Belgium far exceeded our expectations. We knew Brussels and Bruges would not disappoint, but we didn't anticipate the genuine affection we received from essentially perfect strangers - Cousins Mario, Sonia and Irina, and their respective families. They're actually my dad's first cousins - children of my dad's uncle and hero, Tio Pepe - my grandma's younger brother. Apart from one quick brush with Cousin Mario in 2000, I simply knew them by fame: Tio Pepe's successful kids - the pilot, cardiologist, and lawyer - from Belgium. In other words, I didn't know them at all.
They each hosted us for a few days and made us feel immediately at home, as though we've known each other forever. Family unity is a badge of honor in our family, so I suppose I shouldn't have been that surprised. Even so, we never felt even the slightest, expected awkward moment. Beyond that, their respective better halves - Catherine, Georges and David - had no excuse for being so kind to us. In their own way, they each demonstrated their warmth. Catherine's thoughtful gesture of toasting our arrival. Georges going way out of his way to grab a small bag we'd left behind. David offering to have us stay at their beach apartment, so we can pick up our car from nearby Calais. You can tell a lot about a person from those small gestures of kindness.
With this context, it's easy to see how some of my favorite moments in Belgium were low-key, subdued, but memorable, family affairs. Playing a little guitar with Cousin Mario with our daughters Aylin and Laura looking on. Cousin Sonia's enthusiasm to host us in their new pool. We made it to her place just in time to enjoy a poolside beer before the rain came in. She texted us this photo, inviting us over:
Our drive to the beach with Cousin Irina, where she shared the miracle birth of her beautiful, "Petit Sara," and David's hopes of taking his family where the sun shines a little more. And perhaps one of my favorite, favorite little moments was exchanging music recommendations with Cousin Mario and David. Sitting around the computer, pulling up YouTube videos, Mario shared Georges Brassens, David gave us some Leó Ferré, while I countered with Tom Waits - "A Sight for Sore Eyes," if you must know. Our mutual passion for the power of music transcended any language barriers (David speaks mostly French).
In each of my cousins, I also witnessed a hunger - similar to mine - to live in the now. It's never too late to learn a new musical instrument or never too soon to put in the pool before the kids run off to be grown ups or never too crazy to give serious consideration to a wild dream that may set you free. In the end, perfect strangers with similar bloodlines turned out to be kindred spirits.