Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Nostalgia


It was car-free Sunday yesterday, our eleventh in Brussels.


The first time, we knew nothing about it so we put our kids in the car and drove them to the swimming pool. Back then we were forever on a shark-like drive to be constantly in motion: it seemed to be central to life with two tiny people. They were 2 and 4, a barely controlled explosion of desires and emotions, everything lived and felt intensely. Forever in need of amusement or occupation, we their serfs/butlers/keepers took them to parks and museums, tiny trains and zoos and soft play warehouses on industrial estates. I spent half my life, it felt like, on moulded plastic chairs toying with a cup of terrible coffee in the strip lit, stale fat-scented play areas of Quick restaurants in out of town shopping centres, wondering if the sticky residue on the table was juice or something much worse.

That first Sunday, after a few scolding headlight flashes and a quick burst of Google, we got the message. We’ve known the next ten have been coming. The weather is almost always good - I don’t know quite how they swing that - and we’ve cycled and roller bladed and walked and run, gone to local knees-ups and city ones. We’ve queued for ice creams, petted police horses and collected conkers. I mention this because I’m drowning in nostalgia at the moment: the kind of nostalgia that physically hurts, not the soft-focus, delightful kind. This variety aches until it’s almost intolerable. I usually love this time of year; I land in September with relief, a sense of purpose and a bustle of work after summer rootlessness but this year the work hasn’t come and it seems to have left me open to this weird, achy sense of loss.

Of course our children don’t want to walk or run or roller blade with us any more, so I went for a walk with my husband and the dog on Sunday morning instead. The weather was good, as usual, after a fortnight of relentless rain and everyone was out. We crossed paths with gangs of death-wish skateboard kids, wobbly scootering toddlers, sedate cycling pensioner couples and every shape, size and colour of family on every possible variant of non-mechanised wheels. A winded “oof” of feelings hit me in the stomach on the Chaussée de Waterloo and brought me to a halt. “We’ve been here so long!” I said to my husband, weighing all those years, all the Quick play areas and slow trails around the parks. He agreed. We have. Apart from our respective birthplaces, this is the city we've lived in the longest, by far. It will be here that the boys associate with their childhood, these dozy streets full of lost cat posters, the Parc du Caca, ice cream from Zizi and spectacular Art Nouveau details displayed without fanfare above grubby corner shops.

I actually love having teenagers. I’ve loved every developmental hop, skip and jump. They can make a decent cup of tea and an edible bowl of pasta and the darker and twistier a conversation I can have with them, the better. We laugh together, often and I take a basic farmer’s satisfaction in watching them grow and thrive. But in the last few months, I’ve started, at last, to feel the wrench other parents describe as they fold away the tiny socks and hats. Because they don’t want to spend time with us any more, at least not like this and I miss them. It’s universal; it’s normal. “They’ll come back,” older and wiser people say, and as long as I don’t fuck up too badly, I’m sure they’re right.

But it won’t be how it was: nothing could ever be as intense as those early years. The boys were all-consuming and with each year, they are less so: I think about them as much as ever, but they don’t take possession of me physically now. My body remembers it all: the satisfying heft of a plump baby on your hip or a tantrumming, ironing board rigid toddler to be wedged into a car seat or carried up to bed. How F used to like to pull idly at the loose skin on my elbows. Laces tied, noses blown, pants pulled up and the thoughtless, instinctive sharing of food and space. My hand perpetually solicited and given for holding, for carefully selected stones, soggy tissues and discarded biscuit wrappers (or sick. Sometimes sick. I’m not so nostalgic for that). Hours that felt like days. The endless, spooling, maddening, enchanting flow of talk. Brightly coloured plastic in my pockets and under my feet and the lyrics to the credits to awful TV shows lodged in my brain. All the detritus of a childhood, of a parenthood, feels oddly precious at this moment, as it slows to trickle (it's just chargers and washing now, mainly).

I’ll get some work in eventually (I hope) and I’ll stop mooning around, nostalgic for Bakugans and paying €4 to watch a child scream through a 2-minute ride on a migraine-inducing technicolour carousel. No one in their right mind could or should be lost in a fog of exquisitely painful elegiac nostalgia for a foot and urine scented soft play area or Jay Jay Le Petit Avion and I’m sure my right mind is around here, somewhere.

Partly I think my nostalgia is preemptive: it’s for Brussels. We’re not leaving, not yet. We have no concrete plans. We speculate, throw ideas in the air, see where they land, then back away from them for now.  It’s just that I’m beginning to think we might be heading towards done. Eventually I want more hens and less saxophone free jazz in my life and my husband wants space and peace. One day, perhaps not until the boys leave, we’ll do it. But this will forever be the place they grew up and it was pretty great, most of the time.



The city was on best behaviour on Sunday, of course. There was a lunatic folklore event on the Grand Place with prize winning moustaches and a woman dressed up as a horse and the man who wheels a portable Manneken Pis around, squirting unwary tourists.




The flea market was packed and sunny and one of the stallholders was wearing a rakish fur stole.



There were made to order Magnums with smoked dark chocolate and salted caramel at Pierre Marcolini and some excellent dogs on the terraces of the Sablon. Even the trams were working, mostly.


