June 22, 2012: Friday
“Up up up up up up up up!”, repeated down the halls, flinging doors open, snapping lights on, yelling into the rooms. That’s the 7AM staff routine here. An overflowed toilet has flooded several rooms on the other end of the floor. The kitchen downstairs has already laid out some stale breads, cheap spreads and paper-thin plastic cups of coffee. Mounds of crumbs and smeared chocolate cover the self-service preparation areas within minutes of opening.
A small radio plays cheerful music on the floor. A big tall woman with bushy hair stomps angrily down the stairs into the lobby, wearing only granny panties and a small tight shirt. She engages in heated discussion with a worker then the two go back upstairs together. Moments later the worker runs by with a blood-soaked cloth sack, chased by the big woman with her fists in the air.
The small lobby is too crowded for the worker to scan his badge and escape behind the staff-only section of the building in time. The woman catches up, easily snatching the sack from his much smaller hands. Then she turns her attention to pummeling him in the face. Her punches are by no means skillfully thrown, but these two contenders are not even close to the same weight class. All the staff on-hand soon arrive to herd the woman out the front door, still screaming in her granny panties. The assaulted man walks away with his head down, uninjured but utterly defeated.
Moments later it’s like nothing ever happened. A man with a clipboard takes the names of everyone who would like to speak with a social worker. He’s the same swinging salesman voice that had spoken with me on the phone yesterday.
“Are you Kiser? I want to talk to you.”
He closes his office door and looks up a phone number for the same agency that the other social worker had been interested in yesterday.
“But she looked at their website”, I explain, “they don’t buy plane tickets for Americans.”
“Let’s call anyway.”
A few seconds of French dialog and he swings the phone down, snaps his fingers and smiles, “You got an appointment! It’s at 1 o’clock. Our van will drive you there, then you can come back here again at 8 o’clock tonight. OK?”
All but a few of the overnight guests are gone from the building now, not allowed to stay during the day except in special circumstances. The 1 o’clock appointment qualifies me to remain. A little old man named Valentino asks for help getting music onto his new phone. I oblige and he speaks with a staff member, getting us access to a computer room with exceptionally fast Internet access. The traditional piracy methods are blocked on the network so I have Valentino pick out music videos he likes on Youtube, then convert each one to MP3. We spend the next two hour like this, during which time he explains that the music will help him not be so sad. His whole family was killed in a car accident.
A dark-skinned man with a huge eyebrow hands me a big hot meatball sandwich before driving us to the agency appointment. Latin pop music plays loudly in the van as he drops me at one of the countless old downtown buildings. Its wood floors appear unchanged for the past century, with antique waiting room chairs that have worn notches under the legs.
One woman sits behind the reception desk while another leans over it. The two chat endlessly as I stand nearby, waiting to make first contact. Finally they are both staring at me.
“Hi, I have a 1 o’clock appointment for a repatriation request.”
The bigger woman leaned over the counter answers, “Where are you from?”
“The United States.”
“Well, you should know right now that there is almost no chance we can help you.”
“An appointment was made so here I am.”
“OK”, she sighs, walking off.
Two well-dressed black men appear in the waiting room, which is otherwise totally empty and silent. An hour later I walk back up to reception. Only the smaller of the women is there now.
“Should I just wait, or is there something else I have to do?”
“What? Did the other woman not call you? Isn’t your appointment with her?”
“It’s just an appointment, not with anyone in particular.”
“Oh, sorry. I thought she had taken care of you. Just a minute.”
A big wild-looking man calls me moments later, speaking with a simple bluntness. We go to his office two rooms away.
“How are you?”, he begins.
“Fine. How are you?”
He flips through the pages for a moment.
“Why US embassy not send you home?”
“They require contact information of people I know in the US. I don’t have permission to give them such information, so they will not help.”
“Normally I say, yes we help you, but you are American so your embassy should help you. I must get a letter from embassy saying that they will not help you.”
“I don’t think that they will cooperate unless you write a letter asking them to write a letter.”
