Once upon a time, a migrant in Belgium: Interview with InterNations

“Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Belgium, etc.”

I have almost forgotten I gave an interview about my beginnings in Belgium – it was such a long time ago after all. But it is a nice way for me to travel back in time while sipping a coffee. I also forgot that this person travelling to a new country which was to become her home is me. A younger version of myself, restless, curious, ambitious and eager to take in everything that this new universe had to put on offer.

Things have changed in the meantime; 15 years have gone by. Now I am a full-time Belgian citizen, enjoying the privileges of free, border-less travel within Europe, for however long it lasts, and accessing many countries of the world without a visa. I never introduce myself upfront as Belgian, though, because here is the thing: somehow I will always be “stuck” in my immigrant condition, because I like it. “Neither here, nor there” suits me well but I realise that this country gives me this option. I have a choice here, to belong or not quite entirely. It is an open place for me to evolve whichever way I chose to and one that accepts me. And today more than ever, I think I might show some gratitude for this. Belgium left it up to me to become as Belgian as I desired. If anything, immigration is a fascinating thing, don’t you agree?

These were quite possibly my very first thoughts about how I felt about this place back in the days. Read the interview here:

Silvia: Explorer of the Everyday | InterNations

Belgium – no safe haven

bxl

It’s a particularly grey day in Belgium. It makes for the ideal background of a funeral. The country mourns its victims today, the ones it couldn’t save from yesterday’s terror attacks. But mourning, a sky that seems to be crying in unison with us, the one minute of silence and the countless hours of anger are not enough. Something has failed again in Europe. Something important. The protection of civilians has taken three blows. There will be long-lasting scars.

While the whole world stands united in anger, stupefaction and frustration facing terrifying events that have come to be recurrent for reasons we cannot truly comprehend, our peace of mind and freedom fade away. Slowly, but surely, we find ourselves in circumstances that many other countries outside Europe have got used to, but that we wouldn’t have expected here a while back.

On the world map, Belgium is not a big country. That’s easy to see. It also shouldn’t lack the necessary resources to invest in the protection of its people, considering that it hosts some of the most important international institutions. Yet culprits slip through irresponsible fingers. Clearly, there are weaknesses.

How is it possible that neighbourhoods such as Molenbeek-Saint-Jean or again Schaerbeek breed their terrorists unhindered? It’s not like the Belgian authorities didn’t have a clue of what was going on there. After all, it is not yesterday that these districts started to make such a bad reputation for themselves. While Belgium is doing pretty well at exporting small arms and light military weapons (with the Middle East as prime market), it also seems to rank as a top exporter of Jihad, with the highest number of foreign fighters recruited by Syria and Iraq. How can these details be missed out systematically (or deliberately disregarded?) in a country of only 30,528 km²? Something is wrong in the picture.

Also, why would any country put the European Headquarters –presumably a main target for terrorists- right in the middle of the city and have a metro run just underneath? I’m sure one day I will get the point of this, but until then, all I see is EU employees being exposed to risk every day along with people who simply live in the area. How is that safe?

Last but not least, how can an international airport become so unsafe few days after a most-wanted terrorist is captured? Wasn’t it potentially the very first building that needed reinforced security, with the knowledge at hand that Salah Abdeslam had friends out there? Had this occurred months later, I would have understood that the Belgian intelligence and Police could have been caught off guard. As such, I struggle.  But it’s always a good thing to put the whole country back in lockdown after people died and many were injured. It gives a strong sense of reassurance. It is an attempt to show that the situation is under control. It isn’t.

I think someone needs a shake. I get red spots when I hear passive, resigned, powerless remarks such as Prime Minister Charles Michel’s: “We feared an attack and it happened”. It sounds as if “oups, we feared a tsunami would strike and so it happened”. This lax attitude is sadly pretty representative of how things “happen” at many levels in Belgium: slowly, painfully slowly. But while I can wait forever for a document to be sent to me by the Commune because they cannot decide whether to mail it in Flemish or in French, other things require immediate action. And now, getting the bad guys is one. No, this is no time to accept things as they come and pat security services on the back telling them they did all they could. Of all evidence, they could and should have done better. This cannot “happen” again. Because some things can be (here it is) prevented.

