Stories

The world in our backyard

Nederlandse versie onderaan!

Dear readers,

Our town has changed. It has become a city of the world. Not comparable to Paris nor Amsterdam, but still, in another sense. Around six hundred refugees from around the world are temporarily living here in a vacation park (used as an asylum center)  in my hometown.

Oldest is leaving this Summer. He will be traveling around the world for one year, together with his girlfriend. I told him he doesn’t need to because the world is in our backyard now (this trick didn’t work of course; his first ticket to Japan is booked).

Three years ago we had the same amount of refugees here, during three months. Six fabulous women took the initiative to write personal stories about the refugees (945 in Images), and I joined them. I also volunteered to teach Dutch once a week.

This time I am promoted in my volunteer work 🙂 I organize and teach the Dutch lessons. We started again with 945 in Images, to bring the stories of the refugees to the rest of our town and to the world. But things have changed, due to the GDPR law* (legislation on privacy) it has become far more difficult to put their testimonies online. Nevertheless we keep going!

But I don’t want to talk about what I am doing, I want to take you with me, to have a glimpse of the life of people who felt the urge to flee from their homes.

I started teaching two months ago. During the first lesson I introduced myself and told my students where I came from. The map of the world was on the table, so I pointed out Belgium. I asked the students to do the same. Fingers were planted on El Salvador, Colombia and Senegal. Two men looked at me frustrated, a little upset: “Our country is not on the map!” I answered: “All countries should be there, where are you from?” “Palestina!”

We started with pictures for the first Dutch words. I could communicate a little with the Spanish speaking students in English, with Gabriel from Senegal in French, but not with the two men from Palestina. But Haidar from Palestina could speak a bit of Spanish, as he had lived in Spain for one year, on the streets with his three children. So the girls and boys from Central America could speak Spanish to him, and he could translate to his fellow student in Arabic.

The Bible came into my mind – and that doesn’t happen often – or to be more precise, the story of the tower of Babel. Do you remember why we were punished? Because of pride and arrogance.

The world would have been an easier place if we all spoke the same language. But with the difference in languages comes the difference in cultures, and that is something to cherish, most of the time 😉

Back to my lessons.  The students are very motivated. We try to help one another with whatever language we know or we use sign language. While teaching I sometimes run into unspoken fear or sadness. I ask them an easy question, but the answer might be complicated. When I asked Haidar if he was married, he confirmed. But later on he told me the mother of his three children was not here, while his children were. The expression on his face told me not to ask further.

Compared to three years ago, more families are living here now. There are two young women in my class, always together, and both from the same country in Central America. I asked Juliana and Isabella if they were family. The looked at one another, a bit unsure : “No, we are friends. But we are so close, we feel like we are family.”

What have they all been through? This is what crosses my mind most of the time.

With 945 in Images we have done three interviews so far. When we talked to Alvin and Jazmina from Nicaragua, we were stupefied to hear what they had been through at such a young age. They were only students standing up for what they felt was right. Jazmina was in tears the whole time while she told us her story. When we left, packed in the small hallway of the trailer, she asked us with her soft and trembling voice: Can I hug you? She was missing her family tremendously.

Witnessing these people, hearing what they tell you or noticing what they cannot tell you, makes you feel humble. Also sad and frustrated at some point.

I certainly feel grateful that I was able to bring together a great team of volunteers. All people from my hometown. Some were (Facebook) friends and some of them I didn’t know at all. Some of them were hesitant in the beginning, because they hadn’t taught before or they didn’t know what to expect. But they all are enthusiastic and driven now. I get to hear their experiences, anecdotes, plus advice and suggestions. One volunteer suggested to make the refugees members of his sports team. With another friend we are still brainstorming on doing something on Saturday afternoons. Daughter might join the new team of volunteers. We keep going.

So I haven’t only met new people from all over the world these past months, I’ve also had the pleasure of getting to know new passionate people from my own town. An enrichment.

All these refugees made a big change coming here. It means just a small change in our daily life here in my hometown, but still, it is a change, a little step towards more understanding and empathy.

You also want to help?

Bye, au-revoir, adios, إلى اللقاء

Sophia

*All names are changed

Beste lezers,

Onze stad is veranderd. Het is een wereldstad geworden. Niet te vergelijken met Parijs of Amsterdam, maar toch, in een andere betekenis. Ongeveer zeshonderd vluchtelingen wonen tijdelijk in een vakantiepark (gebruikt als asielcentrum) hier in onze gemeente.

Oudste vertrekt deze zomer op wereldreis samen met zijn lief. Ik zei hem dat dit niet meer nodig is, heel de wereld bevindt zich nu in onze achtertuin. Helaas werkt dit truukje niet, zijn eerste ticket naar Japan is geboekt.

Drie jaar geleden verbleef hetzelfde aantal vluchtelingen hier. Zes fantastische vrouwen namen het initiatief om de vluchtelingen te interviewen (945 in beeld), en ik sloot mij bij hen aan. Ik gaf ook één keer per week Nederlandse les.

