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Life as a gypsy: my Bosnian in Belgium

Any respectable itinerary of a trip to the Belgian capital and its surrounds must include Waterloo, Horta and his Art Nouveau, shellfish, and a statue of a little boy taking a leek. But I wouldn’t know anything about any of that. I ended up an accidental disciple of Chico Buarque, who wrote in Budapest that “to know a city it is better to shut yourself away in a room within it than to ride around it on a double-decker bus.”

I was touring the Western world with an equestrian circus show, when, in Brussels, less than a week before the premier, I had an accident during rehearsals that took me out of the show indefinitely. My left arm was broken in three places, my hand adamantly inert.

The Bosnian was always there in the beginning. Hospitals didn’t bother him like they do so many people. Like a good gypsy, he took advantage of the facilities–showered, ate bread and Jell-O from a pale pink tray.

“Talk about something please,” I begged when I needed a distraction from the pain.

“What do you want me to talk about? Communism?” he joked.

“Yes, tell me about Tito.” I couldn’t have been more earnest.

When listening to biased versions of Balkan history wasn’t enough, when the pain was too much and I couldn’t lie still, he’d put his hand against the side of my face and press my head into the pillow. And I would be calm. To this day I marvel at the miraculous powers of that massive paw. “Nurse Vidovic,” I’d smiled, “you can be surprisingly gentle.”

He wasn’t always gentle. He was too restless in his giant skin, too perpetually trapped in the wrong time and place, to be always thinking of the little people around him. Yet there it was; no denying it. I had fallen for the beast. It didn’t matter that I knew it was a bad idea. The fall from the horse that had landed me in Clinique St. Jean seemed insignificant in comparison.

He had been slipping in and out of my life for many months and as many cities, but it was in Brussels that I became truly haunted by both his presence and his absence.

I was fairly vulnerable–prostrate in bed with an IV in one arm and a blood-bad draining liquid from the other–when he decided to tell me about his girlfriend. He called her his ex. She was true and easy and stable and she loved him even when he wandered.

“How could you ever let him go for good?” he asked, referring to the ex-husband I had left while still in love.

I tried to explain my position: “We gypsies roam alone or we roam with other gypsies. We cannot tie ourselves to people who will always resent us in the end. If you don’t stay away, you will only hurt her, and you know it.”

“You hurt your husband when you left…” he countered. Touche.

My Bosnian dreamed of domestic bliss with his sweet girl in Montreal, the city his family called home after leaving during the war. And he dreamed of passionate nights in a reckless but infinitely satisfying grey area while trotting the globe. It didn’t seem to bother him that the two dreams were incompatible. In a way, it is one of the things that drew me to him and kept me by

him long after it was time to go. I, too, loved to flirt with the grey area. I, too, wanted more than anything to to live more than one life.

He had spoon-fed me a dream of going to Bosnia together. Instead, he hightailed it alone for the homeland and I spent two months almost entirely shut up in an apartment at 20 Place Stephanie just outside the shield-shaped heart of Brussels.

A handsome Belgian doctor welded the bits and pieces of bone together with a titanium plate. “Its the very best quality in the world,” he assured me, sounding almost jealous, “top of the line.” The bone would heal, but the damage to the radial nerve was substantial. My doctor agreed with the neurologist: it was unlikely that I would use my left arm again.

I decided that I would heal, and that I would stay in Brussels to do it.

In a way it seemed a great opportunity. I had all the time in the world and no responsibilities to speak of. It was true that I lacked the ability to do mundane things like button my pants or open a bottle of wine, but no matter. Brussels was my oyster, my haven, my sandy shore with only the smallest of signs warning that the waters were subject to a Slavic undertow.

For any number of hours in a day I would play the swan game, which, to an outside observer, might look a lot like simply staring at a hand. But there is more to it than that. To play: prop elbow on armchair or other sturdy mount; the forearm, or neck of our swan, stands straight up; the hand naturally falls limp creating our swan’s head. The rules of play are simple: will the swan to move. If she so much as wiggles her beak you have won and can begin another round. It can be a fairly boring game. The bird is stubborn and rarely moves at all.

I settled deeply into my apartment with her infinitely fluffy white bed and butter-colored walls. She seemed built for days upon days doing nothing in a beautiful city of which I would see almost nothing. When friends from the show spoke of nights out at Florise, of the rum bar, absinthe bar, and tavern of a thousand beers all nestled together off Le Grand Place, past the white-aproned servers ushering tourists to their tables for mussels and les frites, they might as well have speaking of the Taj Majal. I never made it that far.

Place Stephanie and fashionable Avenue Louise–these were the point and line of my slow-motion existence. It was no grand place, but it was my place. From my window in the living room I could see everything I needed: the chocolatier directly across the traffic circle, my tiny two-tiered grocery to the right, complete with legless beggar out front, and, when the weather was nice, the outdoor tables of my cafe just below. I made my rounds daily: coffee, chocolate, a little premade salad and beer for later…

Place Stephanie and Avenue Louise, my Belgian microcosm, were named for two sisters who loved foreigners and lived tragic lives. They were the daughters of King Leopold II, Belgium’s “Rubber King,” best known for his role in the creation and ruthless exploitation of the ironically named Congo Free State. Both girls initially submitted to unhappy marriages arranged by their father. After the bodies of her husband and his mistress were found in a hunting lodge, Stephanie married a low ranking Hungarian Count whom her father referred to only as “that shepherd.” She stayed with her Count in Hungary, today’s Slovakia, for 45 years.

Louise left her prince and ran away with a Croatian cavalry officer. An outcast from court and ostracized by her family, her life spiraled into extravagant debt and charges of insanity. When she was given the option of returning to her husband in lieu of institutionalization, she refused. Her Balkan boy eventually procured her escape from the asylum, and they stayed together until his death.

Leopold, the king who, for a time, personally owned the Congo, an area 80 times the size of little Belgium, disinherited his two wayward daughters and left them nothing when he was gone. I could have visited his statue on Boulevard de Waterloo, but it was just two steps too many beyond the range of my turf.

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