Luckily, there are services to be grateful for. Less referred to in the press but nonetheless pivotal, the hospitals doubled their staff and deployed all possible efforts in Brussels and throughout Belgium to receive and treat the wounded. Ambulance drivers, medical staff, firemen, Red-Cross and volunteers, donors, the whole country was mobilized to offer help to the attack victims or simply to one another. Solidarity was truly the watchword in the chaos that was 22nd March 2016. Taxis were free of charge in Brussels for the day to help commuters go back home and many people offered car sharing and accommodation when transport means were at a standstill. There is so much potential for good in us, humans.

The reactions extended beyond the Belgian borders. I haven’t yet counted the number of people who made my phone buzz the whole day and flooded my social media pages with their concern for me and their comforting messages. France, Germany, UK, The Netherlands, Romania, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Sumatra, India, United States, Canada – a whole universe of people was there for me offering priceless support. No doubt, multi-cultural, borderless friendship is a true blessing to be grateful for.

I get it: there is nothing more frightening or dangerous or hard to grasp than a human bomb, a being who only lives for the sole purpose to detonate himself/herself in a public place, making sure he/she never quits this world alone. There is nothing more evil and pathetic at the same time. Possibly, there is also hardly anything less foreseeable than the nature and behaviour of such individuals. But I refuse to think that we allow them to outnumber or outsmart professional intelligence and security services.

Today, the sun will not shine over Belgium or in my heart. But after we all bend our heads to keep a minute of silence, we have to stand up again and face tomorrow. And hopefully, we will wake up to more responsible leaders who take better actions and make faster decisions. Belgium, cry, wipe you tears and go back to business. There’s work to do.

Don’t let Doel die

Doel_Belgium

I was missing chaos when I found Doel. After a recent trip to Indonesia which gave me a crash course on how chaos can look like, Brussels seemed a tad too orderly and sober by contrast. No monkeys on the roof, no motorcycles that carry whole families together with their belongings, no passengers on top of buses, cars that actually stop at the red light –the ordinary was failing to excite the eye and mind and the civilised world was once again comfortable, yet colourless and dull.

Somewhere not far from Antwerp lies Doel, a small village the Belgian state is giving up on based on a decision to expand the Port of Antwerp, one of Europe’s largest. Doel happened to be in the wrong place. Its inhabitants left. Some 25 people are still refusing to do so, but the evacuation order could become resolute one day. Doel is slowly but rather surely going down.
Doel_Belgium

Yet for now, its streets are alive with a weird kind of magic atmosphere. They are empty, devoid of residents, overtly displaying heaps of dirt and unkempt gardens filled with greedy weeds that grow uncontrollably. Some houses collapsed, others are still standing. And in the creepiness of an area that leaves the impression that a cataclysm made everyone pack and run, a strange and unexpected sight! Every single wall is covered in graffiti, making Doel a colourful if far from cheerful place in the gloomy mood set by the Belgian weather.

European graffiti artists left their marks on the walls in an attempt to save Doel from demolition, hoping to convince the government to preserve it, if only as a container for street art, an accidental tourist attraction. But it does not look like the message is coming across. For now, no entry fee is claimed and no one distributes flyers to celebrate the fortunate outcome of a derelict village that was doomed to disappear but escaped its fate.

In spite of itself, Doel magnetises visitors, however, no doubt thanks to its creative graffiti that gives life to its eerie emptiness. People who are curious enough go to this dodgy but seductive area with a camera and snap some shots. The day I visited, a group of men were taking pictures of their Ferraris and Porches parked against various graffiti backgrounds. Doel, it must be said, has become an original and seriously cool place unlike any other.

Some of the graffiti artworks are exceptional. It is exciting to be almost alone on empty streets amid the bountiful testimony of street art. Scary, too. This is a genuinely derelict place, not a museum that is meant to recreate the impression of abandonment. The doors to some of the houses were left open just wide enough for the curious passer-by to spot the traces of a questionable kind of occupancy. Squatters, no doubt.

