Belgium: at boarding school, All Burp’s experience as told by me, Zapinette
but before that, here’s the last poem he wrote about his parents, now in Heaven
for Sam Vaseghi
on the twentieth of April last
Shelly left Belgium for good
she who had cared for both
you, Papatchi and Mamica
our adored parents
for the last thirty three years
and now you rest in peace,
united, in a Flemish village
on the twentieth of April last
I slept till late in the morning
in a cosy hotel room at
the heart of Deauville, where
the American Film Festival
holds its annual Award Ceremony
it was the first time, Mamica
since you’ve left us
that I saw you clearly
walking in front of me
from the window to the door
you were in your late thirties
lovely as ever, wearing
a blouse and a mid-length skirt
you’ve always had that
sober elegance any model
would have pined for
you were half my age, oh God
indeed I was in love with you
would that be called
what an ugly word for
such pure sentiment
yet I’ve heard that before
said of the two of us
by malignant people
during my first divorce
for a few seconds I just saw your profile
but then, before leaving the room
you turned towards me with those
luminous green-grey eyes of yours
and stretched your arms
in a pleading gesture
then you suddenly disappeared
that is when I woke up, suffocating
I spent the whole day
tottering in the quaint streets of Deauville
like a drunkard, unable to focus
on either the strollers or my surroundings
Then I thought I realized what
you were trying to tell me, Mamica
«Now all three of our children
have left this country, and us with it
ADIEU, ADIOS, FAREWELL»
you have eternity for you
my beloved parents
enjoy that infinite time
together and with all our
dear ones, family and friends
We shall never leave you, queridos
wherever we will be moving to
Bless your souls and us too
Belgium: at boarding school, All Burp’s experience as told by me, Zapinette
Unky Berky was about twelve years old when his father sent him to a boarding school in Brussels, in order to toughen him up, coz he deemed his son to be a sissy. Well, the poor boy got all shook up, what with his strong gorgonzola accent – that’s an Italian cheese, you, ninny – and his ultra delicate nature that became more like a tender delicatessen, of the pastrami type, as a result of his stay there. He also showed me the building of his first school; gosh did it look gray and grim, even though it was located in the city’s uppity district of Ukkel – at first I thought he was referring to the ukelele, which he did at one time learn -, not far from Jeff Vandenslut’s mansion, you know, the big game hunter we visited the other day.
When I told him how lucky he was to have lived in such lovely surroundings, full of gardens and trees, with the birds and the bees, and so on and so fork – I had to invent something nice, I do have a heart, you know, well sometimes – he countered that he and Alfio, an Italian chum of his, another little exile, had to trek every day a distance of three kilometers from the living quarters to the school proper and back, and that it was particularly awful in winter on account of the cold and the grizzly darkness, whether it was in the morning or late in the afternoon.
At the boarding school, they slept in rooms of twelve berths each, and the two poor lil Italians were constantly being bullied by their Belgian peers (some were of the same age, some older, but that didn’t make any difference), having their bedsheets tied in knots or, worse, being locked inside the loo just as the school bell rang. At the refectory – it does rime with purgatory – the two boys were forced to eat floury potatoes every single day (they weren’t roasted or even mashed), with pieces of stringy chicken that tasted like fish or black blood sausages – yuck yuck yuck -, served with apple sauce and Brussels – triple fart – sprouts. Sometimes they did get mushy meat balls, smothered in a white sauce and mixed with green peas, the whole thing looked like hogwash. But the worst was when they got on their way to school, early in the morning, in the dead of winter – it was as dark as night, but without the lampposts being lit – coz they had to walk alongside a cemetery, opposite which stood a funeral parlor – this word parlor makes me cringe, why the hell did they have to team it with the deceased? You might remember that my mother owns a beauty parlor in Paris. Somebody here parlez-vous wrongly somewhere. Since I’m a writer, I will change that state of affairs and henceforth you may speak of a funeral whiner & diner, on account that the poor bereaved often whine softly and dine too, after the burial.
“The waaa … the weee …” Alfio would whisper, as he bolted past the cemetery like a frightened rabbit, leaving my uncle behind in terror. For his little chum swore on his beloved mother’s head that he’d seen wisp-o’-the-wills hovering above some of the graves. And he would then explain to my bewildered uncle that this phenomenon was due to the fact that there were people who had been buried alive, without their family knowing it, and that it was their way of rebelling, howling in silence, while sending little blue flames aloft that shone like tiny neons. Unky Berky would follow him seconds later, running so fast, that he almost always sprained his ankle or hit his big toe against a cobblestone. He never dared tell Alfio however that, much as he looked for them, and as frightened as he was, he never saw those blue sparks.
When, at the end of the schoolyear, Alfio informed him that he was returning to Italy for good, my uncle freaked out and almost swooned, then he felt utterly distraught and pleaded with his parents not to send him back to the boarding school in Ukkel, especially on account of the cemetery he would now have to walk by alone, twice every day. Of course, that wasn’t the reason he gave them, for nonno (his dad) would have treated him as a double sissy. His mother took pity on him, but my grandfather, though not as adamant as he had wished to be, insisted that, ok, if not in Ukkel, his son should nevertheless pursue his studies in Belgium, on account of the country’s damp climate and the discipline of its establishments. He believed education was too lax in Italy and that his wife was much too soft with Unky Berky.
