It was the summer of 2016 and I was house, cat and fish sitting for my cousins’ friend in Sollentuna, on the outskirts of Stockholm, in her yellow house. I’d got a divorce the year before, after a 9 year marriage (but the relationship was actually longer – 16 years).
I was working as a teacher in a Steiner Waldorf school in Bucharest and I was on holiday. I had three weeks on my own in the yellow house, close to a nature reserve on one side and to a vik (long and narrow bay) on the other side, half an hour from Stockholm central.
I loved meeting deer and rabbits on my walks. The highway was close by and I was imagining the traffic noise was coming from a waterfall as I was doing my evening workout on the wooden deck or coming back from an incursion in Gamla Stan (the old town) or just my daily run in the neighboring streets.
I was happy. Alone. Beautiful. Free.
On the way to the train station there was a shopping area. And one day I discovered this small family-run shop, doing tailoring work and also selling clothes. I went in for the conversation. Because they were not Swedish and so I was sure they would appreciate the conversation at least as much as I was going to.
They were both in their late forties, a bit pale. The man had dark circles around his eyes, a stiff jaw and deep wrinkles between his eyebrows.
The woman was hiding behind a sewing machine, her head covered in a light blue hijab, working on a black sparkling dress.
“Where are you from?” I asked after hearing them speak Arabic.
She quietly lifted her head, gave me a quick glance and then she briefly looked at the man. He turned to me, took a deep breath and pointed his chin up replying:
I’d never witnessed so much dignity in such a short reply.
“Oh, really, how beautiful. I have a very good Syrian friend, I met him in Istanbul.”
And we continue our small talk as I decide to buy a powdered pink dress.
“Shukran” I tell them after I pay and their eyes light up.
Five years later, I close down my business, pack everything, say goodbye to my friends and, together with my two young kids, my husband and our two cats, we move to the yellow house. From La Hulpe, Belgium. We arrive on April 1.
That morning we left our most beautiful house and lovely garden with vegetables, flowers and singing birds. The garden where I buried my 16 year old cat and Nathaniel’s placenta. Just 800 meters from a more than 220 hectares domain with a castle, half an hour from Brussels central. I would be hiding in bed, crying into a pillow, but I have the kids to think of.
The highway noise is bruising my ears and bringing my eyebrows closer together. The wind is mercilessly whipping my cheeks. The posh neighborhood we live in turns out to be in between these two ghettos, with gangs shooting and setting cars on fire, so the police helicopter often flies over our house at night. The neighbors are always playing loud music outside on every God-given sunny day.
I gather my strength and go visit the Syrian shop. I imagine them opening the door for me, I imagine reminding them I was there five years before, I imagine we are all smiling and I buy some clothes for the kids.
I have my whole family with me, I am wearing the pink powdered dress, hopping with joy in anticipation of a pleasant conversation as I approach the place.
The first thing that strikes me is the dirt – thick dust and pieces of packaging. Fragments of colorful Arabic words still stuck on the upper part of the windows, locked door. It’s dark inside. And a cold, heavy lump finds home in my throat.