Taking my two brussel sprouts to Belgium

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I’m writing this blog with a mug of Australian roasted coffee and a Mary’s Belgian chocolate by my side. We’ve just arrived back “home” in Geishouse and I’ve been trying to make sense of the last few days. Oddly enough, this pick-me-up combination seems to have hit the spot – in both ways.

Through school connections, we’ve made friends with two Belgian-based families: one we’d met at the French school in Canberra where Silas first went and the second through the Steiner school where he now goes. As luck would have it, both families just happened to be in Brussels at the same moment in time. The French-school family had just returned from their Canberra posting and were re-installing themselves in Brussels and the Steiner school family were on a brief visit home to check-in with grand-parents. We caught the Steiner school family just the day before they left. What were the odds?

The journey into Belgium had been illuminating. As we crossed what I supposed to be the border – hard to tell these days when there are no customs crossings – we were greeted by tall metal sentinels.

“Look!” said Delphine “Wind blowers!”

Although it’s kind of the reverse, I got her meaning – wind turbines. Huge, up close and serious.

What was also serious was the speed that drivers were now going at. They whizzed passed me in the fast lane at well above the speed limit. When I momentarily dared to venture, through necessity, into the inside lane to allow a car to merge, I was immediately flashed at by angry headlights. “Well, I’m not in Alsace anymore,” I thought with chagrin.

But our Belgian dad and daughter met us warmly at the large museum complex known as the Musée de cinquantenaire. I never succeeded in correctly pronouncing this but I did succeed in eventually tracking them down at the right museum in this grand building that houses several.

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As we sat eating our lunch in the café, I was bemused to notice the difference context makes. Whereas in Australia our children spoke with each other in English, here, at the dining table it was a purely French experience. I smiled to see Silas launching into the conversation in French, not at all intimidated to be talking to someone’s father in another language, just keen to be part of the interaction. It was also a pleasure to see this family in their own home environment – subtly more assured and at ease as they relaxed a little more deeply into their chairs.

We parted with les bises and a “à la semaine prochaine!” Odd to think that when we do indeed see each other next week, it will be in the dry heat of a Canberra school playground.

But it was snow on the ground that met us at the home of our second family. They’re in the process of settling back into their Belgian lives after a four year posting in Canberra. Exchanging the big blue sky of Australia for the clouds and rain of a Belgian winter had been tough. But Belgium has other benefits for families: a strong health service and one of the best education systems in Europe. We had a brief glimpse of this as we tagged along for the school pick-up and heard about the children’s school-day: the hot lunch had been pretty good, it was fun to start learning Dutch (one of the three official languages of Belgium alongside French and German) but the paved-over playground was a bit of a disappointment after the wide ovals of Aussie schools.

It was a delight to watch our combined five children playing together in the rare snowfall in the garden. It gave time for the parents to discuss world affairs. We’d both just traversed from one side of it to the other, and there were so many contrasts to make. Immigration: Australians are very concerned, but in a borderless Europe the numbers here are of an order of magnitude greater. Environment: Europe is trying to come up with ways to measure the emissions of all the products we consume, in Australia we’ve signed up to the lowest possible emissions target. Politics: all leaders are struggling with the challenge of staying in touch with everyday people’s concerns while they put in place measures to address complicated problems that are difficult to explain.

After dinner that night, as we sat sipping the last of the excellent French Burgundy, deep in conversation, it was hard to know just where I was. I could hear our happy troop of multi-nationality children playing upstairs. Yesterday I’d been in France, today I’d travelled through Luxembourg to arrive into Belgium. Tonight I was dining with good friends in the centre of Brussels, chatting about her day at work in the European Union.

As my dad says, these days our bodies can travel faster than our brains can catch up. I could definitely feel the lag. But I was also so glad I’d made the 5.5 hour driving effort to see these friends on their home turf. I’ve experienced them in a subtly different way. All of them, more masters of their own domain. Or perhaps it was me. This time, meeting them, I was the one dislocated from my normal surroundings. But either way, our friendship now seems more balanced. And when we video-call them to keep in touch from the other end of the earth, I’ll be able to see them in their more rounded reality despite the flat-screen.