It was Oink Tiodor who, at the time lived in the Flemish city of Mechelen, with auntie Zette (short for Lisette – watch it yaw’ll, no mix-up, hey, my nickname is Zapinette, ok, not Zette!), his second spouse, and their daughter Rosine, found the institution at rue Crespel, in the capital’s downtown area. It was an accelerated school where you covered the whole curriculum in four years instead of the usual six. My uncle never understood why he had to cram all those subjects in such a short time, as if he’d have to compete in some study marathon, already that he was nil in sports. As for maths and science, which were particularly important subjects there, they were the main reason for his headaches and many indigestions.
At the institute, which was also a boarding school – here there was no cemetery to walk by, you just had to climb two floors down, going directly from purgatory to hell! – the teachers were even stricter than in Ukkel, and class time was almost twice longer, as for the students, my uncle was by far the youngest of them all, the age ranging from 14 to 16.
Poor Unky Berky, with his carroty hair and his lobster-tinted complexion, he was often the target of his room mates’ jibes and pranks. There were only five boys in his room, but they counted double ‘sfar as bullying was concerned. Fortunately enough he would spend most of his weekends at Oink Tiodor’s house in Mechelen, though the few times he had to stay in the boarding school, on account that the Oink and his family couldn’t receive him, or that they were out of town, he’d look like the albino rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, with his red eyes, he cried so much.
The first time he had to take the train to Mechelen – that creep of an Oink could at least have accompanied him once, to show him, after all Unky Berky was still a kid – he missed the station and went all the way to Antwerp – what a twerp! Seeing in what state of dishevelment and pathetic disarray the boy was, the ticket inspector not only didn’t make him pay a fine, but he gave him a return ticket to Mechelen and explained to the boy what stop he should get off at, but since he spoke Flemish, my uncle couldn’t understand what he was talking about and he began to sob like a hiccupping Pinocchio, thinking maybe that the ticket inspector wanted to kidnap him. The latter had to shove Unky Berky out of the train, once it stopped again at Mechelen, coz my uncle couldn’t see straight any more, so wet were his cocker spaniel eyes, with his hair sticking down his forehead and blocking his view.
Unky Berky roamed around the station for a good quarter of an hour, praying the Lord and asking Him what he had done to be punished like this, when he finally saw Oink Tiodor materializing at the end of the street, accompanied by aunt Rosine.
After he’d heard what had happened to his nephew which caused the delay, the Oink guffawed like a braying donkey and the nerd began joking with him in Flemish, convinced that this would make the boy laugh. Well it didn’t, but he stopped crying.
Contrary to the rat hole in the capital’s seedy section where he now lives – the result of three weddings, two divorces and one burial -, Oink Tiodor’s house was quite pleasant and well kept, on account that his first wife, aunt Zette, had brought it to the marriage as her dowry, her parents owning a prosperous furniture factory.
There always was a smell of starch and beeswax lingering in that place, which reassured my uncle. He loved the guest room on the third floor where he slept. The bed was so large, it took almost two-thirds of the space, also it was very high on its legs and had a thick and fluffy eiderdown, between the folds of which he could play hide and seek, hoping he might vanish in it and that no one would find him again as the evening approached when he had to take the train back to Brussels. A detail in this house had struck him as quite peculiar: it concerned the loo on the ground floor, which Zette’s father had had installed, convinced that she would give him lots of grandsons; it had a urinal like the ones you find in public places, can you picture this?
Saturdays in the afternoon they would take their young guest downtown to a la-di-da tea-room on the banks of a pretty canal, shaded by weeping willows, so they could show him off to friends and acquaintances. The latter would compliment him profusely, Unky Berky never really understood what for, but it was all very nice and very bourgeois. Another thing that impressed him was the fact that in those days the high society Flemish spoke French to each other, in order to distinguish themselves from the lower classes. Nowadays this is very much frowned upon and smacks of colonialism, so everybody, blue collar or not, babbles along in Flemish, and many even lend a deaf ear if you ask them a question in French. This kind of attitude, especially among the young, has become politically correct. My uncle says the reaction is quite justifiable on account that the Flemish have long been scorned and often even ridiculed by the French-speaking folk who held all the key posts in government. And now, being more numerous and richer, they were taking their revenge, some actually demanding full independence, coz they’re fed up of having to pay for the bunch of lazybones who had sucked their blood for centuries – that’s the poor Walloons.
Thank Goddess you don’t need any translation to eat pralines, they just melt in your mouth, whether you hail from the island of the dead dodos or from Zululand. I also recommend those darlin’ brown cookies called speculoos , which taste like gingerbread, only they’re more brittle and spicier, they taste even better when you dip them in your tea or your hot chocolate – I don’t have the patience of them old ladies who wait half an hour for their coffee to be filtered, drop by drop, like they’re being squeezed out of some dry nut, coz they still use that old-fashioned method here.
