I’ve had a rather amazing weekend…
On Facebook, I am a member of a group of photographers, all amateur – myself possibly the most amateur, from various countries in Europe: Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, France, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, UK, Finland, Romania, Serbia, Czech Republic and maybe some others that I can’t recall.
We take photographs and post them in fortnightly competitions, with various themes chosen by different members each time. What is lovely about this particular group is the level of friendly feedback, advice and help we give to each other, as well as some lively, teasing banter.
About six months ago, one member of the group, a young Italian man who now lives in Birmingham, UK suggested that perhaps we could meet up somewhere in Europe. After some discussion, we agreed to meet in Belgium this weekend. I wasn’t sure I would be able to make it as I didn’t know how well I would be. But as the time got closer, I realised I would be able to go and more importantly I really wanted to, even if I couldn’t fly as originally planned. When the meet-up was first suggested, I was quite depressed and not interested in doing much at all, but since knowing about the relapse and taking steroids, I want to and have the energy to grab every opportunity that presents itself, especially when it comes to travelling and socialising.
So travelling by Eurostar, Friday evening saw me arrive in Brussels Midi station, where I was met by Kaat, my host for the weekend, who whisked me off to the restaurant where everyone else had already gathered. We have chatted and exchanged photographic ideas on Facebook, but never met, although there is one woman who I know from many years ago in London.
We immediately fell into a highly excitable yet relaxed bonhomie of kissing cheeks (three times of course – we’re in Belgium after all!), eating and drinking. Of course, mosselen en frites was my dish of choice and they were big, juicy and delicious. You really have to eat mussels and fries in Belgium – c’est de rigueur! After dinner, we wandered around Brussels at night taking photos and getting to know each other. I was happily surprised how easy it all was and how warm we felt towards each other so quickly.
Meanwhile, there’s another story… a few weeks ago, I was awake in the early hours (thanks yet again to Dex). For some reason, I dug out a hand-written memoir that my father wrote some years ago. I had kept it but never read it in the six years since he died. Reading it, I became aware of so many family members on his side that I didn’t know, some of whose names I knew but many others I’d never even heard about. Two of the names I knew were Leonard Fishel, my father’s first cousin, and his wife Dodie. I knew they lived in Antwerp and that my father had visited Leonard a short time before he was ill. I didn’t know if he was still alive, but I knew he had one or two children, so there had to be family connections somewhere out there, but how to find them…?
The internet is such an incredible tool, font of shared knowledge, and a modern mode of communication, amongst other things. So, that seemed a good place to begin. To cut a very long story a little shorter, I found a website of photos and videos of a Liverpool baby called Leonardo Fishel and decided to boldly write to the parents, as I was sure there must be a connection there, especially as the Jewish tradition is to name children after our predecessors as a mark of honour.
While I waited, I also emailed a few of the Antwerp synagogues asking if they had any members of congregation with the name. I didn’t hear back from any of them. However, the father of little Leonardo responded to my message, saying he had passed my message to his cousin in Antwerp. This was looking very promising. And indeed it proved to be quite easy. Within a couple of weeks, I had an email from George, the son of Leonard and a quick correspondence ensued between us, sharing names, history, photos and a very elongated family tree on both the Black and Fishel sides, to which I need to add our bit.
I knew already that I would be in Antwerp this weekend and asked if it might be possible to meet George and his father. The response was very enthusiastic and soon it was all arranged, although the final details didn’t take place until Saturday morning. I was to visit Leonard at his home on a major street in the centre of Antwerp at 4pm. George lives nearer Brussels so wouldn’t be able to come that day. I did hope to arrange to meet with him on Sunday, but in the end I ran out of time.
I spent most of the day with the photography group and after lunch I set off to find the tram. I found the apartment quite easily and excitedly rang the bell. Leonard is now 92 and although rather deaf and not too mobile, he remembered me well from meeting me at age 12, which I do not recall at all.
I spent a cosy couple of hours with him, having tea and cake, listening to him talk about his family, the war, his courtship of Dodie, learning to cut diamonds, his family, my dad when he was young. Sadly, Leonard’s parents and a younger brother perished in Auschwitz. He showed me copies of old documents from that time, which I took photos of and will try to decipher the writing at a later date.
