Thursday, March 21, 2013

Old Books, Fresh Oysters and Friendship

Nowadays, the American popular trend is to read books online. I am from an early generation and still cherish paper books. Do not get me wrong, I think online technologies and their capabilities are magical. I venerate trees. As a writer, new online technologies appease my fear. I agree with not cutting millions of trees just for the sake of creativity.

In any event, while planning my return to the Bay Area in California I wanted to travel light. Two years earlier, I had moved boxes of books across the planet. At the time, the country of Belgium was my ultimate destination. My family lives there.

Books can be heavy, and especially the ones I brought back with me to my native country. A boat leaving San Francisco and heading for Antwerp had carried my too many boxes throughout different time zones and oceans. One of my boxes contained a variety of dictionaries. French and English literatures telling great stories were also part of the voyage.

Without a doubt, I am a big fan of paper books of all kinds. Hard-cover dictionaries give me great pleasure while I learn new words and their meanings. Paper-book novels enable me to travel the world without moving an inch from the sofa.  

Eventually while planning my move back to California, I sadly accepted to depart from some my books. Today, most of my dictionaries are still with me. I only gave one away. As Christians might say, my dictionaries are my bibles.    

Fortunately, my Belgian girlfriend, Françoise, knew a few places in Brussels where I might sell my beloved books written in English. With years passing, the three national languages of Belgium seem to have endorsed English as a fourth language, for a better tool to communicate. At the border of Brussels, the town of Waterloo inhabits a high population of English speaking immigrants. Yet Belgium and Brussels inhabit immigrants from all over the world. Most newcomers are not trilingual. To speed communication and understanding, the English language is often spoken.

This cold winter while meeting Françoise in the Belgian Capital, we took my girlfriend’s car into a district of Brussels I did not recognize, even though I was born in that specific Commune. I felt lost in the capital. All the small streets looked the same.

We found a parking spot right in front of a second-hand store that supposedly bought and sold books and CDs. Françoise also had books – written in French – she wanted to try to sell. Two young men managing the buying section of the store attended us without losing a minute.

“Can I give you the books and CDs you did not buy from me,” I asked the friendly staff.

“No thank you, I have plenty of books to read at home and CDs of all kinds,” the young man said. “But you can donate all you have left to Les Petit Riens. The store is right nearby. I would have to recycle your items, or destroy them.”

“I do not want my books to be shredded,” I declared abashed. “That sounds horrible. I want my books to stay alive.”

We were out of the second-hand shop in no time. Before exiting the large room filled with books up the walls, we each had a few euros in our hands. In the meantime, our eyes were busy catching the scenery.

“What a place,” I said.

“Yes. They even have old vinyl records for sale,” Françoise noticed.

“Long-playing are back into fashion in Belgium,” I responded. “Cool.”

“One of my daughters enjoys listening to old recordings.”

“Does she own a vintage needle-phonograph?”

“Yes. I found one.” my girlfriend explained. “I know Brussels like the back of my hand.”

“Where are we going now?”

“We are going to a recycling warehouse and next to a donations store. Both are close by. Zut. Shoo,” Françoise said in French. “I forgot to feed the parking meter.”


“No parking-ticket on my dashboard though. That is good news.”

Back into my girlfriend’s sizeable car, Françoise drove a few times around the small and busy streets of the Belgian capital in search of another parking spot. Our venture of the day was not over yet. Twelve o’clock was approaching on my watch, and at the same time Belgians stopped working to take a lunch break.

Accordingly, miniature cars made in Europe invaded the old narrow streets of Brussels. We had no luck. While driving around one more time, I spotted a well-known Brussels’ restaurant.

“I would love a bowl of onion soup,” I noted, “with melted cheese on the top.”

“That sounds good,” Françoise replied. “Do you want to try La Quicaillerie?”

“I have been there once, a long time ago,” I said. “I do not remember when and with whom though.”

“There is a public garage nearby,” my friend continued. “My car is too big. We will never find a parking spot around here.”

“Ok,” I answered. “Let us treat ourselves. We did well at the second-hand book store. And this might be the last time we are together, just the two of us, and for a while.”

“Yes, it might be the last time,” Françoise said sighing. “But I will come to visit.”

“I would love for you to come,” I will show you the California wine country, up north where you have not been yet.”

“We have Skype to see each other when we want.”

“Yes we do.”

“I will be nine hours ahead of you. Send me some pictures of your new home.”

“I love to take pictures.”

The small public garage solved our parking dilemma. With our warm coats, hats and gloves still on, we entered a former hardware-shop dating back in the days, and converted into a Belgian restaurant. Inside the Brasserie, a giant vintage clock faced us while standing proudly in the middle of the spacious eatery. Wrought iron railings divided the restaurant into sections but also levels. I counted two other upper levels, with row of tables looking down unto the main dining-room and the entrance door.

Right next to the entrance door, an oyster-bar displayed a variety of oysters coming from France. We both stared. A female hostess showed us to an empty table. Our modern napkins were identical culinary magazines specialized in French Oysters.

“Yum,” I uttered. “I might have to order some oysters.”

Oui. Yes,” Françoise said in French. “I will have some too.”

Quickly, a waitress came and took our orders. Shortly after, two plates filled with shaved ice revealed six medium oysters per order and pieces of cut lemons. A plate staging well-buttered pieces of bread also accompanied our orders.

“I am glad we came,” Françoise said.

“I am glad too. This is great. I love oysters with a zest of lemon.”

“I prefer my oysters with pepper.”

Time stopped as we began eating our sea food. For a few minutes, my mind traveled to Northern California and the Seafood Peddlers Restaurant. While living in San Rafael, with a friend I often sampled Pacific oysters in the popular eatery that has acquired a new name.

New diners entered the Belgian restaurant occupying empty tables near us. I traveled back into reality. More plates of oysters passed us by.

“I will have a light beer on tap with my oysters,” Françoise asked our waitress.

“I will take a Verveine tea,” I said. “I am cold.”

“We need to treat ourselves,” my girlfriend retorted. “Even though we both felt tired this morning, we were both very effective today.”

“Absolutely,” I replied, “we deserve a treat.”

That morning, Françoise and I had both lacked motivation and energy. Around eleven o’clock we had eventually aimed for a cold outing in the crowded capital of Brussels.

The books we did not sell to the second-hand books store were given to a Belgian organization I translated into: The Little Nothing. The second-hand shop only accepts donations, and then sells back to the public a large array of donated things: clothing, furniture, literature, music and probably more.

Without hesitation, our unsold books and CDs were accepted at the very large recycling shop. Françoise’s old skis and boots were also accepted at no cost at the Brussels’ governmental recycling organization.

We had a good day. The oysters we ate gave us the extra energy we needed to continue a day that was moving forwards. Yet the oysters Françoise and I shared made me forget about the books I had sadly left behind. Our trying venture and celebration in Brussels will stay and travel with me.


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