Rest in Peace Grandma …



She sighs.
Her eyelids grow heavy.
They drop, then suddenly they flutter open again.
She’s awake, but not seeing.
Those watery, faded eyes are like windows,
offering a view of the vast emptiness inside her head.

I watch her.
Her head nods to the side.
Her eyelids close again.
She’s asleep.

Her hand starts to shake.
Is she awake again?
No, her eyes are still closed.
Her foot joins her hand in an awkward dance.

She moans. She sighs.
Her limbs keep spasming.
She suffers. Even in her sleep.
Oh … how she suffers!

Her breathing halts.
Her hand and foot stop moving.
We watch her.
Is this it?
The time we’ve all been waiting for?

Suddenly, as if she got poked with a needle,
she starts breathing again.
Her limbs spasm again.
She moans again.
She’s alive again.
But how alive is she really?

Tears well up in my eyes.
How can we let her suffer like that?
Now I understand those nurses who kill elderly patients.
It looks so easy.
If I just picked up that throw pillow and held it over her mouth,
she’d slide away.
Her hands would rest
her feet would rest
she would find peace – at last.

I divert my eyes.
Away from the pillow.
Away from her.
Even a dog we would not let suffer like this.
We’d be humane enough put him out of his misery right away.

But not Grandma.
Because she is human.
Because she is worth more than a dog,
Which gives her the sad privilege to suffer more.

Suddenly her eyes flutter open,
reflecting a hint of livelihood.
Her hand and foot relax.
She looks at the TV screen and smiles.

I’m not sure if she knows who we are,
But she seems happy to have us there.
She comments on the price of the house that is for sale on the TV show.
“Yeah, sure!” she says, “$625,000, that’s a bargain!”
She smiles mischievously,
proud to have made a statement that makes us laugh.
We build onto her comments.
She smiles.

And then, just as sudden, the light dims behind her eyes.
She retreats to that dark place.
The one that makes that hand and foot twitch.
The one that makes her moan.
The one that makes her suffer.

Oh Grandma,
Just let go of it all.
Let the arms of blissful wellbeing carry you away.
You’ll be so much better there.
Go now.
You deserve better than this.



Hélène Toye is the author of ‘Go West, A Belgian Attempts American Motherhood’, available on :


Ten LOOOONG minutes …


“I’ve got it under control, mama!”
“Sure you do,” I say, ignoring the hesitation lining her voice. I gently pat her knee before stepping out of the car.

From the sidewalk I observe her. Her expression is a mix of fright and elation. Her long, slender fingers tightly grip the steering wheel while her gaze is transfixed on the parking lot, as if in an effort to block out the examiner’s presence.

Please be gentle with her, I silently pray. She’s still so young.

Ignoring the tiny drops of cold sweat slowly rolling down my sides, I watch our sturdy vehicle perform the elegant dances we practiced so often.

“Turn on your indicator,” I say under my breath. “Good, now straighten the car… Yes, you can do it.”

“She’s got it under control, I think.”
The kind voice belongs to the Asian man who looks just as nervous as I am. He is waiting for his teenage son to return.
I silently make a deal with him.
I won’t acknowledge your twitching eye, if you pretend not to see my sweat marks, my eyes say. He nods. We have an understanding. It also includes not noticing the tapping feet, the shaking hands, nor the red blotches forming on my neck, …

My daughter’s vessel leaves the parking lot. In the distance I see the indicator being turned on as the bulky car slows down at the stop sign.

Yeah, she’s got it under control, I think.

My eyes scan the road in the distance while I chitchat to the man next to me. I’m babbling, not even registering what I am saying. The man politely nods and babbles back.
I discretely check my watch. Only five minutes have gone by. They feel like eternity …

How did we get here? I wonder.
Barely one year ago, we were not thinking about our daughter driving.
We were not thinking about her independence.
We were not thinking about a boy’s house that would become our girl’s second home.
She was still so young.
We were still so clueless.

She IS still so young.
And we ARE still pretty clueless, establishing our ways as we move along.

And yet now, she needs to get this license.
What’s more, I need her to get this license.
Not only is this her ticket to freedom, it’s mine too!

Tomorrow I’ll start working again, after six long years of full time motherhood. My tall daughter needs to take over from me. She’ll be driving her little brother to soccer; she’ll be making him do his homework. She’ll run last-minute errands for milk and apples …
She needs that license!

Please be gentle with her, I pray, feeling the cold sweat stream down my sides.

One car comes back, the examiner behind its wheel, a disappointed teenage girl in the passenger seat. A father steps out of the shadows, shaking his head ever so slightly. He slides into the driver’s seat and off they go.

Another car returns. The man next to me steps up, all smiles. His handsome son is behind the wheel, beaming.
“He’s got it under control!” I tell the Asian man. He turns back and smiles, his eye no longer twitching, his foot no longer tapping.
Father and son float inside, holding on to their paperwork.

I feel lonely as I watch one more car turn into the parking lot, carrying a sad-looking woman next to the driving examiner. A disappointed husband walks to the car and gets behind the wheel. They slowly edge back to the road and get swallowed up by traffic…

Please be gentle, I pray again.

After ten long minutes our car turns into the lot. I spot a tall frame behind the wheel. Could it be? I squint my eyes, trying to remember how tall the examiner was.
As they approach I can make out my daughter’s features – behind the wheel! She’s is beaming. My heart makes a happy dance. My hands stop shaking. The cold sweat taps magically shut off.

Clutching our precious paperwork, we glide inside the white building, smiling as we both ignore the big puddles of stress that stain my shirt and the red blotches on my neck.

My little girl is not so little anymore!

She’s got in under control!


Hélène Toye is the author of ‘Go West, A Belgian Attempts American Motherhood’, available on :

My Family’s Decline into Valentine …

val 2 valentine 1

“Did you put your cards in your backpack?”
“Yes, mama!”
“Okay, then you’re ready to go! Have fun!!!”

Today is the last school day before St-Valentine’s day. Our fifth Valentine in the USA. By now we know this is a BIG deal in American elementary schools.

The first year I was rather clueless.
Luckily there had been Ruth, a kind American mom I’d met during a writer’s workshop. Ruth had lived in Europe for a while, where she had discovered that Europeans consider St-Valentine’s day to be a holiday celebrated by lovers – and only by them.
That’s the way we Europeans sometimes tend to be. When we have something others haven’t, we do on occasions tend to rub it in. No ‘Let’s-make-this-a-party-for-all!’-empathy to be discovered where I come from. Ours is much more a kind of a ‘You-don’t-have-a-lover?-Well-too-bad-for-you!’-attitude.

Having heard about many of my gaffes against American customs, Ruth had taken the time to send me an email, detailing St-Valentine’s celebrations in my adoptive country.
“Valentine has become a children’s holiday in the USA,” she explained. “And so as not to exclude anyone from the festivities, children are asked to write Valentine cards for all their classmates. Those cards will be exchanged during a Valentine celebration. And,” she had added, “since it’s an American children’s celebration, expect your children to come home on a sugar high, their backpacks loaded with enough candy to carry them through the year.”

Sweet Ruth. I was so grateful for her advise. At least this would be one event we’d celebrate the right way. Or so I thought.

