(Excerpt from ‘The Tales of a Fly-By-Night’ by V M Karren)
I was too far away from home when the music stopped. In fact, I was on the other side of the world when my return ticket expired. Life abroad wasn’t supposed to go on that long; it was all just part of the big adventure. I really had planned to go home after a few years, but when I realized how much time had passed, so quickly, it was shocking. In the same way that other middle-aged men miss the telltale signs of aging, I too had a sobering wake-up call to how much time had really passed. Only after being confronted with some sobering photographs of myself after a reckless binge holiday with people not even half my age, I knew I had to start acting my own age.
After a failed attempt to move my young family to the Mediterranean coast of Spain, I had to get away for a few days, distract myself from the reminders of a dream not come true. When school let out for the summer, I took my two oldest kids, with an average age six years old, for a week of adventure and exploration in Brussels. We gorged ourselves on chocolate, waffles and Belgian frites without any semblance of adult inhibitions.
Brussels is a city of stark opposites—an urban dichotomy. In this town, beauty and blight stand shoulder to shoulder. Luxury and poverty face each other across car-jammed boulevards. Haute cuisine and frites are served on the same lunch platter without irony. This city is both a playground for the power brokers of Europe and a sensual delight for the taste buds of kids of all ages.
In the mornings we strolled the narrow alleyways finding hidden palaces, secret passageways wide enough for only the shoulders of an eight-year-old. We spent the hot afternoons sketching the spired, Gothic buildings that line the Grand Place, using our imaginations to see the medieval behind the modern. Each day we sat in the shade of a different corner of the plaza, eating chocolates or waffles, examining the details of a new building from a different angle. We observed gold leafing hidden under decades of dust trying desperately to shine through. Grandeur stifled by soot.
In the mornings, right after breakfast, we waited impatiently in front of closed Godiva boutiques and ate frites at lunchtime. Once for dinner we splurged and ate “mussels in Brussels” while scarlet-shelled lobsters floated passed above our heads, sprawled out on silver platters, carried by white coated waiters.
Despite all the fine food on offer in the grand cafes along the cobbled pedestrian streets, we just couldn’t resist the offer for “all we could eat” spicy chicken wings and frites for dinner the next evening. I know I enjoyed myself, but can’t speak for my boy, who I found asleep on the bathroom floor in our hotel room, too tired, too afraid to go back to bed. On his pleading I left him there, but brought him a pillow, like a good Dad should.
Even though the holiday got off to an irresponsible start, we did our best to make it educational as well. After enabling us with far too much salt, fat and sugar, I did manage to convince the kids to visit several museums. For example, we learned that dark chocolate has more antioxidants than broccoli from the tour guide in the Cocoa & Chocolate Museum. We couldn’t wait to tell Mom! (We bought lots of samples for her from the museum’s gift shop.) We also took in the city’s historic artwork, giggling ourselves silly at the tinkling statue of Manneke Pis. We swam in the city’s historic fountains, chased pigeons in the palace park and ate our picnic lunch on the stairs of the Musee des Beaux Arts. We revelled in Belgian culture!
The highlight of the week was our visit to Mini Europe theme park. We traveled to every country in the European Union in less than ninety minutes, taking in the famous sights on any tourist’s bucket list. The Eiffel Tower was there together with Big Ben. We held our breath to see Venice, Pisa and Rome waiting anxiously under an erupting Mt. Vesuvius. We hiked through the fjords of Norway and played hopscotch around the Paleis Real in Madrid. Both kids seemed very aware of the world around them, with a real sense that these places, with their histories and cultures, were accessible to them. They looked forward to their next journey and cheered with the crossing of each mini-frontier.
When I saw the photographs that we took that week, I was filled with wonder to see a look of invincibility on the faces of the kids as they explored this new place. So young, so fearless. What startled me in the same pictures was how much I looked like their father, and not the buddy or playmate I felt I was to them on the trip. In the snapshots I am seen wearing things that grown men should not wear in public, nor could I figure out where all my hair had gone! I asked the kids if they had seen that chubby, old, bald guy who photobombed all of our pictures. They thought I was pretty funny.
Somehow, I missed had the gradual changes. I took Einstein at his word, that if I just kept moving fast enough that I wouldn’t get any older compared to everybody else around me. He was wrong. Each birthday abroad was to me just another extension of the year, not the closing of it. I had been oblivious to the passing of time. One day I just woke up and I was ***censored*** years old. My travel buddies have since turned into young adults, going places without me, and are too much like me at that age: self-confident and too curious to sit still.
As I watch them start to leave the nest now, I sit here scratching my head, asking myself, “Where was I when all this happened?”