Nineteen years ago, I arrived in Belgium as a wide-eyed Rotary Exchange Student. My first host parents were at Zaventem Airport to meet me and I was determined to boldly belt out my well rehearsed phrase: “Je suis tres heureuse de vous recontrer.” Translation: “nice to meet you”, which, I’m sorry, is a whole lot easier than its French equivalent. In hindsight, “enchantée” would have sufficed, but for some reason the French interpreter who’d retired to Plett with her South African spouse, decided to teach me the more sophisticated version…
When I climbed into the back seat of my host parents’ Renault Espace, they had to tell me that it was the law in Belgium to buckle up – even in the back. Seems odd to think back to a time when that wouldn’t be blatantly obvious to anyone, but it wasn’t a reflex to me in 1997.
Up to that point in my life, it was repeatedly remarked that it really wouldn’t hurt me to smile once in a while. At the beginning of my year in Belgium, people commented on my ever-present smile (according to translations from my host sisters). I was in a bubble with nothing but my own thoughts and the white noise of an incomprehensible language, around me and my coping response was to smile. It was possibly more a grin of mild panic, but fortunately it was positively interpreted.
Besides learning the French language, my instinct was to assimilate into my new surroundings in every way I could, although I did not put a word to it at the time. I set about purchasing a pair of hard, heavy, dark brown, Caterpillar lace-up boots – the type that may very well be worn by someone on a construction site. When I returned to South Africa a year later, those boots would stare at me from the back of my shoe cupboard as if to say: “who were you, last year?” I built up a collection of scarves. The French language even has two distinct words for “scarf”. (“Un foulard” is a scarf made of light, silky fabric and “une écharpe” is thicker, longer, woolier, warmer.) I wound my foulards and écharpes about my neck by creating a loop and folding the other side through that loop, as I saw my schoolmates do. I took up smoking, choosing to do so on an Aeroflot flight during a school trip to Russia, somewhere over the Balkans, at some ridiculous altitude. I felt at once high and severely nauseous, but the next day, I pressed on with the pastime. Many illegal Russian cigarettes later, I still failed to relate to the idea of “smoking pleasure” but I was happy to have something to do with my hands whilst trying to follow the foreign conversation going on at break-neck speed around me.
By the time my year-long exchange was drawing to a close, I had managed to fairly successfully absorb spoken French and would imitate the colloquialisms I overheard my family and peers using, so that I could more or less pass as an assimilated foreigner.
Two weeks ago, I flew to Brussels for the wedding of one of my host sisters, Julie. Zaventem Airport, having been rocked by terrorist bombs just months earlier, is now a maze of temporary marquees and heavily-armed, military personnel. Julie had recommended a guest house near the European Quarter, located in the Rue de Londres (London Rd), just off the Place de Londres (London Square). The bar downstairs which hummed with the excitement of the UEFA games until the early hours of the morning, went by the name of “London Calling”.
And then, two days after my arrival in Brussels, Britain voted to leave the European Union. It was in Geography class in Belgium in 1997 that I learned that Britain had joined the European community as early as 1973. And now they wanted to undo 43 years of assimilation with Europe. I thought of my own experience as an ex-pat in Belgium. Sure, when I returned to SA, I shed my Caterpillar boots, never to be worn again, but the moment I touched down in Brussels – as I had on at least five occasions in the past 19 years – there was a tiny part of me that assimilated into my host country once again. My brain switched to thinking in French after a couple of days, I instinctively greeted people with a kiss on the cheek, I felt a little bit at home. I ran laps around the Parc du Cinquantenaire, passing a bearded man in front of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Belgium. Perhaps multiculturalism cannot be detected in each and every English country village and not everyone has a sense of being a citizen of the world – or of Europe, at least. But what of the millions who do?
On the night of my arrival we watched Belgium defeat Sweden in a sports bar in the suburbs. It was the first time I had watched this year’s football and I noted the armbands the players were wearing, with the words “No To Racism”. It’s a word that we confront daily in South Africa, a word that has defined our past and continues to destabilise our present. And now, with the likes of Donald Trump and Brexit, it feels as though it is hauntingly shaping the future of the free world.