Before moving to Europe, I had presumed that after learning French and living in a French-speaking region for over three and a half years, I would be able to understand the language. This morning I attended an information session at Hayden’s future pre-school, and I was confronted with how poor my language skills remain. I could understand the subject of the conversation (e.g. food, naps, rainy day activities), but the specifics were completely lost to me. The school hours, the schedule, and a hundred other details went completely over my head.
After the session, I went up to the Directrice and tried to stumble my way through a question. Immediately she said “We may talk in English if you wish.” (This is happening more and more frequently in the French community – the only people I seem to be able to practise my French on are the elderly ladies who live in my apartment). The Directrice told me that over half the students come from non-French speaking homes, with first languages including English, Dutch, Indonesian, Japanese, Turkish, and Arabic.
I have been taking online French classes complemented by half-hour Skype conversations, but I feel that only my accent is improving, while my comprehension and vocabulary is diminishing. I am forgetting how to conjugate. I think that I need to return to face-to-face classes with regular tests if I am ever going to be able to master this language enough to have a decent conversation with Hayden’s friends and teachers.
The Belgian band Clouseu now consists of the brothers Koen and Kris Wauters, and a few years ago they wrote a fun song called Leve België sung in both Flemish and French. It’s a little too patriotic for my tastes, but it’s much better than the recent divisive words of the president of the right-wing New Flemish Alliance (N-VA).
Leve België – Clouseau
Vandaag, als het even mag, neem ik een besluit over noord en zuid
Vandaag hijs ik snel de vlag want de trein ontspoort tussen zuid en noord
Wij hebben een mooi verleden, ook al spreken we een andere taal
Wij delen het mooiste land en in ons hart klinkt er één verhaal
Vandaag staan we zij aan zij et les différences nemen wij erbij
Vandaag is de eendracht groot, zijn we eensgezind, da’s niet idioot
Wij delen dezelfde passie, wij leven dezelfde droom
Ik denk dat de Vlaamse Leeuw en de Waalse Haan samen sterker staan
Oh, vive la Belgique!
Ja, leve België!
Oh, oh, owowowo
On est tous les mêmes want we zijn allemaal Belgen
Oui, je vous aime, ons geheim zijn Vlamingen en Walen in hetzelfde land
In dit kleine land, ons Belgenland, staan Vlamingen en Walen aan dezelfde kant
Dat mag toch nooit verdwijnen want
Ik hou zo van ons kleine landje
Geef mij dus maar ons kleine landje : België!
The bots at Google tells me that this roughly translates to:
Today, just as it may, I make a decree for the North and the South
Today, I quickly hoist the flag, because the train has derailed between the South and the North
We have a beautiful past, even though we speak a different language
We share the most beautiful country in our hearts and hear a story
Today we stand side by side with our differences
Today we are a great union, we are united, that’s not foolish
We share the same passion, we live the same dream
I think that the Flemish lion and the Walloon rooster are stronger together
Long live Belgium!
Oh, long live Belgium!
Yes, long live Belgium!
We all want the same because we are all Belgians
Yes, I love you, our secret Flemings and Walloons all in the same country
In this small country, our Belgian country, Flemings and Walloons are on the same side
That may never disappear because
I love you so our small country
Give me nothing but our little country: Belgium!
Snow falling by our apartment in Leuven, February 2009
In February 2009 we migrated to Belgium, the heart of Europe. We spent the first six months in Leuven in a central semi-furnished apartment. Adrian was able to enjoy a short commute to work, but we found the weekends a little too quiet in this student town. I obtained permanent residency and started my new job as an epidemiologist in April. We bought our first apartment together in July, and became Brusselaars / Bruxellois. In August 2009, PepperMint expanded our family from two to four. Our son was born in Brussels in July 2011.
We still love living here. Brussels continues to feel exotic and romantic. We both enjoy our jobs, and we have met some really great people. Belgium offers a great base to explore countries from Azerbaijan to Iceland to Wales.
My biggest frustration continues to be with the language. I had assumed that after three years of living here I would be fluent in French. I have taken group lessons, I have taken one-on-one lessons, I have participated in language exchange meetings, I have listened to podcasts, I have watched movies, I have listened to radio, I have completed verb text books, I have talked to neighbours, shopkeepers, strangers. Every hour that I spend learning French feels like a horrid struggle. I do not enjoy learning another language. I assumed that once I got to a certain level, I would start having fun. I have not yet reached that level. I am constantly in awe of everyone else around me who is effortlessly multilingual, when I can’t even understand my neighbour in the elevator. This is the one thing that really makes me feel apart from everyone else I see on the street, I am not a true resident of this quarter. It also makes it almost impossible to call up anyone from the electricity company to the local government. I am dreading the process of enrolling Hayden in kindergarten in September.
Happily, two of the aspects of Belgium that I complained about last year - the lack of government and the smoking in pubs – have now been rectified. Plus they even opened the shops on Sundays during the January and July sales.
When we first moved to Belgium I couldn’t read a word of French. This meant shopping at the supermarket took quite a long time, and I usually just went with what was pictured on the side of the box. For the dishwasher, I bought powerball dish-washing tablets, with Calgon, to fight all the limescale that we have in the water here. They worked rather well.
So then for the washing machine, I bought the powerball clothes-washing tablets, with Calgon. The box even had a picture of a clothes washer on the front. After a while, I noticed that my clothes were not getting very clean, but were all turning quite grey. I sat down to finally translate the box, and found at the the tablets contained no detergent at all, just zeolite and polycarboxylate. The joys of living in a non-English country, where the instructions are clearly written in at least two languages, and I still can’t manage to figure them out.
Two Australian scientists who emigrated to Belgium, and are enjoying the charms and challenges of living in Europe. We were joined in our adventures by our kittens Pepper and Mint in 2009, followed by our son Hayden in 2011. Most of the time, Adrian takes the photos and Lydia writes the words. Adrian's blog can be found here. We can be contacted at