Some of you may know that I am an exiled Fleming / Belgian (pick which ever means anything to you) in England. This is not usually very relevant, I have learnt the language as any immigrant has an obligation to do and I pay my taxes. My children barely speak Dutch anymore. Now the holidays have finally arrived I am simultaneously exchanging emails with my family about Christmas preparations (they will be coming over here) in Dutch and trying to write a blog post. My brain is doing strange things to me, mixing both languages and coming out with creations that would probably appear absurd to you good readers. To me it makes sense though, I understand it all. That lovely Ciney Blonde I’ve drunk to ease me into the holidays will not have done much to unscramble the language area in my brain, I suppose. It seems to free-associate better though. More connections than clarity.
Now might be a good time to play multi-language scrabble with my kids: any language goes, as long as a dictionary can prove the word exists. Or with anyone else who cares to join. Husband hates it: he pretty much only masters English. But, we all have stuff to get done. I shall have to leave you with a picture of my lovely Belgian beer paraphernalia instead:
And here’s some Belgian humour for you: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9OIJRMqYAA0
Google’s idea of Belgian-ness in honour of Belgium’s national holiday today! Thanks google
Statistics can prove anything. They have now confirmed that London is the 6th largest city in France: more French people live in London than in Bordeaux, for example. There is also a significant French community in the Scandinavian countries. The French are taking these facts on the chin, and just work with it: they have created a “Northern Europe” constituency in Parliament. It’s a way of keeping ties with those who left, perhaps aimed at enticing them back one day. I may be ill informed but I don’t know of any other country that gives its expats a voice in home politics. My own experience is that my home country has shown no interest in me whatsoever since I registered abroad – I chose to leave so stuff me. Which is fair enough.
If lots and lots of us were to emigrate I suspect there would be a whole lot of navel gazing about what is driving the population away. Of course there aren’t very many of us, so the impact would be magnified. Not the French officialdom. They are confident they are the best country in the world to live in, and I imagine they are grateful for the French citizens who have kindly volunteered to go spread French culture and values to the barbarian hordes. And so am I, to some extent: I love to have French wine, patisserie and cheese among my options. Just like I love to have a few Danish pastry options. That is one of the things I love about living near enough London: it is metropolitan. I even heard a couple of women talking in Dutch in my local farm shop yesterday, in the sticks!
Maybe the French are plotting to claim London as their territory one day. I am not sure they ever got over the wars. And I do think they want a piece of the show here. Did you see the Royal river pageant for the Queen’s Jubilee today? Absolutely fabulous darling, despite the rain:
The banners are coming out: the UK is gearing up for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and then the Olympics and the Paralympics. We are finally having summer weather as well so everyone is coming out of hibernation; the festive spirit is spreading like wildfire (in these otherwise sodden lands). As I was driving through a street newly decorated with union jacks it hit me: I am still a foreigner here. I have been here 11 years, and I am still a guest.
I stand by and watch the flags go up and feel only curiosity: fancy that, the natives are putting union jacks up everywhere. They’re really going to town on this.
When the olympic torch was lit and sent on its way around the country I watched with detached amazement (it was on the TV news or I would have missed it). How can people get so effusively emotional about something as mundane as a flame being lit? Husband says I am being mean: of course it’s a big deal! I don’t get it. So he asked whether I would feel different if the Olympics were in Belgium. Uhmmm… ponder that one … maybe, a little bit. Not sure, actually. Would I deck the halls to celebrate King Albert’s umpteenth jubilee? Uhmmm… probably not. The Belgian royal family just doesn’t do pomp and circumstance anything like the British – they’re awesome. And when I was last in Belgium I felt like a visitor there at times.
People at work are plotting where to position themselves when the olympic torch is passing by the office in 6 weeks time. All I can think of is: what day, remind me? Oooh, must arrange to work from home that day. Too crowded, I’ll get stuck in traffic.
My sense of identity is blurring. I may as well accept it and play the foreign / visitor card to suit me. Put on the vacant apologetic smile, and I can probably get away with whatever I like under the guise of “that’s what we do where I come from / where I live”. That worked a dream when I lived in Denmark many moons ago. My friends and colleagues would nod understandingly, and not comment even when they thought what I did was really weird. If I play my cards well I may be able to duck under the radar this summer, get some downtime while everyone is distracted. I’ll make a plan.