I immediately drove to the pharmacy, annex mini-supermarket with a huge holiday cards collection, where I sent off my 11-year-old daughter in search of Valentine cards while I looked for some household essentials.
“Got them!” Eloise stated some fifteen minutes later. “Look at this one,” She flipped open a card, sending electronic giggling and ‘happy valentine’-screams through the ‘personal care’-isle.
“Don’t you love it?” she asked when the green and pink alien-looking creatures had stopped screaming. I could imagine pre-teens having fun with that card, but the $5.99 price tag somewhat put me off, however. Okay, there were only 14 children in her class, but still … Valentine promised to be an expensive celebration at this rate.

I dropped a tube of shower gel in my basket and walked with Eloise to the cards rack, helping her to locate some cheaper cards. At last we settled on two packages containing ten nondescript ‘notecards’ with envelopes. They didn’t boast any corky Valentine texts or red hearts, but at $6.99 per package they looked perfect to me.
Once home, my daughter immediately set to work, thinking hard to come up with a kind and personalized message for each of her class mates.
On D-day, Eloise left for school all excited about what her class mates would think about her cards and wondering what she would get in return.

That afternoon, when she came home after school, she was running, clearly on a sugar high, as predicted by Ruth.
“Valentine is the best!” she declared.
Really? Had this event at last opened the doors to some much-needed peer kindness for my daughter? Eloise had been struggling since September to make friends. Maybe her kind cards had opened their eyes at last and had made them discover that she was in fact a very sweet girl?
“So your friends were happy with your cards?” I inquired.
“Oh no!” Eloise replied, “I mean, I don’t know. They didn’t even look at them. I guess they’ll read them tonight … maybe…,” she seemed to ponder that, then added, “In fact I don’t think they will read them at all. You know mama, my cards kind of sucked.”
They did? Did those other kids buy those expensive cards then? And why was Eloise so happy if her cards ‘sucked’?
“Oh, so did you get nice cards from your friends?” I asked.
“Yessss!!” my daughter exclaimed, opening her back pack and retrieving a white paper bag on which she had drawn hearts and glued small foam shapes. Not bothering about her decorations, she tore it apart and shook out its contents.
“Look!” she said.
Out fell tiny cards, not larger than a clothes’ price tag, each showing a design of football or basketball players, glittery hearts or pop artists. Being so little, there was absolutely no room for some nice personalized message on them. Barely legible names had been scribbled on the lines labeled ‘to’ and ‘from’. ‘Nice’ was definitely not the word that came to my mind upon seeing those sorry excuses for cards. My card expectations in ‘Hallmark-country’ had clearly been too high.
What made the cards ‘nice’ in my daughter’s view however, were of course not the football players or pop artists. It was what was taped to the cards. For each card came with some pink or red candy.
Eloise greedily tore off all the candy, not even pausing to decipher the name of the child who had offered it to her.
“Too bad there are not more children in my class,” she concluded, looking at the small red-and-pink pile, while she stuffed a Twizzler in her mouth.
I had to agreed with her. Her class mates would probably think her cards ‘sucked’ …

A few years later, in a knee-jerk-reflex to be creative, I decided my son’s first grade Valentine cards would be home-made. The project turned out to be largely mine; given my son’s lack of motivation for crafting. Instead of candy, I opted for a healthy – and pedagogically correct – alternative, taping a pencil to each card. Thibaut couldn’t care less about the whole thing and was – just like his sister had been – only interested in the candy that came with his classmates’ cards.

Given my son’s lack of involvement the year before and my own limited enthusiasm for crafting, second grade Valentine saw me buying a cheap box of tiny Star Wars cards. Thibaut hurried to write his name on all cards, then disappeared as I taped pencils to them, which made the flimsy cards look ridiculously small.

Then came this year …
At the supermarket last week, I told Thibaut to check if he could find some nice Valentine cards. He came back with a ‘32-pack for $1.99’ of tiny ‘Skylanders’ cards.
“I didn’t know you were into ‘Skylanders’?” I asked.
“I’m not, but all the other cards are really too childish.”
“Do you want to go to another store to find something cooler?”
“No mama, I don’t care. Nobody looks at the cards anyway. Now, we need to find good candy. Not too large so we can easily tape it on the cards, but not too small, because then I’ll be the uncool kid who hands out tiny pieces of candy.”
“What about pencils?” I tried.
My son stared at me. “Not again, Mama! Nobody likes pencils. And besides, the class party planners usually give us some.”
Oh … okay.

Tonight, Thibaut’s friends might frown at the ‘Skylanders’ design for just a second. They will not notice his scribbling, hardly legible because of my son’s haste to get the card-writing out of the way. But they will probably be happy with the M&M-like, red-pink-and-white sugarcoated chocolates taped to the card.
“This is the best treat, mama!” Thibaut had declared upon purchase. “Chocolate and Belgians go together and everybody knows it!”
After giving in to the American Valentine routine, I wonder though how Belgian we can still claim to be?

I herewith declare our American Valentine integration to be complete!

Hélène Toye is the author of ‘Go West, A Belgian Attempts American Motherhood’, available on :

The beach

beach photo 5(3)


“The first time I walked this beach was in 1939. I’ve been coming back every year since, several times a year.” You pause a little after that statement. “And today is my last walk here.” You stare at the waves, adding quietly, “you know, I could start crying right now.”

Surprised during my reveries, I prop myself up on an elbow. Your little Yorkshire terrier happily runs to me, leaving tiny paw prints all over the dark blue blanket I am lying on. I pet him while I squint my eyes to look at you. Your thinning grey hair, probably carefully combed over the top of your head this morning, is performing a wild dance as the wind blows through it. Your shoulders, warmly packed in a fleece sweater, hinge forward, as if wanting to help you express all the sadness you feel.

“Why is today your last walk on the beach?” I wonder.
“I just sold our house up here. I’m moving back home, permanently. You know, I’ve been so busy getting the house ready for the sale that I never took the time to say goodbye to the beach.”
You turn around, gesturing toward the vastness of the sand and the ocean. I follow your gaze, wondering if you have been talking to the waves during your walk, just like I have. We share a moment of silence. You, me and the waves. Even the seagulls seem to stop their squeaking for a while.

“Where’s home?” I ask after a few minutes.
“In Maryland, close to D.C.,” you say.
“Oh, that’s where I live too,” I reply. “That’s not too far away. Surely you can come back here? You could stay at a hotel. There’s plenty of them. That’s what I am doing now.”
You are silent while you seem to ponder that option.

“What do you do in Maryland?” you finally ask.
“Nothing,” I reply, forcing a smile. “That’s why I’m here. To figure out what I want to do with my life. I followed my husband to the US five years ago and became a stay-at-home-mom, because I didn’t have a work permit. Now I have a green card and I want more.”
“So you have kids?” you ask.
“Yes, two of them. They like the fact that I’m home. It’s easy for everyone. But I don’t enjoy it. On the other hand, I’m not sure if I’m ready to give up my freedom …”
“Do you have a degree?” you ask. You sound genuinely interested. That touches me.
“I do, in economics.”
“Maybe you could teach,” you say. “My daughter teaches English in high school. She likes it.” You seem so proud of your suggestion that I don’t want to tell you I no longer like economics. There’s no way I can enlighten students on the matter given my own lack of interest. I just nod and smile. And quickly bring the conversation back to you.

