Noël à Charleroi


Part Ten in the Derailleur Series

Right before I got my transfer to Tourcoing I prayed one night bedside in my apartment in Nancy. All was going so well for me; I was teaching, we were baptizing, the weather was beautiful. In my first ville in three months I saw the sun for only three days. I said in my prayer that things were too easy, that I needed more of a challenge in the work I was doing.

Really, it’s one of the few tangible answers to prayer that I can recall.

My comp in Charleroi was burnt. He had three weeks left and did little more than visit with the Fontaines and pick up souvenirs. I needed work to pass the time and occupy me beyond my set jaw and the excruciating occurrence of a simple bowel movement. You’d think one would abate the other. I tracted out the rest of that November, usually on splits with the other elders in our apartment, one of which introduced me to The Police and Nutella, both of which are staples as I write this. Thanks Michel.

The Fontaines had us over weekly for dinner, initially with something special prepared for me to ingest, but by mid-December my jaw was freed and I rejoined the ranks of masticators.

And I spent more time with Catherine, more time than a rule-following missionary should have. I avoided her initially since the attraction was instant on my part. I’m not so sure about her part, my face being nothing of what I wanted to be represented by, at least a bit repulsive I’d imagine even to one as compassionate as she. I could only stand or lay down, I’d spit when I spoke any language, and my nose would weep sooner than I would realize its drizzle.

I baptized her not long after I was capable of doing so and she joined the sisters in our area in our efforts of district splits. The more I healed the better I felt about facing her. By Christmas I was sans hardware and could sit half-cheeked on soft surfaces.

Mme. Fontaine, now Seour Fontaine having been baptized along with her daughter, asked our assistance in finding a Christmas tree, a family tradition done on Christmas Eve day. My new companion and I mounted her utility car, the same 2CV in which she ferried me to the hospital. A 2CV is the latent nomenclature for Deux Chevaux, meaning two steam horses, an indication of the car’s horsepower. The ubiquitous 2CV is as much an icon of Europe as frites and moulles are to Belgium with its rag roll-back top and Quonset-hut WWII utilitarian styling. The Fontaine 2CV was the top-of-the-line with two-tone paint, black and burgundy. The Fontaine’s Saint Bernard joined us as well to find a suitable Christmas tree for the fete later that evening.

We found an evergreen in a forest, chopped it free and stuck it through the sunroof of the Citroen. On the way home I stood along side the tree holding it out of Mme. Fontaine’s way while she chauffeured it, the dog, my comp and myself back to Charleroi to her home where she had moulles mariniere and hot chocolate waiting to warm us up.

The other elders and sisters in the ville joined us to trim the tree and begin a night-long feast in celebration. I lost track of courses ranging from Mediterranean fruits-de-mer of shrimp, scallops, squid and fillets that I couldn’t identify, to caviar-stuffed lobsters and crab bisque, bread and cheeses I wish I could remember only because the entrées of wild boar and wild turkey carved at our table eclipsed whatever it was that came the course before.

And in the flush of it all, the cheer, the escape of anything missionary, the fete of the night and certainly the food, I admitted to myself that I was in love with Catherine shortly after she confided the same sentiment to me in a private moment in her mother’s kitchen.

For the exception of being alone with a member of the opposite sex, the missionary code remained in tact. We celebrated New Year’s Eve together at a ward function, a dinner where the elders donned mustaches and waited tables while the members ate and danced. It was a costume party and Catherine dressed up as a ‘20’s flapper girl. It was the first time I saw her out of her usual cowl-neck sweaters and full-length denim skirts.

So, maybe this was why. Everything happens for a reason. That prayer, the soul-searching, the shoulder to the wheel, the rising to the challenge, the perseverance; all of it paid off in this crossing paths with this beautiful Belgian girl. I didn’t kiss her at midnight, but I wanted to, and it wasn’t long after that I requested a transfer.


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