Deze keer promoveerde ik in mijn vrijwilligerswerk 😉 Ik organiseer nu zelf de Nederlandse lessen. We zijn ook opnieuw gestart met 945 in beeld, om de verhalen van de nieuwkomers te delen met onze stad en de rest van de wereld. Er is veel veranderd intussen. Omwille van de GDPR wet (richtlijnen omtrent privacy) kunnen we moeilijker de hele getuigenis van de vluchtelingen online delen. Maar we blijven ervoor gaan!

Genoeg gebabbeld over wat ik doe. Ik wil jullie meenemen, om een klein beetje meer inzicht te krijgen in het leven van een vluchteling.

Ik startte twee maanden geleden met lesgeven. Tijdens de eerste les stelde ik mezelf voor : mijn naam, dat ik getrouwd ben en drie kinderen heb en waar ik vandaan kom. Een grote wereldkaart lag voor ons op tafel, dus wees ik België aan. Ik vroeg de studenten om hetzelfde te doen. Vingers belandden op El Salvador, Columbië en Senegal. Twee mannen keken me gefrustreerd aan : “Ons land staat niet op de kaart !”. Ik antwoordde : “Alle landen staan erop, van waar komen jullie ?”  “Palestina ! ”

We startten met pictogrammen om de eerste woorden Nederlands uit te spreken. Ik kon een beetje communiceren in het Engels met de spaanstalige studenten, in het Frans met Gabriël uit Senegal, maar niet met de mannen uit Palestina. Maar Haidar uit Palestina kon een beetje Spaans spreken, hij had samen met zijn drie kinderen een jaar op straat geleefd in Spanje. De meisjes en jongens uit Centraal-Amerika spraken in het Spaans tegen hem en hij kon dan verder vertalen naar het Arabisch aan zijn mede-landgenoot.

Plots dacht ik aan de bijbel – en dat gebeurt niet vaak 🙂 – en meer specifiek aan het verhaal van de Toren van Babel. Weet jij nog waarom we gestraft waren ? Omwille van trots en hoogmoed.

Het zou er zoveel eenvoudiger aan toe gaan in de wereld indien we allemaal dezelfde taal spraken. Maar met het verschil in taal, komt ook het verschil in cultuur en dat is toch iets om te koesteren, meestal toch 😉

Terug naar de les. De studenten zij zo gemotiveerd. We proberen elkaar te helpen in elke taal die we kennen of we gebruiken gebarentaal. Tijdens het lesgeven stoot ik soms op onuitgesproken angst of onverwerkt verdriet. Ik stel hen een eenvoudige vraag, maar het antwoord is dat niet. Wanneer ik Haidar vroeg of hij getrouwd was, knikte hij ja. Later vertelde hij dat de moeder van zijn kinderen niet hier verbleef, zijn kinderen wel. Ik merkte dat ik beter niet verder vroeg.

Er wonen nu meer gezinnen, in vergelijking met drie jaar geleden. Twee jonge vrouwen uit Centraal-Amerika zijn altijd samen. Ik vroeg Juliana en Isabella of ze familie waren. Ze keken elkaar een beetje onzeker aan : “Neen, we zijn vriendinnen. Maar we staan zo dicht bij elkaar dat het aanvoelt als familie. ”

Wat hebben ze allemaal meegemaakt ? Die vraag dwaalt constant door mijn gedachten.

Met 945 in beeld hebben we tot nu toe drie interviews gedaan. Wanneer we spraken met Alvin en Jazmina uit Nicaragua, waren we verstomd om te horen wat ze allemaal doorgemaakt hebben op zon jonge leeftijd. Ze waren gewoon studenten die opkwamen voor hun rechten. Jazmina huilde bijna de hele tijd terwijl ze haar verhaal vertelde. Toen we vertrokken, opeengepakt in het kleine halletje van de trailer, vroeg ze ons met een trillende stem : Mag ik jullie een knuffel geven ? Ze miste haar familie verschrikkelijk.

Deze mensen ontmoeten, luisteren wat ze te vertellen hebben en aanvoelen wat ze niet kunnen zeggen, maakt je nederig. Ook triest en gefrustreerd soms.

Ik voel me alleszins heel dankbaar dat ik een groot team van vrijwilligers kon samenbrengen. Allemaal mensen uit mijn dorp. Sommigen waren al vrienden, sommigen Facebookvrienden en anderen kende ik helemaal niet. Velen twijfelden om mee te doen, omdat ze nooit les gegeven hadden of nog nooit in een vluchtelingencentrum geweest waren. Het is ook moeilijk, je weet niet goed wat te verwachten. In elk geval, iedereen is nu heel enthousiast en gedreven. Ik krijg hun ervaring, anecdotes, advies en suggesties te horen. Eén van de vrijwilligers stelde voor om de vluchtelingen te laten deelnemen aan zijn sportsteam. In het asielcentrum valt niet veel te beleven, vooral in het weekend vervelen de mensen zich. Samen met een vriendin ben ik nog aan het brainstormen om een activiteit op zaterdagnamiddag te organiseren voor de kinderen en ook de volwassenen. Dochter wil aan dit nieuwe team deelnemen, als vroegere leidster van een jeugdbeweging zou dat ideaal zijn. Zo blijven we goed bezig.