“You know, you might even be happier staying at a hotel when you come back here,” I say. “You won’t need to deal with the hassle of the upkeep of your house. No more worries when storms pass through the area. You can just come here, walk the beach and enjoy the moment…”
You ponder my words again. A hint of a smile lines your face as you look at the old wooden pier. I wonder if the structure already existed when you took your very first walk on this beach.

“You know,” you say, “maybe I will do that.”
On those words, you turn on your heels.
“Ready to go?” you ask your little dog, who brought so much sand to my blanket that it now looks two tones lighter. The Yorkshire cocks his head, looks at me one last time before running back to you. And off you go, the two of you. No goodbye, just like there was no hello.
Your step looks light, despite your heavy rubber boots. Your shoulders are rolled back. The hair on the top of your head is still frantically moving in all directions. But your head seems to reach higher. Somehow, you look as if you’ve grown over the past minutes. I didn’t know old men could still grow.

As I watch you and your dog walk away from me, I think back upon your teaching suggestion and smile. Of course I will never teach economics. No way. That thought is just plain silly. Me, teaching.
Then again, I think as I stare into the grey, crashing waves, what about teaching languages? Or teaching illiterate people how to read? Maybe in small groups? A few hours a day? That doesn’t sound too bad. I would perhaps enjoy that. I’d probably enjoy it very much. In fact, your teaching idea is not bad at all. The more I think it over, the more brilliant if sounds …
I want to run after you and tell you what you’ve just helped me discover.
But your silhouette had receded. You have become a small dot on the horizon and your little dog has disappeared into the vastness of the sand.

I turn to face the waves again.
“You know,” I whisper to them, “maybe I will do that.”

I get up and smile. As I walk off in the opposite direction you went, I feel my hair move wildly on top of my head. I square my shoulders and straighten my back. My footstep feels light.

Thank you, dear old stranger, for this chance encounter. You will never know how much it meant to me.
I hope you will return to walk on the beach.



Hélène Toye is the author of ‘Go West, A Belgian Attempts American Motherhood’, available on :



“Honey, you should really get a boob job!” The middle-aged, blonde woman in the red bathing suit is supporting her own generous bosom as she wads through the pool towards me. She’s all smiles.

I can’t believe what I just heard. Only five minutes ago, I felt like I owned the W Scottsdale pool. Okay, not exactly like I owned it. But I did think I fit in nicely with the crowd populating it, even though I am not tanned nor physically enhanced in any way. The cocktail I was nursing might have helped my self-confidence a tiny bit. So might the warm welcome of our friends into their pool cabana. They hadn’t looked shocked at all when I retrieved my cover-up to reveal my body clad in a new bikini with padded top. Following their example, I had lowered myself into the lukewarm pool, holding my mojito just above water level, right in front of my modest chest. As I had returned my husband’s encouraging smile, I had even rolled back my shoulders and straightened my back.

In a flash, my self-confidence disappears. As if they had a mind of their own, my shoulders roll forward, trying to hide my A-cup.

Blondie doesn’t seem to notice. She’s clearly on a mission, addressing my husband now, who’s seated on the pool border.
“You should really pay her a boob job. She’d be so much happier,” she tells him, flashing me a conspiratorial smile.
My husband looks surprised.
“I’m not sure if she wants to get a boob job,” he says apologetically.
I decide to come to his rescue. “No, I assure you, I don’t. My breasts might be small, but they serve me just fine,” I say, pushing back my shoulders again. I’m not going to let a not-so-young Barbie bring me down, right?
“Oh, but honey, you just don’t know how good it is to have big boobs,” Barbie grabs her own rack more firmly to mark her words. “My mom paid for these babies last year, after my divorce. Well, I tell you, I have never been so happy in my life. I should have done this much sooner!”
I smile now, understanding that Barbie only wants to spread her happiness. This whole conversation is in fact nothing but an altruistic move. That, and maybe a slight attempt at attracting some attention to the lady’s own, lonely womanhood. If the latter is the intent, it works.
“Oh, I love your boobs!” my friend Christine exclaims, cupping her own grapefruit-sized breasts, “I’ve had mine for four years now, courtesy of that guy there!” she winks at her husband, who raises his glass to her — or is it to her grapefruits?
“I must tell you a funny story though,” she continues, “One day, we were having fun in the bedroom, when suddenly Eric exclaimed, “Turn around, I don’t wanna see you like that!”. I glanced down and what do you know? One of my boobs had popped! Just like that!”
“Oh no,” Barbie says, “What did you do?” I’m interested to know too, so I step closer to the ladies, bravely fighting the urge to cross my arms in front of my chest.
“Well, I was so lucky! Turned out it was still under warranty, so I just got it fixed. But boy, was that a sore sight!” We all laugh. I briefly wonder about health issues ensuing from leaking breast implants, but decide not to voice my concerns. No need to put the focus back on me, is there?

At night, we go up to our room to change for the night. Christine and Eric have invited us to join them and a few of their friends for sushi, followed by some dancing. I’ve been made to understand that a slightly revealing dress would not be inappropriate.
I hoist my body into a short dress with a high neckline and deeply plunging back, feeling grateful to have packed the garment. A deeply cut-out neckline would have put me to shame in big-boob-Scottsdale, but nobody’s going to comment on my legs and back, I’m sure. I top off my outfit with black, patent-leather stilettos and off we go, down to the hotel restaurant.

We quickly find our crowd, nursing martinis at the bar. The straps of Christine’s silk top seem to be under heavy strain to hold up her bosom. As she readjusts her breasts, Christine leans forward to whisper something to us, the ladies.
“This top hardly covers my nipples. If you notice one of them peeking out, please let me know,” she says.
I nod, always happy to oblige. Shirley nods too, her own gigantic hooters moving up and down in her black stretch top.

“How is Donna doing?” Christine asks once we’re seated. I am installed at the corner of the table, surrounded by three women.
“Well, she’s doing pretty well. Considering …,” Amanda replies. She turns to me, “Donna just had a breast reduction. She’d gone up to an F-cup, but found it a bit too heavy. So she had them reduced to a double D-cup.”
“Oh,” I say, refraining from saying I’ve never heard of a double D-cup.
“Double D is nice,” Christine says, “Do you think I should have mine upped to a double D too?” she eyes us, three women. I’m not sure if she expects me to give any advice. Christine’s pair looks pretty large to me. Bigger would be inconvenient I’d think. Then again, who am I to tell?
“Yours are nice.” Shirley turns to Amanda. “What size are they?” I glance at Amanda’s assets. They looks nice, indeed. Slightly smaller than Christine’s. I bet Amanda is a natural C-cup.
“I chose to have a C,” Amanda replies. I congratulate myself on my guessing work. I had the size right, even though I was wrong about the natural aspect.
“Only a C?” Shirley exclaims, “They look bigger. Must be because you’re so tiny.”
I longingly look over at the male side of the table, wondering what topics are being discussed there … I’m glad at least the women have the decency not to question me about my breast size. They probably think I’m one of those health freaks who wants to keep everything natural. And they might be right … Not even a bra enhances my little A-cup tonight, since bra straps would show in the back of my dress. Not that anyone would notice. Focus in Scottsdale is clearly not on backs. Breasts is what life is all about!

