Being an Exchange Student in Belgium, Assimilation & Brexit

Leaving Belgium after one year on exchange
Leaving Belgium after one year on exchange

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.


Up-date on the Month of March

Apologies, dear readers, for my prolonged absence from the Blogosphere. Things have been rather busy for the past month.

After returning from Cape Town at the end of February, I had a teeny tiny taste of what life as a full-time, working mom, might be like. The Best Friend invited me to a very impressive two-day conference that she had conceptualised and was hosting in Jozi. I have to say, it was fun to wake up in the morning and peruse my usually untouched wardrobe of beautiful shirts and suits from a bygone era. To meticulously insert lady-links and to pick out a pair of shiny heels and to feel super chic and ready for the day. Of course, my day had officially begun three hours earlier at 5am and so as I was getting ready to leave at 8am, it felt close to lunch-time. Happily, staying awake to listen to conference speeches and staying awake to entertain a small child require similar amounts of caffeine and so I remain well practised in this respect. Of course, when one is a stay at home mom, leaving one’s child for two whole days from 8am to 5pm brings with it all manner of feelings of guilt, to the extent that, on the second day, I nipped back home for an hour for a session of play with The Princess.

My brief return to the world of “work” (sort of) was followed by an two week return to the world of French. My Belgian host sister arrived in mid-March as part of the pen-ultimate leg of her one year around-the-world tour which began in Mexico in May 2011 and which will end in the Ivory Coast in May this year.

Her sojourn in Jozi led us to many historical sites – many of which I have been meaning to visit for years but have just never got to: Liliesleaf Museum in Rivonia, the Apartheid Museum, Constitution Hill & the Constitutional Court and a guided tour of Soweto. This was interspersed by visits to Parkhurst, 44 Stanley, Melrose Arch, 70 Juta and the Neighbourgoods Market. Ages ago, my Parkhurst friend recommended a great “guide” to Jozi sites and life, when we were breakfasting at Nice: “Spaces & Places: Johannesburg” by Gerald Garner. The author covers all the cute little neighbourhood/ homely spots worth visiting in the “Village Life” section (from Parkhurst to Craighall Park to Greenside to Linden), he covers a fortune to be discovered in the Urban Life section, especially when it comes to the CBD and “Braamies” and then also does a great synopsis on what’s should be visited in terms of struggle heritage. I think my host sister and I – often with The Princess in tow – did a fairly good job of experiencing Jozi in 10 days, if his book is anything to go by, although of course, there is way more we could have seen and done.

On Human Rights Day, we headed off to Clarens in the Free State, to explore a bit of the rest of the country and so that The Husband could cycle himself silly. We stayed 1.2km away from the edge of the common in the middle of the main street of Clarens. Here’s where our newly acquired Phil & Ted’s jogger came in handy. It has only been jogging once since its acquisition six weeks ago, but with Clarens’ dirt roads, we found an additional reason to justify its existence.

The Princess went on her first hike in the Golden Gate National Park not far from Clarens, safely esconsed inside her Baby Bjorn carrier on The Husband’s chest. The next day we visited a “replica” of a Basotho village – a tourist destination inside the park. We arrived at lunch time so we decided to brave the traditional menu at the restaurant. I convinced my host sister to try vetkoek for the first time, by offering to split a safer option of a toasted cheese and ham. The Husband’s idea of eating exotic food is ordering Italian so he also went for a toasted sarmie. Honestly, I haven’t eaten a toasted sandwich this tasty in about 20 years. I have distant childhood memories of yummy, greasy toasted sarmies where I guess the bread is basically fried and the cheese is oozing out of the corners, but whatever I’ve had in the last decade has tended to be rather dry and bland. Well, the Basotho Cultural Village Restaurant makes ’em like they used to – worth a visit just for that. And if you’re more adventurous you can drink home brewed beer from a calabash with the advisor to the Chief of the village.

On our final day in Clarens, I suggested that we meet The Husband at the end of his cycle in Fouriesburg. I had never heard of the place but my host sister’s Lonely Planet mentioned it, citing numerous old stone buildings. In hindsight, I think that’s all the Lonely Planet said about Fouriesburg because, well, there really is nothing else to mention. However, I would like to object against any mention of the place whatsoever because it really is a one-horse town with no redeeming features. We were forced to wait there for The Husband – I had bargained on at least an hour of “visiting time”, ten minutes of which we’d managed to deplete by filling up with petrol. For the remaining 50 minutes, we installed ourselves in the garden of a local pub. As there was no-one in sight to order coffee from, I ventured inside. “Inside” consisted of an enormous bar counter populated by white men in long, khaki socks, against the back drop of an old South African flag. The flag was autographed in numerous places but I didn’t get a chance to figure out by whom because I was the only female in the joint and to say that the old farts were looking on leacherously, would be polite. When I enquired about coffees from the owner surveying his territory whilst smoking a cigarette behind the bar, he looked thoroughly peeved that I deigned to interrupt his rugby game to actually try and patronise his establishment. In short, not my favourite town and we quickly changed our plans and headed back to Clarens for lunch.

At the end of my host sister’s two week stay in Jozi, we were joined by her wonderful parents who had hosted me in their home in Belgium for six months in 1997 and who, along with their three daughters, painstakingly taught me to speak French, took me to fascinating and beautiful places and made my stay in their country and home absolutely unforgettable. Now, fifeen years later I could finally “host” them and their charming relatives, if only for one night, on the day of The Princess’ first birthday.

The story of The Princess starting to walk and turning one, will be a story for another blog. In the meantime, happy holidays as the Americans would say and I will check in again after the long weekend.

xxx Natalie