My 74th birthday now rapidly approaching, I'm blessed with a very good health. Ever since my arrival in Brussels in 1973, I've been nicknamed 'le viking' among my Belgian friends: No Belgian has ever seen me wearing an overcoat, and yet I'm the one who seems never to catch a cold. And if I do - never say never(!) - it only lasts 2 or 3 days. Recently, my brother-in-law who is 8 years younger than me has 'invented' a new nickname for me that has catched on among my Belgian friends: 'l'inoxidable'!
During my stay in Brussels, at least 3 doctors have told me that they'd like to have my health when reaching my age, and at one of my latest check-ups a (female) cardiologist told me that although my journal said 71 years, her machine had just shown that my heart belonged to a man in his forties!
My check-up takes place at a "Centre médical" here in Brussels, and although my medical journal must now be at least 15 years old and is easily found in the database at this centre, each new doctor I see there seems to prefer the human contact and - exactly as I myself prefer to deal with a human being at my bank when needing cash - prefers to hear me tell him myself what's already in my journal.
Because of this, I've now told the same story to many different doctors and have seen how differently they react to exactly the same information.
Sooner or later, they'll ask me: Do you smoke ?
Have you ever smoked ?
When did you stop smoking ?
- When I was six years old.
At this point, more and more often - probably because of my age and the fact that my hearing has deteriorated a bit lately - they tend to say something like: "Excuse me, sir, my question was 'when did you STOP smoking'"!
Anyway, I assure them that I understood the question perfectly and that I STOPPED smoking when I started school at the age of six.
Some doctors clearly think that I'm pulling their leg, and find it difficult to conceal their anger or irritation, having to waste their precious time dealing with a person that suddenly has proved a lot more senile or gaga than had been their first impression.
With those doctors, not an angel but the ice queen herself has passed the room and the rest of the consultation takes place in a very chilled atmosphere - although my check-up usually takes place in May and I arrive in a shirt with short sleeves - as it only takes me 5 minutes to walk from my appartment to the "Centre médical".
Other - less harassed - doctors believe me and and want to keep the human contact intact.
Just like you - who are still reading - they want to hear my story. So, here it is:
I was born at a small farm in West Jutland and grew up together with a two year younger brother and a cousin of the same age as my brother. My cousin was the only child and heir to a relatively large farm that my grandfather had bought in the year 1900. My mother was the oldest child and my uncle the second of five children. When my parents and my uncle had married in 1935, 20% of the land from my grandfather's farm had been given to my parents who constructed a smal farmhouse about 300 m north of my grandfathers farm - which my uncle had taken over after his mariage.
My grandfather built a villa just south of the garden and very small wood that 'prolonged' the garden of the large farm. At 58, he was now 'retired' but came to play a very important role in the lives of his three grandsons: In sommertime he made both wind- and watermills for us, constructed kites for us and taught us how to put them up and keep them up! He cut flutes for us and gave us our first angler lessons. And - as you all know(!) - the winters being much colder then: He was the one who bought us skates and taught us how to use them!
I grew up during WW-II, and my grandfather avidly listened to the Danish news from the BBC in London : Even today - older than he was then - when I think of him, I 'hear' the V-sign from Beethoven's fifth symphony (I didn't know that, then!) followed by the beginning of what in Danish is called "Prins Jørgens march", but (as I now know!) actually was composed by Jeremiah Clarke about 300 years ago! On a kitchen wall in my grandparent's house was a large map of Europe - on which my grandfather, using pins with colored heads and some of them with small flags, 'visualized' the movements on first the eastern front and later both fronts in Europe. But as I remember him today, he is sitting in the kitchen and reading - with his feet half way inside the oven of a large kitchen-range that dominated the room completely - and with my grandmother silently and unperceived doing the chores.
My grandfather had a long pipe that almost reached his feet when he smoked. This long pipe, with a large head of white porcelain, fascinated those three small boys. During WW-II, it was impossible to buy tobacco (among many other things also missing!) and my grandfather cultivated his own tobacco and dried the large leaves on the loft of his villa. Going up there alone at dusk, a little boy easily imagined that those crumbling tobacco leaves, hanging in long rows, were large bats just waiting to attack you and drink your blood!
One day, those litle boys had the biggest surprise of their lives, so far. Each one received a small packet from grandpa, and all three packets were opened together. No prizes for guessing what they contained! I think that we all three of us felt something resembling a rite of passage when we - silently and solemnly - filled our pipes under grandpa's guidance, lighted up and together with him sat there, all four of us now smoking like 'real men'!
Later on, the small rations of genuine tobacco that grandpa gave us from time to time were not nearly enough for 'real men' - and we began drying leaves of all sorts in order to make our own tobacco, just like grandpa. But somehow, the result was never very satisfactory - no matter from what sort of tree the leaves had fallen!
When I started school at six, I already was an accomplished pipesmoker and - of course - like a real man had my pipe with me wherever I went!
In this new world I had prudently taken a seat as far back as possible. It was a school with only four levels: 1st and 3rd level together in the same room and 2nd an 4th level being in the next room with the headmaster. The new school-year had started on the first of April, and as winter wasn't quite over yet, there was a fire in the stove. Everything was calm and comfy. The school-mistress was occupied by the 3rd level, sitting in the front of the class-room. All quiet on the western front! So, I decided that this was the moment to have my afternoon-smoke.
A little later, the mistress visited the lower region of the class and when seeing what I was doing, she exclaimed:"So, you smoke also! That's fine. Just continue, little fellow, just go on smoking!"
Where I came from, irony wasn't much used, and I just thought: "How sweet my new school-mistress is, she even tells me to go on smoking. There's nothing at all to be afraid of here. After all, I might even begin to like school!"
So, it came as a total shock to me when the mistress on her next round came up from behind. . . and without a word suddenly pulled the pipe out of my mouth and in three steps was at the stove, opened the door and threw my pipe on the fire! - From that day on, my mistrust in women only grew and I started grasping the real meaning of the expression "A man is a man and a word is a word" - often cited not only in The Wild West but also in West Jutland - at least when I was a child!