(first published Summer 2012–updated 6/25/2014)
Last night I was looking up into the sky (something very easy to do in Brooklyn), into the flowing clouds, and thinking about my wife and our four year-old son Ben. It seemed like a simple trip through that sky to the other side of the ocean, that same sky they’re looking into, from the city of London, where they are both visiting. (My wife’s job as a teacher allows her more vacation time.) Lying down and looking up, I could almost swim up into that sky and coast over–I thought of Charles Lindbergh, that exhausting night alone, where he had to fly close to the water to save fuel.
Earlier in the day, I told my mom over the phone how Ben’s mom, my wife, bought him an English bobby hat. She was carrying him when two real English bobbies talked to him about the night’s shift that he and they would have to work until 10 pm and about giving directions to tourists.
“I better take this off or people will think I’m a real policeman,” Ben said.
My mom laughed
“That kid’s been all over!”
“He has!” I responded.
After all, here is where my son has stepped foot on: London, England; Berlin, Germany (many times–passing through to Poland); Western Poland (many times); Zurich, Switzerland (airport only); Columbus, Ohio; Toledo, Ohio; Rural Pennsylvania; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; parts of Long Island; and he lives in New York City.
My first time in Europe was when I was 16, traveling with my high school choir for an international competition. Some families there volunteered to house us.
It was probably on the morning of April 23, 1984, the Monday after Easter. The mother, who spoke Flemish and only bits of English kept repeating the same phrase.
We were all meeting up to go on tour to nearby Holland and Amsterdam.
If the bus “leuvens” at nine-thirty, I thought, I will miss the trip! I was struggling to understand the language with any slight hints of any similarities to English. I knew what “leuven” had to mean.
I insisted that we go to the stop before the bus leaves. I insisted that we rush into the car. On our way, the mother tried to calm me down: “Leuven–nine-thirty.” We have to make it before nine-thirty, I thought.
We just made it, and then we waited for the bus to arrive at the city center of Aarschott, in Belgium. I recognized some of my classmates already on the bus. Apparently, they were staying in a nearby town: Leuven.
I think of that story every time I see Stella Artois advertised, or if I happen to be drinking it. “Leuven” it proudly proclaims on the package.
The first night’s stay, we had to make a trip to Leuven. It had beautiful medieval architecture: stone buildings with stained glass and winding streets. I should have made a note of the town’s name.
On my first night in another country, besides Canada, I was exhausted with jet lag. I had a strange dream, about Europe. I was a tank in World War I. I was moving across battlefields destroying the land. Those poor people in Europe!
There was a family. They lived in a house in the middle of all this carnage. They tried to go about their lives as much as possible. They spoke very loudly about something very important, in an incomprehensible language. They struggled with me and took me down the stairs of their house.
I was in a car. Suddenly, I realized the part where I was going down the stairs was not just in my dream. I asked where we were going, and our school’s nurse who was traveling with us and spoke English and sitting in the front seat explained to me what was happening.
They were taking me to the hospital. I was so excited the day I left for the trip that when my mom picked me up from school and I was running to the car and suddenly stopped, I twisted I bent my leg sideways against my ankle that started to swell up, but we decided I was still ok to go.
Now the family I was staying with and our school nurse had decided they better have a doctor look at it.
At the hospital they determined it was just a sprain. Afterwards they took me to a restaurant in that town called The Oxford Tavern. I had something that tasted like it was a mix of cheese and mashed potatoes and then deep fried.
Soon my ankle was better. I went from being waited on to, when my ankle was better, being asked to help mow their lawn, but then they rewarded me with cake.
It was fun tasting the food, biking into the town sometimes by myself, hearing different music and seeing the young women.
Many of the women had asymmetrical haircuts, one side hanging down. And their hair seemed to be wet. I liked this. It was the early 80s, and those asymmetrical haircuts along with the moose and gel would appear in Ohio in the later 80s.
A lot of New Wave songs made their way to Ohio at least some months to a year later.
When it was closer to the competition, we stayed in campgrounds in Neerpelt. The Belgium government gave us all lunch on our first day there, as they did with the rest of our meals during the competition. Different groups went into the dining hall at different times.
Sitting at a table at the other side of the room was a gorgeous young woman with long blonde hair and blue eyes. She smiled at me–her hair was so nice and long and her face! She kept staring at me and I stared back–we couldn’t stop staring at each other. I couldn’t believe she was looking at me.
Where was she from? I saw her later as we all marched in a rehearsal for a parade carrying our countries’ flags and singing Ode to Joy. Her school’s flag had a white strip on top and then a red stripe: Poland–those poor people, in that oppressive country.
Hanging around the campground, I met a group of guys slightly older than I who told me they were a motorcycle gang in the area. They didn’t look like Hell’s Angels. They were dressed more like serious students. As I talked with these guys, I saw the same woman walk by. I tried to say something to her and the other guys tried to say something too. She became nervous and walked away quickly.
Later that evening, from what became clear was the Polish side of the campground, I saw another young woman with sandy hair, who was crying. I didn’t know why she was crying, but knowing she was from Poland, I thought she might be in some sort of trouble. I came to her and held my hand to her indicating that she should wait. I ran back to my cabin and grabbed my passport, to show her I was from the U.S., so that maybe I could help her and take her to the U.S. Then she ran back to her cabin and back and showed me her passport. I could see that she was from Poland.
We started communicating to each other by drawing pictures with a pen and paper. She gave me some information about her life and I gave her some about mine.
On the day of the parade, we all marched through the main street of Neerpelt, before my school marched, I first saw the girl who ran away the night before and she waived at me. Then I saw the girl I had been communicating with, and she waived at me too.
Then it was our school’s turn to march. We went through the main street and then into an auditorium where we sang the Ode to Joy.
Our school received average marks in the competition–I always thought some of the less serious kids made it harder for our choir to have more productive practice sessions–and in the evening our director was rumored to be drunk. I met the same girl I had been communicating with that night, in the same spot. Then I gestured to her to ask if I should kiss her. Then our director started screaming that we should all turn in for the night in our cabins and began counting to ten–so, I rushed away, without kissing her, before I was in trouble. However, we had exchanged addresses.
We wrote each other as pen pals for a while. Her letters to me always arrived opened. My mom knew some nuns she taught with at a Catholic school, though we weren’t Catholic, who spoke Polish. They translated for us. She insisted she was happy and loved her town where she lived and that she loved to laugh, sometimes getting one of those spells where she can’t stop. Over time, our exchange of letters became less frequent until they stopped.
But years later, on January 1, 2001, in a world with fewer barriers, I rode a train next to the most beautiful woman I had ever seen with the most beautiful eyes. We started talking and I asked where she was from. She said she was from Poland. I gave her my card, just before she left the train. She emailed me and we started dating. She would become my wife and the mother of our son, Ben.