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The integrated “allochtoon”

I know all the arguments some ex-pats have against living in Belgium. I created some of them myself. I also know exactly how boring the country can be with its penchant for a life of rocking chair comfort, with no edge. “Get me out of here,” I have screamed periodically. “I can’t last another minute.” My wife and I would then begin to discuss leaving Belgium and going back to the United States (my home country) or emigrating to Canada. We would even look through some of the real estate Web sites in search of some accommodation in specific American or Canadian cities.

Then we would factor in the costs of the move, a period without an income, and the possible need for private school and my frustrations of living here would be spent. I would quietly enter one of our bedrooms with my grand strategies deflated by economic rationale.

Without noticing it, however, my heels have dug in. It’s not that life in Belgium has so measurably improved. If anything, it has become less lovely and less appealing. The street we live on in Leuven has become an attractive magnet for house hunters, bringing with it more noise, speeding cars, and less open space.

The change has been in me, not in my surroundings. After 39 years, I have become attached to the place and to my acre of land in particular. I like my stuff: my fleet of lawn mowers, my invaluable collection of yard and house tools, and my recently-built deck to replace the patio that succumbed to winter gales.

I sit in the garden and enjoy watching my green peace. As the sun goes down, I see a bat flit across the sky and hear the cacophony of birds chirping. At moments like this, I am pretty happy- even if it means that I’ve become the kind of guy I used to mock.

Belgium, it is often said, is not a coherent country. It is simply an amalgamation of regions and dialects bound together by a king. That is fair enough. Yet the same is true of most of us. We are neither one kind of person nor another, and we have different needs at different times.

Living in Belgium is a lesson in compromise; you enjoy a little of this at the expense of a little of that. It also fosters alertness to the differences and similarities in people, attitudes, and cultures.

For example, in most parts of the USA, time is measured in seasons, rituals and sounds. At a certain period, the azaleas explode into bloom. Then, the high school football season starts with its pageant of cheerleaders, pom poms, and marching bands decorating the field. There is Little League baseball in the spring, when you hear the ping of an aluminium bat hitting a balI.

In Belgium, time is calculated by vacation periods. My theory is that when all the vacation time is computed, a typical Belgian calendar would only total nine months. July and August are non­existent. The periods around Easter and Christmas complete the elimination of another month.

Having witnessed the whole parade: the blooming, the fading, the growing up, the winding down, friends moving in, then returning to their home countries. I am both sad and reassured. However, upon reflection, I’m grateful for that move. Had my wife and I not decided to move to Belgium from the US in 1976, I would never have known this life.

But times do change. I suppose by all external standards, I have been integrated into Belgian society. But have I? I suppose the answer is yes and no.

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