I was nineteen years old when I took my first flight to Europe, in order to study in Brussels in French. I remember how I was dragging two huge cartoon boxes first to the luggage point in Moscow and then towards the custom area in Brussels. I was crying the whole time during my trip, and presented an interesting, slightly challenging sight. The boxes were huge, containing most of my possessions, mascara was running down my cheeks, and I was wearing heels.
Of course, I attracted an immediate attention of the custom officer, once he saw me approaching his desk. He was staring with deep concern and curiosity at my boxes and my face.
“What’s in those boxes?” He pointed towards my luggage, piling next to me. Without the gesture I would find it difficult to understand what the officer wanted from me, because he was speaking to me in a language I didn’t know. I was aware that Belgium also had Flemish language next to French (and German), but it was uncomfortable to encounter this particularity at my first encounter in my new country of residence. I came to Brussels for French. I was passionate about it, I loved the language, I came to Belgium, in order to study in French.
“Books and my clothes’’ I answered the officer in French, and saw his face to change from amusement to what I could see, was a trace of annoyance. Little did I know at that time, that if you don’t speak Flemish, then it’s better to answer in English. The two sides of the country (the French-speaking and the Flemish-speaking) have an eternal feud. I had no idea that such a tiny country had such a rich history. Passions run high, pride was at stake, one’s self-identity could be hurt, through simple use of the language.
“Follow me’’’ the officer answered me in English and I was promptly escorted to a separate room. Another officer arrived and I ended up being interrogated for almost two hours. Why did I come to the country? What were my plans? For long did I intend to stay? But the main interest was towards my boxes. “No decent suitcases in shops,’’ I tried to explain, mumbling about the turmoil until recently in my native country. ‘’No food, no money, no decent bags’’ I was saying through the tears in my broken English.
We all stared at the content of my boxes for a long time. My Chekov, My Bulgakov and Tolstoy were all scrutinized and analyzed. They went through my clothes, with some incomprehension as to their content. I had dresses and heels, not much in between. “Russian fashion’’ I mumbled, somehow realizing that my whole wardrobe would have to be changed. I was the only one wearing heels in the whole airport.
I am very naïve, I told myself, as it was all going not according to my plan. I imagined a pleasant adventure, things moving on smoothly, a great welcoming crowd of people, and joy and happiness. But I was crying. I was crying because I wanted to be back in Russia, and I was crying because it seemed that my whole trip was in jeopardy. What do they want from me these two officers, speaking to me in English – deport me back with my two boxes?
Finally, thanks to the intervention of my Dutch step-dad, waiting for me at the airport, I was released. Three hours upon my arrival to the airport, I was finally stepping on the Belgian soil. It all looked so different to what I was used to. And it looked to be very difficult, which proved to be the case for the first two years in the country.
But of course, upon two years there, I was madly in love with Belgium. People turned out to be very friendly, food was fantastic, Brussels was amazing, and I would learn to speak French almost at a native level. I had no idea then that I would end up living in Amsterdam a few years later, and that I would continue changing several countries of residence, because of my over-curious, too adventurous mind.
It is a massive experience to be totally immersed into different cultures, but it’s also very challenging.
I will tell you more about it in my next posts.
(picture found on The Guardian’s newspaper)
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