Learning the hard way - our first day in Brussels
"Our plane arrived at Zaventem at 6:30am, which is just after midnight in Virginia. We were dazed and yet wide-eyed as we rode from the airport to our apartment in downtown Brussels," Expatica's blogger writes.
Last week, I related the story of how we were led to a life in Brussels. This week I pick up with our first day.
Our plane arrived at Zaventem at 6:30am, which is just after midnight in Virginia. We were dazed and yet wide-eyed as we rode from the airport to our apartment in downtown Brussels. I had never lived in an apartment before and the kids were excited because we’d be living on the second floor and they’d get to ride an elevator everyday. For them, this was the height of glamour and they argued endlessly over who got to push the buttons.
I loved the apartment at first glance. In a renovated older building, it had 16-foot ceilings, enormous windows and hardwood floors. The furnishings were modern yet cozy, the big leather sofas inviting, the bedrooms simple and streamlined. It was small, and the children had to share a room, but we didn’t mind. It was a surprisingly bright and airy space.
Though the sun was streaming through the windows, we crashed into bed and slept. When E woke me a few hours later, all I could mutter was: "You are not my friend!" E, the veteran traveller, insisted we get up, get outside and walk around to reset our biological clocks. I knew he was right but it seemed criminal at the time to leave our beds!
Soon we were moving in a herd down the sidewalks of Brussels, gawking at everything and trying to get our bearings. My brain was in a fog, as if the part that organised and stored information had been unplugged. I felt like I was watching TV without the sound. I was going through the motions.
We explored parks in the neighborhood, scouted out places to buy groceries and found restaurants with appealing menus. Back at the apartment, we unpacked our suitcases and washed up before going to dinner. We had three keys to the apartment and before we left, E and I checked to make sure we each had a key in hand before letting the door swing shut behind us.
What we didn’t know was that Belgian locks operate differently than Americans ones. Back in the States, we always left our extra key inside the house, stuck in the deadbolt. We had no clue this was a big no-no in Belgium until we trudged home after dinner, put our key into the door lock and discovered it didn’t turn.
Convinced he had inserted the key incorrectly, E tried reversing it, jiggling it — no luck. I pulled out my key and it didn’t work either. How was this possible? We’d used the keys earlier in the day and everything was fine.
By now it was 7pm. In the past 24 hours, we’d had less than three hours of sleep, and we were beyond exhausted. Having just arrived, we did not have a cell phone and we also didn’t have any phone numbers in hand of people we could call. All our contact information was in the apartment. We felt both foolish and vulnerable, not sure what to do next.
I noticed an emergency maintenance number posted next to the elevator and we wrote that down on our restaurant receipt. We walked through the apartment building looking in vain for a public phone.
E and our son A decided to walk back to the restaurant where we’d eaten and see if they would allow him to use their phone. I sat on the steps outside our apartment with little E-Grrrl who kept saying, "Belgium is not what I expected". And I kept assuring her that everything was going to be fine even as I fought back the urge to cry.
At the restaurant, E was told he couldn’t use the phone and he learned public phones don’t accept coins. A sympathetic waitress told him to go to a tobacco shop and buy a phone card. E found a shop, bought a phone card and then found a public phone and figured out how to use it.
Happily the building’s maintenance man answered E’s call and headed on over. What was lost in translation when E described our dilemma was that we weren’t locked out of our apartment in the usual sense of not having a key with us, but that we had locked ourselves out by leaving a key in the inside lock. So when the apartment guy showed up with the master key, we weren’t any better off than we’d been before.
Sighing, the maintenance guy asked whether any windows were unlocked. E never leaves ANYTHING unlocked under any circumstances. But fortunately, I was fairly certain I had left a window unlocked when I was checking the apartment out earlier in the day.
The maintenance worker let himself into the apartment next to ours, opened the window, and stepped out onto the tiny balcony over the street. He then had to swing a leg over the rail and step out onto a narrow ledge and creep along the building’s face toward our windows. E and A watched the drama unfolding from the cobblestone sidewalk below. E was puzzled because the man seemed to be stuck in place, not moving at all, and then he was moving ever so slowly.
Thank God, he eventually reached our windows safely, one was indeed unlocked, and he was able to open it from the outside, climb into our apartment and let us in. When E greeted him downstairs and thanked him for his efforts, the man was perspiring heavily and confided that he is terrified of heights. We felt awful for putting him in such a predicament but ever so grateful to finally be able to get inside and collapse. It had been a long day, a long journey to this moment.
Thus our first day in Brussels was memorable and educational in more ways than one. My first lesson as an expat: never, ever, leave a key in the deadbolt of your Belgian home.
V-Grrrl / Expatica
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