Porcupine's wisdom

The path of a modern shaman

Oh Brussels

After my unfortunate experience at the airport, once we emerged with my stepdad onto the Belgian soil, the sky looked grey, ready to pour down with rain any minute. Despite my encounter with the customs’ officers I was still more or less optimistic about my future in my new country of residence. I was only 19 years old, I loved the French language, and I loved Europe, having visited till then only France and The Netherlands, but forming a definite opinion that I liked it. I liked it because it looked so different than Russia, I liked it for the adventure it would provide, and I liked it for its stability. European Union had headquarters in Brussels, and this fact reassured me that it was a city full of vibes and opportunities.

We drove from the airport in my stepdad’s car. Both he and my mum lived in the Netherlands then, and he had volunteered to help me to settle in Brussels.

We drove and we drove, with my optimism sliding down with each additional kilometer. It was so different from Russia, to the point of absurd. Streets were narrow, everything looked clean and tidy, there were no tanks on the street, and good-looking, promising shops pointed to the life of abundance and plenty. While we managed to find money for my studies in Brussels, I was coming from a middle-class modest family and years of near starvation and malaise that Russia underwent since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Shops still stood empty in Moscow, mafia was widespread, and we were lucky if we had managed to buy any fresh bread in the shop. It was 1994 when I landed in Brussels, and the contrast between Russia and Belgium was difficult to process.

We stopped in an area that had many student flats, according to my stepdad, and once we parked the car, we went to a local shop to look at ads on the wall.

“here, look,” my stepdad pointed to the notes attached to the wall. “There are several rooms available”. He started to tear down the lists with phone number and addresses, smiling at me encouragingly, but his enthusiasm fell dead on me. The problem was: all the adds were written in Flemish, and I could hear this language all around me in the shop.

Brussels has a definite problem with this Flemish thing going on, was my conclusion. I could understand why my stepdad was so happy, since Dutch and Flemish were more or less the same language, but I couldn’t share in his joy.

I came to Brussels due to my love of the French language. – I reminded my stepdad. It was French that I wanted, not something else. But my stepdad smiled at me and said that it would be all right.

Reluctantly I stepped back into the car, to explore the flats that were advertised on the wall.

Maybe it’s some sort of mistake, I tried to argue with myself. Maybe someone did speak French in this beautiful town. Because oh yes, it did look amazing, despite the absence of large streets I had been used to in Moscow. Brussels had a charm, that was for sure.

We came to the first flat in a splendid house situated not that far from the centre, to discover that it was just a room, with the rest shared with other tenants, -all students studying in a Flemish speaking university. They all talked enthusiastically to my step-dad, explaining the pluses and minuses of the accommodation, with my mood going gloomy with each passing minute. It was without any doubt, that I ended up in a wrong city. Brussels was chosen for my studies because of the French. People were supposed to speak French, not Flemish. I couldn’t understand a single thing.

It was one of the students that saved my day. Looking at both me and my stepdad back and forward, he finally noticed the obvious.

“You don’t speak Flemish, do you?’ he stared at me with some pity.

‘’Nope,’’ I answered in English, having learned from my mistake back at the airport.

‘’But I speak French’’, I put my fist into the air, trying to emphasize my capabilities. Not that I spoke any good French, as it emerged slightly later, but at least I could find myself in it.

“In that case, it’s better if you rent the flat in a French-speaking area of the town,” the guy switched to English for my sake.

“Is there a French-speaking area?’’ I asked with some hope in my voice. ‘’Is there?’’

“Yes, and it’s actually the majority of the city. We are in a minority, you see,’’ the guy didn’t look very happy about it, but for me, it sounded like a balm on my ears. There was some French after all in this town!

Very reluctantly my stepdad agreed to drive us to the French-speaking part, as the Flemish student had directed us. It could turn out to be all right, after all, I regained back some of my optimism. Maybe I would be able to speak French, somewhere in this town. Maybe I would be all right.

The first house we saw in the French-speaking area had around ten rooms, and the landlord said that I could have one. Both my stepdad and me were already so tired that any room was good, as long as I would be able to speak French, not far from my college (the institute for translators and interpreters), and affordable for our budget, which was a biggest shock. I thought I could get an entire flat, but this wasn’t the case. Money was tough, as we weren’t rich, and I needed to do some compromises. Learning French and being poor, or returning back to Moscow to my splendid flat, and forget about trying it out in another land.

I chose the former.

And so, once my stepdad departed back to the Netherlands, I sat down in my room (on the only available chair), to evaluate my environment. It looked bad. The room was tiny, on the fourth floor, with a shower in the basement, with minimal furniture, and with me not knowing a single soul in this rather charming town.

But at least there was some French. The landlord did speak French. Only my knowledge of the language wasn’t as good as I had thought it was. I could read Baudelaire, but I wouldn’t be able to order a sandwich.

The future looked bleak. Would I stay?

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About Me

I am a doctor of philosophy, a university lecturer, and a lover of cats, fine wine, dancing, theatre, and human eccentricity. Born in the Soviet Union (Moscow), I grew up in both Russia and Donbas. I am fluent in four languages, and have spent all my adult life studying (except from 18 to 19) working and living throughout Western Europe. Despite a surname-Netchitailova- that translates from Russian into English as “unreadable”, my great passions in life are reading and writing. My personal struggles have made me appreciate the manifestations of weirdness that exist everywhere. My novel ‘Elena: A Love Story for Humankind’ telling a story of a Russian pianist, diagnosed with schizophrenia, looking for her twin sister in England, can be found on Amazon.


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