Ok, here I come again, with these Belgian tits & bits
My uncle, you wouldn’t believe it, is a royalist, and he knows as much about the crowned lot as the folk who write for People magazine or News of the World. He’s suddenly very nostalgic of the late King Baudouin, who died a few years ago while vacationing in Spain – no he wasn’t staying at El Club de los Squintos -, and whenever he mentions him, he has tears in his eyes, almost as if we had lost a member of the family. I hope that if something sad like this should happen to me, he will honor my memory likewise, sniffling his life away – yeah remembering me isn’t enough, he must always be heartbroken, at all times, even in his dreams, after all I’m his sole and only favorite niece. Coz you oughta know that that uncle of mine sometimes drives me round the bend (oh I looove that expreshun, we absolutely must preserve the language museum of the Brits), giving me a series of mini heart attacks. I’m far too young to kick the bucket, but that is a hypothetical possibility, hey I’m sounding like one of them new philosophers who are forever predicting doom and gloom, pretending that history is at a dead end – do they mean we are inexorably regressing to the stage of amoebae? Jeez I don’t want to be turned into a bug, especially one with so many vowels in it.
Going back to King Baudouin, Bonkey told me that the day of his funeral, which was very sunny – a rare occurrence here -, the populace mourned him unanimously, including their pet animals (the concert of meows and woof woofs was apparently very touching), with such fervor and grief in their hearts, that they forgot they couldn’t stand each other. Which proves that, a little tragedy here, a little disaster there, when it hits democratically can put people straight, leaving them more humble and red-eyed. Thank goodness Queen Fabiola, his widow, is still around, visiting the sick and the downtrodden, reminding her subjects how close she was to her late beloved husband. Coz those two were real turtledoves, till the very end, especially since, for a very long time, King Baudouin had remained a bachelor – people even thought that he might abdicate and enter the priesthood, the evil tongues insinuated that he was a closet homey – in his case, the closet must have been a medieval masterpiece, all sculpted in oakwood. Poor old Queen Elizabeth of the Brits, she must be green with envy, having by her side Philip, her now shaking and bald prince consort, who was once so handsome and such a womanizer, not to mention all the problems she had with Lady Di, her late step-daughter, whose ghost boomerangs to her attention, every other day, and if that wasn’t enough, there’s Prince Charles’ butler who goes and tells to the mountain and to all the sods of the press how he’s been raped and how he participated in setchual orgies, right inside the chambers of Buckingham Palace. That’s enough to stir a few revolutions, not only in the UK, but in the other European monarchies, as well as in the Arab sheikdoms, where terrorists are so welcome.
Near Ghent, Germaine signalled us to slow down so we could take a leak – well, don’t look at me like that, the French call it ‘pause-pipi’, and without an ounce of shame – coz you just have to ask my uncle if he is thirsty, he immediately runs to the john, he’s a real walking fountain, that guy, I’ve never seen the likes of it. For my part, I was more interested in getting something to eat. I had a doughnut and a couple of luscious nun’s farts – do I have to remind you that we’re talking of a cake here? – which I washed down with a cup of hot chocolate, mmm double mmm. When Germaine suggested that we stop over in Ghent to admire Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystical Lamb – I didn’t know lambs could become saints – and visit the Castle of the Counts of Flanders, I asked with a faint growl, baring two of my sharpest canines:
“Is it as pretty as Brrrugge?”
She got a fright and had to admit that nothing, along this latitude, could be compared to the Venice of the North. Then, to appease me, while my uncle made very big and round eyes – he looked like a clown with a sudden terrific indigestion -, she suggested that we drive through Ooidonk, where there was a thirteenth century fortress which had later been turned into a castle. “It’s in a lovely wooded setting.” she added.
I didn’t fancy visiting another medieval ruin, but the name of the place intrigued me, and I finally agreed. Oink oink oink, I kept chanting to myself, as we were approaching the village, like a moron who couldn’t stop humming the stupidest tune of the year. Isn’t it weird how the mind sometimes behaves, doing the exact opposite of what you expect. It’s almost as if you bumped into a tuft of those ugly hairy flowers filled with venom, and whose petals smell like rot, that gobble down bugs, when what you were looking for was a bed of pansies. Yuck … and oink. All that sounds so Flemish. Hey, wouldn’t the Flemish be related to … the Vietnamese? Don’t stare at me like I was raving, just open your ears.
Two of my classmates are Vietnamese. One of them is Cathy Tran-Van Bang – the poor girl, as she is big all round and has already quite impressive knockers, the boys nickname her ‘Big Bang’, whereas the second girl, Gigi Tran-Van Binh, is just the opposite, smallish and trim. Poring over some columns of the telephone directory, I found out that a number of Vietnamese expatriates have frenchified their names, like that Monsieur Tran-Van Lieu or Mademoiselle Tran-Van Moi. I wonder whether the Trans-Europ-Express – the forerunner of our Eurostar which rides under the Channel – wasn’t invented by the Vietcong, during their war of independance. Don’t you find it somewhat uncanny that I decided to call my uncle Rank Van Bonk, at the start of this adventure? It’s all about languages and their Indo-European roots. Apparently the gypsies too originate from India. Goddess almighty, what a hodgepodge we humans are! And who knows what I might discover if I poked my nose into my gynecological tree! In any case, if you’ve read my New York sequel, you will have learnt about Charlie Kea-Chang, the Hawaiian-Chinese lookalike whom I adore – he is no longer my lover boy, although I still consider him my best friend. You’ll have to buy my next novel to know why, and it will cost you 13 bucks, which is less than Michael Jackson’s baby book.
