how to love Europe
I’m still not sure that I was ever actually living legally in Belgium. Nine years and thousands of French lessons and somehow I never really lived there. It always felt like there was a party going on that I wasn’t invited to.
Belgium offered me my first written contract of employment and taught me what quality of life means. Stable housing, cracking healthcare, waking up to the smell of sweet pastry and a world of vintage nighties. I experienced Europe for the first time – learning our history and geography by taking a train every weekend across a different border.
Then my purple period started. The authorities found me and I was instructed to go to the Commune to register. A lifetime of a smoking-behind-the-bike-sheds attitude to authority I just hadn’t bothered to register. This led to six months of punitive visits defying the image of a communitarian bureaucracy. The fact that I was the only person in the entire country not to fiddle their tax, considered the national sport at the time, did not protect me from the humiliation and confusion of these daily visits. I spoke English and French, my commune worked in Flemish. I understood nothing and they, despite being fluent in a standard civil service of 6 languages, didn’t appear to understand a single word I said.
I always felt radically unwelcome in Belgium. Like a child stuck in the fallout of a sexless marriage, trying to navigate the evasive fault lines of the French and Flemish cultures really dampens your enthusiasm for any union of any description.
As befits the home of surrealism, there is a perversion in the Belgian culture which captivated me. The restaurant next door that closed for lunch and the couple in matching anoraks who every morning invited their poodle to shit on the doorstep of my office. One of the richest cities in the world devastated by people using their dogs’ shits to mark a hidden feature of their culture.
During my entire time of living there I never had a single conversation about the child abuse scandals that shook its institutions at that time. I also never understood how to get served in shops, a subculture all of its own.
Brussels is a city full of ambitious political minds, bureaucrats and lawyers. Like many people, I lived there as if in an incubator for grown-ups. A routine world which from the outside looked exciting but from the inside was just a version of working for Xerox in Swindon. Sales replaced by negotiations on human rights, flirting by the coffee machine replaced by frequent flyer lounges. Many of the people that work there are so disconnected from reality that they have no capacity for the basics of self care.
The few friends I made were generally the flotsam who don’t do well at dinner parties. One was a young creature called Yasmine who I worked with for a global union representing 20 million miners and energy workers. Twenty-something and smart as boots, Yasmine and I worked happily organising stuff. Mediation workshops in the diamond mines of Congo to gender awareness for the pharmaceutical workers in Nepal. She had a natural political mind which came in handy when I tried to report a burglary at my flat and instead got arrested for defamation of character. Long story but suffice to say when you report a crime in a Flemish quarter when you have a tan and don’t speak Flemish do not under any circumstances swear. That’s all I’m saying.
We worked quietly and steadily until her father died. She quickly got married to a man recently returned from an Islamist camp in Jordan and over a period of six months she covered up everything that distinguished her. Her grief and anger vibrating under her hijab. The last time I saw her she turned up at work wearing a niqab. This was before the time when I’d had the chance to think through how to work with women in veils, now mainstream if you work in HE in the UK. I remember locking myself in the lavs and sweating – how to ask her if she’s OK?
She didn’t turn up for a week. So I asked HR where I could find her. Without skipping a beat they said Maalbeek, in an ‘are you stupid?’ tone. I ended up going to her apartment block and when nobody answered the door sitting on a bench outside for six hours. This wasn’t because I thought it would work, but because it took me six hours to process what was happening both for me and for her. In hour six a woman in a niqab came and bought me a cup of mint tea and said, in English ‘go home sister’. Profound and silly at the same time.
I never quite fell in love with Brussels. Belgium is the most bureaucratic society I have ever lived in, and I speak as someone who worked in Romania in the 1990s. It was only later when my psychoanalytic journey had started that I read about bureaucracy as a social defence against anxiety and understood something of what was going on. Easier to live in a Neverlandish world where forms and procedures keep us occupied.
Belgium is an avoidant model of society. Invaded and silenced in the war, a culture that avoids conflict but in the process allows it to grow subterranean.
It took me three days to speak about Brussels after the bombings and trace my emotional steps. The first thing I did was contact my old therapist, Madame S, a French Jewish woman in her 70s, a smoker with an exceptional sense of style. She never once challenged my omnipotent ways travelling ten months of the year to save the world, a fact I remind my analyst of every single week.
Madame S said, “The best we can do is understand what we did to each other, rather than bury it in the basements of Maalbeek. We are all European, the question is not whether but how”.
What Belgium taught me is that to understand is to love. A world away from the romance of France and the transparency of Flanders, the heart of Europe is a place that needs to be loved through understanding.
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