It was the end of August when I arrived to Brussels to do my studies in French in 1994, and was greeted with the warm shine from the sun when I woke up on my first morning in the country of my new residence. However, the moment of contentment didn’t last that long, because I immediately remembered that I was totally new to Belgium, didn’t know a single soul, and the challenge of the adventure was reflected in my room. It was tiny, on the fourth floor, with the bathroom situated somewhere in the basement.
The kitchen was though on the second floor and it’s where I went as soon as I managed to drag myself from the bed. I needed a strong cup of coffee.
I went down to the kitchen area, but once there, I realized that I had absolutely no products, food or any coffee, as it was rather late when my stepdad and me had found the room to rent the previous night, and instead of trying to find any shop that was still open, we quickly went to a pizzeria at the corner of my street, and after our meal my stepdad had to drive back to the Netherlands.
Standing in the kitchen I was feeling lost and disillusioned. I saw some coffee in a cupboard saying that it belonged to Fatima, but I wasn’t a thief to borrow the coffee from someone I didn’t know, which meant that after my shower (in the basement), I would have to venture out and find a grocery shop.
To go down to the basement provided to be more challenging than I thought, as it required quite an athletic skill – the stairs didn’t exist, it was a narrow ladder, and if not being 19, and in good physical form, I doubt that I would venture into going to have a shower, a tiny cubicle situated further down the basement, a somber, unwelcoming space.
After the exploration of the basement, I marched upstairs to dress properly to go outside but stopped on the second floor attracted by the strong coffee smell from the kitchen.
Obviously, I stepped inside, to check who was there, and in the hope that I would be offered some coffee.
Once in the kitchen I was greeted by a smiling, beautiful woman, who was sitting at the kitchen table, savoring coffee and something that looked like a sophisticated yogurt in a bowl.
“Hello, I am Ekaterina”, I said. “I just moved here.”
The woman stood up and continuing smiling, gestured me to join her at the table.
“I am Fatima. I am from Senegal,” she said. “Fancy some coffee and couscous with a yogurt?
My prayers seemed to be answered by the universe, and I gladly accepted her offer.
Putting a cup of coffee and a bowl containing something very delicious, Fatima told me more about herself. She was a Muslim, spoke fluent French, and was in Brussels to do a master thesis.
I told her about myself. I was from Russia, spoke broken French, didn’t know anyone from Belgium, with my mum and my stepdad living in the Netherlands, and the rest of my family in Russia. I started to cry a bit, as my adventure to study in French, looked as a very difficult endeavor. I didn’t even know where to buy groceries. I didn’t know how I was about to survive in that awful building, with the shower requiring climbing the ladder.
“I will help you,” Fatima reassured me. “After our coffee I will walk with you to the shop. I will also show you a market. And today you join me for dinner.”
“Oh, and by the way,” she looked at me with some concern. “There is that strange guy who lives in the basement. He has a room there. Have you noticed that there is a hole between the door and the floor in the shower cubicle?”
I nodded, trying to remember.
“And well, I caught this guy laying there when someone was in a the shower, like a pervert, watching. He is a pervert. Take lots of towels with you to put in the hole so that he can’t watch you. I do it all the time.” Fatima smiled at me.
I was about to laugh but instead started to cry. I remembered my nice flat back in Moscow, my friends, and the comfort of a life, lived for 19 years in the same country. It was all gone, due to my foolish decision to go and study in French.”
Fatima leaned over the table and rubbed my shoulder.
“I will help you, don’t you worry,” her eyes were big and kind.
And she did. Without her I wouldn’t last in my new country even for a month, so difficult it was in the beginning.
(in my room in Brussels)
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