It is a retrospective time of year, as everyone looks back on their highs and lows of the past 12 months. The blogging world is no exception. It crossed my mind briefly to do an overview. 2014 was the year I turned thirty, quit my job, quit football, joined the cult of CrossFit and started to finally make plans for the future (more details to come in 2015).
But then I said to myself “Shut up Sylvia, you self-obsessed ninny. No-one wants to read that. You don’t even want to read that”. However, people do want to read about my online dating exploits. Instead of letting 2014 drift off into obscurity, I took inspiration from a hashtag trending on Twitter this morning: #worstdatein5words. My contribution:”Let’s walk to the Atomium”.
The man was Norwegian. My first mistake was meeting him on a Friday, the longest and most exhausting day of the week when I was working in Dods. Friday evenings were for having a few drinks with easy friendly company. But Mr. Norway and I had already met up a few times and this was the only free evening. So a date it was and we were going for a walk. I should preface this story by saying that previously his only display of oddness was in denouncing my friendship with someone who works for Shell. I love you, Clare, not even planetary destruction can come between us.
Reader, I should have known from the beginning. On my way to our meeting place, I glanced up and saw him striding purposefully towards me. “How nice”, I thought, “he is so happy to see me that he can’t just stand and wait, he wants to be with me immediately”. But without making eye contact, he strode past me and into the shop. Bemused, I followed him, thinking he hadn’t seen me. He had.
“I need chocolate”. He flung the words over his shoulder at me. “I didn’t get the job. They hired the fucking intern. Here, have a Malteser.” At this point, I felt sorry for him, the first in a range of emotions I would feel throughout the evening. He was coming to the end of a temporary contract and applying for jobs in Brussels, facing a number of closed doors due to being academically overqualified but lacking in practical experience. Whenever he found himself unemployed, he signed up for a new Masters/PhD programme. I kept my opinions on this to myself, a trend that would continue well into the evening.
We marched up Rue Belliard, the evening sun in our faces, discussing his work situation. Discussing is a generous term, essentially he was lecturing me. When we didn’t appear to be walking downtown, I tentatively asked where we were going. “The Atomium”, he announced, “you haven’t been there and we both like walking”. Technically, both of these statements were correct. I’d never been to the Atomium, the strange building constructed for Expo 1958, happy to see it glinting in the distance from the viewpoint at the Palais de Justice, my mother’s words ringing in my ears: “Your father brought me there before you were born. It wasn’t as shiny as it looks from far away and it smells of urine”. But one hopes it had been cleaned since then and would be a nice reward after a long walk (approximately 8.5km as the crow flies).
Except we weren’t crows. We took the un-scenic route, via the red light district by Gare du Nord (he wanted to shock me; I remained unshocked), into the depths of St Josse and Schaerbeek, until he finally admitted that he wasn’t entirely sure where we were or where we should be going. Google Maps was not an option, that would be giving in. Eventually we made our way to Parc Elisabeth and the Basilica in Koekelberg, where we finally saw a sign for the Atomium, which brought the first tear of the night to my eyes. We had added about 2 extra hours to our journey and had another 4.5km to go.
I want to add here that Brussels has its beautiful parts and its less-than-beautiful parts. We could have gone for a walk in the Bois de la Cambre or into the Foret des Soignes. We could have gone out to Tervuren. There were plenty of nice options, most of which had the potential to end in a bar, drinking a few beers. But “we” chose to stroll through an area where I was heard to wonder aloud “Is that a dead pigeon?”, “Do you think this is a leftover bombsite from WWII?” and “Why are there so many facades with no buildings behind them?”. This was Dodge City, tumbleweeds and all.
Why didn’t you leave, I hear you ask. Why didn’t you get on a metro or a bus and get the hell out of Dodge? At first, it was fine. He was a little eccentric. When we found something to chat about, I was happy to argue my position and listen to his opinions, but gradually I realised that his manner was more pretentious and patronising than eccentric. After an argument about religion (anyone who knows me knows my lack of passion for this subject), I felt myself retreating into an indifferent state of agreement. It was easier to nod and let him rant than to engage. He was perfectly happy with this arrangement and by then, I didn’t feel safe leaving him. It was getting dark and gloomy, a headache had developed and the location was suitably creepy. Mr Norway was the lesser of a number of evils.
Nor did I feel at risk from him personally. He was much taller and stronger than me, but didn’t feel like a threat. He tried to kiss me at one point, as we drew closer to the Atomium, but I turned him down gruffly with an “I need food”. By then, he was more at risk of me attacking him than the other way around. I kept thinking that if Jane was there and he made her walk that far, she would have taken his head off. He didn’t know how lucky he was. The damn Atomium was tantalisingly close, peeping out from behind buildings, its stupid silver balls lit up for the night, but it was another half hour before we stood in front of it.
Another silent tear was shed and we headed for the tram back into Brussels. It was past 22h30 and the only thought on my mind was food. “Anything to eat in your place?”, he asked suggestively. I shuddered openly and said “Nothing, only water and tomato sauce” (not entirely a lie). I was getting a kebab, he could join me if he wanted. Damn, that was a good kebab, full of frites and feta. I could feel the energy and warmth oozing down through my system and I almost felt convivial again. He gave me money to cover both our orders, but when I paid at the end, I used my own money and returned the €20 to him. I didn’t want to owe him anything. He looked confused, but rather than saying thanks, he shrugged and said “You probably earn more than me anyway”. I would have laughed, but the irony of this assumption made me want to cry again.
Needless to say, the date was un grand flop. Even so, he insisted on walking me to my door. As he leaned in for a kiss, I felt my arms folding. Picture another scene: you are standing in front of a really classy nightclub, the kind of place with a guest list, a dress code and a VIP room. Your name is not on the list and you are wearing wellies. After pleading with the big burly bouncer to let you in, you make a last attempt to persuade him…by lobbing the gob. That is how I saw this moment in front of my building.
I turned on my heel and closed the door behind me. Back in my little apartment, I jumped for joy at being alone and single. Sometimes you need a brush with indifference to see that it really is worse than hate.
On Twitter, @MissBicycle noted that anything can be fun if you are with the right company. My return to the Atomium couldn’t have been more different to my first trip: a gorgeous sunny Saturday in October, when the Byrne-Devines invited me to join their relay marathon team in the King Baudouin Stadium in Heysel. The sun twinkled off the silver balls of the Atomium, I ran my 5km segment in 24m 13s, everything was organised smoothly and the company was so good that no-one wanted to kill anyone else. Why can’t all days be like that?