( the 4th in a series in which I examine my Hobbit-like reluctance to travel)
The street in Bois Fort, a district of Brussels, is narrow and lined with attached houses, many of which were once businesses. My brother Rob’s house used to be a bakery for example. The ovens used to be in a building in back, separated from the kitchen and store front by a small yard. The two buildings are now one and the ovens have been replaced by a fireplace. You can still see where the counter stood on the tiles in the living room and there is a tin sign hanging on a wall on which the prices of the various loaves could be written in in chalk.
As always people drop in. They don’t call first or even text. They just show up. If there is a meal on offer, they share it. They may even bring their wash.
I live in an “old” suburb of Toronto. The only people who ring my doorbell are from the Jehovah Witness program. I don’t even, anymore, get those annoying people who demand to see your utility bill because they can save you money. The rare visitor gives me fair warning of impending arrival.
I remember that open door policy here in Bois Fort even on my last visit 20 years ago. Whether it is actually a neighborhood phenomenon or my brother’s influence I can’t say. I remember that as a young teenager, he more or less lived with a neighbour, so communal living may come readily to him.
Across the street live two octogenarians that he calls his little old ladies. Their cottage sits four feet below the street on which it once sat level. It is freshly painted and has an indoor toilet now because of Rob. They protest that they don’t need these fancy new gadgets like water heaters, but they seem glad of his visits and the roast chicken he buys for them at the Sunday market. Sundays they get no meals on wheels, another thing he arranged for them. They are Bruxellois and although they speak French, their actual dialect is a language peculiar to that group.
They are not the only marginalized people Rob has adopted. He is mentoring a young man with mental challenges, teaching him the value of wearing his teeth and underwear, for example. The lame and the halt find sympathy here. He has a firm belief that we owe it to the world to make it a better place, no matter how annoying the process can be.
Why? We four siblings had every opportunity to become homeless addicts. While it is true our parents were hard workers who professed to love us, we lived in fear for our lives, constantly vigilant. At any moment, our father might take it into his head to beat us or our mother might try to drown us in the bathtub. Mental health issues! Ya think? In fact, three of us ended up in the teaching/preaching game and Rob, who was in a more creative line, took that vow to make life better for others. And did it laughing. Mostly. But if that kid doesn’t wear his teeth….
What’s not to like? Monastic me with the silent doorbell, practically imploded the other night as the table and then the family room filled up with laughing people. Long bouts of French too fast for me to follow made me go off line. Mostly translations followed so that stories got laughed at twice and that was, if anything, more overwhelming.
I have to do a certain amount of self-mentoring. I am in no danger of leaving my teeth out, but I have to tell me to relax. There is no danger here. These people actually like each other. My brother has gathered them around him, baggage and all. Despite illness and grave prospects, there is a pocket of hope on this cobbled, narrow street.