After we had acquainted ourselves with Ooidonk and its ghosts, I asked Germaine if we could hop to Brussels, in order to see Manneken Pis, the city’s most famous statue. As a felinist, I’m satisfied that this time, it isn’t another woman who is being shown naked – those who paraded inside the Comics Museum had got the Dickens out of me.
“But, my darling Zapinette,” retorted Bonkey, faking to cough – he did that to impress his cousin and to show who was boss, the shmool! -, “we will have to stop again in Brussels, in any case, before we board the train back to Paris. You must not inconvenience Germaine, she’s been away from home for more than two weeks and probably has a lot of things to take care of. Don’t you worry, the little fella won’t escape. And I promise we will pay him a visit.” Did you hear this? Who does Rank Van Bonk take me for, his servant or maybe the mad woman of Chaillot?
To lighten the atmosphere, Germaine gave me a wink – she could darn well have, coz she began to realize how those nutty suggestions of hers, and now even her sheer presence, were getting on my bloomin’ nerves, on account that I had to zip my trap up, and pretend I was a good girl who obeyed her old uncle (uncle carbuncle!) – and told us the story of Brussels’ legendary hero.
The mayor’s youngest son had disappeared from the family mansion. His parents were worried sick and very soon the mayor sent a squad of guards and soldiers to look for him. Citizens and peasants of the neighboring farms joined in the search. The mayor prayed all the gods in heaven to find his ketje of a son – just say ketchup, leaving out the up, it means laddie in the local argot -, including the Lord Jesus. But he also reverted to witches and dragons, some claim, even to the devil – this, he never told anyone, lest his subjects go and report it to His Holiness the Pope in Rome, who would excommunicate him pronto presto, with the extra onus of prohibiting him from eating pizza or pasta till the end of his days – that would make me the saddest of all, who cares about being excommed!
The chase beats went on in the city, as well as out of town, in the fields and in the outlying woods. The mayor had taken the following oath: “If I get back my little boy, safe and sound, I shall have a statue erected in his honor, showing him in the position in which he will be found.” His son finally reappeared in the middle of the forest, without any of his clothes on. The guards caught him peeing over a giant mushroom, maybe the lil ketje thought that by doing this it would multiply like the fish in the Sea of Kugelee.
Germaine knew another version of that legend, in which the laddie was found strolling in the outskirts of Brussels, always naked, during a siege. He was said to have extinguished a fuse by peeing on it forcefully, thus preventing the city’s enemies from burning the capital. Jeez, he must have had a weewee filled like a barrel of beer to be able to snuff out that firecracker. I can’t believe this kind of a miracle. But apparently the city folk and the farmers of yore (wow, don’t I sound lofty!) used to come with their pails and their gourds to gather the water from the ketje’s pecker. Yuck, even if it’s true!
That’s how he got to be called ‘Manneken Pis’ and became famous all over Europe. King Louis XV of France presented him with his first royal garment, so as to hide the family jewels during his visit – ain’t that a nifty expreshun to describe what the boys have that we don’t, what then must one call the female gizmo, the imperial oyster?
Nowadays the ketje owns a wardrobe surely as lavish as, if not more varied than that of the late Princess Diana, or Imelda Marcos of the Philippines, who has amassed so many pairs of shoes during her husband’s rule that she still sells them 100 dollars apiece whenever she is short of pocket money, on account that every crowned Dickens of this world, whether they’re full of dough like the Queen of England and the Sheiks of Arabia, or totally destitute – those who call the paparazzi to photograph them in nudist camps, so that they can earn a few thousand bucks, proving by the same token that they know the rules of democracy and of shamelessness. He is also honored by presidents and dictators – except the Pope, who still believes that family jewels are an invention of the devil. I was so disappointed though when I actually saw how diminutive the statue was and, washmore, that you could buy a life-size reproduction in the tourist shops around it.
Brussels: a taste of the tropics, by me, Zapinette
Meneer (Mr, in Flemish) Vandenslut gave us a warm welcome. But every time I pronounced his name, I had to pinch my arm, on account that I expected my ancestor to punch me incognitowise, making me sound like I had bumped into the Holy Spirit or something, but nothing happened, for that name is no insult in these here parts, actually it is quite common.
Our host insisted that we stay for dinner, since he had especially gone to Matonge, the African market in Brussels, that very afternoon, to buy all the necessary ingredients in order to prepare a genuine Congolese meal in our honor. He was always very nostalgic about his colonial past. But the minute he spelled out the contents of our menu, I started feeling queezy and wished I could fly away from this refuge of stuffed animals instantly.
For starters, he presented us with a plate of tomatoes stuffed with crushed red ants, that looked like fish eggs; you could even see their dirty little hairy feet. Or you could have a pâté of monkey brains laid in a bed of avocado purée and sprinkled with roasted pistachioes (yuk, yuk and puke-on-you!)
