When I was young, my family (namely my mother) bought a riding stable. Riding stables in Belgium are different than they are here. In the US, the barn is just usually a barn, there're little structured activities around it, people come and go rather quickly and it's not really a social center (from my experience so far here). Our stable included a bar and restauarant with windows looking out into the arena, and those who boarded their horses there, and most of the folks who came for lessons paid a membership fee to participate. For members, the lessons were cheaper, and we had lessons going all week and weekend, sometimes I taught, sometimes our hired instructors taught.
People would come and stay most of the day. They'd come with the family, and while little Billy took lessons, mom and dad sat down and drank a beer, they all had dinner, dad would take a lesson while kids ran around the place, and they'd all go several hours later. It was a social center, and a lot like a country-club in many ways. Most stables in Belgium are like that. They have club names, colours, flags and they compete as a club in the riding guilds. It's a horse-friendly culture there. Nobody bats an eye if you ride up to a store or pub, get off the horse, and go and buy yourself something refreshing. People ride up and down country roads constantly.
The stable my mother bought was the same one where I first learned to ride. So I already had an emotional connection to the place. It was really old, the building made of stone masonry, and it had once had a life as a cow-farm, so the banquette seats in the bar and restaurant were actually the feeding troughs. There was a fireplace with a central witch-hat cone flue which we would encircle on the benches after a cold ride, and drink cocoa or lipton soup and reek of horse and nobody cared. Our covered arena was old but was fine, we had about forty-five stalls, and about twelve lessons horses and ponies.
In summer, mom hosted a group of American kids from the embassy for 'Pony Camp', where I would teach them the pony-essentials. They'd learn about grooming first thing, then tack, and before they ever set bottom on any of our lesson ponies, they would have to know how to tack up and prepare their mount for lessons. I remember many a balmy afternoon outside in the outdoor arena, a file of kids on tired ponies languidly trotting and crossing at the diagonal at my command while early arriving parents would lean on the fence and watch them. We did therapeutic riding for disabled children. We hosted Ponyclub. We competed in vast farm-fields with other clubs, and spent all day there drinking beer and watching our club-members ride and win.
Oh what good days those were. I miss the birthday parties, the special gatherings, the camraderie, the competitions... I miss the kids from the surrounding neighbourhood that inevitably ended up at our door and being part of our daily activities. Boyfriends came and went... parties and celebrations occurred, I even hosted the After-Prom party for the kids from the American School there, where they all drank themselves blind, passed out cold on the benches, and ate a hearty breakfast the next day before their parents came to get them.
My last years in Belgium were my wildest and the very best. I was over the alcohol thing before I was eighteen, I'd partied like a rock star with my clutch of close friends from fourteen on. The stable was always a wonderful thing for me. I was loathe to leave that world behind, but I was given no choice by the parental units. My heart broke a million times that day, I remember sitting on the stone stoop at the gate of the stable and wondering what was going to happen to the place. Mom came and picked me up and offered no explanation, only an admonishment of my misery and sorrow. As the plane took off... I cried. And I cried for the eight hours of travel to follow. That whole time in my life is preserved in my cerebral-formaldehyde... unchanged, just hanging there suspended in time and memory. My friends never age, the horses I loved are still there, gazing out over the half-doors of their stalls, the ponyclub is still trotting around the arena in a neat line on a crisp Saturday morning, steam puffing out from small fuzzy muzzles.
The culture shock took months to wane. The loss of everything familiar to me... the complete sense of groundlessness and isolation took years for me to cope with. I gained weight immediately upon my arrival in the US, and haven't been able to conquer it since. Every single day, I miss that time. Every single day.