“OK”, the man says, pulling out an agency letterhead. “I write letter in French because English not so good.”
He wads his letter up after two words, pulling out a fresh letterhead. “Americans only speak English, so I write in English.”
“OK, come back here early Monday”, he says after a painstaking composition.
I walk to the US Embassy, approaching a guard shack with the letter and passport in-hand.
“OK ok ok”, a guard cuts off my introduction, “We know who you are. You know where to go.” He steps aside and I walk on to the consular gate. There’s a small line and another American quickly files in behind me, striking up a conversation out of boredom.
“My daughter has a flight in two days and she lost her passport.”
“I ran out of money”, my reply.
The man giggles strangely and looks away, not saying another word.
A guard emerges from the consular security building, taking my passport and letter inside, returning shortly.
“Do you need your passport over the weekend?”
“Maybe. Do you need my passport over the weekend?”
“They say it would be best, to come back on Monday and get it.”
I oblige, although noticing that the guard seems suddenly uncomfortable. If just my original visit here yesterday had been enough for them to “know” me, then who knows what kind of strangeness this agency letter will incite. It began, “Will you send Garth Kiser back home? If not then could you please write a letter stating why?” There is a small chance they will actually admit in official writing to their invasive repatriation procedures. Embassy websites of course never mention that personal contact info of third parties is required.
A fat black cloud moves in to cover the city as I’m walking through the park towards Central Station. It’s one of those rare downpour events with no sprinkles of warning, just a deluge that makes everybody start running all at once. “OH FUCK”, I hear in a perfect US hillbilly accent as a suited man runs past me. He stands no chance at outrunning the speeding wall of water, caught within seconds. I hug the trunk of a big tree, remaining almost perfectly dry.
A howling chilly wind remains after the weather. I have enough money left on a debit card to buy a cheap bag of rolling tobacco. A skinny little homeless man with wild teeth and crossed eyes asks to roll a cigarrete. He reaches into the package with an entire hand, pulling out almost all the tobacco.
Our eyes lock.
“But the ladies, they need some too”, he says, pointing to two women nearby.
“PUT…..IT…..BACK”, louder now.
“But the ladies”, he whines, putting back only a tiny pinch.
I repeat my demand, yet louder. He returns another tiny pinch. I step closer, repeating again. He puts a bigger portion back this time, but still holding at least half the entire package. I lean in closer and repeat again, virtually yelling now. He puts back most of what remains then I push the rest out of his hands into the package.
“but the ladies…….”
I trip over tram tracks while hastily walking away from the little man, ripping the sole of my shoe loose. Now the soles of both shoes snap with each step and must be tied on. I hate cities.
8PM back to the shelter. An old man in a polka dotted skirt and bath slippers is here tonight, as is a woman with a full goatee. Valentino has accidentally formatted his memory card, deleting all the music we downloaded to it earlier. We spend another hour at the computers downloading more. The kid in the neck brace no longer has the neck brace, now talking with me endlessly about US western movies, seemingly unable to believe that I don’t know all the old actors he speaks of.
Also in my sleeping room tonight is an African street drummer telling the long story of how his brother moved in and stole his family. The other African says his parents are dead. The kid without the neck brace hates the government. The drummer speaks 7 languages and the others both speak 4.
“You forgot your passport at the embassy”, a staff member comes in the room to tell me, “They called the agency that’s helping you, then the agency just called us.”
This whole quest is probably going nowhere, but with nothing better to do, I can’t pass up even a small chance at a free ticket. The price is nearly $2000 right now.
June 23, 2012: Saturday
“Fuck this place”, the African street drummer mumbles as the staff goes about their obnoxious waking procedure. The other end of the floor is flooded with toilet water again. The same social worker with the salesman voice wants to see me in his office.
“How about a cappuccino?”
He says that I can only come here after 11 o’clock from now on because of the Belgish ID formality, and that I might not be able to get in at all if the beds are full. I decline to risk being stuck outside in this city after dark, preferring instead to find a campsite in the woods.