I told him openly about my health, which I wasn’t sure I’d want to do. Some people react quite badly to such news, but he accepted it with sympathy but no undue fuss. The afternoon was delightful and very emotional, not least because I could see a family resemblance to my dad in his face.
Finally, I needed to leave as I was due to meet my new friends for dinner. Len and I were both very happy that I’d visited and he asked me if I might visit again, which I hope to do soon, and maybe get to meet his son and daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
As well as this reconnection, I was now about to meet someone else from my past, Veerle, a Belgian woman with whom I lived in a community on the South Yorkshire moors 20 years ago. We found each other through the wonder of Facebook some months ago and she was coming to see me and join our group for dinner.
The group had already arrived and had welcomed her into their friendly midst before I showed up a little late. I walked in and Veerle and I hugged like long-lost sisters. I was already emotional from my afternoon adventure and this just added to a very happy, almost-overwhelming mixture of emotions, food, wine and a genuine feeling of connection and warmth. I spent a lot of the evening sighing and feeling tearful and happy. I didn’t eat a lot – too busy filling up on emotions.
On Sunday, we went to Sophie’s house in the Limburg countryside, where we took a walk and had a barbeque at her house for lunch. The walk was in a local nature reserve, which so closely resembled the nature reserve near my own house, I felt quite at home. Sophie and Eric put on a splendid feast of barbecued salmon, chicken, sausages, baked potatoes, various salads, wine, not to mention some of the specialities some of us brought with us to share, like Dutch cheese and Belgian Elixir d’Anvers. My own contribution was home-made damson vodka, which I was pleased to see went down very well.
No one else had to leave as early as me, so Eric agreed to take me to a nearby station, where I could take a train to Brussels, allowing everyone else to relax for another couple of hours. Misjudging the time and unfortunately slow traffic meant that I missed the train that would get me to Midi station in time for the half hour check-in for Eurostar. I managed to catch another train, which meant two changes and looked like I would probably miss the Eurostar, which would have had the knock-on effect of missing my connection up to Nottingham and therefore a very expensive return journey. I was starting to think of alternative modes of transport, but decided that that’s just what a credit card and savings were there for – those rainy days or emergencies, right?
There was nothing I could do, but decided to deal with the situation as it arose. I certainly didn’t need to beat myself up, get stressed or wound up as it wasn’t going to achieve anything, except spoil my day. Once installed on the first train, I was about to send a thank you text to the hosts and let them know I’d caught the train, when I discovered that my mobile phone… I mean my whole entire life!!!!! was missing. I turned out my handbag and jacket pockets and no, it really was not there. I checked I had everything before I left the house, but I think I must have taken it out to check the time and left it on the table in the flurry of kissing goodbyes. Of course I couldn’t call or text them to let them know.
By some magical twist of fate, the train into Brussels arrived earlier than I’d been advised and I managed to catch the correct Eurostar. It was very crowded, but I managed to type up most of this update while speeding through the Belgian, French and Kentish countryside.
At St Pancras I managed to get on the right train to Beeston – a five minute difference between one that stopped at my tiny local stop and the one that goes direct to Nottingham. And after thinking I’d left my ticket with the man at the barrier, but hadn’t – I finally relaxed into the rather noisy and crowded journey home. Had I missed either train, it would have cost a minor fortune to buy new non-advance tickets. PHEW!!!!!! 😀
This is a little different from my usual posts, which are much more about my physical and emotional responses to the illness and treatments. But I realise that it’s only due to the relapse of the cancer and the current steroid treatment that I have energy and drive to take up such adventures along with a devil-may-care, let’s just do it attitude – almost like the opposite of a death wish – wanting to live as much, as fully, as greedily as I can and an unwillingness (no doubt driven by the steroids) to take on any undue stress.
It’s also what makes me more emotional and dippy than usual – leaving my phone, getting confused about tickets and trains, leaving late… It feels something like a teenager’s irresponsibility, but dizzier. It does seem to be getting worse – I guess it builds up over the weeks. Thank goodness there’s only 6 more weeks of this treatment to go – more on that in the next post. Viewing photos from the weekend, I can see the results of the steroids in my face and body – I’ve begun to look like a shiny, chubby, ruddy-cheeked, telly tubby dumpling. Oh well… I’m alive and having fun – look! I’m smiling! So who cares?! 🙂