“Aureole alert!” Shirley calls out, just as a waiter hovers over Christine’s shoulder to refill her water glass.
“What?” Christine, slightly dazed, doesn’t get it. I try to gesture discreetly that it’s time to readjust one of her babies, but she doesn’t get the hint. The waiter does however. The young boy’s cheeks turn dark red as he quickly abandons the process of refilling Christine’s glass and returns to the bar.
“I said aureole alert!” Shirley calls out louder, making the four guests seated at the table next to us turn around. I smile apologetically, while Christine pushes the rebellious breast back into its silk pocket.

The remaining of the dinner is spent discussing various women’s chest enhancements or reductions. I decide to focus on the delicious sushi, trying to nod and to laugh at the right time. Until suddenly a young woman wearing a short skirt and a revealing top stops at our table. Her crowd, consisting of about ten people, all stop behind her.
“Can I ask you something?” She’s addressing me.
“Sure,” I say, slightly surprised. I just hope she’s not going to suggest I get a boob job.
“Could you please get up and turn around? I saw you come in and was telling my friends about your lovely dress, but we can’t see the back while you’re seated.”
Me?” I ask, “You want me to get up and turn around?”
“Yes, you look so lovely in that dress! I would love to show it to my friends.” Her friends all nod encouragingly.
“Oh, okay,” I say as I get up and make a little pirouette.
“Oh, wow!” someone in my audience exclaims. “Nice,” says another. “That is so sexy!” I hear a third voice.
“I told you, right?” the young brunette turns to her group. “Thank you so much. You really look gorgeous.” Upon that, she leaves, followed by her crowd.
Slightly dazzled and blushing heavily, I sit down again. My table companions — and about half of the other restaurant patrons — stare at me. That’s right. At small-breasted me! After a brief moment of silence, I hear Shirley say, a hint of jealousy lining her voice,
“Well, that must have made your evening.”

Shirley’s right. It did make my evening. In fact, it made my whole day!
Who needs a boob job when she’s got a sexy back?
I square my shoulders as we get up to move on to the dance club.
Watch out, dancing Scottsdalers; here I come!

Helene Toye is the author of ‘Go West, A Belgian Attempts American Motherhood’, available on Amazon :

On the road to ‘Les Mirandes’

mirandes house mirandes table


“Where did you book a room?” Jürgen asked a few hours ago, while we sat on the deck  
overlooking his yard in Belgium. I was nursing an espresso that would help me
stay alert for our nighttime drive into France.
“We didn’t book one yet,” Hubbie replied, “We want to be flexible and stop when we’re tired. It’s not as if we need anything fancy. Just two double beds and a clean shower will do.”
“Oh, okay…,” Jürgen said, “I guess that could work.”
His slight hesitation should have warned us. In a previous life, Jürgen had worked in the  European hotel business after all … .

Four hours later, at 12.30 AM, we feel satisfied, having left a relatively uncluttered Parisian périphérique behind us. The effects of my espresso slowly wearing out, I am ready to break for the night.

Hubbie flips on his I-phone. Some ten minutes later, after first realizing that France has not yet embraced our last-minute-hotel-booking-app, then realizing that the big hotel chains in France don’t seem to take last-minute online reservations, he dials the number for a hotel some thirty minutes away.
 “Oui, we are a family of four,” he says in his best, friendly French. “Ah bon? No rooms for four? Oui, two rooms for two, alors. Ca va. Et c’est combien au total? … 200 Euro?” he glances over at me.
“No way!” I mouth. We only want to crash for a few hours. A simple, clean room is all we need. $280 is vastly overrated. Besides, what happened to last-minute discounts at this hour of the night?
“Okay, merci Monsieur,” Hubbie says, “I will first check a few other options.”

He decides to call a cheaper hotel chain, but hangs up after a while.
“Maybe they don’t staff the desk after midnight?” he wonders out loud.
He tries another hotel, only to get informed that no rooms are available. His next phone call goes unanswered again.

“Okay, maybe we should go for the 200 Euro deal after all,” I say after forty minutes.
“Well, we’ve passed that hotel,” Hubbie says, “It would be stupid to retrace our steps now, wouldn’t it?” I guess it would.
“I’ll just book another room, further down the road,” he offers.
I nod, feeling tired now. My body yearns so much for the touch of crispy, white hotel sheets that I would swear my nostrils are picking up their faint vinegar scent.

Another thirty minutes pass. Oh, what I would give for the sight of a grubby American highway motel sign! Now I understand why Jürgen was surprised we hadn’t booked a room yet. Having lived five years in America, we’ve come to expect around-the-clock customer service. Of course, that’s not the way things work in Europe! How could we have forgotten so fast?

“Maybe we should just sleep in the car?” I offer.
My 6’6” Hubbie’s eyes scan the interior of our modest Renault Megane, then rest on me in slight disbelief.
Okay, maybe not.
We briefly debate about driving on to our final destination, but decide against it. True, our friends would welcome us at their newly opened ‘Chambres d’hôtes’ once they awake. But skipping a night so soon after having just recovered from our jet lag doesn’t appeal to either of us.  

There’s movement in the back of the car.
“Eloise is pushing me,” 8-year-old Thibaut whines.
“Well, you’re taking up all the space!” 15-year-old Eloise retorts.
I sigh, my eyes fixed on the road ahead of me. Hubbie sighs too, his fingers glued to his touch screen. Driving four more hours is definitely not an option. We need a bed and we need it soon!

“Bonsoir,” Hubbie says yet again, still using his best French, but sounding far less enthusiastic, “Vous avez une chambre pour quatre pour cette nuit?” Silence. Then, suddenly sounding upbeat, he says, “Ah oui? Super, we will arrive in thirty minutes.”
Yes! That’s not too bad. If check-out is at 11.00 AM, that gives us plenty of sleep.

“Oh…,” hubbie says, after punching the address into the GPS, “it’s actually going to be
more like an hour drive. Want to stop at a rest area so I can take over the wheel?”
“No, I’m fine,” I reply, feeling energized again at the prospect of a welcoming bed, “I can handle one more hour.”

At last, at 2.45 AM, the GPS instructs us to leave the highway.
“Yes!” I exclaim, “We made it! I’m sooo looking forward to a good night’s rest!”
I slow down at the toll area and select the lane that reads ‘Cartes’. Hubbie hands me the toll ticket and his Visa card.
‘Paiement refusé,’ the display on the toll machine reads. I look at my husband, who promptly hands me an American Express card, which I slide into the slot.
“Paiement refusé.’ Again… Hubbie grabs my purse and fishes out my wallet. He hands me my Visa card, which I slide into the slot. Marking its disagreement with American cards, the machine now aggressively spits out my credit card AND our ticket. I catch both before they hit the pavement. I insert the ticket again, and then try to pay with my Belgian card, which gets rejected as well.
What? Does this chauvinist machine only accept French cards?

I back out of the ‘cartes’ line and drive into the unmarked line, glad that we stopped to pick up cash before leaving Belgium. A big sticker on the machine informs me that it will gladly accept our 5, 10 and 20 Euro bills. Too bad we only have 50 Euro bills … !
I ask Eloise, who’s blinking her eyes against the bright overhead light, to search her wallet. Unfortunately, she can only produce dollar bills.

