Three blissful months

At age 10, I stepped into a life outside of Iran for the first time. With two suitcases each, Mom and I arrived in October to the cold city of Brussels. There was no American embassy in Tehran so in addition to seeing my brother, Mom hoped we could get visas to see my father in the States.
The skies looked bigger, the streets seemed wider, the air smelled cleaner. A subway train ran in front of my brother’s apartment building on Rue de la Brasserie. It was 1998 and Iran had not yet built a subway system. In the one-bedroom apartment, Mom and I nestled on the small sofa bed with multiple blankets to keep ourselves warm. There was no heater so I shivered every time I went to bed. Under layers of blankets, I fixated my eyes on the unfamiliar and new ceiling.
Whenever we could, the three of us walked. Mom and I took charge of the laundry. As the temperatures dropped, we had a harder time walking to the Laundromat, even though it was just a block away. In Tehran, we had our own washing machine. Grocery shopping opened a whole new world for me. I pushed the cart, begging for more chocolate and biscuits, and all sorts of things that I had not seen in Tehran. There, Mom bought her produce and bread from an individual deli and bakery. The only large supermarket was at least an hour drive and since we didn’t have a car, we rarely shopped there.
When we came back after grocery shopping at Delhaize, we climbed two flights of steep stairs in a very narrow stairway, always out of breath when we reached the top. The building was small and dingy, the air hardly breathable. Mom hated it. When I was older, she told me that those three months were unbearable because she couldn’t accept that her oldest son was living under such circumstances. She hated being a burden, occupying his small space and having him take time away from work to entertain us, play the part of tour guide. While Mom lived with guilt, I basked in pleasure. I loved every minute of my long vacation.
For the first time, I witnessed public displays of affection. On a train ride home, I watched the reflection of a couple French kissing in the window and couldn’t stop staring. They were tall, much taller than people in Tehran, and blond. They seemed to be glued together, their mouths one entity. I was disgusted, yet intrigued.
During the weekends, the three of us walked to Place Flagey Square. The weeping willow branches floated on top of the lake. Towards the end of the park, there was a big palace museum. I took my brother’s hand as we crossed the grass and made our way to the palace. His firm hand reassured me that we were okay, that somehow it was normal for me to be in a new country and not responsible for anything. I noticed how everything was greener, how the lake was clear, inviting and pleasant.
In Iran, the closest water was the Caspian Sea, at least an hour and a half drive from Tehran up north. With my brother in that great grand field, everything appeared before me like an illusion, like a beautiful dream. I didn’t know of nostalgia so I lived those moments fully, even while knowing their transience. I wasn’t naïve to think my family would reunite, that we’d all go back to Iran and be the way we were. I was just hopeful, happy.
Though the skies were often gloomy, I loved looking out the bedroom window. Instead of hearing the Islamic Azan, a religious chant, I heard church bells from the Saint Antoine Church. Listening to the bells everyday was a strange experience, like I had stepped into a movie that I hadn’t read the script for. The unfamiliarity of the echoing sound, the way the church stood tall and dark, all became memories I held onto years later. I coped with it. I listened and looked for it. When we finally left, I longed for it.
The three months I lived in Brussels would be the last time I experienced happiness in childhood. I knew Mom and I would not live there permanently since we had plans for America. There was no pressure to blend in. I didn’t have to learn French or go to school and assimilate. I walked the streets holding onto Mom’s cold fingertips, never looking up to see her anguish and sadness.
Though we never got our visas at the end of the trip, I remembered Brussels as my first experience in a new world, open, free and mesmerizing. I admired my brother’s courage to settle in a new place, learn the language and build a new life.
Since then, immigration, the move to new places, the longing for the unfamiliar became not only my life, but also my obsession. I was never able to create the simple bliss of the months in Brussels, but I continued to search for experiences, discoveries, and later, for home.

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