Years ago, I traveled to Oudenaarde, Belgium, to work at a customer site for several months. The opportunity sounded exotic, but the reality was much different than I expected. Most customers made an effort to speak English and befriend me wherever I traveled, but people at that company treated me like a second-class citizen and rarely even acknowledged me.
At meetings, engineers spoke Flemish exclusively. I did not work with the other engineers: I worked alone in a basement room fourteen hours a day, six days a week. I had a radio to drown out the silence, but unfortunately, local radio stations repeated the same few popular songs all day long.
I lived in a place I called the “prison farm” because of its location in the middle of a remote farm and because it looked much like a prison facility. Cattle grazed on all sides of it except for the parking lot. Although there were several apartments in the building, they were typically unoccupied and it was as quiet as death.
When I returned from work each evening, I immediately turned on the television, but sadly, all the shows were in Flemish. Despite my notes begging her not to, the house cleaner always left a window open. A light outside the window came on automatically at 6 p.m. and attracted mosquitoes from then on who invariably found the open window and made themselves at home in my apartment. I spent a half hour each night shining a lamp at the ceiling and throwing a damp, crumpled towel at any mosquitoes attracted to the light so that I could rest peacefully. Invariably, a buzzing in my ear would awaken me several times a night and I would reach for the damp towel that I kept near the bed, turn on the lamp, and repeat the procedure.
To make matters worse, it rained almost constantly. The rain was for the most part horizontal, driven by a howling wind that destroyed my umbrella the first day. When I shopped for food, I could only find a generic food store. All the products were in white containers with black text descriptions written in Flemish or French.
The house cleaner lost my laundry so often that I finally gave up and located a laundry mat. The dryer there was so hot that it destroyed all but a few of my clothes. I have never seen clothes so roasted before. After that, I washed clothes by hand in my shower, hung them to dry from a bannister, and then ironed them. It seemed that my socks would never dry in the damp air so I tried drying them with the microwave. They caught fire, which destroyed most of them. The apartment never smelled the same after that.
There was no internet in my apartment, so I frequently called my wife late in the evening on a landline. I could only reach her with a calling card that required me to type in 32 digits. Quite often, I made a mistake and had to begin all over. I sometimes had to dial three or four times before connecting.
I was not the only one in misery; there were two other contract engineers there: one from the Czech Republic and the other from Germany. With no one else to turn to, we became good friends, often meeting for lunch or dinner. At those times, we shared stories of life outside Oudenaarde, and for a time, felt human again.
When things are so bad, you make a special effort to find the good in the bad—a glimmer of light in the darkness, a spark of hope to carry you through. Each Saturday, I would get as far from my nightmare as possible. The farther away I got, the more alive I felt. I explored castles and museums, watched American movies with Flemish subtitles and ate buttered popcorn with sugar instead of salt (the only way to get it in Belgium).
Sometimes, I would lunch on Pizza Hut pizza and mouth-watering Belgium waffles fresh off the griddle, served by an elderly man from his antiquated truck. In my opinion, no one in Belgium could top his waffles. For dinner, I would often visit a McDonald’s near Ghent that played fifties and sixties rock and roll music and made the most flawless McDonald’s burgers I have ever seen. Best of all, everything tasted exactly like it did back home.
I walked through Brussels and saw the Grand Place and Manneken Pis: a famous statue of a little boy who has been relieving himself continuously since 1619. I visited Amsterdam, toured their famous canals in a boat and viewed some of Pablo Picasso’s finest works. I drove through historic towns made entirely from stone in the 1600s and paid homage at American WW I and WW II grave sites, including the one where General Patton rests in peace. I stood atop a monument to Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo. I watched in awe as a Panzer tank roared noisily to life a few feet away from me and belched black diesel smoke into the air.
I thought I would feel relieved when it finally came time to leave, however, as I picked up my bag and walked out the door of my apartment, tears filled my eyes. What at first reminded me of a prison had become my home. I would miss its unique character. Instead of the gruelling work hours and the loneliness, I could think of nothing but the adventures I embarked upon and the two engineers I befriended.
Wherever you are in life and whatever you are doing, I hope that you will find the good in the bad. No matter how miserable your life may seem there is always something to cherish.Share