Doel made me marvel. Not only at how an ugly place (if you add the neighbouring nuclear plant and the large number of electricity pylons) can become eye-catching, visually interesting enough to be inspiring, and even earn itself an identity made of spray paint models. Graffiti made Doel worth a visit, if only for a while. And with discussions to erase it from the map dating back since 1970, my guess is that you still have plenty of time to go and take those pictures, too!

Doel5 Doel4 Doel3 Doel2 Doel_Belgium_16 Doel_Belgium_15 Doel_Belgium_14 Doel_Belgium_13 Doel_Belgium_12 Doel_Belgium_11 Doel_Belgium_10 Doel_Belgium_8

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Hell of a May Day

Royal Greenhouses in Laeken
May 1st is, no doubt, a public holiday in Belgium, too. Labour Day or Easter – who cares about the underlying significance of the event, as long as it is a day off? I was once asked by a seemingly mature person why Easter was supposed to be a sad occasion. True, if you grow up thinking that Easter is that one moment when you look for egg chocolates in the garden, you might slightly overlook the mythical Crucifixion of Jesus (you know, the guy in urgent need of a haircut) by the Christians. Nowadays, everyone is just happy to have a day off away from the office. And I am by no means an exception.

Caught in Brussels, I decide to do the tourist and visit highlights that, possibly prevented by some exceptionally good instincts, I haven’t previously. Bill Bryson says that “once you’ve done a couple of circuits of the Grand-Place and looked politely in the windows of one or two of the many thousands of shops selling chocolates or lace (and they appear to sell nothing else in Brussels), you begin to find yourself glancing at your watch and wondering if nine-forty-seven in the morning is too early to start drinking.” (Neither here Nor there – Travels in Europe)

Still, the great thing about Brussels is that, small though it may be, one can hardly pretend having seen it all. There is always a park, a theatre, a museum, a bar, a site in or around Brussels that even locals are surprised to discover. Seriously, though I could criticize close to a hundred things about it, I am amazed how there’s always something to do or see in Brussels. Especially when you can’t book a flight to anywhere else.

Forgetting that I was not the only one enjoying a day off, I set my mind on visiting the Royal Greenhouses in Laeken. The day is bright though rain was supposed to be on the menu and I suspect that the guys from the weather forecast had been consuming again – somehow, their predictions are often wrong.

The first difficulty when reaching the park is to find a parking place – take the wrong lane like I did and you’re bound to do the tour of Brussels without any possibility of turning around in a foreseeable future. I end up managing to squeeze my car between two parking spaces for the disabled. Time to visit.

My mum is the fervent royalist, the kind who posts pictures of queens/kings and their inheritors from around the Globe on Facebook and captions them with enthusiastic remarks such as “Long live X or Y” ending in at least 3 exclamation marks. She dreams of restoring monarchy in Romania and I would hardly be surprised if she joined some activist group that secretly plots to get the job done. So I call her to say “Guess what? I’m going royal today: I’m visiting their weeds.” She asked for pictures with the intention to, of course, post them on Facebook for her other monarchy-crazed friends to like. She never ceases to amaze me.

The difficulty to find a parking place confirms my fear: half of the Brussels population had the same idea. Plenty also brought their children, strollers and most of their belongings with them. It’s a splendid sunny day, the entry ticket is 2.50 euros and I have a massive queue of humans in front me. I’m in trouble, for patience will be needed.

The cashier woman will not be nominated for the Kindest Person of the Year award. She looks bored already and it’s only noon. She takes my coins with a silent sign to put them down so that she can count them. I say “Bonjour” to her and although the poster says that the staff can reply in no less than 5 languages, she serves me a cold “alstublieft” in Flemish. She might as well have said “Go fuck yourself” to me. Maybe she actually did. The intonation was in no way different. I treat her with the adequate kind of look. Belgium is not a place where Flemish people love Walloon people (or the other way round), but Brussels is where they pretend to best. You should see Bruges!

Ticket in hand and with a still relatively good mood on my face, I get excited to see the flowers. But the road is packed with obstacles. To begin with, there’s a lot of walking to the greenhouses. There are also too many people lingering on and blocking my chances to move forward. I’m usually good at overtaking but this promises to be a very special day. People seem to stop and take pictures of every single patch of grass in a park that had absolutely nothing exceptional to offer and the families and big groups of friends occupy any available space, active at keeping everyone else behind.