It has rained pretty much ever since, but I'm trying to hold onto that sense of whatever it is I'm feeling - gratitude perhaps? - towards this city. Because, it's increasingly apparent, we won't Always Have Brussels.

33 comments:

cruella said...

This is beautiful. Thank you.

Lisa said...

Just wonderful,I'm sobbing, my youngest has just started secondary school, this struck a chord, thank you too.

anon said...

I'm the mother of two teens and you've managed to capture so eloquently what I've been struggling to articulate. Thanks as always.

The Reluctant Launderer said...

Very lovely. I haven't read over the last post's comments, but wasn't there talk of you readers suggesting pitches to you? THIS. The parenting grey-area, where they are definitely no longer children, but still need you (even if only for the charging and the washing). Also, not to undermine your nostalgia, but honestly, from my perspective In The Thick Of It (STILL) parenting young kids is 90% drudgery, 8% nursing (catching vomit is just the start of it. The bum-wiping! The sheet changing!) and 2% loveliness. (Of that 2%, half % is gazing at them while they are sleeping). I can't wait for teenagers. Assuming, of course, my kids learn to wipe their own arses by then.

Karen said...

I've just finished this era you are in. It is painful at times. Mine is excaberated by living in a large, old house in the countryside, with a husband that pilots planes to other continents weeks at a time, and family many miles away. I've had to stop myself many times from phoning the 'kids' everyday and remind myself that NOW is their time. Memories are so poignant and I'm glad that I have loads of photos, souvenirs, et . To remind me how really wonderful it was. However, there is a free-ness in the fact that they are healthy, well- functioning members of society and I can do as I please. New book title for you: 'We'll Always Have Brussels'. ....?

Serenknitity said...

Lovely post. I am feeling the same sometimes with one at uni and one in Australia. We find it hard to believe that they find other people cooler company than us. How can that be. Don't read acupofjo recent post on how she is done having babies but has The Ache. You will howl. I did. It was therapeutic until 5 mins ago 😭

Anna Maria said...

Lovely post.

blackbird said...

This is so lovely. You've gotten it and written it so well.

Carla P said...

When my boys left for college, I cried for days! Significant sense of loss. I looked at hubby and thought, "now what?" BUT, as you get familiar with the empty house, you begin to explore other long forgotten places of your life again.
They leave the coop and then they return with Grand Babies! The absolute best, I promise💕

emma-kate said...

Oh no, my two are only 1 and 3 and now you've made me weep in anticipation already

just curious said...

"Brightly coloured plastic in my pockets and under my feet and the lyrics to the credits to awful TV shows lodged in my brain."

Yes, I always worry that the inane songs from those children's programs will end up being all that remains as my memory slowly starts to slip away. But if there were a cosmic rewind button I could hit, I would gladly go back to my childrearing years and do them all over again. It is very wrenching to leave them behind.

That's Not My Age said...

Yorkshire calling!

Unknown said...

Beautiful. In exactly same place. Although everytime I walk past a playground I give inner whoop that I don't have to do that anymore.

mountainear said...

You capture that yearning for times past so perfectly. To have those little boys back - just for the afternoon - would be wonderful. But now they are in their 30s and one is even 40, I relish their company and bright conversation. And now they present me with grandchildren. Excellent. I would never have guessed I would so want to be a grandmother. One door closes but another opens.

Nick Brown said...

This was beautiful. As father of a nearly 8yo, I know the day is coming when he doesn't want to hold my hand any more, and I dread it

cruella said...

Nick, all these things are only noticed in the past. When did they stop waking up at night? When did he stop holding my hand? Hug me in public? Sad as that may seem it somehow softens the blow.

Waffle said...

Nick/Cruella - There was a lovely piece in Guardian Family about "last times" a few years ago - I often think about it. Can't find it now, obviously.

Catherine Ingleby ART said...

I rarely comment on blogs, but this was such a beautifully written piece, I must. Pam Ayres wrote a poem called 'Akaroa Cannon' that makes me weep when I read it. It's not funny like the rest of her stuff, and so heartfelt.
I think you've got the title of your new book though - 'We may not always have Brussles"....

Waffle said...

JESUS just found it and ME TOO. Anyone else wanting a weep can hear her read it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GBGIK6ujxWQ

C Swain said...

Beautiful. Thank you.

Catherine Cottingham said...

Beautifully written. Thank you.

Cait Mellow said...

My boys are now at the chargers, cereal and Lynx stage (cough) - one desperate to leave, one planning on staying forever, I don't know which is worse!

Ilona said...

I really miss you!

ganching said...

Just caught up with and as always a lovely piece of writing.

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Xtreme English said...

omygod....it's been so long since I've read your wonderful blog.....you've got a HUSBAND! Maybe you've always had him somewhere, but this is new for me. Wonderful post, btw. You are ever the keen observer of WHAT COUNTS! Long may you wave!!

Heather NZ said...

Hi Waffle, I've just read your lovely book, and so enjoyed your writing as always, and appreciate your bravery in putting it all down on paper.
Thanks too for this piece - the long letting go that is needed to happen, and is so hard to do.
It's wonderful to think that somehow new grown-up people have been born, nurtured and survived to forge their own way in the world, at least in part because you made it happen!

Best wishes,
Heather (in NZ)

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