January 12, 2014 by kittynh
When our family lived in Brussels, we had a lovely apartment, considered quite nice for the city. Our rent was paid by the company my husband works for, as part of the Y2K and Euro conversion effort he was heading up. We were rather outclassed by most of our neighbors, who were for the most part successful professionals.
We had almost 2 floors, a large downstairs room that opened onto a small balcony, a kitchen with a dishwasher, and a small bedroom and half bath. A small spiral staircase led to the upstairs bedroom, with a full bath and small washer/dryer combo. It could hold about 2 t shirt and one pair of jeans. It also never really lived up to the “dryer” part of the “washer/dryer” combo. I had racks about with well spun, but still wet, clothing all over the upstairs.
The large apartment house was typically French in structure. French culture has class distinction beyond by neighborhoods. Your floor level can determine your social standing. Our apartment house was built before elevators, as such the more wealthy live on the first and second floors. As you walked up stairs, your class level falls. We were on the middle class level.
We lived in a very nice area, near many embassies, so I never imagined there was yet another social level living in our apartment house.
My husband would go off to work quite early, and I would snuggle in for an hour’s more rest in our cozy roof level bedroom. Brussels is well known for rain. Rainy mornings often seemed the norm, and snuggling in to go back to sleep should have been easy. That is until I heard the noises.
Soft quiet footsteps would happen above my head. I couldn’t tell if it was my imagination at first. Eventually, as the months passed ,and the mystery tenant became more at home, I would be awoken by firm footsteps and thuds as things were dropped. I finally asked the landlady if there was someone living in the attic. The landlady assured me there was no one living above us, how could there be? I was imagining things! She herself suggested it could possibly be ghosts, since “These old homes are haunted, yes?” It was a good try, but she was telling this to a skeptic.
It was not until there was a break in at the apartment house, and
every tenant for once united in the stairwell to view the damage of a broken lock that the truth came out. The problem was that someone had left the large front door to the house unlocked, enabling the thief to sneak in and break into the apartment. Accusations flew in various languages, as we all accused each other of being the one who was too lazy to lock the door.
Quietly sneaking down from a tiny ladder, that I had assumed led to the rooftop, was a young Vietnamese man and his wife. He and his wife were students, and sure enough, they were quietly and illegally living in a small room reachable only by the ladder. He was worried about his safety as much as the rest of us, though when the landlady finally came in response to our calls he quickly hid away again.
The room, which I finally was able to view after the landlady left, was just that, a room. What heat they had came from our apartment and rose up. There was no running water and no toilet. They cleaned and washed at the university they were attending. The proverbial hot plate was there, though they assured me they usually just ate out when I worried about the safety. I assumed that our apartment was paying for what little electricity they used, but it couldn’t have been very much.
The couple had been told no one could know they were there, so they pretended they were servants for the tenants on the lower floors. While I never believed we had ghosts, I did worry there were squatters. Instead, it was just part of that tradition of each floor having their own class. Also a way for the landlady to pocket a bit extra without having to pay any taxes. Rent was always collected in Euros.
When it was time to leave Brussels, the landlady tried a bit of complaining to keep the security deposit. Why shouldn’t she take advantage of this American company? The good part is that in Brussels, when a tenant leaves an arbitrator comes to make sure everything is settled fairly. We were worried as we were told that the arbitrator tended to not side with the renter, especially American renters. It was when things were looking bleak for a returned deposit that we quietly mentioned did the arbitrator know there was a ghost in the attic, perhaps two ghosts? The landlady knew she was defeated, and immediately withdrew any complaints about returning 100% of our deposit. After all, renting out an illegal attic space to ghosts is far more profitable than ripping off Americans.