I was starting to make my way when I was stopped by another big gathering: it was the queue to enter the greenhouses. I couldn’t see the door from where we were standing. I breathe shoulder to shoulder with the other visitors. A baby starts to yell so hard it reminded me of an excellent condom commercial (and if you haven’t seen it, please do before it’s too late: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYvLahRzabs). I was by then deeply cursing myself for having had such a wonderful idea as coming there that day of all other days.

And then the heaviest of rains started to pour down, making some of us run towards the two-three trees that grew in this park, clearly not made to accommodate visitors on rainy weather. Stoically, I endured it by covering myself, the camera and my bag (all three items soaked through within 5 minutes) with the only means of protection I had: my jacket. No, not a waterproof one!

Suddenly, it was not only grey and rainy, but also very cold. Under my very wet jacket, I was all but having fun. 10 minutes later, we were still not moving, and the rain wasn’t giving us any break. Once again, I congratulated myself on the idea. When we did move, it was only to put one foot in front of the other and then stop for longer minutes still. 100 metres were now separating me from the sheltering entry but it didn’t look like I was going to get in there that day. It’s the biggest joke to just stand wet in the pouring rain so close to a shelter and not be able to reach it. Frustration was escalating. But not to worry, two teenagers who must have been either volunteers or hired on very low wages to stroll around the park and make belief they were doing something there show up.

People, having identified them as traces of some sort of local authority start questioning them on how come we were left outside under such weather conditions. Those who had made it inside were evidently not giving one single fuck about those who were outside: they were having the time of their lives slowly taking happy snappies of every flower petal. I ask the teenagers if going back would get me out of the park. I had seen one plant too many and my car was still 2 km away anyhow.

“Oh, you’re right in the middle of the circuit and you can’t go back right now: everything is blocked by those who entered behind you.” Now this was absolutely unbelievable. In a country where it rains every 2 hours and on a day with high affluence for which heavy rain showers were actually announced, this royal park had taken absolutely no measure whatsoever to offer visitors an enjoyable, dry experience (and yes, damn it, I forgot my umbrella, but that doesn’t make them any less guilty). I can hardly imagine that no one has yet considered building shelters or at least sending guards inside the visiting spaces to herd the lazy crowds towards the exit. I know we were geographically in Belgium where people are not exactly familiar with the verb “to hurry”, but the awfully slow motion in the management of the place was simply unbearable.

Anyone who would have peeped beneath the green jacket covering my frozen self would have been met with a look that hinted to the fact that I was on the brinks of committing mass murder.

Not having anything better to do, I start to smile. At a sign of the only guard present I finally move in the covered area we had been longing for during those long minutes of incessant downpour only to notice that the sun had made it through the clouds again and was shining over us mockingly: “A tad wet, hey?”, it seemed to say to me. The guard tries to look like the world is depending on his job and does an affected kind of walking from A to B, speaking into the walkie talkie as if he was from homeland security. He does both actions very slowly, but gravely, in an imposing kind of way. Some old men take off their wet shirts in an attempt to dry them a bit. The old lady next to me whispers into my ear: “Look, topless men – if only for this and it was still worth coming.” Naughty old little lady! I agreed: we did get something worth 2.50 euros.

Finally in! Now, whichever genius mind built these greenhouses, he/she was a selfish bastard/bitch with no intention of ever inviting in more than 10 people. There was only one very small path between the truly beautiful flowers (of which I now didn’t give a damn) gorging with too many people. I almost fainted at the thought that I was going to be stuck in there again. I prayed hard that the path please not be too long. It was. Visitors were stopping to find the best position for their future Facebook profile picture. Damn Zuckerberg, too, he transformed us into a bunch of selfie and like-my-status obsessed individuals. My plan to get the hell out of there as soon as I could was compromised. Suddenly, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to go very far to observe the animal in its natural environment. I had a whole safari right in front of me.

It didn’t rain anymore after this. It was only once I made it outside the park and the royal environment (with only one picture as a souvenir) and started to breathe regularly again that I realized why I felt that the Universe held something against me on that May 1st. I hadn’t had a single coffee the whole day.

My Name is Silvia and I’m an Immigrant

immigration

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.