“Are you sure you don’t want a cappuccino?”
I seek out a university library, aided by directions printed out by the social worker. It turns out that all of the street cars can be ridden here for free, the drivers are behind a glass wall and never check tickets. Locals have told me that they have not been checked in years.
My love for Brussels street cars begins immediately. Subways remain a problem, not because of ticket checking officers, but because the system can only be entered through the few stations without ticket scanning gates. That also leaves the possibility of getting stuck somewhere if exiting such a subway station where no street cars pass by. Busses are everywhere, but the locals say the drivers will check tickets.
I find the Université Libre de Bruxelles Bibliothek with the help of many pedestrians who speak little English but are always patient to help. My love for this big white-tiled building begins immediately, with an open wifi signal and plenty of comfortable spaces. Adding to the convenience is a Carrefour store just four blocks away, but it’s no budget supermarket.
With just a couple dollars remaining on my Visa debit card, the only way to feed myself through the weekend is with six cans of cocktail wieners and a bag of sweet buns. Spending even a little more might put my account at risk of overdraft from international transaction charges, the mathematics of which are still a mystery to me after 3 months in Europe.
I walk into the massive park south of Brussels, the edge of which begins near the university. People are out in mass on this sunny Saturday afternoon. A woman tightropes between two trees. A big man rides by on a tiny pink bicycle. An impromptu soccer game with no rules is played by very young children, some who are not old enough to run properly. Even the littlest ones help each other up when they fall. The game is interrupted by a running dog, which grabs the ball in its jaws without slowing down. A growing group of people try and block every direction, obviously great fun for the dog. The chase ends minutes later with the ball deflated.
It’s another mile south before the park becomes empty enough of humanity to find a campsite. Near an abandoned horse racetrack-turned golf course is a patch of high soft weeds. This seems a more hidden option than the forest, which contains too many trails. The weeds are fern-like, easy to push aside without leaving a trail, and nearly as tall as me. There’s no tree cover, allowing lots of light in. At the center of the weed patch is a giant fallen tree trunk, next to which I flatten an area to sleep. The plants push over easily, and last year’s downed stalks help to soften the ground.
June 24, 2012: Sunday
A rain shower serves as alarm clock, not a soaking but a warning. I waste no time packing then follow the abandoned horse race track past the collapsing old grand stands. A strange site indeed for a golf course, which now has taken over what used to be the center of the track. The sky comes through on the threat just as I discover a conveniently located streetcar stop.
I’ve decided to hang out at the airport today, knowing there a good chance for wifi and electrical plugs. Each streetcar stop has a detailed public transportation map, and it appears that streetcar and subway travel is possible all the way to the airport. But a kink in the plans develops two transfers into the trip as I emerge from a subway station. What appeared on the map as a streetcar for the final leg of the trip is actually a bus, and I can’t ride busses. I also can’t go back into the subway because there is a ticket checking gate, and the rain is now pouring.
The airport bus is a double-length vehicle with a rear entrance door, but there’s just not enough people getting on to slip by without attention. I wait 30 minutes for the rain to lighten somewhat then walk 30 minutes to Central Station. At Starbucks I hijack an abandoned cup, putting a napkin overtop it so the employees coming by to clean cannot see it’s empty. The restaurant is too busy for them to notice I didn’t make the purchase.
But I can’t sit there all day, eventually opting to walk randomly around the station and a mall next door. All the stores in the mall are closed today but its big central hall is open. Gangs of drunken homeless men grow in number as the rain continues. A dozen of them stand in a subway entrance, occasionally throwing cans and bottles down the street. The city has placed oddly exposed urinals in places such as this where many bums gather, but these men usually still prefer to pee wherever and whenever they want. I never saw people act like this in Germany, although they surely do at times, just not so frequently or flagrantly. One aluminum can, half full of beer, flies just inches from my head, splattering onto other pedestrians who are already wet from the rain.
I hate cities.