As a mid-dinner appetizer, we were then offered smoked elephant trunk cut in slices, a most rare delicacy, he assured us.
“You have no idea how difficult it was to find it,” he said, proud as a peacock, or rather as a hunter bringing home a new trophy, “I even had to call on a African witch doctor who sent me to a butcher friend of his. Elephant meat has all but disappeared from the market, and that is due to the war raging in the east of the Congo.”
Do you want to know what the main dish was – main or not main, I had no more appetite for even a piece of normal baguette! – crocodile steak, served with sweet potatoes and spinach.
Wait till you hear what the bozo wanted to give us for dessert: banana fritters and cockroach crunchies.
“It’s full of proteins,” added our host.
Not only wasn’t I hungry in front of all this cannibal food, but I started praying like a hallucinated dingo for Papy Popol to come and rescue me from this beastly place. And do you think he heeded my plea? Fiddlesticks and Baluba snuff. I could run around like a mad dog, biting its tail until the ceiling fell on my head, for all he cared. Then, in a surge of lucidity, I barked:
“Mr Slut,” – no oh no, Popolski, don’t lash at me, my tongue really twisted, I didn’t do it on purpose, I swear: “I’m vegetarian.”
“That poses absolutely no problem, Zapinetteke,” he answered, “I’ll go to the kitchen and prepare a plate of greeneries for you, I have lots of nice African ingredients which I’m sure you will appreciate. And as a bonus, you will get a fat lush mango, strait from Senegal, isn’t that cool?
Jeez, if you only knew how much I missed MacDonald’s, mad cow or no mad cow, surrounded as I was by this jungle of dodos that were ogling us with their glassy eyes, asking themselves if the fact that their host ate their peers, didn’t make him feel closer to them, at least ghostwise.
Poor Unky Berky, so’s not to pass for a hillbilly, he tasted every one of these disgusting specialties, and I was the only one to know that the greenish complexion of his cheeks was not the result of our stay in the Ardenne, but the forerunner of his next constipation.
As for Germaine, you should have seen how she relished each morsel of this equatorial muck, adding washmore pili pili on everything, most profusely – that spice is so hot, it would rescoopcitate even the corpses of World War I and World War II combined.
“It so marvellously enhances the taste of these delicacies!” she remarked, while at the same time serving herself grated coconut, “to quell the fire.”
Germaine must really have had the skin of a rhinoceress to be able to swallow that stuff. She and Jeff were beasts of the same pelt, is what I say. Hey I didn’t insinuate that they were made for each other as a couple, coz our cousin had spunk and was much younger than him, and anyway, it wouldn’t suit her at all to be called Madame Vandenslut, whereas our host resembled an old English mastiff with his middle teeth set so far apart, like you see in them nineteenth century doggone caricatures in which the mustachioed representatives of her Most Graceful Majesty – from the pictures I remember, Queen Victoria looked as graceful as a pregnant seal trying to skate on an ice rink (oh my God, now I will have her ghost to contend with too, as if Popolski wasn’t enough!) – flaunt their medals and ahem very hoity toitywise, even if some of them have breath that stink like a gutter.
Going back to Queen Victoria, Unky Berky told me she was the favorite niece of Leopold I of Belgium and that she would listen to him regarding political matters – it’s the world turned upside down, as if nowadays the Prime Minister of Fidji advised George W. Bush, aka Brainless Dubya, on whether he should call back his troops from Irak or not. That must be where the phrase ‘small is beautiful’ came from. But even more extravagant than that was the fact that his son Leopold II, who, with his huge ego, felt somewhat cramped within the confines of his little country, managed to get hold of the Congo, which was 80 times the size of Belgium, and made it his private property. His private property, for crying out loud, a first in the annals – hey don’t be rude, I’ve spelled it right, with 2 ns! – of colonialism. The latter, not satisfied with being just a megalomaniac – he amassed a fortune thanks to the rubber and the ivory trade in Africa -, cheated on his poor queen of a wife, collecting an unconscious number of mistresses. A bit of history for you nerds: the great powers of yore – yo, back to Shake’m pears again – green with jealousy for having missed such an opportunity, sent an international team to investigate the king’s methods, and a huge scandal followed. Leopold II was then forced to hand over his property to the Belgian government, who at first wasn’t at all interested in the venture, having had no colonial experience in the past. And thus, in 1908 the Belgian Congo was born.
Germaine, whom I trusted more than Meneer Jeff Vandenslut, told us that, in spite of all the negative things that had been said or written about the Belgians, and despite the historians’ continued denials to that effect, their colonial administration had markedly improved the well-being of the natives, having set up a network of elementary schools (many, led by missionaries), throughout that incredibly vast territory, as well as a health system which was by far the best of any colony.
