We weren’t your typical ugly Americans. No, no. We were unique, over-the-top, nightmare ugly Americans — we had thoughts and opinions and curiosity and wanted to actually interact with foreign cultures! Most Americans living overseas just hide on or near the military base, with the occasional excursion to tourist areas, McDonald’s, and popular ex-pat hangouts, possibly catching the latest American blockbuster with subtitles at a local movie theater. And that’s just how most locals like it. It’s not that they don’t want us to engage their culture — they just don’t want to engage us. But we ate in neighborhood restaurants, went to French films and Belgian festivals, took in concerts and cathedrals — and everywhere we went we left the distinctive Strand stamp. It’s not going too far to say we terrorized Belgium, and while on vacation, much of France, too.
The Strand calling card was our car, a 1969 Checker Marathon, just like the old Manhattan taxi-cabs. Only ours was silver. Through various arcane calculations my father had determined that the most cost-efficient solution to our transportation needs in Belgium was to ship our car over from the States, and then ship it back at the end of our stay.
Maybe he used some sort of backward government math, or the tortured dad-logic that arises when a man decides that if he must assume sole and final responsibility for all the cares of his family, then it is his prerogative to make for that family plans whose meaning only his mind can penetrate. Maybe it was because Dad grew up in the Depression and some of his earliest memories were of hobos coming to the back porch to ask his mother for soup, and for people who grew up then, strict economy is a matter of principle. Everything was a matter of principle with Dad.
So principle dictated that we should lumber the lanes of Lorraine in a vehicle that was a sleek 3763 lbs unloaded, 5 ft 2in tall, 6ft 4in wide, and 17 ft long, with a wheelbase that was wider than the standard freeway lane in Europe, and a 300 horsepower V8. The Checker dominated the road. We shared streets with Peugots, Volkswagens, Fiats, Renaults, Citroen Deux-Chevaux, and a variety of odd little three-wheeled city cars. We didn’t want to play chicken everyday with cars that were 10 times less massive and 30 times less powerful than ours, but what could we do? The Belgians simply hadn’t built their roads to fit our car.
The neighbors immediately nicknamed the Checker, “La Tanque.” Given how sensitive Belgians are about surprise tank appearances, this felt like something more than good-natured ribbing. But we took La Tanque everywhere. Who needs to hide at the military base when you’re driving your own Tanque?
Dad would find some buried treasure of a restaurant in his beloved Michelin guide, and off we’d go. But the peculiar mixture of modern planning and medieval happenstance that gave birth to the system of roads in Europe is incomprehensible to the American mind. It always took us three hours to get to any new town. Given Belgium’s size, driving three hours in any direction from our home should have put us deep in another country or the Atlantic Ocean.
Once we actually got into the town, there was always some crucial turn we couldn’t make, down a narrow, twisting, cobblestone alley flanked by ancient, leaning, stone houses, between which we simply could not fit. And the next thing we knew, we’d be in the red light district. Every time. I’d seen more prostitutes by the time I was 10 than Toulouse-Lautrec.
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