SETTLING DOWN IN BRUSSELS
My mother and I were both finding it difficult to settle down in Brussels. My mother had loved the Parisians, who were outgoing and extravert. The Belgians seemed to be more reserved and more dour in temperament. Shopping was no longer so enjoyable for her.
I had difficulties getting to NATO, which was some way out of Brussels. I had to get two buses, often standing in the rain and cold on a windy corner. After two years of this I decided to learn to drive. I had tried once before in Paris, but my nervousness had made me give up the idea. Now sheer necessity drove me to take the plunge.
We also decided to move to an unfurnished flat, with our own furniture. My mother still had furniture which she had left behind in Canada over forty years ago. A friend of hers had kept it stored in her garage all this time. I had been out to Canada for the Montreal Expo in 1967, and at the same time had visited my mother’s old friends in Toronto, with the aim of seeing about the furniture and getting it sent over to Europe.
These friends, all round my mother’s age, late seventies, were all very kind and hospitable to me. I stayed with one of them, her name was Kalo, a very friendly and pleasant lady. On my return to Paris she wrote to me, saying: “what a pity it was that your mother went to the dogs.” Fiercely loyal, I wrote back a furious letter and pointed out that my mother had worked hard all her life, had brought me up single handed and given me a very good education. I ended by quoting the Bible: “Judge not, that ye be not judged”! I received a reply from her – my letter had made her think.
My mother’s Canadian friend, Miss Robertson, who lived in England, had died and had left me some money in her will. She had always been very kind to my mother and myself. It was a nice surprise and I felt grateful, though slightly ashamed that I had never really appreciated her kindness.
My mother felt that this would be a good opportunity to bring all her furniture over from Canada, and I agreed, knowing how much this would mean to her. Also, it was exciting to think we would have these mementoes from her past.
With the wealth of apartments on the market, we soon found a very nice, unfurnished flat on the Avenue Armand Huysmans. It was on the first floor of a small, fairly modern apartment block, on a broad avenue in a residential area just outside the centre of Brussels, slightly nearer to NATO. The flat was light and airy; it had a sitting room which ran almost the length of the flat, with parquet flooring, two large French windows and a balcony looking out onto the street. The nice sized kitchen and larger bedroom looked out onto gardens at the back. A smaller room, mine, was on the front, and there was a bathroom between the two bedrooms.
We had already bought a carpet, Hungarian! It was black, with a colourful design in reds, greens and yellows. We chose the flat with the carpet in mind. With a few basic pieces of furniture we moved in. There were already fitted cupboards. We bought a round, walnut dining table in Regency style with four chairs, a small, modern wooden bed and matching chest of drawers, painted in grey and blue, for my room. My mother would sleep on a folding bed till the arrival of her four poster bed from Canada. With her adventurous spirit, she took all this in her stride.
It was fun going round the shops looking for things to buy. It brought us together and made my mother happy. We would at last have a real home of our own, with our own belongings.
The day finally arrived when the furniture arrived from Canada. Great excitement! Slowly the treasures from the past were revealed: the four poster bed, an enormous chest of drawers, an old Regency sofa with a carved wooden back, horsehair stuffing sticking out of the black leather upholstery. There was also a grandfather chair. It all looked rather decrepit and very large. But I was glad to see my mother so happy, surrounded by her old possessions.
There was cutlery and silver, china, a lot of it from Limoges in France; delicate teacups and saucers and small plates, with beautiful flower designs. Then there were more photographs, old pictures and paintings.
Brussels was full of craftsmen of every description, as the Belgians loved antique furniture and there were antique furniture shops everywhere. We found workmen who were able to put the bed together, piece by piece - each one was carefully numbered - feed and give the wood a good polish. It looked beautiful when finally assembled. A mattress was specially made to fit the bed. There were specialist shops for everything!
The sofa was taken away to be newly upholstered with a silky, soft beige material in a design of the period. We found material with a William Morris design when shopping in London to cover the grandfather chair. The large oak chest of drawers also needed feeding and repolishing.
All this kept us occupied and busy for some time. Slowly we furnished the whole flat. The sofa, when done, looked very elegant, though it was not very comfortable and the grandfather chair was imposing. The chest of drawers turned out to be very useful, with three large, deep drawers, in which we could keep linen and towels, and lots of clothes.
My mother started growing flowers out on the balcony. Slowly we bought cooking utensils and pots and pans for the kitchen. My mother now had space for her large collection of cookery books in the kitchen.
During this time I had also been learning to drive a car. The driving instructor would come out to NATO and I would have a lesson in my lunch hour, which was still an hour and a half. At that time in Belgium it was not necessary to take a driving test. Not for nothing were the Belgians known as the worst drivers in Europe! After fifteen lessons, and having passed the written driving code test, which was essential, I filled in a form from the Post Office declaring that I could drive, paid my two hundred and fifty Belgian francs, and received my driving licence. Thus armed, I bought a secondhand SIMCA 1000 from an American officer in NATO and launched myself upon an unsuspecting Belgian public.
I did have one or two minor mishaps, and several things went wrong with the car, but my mother was thrilled. She was a great help in keeping me calm, as she never turned a hair whilst I learnt to negotiate the car somewhat precariously through the Brussels traffic.