October in Brussels


Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself (Gal. 5:14).

Meredith sat on the stone steps of the old gray house on Avenue Molière in Brussels, Belgium. The sky was gray, and an occasional brown leaf drifted down from the sycamore trees that lined the median. Meredith looked at the gray and black connected houses and thought about how October would be at home in Vermont: The hills would be blazing with red maples and yellow birches, orange pumpkins would be sitting on the front porch, and the sky would be a deep, vibrant blue.

Her parents seemed thrilled to be here, but in the three days they’d been here, Meredith had felt nothing but sad and lonely and homesick. Her father said that wherever they were was home as long as they were together, but this dark, somber city didn’t seem like home to Meredith. The streets and sidewalks were made of square, gray stone too bumpy for her skateboard. And her favorite TV shows were in French. So far, she knew only the little French that her father had taught her.

As Meredith rested her chin in her hands, a tear rolled down her cheek. She was startled when the door behind her opened. A girl near her age, wearing a pleated skirt and a bright red sweater, stepped out. “Bonjour (Hello),” the girl said, smiling.

Bonjour,” Meredith answered. Then the girl said something in French that Meredith didn’t understand. “Anglais (English),” Meredith said flatly.

Très bien (Very good)!” The girl smiled broadly. “I would like to practice my English. My name is Yvette, and I’m eleven years old.” She sat down next to Meredith.

Je m’appelle (My name is) Meredith. I need to practice my French, too, but I don’t know much.”

“Do you live in my building?”

Oui (Yes),” Meredith replied.

“Are you busy? Could we do something?” Yvette asked.

“No, I’m not busy. It’s such a gloomy day, though. What could we do?”

“What is ‘gloomy’?” Yvette asked.

“Dark and cloudy and gray.”

Yvette laughed. “Meredith, if we wait for the sun to shine in Brussels, we will never do anything. Have you seen the Grand Place and the Palais de (Palace of) Justice?”

“No, I haven’t seen much of anything yet,” Meredith said. “We’re still unpacking.”

“Oh, you must see them. We can ask our mothers.”

“Is it far?” Meredith asked.

“Not far. We walk to Avenue Louise and then ride the tram. You will need some money for the tram.”

Meredith’s mother was a little worried about the excursion until Yvette’s mother came and introduced herself and reassured her that it would be easy and safe.

Soon the two girls were walking along the cobbled stones.

“Is everything gray here?” Meredith asked as she looked around her.

Yvette was thoughtful. “Well, not everything. There are other colors, but you have to look for them. See those leaves?” Yvette pointed, and Meredith saw a bright red vine growing along a gray wall.

Meredith looked at Yvette. “And you’re colorful in your red sweater.”

Merci (thank you),” Yvette laughed.

On the tram, Meredith laid down her coins and said merci when the conductor handed her a ticket. Yvette put a card from her pocket into a little square machine until it clicked, then took it out again. As they sat together on the red vinyl seats, Meredith looked at Yvette’s happy face. “You speak English very well,” she said.

Merci beaucoup (Thank you very much). My father taught it to me. Sometimes at church I speak with the American missionaries in English, but I am glad I met you so that I can practice every day.”

“American missionaries? What church do you belong to?”

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

“That’s a long name,” Meredith said.

“People just call us Mormons.”

“I’ve heard of that back in Vermont. And I think I’ve seen those missionaries—young men in suits.”

Oui,” Yvette said. “Young women, too, sometimes. And older couples.”

After they left the tram, they walked down narrow streets lined with shops and restaurants with tables outside beautifully set with linens and silver. When they stepped into the square of the Grand Place, Meredith stared. It was big—it covered a whole city block—and the buildings were enormous, the tower of the Town Hall reaching high into the sky. Some buildings were trimmed in gold, and flower boxes with bright geraniums decorated the windows. People were walking in all directions over the square stones, and in the center were dozens of containers of flowers for sale.

The girls looked in the shop windows at the beautiful lace and the rows of chocolates. At one place, Yvette told Meredith, “In this house, above the restaurant, the great writer Victor Hugo lived.”

Meredith looked up at the windows. “You mean people actually used to live in these buildings?”

“Yes,” Yvette said, smiling. “That one was the baker’s house. It is almost as large as the king’s house—food is important.” They both laughed. On another little street, Yvette bought waffles for them both.

As they approached the Palais de Justice, Meredith could see that it was huge. But it wasn’t until they were standing at the bottom of the steps by pillars as big around as three people could reach, and looking up at the roof far above, that she really felt its enormity. Statues of men much bigger than life stood on each side of the stairs.

“I think that this is the biggest building in Europe,” Yvette said.

“Why is it so big? What’s it for?” Meredith asked.

“It is for justice.”

“You mean it’s a courthouse?” Meredith thought that the square stone building on the corner of Main Street at home would fit on the porch of this building.

“Yes, that is it, a courthouse.”

“But why is it so big?”

“Maybe if you are a criminal, it makes you feel small and humble, sorry for your crime. Come on, we will go up the steps and look some more. Then we will go to the Sablon.”

By the time they reached the cathedral that Yvette had called the Sablon, Meredith’s feet ached from so much walking over the uneven stones. They opened the big door quietly and sat down on the high-backed chairs. In the loft behind them, in a clear, beautiful voice, a woman was singing words that Meredith couldn’t understand. A few people walked around in the church. Marble statues stood at the front, and a pulpit of beautifully carved wood was in the middle.

Meredith looked around at the stained glass windows, their bright colors glowing with the light, at the high, vaulted ceiling, and at the lovely white statues. “Do Mormons have beautiful churches like this?”

Yvette looked around thoughtfully. “No, our churches are very plain.”

“So what do you look at when the sermons are dull?” When Yvette laughed, Meredith added, “Maybe they’re never dull.”

“Yes, they are, sometimes,” Yvette said, “but it is more the feeling you have inside yourself when you’re there—you just feel happy and loving. That is the beautiful part.”

Meredith nodded, and they sat quietly for a few minutes, resting and listening to the singing. Meredith was thinking about how happy she’d been with Yvette. Yvette was friendly, and she knew how to make things fun. “Is it your church that makes you so happy?” Meredith asked.

Yvette smiled. “I think so.” She paused. “Come with me to church. Then you can see for yourself.”

“Maybe I will,” Meredith said. “I’m glad you found me on the steps this morning.”

Moi, aussi (Me, too).”

As they walked again along Avenue Molière, Yvette put her arm through Meredith’s. A small shaft of sunlight came through the clouds and brightened the red vines they’d seen earlier.

Meredith smiled at Yvette. “Thank you for teaching me where to look for the beauty in Brussels. I know I’m going to like it here now.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Shauna Mooney Kawasaki