Noticing a ‘cartes’ slot, I try to insert our credit cards yet again, hoping this machine will be less patriotic and welcome foreign cards. No such luck. The aggravated machine forcefully spits out card after card. Just when the machine decides to also eject our ticket, a sudden gust of wind materializes out of nowhere. Our precious ticket rides the gust, floating up above us, before landing softly … beneath our car.
“Oh SHIT!” I exclaim, backing up, getting out of the car, picking up the ticket, getting in the car and then driving up again.
“Okay,” I declare, ”Time to wake up the toll machine people! Somebody must be able to open the highway gates for us.”

I reach for the ‘help’ button, expecting to hear a soft, helpful voice.
Instead, as soon as my finger hits the button, loud electronic music blasts out of the tiny holes in the machine. Really loud, really electronic music.
My jaw drops as I turn to face my husband. What kind of customer service is this? We’re exhausted, paying – or trying to pay – highway customers in desperate need for some help and all we get is loud, lousy music?
Oh, how I long for the kind toll booth operators in the US, who always politely wave me through with a smile; whatever the time of day or night!
Here we are, stuck on the French ‘autoroute’, just minutes from our four-guest bedroom with crispy white sheets! My body aches at the thought of it.

“Okay, we’ll just park here and sleep in the car,” I announce to my fellow travelers as I back up the car and park on the shoulder of the highway.
The three of them stare at me in disbelief.
“In that case, we’d better drive on,” Hubbie decides, “Let’s switch seats. I’ll do the driving.” Obediently, I get out of the car, ready to move to the passenger side.
Suddenly the awful music stops.

“Allô?” a female voice reaches us out of the darkness. I sprint to the machine.
“Allô? Allô?” I yell hysterically when I get there. No reply. I grab the sturdy machine and try to shake it. It doesn’t bulge. “Allô? Allô?” I yell again into the silent night. No reply. The voice has disappeared!
I look at my husband, who pulled up in the car.
“Press the button again,” he says.
I do as I am told and promptly get treated to the loud, electronic racket again.
This time I stay next to the car, however, glued to the toll machine, while bravely undergoing five more minutes of auditory torture. At last the voice materializes again.

“Allô?” it says.
“Oui, allô!” I yell into the white holes of the machine, “Look, your machine doesn’t accept any of our credit cards. We’d love to pay cash, but we only have 50 Euro bills and the note says —”
“Madame,” the voice tries to interrupt me. But I am beyond getting interrupted. The owner of the voice will listen to what I have to say, weather it wants to or not!
“ — but you see, we don’t have 20 Euro or 10 Euro or 5 Euro bills,” I continue.
“Madame,” the voice repeats.
I stop my rant. “Oui?”
“You can just use a 50 Euro bill.”
“You can just use a 50 Euro bill,” the voice repeats.
What? Now you tell me? After we’ve been sitting here for 30 minutes?
“Then why doesn’t your machine state that it accepts 50 Euro bills?” I ask, bewildered.
“Well,” a hint of a smile seems to line the voice, “That’s just because no bills can be returned. So if you insert 50 Euros, you’ll get a lot of change in 2 Euro coins. Most people don’t like that.”
Who cares? At this point I wouldn’t even mind getting 500 Euro in change.
I thank the voice as calmly and politely as I can, then insert a 50 Euro bill. Loads of 2 Euro coins clatter into the metal change receptacle. As I try to catch them with both hands, out of the corner of my eye I see the gates open onto the promise of a relaxing night. I grab as many coins as I can and hand them to Hubbie, then grab more.
Eureka! This feels like winning the jackpot. A very, very hard to handle jackpot. But, oh, how happy I feel to have won it!

The next day, nicely rested after a seven-hour-sleep in a bed with crispy white sheets, we set off for our last stretch to ‘Les Mirandes’.

Upon our arrival, our hosts welcome us with a fresh glass of champagne. From the deck of the old manor, we enjoy the enchanting view of the valley of Montmoreau-Saint-Cybard. It instantly makes us forget last night’s hassle.

The ensuing week we recharge our batteries in the luxury of a cosy bed, covered in refined, soft sheets wafting subtle perfumes of fresh air and the big outdoors. We discover the meadows and the vineyard surrounding the centuries-old precious manor. We visit tiny towns harboring small medieval churches and larger cities named after renowned wines (or is it the other way around?). We lounge around the pool, every so often taking a refreshing dive into the water. We savor luscious dinners at the ‘table d’hôte’. And we catch up with our friends who prove to be perfect hosts. In short, we spend one week in heaven!  

As we leave, fully rested and our suitcases packed with lovely memories, we promise we’ll be back to ‘Les Mirandes’.
I just make a mental note to book our midway hotel room well in advance and to stock up on Euro coins before hitting the French Autoroute! When traveling in France, better be prepared!

Les Mirandes’ website :

Helene Toye is the author of ‘Go West, A Belgian Attempts American Motherhood’, available on Amazon :


Cinnamon buns

“You need new lunch money? Again? That’s just not possible. I sent a thirty dollar check to school only three weeks ago and you hardly had school lunch since.”
My seven year old son just nods, the paper slip requesting fresh funds clutched in his outstretched hand.
“Listen, I’ll call the lunch lady tomorrow and I’ll talk to her,” I say, refusing to take the slip from him, “There must be a mistake. Some other child probably uses your pin number to buy food. But no worries. I’ll set it straight.”
“Oh,” Thibaut says, blushing, “are you really going to call her?” He suddenly looks somewhat alarmed.
“Of course,” I say resolutely, “I’m not going to sponsor lunch for the whole school. This has got to stop.” I turn to face the stove, marking the end of this conversation.

Thibaut doesn’t move however. I feel his eyes burning into my back while I stir vegetables in the wok.
“What is it?” I ask without turning around.
“Well, mama,” my son whispers, “it might be the cinnamon buns.”
What? I turn to face him.
“What might be the cinnamon buns?” I ask.
“Well, the lunch money,” Thibaut explains, staring at his shoes. “Maybe my money’s gone because of the cinnamon buns.”
“What do you mean? I’ve never seen cinnamon buns on the monthly menu.” And, between you and me, I am grateful for that. Pancakes, French toast, pizza, hotdogs and chicken tenders relaying each other on a ‘healthy’ school menu sounds bad enough to me. No need to add cinnamon buns to the mix, is there? Empty calorie bombs like that would probably be about the worst thing a school cafeteria could offer to young children. Surely the county’s menu planners are smarter than that.

“No mama,” Thibaut breaks my line of thought, “they’re not on the menu. They are just there, at the cafeteria. And I sometimes buy them.”
They are just there? On offer at the school cafeteria? And my son ‘sometimes’ buys them? That explains why all those healthy lunches I lovingly prepare each morning come back home, seemingly untouched. Turns out that “I was not that hungry” or “I didn’t have enough time to finish my lunch” really means “I stuffed my face with a cinnamon bun that looked a thousand times more appealing than my cheese sandwich and carrots. After ingesting that sugar bomb, my appetite was gone.”

“How often is sometimes?” I wonder, “every day?”
“No no! Not every day, mama!” my son exclaims, adding, “Only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.”
“So what about Tuesdays and Thursdays? Are you sure you don’t buy cinnamon buns those days too?” He must do so. Tuesday and Thursday lunch boxes are hardly more emptied than the other days’.
“No, honestly!” Thibaut replies, “I don’t! They don’t even sell cinnamon buns those days.”
“Then why don’t you ever finish your home-packed lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays?” I wonder.
“Well,” Thibaut’s gaze drifts back to his shoes, “that might be because of the Doritos.”