A particularly interesting man is lounged out in the mall entrance among a big group of children playing hide-and-go-seek. He’s sitting upright on a piece of cardboard, but it’s impossible to tell if he conscious or asleep. His head is tilted down, mouth open, motionless, blood streaming down from multiple facial sores. It’s impossible to tell from any angle whether the eyes are open or closed.
Slowly his chin rises and he stands, then motionless again. Most people passing by do a double-take then step away. Some don’t even notice the bloody guy with a blank stare right next to them. The man turns his head my direction and approaches, speaking French in calm tones while pointing at his wrist. I shrug, not knowing the time because all of my electronics are turned off and stashed away.
The man asks everyone for the next 15 minutes, always using the same tactic of also pointing at his wrist in case they don’t speak French. Each time it’s the same shocked reaction, mouths stuck open before they can speak, taking one step back then walking away. Out of at least 20 people, not one answers the simple polite question from the bloody man. Finally I get my phone out, turn it on to the full-screen clock mode and show it to him.
“Ah monsieur, merci.”
Not knowing what to do with myself for the rest of the afternoon, I return by streetcar to the flattened weeds by the old racetrack. Using my tarp and a long tree limb I create a simple “tent” by propping one end of the limb up on the big fallen tree trunk. The edges of the tarp are tied to weeds and other dead branches. All rain stops the minute I complete the structure, and the sky begins clearing.
It’s a very uncomfortable little space, but getting out would surely increase the odds of more rain by 100 percent. While leaning up on one elbow I use the other hand to heat a can of cocktail wieners overtop a chuck of solid fire-starter material. The substance is part of a white soap-like brick that a man gave me and Sarah some weeks ago. The material breaks off in squares, making it very easy to balance canned goods on, and very good for urban campsites because only a very tiny amount of white smoke is created. It burns extremely slowly when sat on a flat surface and covered with a can. If this stuff is for sale elsewhere then it may forever become part of my backpack supply kit.
June 25, 2012: Monday
No money means no more food in sight. The last of the six cocktail wiener cans was last night’s midnight snack. So much for rationing. I return to the US Embassy. “So is that agency going to help you buy a ticket?”, one of the guards asks, not bothering to request identification.
The embassy had taken my passport and the agency letter on Friday without having me go through security, the guards just handed it over to the staff. Today they have me go through the whole security procedure to enter the building instead of simply having the guards hand back the passport and letter. This leaves me wandering what’s up.
I approach the clerk’s window inside, “Yes I’m Garth K………”. The clerk already has my passport and an envelop in his hand, smiling. “Yes, I know, we are very organized around here.” And a bit creepy.
Back outside I open the envelope, which is just the same letter that I’d come here with on Friday. There is no response whatsover, as had been requested by the agency. The only possible sense to be made of all this is that keeping the passport for the weekend and claiming I forgot it was somebody’s creative way to signify receipt of the letter without acknowledging the details of the repatriation policy in writing. Without claiming I forgot the passport, they would have had no legitimate excuse to call the phone number on the agency letterhead. If so, then props to the bureaucrat with a free will.
The little lobby at the agency is full and two police officers are there removing a man who can barely walk out on an injured foot. A big friendly woman standing in the doorway knows who I am upon seeing the returned letter, asking me to tell the story in her office. Back to the waiting room for just a few moments before a younger woman calls me to her office.
“Our partner has agreed to help you. They will buy your ticket to the United States.”
No way. Is this office some highly evolved parallel universe?
“Yes, now I just need to do some paperwork so we can begin the process.”
The woman prints a few simple forms and slides them across the desk for signature, stating that I’ll repay the ticket price if returning to Belgium within the next five years.
“What city would you like to fly to?”
Within 15 minutes I’m back out on the street, done with the details. “Come back on Friday to check in, but there will be no problem”, is the last thing she tells me. It has been an amazing series of extremely good luck and free-thinking individuals over the past days. And special props to the two agencies that helped me, for understanding why giving the US Embassy personal contact information about third parties was a problem in the first place. They never asked for any explanation. It’s apparently obvious to everyone except American bureaucrats.