Discovering Soul Mates – Travel’s Biggest Gift
When I was in grade 11, I went on exchange to Namur, Belgium for a few months. Namur is a French speaking city of approximately 110,00 and is the capital of Belgium’s Wallonia region. This didn’t mean a lot to me when I was in grade 11, but the fact that they had over 400 beers in Belgium certainly did.
I lived with my host family outside of Namur in a rural area surrounded by beautiful trees, a trail to run on, and to my delight, a basketball net. Being the daughter of a high school gym teacher and a running fanatic, these were the staples of my existence.
The family lived in a complex that housed a few other families, everyone in their own unit. Within minutes of my arrival, I met Ethel who was my age, and lived in one of the units beside us. My first impression of Ethel was that she was very tall, her name was beautiful (it is pronounced Eh-Telle in French, emphasis on the second syllable), and she had a mischievous but kind sparkle in her eyes.
Despite our language barrier, Ethel and I became inseparable within days. She spoke little to no English (although her efforts were beyond entertaining), and my French was not too bad but I certainly wasn’t fluent. It didn’t matter. We had a kindred connection. We had constant laughs and adventures, and I learned most of my French (and of course my fancy Belgian accent) from her.
We spent so much time together that one night there was an intervention with my host family and her family, as people were concerned that I didn’t realize who my host family actually was. It didn’t work. We couldn’t be apart, and finally everyone just accepted it. While I was ready to come back to my life in Canada, our goodbye was as dramatic as one would expect for two sixteen year-old girls who had been joined at the hip for months.
Almost thirty years later, I was travelling around Europe for a couple of weeks in the summer and had planned to see Ethel. We had not seen each other since that teary night a million years ago. We had met at a time when the internet was not even a figment of the imagination. Writing letters, making cassette tapes of our voices and having awkward phone calls eventually phased out, but love it or hate it, Facebook brought us back together many years later.
I had rented an apartment in Brussels and was waiting for her to arrive. I was nervous. Would it be awkward? Could we even communicate? Had too much time passed? My French is still somewhat there if I need it, but I am rusty at best and I knew her English had remained pretty much unchanged from our time together so many years ago.
Ethel messaged me to let me know she had arrived. I spotted her from our very small balcony. The instant I saw her, I knew. We picked up right where we left off, feeling an instant comfort and chemistry with one another, and soon got back to our shenanigans and big, genuine laughs. Quite simply, we are connected. We are true soulmates and I love her so much. I just feel better around her. Ethel and I spent two beautiful days together in Brussels and Ghent (a beautiful port city in the the north west of Belgium) and had the most amazing reunion. The picture at the top was taken in the same spot in Brussels as sixteen year-olds, and again as forty-four year-olds. Another tough goodbye, but this time, we will not be waiting thirty years.