By Dianna Flett
I lived in Belgium for a couple of years doing counterintelligence work to support U.S. Army Forces. It was a terrific assignment. I wore civilian clothes and operated far away from my headquarters in Germany. I had my own little domain.
As part of my mission I traveled frequently to the Netherlands, England and of course all around Belgium. I lived in a little farmhouse that was littered with mice, but luckily, I had my trusty dog, Raider, on guard to snatch them up.
The farmhouse was on a long dirt packed street and, as is normal in Belgium, my rental sat very close to the road. It wasn’t hard to get to know your neighbors as the front of our homes were basically connected. I had a wonderful and quite proper landlady. She made it a point when I paid my rent once a month to have a formal reception in her “receiving” room. There wasn’t a ton of communication beyond my broken French, but there was a lot of smiling and nodding; we both relished my visits to her. Back at my rental, my neighbor to the right of my little house had goats and chickens. He and his wife were quite friendly, and we spoke often.
Occasionally he invited me to their home for dinner. Belgian dinners are long events. They can often last for hours with several courses and breaks for conversation and walks. I quickly learned the more wine I drank the better he and his wife understood my French. The first time I was at their home and experienced the inevitable call of nature, I asked:
“Ou est le salle de bain?”
My neighbor pointed me to the front door and I thought,
“He’s showing me to the door. Did I say something wrong?”
Turns out, they had an outhouse positioned about 15 feet on the side of the house. I was chuckling (probably fueled by the wine as much as the experience) and thought about how much this little street of Belgians must have seen over the years.
My neighbor to the left of my house was a caricature of a man. As I watched him stroll down the street in the evening, I imagined him in a black and white film with Humphrey Bogart. He was thin, about my height, always wore a small cap on his head, sported suspenders over his shirt clipped to his pants, and had a small cigarette end dangling from the corner of his mouth. I didn’t see him as often as the other neighbor, and I thought perhaps he wasn’t keen on Americans being in his country.
One morning he came over to my house and knocked on the door. He spoke with a clenched mouth to hold on to his hand-rolled cigarette. As we exchanged polite phrases, he reached into his bag and pulled out a large egg. It was from a goose and the largest egg I’d ever seen. I feigned wonder at his prize, and he puffed up with pride. As the labored conversation came to a close, he handed me the egg, telling me to keep it. He turned, shuffled away, and I stood in my doorway wondering what in the world I would do with the egg.
Almost as soon as he’d left, my more friendly neighbor came to the house and asked what happened. I explained, as best I could, the interaction and the gift. The friendly neighbor warned me not to speak with the man again. With much emotion he explained that the other man collaborated with the Germans when the invading force marched through and occupied Belgium during World War II. He said over and over again that no one talked to him anymore, and that he’d chosen the occupiers side instead of staying loyal to his people. He was dead to them.
I felt bad for the old man, but I have to share, I also understood. Consequences for our actions are so unpredictable. Even before the advent of social media, and like now, the words we say (or post) and the implications of the things we do are lasting.
Before we know it, we change how people see us. During times of great stress and anxiety it is even more appropriate to watch our actions towards others.
Because of my experiences in Belgium, I am always thoughtful about choosing sides and passing judgement too quickly. When I see some of the negative things people share about the “other side” I think of that egg, and the man who gifted it. He chose his side poorly, and it had consequences for the rest of his life.
What a terrible thing: to be on the losing side of history.