When my husband Paul and I lived in Brussels from 1986 to 1989, we had no car and lived in one room. Our lives were simple; during the two-month periods I spent in Brussels, my days revolved around my running training. Paul fit his running around his full days as a Ph.D. student at the Von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics.
My training logs give a summary of my workouts, but how else did I fill my days? It was easy; Brussels is a glamorous city, very similar to Paris. There was lots to see, and window-shopping was free. We lived in an ideal location on the border of the wooded areas that led to the Forêt des Soignes. We had shops right next door to us. The old part of Brussels, with its cobblestone streets, lace shops, and countless small restaurants and bars, was less than five kilometres away. We could walk four kilometres to a movie theatre. Two different train stations that would take us to anywhere in Europe (Amsterdam three hours, Paris two hours) were four or five kilometres from our home.
Paul and I used our bicycles to get to the Institute (though I took the bus there in winter, because it was dark in the morning and I didn’t have a light.) Other than that, we walked everywhere. I figure that every day, in addition to my running and cross-training, I walked anywhere from 6 to 18 kilometres. Of course, I walked to my gym and back (3 km) and to the pool and back (6 km) on my cross-training days. Where else did I go?
Almost every day I’d buy fresh food from the supermarket or the small shops near our house. Supermarkets were not that popular in Brussels in the ’80s; there were still many specialized shops offering top-quality foods and delicious variety. There was the boulangerie (bread shop), the pâtisserie (sweet baked goods), the fromâgerie (cheese shop), the boucherie (butcher’s), and my favourite, the chocolaterie (chocolate shop). I became a connoisseur of both cheese and chocolate while living in Brussels. They were inexpensive there, and I’m sorry I can’t indulge in them the same way in Canada.
The small shop owners in Brussels were geniuses when it came to window displays. Whether you were looking at desserts, or cheeses, or truffles, the shop’s most mouth-watering items were always generously displayed in front of every centimetre of window space. Clothing stories also featured attractive window displays. The lingerie shops were especially noticeable to North Americans because their windows displayed large black and white photos of gorgeous models wearing the skimpiest pieces strung up in the shop window.
Two afternoons a week, I walked three kilometres each way to attend a French class for international students. I wasn’t officially registered in the class (I couldn’t be, since I was just there as a tourist), but the teacher was the girlfriend of one of Paul’s best friends at the Institute, so she permitted me to attend. I found the class challenging; the students came from all different countries, including Iran, Japan and Spain. There were only a few English-speaking people in the class. Olympia, the instructor, spoke no English, but she was an enthusiastic teacher. She was a quintessential charming Frenchwoman, and I admired her style.
In order to improve my French, I made a rule for myself that I would restrict my reading almost entirely to French. I started with short novels, but eventually worked up to full-length books, including classics of French literature. Reading was painfully slow at first; it wasn’t at all enjoyable to have to stop about 20 times a page to look up words in my dictionary. However, a lot of learning takes place unconsciously. With practice, I started getting a feel for the language and only had to stop and look up words occasionally. Eventually, I could read French at about a fifth the speed I could read English.
I borrowed my French novels from a library near my house. I also treated myself by walking once a week to the American Library, where I perused English magazines of all types for a few hours.
I’ve never seen as many movies in my life as I did when Paul and I lived in Brussels. On almost every Saturday and Sunday night we walked four kilometres to the movie theatre on Avenue Louise, a major boulevard lined with luxury shops. I remember how exhausted I was doing those walks after our hard weekend workouts–it’s amazing we didn’t fall asleep in the theatre!
The movies were our main entertainment. We didn’t go out much. Occasionally Paul would help organize a big party for all the students at his Institute. There were quite a few American students at Von Karman, and most of the other students spoke fairly good English, so these parties were fun for me.
It wasn’t quite the same with our other social group, the track club that we officially belonged to in Brussels. We didn’t train with this group, but we needed to belong to a local club in order to compete in the local cross-country races. I’ve pretty much repressed my memories of those Belgian cross-country races; they were mudbaths! I do remember that Zola Budd was in one of the races that I took part in.
Paul and I became quite friendly with one of the old-timers in the club who drove us to some of the races. Milou would tell us stories of his adventures in World War II.
A couple of times Paul and I were invited to club dinners that were held in big restaurants. These events were socially awkward for me, mainly because the dinners didn’t start until about 10 p.m. I was usually starving by 6, so I had to eat a dinner at home first. Then, by the time we got to the restaurant, I’d be painfully sleepy after my usual day of getting up early, training hard and walking everywhere. It was very tough for me to formulate my thoughts in French and be sociable.
As long as running was going well, I was happy in Brussels. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have a car, or that every outing ended with a climb up 80 steps to a maid’s room at the very top of what had once been a rich family’s mansion. I was fit and healthy and money can’t buy that.