Finding Commonality: Brussels, Belgium edition

If there is one thing that I am constantly drawn to, it’s the story of life. Every story is a little bit different – some are filled with deep sadness, some are mundane, and even others are filled with success and triumph – but we all have one thing in common. We are all human. So whether your story is simple or complex compared to another, we can all relate to each other if we are looking for that commonality.

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While traveling in Belgium this summer, I came across a lady who will forever be burned into my memory.

Having toured around Brussels on foot for several hours, my husband and I stumbled upon a Vietnamese restaurant in a trendy neighborhood to grab a bite to eat. It was beautifully situated near the intersection of several different streets in the heart of the city. Every direction you looked, there was a view of beautiful buildings. You could hear the live music playing at some of the nearby restaurants, and with all of the people walking around, there was an energetic buzz to the neighborhood. All of the restaurants had patios spilling onto the sidewalks with tables squished so close together that it felt more like a communal dining table, rather than individual seating. We were escorted quickly to a small table in the center of the outdoor patio area, and began to look over the menus – chitchatting while doing so. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her watching us. She was a french woman in her mid forties with unnaturally tan skin, long black hair, and wearing a cropped halter top, a choker necklace, and tight pants. She was slumped over while eating her food with her bare stomach hanging over the top of her jeans. I thought, “this is going to be an interesting evening,”  and smiled to myself because I could tell she was  very clearly several glasses into her wine by 6pm, but it wasn’t my business, and so we ordered and began to wait for our food.

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As much as I tried to mind my own business, I couldn’t help but notice the woman noticing us. She talked to the waiters in french, pulling them down to her level by grabbing at the ends of their button down shirts. When they walked away from her, she would throw her head back and laugh like they had just said the funniest thing in the world, all while looking over to us to make sure we were watching.  The waiters face deceived the facade she was putting on, because he would roll his eyes the second she looked away. For a moment I was amused by this funny scenario unfolding in front of me, but then it hit me. She was a very lonely woman, and my heart broke. Who am I to judge her? I started wondering how this woman got to where she was; eating dinner alone in a restaurant in which she was desperately trying to fit in to, while automatically standing out.

I don’t know exactly how we started having a conversation, but it happened, and I will never forget her.

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“Popcorn, popcorn, popcorn” she said cheerily in broken english while slurping her wine, “that’s all my son will eat”, and then laughed coarsely while digging in her purse for a photo of him. She had the kind of voice that was abused by the constant inhalation of cigarette smoke. In fact, she was smoking at that moment, took a drag, and blew it in my husbands face as she leaned over to show him the photo. Also at that moment, her hand rested unnecessarily on my husbands forearm.

After tucking the photo away, she asked if we had any children. Before we could answer (it seemed to be a one sided type of conversation), she unfolded the story of her life. And so it goes: She was married, but had run away from her husband. He lived in France with the son she showed us in the photo. Her mother lived in Brussels, but she lived on her own. She had gone through her phone list that night to see if someone wanted to go out, but in her opinion “all of her friends were boring”. She said that she wasn’t going to sit at home alone, and so she decided to have dinner at a nice place. Normally she didn’t spend that much on dinner, but she was special and so she deserved it, right? She said that she did in fact have one person she might hang out with later that night, but he had tried killing himself the week before, and so he was trying not to use quite as much. At this point she had called him several times, but he had yet to answer his phone. It was 7pm, but she thought he was sleeping off a hangover.

She had me hooked. Who WAS this woman sitting next to me? From every vantage point, this woman and I had nothing in common, but strangely, even with her story being so different from mine, there was a part of me that connected to her. “So do you work here in Brussels?” I asked thinking it was an innocent question to carry the conversation. Everything with this woman was an extreme exaggeration, and so she recoiled away from me placing her hand on her heart after I asked. Then, shaking her head back and forth she said “no, no, no I can’t share that. My life is too hard.” Pausing as if to consider how much she should say, she took a sip of her soup. When she looked up again I could see that she had red soup dribbling down her chin. I’m Minnesota nice, so didn’t say anything, (I do realize it’s actually NOT nice to not point out something on someone’s face, but I was far too embarrassed for her to say something) and she continued talking while completely unaware of it. “I used to be a model in Amsterdam, and had many years of trouble. I can’t talk about this or the police will take me away. I could be in danger. I do not do anything now. I am just trying to be good and relax” she said in a rushed manner.  Oddly enough, I was not shocked by her statement despite the fact that she was trying very hard to be shocking. I knew without a doubt that she was lying about being a model. In fact, I got the feeling that a lot of what she had said up until that point was only a vague image of the truth. Changing her demeanor to a more positive one, she said that she is now talking with a man who is trying to get her into photographing models instead of being one. Her whole exterior screamed “I’ve had a rough life” but it was that part of our long conversation that made me realized what that woman had really done for a living.

The woman that I was talking with that night was a former prostitute from Amsterdam.

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Just two days before we met this woman, we had been touring around The Netherlands. What a place to visit! I highly recommend adding it to your bucket list. Because my husband has family that lives there, we got to do a pretty extensive tour of Amsterdam and some of the surrounding areas. Part of that tour included the Red Light District. Before we had even left for our vacation, we had a conversation about that part of the city, and decided that we would visit it because it’s part of the cultural experience. It’s an overwhelming thing to walk down a beautiful canal with beautiful homes, but have them be filled with enslaved men and women (Yes, prostitution is legal in Amsterdam, and yes the people choose the profession, but yes they are still enslaved). Walking past, I saw the faces of the people in the windows, and I looked straight into their eyes, but meeting this woman gave me a glimpse into the actual life of someone who works there. I was completely moved.

Our dinner ended shortly after our conversation, and we paid the bill and left.

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Here I am, still thinking about her 6 months down the road. I have so many questions that won’t be answered. What made her decide to be a prostitute? Did she actually choose it or was she forced into it? What was her childhood like?  How did she end up with a husband while being a prostitute? Was he abusive and that’s why she ran away from him? and the list goes on…

I will never see her again, but I’m left with her memory, and the reminder that everyone matters. Every. Single. Person. Matters. It would be easy to turn up your nose at a person like her. It would be easy to ignore her butting into your dinner conversation and carry on as if she didn’t exist. But why would we do that? We are no better than her. Just because my story is less complex, it doesn’t mean that I matter more. Although she wouldn’t stop trying to touch my husband during the conversation, acted crass, and was extremely attention seeking, she was also one of those people that’s so completely and unapologetically themselves, that you instantly love them. She is someone who has immense value whether or not the world around her sees it.

The next time you meet someone with a complex story, who feels completely different than you, focus on the things that make you the same, and enjoy the moment that God has presented you with. All life is intrinsically valuable and worthy of dignity and respect.

 

 

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