The poor Congolese must have forgotten about it all, their country being in such a mess nowadays, what with its rulers getting filthy rich, and caring not a hoot about the population, the warring tribes and political factions at continued loggerheads, and then the neighboring countries having intervened to supposedly pacify the region, but who instead fight against each other, plundering the land to its core, while killing hundreds of thousands of people, let alone, sending millions on the road to exile. The result of this sorry state: famine has spread all over the east, and maladies that had been eradicated during the colonial period have come back at a gallop, added to the worst of them all, ebola and AIDS. I wanted to call on my ancestor to intervene with the Almighty – here it certainly wasn’t Goddess’ doing -, asking Him where in heaven He was hiding, and if He could please do something to alleviate the lot of our African brethren and sisters, instead of playing poker with the lives of people. But Popolski Lollipop didn’t say boo in this instance, thinking maybe that such human misery was well deserved.
I was despairing that I would soon go mouldy in that stuffy atmosphere, which reeked of manioc and of sweetish game meat, when Papy Popol relayed to me his new instructions as I was just the toilet. Disembodied as he was, he probably didn’t see anything wrong in his untimely and misplaced interventions, but if I wasn’t such a discreet lil maid, I could have turned into a shameless hussy, coz I know of a few girls in my school who needed far less incentive to become lewd, setchual bombs.
By the way, did you know that in Versailles, during the reign of Louix XIV, the people of the Court relieved themselves on the marble stairs? It’s like nowadays the dog turds that fill the pavements of Paris, transforming them in sledding areas, even in the middle of summer, when it sizzles. Jeez, that palace must have stunk to high heaven, as well as in low hell! When you think that these very same aristocritters, minutes after they had done their business, in full view of their peers, would curtsy and use flowery terms in front of ‘His most Graceful Majesty’. What filthy manners, is what I say, curtsy or no curtsy. I wonder whether the king took umbrage at this state of affairs – our history books don’t mention that aspect of his personality -, even though he himself acted likewise, for there even existed an ‘attendant to the royal pot’, a supposedly honorable task, holy royal shiiit!
Brussels: Matonge, the Congolese quarter in the Belgian capital. After the disappearance of Unky Berky behind an African mask, Germaine and I had to consult a Congolese witchdoctor with the hope of bringing my uncle back, the ghostly gook.
Germaine took me to Matonge, Brussels’ African market. I was a bit surprised when we arrived there, for I expected it to be outdoors, like in the Belleville quarter of northern Paris, with its buoyant and colorful atmosphere, its spicy odors and variegated wares. Instead, we walked inside a protected shopping mall, full of boutiques, which, if they weren’t exactly luxurious, exuded an air of orderliness and tranquillity. This was probably due to the Belgian climate. There was a succession of shops and stalls that covered three levels, where you had a vast choice of African products and foods, such as the bright and beautifully designed loincloths the women of the Black Continent like to wear, enamelled crockery, afro lotions and cosmetics, not to mention the usual variety of tropical fruits and vegetables you find in such places, you could also buy sculpted chairs with floral or animal motifs, and … masks – I mentally spat at them, in order to keep the evil spirits at bay, for who knows if they weren’t in cahoots with the Bambara statue which had swallowed my poor uncle.
After several fruitless inquiries, we came across an imposing lady, clad in a lush kitenge with gold and emerald stripes, and whose sophisticated hairdo was a real piece of art, with its perfect grid of furrows and its beaded plaits. She was made up as if she’d just left the photographer’s studio of Glamour magazine or Big and Beautiful .
“Wait inside my shop,” she said, “I’ll get you the man you’re looking for.”
In contrast to the lady who looked so comely and attractive, the beanpole she introduced us to seemed to have been brought to this place from another age. I imagined him in his tiny village, out in the bush, leaving his hut only after sunset, to invoke the spirits of his forebears. His eyes were bloodshot, his cheeks so hollow and gray, he reminded you of an Egyptian mummy. He wore a long maroon robe that fell down to his feet and hem-strapped sandals. When he shook my hand, I almost swooned then hiccupped like a ventriloquist’s puppet, so fearful I was that he’d drag me to the other side of the mirror. The lady led us to the back of the shop and invited us to sit down so that we could discuss with the witch doctor, far from prying eyes … and especially from prying ears.
Between you and me, I would have preferred people to see us, even with binoculars, coz one disappearance was more than I could take.
After the witch doctor had heard our story, he told us, in pidgin patois, that he came from the Congolese province of Kasai and that he’d never been back since the country had gained its independence. In all those years, he could have gone to evening school to brush up his French, is what I say. Suddenly, he began to speak in Tshiluba. Seeing how stunned I was, Germaine whispered:
“They’re probably magic words.”
This guy was giving me the willies. What would he have to do to bring Unky Berky back? Strangle a poor lil chicken and pull out its innards? Squash a baby frog, after having sprinkled it with snake venom? In front of us? These disgusting thoughts made my stomach churn. I was somewhat relieved though when he relapsed into his pidgin patois, which sounded more like bouillabaisse French – don’t call me a racist, that’s how he spoke, ok, and I won’t give a hoot to political correctness, you all hippo-critters!
“Da problem weef your Oink Tiodor,” he began, “eez dat eez insulted the Bateke fetish. First of all, by taking a picture of eet, then shoving eet in the same drawer weef ze forks and ze knives, ee proved to be doubly inconsiderate. But zat on top of eet, ee sold ze fetish for a song, is a serious, very serious crime. Your Oink Tiodor aaz to do penance and to ask eet for forgiveness, weefout delay. You can call eem weef my cell phone.”
