Belgium, where I’m living now, was actually one of the first countries I ever visited; I spent almost a week here on my first ever trip to Europe at the age of 20. I went because of a childhood friendship with my Belgian penpal, who lived in a town outside of Antwerp called Oostmalle. Towards the end of high school we wrote every week, maintaining two streams of correspondence because international post was so slow. Thinking back, I’m glad I grew up in a slower time writing letters because the habit of sending mail has stayed with me ever since.
I came back to Belgium for another week in 2006 to catch up with more Belgian acquaintances and friends I’d made along the way, and my last visit to the country was in 2011 when Josh and I stopped over for a couple of days on the way to Germany. Given that I’d visited a few times, I did have some sense of the country before moving over; but living here makes it clear that travelling only gives you a few insights, at best, whereas living somewhere and being a part of its life is the ultimate.
Almost two months in, I realise how superficial my impression of Belgium was. I guess I was also a different traveller starting out, not particularly observant or critical about what I was experiencing. I never did much reading or research about the places I visited…which actually isn’t such a bad way to start out if you think about it. Makes sense when you think about growth more broadly; you stumble along, a little innocent, until you gain enough experience and wisdom to start thinking for yourself. Though in fact, what I’m finding is that more knowledge only seems to lead to more questions than answers.
I’ve experienced so much that there’s too much to cover in one blog post. For starters, my studies deserves its own post, and I’ll get to that soon. Suffice to say, I’ve studied bioethics through a few of my degrees, so I’ve maintained an academic interest for a long time. But when I first encountered the field I was much younger and wasn’t sure what to do with it, whereas now at this stage of my life, studying it feels like a perfect match.
From the moment I arrived, I’ve been meeting Belgians alongside other internationals, whom I will describe in a separate blog post later. For my first two weeks I lived with a lovely Belgian family in a huge and beautiful house at the edge of the town’s centre…and somehow, just like that, I slipped right into Leuven life. I think I unwittingly found the right formula to kick-start my stint: two weeks with locals right in the thick of the action, which made it easy to go out every night with my classmates and experience student life; then away from it all in my own place.
I’d lived in a college once before in Canberra and spent the summer feeling quite lonely surrounded by so many people I didn’t gel with. Thinking about that time, it seemed better to be actually alone rather than lonely in that way, so I found a luxurious apartment in the next suburb to live in by myself. I’ve often thought that I haven’t lived alone enough in my life, and I’m glad I get the chance to while it’s still easy to manage. Soon I’ll be joined by Josh and how I experience Leuven will change once again.
I’ve always liked Belgium and had almost completely positive experiences of it, but I honestly had no idea I would feel so at home living here. I can’t pinpoint the exact reasons I’m feeling this way, but it’s almost certainly something to do with being surrounded by people I feel connected to. It’s probably a perfect storm of factors, which goes back to what I was saying in my last post about the circumstantial factors that go into making a travel experience great; the beauty of the city, interesting locals, an international friendship circle, challenging subjects, stimulating student life, a gorgeous apartment etc. Plus the weather has been so much better than I expected, though it’s getting colder by the day. And maybe it’s about me and how I’m growing, because every travel experience is as much an inward journey as it is an external one (which is obviously the main terrain of this blog!)
So back to the point about people…I’m enjoying the new international friendships I’m making and I’m also really appreciating the general warmth and openness of the Belgians I’m meeting in Leuven too. Having relationships with locals elevates any foreign experience, because you learn so much from connecting to those from a place. The Belgians are probably the ones I ask the most questions of while I try to decipher what’s going on around me…but there’s a little ‘but’, which I wanted to raise here. While it’s completely true that you can learn so much from talking to locals, there are clearly limits too. When wanting the answers to much more difficult questions, who are the best people to turn to?
One Sunday I went into a Moroccan cafe and fell into conversation with the three people there — a Moroccan man, a French girl, and a Flemish man (Flemish are the Dutch speakers). We were having a good chat about Morocco, which I’d recently visited, and the Flemish guy was making jokes about how if you exit the north station in Brussels, you might as well be in Morocco. At that point I gently asked, “Speaking of which…are Belgians okay with minority groups like Moroccans living together like that and forming their own neighbourhoods?” The Flemish man’s mood suddenly changed and there was an awkward silence – until the French girl said, “The French are much worse. Belgians are nicer about it.” For me, this is a burning question I want to find more answers to — and I realise that one thing I haven’t done is find the right kind of migrants to ask. In any case, the Flemish man’s reaction totally squared with what I’d already had an impression of and the other funny thing is that eariler in the conversation the girl had said the man was “very Flemish” and I was curious as to what she meant by that remark. What does being Flemish mean, and what does it mean to be “very Flemish”?
I’ve also been getting conflicting impressions of the state of gender relations, which I always want to know about any society I visit. Just after I arrived here I went on a daytrip to the Ardennes in the south of Belgium and the trip was coloured by a couple of very sexist remarks by tour guides in two different settings — and I wondered if that was enough evidence to draw any conclusions. Or were they just two thoughtless men, not indicative of anything in particular as a Belgian friend also on that trip has suggested. Or is the south of Belgium, the French speaking part, a different story to the Flemish part when it comes to sexism? The overall answer I’m getting is that Belgium is no worse than the average industralised country and in fact it’s probably a bit better in some measures. But in thinking about what I observed on my trip, it raised another question altogether – were those men in fact not at all sexist but figured that sexist jokes are so universal that they would resonate with an international audience? Another perhaps.
Here are some of the other big questions I’ve been wondering and asking everyone about — is the tension between the Flemish and Walloonian (French speaking) Belgians resolvable? Will Belgium ever be a fully unified society — or is that even the goal? Is there some sort of inherent identity crisis, similar to that deep-rooted insecurity that influences the unanswerable question of what it means to be Australian? Do Belgians claim to feel the most European as a way around these complicated questions? How are Belgian moral norms evolving in the post-Catholic era? What is the rise of the right in Belgium being fuelled by aside from economics? What is it about the cuture of Belgium (and the Netherlands and Luxembourg) that has made euthanasia legal? And the list goes on and on.
Last week a classmate sent me a link to an enlightening comic about the value of questions over answers, which perhaps expresses the idea more eloquently than I ever could: http://comicsthatsaysomething.quora.com/A-Day-at-the-Park