Brussels flower carpetThud.

Yes, I actually heard a thud, just like you hear in the old movie reels. So loud it seemed to resonate in my ears, echoing off the walls of the attic room I was evaluating as a possible living space during my impending three-year secondment in Brussels.

On the floor was my guide, his hand to his forehead, his eyes glazed over in partial coherence; clearly concussed.

At my height I rarely worry about low-hanging beams, but he was near two meters easily. Clearly not paying attention he had marched confidently into the center beam of the room, solid and stalwart in its insistence of that space four inches down from the low ceiling. I had walked under it; he found it squarely.

It wasn’t a bad place, really. Tiny in retrospect, but quaint and old-fashioned in a European sort of way. A simple garret with a single window, though grand in size, overlooking one end of the converted attic. Nice enough, and I was considering it, until it took out the man who had been assigned to show me living arrangements. The decision to not take this apartment became clear just as my guide’s vision was doing the same. We would look some more.

In all we looked at a dozen apartments, some impressionably bad…others less obviously insufficient. At one point I decided on one apartment, only to find that it had been rented in the hours I had looked on indecisively. Even the final choice was indecisive. I had agreed to take an apartment in a new building half a block from the main road that led to my company’s office building. It was the only modern building we had seen, and I looked at two or three apartments there. On the second day of looking I asked to go back there and after deciding on an apartment on the fifth floor, had my guide negotiate the deal. An hour later I called him to renege, though just to take a different apartment, this one on the second floor, in the same building.

Even after I returned a month later to take possession (during which the rent was being deducted automatically from my bank account), I realized that I had mixed up the photos I had been taking and somehow the apartment I got wasn’t the one I had pictured. Still, it was roomy, modern, and had a great patio in the back where I intended to host get-togethers with my colleagues. That never happened.

I was also surprised to find that light fixtures do not come with the apartment; I was responsible for buying and installing my own lights. Not just the bulbs – the entire fixtures. All that existed were loose wires hanging from the many ceiling holes. Here again my guide was able to negotiate with the owner to have them installed. They turned out to be the cheapest fixtures they could find, and I spent many hours replacing light bulbs; some lasted as little as a few hours, while others hung on desperately for a few weeks before succumbing to the inevitable.

That wasn’t the end. After a few months I noticed that the wall inside the hall bathroom was getting moldy. After several attempts to have the management company check it out, which they never did, the owner sent over a personal friend of his who discovered that the builder had not properly connected the tub (on the opposite side of the wall) to the pipes, so it was leaking every time it was used. The shower, which was located in a separate room across the hall, was also leaking, which further leaked into the common area stairwell. It was amazing to see such shoddy workmanship. It took more than a year to get everything fixed so it wouldn’t leak.

Despite these nightmarish problems I loved the apartment. I had enough space for my Lincoln book collection, which I had duly shipped over to Brussels with the rest of my furniture. It was about a ¾ mile walk to my office straight down the road. A grocery store and some restaurants were within easy walking distance. A much longer walk got me to the Grand Place, the old town part of Brussels. And on lazy days I could hop the nearby tram to the office or to town.

And yet, whenever I think about the apartment search, I still hear the resonating thud as wood met head, and the thump as body met floor.

David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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