Germaine and I were amazed at how much information the witch doctor could gather from the little we had told him. Then almost snapping the phone from his hand, I dialed Oink Tiodor’s number. Of course old Tiodor was boozed out, as usual. So I had to repeat the witch doctor’s order several times, barking like a mad dog – hey, if ever you even tried to call me a bitch, I’ll cut your you know what, ok! I was shouting so loudly that he got scared shitless and said sorry to me.
“Not to me, you nincompoop,” I barked back, “to the fetish.”
“But … but it isn’t here anymore.” he whined.
“Just talk to it, for Goddess’ sake,” I insisted, “its spirit will hear you.” By now I was sweating like a polar beara in heat, on account that the tundra had suddenly dried up.
He thought I was raving – actually he wasn’t all that wrong, but that’s none of your business -, and finally stuttered:
“On be … on be … on behalf of my darling lil French cou … cou … cou … cousin, O fu … fu… dear fetish – he stopped dead, realizing that he was going to say the four-letter word – I beg your papa … your pa …. your pardon.”
Thus had Oink Tiodor done his mea culpa .
The witch doctor got up and, with a flourish of the hand, declaimed:
“Ze spell over your Oink Tiodor aaz been lifted, ee can now liiive in peace. Zat will cost you 300 euros.”
I was literarily flabbyghosted. What did I care whether the spell over Oink Tiodor was broken or not, the only thing that mattered was to have Unky Berky returned to me, and washmore I only had 10 euros in my purse – that was the most my uncle usually gave me, the stingy Bonk, Uncle Stooge that he was, in spite of the fact that I wanted him back badly. And I began to sob like a frigging fountain.
Germaine who took pity on me said:
“Don’t worry, Zapinette, it hasn’t been easy, but we will find a way to solve the problem, and very soon we shall be reunited with Unky Berky.”
She discussed with the witch doctor so that he lower his price.
“Zis is my fee and I demand 300 euros.” he insisted.
But he had in Germaine a tough negotiator and she haggled on:
“100 euros, and it’s royally paid.”
They finally compromised and the witch doctor was satisfied with half of the fee he had originally requested.
I kept sniffling and muttered, under my breath:
“150 euros for this quack of a sorcerer and that drunk of an Oink Tiodor. Talk of being ripped off!” Thank Goddess Germaine had her checkbook with her. Unky Berky would have to reimburse her after we found him, that would serve him right!
Our ancestor who hadn’t intervened during the whole palaver, felt sorry for me and said:
“Germaine and you will go to Tervuren, that’s the next step, and if you do exactly as I say, you shall soon see your uncle.”
I relayed this new instruction to our cousin and asked her where that place Ter … Ter … watchamacallit was, which Papy Popol had just mentioned.
“Oh,” she exclaimed, jovially, “we’re probably nearing our goal. That’s where the Museum of Central Africa is located. But we’ve gone through enough today, Zapinette. How about if I took you to a nifty little restaurant in the old section of the city? I’m sure you will like it. Then we will go to the hotel and have a restful night, we both need it, and tomorrow morning we will head for Tervuren. Does that appeal to you, Crotche?”
I nodded like a ragdoll that had been run over by a truck and my lil head sounded as if it was empty, with zilch gray matter in it – as a mat-o-fact, you could fill it with a whole jar of marmalade. But then I felt a sudden jolt, like someone connected a live wire to my tushy and, jumping to my feet, I bawled:
“Wo … wo … how did you just call me?”
“Crotche,” repeated Germaine, teasingly, “you’ve become my little Crotche – and here she articulated it with such zest that I clearly heard ‘crotch-shit’ – It’s an endearing nickname in the Brussels patois, meaning sweet little shit. It refers to a nice wholesome girl, full of life and spunk. This is also how the young men here call their girlfriends. We’ve shared so many important events together – and it isn’t finished, by any means -, that I feel we’ve become very close. Don’t you agree, Crotche?”
Seeing how puzzled I looked, she added, “let me recite to you a poem composed by the late Bazoef – she pronounced it ‘Bazoof’ – based on the famous “Ballad of the ladies of yore” which François Villon wrote in the fifteenth century:
Tell me where, in what country
lived the fair lady, Mie Katoen,
Florke with her big gray eyes,
Siska and her huge bazooms,
Fat Agatha, and tiny Justine,
Maria, the blabbering snotnose,
Sassy Felicity, and innocent Janine,
Yo, where are the crotches of yore?
Tell me where is Neleke Canteen
who could chew, in one mouthful,
half a dozen sardines
three omelets and a meatloaf,
Zoe who always craved for chocolates
and who missed so many teeth
and her prissy sister Pauline?
Yo, where are the crotches of yore?
Clara who suffered from whitlow
Bertha who swam in her clothes
And never laced up her boots
Big Julie who came from Western Flanders
With her two, or was it, three children,
Rachel who always wore a crinoline?
Yo, where are the crotches of yore?
Day or night, whatever I do
During my meals or in my dreams
The question haunts me
Yo, where are the crotches of yore?
