by Beau Burriola -
SGN Contributing Writer
I stood outside a building, unsure if it was the dentist's office or not. In Brussels, they don't always feel the need to put a street number on the buildings you are looking for. Very often, they don't bother with street names either. In this case, the street address went from 31 to 45 and there was nothing in between. I was looking for 128 in any case, so this just added to the confusion.
The only thing that has saved me these years from getting lost in Brussels has been technology - a blue dot on a yellow map and a voice telling me to turn here or there. Now, since my smartphone was stolen on the train, I've spent a good deal of time being lost. Navigating printed maps seems like an unnecessarily cruel exercise.
Brussels has made manual navigation nearly impossible. Every street has two names, one Dutch and one French (we are a linguistically divided country, so the genius solution was simply to use both, while most maps will only use one). Street name signs are only sometimes at intersections and sometimes a street name will simply turn into another street name without warning. You've got streets that are only a few meters long and many just curve and wrap around until another street randomly starts at a reverse diagonal angle. They continue in this fashion, like broken shards of glass, all over the city in every direction, making every visit to an unfamiliar place equal parts luck and skill. With no navigational skill anymore without my phone, I depend on the luck.
Rue du Aveguels, I read aloud on a rare blue sign, a little confused. I think it means a street of blind people and for a moment I wonder how much harder it would be to find my way if I couldn't see, but then I see this street isn't on my map! Exhausted and well late for my appointment, I look over at a pastry shop, the fourth I've seen in the last 10 minutes, and pause to walk over and look at the display window.
When I first moved here, I wanted to go to pastry school. I have a deep appreciation for the science, art, and skill that goes into traditional French pastry. The pleasure is in the seeing as much as in the eating and when all put together in a store window, it's always like the perfect, cozy painting. But after two meetings with Madame Liegeios at the school, I found out that to do it I would have to get up at 3 a.m. every day for a year for an unpaid apprenticeship while still attending school. I decided that was a sacrifice I couldn't make. Not at 34, not with a standard of living and vacations, not with a closet full of suits ... and yet here I am, standing in front of another window.
They always say you are very lucky to do what you love for a living, my grandmother said when I told her about pastry school, but that right there is bullshit. If you had to do it for work you would hate it. You listen to me and you keep that good job of yours.
On my kitchen wall, I have an illustration of 20 types of traditional French pastry. I have unsuccessfully made two of them, and the rest I wouldn't even know how to begin. I always imagined I would learn how to make it all - in French - and then one day, I would float through my day making pastries, all the while singing in a French accent, finishing off this or that tart with flair and pirouette, before heading back to the kitchen to knock out a few éclairs.
If I were another person, a person with more confidence who didn't mind being dirt-poor for three years while undergoing a drastic life change, and then still pretty poor while I worked my way up the low-paying echelons of bakeries other people own, this recurring daydream wouldn't be a daydream. Perhaps, if I were younger and didn't mind the idea of competing for apprenticeships with people who have a perfect command of the language and whose faces have never seen a razor. If ... if ... if ...
On the other hand, if you think I have a good 50 years in me yet, three years doesn't seem like so long. Also, I get up at 5 every day, so why worry about getting up at 3? And there's the fact that every time I feel a little lost in my life, I keep ending up back in front of a window like this.
Standing there lost on the Rue du/something Straat, staring into that window of mystery and love, of science and art and beauty and structure and history, I found myself pulled in again by the gravity of an old dream. In a year when my relationship, job, apartment, and whole lifestyle changed, suddenly this dream didn't seem as drastic as it is has before. In the prism of a year of change, this seemed pretty small.
Maybe now is the perfect time to pick up and call Madame Liegeios. I've missed the dentist appointment, so what the hell.
Beau Burriola is a 34-year-old amateur baker looking to get rid of the amateur. email@example.com
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