"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

I am Curious (Fellow)


I’ve been reaching out to some of my father’s old friends recently and talking to them about the old man.  Family members too.  It’s been an engaging if sometimes painful experience.   It’s not that I’ve discovered things about Pop that I didn’t necessarily know–although I do have more details than I ever did before–it’s just that so much of my childhood was filled with sadness that it isn’t an easy time to revisit.  I also realize how much of that sadness I’ve chosen to leave behind.

In the course of learning more about my dad I’ve spoken to my mom and also reviewed her story and her family’s history.  Mom was born in Belgium but moved to Zaire in 1948 when she was four years old.  She lived in the Congo until 1960 when she and her mother and her sister fled back to Europe as the revolution broke out.  She was picked up at school one day and brought directly to the airport.  Didn’t get to say goodbye to her friends or her pets, didn’t get to take any of her things.  Poof, they were gone.

My grandfather, a mechanic who co-operated a Renault dealership in the Congo, remained for a few years trying to salvage his business.  He also helped preists and missionaries escape.  He loved living in Africa and later returned in the Seventies for another ten years.  The Congo was really my mother’s childhood home.  And it no longer exists as she knew it.   She never returned.

Mom finished high school and went to college in Belgium, then met my father and came to the States by the time she was 23.  So Belgium was never as much a home.  Still, her brother and sister live there, along with lots of cousins and aunts and uncles.

I haven’t been to Brussels since my grandfather died, fifteen years ago next month.  I remember four priests who he had helped escape from the Congo were present to pay their respects.   This is the longest stretch I’ve ever had not visiting.  My siblings and I took turns during the summers when we were growing up.  Turns out my grandfather’s younger brother is still alive.  At 87, he’s still lucid and alert.  I said to my mother recently, “Well, someone has to interview him and get the stories.”

One thing led to another, I saw that flights are cheap, so hell, I’m off to Belgium on Thursday night for a week to visit my family, and learn more about their lives and their history.  My mother has complicated feelings about her childhood and has never been comfortable talking about the political nature of being a Colonist (and Belgium, like so many European countries, had an undeniable history of brutality in Africa). Ever hear of Heart of Darkness?

So, I’m curious. To see how things have changed since I was there last. To hear what my aunt and uncles’ experiences were, to see old photo albums and 8 mm movies from my mother’s childhood.

I won’t be gone long, and who knows, maybe I’ll even blog from overseas. In the meantime, Cliff and Diane, Will and Bruce will hold the fort down over here.  Oh, and I’ll have some frites and think about y’all.

Categories:  Bronx Banter  Childhood  Memoir

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1 bronxborn   ~  Mar 17, 2009 11:40 am

I wish you well Alex this should be some kinda journey. An I did catch the I am curious reference by the way. Did not think you old enough for that one.

2 Jon Weisman   ~  Mar 17, 2009 11:49 am

Have a great trip, Alex.

3 ms october   ~  Mar 17, 2009 11:49 am

that's cool alex. enjoy the trip (and enjoy the frites) and i hope you are able to add to your knowledge about your family history.
i definitely want to do some of this stuff myself.

(and by the way alex - did you maake it to the frick? if so, what did you thin?)

4 ms october   ~  Mar 17, 2009 11:50 am

man my typing skills are really bad today - sorry on both threads.

5 Alex Belth   ~  Mar 17, 2009 11:57 am

That was such a random reference. Good catch. And it is older than me, but what the hell?

I'm sorry I never did a post on the Frick. It was AMAZING. I mean there are a couple of paintings in there that just about make you want to drop to your knees and weep.

6 bronxborn   ~  Mar 17, 2009 12:14 pm

I have written a lot about my family especially in my book Jewish SoulFood so I fully understand what you are lookin at. It's a daunting task filled with lots and lots of emotion.


I hate to say it but saw the film when it cam out ... it was a middle class boy's dream for sure. Yellow was the tame version. I am told I Am Curious Blue was much hotter. :) but not available at the time in the U.S.

7 ms october   ~  Mar 17, 2009 12:24 pm

[5] i'm glad you enjoyed it alex. i figured you would based on some of the paintings/artists you have posted or talked about.

8 rbj   ~  Mar 17, 2009 1:13 pm

Best of luck. Take an audio/video recorder, get as much of the life stories as possible.

And try the occasional Belgian ale.

9 vockins   ~  Mar 17, 2009 1:34 pm

Antwerp -> Kulminator -> Westvleteren 12

critical destination

10 FlyGirlFan   ~  Mar 17, 2009 2:02 pm

Good Luck Alex, you will find the entire journey interesting in many ways.

I recently did some research into my family background at the Family History Center in Salt Lake City, UT while on a business trip. Digging into old records was tough, but it was ever more difficult to try and extract family information from people who just don't want to talk about things that were considered taboo or embarrassing 50-60 years ago. I am also reaching out to people who are getting on in age in an attempt to gain information before they pass away.

Enjoy the frites and all that is beautiful in Europe in the spring.

11 ColoYank   ~  Mar 17, 2009 2:38 pm

No, man, don't be thinking about us. Do what you need to do, and above all, have fun. I think you'll have a really memorable time.

You have a really interesting background. And thanks in the subsequent post for the bit of 'Fess. That was a helluva piano-rich version of "Big Chief." ... I think I'll put on a little Allman Brothers.

12 ColoYank   ~  Mar 17, 2009 2:59 pm

Also, I heartily recommend "The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver, for those interested in the subjugation of the Congo by Europeans. It's a completely amazing book.

13 Alex Belth   ~  Mar 17, 2009 3:03 pm

Dude, thanks so much for the recommendation. I have not read that book but will order it toute suite.

14 Chyll Will   ~  Mar 17, 2009 3:41 pm

I don't have much to add, Alex, except to have a safe and nice trip (there and back), and make sure this doesn't fall into the wrong hands while you're there... >;)

15 tocho   ~  Mar 17, 2009 5:13 pm

Have a great trip Alex. If you have the time don't forget to visit Leuven. A great university town. I studied my LL.M. there and apart from being beautiful, the atmosphere is the best in Belguim.

Best of luck.

16 Rich   ~  Mar 17, 2009 11:41 pm

Turns out my grandfather’s younger brother is still alive. At 87, he’s still lucid and alert.

Bring him a Yankee cap!

I hope you learn as much information as you seek.

Have a safe trip.

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