part of you.

Hard to define, hard to grasp, hard to get a hold of. As it should be.

Thursday, June 22, 2006


This picture was taken at 'Licks', a burger joint (and I mean that in the least disrespectful way possible) at the Beaches. While James and Vince - two guys we should've met much sooner - dug into some tasty goodness I stood up from our table and snapped this shot of the funky neighborhood, the couple standing outside (I just noticed now that the guy's arm is hanging straight down my cleavage, haha, what a perv!), the neon lights and my own reflection. My last night in Toronto.

It's a cute gimmick - but it got me thinking about how well (or poorly) we look at the people around us. Take Stuk, for example, the cafe I worked at last year and am working at this month. To the customers, the people behind the bar are probably just that: bartenders. Waitresses. Students, perhaps. Do they realize one of the girls is just in Belgium for a short summer visit, and that she's returning to Boston soon to continue her research project at MIT? Do they know one of the guys runs his own architecture firm and only took the Stuk job cause he sits behind a computer all day and wants to do something physically demanding and social after hours? That another guy has put out his own album? Do they think about the fact that we are distracted sometimes because we got into an argument with a good friend? Or because we're wondering why our boy and girlfriends aren't calling? Because someone close to us is on his death bed?

Most people visit your life for such a brief moment that you're left with a quick flash first impression and little else. Like the Jared Leto look-a-like and self-proclaimed sound artist on the airport shuttle. Or the American Jew at the airport who proudly told me he was going on exchange to Germany. And then proceeded to puke his guts out all over the airport floor. They will always be those guys. And the person bringing you your coffee? Same deal. Worse, actually, cause you don't even have a hint of a story to connect to them. You forget about them before they even reach your table (This is not a self-pity deal, I do it too) Which makes it all the more important to remember that everyone is someone. And that the stories, concerns, itches, preoccupations and feelings of every someone are just as relevant as the next person's. I'm not trying to preach a forgive-all-acts-of-rudeness policy. If anything there's too much of a victim culture going on wherein people excuse their unacceptable behavior by referring to "what they've been through". I'm just saying that even if we don't live in our small towns anymore and it has become impossible to know everything about everyone, the acknowledgement alone that there is in fact more than meets the eye to the other people who walk the city streets is, to me, one of the kindest acts of modern man.


I've been debating whether or not to keep blogging after my return from Canada. After a year, I reviewed the pros and cons...and found a lot of cons. For one, people already know your most exciting news. "Oh my God, you're not going to believe...oh. Right. You read about it yesterday. Well. That's that then". For two, people think they know your news. That is, they put a spin on what you write that isn't necessarily how you intended it to be perceived. And because it's in print they can come back to it time and again. For three, it's a tricky ego thing. What do you post? What makes you think anyone cares?
But then there are pros too. First of all, I was asked to continue. Which makes me happier than anyone could ever know. Secondly, it encourages introspection and alerts you when a week has gone by without you having done anything remotely interesting. But also, I just feel the need to go on. I feel that I go through my days - quite rapidly, actually. It seems like it's constantly the end of a long day, just like now, and I haven't accomplished half of what I had planned to do or should have planned to do - and that I am touched. Thoughts and experiences fall down on me, stick in my hair, get into my pores and under my skin. And it's a great feeling to come home and wash it all off by jotting down a couple of paragraphs and sending them out. If you asked me what is so great about sharing your dirty bath water with other people, I wouldn't be able to give you a decent answer. All I know is that some of my friends seem to appreciate it. And that I come out of it feeling nice and clean and refreshed.