Mons, Belgium is in the old province of Wallonia and is French speaking. I was assigned to two secondary schools in Mons to more or less aid the teachers of English. Once I arrived, the Belgian Ministry of Education said I hadn’t gone through their system so I would not be versed in the requirement expectations for their students and could not be responsible for actually teaching a class. This turned out to be a boon for me because I was then free to get to know the people and spend quality time in their homes. (I really learned to internalize my ability to speak French by watching television in French). There were no other English speakers in town whom I knew, although DeGaulle and France had recently withdrawn from NATO and the new headquarters was relocated to Casteau, some 10 or so miles from Mons.
By the end of the academic year I was becoming fully integrated into the social circle of one of the teachers at the high school. One memorable dinner party at her house was held in early June on the evening of the local celebration of St. George and the Dragon: Le Doudou. This traditional fête is a local holiday celebrated on Trinity Sunday.
On May 21, 1967, a year after my return to my teaching post in California, The Innovation, a large department store in Brussels burned to the ground and 241 souls were lost. Everyone in Belgium knew someone who had perished that day. Upon hearing the news in California, I immediately thought of my new Belgian friends and dismissed the idea anyone I knew was there because it was on a Monday and they would have been in school teaching. Alas, what I didn’t know was it was the Monday following Trinity Sunday which like Easter, travels on the calendar. Schools in Mons are closed that day and my friend and her mother had gone to the Innovation for some shopping and never returned. Her father waited at the train station in Mons to pick them up not knowing what had happened in Brussels until someone on the platform asked him if he had heard about the fire.
This almost 54 year old catastrophe marked me very deeply but had the bittersweet outcome of creating long lasting friendships in Mons/Bergen which are ongoing to this day through generations. My “Fulbright year” remains one of the highlights of my life.
Patricia Moore – Fulbright to Belgium 1965