One night, while my husband, Joe, was still at work and I was in bed, approximately 4,000 miles from the place I considered home, I was startled by a cooing noise.
We were living, at the time, in an apartment in Brussels, Belgium. Sometimes, birds hung out on the window ledge of the building next door, because the person who lived there put scraps of meat out. This sound was almost like a pigeon, but not quite.
After a few minutes, the cooing sped up. I wondered if one of my son’s battery operated toys on the living room floor had a faulty wire and was squeaking its last breath.
The cooing grew louder. And rhythmic.
A female voice shouted, “Oui.”
A few seconds later, she shouted, “Oui” again.
I realized I was hearing something I didn’t want to hear.
Six months earlier, my husband had emailed me from the other side of the newsroom in New York City, where we both worked at the time: “Want to move to Brussels?”
Over two days, we exchanged messages about the job in Belgium and about Jean-Claude Van Damme, who’s known as “The Muscles from Brussels;” and mussels, the bivalve; and the possibility that our newborn son, Henry, would become the next “Muscles from Brussels.” Offline, the talk was more serious. Raising a baby overseas sounded exciting, although I dreaded the idea of moving away from family. But we were young, our parents were relatively young and healthy enough to travel, so we decided to move.
We flew to Belgium in late January of 1998 with six-month-old Henry and a three-legged dog. The newspaper put us up in a temporary apartment and arranged for a few realtors to show us apartments with American amenities.
“They’re building homes with family rooms now,” one realtor said as she drove to the far reaches of the city.
We declined the family rooms, driveways, and large washing machines, so they sent us to see a woman with a blonde bob and a bright yellow blazer. She drove us through the rain to some apartments closer to downtown. On a particularly gray-looking street, she parked in the middle of the block.
“I don’t think this will be the place for you,” she said.
I agreed as we squeezed in the tiny elevator to take us to the third floor of a building directly across the street from the gas station. Once inside, we fell in love with the apartment. Huge living-room windows in the back looked out on red clay roofs and the pointing spires of the Grand-Place in the distance.
The day we moved in, so did our downstairs neighbor, a young man with a shiny silver sports car and equally shiny hair and the overpowering smell of styling products.
As Joe got comfortable in his new job, I tried getting comfortable in this foreign town where milk came in boxes, and my favorite television shows were dubbed in French. I met our neighbor upstairs, a woman from Spain named Paola. She spoke English and helped us figure out the controls on the dishwasher, and the fact that a person and a load of groceries couldn’t ride in the elevator at the same time. Our well-coiffed neighbor downstairs kept to himself. And to his girlfriend, who spent most nights at his apartment.
In order to better understand the shopkeepers and parents on the playground I had been pantomiming with, I signed up for a French class. The first day, eight students from vastly different places gathered at a table in one of the office buildings on Avenue Louise, a strip of shops that was Brussels’ equivalent to the Champs-Élysées. The teacher asked each of us how many languages we spoke.
A British man who worked on an oil rig in Norway said he knew three. A woman from Pakistan who was living away from family for the first time said she knew four languages. An aspiring model from Germany knew three. The other American woman and I had the same answer: “I only know English.”
A few nights after I heard the cooing sounds, Joe was awoken by them.
“Oh. That,” I said and rolled over.
It became a regular thing. Sometimes, I’d stomp on the floor to convey the fact that I was awake and unhappy.
One night, when I couldn’t sleep through their boisterous affection, I became curious about how directly bedroom French correlated to bedroom English. So I consulted my Lonely Planet phrasebook. Her phrasing was slightly different from that in Lonely Planet. She yelled, “J’arrive,” a slight variation from the recommended phrase in my book: Je vient. Both employ the verb to come.
Paola stopped me in the hall one day and asked if the noise bothered us.
“You can hear it, too?” I asked, surprised.
She nodded. “Have you complained?” she asked.
I hadn’t. I wasn’t comfortable enough with my language skills to knock on the door and try to navigate that conversation. I wasn’t even comfortable enough to leave a note. I’d tried to compose the note in my head, as I lay awake listening to her moan. Would I say I can hear you faire l’amour? Would I ask her to arrive more quietly? Could I ask her to depeche toi or hurry up as she arrives?
I stewed in sleep-deprived resentment.
Part of what annoyed me was the timbre of her voice. We watched a lot of Teletubbies in those days. This woman sounded like LaLa, the yellow Teletubby with a high, breathy baby voice.
In the spring, my Uncle Peter came from Boston to Belgium for work. We took him to one of our favorite restaurants for dinner and then walked around the park and pond nearby. Then we went home, put Henry to bed, and opened some Belgian beer.
“How often do your parents get to visit?” he asked.
“They come about twice a year,” I started to say.
The cooing interrupted.
I put on some music, hoping to avoid an embarrassing uncle-niece conversation.
“The nice thing about when they come,” I started to say. I meant my parents. I meant to visit.
The cooing had become moaning.
Uncle Peter raised his eyebrows.
“This happens almost every night,” I explained.
Joe nodded in agreement.
I stared at the floor.
Occasionally, one of us smiled or laughed.
I’d see LaLa in the hallway, usually on days one of us filled the elevator with groceries, and we both ended up on the stairs. She was always friendly, even though I gave her dirty looks.
After a summer trip to the U.S. to visit family, Henry and I sat on the sofa fighting jetlag and watching Teletubbies. When the lights clicked off, I didn’t think much of it. The elevator always made the lights flicker. The television went black. I realized the power was out and roused myself awake. I picked up Henry and carried him into the stairwell to see if it was just our apartment or if the lights were out in the rest of the building. The door slammed behind us. I was so tired that I’d forgotten to hold it open with my foot. We stood in the dark hall.
I wasn’t sure what to do. Joe wasn’t due back from work for hours.
My first thought was Paola. I carried Henry up the stairs and knocked on her door. There was no answer.
I tried our door again, to be sure.
There was only one other choice. I went to the apartment downstairs. LaLa answered right away. She smiled warmly. I explained in my broken French, with unconjugated verbs and misplaced pronouns, that I had locked myself out. She invited us in and gestured for me to sit down. She handed me the telephone and gave Henry a cup of iced tea. I didn’t want to make a big American deal about the caffeine and sugar. I accepted both the drink and the phone. The playboy sat on his sofa and barely acknowledged us.
Joe agreed to come home with a key. We just had to sit and wait. This was my chance to mention the noise.
She gave Henry potato chips.
“Mmmm,” he said.
“Mmmm,” she said, her eyes wide.
He kicked his legs with glee. He pointed to the lights. It was his conversation showpiece, no matter what the electricity situation.
“Oui,” she said.
Their wordless conversation was joyous.
She offered me iced tea. I felt welcome in her home, something that didn’t happen every day in Brussels.
I’d spent months pointing, gesturing, and nodding. I understood the importance of nonverbal communication. Without appearing to try, LaLa had elevated this skill. By a couple of decibels, yes, but with charm and generosity. I asked her name.
From then on, I skipped my nonverbal stomping when she communicated her joy late at night. She deserved to be happy.
And I found peace when she moved out at the end of that year.
About the Author
Lori Barrett is a writer living in Chicago. She has contributed to the Wall Street Journal on hard-hitting topics like custom-stuffed pillows and dog-food delivery services. Her nonfiction has appeared in Salon, Barrelhouse, Brooklyn Quarterly, and Entropy. Her fiction has appeared in Paper Darts and New Horizons, a journal from the British Fantasy Society. She volunteers as an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel and as a writing tutor at a local public high school.