Doritos? Okay, I guess school cafeteria offerings can be worse than just cinnamon buns!


Helene Toye is the author of ‘Go West, A Belgian Attempts American Motherhood’, available on Amazon :

If you also want more healthy school cafeteria food, please consider signing this petition :

Pocket door


“So there’s no door to the master bedroom?” Freddy asks, energetically chewing his gum.

Freddy, who’s inspecting the house we are buying, has had his jaws working overtime for the past few hours. A word of clarification for Europeans — Freddy is not doing a bank appraisal. What he does is much more extensive. During his three-hour walk through, around and even under the house Freddy looks for potential problems. In case he identifies some serious stuff we can take his report to the seller and ask him to have the issues fixed or to lower the sale price. Or — if something really bad is uncovered in this process — we can just walk away from the sale.

Even though I am happy to know that his inspection will guard us from buying a house with major flaws, the process in itself is hardly a positive energy boost.

For one thing, Freddy doesn’t seem to be a big fan of contemporary architecture.
“Oh, they built this like that? Interesting,” seems to be his favorite observation, in between two chews, as he discovers the architectural gimmicks that make our hearts beat faster. To Europeans, ‘interesting’ might sound like a compliment. Everyone who has spent some time in the USA however, knows that it is a term favored by Americans when they don’t share someone’s enthusiasm but are too polite to say so.

On top of all the ‘interesting’ things, there are the — luckily minor — flaws Freddy points out to us.
“There are six steps leading up to the house. Legally, when there are more than four steps, a handrail should be installed,” he informs us. “I’m not saying this is a serious flaw, it’s just not as it should be.” Next he says, “Those gutters are going to need permanent attention. With all those trees surrounding the house, you’ll have to empty them all the time.” Or yet, “The windows in the addition are very high quality, but you might want to replace those in the back. Although that will not be cheap.” Or, more frightening, “See my humidity meter? High humidity in this basement storage room. Of course, that’s a given in this area. Not a lot you can do about it. All houses have it. Just keep that dehumidifier running at all times.”
Looking at the house through Freddy’s eyes does somewhat abate my own enthusiasm. However, he doesn’t seem to stumble upon major issues, which is good.

Until we enter the master bedroom suite, that is. Freddy’s observation about the missing door does slightly alarms me. Call us crazy, but my husband an I enjoy the occasional private bedroom-time. A door would come handy in that process.
The four of us — Hubbie, Melissa (the real estate agent’s assistant) Freddy and myself — set off on a hunt for a door. Hubbie is the one who locates it. It turns out to be a white, sliding affair that is perfectly camouflaged by the white double wall in which it is slid back. Only a tiny metal latch gives away its presence. I congratulate Hubbie on his find, relieved that our bedroom comes with a door after all.
“A pocket door. Interesting,” Freddy chews,”I wonder how one closes it.” His fingers pry at the small metal latch, but the pocket door stubbornly refuses to leave its pocket.
“It looks like it’s been opened too far,” Melissa says, “It’s kind of blocked there.”
As Hubbie lowers himself to the floor to have a closer look at the door mechanics, Freddy shrugs and leaves the scene. I follow him to the bathroom with its modern walk-in shower, which instantly gets labeled ‘interesting’.

“There, I can see the end of the door here, right in front of the window,” I hear Hubbie’s voice, “It’s been shoved back too far indeed. I’ll push it back your way, Melissa. Maybe you can grab it once it moves.”
“Okay,” Melissa says.
Hardly a few minutes later, over the sound of water running from the shower, I hear a loud thud. I wait for Freddy to finish his observation about the water temperature, then walk back to the room which now is closed off by a big, white door.
“Yee-ha!” I call out, “You fixed it!”
Melissa and Hubbie don’t look that happy by their prowess, however.
“It seems to be locked now,” Melissa says, frowning.
So? Many bedroom doors can be locked, can’t they?
“Can you try again to unlock it?” Hubbie asks, to which Melissa starts to fumble a small metal circle in the door.
“It still doesn’t bulge,” she says.
“I’ll try to lift the door, maybe that will help,” Hubbie says. Lowering himself to the floor again, he tries to push up the door, while Melissa fumbles with the lock once more. Some minutes later, Hubbie lets go of the door with a heavy sigh.
“It doesn’t work,” Melissa states the obvious.
“You mean we’re locked in here?” I ask.
Melissa laughs. “It certainly looks like that,” she says, looking around the room. When she notices the big double sliding door leading to the yard, her eyes light up. “You know what? I’ll just slip outside through there, walk into the house again and try to open the door from the other side.”
She uses both hands to slide open the heavy door — ‘That’s a big sliding door they put in here,’ Freddy said just minutes ago, ‘I wonder why they wanted such a large door. Interesting.’ — Black leather ballerinas take Melissa out onto the snow-covered balcony, from where she athletically jumps down to ground level, some six feet below. Barely three minutes later, Melissa’s footsteps sound in the hallway.
“Okay, I’ll try to open it now,” her muffled voice reaches us.
The three of us observe the white door intensely, willing it to slide open. No such luck. The thing doesn’t move an inch.

“Let’s try to pluck out the lock,” Melissa says, now clearly in charge of the situation, “Many of those locks can just be plucked out.”
I glance over at Freddy, still chewing his gum while seated down on the bed. Only ten minutes ago Freddy looked like the God of all handymen, his screwdriver in the attack as he walked from room to room. My trust in him has somewhat faltered now. It is obvious that if anyone is going to get us out of here, it will be Melissa and my husband. Freddy seems to be utterly useless in ‘breaking and entering’ situations.
“Melissa seems to know about those things,” is his sole contribution. “It does make you wonder about her.” He refrains from saying that it’s interesting.
It does make me wonder indeed, especially when Melissa says next, “Freddy, do you have that screwdriver of yours? Now that the lock is out, that could help us forcing it.” Docile, Freddy walks up to Hubbie, who takes the screwdriver from him and tries to pry the lock with it, alas to no avail.
“I’ll run off to the basement and the kitchen,” Melissa chirps through the closed door. “I might find some other tools there.”

I sit down next to Freddy, who seems to chew his gum even more forcefully now. “If only I had my computer here,” he mumbles, “I could get started on my report.” Next he goes on about how houses nowadays are so large and peculiar. Freddy himself lives in a moderate colonial house, he informs me, “with the wife. Before the children left the house, there were five of us in the three bedroom house. We only had two bathrooms, but nobody ever complained.”
“Really? that’s interesting,” I reply. I refrain from saying that I grew up in a house with only one bathroom for five people. There’s no need for me to be more enthusiastic about Freddy’s housing arrangements than he’s about mine, is there?

Some ten minutes later, Melissa’s voice sounds through the closed door again.
“Guys, I don’t know what to tell you. There’s nothing useful in the whole house …”

After a few more fruitless attempts at sliding the pocket door back into its pocket, we decide to follow Melissa’s example and leave the room through the balcony. As I ready myself to jump down into Hubbie’s arms — I admire Melissa all the more for doing this on her own — Freddy says, “Obviously, this balcony could use a railing and even a few steps. It’s interesting how they did this.”