I had been debating with myself whether to revisit my childhood town and the home where I grew up over the last couple of weeks. I left for Belgium still very much undecided. A few days into the trip the perfect day presented itself when every other family member had something planned, leaving husband and me to make our own plans. My hand was forced, I had to indulge husband and plug his gap in the history of me. I kept telling him I had not been hiding anything, that there just was not very much to it. I had wanted to add “my life only started with you darling” but he would have heard the grin. Truth be told, I was dreading the visit (I almost wrote “confrontation”) all the way there. Didn’t know where to park when we got there. Twenty years is an awfully long time for a city. It had changed so much I was surprised to find several shops I remembered from my childhood still exist. Mostly though I was left trying to work out what was there before. I would look at a building and instantly think “ha, there’s a design shop here now”, for example, but not be able to recall what was there before. I just know it wasn’t that.
Husband was duly impressed with the city hall – really I should stop calling it a town 🙂 -, which is the little sibling of those in Brussels and Leuven, and the two beautiful churches. I showed him the school I went to, which has now entered the modern era and merged with the boys’ school next door and removed the fences that were designed to keep us girls safe from them, at least while the nuns were responsible for us. Whilst I do agree with all that I can’t help thinking that kids now miss out on the thrill of looking forward to meeting up with their boy / girlfriend in the little alleyway across from the school gate. Preferably while nun on duty was looking.
With all the change I felt detached from my memories. It didn’t quite feel like the place I grew up anymore, even if I rationally know it is.
So far so easy. The tourist treatment. Now I had to drive to the village and the home where I grew up. Still hating the thought of it as I was edging closer, fearing that regret for what was loved and lost would take over. And then there it was: the castle and the pond where we went skating; then the garden appeared in view, and finally, a glimpse of the house itself. I stopped the car in front of the drive and peered in. You couldn’t see much, just as I remembered it. The house is nestled behind tall hedges, trees and bushes, which all still looked familiar. Waves of emotions crashed over me, all different hues. I drove around the back, where I could only glimpse into the garden but not make out the house. I sat there for a while until the seas inside me calmed down. Then I told my husband I was glad we had visited. The dread I had felt before, linked to the bad memories of the final year or so of us living there, was being pushed down below overlays of the many more memories of all the wonderful years there. Growing up there was a privilege: we enjoyed a space and freedom my children couldn’t dream of. We waged wars with the other children throughout the village, built camps and rope bridges in the garden, built dams in the brook down the road. I wished I had brought my walking boots so I could trace back some of my favourite walks. It is beautiful out there. Too muddy without boots right now, but it gives me a reason to go back. I might even take the children to see where their roots lie. Because now I feel freed to do so and enjoy it.
Somewhat paradoxically, my restored connection with my childhood home has made me even more comfortable being at home where I am now. I feel as if I have been given a bright new room to keep my childhood memories in, one I can visit and feel good about, but only a room in my existence alongside so many others.
I didn’t have the presence of mind to take pictures but I found one of the castle pond, where we used to skate:
Indulgence is a bad word, isn’t it? It is selfish and lacks self-control – concepts we tend to frown upon. Which is exactly what makes indulging so sweet: allowing yourself to enjoy something that you would rather not anyone knew about. To me such secret guilty pleasures are extremely valuable. They belong only to me, and the few people I choose to let in on them. They provide a brief retreat from the usual hustle and bustle, a private pause in my busy life.
Now indulging has gotten more difficult for me lately. I have always enjoyed a strong black coffee with Belgian chocolate in the afternoon. I keep my own 1-person cafetiere and my own carefully selected coffee at work, and a choice of delectable chocolate in the back of a desk drawer. Everyone is used to me making my coffee in the kitchen and traipsing around with my cafetiere, but very few people know about the chocolate stash. I have always found it shameful somehow that I crave chocolate. Something to do with the expectation on women to be watching their weight I think. But now scientists have confirmed that people who eat chocolate regularly have a healthier body mass index and are slimmer. That throws my guilt right out of the window.
Luckily for me, that still leaves a glass of wine or a tripel beer once I put my feet up at night, taking a pillow day occasionally, and a few other things I am not ready to share.
Even allowing myself to do nothing is a luxury. It is also difficult, so I am not sure it falls under indulgence. I told myself this morning not to do any chores at all today, and instead allow myself to relax. That was an impossible mission, so I am excused for not completing it with full colours. I did manage to laze away the whole afternoon though, which has put me in a wonderfully dozy state of mind. Unwound. Whereas I could have ironed clothes, washed windows, taken the glass to the recycling bin… which is all still waiting to be done some time … back to indulgence!
