On the first of September 1995, I presented myself at my new place of study: The Institute of translators and interpreters in Brussels. It was a twenty-minutes pleasant walk from the house where I rented my room, and I was determined that I was going to be a good student and do well. It was already a month since my arrival to the Belgian capital, and I had discovered a few things. First, it was extremely difficult to be in a new country, culturally speaking it was a world apart from both Russia and Ukraine (the two places where I grew up), and that my French was more suitable to read Baudelaire, rather than to order a sandwich. It was much more stressful than I had ever imagined, but I was there, and thus, was in a combat mood when I came to my college for the first time.
As soon as I entered the building, situated in the affluent Uccle area of Brussels, I couldn’t but notice that I was attracting some stares. It was probably due to the way I was dressed. I had a long dress, heels and a summer hat over my head. The rest of the students were wearing jeans and hoodies, both women and men, and I did look like an elephant at the ball, but while I was aware of that problem, knowing that all my clothes had to be replaced, I couldn’t do it yet, due to the lack of money. I had a strict minimum budget, that allowed me to eat, but not to spend it on new clothes.
I proceeded to the auditorium where all first year students were invited for the introduction session, and chose a seat as far away as possible from the stage. I was new, I was shy and I wanted to be invisible, which was difficult with the way I was dressed. Once the auditorium was full, I could see that almost everyone would give me a glance, and thus, very reluctantly I removed my hat, to try to blend a bit more.
But almost as soon as the director of the college started to speak, I realized that I faced a much bigger problem than my clothes. I couldn’t follow the majority of what he was saying. Yes, I had studied French at school, at advanced level, but nothing prepared me for this. I even gasped for air, due an emerging panic attack. I understood only a few words during the speech and was almost crying at the end of it. I just picked some information sporadically. I would have to study Belgian law, sociology, linguistics, politics, and all in French. I also had chosen English as my second foreign language, which was another mistake on my part, as once a teacher in English took the floor to address the students who had selected English, I could understand even less than in French.
Useless, all my studies were useless, I told myself. How was I supposed to study in this college?
I could remember the words of the consular of Belgium back in Moscow where I had received my student visa. She had studied in the same college where I was now, and warned me that I wouldn’t be able to graduate, because the studies were intense, and my French was probably not up to the standards. She didn’t want to give me a visa, due to her lack of belief in my abilities, and it was my Dutch stepdad who had to intervene and convince them to give me a visa after all.
But was it worth it, I asked myself at the end of my first study day in the prestigious college, known to be one of the best in the field of translation and interpreting? Was it worth it, with all the stress of being in a foreign county, with little money, sharing a room in a house with a pervert living in the basement? Fatima was my only friend in the whole country, and I thought for a second that it wasn’t too late. I could just buy a plane ticket and go back to my native land.
But I dismissed that thought because of my curiosity about life. My move looked like a total nightmare, but at least I could try.
And so, once I was out of the college on my first day, I went to the bookstore and spent almost my entire money on books. I bought dictionaries in French and English, books on Belgian law, sociology and politics. I carried my ‘war’ material back to my tiny student room, and prepared myself for the battle. I would show that consular that she was wrong (not that I would ever meet her again in my life). I would graduate, and I would graduate as an interpreter, which was considered to be much more difficult than translating.
I quickly went to the grocery shop to buy some noodle soups on my remaining money, returned to my room and buried myself into studies. And it’s basically how I spent my first year in Brussels, culminating with passing all the exams at the end, at first attempt and with distinction.
I wasn’t stupid after all. I could do it. But I lost an entire year on being a nerd.
(me in Brussels, not wearing a hat)
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