Thursday, March 24, 2016


The last time I went there was in 1958, along with three friends my age,
to see the Brussels World Fair, the first of its kind after World War II.
Countries built their own pavilions, some memorable for their architecture.
Today, only the Atomium still stands. (Click to enlarge photo.)
I phoned the travel agent about the holiday we’ve booked next month in Brussels. I said it didn’t feel like fun any more, could we cancel? Certainly, she said, but we can’t give you any refund, as it’s less than three weeks away. So I said there’s no point in cancelling, we’ll just leave it open. We’ll see how we feel the day before, and either get on that Eurostar train from London, through the Channel Tunnel, all the way to the Belgian capital—or not. Whatever we do, the money is already spent. We can enjoy those four days, wherever we happen to be. The contemplation of this gives an unexpected sense of lightness and freedom.

At the moment home seems the pleasanter option, especially after this morning, when a plumber came to install a new kitchen tap, one that doesn’t squirt water upwards like a fountain, though we’ve only had it a few months, and it was guaranteed for fifteen years. While waiting weeks for its replacement, we’ve used bucketfuls of hot or cold from the bathroom. Up to then we always took water for granted, that it’s brought to you, you don’t have to go and fetch it. Now we give thanks for it all the time, and for never having had to go a mile or so to the nearest well, returning with full buckets balanced on our heads.

PS: we did go, & so missed the EDL march through our own town—
“Defend English freedom / democracy / freedom of speech! no more mosques!”
and the counter-demonstration:
“Stand up to racism & fascism! No to islamophobia!!”
Brussels was quiet, with soldiers protecting the metro system
(Click to enlarge photo of Atomium, 58 years later.)
And when I saw videos of Brussels commuters the day after the bombs, with tales of how they managed to get to work despite the disruptions, and saw a kind of glow in their faces, the renewed sense of community, their own gratitude for being able to carry on, to still be able to get from A to B somehow, I wavered. These people, like us, will have learned a little of how to give thanks for the simplest things. Then I thought it might be a good thing to use our reservations after all and join the survivors in this new spirit of togetherness, thankfulness & touching of hearts. And yet we’re not thinking about it now—“shall we, shan’t we go?” When the time comes, we’ll simply follow the feeling. Who knows how the world will look on 8th April?

I feel a close kinship with Etty Hillesum, whose soul shines so brightly through her diary and letters written in Amsterdam in World War II. She and fellow-Jews were progressively deprived of privileges, then sent to Westerbork, a transit camp near the German border, waiting for the trains of cattle-trucks which took them on a one-way trip to Auschwitz. Is this old history now? No, we are reminded today by the sentencing of Radovan Karadzic for his part in the Bosnian genocide.

How was Etty able to stay above the hate, and help lift up others to the place where she was? Here’s an extract from a postcard she threw out of the train to Auschwitz, which was picked up later by a farmer and posted:
In the end, the departure came without warning—on sudden special orders from The Hague. We left the camp singing, Father and Mother firmly and calmly, Mischa [Etty’s brother] too. We shall be travelling for three days. Thank you for all your kindness and care. . . . Goodbye for now from the four of us.—Etty
How did she stay above it to this extent? Here’s something from her diary, a year before, which may provide a clue:
Yes, we carry everything within us, God and Heaven and Hell and Earth and Life and Death and all of history. The externals are simply so many props; everything we need is within us. And we have to take everything that comes: the bad with the good which does not mean we cannot devote our life to curing the bad.
She had learned to be always able to find some good, and focus on that. For everything we need is within us.