We are gathered in the kitchen when Susan, Melissa’s boss, joins us.
“What about the outside sliding door? Is that unlocked now?” Susan asks. We nod. “That might be a little unsafe, I guess. Then again, nobody’s going to get into the rest of the house, right? Not with that pocket door blocked.”
“Oh,” I say, “You know, I did notice the back door has a lock on the outside. Maybe the key you used to enter the house fits that lock too?” There. I said something useful at last. I look pointedly at Melissa.
“Don’t look at me,” Melissa replies, “I might be good at jumping off balconies, but I’m not too sure about my abilities to climb up again to lock that door.”
Let me tell you, that revelation makes me happy. I was starting to feel a bit like a loser. What with Melissa — looking so normal in her pleated pants and ballerinas, a pair of glasses resting on her nose — suddenly jumping down balconies Lara-Croft-style, then plucking locks and embarking on tool-treasure-hunts while I just sat on a bed listening to Freddy? I am glad to learn that Melissa has got her limitations too. She’s not superwoman in camouflage after all.

“Is it reasonable for us to ask the seller to fix the door?” I ask Susan. She nods vigorously.
“I think asking for a way to get into your bedroom without having to climb up through the outside is a reasonable request,” she says.
Freddy, still chewing his gum, chimes in, “I think so too! It’s a good thing I drew your attention to the missing door, isn’t it?”  I guess it is indeed.

Overall, I do now have a good feeling about Freddy’s inspection. The man might not be superman, but he was extremely useful in a pointing-out-kind-of-way. I’m glad we hired him for the job. Just imagine how nice it will be to have a working bedroom door once we move in!


Helene Toye is the author of ‘Go West, A Belgian Attempts American Motherhood’, available on Amazon :


Happy New … House?


“Are you sure that you want to make an offer so close to the holidays? Aren’t you leaving for a road trip to Florida tomorrow? Maybe you’d like to wait until you get back?”

“Susan’s words,” I will tell Hubbie a few days from now, “really should have warned us.” Only right now, even though her questions slightly surprise us, they do not alarm us in the least. Because, let’s face it. Approaching holiday travels have nothing to do with making an offer on a house, do they? It’s not as if we’re buying the place. Chances are the seller won’t even bother to reply to our offer.

“Well,” Hubbie tells Susan over the speaker phone, “we are indeed leaving tomorrow, but we’d just like to get the whole process started before.”
“Okay,” Susan replies, “There are two ways we can do this; the written way, but that might be hard to follow up on during your trip. Or we can do it electronically.”
What about doing it over the phone? It’s just an offer we’re talking about. Hubbie looks at me. I shrug my shoulders.
“Let’s do it electronically,” he says at last.
“Okay. Just send me an e-mail containing your and your wife’s full names, your current address and the amount you’d like to offer.”
“Will do that in a minute,” my husband replies.
“Oh, also add the date you’d like to settle the sale, will you? And the coordinates of the bank that’s lending you money. And a scan of a check for 5% of the bidding amount. And are you going to take a loan for the full amount minus 10% or minus 20%? Also, please mention the interest rate. And …”
What? Why does she need all that information?
“Wow …,” Hubbie suddenly sounds much less relaxed and cheerful than just five minutes ago, when he lazily suggested the offer-making to me. “You need all that now?”
“I do. Once I have it all, I can prepare the paperwork and send it to you.”
The paperwork? What is she talking about?
“You mean you’re not just going to send an e-mail to the seller to inform him about our offer?” Hubbie asks.
“Oh no, we need official trace of this. Know what? To make it easier on you, you can call the bank and ask them to forward the loan information to me directly.”
“Okay,” Hubbie says, sounding a bit wary, “I’ll do that now. Talk to you later Susan.” He sighs as he hangs up.
I understand why. Just listening to the conversation made me tired.

Where we come from, when you like a house, you just pick up the phone and tell the owner how much you’re willing to pay for it. He thinks it over for a few days, then usually comes back with a counter-offer, which you usually counter-offer again and so on. Sometimes a real estate agent is involved in the game, but only as the oral relayer of all offers. After a week — or maybe even two — everyone agrees on a price. That’s when the potential buyer realizes he’d better start looking for some money to hand over when the ‘compromis’ or the contract is signed. A few days later, in the cosiness of the house that is the object of the buyer’s desire, a certified bank check covering a 10% downpayment gets exchanged. Rather ceremoniously — and often using a nice and heavy pen — each party signs a contract of some three pages, committing the seller not to accept any other offer and the buyer to finding a loan within three months. More often than not a bottle of bubbles is produced and both parties toast to a successful business deal, stoically ignoring the clause that states that should the buyer fail to find a loan, the 10% down payment will be returned to him and the sale will be cancelled.
It is a rather slow process as you can see. Hence why we want to get our offer out  before leaving for Florida.

In America however, things seem to be done differently. Luckily my husband already contacted the bank last week, just to get an idea of our purchasing capacity. He promptly calls Sandra at the bank, who works Saturdays and Sundays, as if that is the most natural thing in the world. No single Belgian bank would even think of assigning an employee for weekend loan negotiations. Sandra kindly agrees to send all necessary information to Susan within the next hour. We look into our finances to find ways to get enough money in our checking account for the 5% down payment, knowing that writing an uncovered check is a big felony in the US. Then we prepare a mail for Susan containing our offer amount and preferred closing date, four months from now. As I am putting on my coat to leave for some last-minute errands with Eloise, the phone rings.
“About that settlement date,” Susan says, “April is really far away. There’s no way the seller will accept that.”
“Oh, so you think we’d better propose the end of March?” I hear Hubbie ask.
Susan chuckles, as if in response to a joke. “I’d rather go for mid-February,” she says, “at the latest.”
Wow, that’s less than two months from now!

When I get back home two hours later, I find Hubbie concentrated on his computer screen.
“I just got the offer documents from Susan,” he says, turning the laptop to me. “We need to initialize each page electronically and then sign the whole thing.”
I look over his shoulder and scroll down the first page of the document, then wait for the second page to materialize — which takes forever — then slowly move on to the third, then to the … Wait a minute;
“How many pages are there exactly?” I ask.
“Fifty-four,” Hubbie sighs.
Oh dear, this is going to take forever…
An hour and a half later we submit our signed offer to Susan who promises to get in touch with us as soon as she gets feedback from the seller.
“Merry Christmas in the meantime,” Hubbie says.
“Yes, well, I suppose we’ll talk before that,” she replies.
That soon? Christmas is only three days away. Surely the seller will need more time to think this over?

On Sunday, our car packed to the brim for our 2,000 mile trip, we hit the road. Traffic is smooth. We’re almost in North Carolina when my phone rings.
“Hi Helene, Susan here. I just heard back from the seller’s agent. He’s making a counter-offer.”
Wow, that’s quick! I write down the seller’s price and promise Susan to get back to her.

