By the time I arrived in Leuven in September, I had resolved to enrol in Italian classes alongside my masters. I was told that Dutch wouldn’t be needed in Belgium or The Netherlands because most people speak English, which isn’t the case in Italy. Belgians were happy to code-switch to English and would deprecatingly reassure me that Dutch was kind of a useless language anyway — but I found myself constantly wishing that I had time to learn it because it would’ve been a lot of fun. Still, over the semester I naturally found myself understanding more words, particularly ones used in quotidian encounters. As a lover of linguistics, it’s been great to make my own little connections between Dutch and English, of which there are many. For example, in Dutch it’s ‘eenentwintig’ for ‘one and twenty’ — and that that’s exactly how it used to be in English, until some point in the 19th century (?). I also kept hearing and seeing French flourishes in Flemish , which I know I won’t hear in Nijmegen.
Which brings me to where I am right now: Nijmegen in The Netherlands. One of my new favourite Dutch words is ‘Gezelligheid’. It’s this cultural concept that invokes a feeling of cosiness, solidarity, and is at the heart of Dutch (and Flemish) culture, where people stick close together. I think it can also be used in a more casual sense too, like the cosiness of a nice pub. In any case, the English translation doesn’t seem to be adequate, but after spending a bit of time in this part of the world, I’m kind of getting what it means.
Although I’ve only been in Nijmegen for three days, ‘gezellig’ is exactly what I’m feeling in my new home. On my first night I sat in the living room with my laptop and a fireplace with a roaring blaze on one side, and a quirky old upright piano on the other…and it was hard to imagine that I’d only just gotten off the bus from Belgium a few hours prior.
I’ve moved in with a Dutch couple in their forties in a three-bedroom house across the way from a huge park…and I hope this will be my best house sharing experience yet. After we put our luggage in my room, Josh and I sat down at a recyled teak timbre dining table to enjoy a freshly made lunch of mushroom omelette and home-baked bread with tea. They bake their own bread in this house!! So I’ve moved in with warm, like-minded and down-to-Earth people who keep exactly the kind of home I love (which I’ve never actually had myself); well lived-in, with interesting art on the walls (including a bark painting from Australia) and objects from around the world. They both love travelling and the outdoors. They have a beautiful dog named Diesel and there’s a cat lurking about somewhere too, though I haven’t gotten to know her yet. So I’ve ‘landed on my feet’ so to speak and had a perfect introduction to Nijmegen via my new housemates. It was great to have Josh around as well — he just left today — and I’ll write more about my first impressions of the town once I’ve settled in a bit. Suffice to say, I already love it.
My last 36 hours in Leuven was also full of moments that could be described as gezellig because it was a whole series of goodbyes to friends and others I connected with in some way. I had my final exam for my media ethics subject and that somehow left me with a bittersweet feeling, which I didn’t expect at all. That particular professor and I had the beginnings of a good connection, and after the exam was over we walked out together and had a friendly chat. He recommended an HBO series to me called The Newsroom, and I recommended a memoir called Conservatize Me. He suggested we have a coffee sometime to talk some more, a sincere offer — I may well be one of the few students he’s ever had who’s worked in the media — and I had to say with real regret that I was actually leaving Leuven in less than a day. “Let’s keep in touch by email,” he said, and I shook his hand, saying, “Thanks for everything, professor.” He got on his bike and I rushed off to the farewell lunch for my class, put on by the Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Law. Drinks, speeches, sandwiches: they were clearly going to miss us and that we’d feel likewise. It’s hard saying goodbye.
Before going home to face up to the considerable challenge of packing our bags and cleaning the entire apartment, I popped into M – Museum Leuven, which had been on my list for ages. Visiting was part of my farewell to the city itself, because it would have been completely remiss of me if I had left town without seeing it, especially as I go to museums just about everywhere else. I’m so glad I went because M is a gorgeous space, a bit labyrinthine, and though I think some of the current contemporary art on display was worse than awful — and I’ve been to a lot of bad art exhibitions to compare against — the main exhibition on display, Michiel Coxcie, was truly something else.
M currently has a comprehensive exhibition for Coxcie, who worked during the Renaissance. The exhibition was sub-titled ‘de Vlaamse Rafael’ (‘The Flemish Raphael’). Most of Coxcie’s work was Catholic-themed, particularly as he was working during the time of the Reformation and was a staunch Catholic, but there was one non-Catholic painting which struck me called ‘De grot van Plato’ (Plato’s cave). It was a nice way to book-end my week of philosophy exams by seeing one of the ideas I learnt about expressed in art. All of his work was little short of magnificent, particularly the multi-panelled ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’.
As I walked home that day, I started to think that had I gone to see the exhibition when it opened three months ago, I probably would have just run my eyes over everything without being particularly moved. But after spending a semester at a Catholic university, I now have some understanding of Belgium as a Catholic country and furthermore, it goes back to the whole gezellig thing; Belgium’s heritage and people mean something to me now because for a time it really felt like home and I felt an affinity with the people around me…so it will be with a partly Belgian perspective that I’ll now encounter The Netherlands.