Featured photo: SWC writing at the Helmut Newton Legacy exhibition.
Writing inspired by the SWC creative writing prompt: “The French-Belgian Border Crossing”
Find the series of photographs depicting the story of a French-Belgian border crossing and retell the story in your own words.
The French-Belgian Border Crossing
By Connie Phlipot
It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? Jean-Marie asked.
Anise looked from her phone to her father, then at the flat undemarcated countryside. “Hard to imagine what?”
“We’ve just driven into a different country and you didn’t even notice. Nothing changed except for a few signs in Flemish.”
“So? It’s been that way for a long time. I don’t even remember border crossings.” She articulated the last words with disdain, as if talking about taking out the garbage.
“That’s what I mean. But it really hasn’t be so long ago. Your grandmother still asks me everyone time I leave France for Belgium or Germany if I have my passport, the right currency…”
Anise laughed and turned back to her phone.
Jean-Marie had been a small child, not yet in school, when he made that memorable border crossing, but he could still picture it like a movie he’d watched over and over. Those beautiful ladies, stepping out of elegant cars. His own mother had covered her hair with a heavy, dark blue scarf hiding much of her face. The fringed edges fluttered over her sunglasses. She was wearing the cat-eye sunglasses he loved and learned later were all the rage those days. It was the only distinctive feature of her attire. She was a nondescript, not-so-young rural French woman, traveling by bus to Belgium and back with a small child.
“For what purpose?” the guard asked.
“To visit my uncle,” she’d answered.
“But, mamma, you don’t have a…” she clapped her hand over his mouth.
His mother rummaged in her shiny, vinyl black bag. He had once taken everything out of that bag, spreading the contents on the carpet, searching for candies or coins, but had found only ticket stubs and balled up tissues. The soldier looked hard at her face. “Please remove your sunglasses.” When she did he looked back at the photo. Then he flipped through the passport pages. “You travel a lot?”
“Yes, yes. I’m very close to my brother. I mean my uncle.”
He stared at her a moment. “Let me look inside your purse.” She re-opened the massive black bag. He avoided the used tissues and chewed up pencils as he dug to the bottom. “Okay, you can close it,” he said, wiping his hands with a white handkerchief from his pocket. He stamped her passport and handed it back to her.
She pushed Jean-Marie forward and up the steps of the bus. Her hands were shaking, her breath hot and smelling of garlic. The window was sooty and steamy. He cleaned a viewing circle with his mitten. “Look how dirty you got those mittens, grandmama made.” Across the street, a a lady stepped from a shiny black car, her legs as long as a stork’s, her skirt riding up to her thighs. He had never seen a lady’s thigh, and he looked away. HIs mother always tugged her skirts down tightly when she sat keeping her knees firmly out of view. He looked back outside. The guard was smiling at the lady as he questioned her, almost as if he was talking to her about the beautiful weather, then stamped her passport quickly and handed it back with an even brighter smile.
His excited breath steamed up the window. Through the porthole, now flecked with bits of thread from his mitten, he saw another woman, her short skirt swaying in the breeze. A tiny hat, like something on a baby doll, bobbed along as she stepped toward the guard. She held a wooden box like a small treasure chest in both hands. The guard didn’t ask her to open it. Just smiled at her as pleasantly as if they were in a movie. Jean-Marie ignored the passengers bumping into the back of the seats with their striped ticking bags full of baked goods from relatives and household goods not yet available in France. The parade of confident women gliding through the customs controls consumed all his attention. When the bus pulled forward, he turned around to grab one last eyeful, but a puff of black diesel exhaust obscured his view.
He drew the ladies on the back of his copybook with the stub of a pencil he’d found in his Aunt’s house. A round hat perched on one circle head, long sticks for legs like spiders. The car was easier to draw, he’d sketched the car parked outside of his own house many times. HIs mother’s scarf slipped off her head. He knew beneath the cat glasses her eyes were shut because her whole body was still. Her hands lay soft in her lap, her face calm, and pretty, not scrunched up tight like it was in front of the guards. She looked a little like those ladies,.
Anise’s phone had slipped onto the floor mat. With her eyes closed, her head back, her lips parted, she looked like her grandmother resting in the bus after returning to France from Belgium. They were going in the opposite direction, today, from Lyon to Brussels, spurred to visit the neighboring country by Anise’s schoolgirl interest in the founding of the European Community. Jean-Marie turned off the highway to Froidchapelle, where he’d gone with his mother. He’d been parked at his aunt while his mother was off on seeing the uncle she didn’t have. He couldn’t remember what he had done all day. Maybe he had walked around the lake, skipping stones, or since he had just learned to read, he probably sat in a chair sounding out words from his brand-new reader. He didn’t think his aunt had children. He certainly had not been in touch with any cousins. In fact, she probably wasn’t his aunt. Children in those days called older women, “Tata,” whether they were related or not.
Many, many years later on the Cote d’Azur, he looked over his girlfriend’s shoulder at the French Vogue she was flipping through. The models in the feature were engaged in some every day activity, like going to the grocery store, but it was clear they were posing. The store aisle, shopping carts, the clerks were props to highlight the models’ radiant, confident beauty and the understated luxury of their clothes. Just like those beautiful ladies on the border. He felt incredibly sad, a cherished memory shattered like a handblown Christmas ornament.
Sunday Writers' Club Member
Connie draws upon her experiences as a former U.S. diplomat in her short stories, flash fiction and creative non-fiction. Her novel-in-progress is loosely based on her grandparents’ lives as Belarusan immigrants in the coal mining community of early 20th century America.
An intriguing story, Connie. It’s wonderful to see how you were able to take inspiration from the imagery at the exhibition, along with a writing prompt, to come up with something so unique. Many thanks for sharing.
Such a visually compelling piece. Loved it!
I think this is a very intriguing text, mysterious, with detailed visual imagery. I want to know more about the Jean-Marie’s mother now.