I must admit that in spite of my sullen mood – gee, did I miss Bonky, with his warts and all – I had to chuckle, on account of the accent which Germaine so exaggerated. François Villon must have been turning in his grave, listening to his poem being recited in the Brussels patois, with all those twists, washmore.
Talking of patois and pidgin French, the Congolese folk – at least those who have forgiven the colonialists who used to kick their grandparents’ butts – treat the Belgians like their cousins, claiming that they both share a tribal mentality. Just look at how the Flemish and the Walloons bicker for mere trifles – not the English pudding, you nerd -, which apparently isn’t that different from how the Baluba and the Bateke behave with one another. In France, the situation isn’t that much better, take the Bretons who were forbidden to speak in their Celtic language until recently; by the way, they make the lushest, most mouth-watering buckwheat pancakes you’ve ever tasted, especially when smothered with honey – is that why the region is called Breizh and sounds like bumblebee country? Then you have the Basques and the Corsicans who believe they all descend from Napoleon Bonaparte and either want to be the masters of France or else become independent, and to show how serious they are, every so often they bomb resort houses belonging to continental owners, and even hotels, so as to shoo away tourists who may turn out to be spies.
The art of self-aggrandizement has probably been invented in France, coz the French looove to embellish everything they have, for even their rabbit farts are described with a certain flourish, even when they don’t smell of flowers. I should know, I’m half French, remember (and half American, just don’t forget that either, ok). One of the reasons must be that our perfumes and our haute couture are appreciated by the la-di-das of this world, from China to California, passing through the Amazon and New Guinea, and that it always sounds sooo civilized to pronounce ‘Christian Lacroix’ or ‘Guerlain’, with the proper asinine – nasal, mazel – accent, which probably originated in their donkey-and-mule period, i.e., long before the Romans invaded Gaul. A lot of our French intellettuces still behave like they’re descended from the mighty Phoenix of the Greek mythology, only, they still haven’t realized their wings melted down aeons ago and that nowadays they have more in common with Felix the cat, than with that lofty bird, while, behind their peers’ backs, at lunch break, they slip into a MacDonald’s to gulp down a cheeseburger with lots of ketchup – mmm, double mmm, cry the buds, yuck yuck grimaces the face, as they chew the juicy meat, in case you tried to make eye contact with them in such lowly premises. Le fast-food is the worst American insult you can hear in the land of ‘haute cuisine’.
Going back to the question of languages – here you may pronounce it ‘lang-vi-tches’, krautwise -, Germaine recounted a historical event that took place during the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302. In those days, Flanders stood under the yoke of the King of France, Philip the Fair – no one dared call him Fairy, even though he was one. And since he had delusions of grandeur, he levied exorbitant taxes on the populace, but the weavers, who had had enough of the royal shenanigans, fomented a general rebellion which spread to the four corners of the country. The King of France became furious and sent his army in force, with the intent of quelling the revolt. In spite of the superiority of the French cavalry, led by Robert of Artois, the Flemish peasants fought like enraged lions, the lion being their national emblem. Their only weapons were a lance and a heavy metal ball spiked with nails, which was chained to their belts, and which they would hurl at their enemies, with all the strength of their biceps. These metal hedgehogs were called ‘goedendag’, which is the Flemish word for ‘good day’, but they actually meant ‘a good bash on your skull’. At night, when all cats turn gray, the insurgents would knock out hundreds of French soldiers, but before hitting them, they would greet them, saying ‘goedendag’, and if the latter couldn’t pronounce the word with the proper accent, wham, the iron hedgehog would fall on the poor dude’s skull. Totally unprepared and discombobulated by this unconventional way of being attacked – maybe they thought they were receiving scraps of meteorites or that they were being stung by a flurry of nails raining in from outerspace – the King’s men were defeated, and washmore, with a big hole in their heads.
You see, it always pays to learn foreign languages. By the way, I had already noticed that Germaine always ordered the same brand of beer, Hoegaarden. If you ever come to this part of Europe, you’d better try and get the right accent. So, listen carefully – this will cost you 10 euros per word, hey, I never said I was Mother Teresa’s grand-niece! -, you start hooting like a spastic owl, then you imagine that a fishbone got stuck in your throat and you want to expel it. If it sounds like “hoo hhharrrden”, you’ve passed the test, even if you have to shower the waiter with a cloud of spittle.
Eurobreak. I got this from my poor Unky Berky’s book of Old World anecdotes.
The Latin poet Tacitus reported that the barbaric tribes of Germany didn’t know what wine was, but that, instead, they drank a brew made of fermented barley and wheat, which they called beer. And this is what a French soldier wrote in 1918, after having fought the Germans in their own country: “These people down prodigious quantities of beer, from the minute they get up to the moment they retire. Beer is the main companion of the young folk there, so much so that they ignore their female peers. When a student accompanies you after classes to show you around his town, he never brings a girlfriend with him, but takes you straight to a ‘Bier Kneipe’. There, he will join a party of young men whose only aim is to get stone drunk. After three or four hours of singing and merrymaking, interspersed with frequent brawls, they trot out of the Kneipe and head towards the nearest brothel and … well, I’m not supposed to read this book, but my uncle wasn’t supposed to disappear either!