Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Belgium's Secret Garden

 Dear Belgium,

It’s taken over two years to gather the courage to express how I feel.  I’ve often found myself struggling to identify and understand your unique qualities.   The weather mimics your peculiar ways.  In one moment you’re happy and full of sunshine, and then, with a slight twist your mood shifts.  Often your streams of light are replaced with dropping temperatures, followed by rain, and on some occasions, as if trying to make a point, you spit hail. You have perplexed me, Belgium.

She’s got a secret garden
Where everything you want
Where everything you need
Will always stay
A million miles away

Secret Garden by Bruce Springsteen…. 

You draw me close only to ultimately push me away. In our two year relationship you’ve reminded me of the multitude of emotions we humans possess.   Like the day you sent an unexpected stranger into my home.  Or what about the day you gifted me a water leak in my kitchen that rivaled Niagara Falls (and took a year to be remedied)?  And what gives with the astronomical water bills that followed?   And what about last Christmas?  Remember the grumpy Belgian postman you delivered to my door that gifted me a bill and a slip of paper to pick up a package.  Do you remember what happened when I showed up to pick up my parcel?  I was told there was no room to hold my box marked “Christmas Gift”, so it was shipped back-to-sender.  My sister’s painting traveled across an ocean, just for you to smugly turn it away. 

 But here is the thing, just when I think our relationship has reached the brink, just when I think  you’ve gone too far, you hold out your hand and offer a breath of respite and compassion. 

When I feel defeated and beaten, and want to pack up my bags and leave, you display an affection that warms my heart and makes me forget the discomfort you’ve caused.  Do you remember the random Belgian people you’ve sent my way that have reminded me how wonderful you are capable of being?  Like the day I was walking near my house and invited in to have beer with strangers?  Or the time our landlord surprised us on Christmas Eve with bread that resembled a swaddled baby Jesus?  And don’t forget the man on the tractor that helped pull our van out of the mud.  He looked like he walked right out of a Vincent Van Gogh painting.  And even the old man that stumbled into our home unannounced turned out to be a nice memory.  Suffering from dementia and having been lost for 24 hours, he had only wandered in for a drink to quench his thirst and to escape the bitter cold.  The police claimed our unlocked door had saved his life.  You sent these souls into my life knowing they would sustain and refresh my weary heart and mind.

I know I’m often guilty of wanting you to change so I can better understand your ways.  I’m sorry.

Now I can see the appeal of your secrets, the qualities that are impossible to define.  The little lines on a map that attempt to define your space have been cut, carved and walked on throughout history.  I’m just another speck. Someone passing through.  You know how this story ends.  I won’t stay.  Just as you begin to open the gates of your garden, I leave. 

Finally I see beauty in your passive stillness.  You’ve gifted me random kind strangers.  You’ve allowed me to meander through your countryside.  And you’ve introduced me to a golden (actually brune) liquid that leaves me with a foamy mustache and a goofy grin.   Your qualities could never be explained on paper - although I try.  Maybe this is part of your secret? While I may never understand your ways, I have come to respect and accept them. 

With Love,
Judy Rae

Monday, December 2, 2013

All I Needed to Learn About Belgium I Learned From a Kindergartener

In two years I’ve learned an abundance about Belgian culture and cuisine while also learning the French language.  I didn’t need to enroll in expensive classes and it didn’t take a lot of my time.  All I needed to learn about life in Belgium, I learned from a kindergartener. 

Ecole Saint Louis is nestled between a drive through liquor store and a tiny church. The two child-like figures on their signage resembles a porcelain Precious Moments figurine.  Simple and quaint are two words that come to mind.

Enrolling my three year old Isabelle into a school where neither of us spoke the language was interesting, to say the least.  The first year tears were shed.  Hers and mine.  I convinced myself we would both be okay.  It wasn’t hard to do.  The kids were cute as buttons and the teachers were always courteous and professional.  Never had I seen a classroom of such well-mannered children (which was also a flag of concern).  How would Isabelle fit in?

There were many days I felt unprepared and inadequate.  Like the day of her first field trip.  Driving up I noticed a yellow city bus waiting to pick up the kids.  Mass transit? There were two teachers and no parent helpers.  I learned quickly that it is not customary for parents to partake in their kids’ education, at least not in pre-school.  Parents are advised to quickly drop off and by no means enter a classroom a minute before school is officially over.  I’m a slow learner, it took a year of downward glances accompanied by pursed lips for me to get the message from my daughter’s teacher, Mme. Sadrine that parents should stand outside the door and wait for her to decide when class was over.  Rain, shine, sleet or snow, a parent is expected to wait.

I also learned about kissing.  After my daughter’s second week, I was pulled aside.   While it is proper to kiss, it should be reserved for the cheek.  My daughter had been going for the lips, a big no no!  And a year into school, I learned Mme. Sadrine had been holding out on me!  It took her scolding me to learn she had tucked away enough English to inform me why my daughter had been crying when I left.  Again, it was the kiss!  This time she was guilty of not giving her teacher the customary kiss on the cheek.  Mme.  Sadrine explained it’s a habit all kids do upon arrival and departure.  She felt Isabelle’s tears were brought on because she wasn’t sealing her arrival and departure with a kiss.  I left that day thinking the teacher had no idea about Isabelle’s needs.  How could she think my daughter’s sadness was brought on by the fact her mother didn’t make her kiss the teacher?  I felt like I had set Isabelle up for failure by placing her in a place neither of us understood.

Guess what, I was wrong.  I tested the teacher’s hypothesis.  I explained to Isabelle it was customary to kiss her teacher on the cheek when she arrives and leaves school.  By this small act, I’ve learned it’s how Mme. Sadrine manages her students.  The kiss isn’t necessarily out of cuddly affection, but necessity.  It announces to the teacher the comings and goings of her knee high students.  She watches them like a mother hen.

Isabelle is now into her second school year.  We have both learned a lot.  She now understands proper kissing habits.  She speaks French fluently and knows a range of Belgian traditions like: Pere Fouettard, the Easter Cloche, and Sorcieres.  She’s gone on trips to the beaches of Oostende and discovered art through various museums.  Recently she not only toured an Andy Warhol exhibit, but also created her own Warhol look-alike painting.  She’s even ventured to local farms where they sampled homemade cheese and bread.  Last week her class made pumpkin soup, tasted it, then packaged it in pretty glass jars to bring home and enjoy. 

Soon our family will attend the school’s annual Christmas fete.  A delicious dinner will follow a holiday performance by the kids, along with a visit and gifts from Saint Nicolas.  The children, along with parents, grandparents, teachers, and even the school crossing guard will be wearing smiles.  The merriment is contagious. 

I can’t help but feel good.  Not only did Isabelle and I survive the first awkward year, but we’re better for it.  Our French has improved along with a better understanding of our surroundings.   And when the Christmas Fete celebration comes to a close, Isabelle and I will both head over to kiss Mme. Sadrine’s cheek and wish her Bon soir!