Making a New Life in Belgium

September 30, 2015

I’ve officially been in Brussels for one month and 2 days! I’ve come to the point in my stay here where I’ve established a solid routine and actually feel like I know my surroundings pretty well. I have my favorite cafés to read in, my favorite markets to go shopping, my favorite grassy spots to sit in the nearby park. And now, I feel like I even have a little community, albeit a very tiny one. Every Sunday morning, for example, I go to the farmers market in the nearby plaza to pick up fresh eggs, vegetables, and the best, most juicy figs (I’ve seriously developed a fig obsession since I’ve gotten here), and I say hi to lots of the shopkeepers by name. There’s also the bus driver in the morning who gives me my ticket without me having to say the destination, the group of friends at work with whom I eat lunch with every day, the instructor who teaches the weekly kickboxing class at the gym who knows me now… I could go on and on with people I’ve come to know through the simplicity of routine.

What is very different for me here is that almost all of the people I’ve met or friends I’ve made are isolated. When I go out, it’s almost always with a different person – a friend of a friend back home, a colleague from work, a university student I met, the young son of a family friend of Jean’s – and almost always, I will never go out with them again. Since I’m not here very long, it doesn’t really make sense for these people, who have their own permanent lives here, to invest in a friendship with me. Sure they’ll go out with me, show me around the city, but only out of kindness for someone who knows almost no one. But I don’t mind. I actually really enjoy constantly meeting new people, even if it is a transient friendship or acquaintance, because it is a little glimpse into the lives of the most diverse people. I like hearing about what paths people have taken to get where they are today. It excites me to hear about careers I’ve never even imagined or ways of living that I’ve never considered. Why not join Green Peace and become vegan or work at Starbucks while pursuing a career in comedy? Or become a lawyer/ professional marathoner, botanist-photographer, circus street-performer, or translator for the European Union? It’s inspiring (and somewhat daunting) to see that there are so many options out there – and not to be cheesy but that – the world really is your oyster.

The main thing I’ve really enjoyed is having so much free time alone. For the first time in many years, I don’t feel the unrelenting weight of schoolwork on my shoulders, the feeling of running incessantly from activity to activity in an overbooked schedule, the lingering stress in the back of my mind that there is always something else I “should” be doing. For the first time, I feel liberated and simply, alive. Yes, the work day is long (I leave at 8am and get home at 6:30pm) but aside from those hours, I am completely free to do as I chose! Having no homework is actually amazing. At the same time though, I’m not used to having “nothing” to do when I get home, so I make sure to fill it up productively, encouraging myself to brush up on French grammar or researching possible internships/ plans for the rest of my year. Mostly though, I enjoy the flexibility of having an open schedule. When I feel like going out, I go out. No destination necessary, just to wander the well-known streets and venture a little farther every time to explore little neighborhoods. Alone in the city, I notice the trees and the buildings, the people on the street. If an art gallery strikes my interest, I’ll go in and walk around, or if I see a particularly cute flower stand, why not by myself a rose? I love just doing, almost mindlessly. Following my instincts to lead me in the right direction, even if a decision to turn right instead of left is based solely on the way the sunlight strikes the sidewalk over there. With no worries or to-do lists to distract me, I am open to the world. I say “yes”!  Although it is necessary to do a bit of my own searching, I’ve decided to see what the world brings to me and just going with it. For example, I thought I would like to take some drawing classes on the weekend, but now that my friend showed me the vibrant underground salsa scene in Brussels, I’ve decided to take dance classes instead!

Making art - that’s another thing I’ve immersed myself in. Sadly, back home, I seemed to never carve out enough time for being creative as I would like, and this would leave me feeling hollow, unfulfilled. Here, I am drawing or creatively writing at least once every day, and sometimes for hours on end. Everything inspires me! Even the simplest things, like the banisters in the Victor Horta house, a particular font on a poster stuck to a bus sign, or a knobbed tree on the campus of La Cambre that is unlike all the others, make me stop in my tracks, grab my journal from my bag, and draw or write – whatever I’m feeling that moment. It’s not like all this creativity is hitting me on the head and turning on a faucet pouring out art; rather, I’m letting myself discover what is always already there.

In terms of more social activities, I’ve been up to a lot this past week. The major events included: going to a live soccer match in a neighboring Belgium city and chanting and singing along in Flemish after every goal, visiting a fancy interior-design showroom in an old water tower with a team from work, going to an architectural award ceremony in the new Libeskind Congressional Center in Mons, and going to a music festival at a Brussels University where I discovered a new genre called “electro-folk” (you wouldn’t believe the sounds this violin could make).