I’ve had my head under a rock or something that I’ve missed reporting on the state of Belgium these days. I didn’t know that there’s been no government in my former home for over six months. I didn’t know that there was such a cultural split there, given that I grew up on the outskirts of Brussels which is one of the most integrated cities in the country. And yet there it is, in black and white on the pages of the International Herald Tribune: Belgium is fracturing along cultural lines, between the different linguistic groups in the country.
We moved to Brussels in the summer of 1979 when I was five years old. I spent the summer exploring our new neighborhood and feeling homesick for our house in Providence, Rhode Island which we’d left a year and a half earlier, with the promise that we’d be going right back after my father finished his assignment in Paris. Things didn’t work out that way and when the company he worked for went through some upheavals, he left, following his boss to a new position at a new company, headquartered in Brussels. I remember vaguely the house hunting before we moved into a little white brick twin set back from a cobbled, dead-end lane in the town of Uccle just outside the city proper. I remember clearly walking up and down that sandy, graveled driveway all summer long, watching my shadow grow longer and longer in the afternoon, tall where I was small.
I met the kids from the house just in front of us, also expatriates, but from Argentina. We had no common language: I didn’t speak French yet, they didn’t speak English, but somehow we managed to communicate and become friends. I spent long hours in their yard or running around the neighborhood playing make-believe games, coming to the sorts of agreements that children that age do through whatever means that we could. It was a good summer overall, in spite of the continuing homesickness and the inherent uncertainty that came with no longer knowing when we were going home.
In the Fall I started kindegarten at a local French-speaking private school with a progressive curriculum. My uncle, my mother’s younger brother, had died just a few weeks before school started and my mother was in the US for the funeral. Dad and I got by, struggling with my misery at not being able to talk to anyone at school and his inability to fix my hair the way Mom did and overall missing my mother and being two fish out of water in a new place, new situation. I can remember sitting there in class trying to understand what was going on around me, though Madame Donnay did her level best in her broken English, to include me. Eventually, through immersion and a lot of visual cues, I absorbed French, going from non-speaker to stumbling novice over the course of just a few weeks. Within a few months, I was jabbering away with my classmates as if I’d never not known the language and I remember being good at recognizing words and spelling as we tackled the beginning stages of writing.
I still can’t quite remember that moment when I went from being an English-speaker to being multi-lingual. It just sort of happened that year while I sat alongside my classmates trying to follow along and do what I was supposed to do in school. Later, in third grade, we all started to learn Dutch. Most of my francophone fellows struggled with the sounds, the shapes of the words. As an English-speaker, picking up Dutch was a piece of cake for me. It was the one subject other than drawing that I excelled at. I can remember being able to carry on conversations with the locals when I went to dance camp at the seaside in the summer in the Dutch-speaking part of the country. I became the go-to girl anytime my family was traveling through Dutch-speaking parts of Belgium or into the Netherlands.
Sadly, when we moved back to the US, I lost my Dutch, through disuse and the lack of instruction of the language on this side of the Atlantic. French however, stayed with me, my parents made sure of it, by sending me to a school where I could take high school level French even though I was still in middle school. I went back to Belgium in the early 90s to intern at NATO, renewing my connection with friends there. Even then I was blissfully unaware of any divisions in the country, enjoying my month abroad by working days in the NATO library and hanging out with friends in the afternoon. In college I spent a year in Switzerland, another small country in Europe with strong linguistic and cultural divisions and overall neutrality in terms of politics in relation to the rest of Europe. I was more aware then of the cultural lines, but while I read the news and absorbed the commentary on these topics with interest, it’s something I didn’t engage with personally, likely due to the transitory nature of my stay in the country.
Reading that news article today struck me with dismay at the news itself (in spite of the slant of the article) and a vague sense of unease about how out of touch I’ve been. It feels like one of the underpinnings of my childhood is slipping away. At the same time, I realize that my own experience growing up there is sort of emblematic of the problems the country faces. I lived in Brussels, went to a francophone school, spent all six years that we lived there largely in the French-speaking part of the country, my only exposure to the Dutch parts of the culture occurring during vacation visits to the seashore and through the required Dutch classes that didn’t start until the third grade. I’m still processing the news, reading up more about it and what happened, absorbing the idea that sometime in the future, the small part of me that still feels a little Belgian might not have a home any more. I also wonder about my old friends, the people I knew there and how this affects them.