I am one of the hundreds of million of people who moved from one country to another. At twenty, I willingly left Romania and reluctantly landed in Belgium. Back then, I was just travelling somewhere else, having no idea that immigration would stick with me. Now that I have been living in Belgium for ten years and only went back to Romania twice for few days all in all, I know that immigration is my new ID.
So one September day in 2002 I took a plane to this misty country I knew I would hate. Because I would have gladly gone elsewhere, but my sister was living in Belgium, so it was a “logical” choice. Because I was leaving all my friends behind and at twenty, that’s all you care about. I also hated the weather intensely, I hated the city (Liège), I hated the people’s over-politeness – Belgians have a thing for repeating “Hello, how are you, what can I do for you, good-bye and have a good day” on every occasion. Very disturbing when you come from a country where this is not seen as a priority. I hated their patience: the little old lady counting the Euro cents to pay her bill in a crowded supermarket would have probably been publicly crucified in Romania. I also hated that I did not understand everything that people were telling me, even though I had studied French at school. Later on I would understand that there is French French, Belgian French, Liège French, etc. This explained my struggle.
I hated that, during my studies at the university and right from the beginning of my stay in Belgium I would be an “exceptional case”. Since Romania set up conditions that were impossible for me to fulfill so as to legally study abroad, I left as a tourist, I was accepted at the University of Liège, but had no authorization to stay for more than 3 months in Belgium. I therefore started a regularization process under the article “9.3 of the aliens’ legislation. (According to this article, there may be an exception to the principle that the application for residence should start in the country of origin).” I was the alien, the article and the exception. The process took one year and a half, during which I was not considered a “legal” resident.
“Exceptionally”, I also managed to go to Germany with the Erasmus programme: “normally” I did not have that right. There were a number of other things that I could not really do, like stay in Belgium after my studies, unless I had a job, for which I needed a working permit which was mission impossible to get.
Hateful times. A lot changes when you live in a different country, especially if you’re used to mum putting the plate in front of you while you watch TV, like I was: you start from scratch, you have no papers and you freak out whenever you drive and you see a Police motorcycle in your rearview mirror. You suffer from nostalgia (acutely, if you also lack light): you miss the mountains, the seaside, having a normal conversation in your own language, you even miss the stray dogs. You lose the notion of “home” and you feel, rightfully, that you will never fully integrate into the new country. There will always be words and jokes that you will not understand. How could you? You did not even watch the same cartoons as the others when you were a kid and you have overall different reference points and ways of having fun. You feel that you don’t say exactly what you mean in a different language. You have an accent, so you know that you will always have to answer the question “Where do you come from?”. But when you decide that you’re not going back, you learn to look in front of you, in time. Learning to be an immigrant is a continual process.
You also learn to wear a label. Accept it or not, being an immigrant is one. You discover that labels exist everywhere in the world (which you do not know if you never get out of your country) and that you just have to live with them, because so many other people do. I was at least associated with prostitution in the “eastern countries”, “Dracula”, and Nadia Comanici. My mother even had right to a remark such as “I know your gipsy music and I like it very much” coming from someone who wanted to make a good impression and prove that he knew something about Romania. It’s still a mystery how the guy survived my mother’s look.
Labels aside, go abroad and see how little some people actually know about your country. I was asked if we had electricity (Romania being somewhere on a different continent, in a different century and we, blood-sucking Romanians who all perform on the uneven bars being somehow fallen from a tree). The best line I got for introducing myself as a Romanian came from one of my most beloved university teachers. “Nobody is perfect”, he replied.
You learn how powerful the notion of luck is. And how this saves you, white Caucasian, from having your papers checked by the Police one day when you simply step off the bus. Two of the travelers are requested to make proof that they are Belgian residents. They are dark-skinned, so it’s not their lucky day. They are visible immigrants, while I do not bear that mark. But that day, I was the illegal one. Today, I am a Belgian citizen.
What I also learned, while living in a foreign country was that I did not want to live in my own. Yes, guilty as charge! I was therefore also pointed with the finger by some compatriots who accused me of not contributing to my country’s development, of being a deserter, bla, bla, bla. Have martyrs ever been rewarded while they were actually alive? Along with bullshit of this kind, brace yourself to hear some of the most surrealistic remarks that have ever toured the Planet when you ditch your homeland. Also, when you live elsewhere (the exact place is of no real importance), your friends and family at home will always think that you are richer, happier and luckier than they are. Don’t try to convince them otherwise: it is a strong belief.
Looking back, I would have certainly not learned so much, about myself, about others, about life, had I not done the “big move”. I now know how to balance my sense of in-betweenness, because I understand that this experience makes me the person I am today. I’m not sure I got the best of both worlds, but I have knowledge of them. And while I am both Romanian and Belgian, I am also none of them, really. I am an immigrant. And I’m getting better at it every day.