Hubbie seems as surprised as me with the quick reaction. While his gaze fixes on the road, we discuss the counter-offer, quickly agreeing it’s too high. Fifteen-year-old Eloise, whose focus on the tablet does not seem to impact her capabilities to listen in on our conversation, quickly interjects,
“You’re not going to let the house get away, are you? I really like it. I can see us living there.”
Seven-year-old Thibaut, his eyes trained on his swaying tablet, immediately chimes in,
“Me too, I love the house.”
An hour later I return Susan’s call. “We’ll meet the seller halfway, but that is our final offer,” I announce.
“Okay,” Susan says, “I’ll get you the new paperwork. Do you have internet access?”
New paperwork? Not again!
“We’re in the car right now. I’m not sure when we’ll stop for the night. Given that signing the paperwork on my computer took ages, I’m not sure how it’s going to work on the I-phone.” With this reply, I hope Susan will offer to just orally relay our new offer. No such luck.
“Let’s just give it a try,” she says, “You won’t have to sign as many pages now. Only about, let’s see, fourteen.” Fourteen?

“What if he doesn’t accept our final offer?” Eloise asks, looking up from her tablet for a few seconds.
“Then the house was not meant to be for us,” I reply.
“You don’t even sound as if you’d care.” She sounds shocked.
“We do, but not desperately. We’re pretty sure there are other good houses,” Hubbie replies while I slowly upload and sign one page after another on the I-phone.

Monday morning we wake up to a bright blue Savannah sky. I check my e-mail before hitting the road for the second stretch that will take us to an Orlando hotel close to Hubbie’s grandparents. A message from Susan awaits me.
‘The seller says that at that ridiculous price, he’d rather take the house off the market,’ it reads.
‘Too bad,’ I reply, relieved that I didn’t get myself too emotionally involved in all this. It’s sad we put all this time and effort in it, but at least we now know what to expect if we bid for another house. If anything, we have learned that it’s better not to ‘just start the process’ right before leaving on a trip.

The kids look disappointed as they climb into the backseat.
Once we’re on the road, Hubbie and I briefly discuss the fallen-through deal and jointly decide that we’re not sad it didn’t work out. We really liked the house, but it was all getting too serious too fast. Besides, we’re still contractually bound for eight more months to the rental house we live in now. It’s all for the best. We switch our focus on the holidays ahead and on the quality time we will enjoy with Grandma and Grandpa.

After checking into our hotel, Hubbie and I get installed on loungers while the kids jump into the pool. I fire up my laptop and check my email, only to find another mail from Susan.
‘The seller wonders why you omitted initializing page 13,‘ it reads. ‘Since he’s a lawyer, that makes him very suspicious. I will forward that page right away so you can sign it.’
What? Why would the guy read through a boring 54-page contract if he thinks our offer is ridiculous? Looks like he still does consider it!

That evening, while we seemingly leisurely stroll through the Downtown Disney area — home to our hotel — I hyperventilate at the thought of our pending purchase. What happened to our stance of ‘just making an offer and see where things lead’? Somewhere along the past two days things got pretty serious.
Trying to relax me, Eloise sums up the positives about the house and Hubbie reassures me that we are financially all set to take the plunge. I try to convince myself that I am totally okay with buying a house in the US; that I am ready to take this step that brings us closer to permanent US residency. Meanwhile, Thibaut is blissfully ignorant of my little panic attack. He’s just happy; to be at the Downtown Disney Lego store, to be close to Grandma and Grandpa, to be part of this family that might soon move into a new house where he just knows he will be happy too. Oh, the bliss of a confident and stress-free childhood!

By the time we get to the hotel room I am relaxed enough to fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow — or maybe I am just too exhausted by the long drive.

I awake at nine, brew a cup of coffee and settle with my laptop in the sunshine on our deck. Another mail from Susan awaits me.
‘Good news,’ it reads. ‘Your offer has been accepted. We have a ratified contract.’
Wow … That means I’ll soon be an American homeowner. Contrary to my state of mind yesterday, this information instantly relaxes me. My new home is in America and that feels just fine. I owe myself a few more minutes of solitude to fully absorb this new feeling, then walk into the hotel room where I find my awakening family members.
“We’ve got the house,” I announce.
“Wow! I’m so happy!” Eloise jumps up to hug me. Thibaut follows her cue. Hubbie seems to need a few seconds to fully register the news. Then he walks up to us to complete the group hug.
“Susan needs a scan of the new check we will use to pay the deposit. She also needs us to fill out ….” While I sum up everything we need to do, Hubbie gets dressed, ready to take over the hotel business center for a few hours.

Only later that afternoon, as we are seated on Grandma and Grandpa’s couch, toasting to our new home with beer and Pepsi, do I realize what an extraordinary thing just happened. We bought a house on Christmas Eve’s day, while on the road, using a smartphone! What happened to heavy, luxury-brand pens that trace elegant signatures on the bottom of important documents? Or to champagne toasts on a new milestone?

What ensues are hectic days, shaping our vacation in quite a different way than planned.  Every morning we wake up to a new mail from the bank or from Susan — God bless her for guiding us through this — containing a new mission for the day. Can we please send proof of where those funds we wired from Belgium came from? Did we think about scheduling a visit with a home inspector before January 5? Can we please send our three last tax return sheets? Haven’t we forgotten to send a registered mail containing a notarized letter to our current landlord to end the lease, four days before the end of the month?

How often during those days do I think back about Susan’s words, the day before we left. “Are you sure you want to do this now, so close to the holidays?” Now I understand what holiday travels – or any other travels for that matter –  have to do with making an offer. Nothing! The two just don’t go together!

Then again, a new house for Christmas is a gift you can’t beat, can you?

Happy New Year!
Hélène Toye is the author of Go West, available on :

Stomach Bug


“Don’t worry, sweetie,” I tell my 7 year old son, caressing his back as he hinges over the toilet bowl, “it’s just a stomach bug. It will all be over by tomorrow night.”
He takes the tissue I hand him, wipes his mouth and says, “How did the bug get into my stomach, mama?”
Oh … poor little fellow. Despite his dreadful situation, he still manages to be cute.
I gently smile and say,
“It’s not a real bug. People just call it that. In fact it’s germs that have worked their way through your defense system.” We walk over to the sofa, where my pale son nestles his slender, warm body against mine.
“What is my defense system, mama?”
“Well, there are kind of little soldiers in your body. They are always ready to fight germs that want to infect you. Most of the time, your soldiers win but sometimes, when they are tired, the germs win.”
“What kind of weapons do my soldiers use?” Thibaut wants to know. I smile again.
“They don’t really use weapons. In fact, they’re not real soldiers. What we call them scientifically is white blood cells.”
“Oh, I know about the red blood pumping out of my heart and the blue blood going back in. But I never heard of white blood.”
“Well, mixed in with the red and blue blood, there are tiny white blood cells. They protect you. Somewhere in your body, right now, there is an alarm going off. ‘Code Red!’ it yells, ‘Thibaut is under attack! We must fight to make him better!’. That makes the white blood cells get to work.”
Thibaut puts his hand on his chest. “That’s why my heart is beating so hard,” he says, “I think my heart is the alarm system. It’s making a lot of noise in my body and pumping all those white cells around.” I nod.

Suddenly he jumps up and runs to the bathroom again. I hold his small shoulders as his body spasms over the bowl. Then I wipe the tears from his eyes.
“I felt the bug fluttering,” he says, catching his breath, “I hope it got out now.”

I hope so too …

Hélène Toye is the author of Go West, available on :