We are planning a trip to Belgium in a couple of weeks. Spending time with family and hanging around, enjoying the company and the things I miss back home. Actually, there’s been a major improvement on the “goodies I miss” front since last week: Sainsbury’s supermarket now stocks grey shrimps! I love them! Now I don’t have to take a car fridge anymore to bring some back. But I digress. Husband can feel a bit bored, as he doesn’t understand everything that is going on. He wants to play tourist sometimes. It is more difficult than you’d think to keep coming up with places an outsider might find interesting. I have told him I think we’ve pretty much covered the tourist hotspots. Belgium is about the size of a stamp, remember. Husband changes tack. He wants me to take him around where I grew up. He has been asking for years and I have managed to divert his attention to touristy things so far. What do I do now?
It is not that I have anything to hide. I have not run away from anything particularly, nor am I wanted for some ancient misdemeanor. And yet I have not been back to the town where I grew up for 20 odd years and am still reluctant to do so. I have been musing over what exactly I don’t want to face up to, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. I am probably not being honest with myself. Maybe I should schedule a night time session with myself to get some true answers. One thing I am clear about is that seeing our former home again, my home for the first 22 years of my life, passed down seven generations in the family and now some stranger’s home, is going to be emotional. A tangle of emotions at the memories of growing up there and the loss of it all. I am just not sure I want to open that box again. I have managed to move on by looking ahead, not back. I also worry about the impact it might have on my parents if I told them we were going there. I probably wouldn’t tell them. Husband understands, even if he doesn’t know every detail. Things have happened in his life too. But I also understand he would like to fill in the blanks in my history. He won’t force me; I’ll have to make my own decision.
The simpler but still unresolved decision is whether I should contact some of the people from way back then. There are some I hope I won’t run into in town, and if I do, I might pretend I don’t recognize them; there are also a few people it might be nice to reconnect with. At times it seems as if my history only goes about ten years back. I do feel home where I have decided to peg my tent. But maybe it is time to reconnect with older, deeper roots to find a more comfortable way of living with those closed boxes.
For now I’ll promise husband to show him the town, and I’ll decide on the day whether to go to the house. Depending on how strong I feel. I have another two weeks to reach out to people I may or may not like to see again – plenty of time for night time resolution.
More is always better! Never too much of a good thing! I am finding that these are just slogans sly sales people fling at you. I had no intention of experimenting, it was put upon me. Poor me. Allow me to explain why this is plain wrong:
It was my birthday not that long ago (celebration of another year’s wisdom won), and my parents had sent me a HUGE box of fresh chocolates from a local chocolatier. Heaven! I told the rest of the family in no uncertain terms that they were to be very very nice to me if they wanted me to share. Always a bonus. There is no better chocolate than Belgian pralines, I absolutely love them. You select a few and enjoy them ideally with freshly brewed black coffee. But you can’t possibly eat half a box, they’re just too rich. So I stash the box, carefully rewrapped, with the Belgian beers (Tripel Karmeliet and Westmalle mostly) in the garage. The perfect storage temperature for both this time of year. They’ve been there a week now and there still is nearly half a box left. I have enjoyed a few every day of the week, and they don’t nearly taste as heavenly as they did anymore. They are still in mint condition, but my palate is going stale. I am beginning to consider sharing.
Husband is all out of luck. The BBC news site carried a story about polyglots the other day. It claimed that Dutch is the easiest to learn language for native English speakers. Husband is English, yours truly was raised in Dutch. Husband fits the cliche that English people are linguistically challenged, but now that excuse is too thin to hide behind.
He agreed to learn two new Dutch phrases every day. I never minded that he didn’t speak it, but am finding that I really want to teach him now. While I try not to roll over laughing.
Dear reader, teach your children languages! Lest they embarrass themselves later!
Everyone in Flanders was out ice skating this weekend. I am so envious. Seeing the pictures is such a throwback to my childhood and teenage years. When I was a little girl my parents would take us to the local castle pond and teach us to skate. As I grew older we met up there with our friends and spent whole afternoons on the ice racing each other, playing amateur ice hockey and just fooling around. I remember the thrill of sneaking off with a certain boy round the back, where the ice formed a loop between the reeds and the trees, a brief moment of perfect seclusion. I remember how the pale, low sunlight drew long shadows of trees on the ice, and how the frozen reeds rustled as we skated past. I wish I could have taken my skates there this weekend.
The pictures below are just there to indulge me. They are, unfortunately, not actual memories. Those exist only in my mind.
The first photo was taken by Lieven Van Assche and published on De Standaard. The second is from Panoramio.