Ik heb niet enkel mensen vanuit alle windhoeken uit de wereld ontmoet de laatste maanden, ik had het geluk om ook al deze geëngageerde mensen uit mijn eigen stad te leren kennen. Een verrijking.

De vluchtelingen hebben een enorme stap gezet om naar hier te komen. Voor ons betekent dit slechts een kleine verandering in ons dagelijks leven, maar niettemin een kleine stap voorwaarts naar meer begrip en empathie.

Wil je ook helpen ?

Bye, au-revoir, adios, إلى اللقاء

Sophia

*Alle namen zijn gewijzigd

 

Interior happiness, Stories

Thorn

Dear readers,

Last Monday was a beautiful day. It sounds contradictory because I had to have a little surgery done on my foot by a doctor an hour away from my home. Luckily a friend volunteered to drive me. She suggested we make it a whole day and visit the beautiful town of Thorn first, which was located only ten minutes from the medical office. A great idea!

A newborn in Thorn

Have you ever been in Thorn?

The little town of Thorn is located in the south of Holland in the province of Limburg. It used to be a tiny principality; today it is one of the ten must-visits in Holland. Thorn is known for its old white houses and monumental buildings.
The history of Thorn dates back to the 10th century. Over the course of time it developed into a miniature convent ruled by an abbess and twenty ladies of noble birth. It had its own jurisdiction and its own currency, but this came to an end in 1794 with the arrival of the French.

The white town

It’s called the white town–a funny coincidence, because Ostuni, in Puglia is called the white town too: la città bianca. This is the town where Casa Vita is located.

But back to Holland 😉
Why were the houses white?
After the aristocratic ladies had fled, the French imposed a tax based on the size of the windows. The locals were often poor people living in large properties that previously belonged to the rich. To reduce the amount of tax they had to pay, many of them bricked up the windows and then whitewashed their houses to conceal the signs of their renovation work (‘scars of poverty’).

The town is so well preserved, the cobble stone roads, the roofs, the lanterns… We were there on a Monday, and it was very quiet. I suppose that during the summer it is filled with tourists. This was a good day, just one terrace was open for lunch, but that is enough. The only disadvantage was that the museums were closed too. They open as of April 1st. If you would like to go deeper into Thorn’s history, you better visit later in spring.

The Abbey Church was mainly built in the 14th century. 

Walking here felt like being in another era. It made me feel calm and at peace. Of course, I’d better not think of the horrific things happening in medieval times. Well, I would have preferred having been one of the twenty noble ladies who had the whole town to themselves. I could perfectly picture myself and my friends here!  “Noble” could be replaced by funny, creative, intelligent and a bit bold :-). Would you have joined me?

Cheers, Sophie

 

 

 

Interior happiness, Stories

Paris

Bonjour,

Can you imagine? A day in Paris, too short of course, but just wonderful. I had the opportunity to hop in the car with a friend who was visiting her daughter. The daughter studies in Paris. Another friend came along. So it was the three of us. We left in the morning and were just in time for lunch in Paris.

My friend booked a cozy little hotel, somewhere in between the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. A perfect location for a short stay.

In the afternoon we walked across the Seine and between les Tuileries and on to the Louvre.

We had a cup of delicious tea in the lobby of the Brighton Hotel. Oh, these great color combinations in the velvet upholstery of the little chairs and stools.

When we walked back, it was late afternoon already. But what great views, Paris by sunset.

By the time we arrived in the area of the hotel, we decided not to enter, but to have a cocktail first. My friend knew the perfect place! We stepped into the Fitzgerald, and took a place at the bar of the restaurant. Then the owner asked us whether we might prefer to go into “Le Bar Secret.” Well, sure we wanted to see the secret bar. Doors were opened and this was the perfect place: velvet chairs in all colors, many cocktails to choose and top of it all, wallpaper with Flamingos.

After a quick freshening up at the hotel, we only had to do a short walk into the direction of the Eiffel Tower. Dinner was served at Les Fables de la Fontaine. It is a small and fancy restaurant in the 7ième Arrondissement of Paris. The dishes (we all took two first courses) were a treat to the eye and taste! We even managed to chose a perfect Argentinian white wine that wasn’t outrageous in price, but I forgot to take a picture of it.

The next morning we took breakfast at the hotel. For Valentine’s Day they served a beautiful cake with a heart in the middle, so cute. We were thrilled with this gorgeous weather still and decided to walk to Le Petit Palais. The outside and inside of this museum are remarkably beautiful. And you must not forget to look at the ceiling and the floor. Currently there is an exhibition of Fernand Khnopff.

The little courtyard is amazing too. A tropical garden, and look, my Fermob furniture, the same color we have at Casa Vita.

It was a perfect day, and many fashion shooters thought the same. A lot of them could be found on the bridge. Can you blame them with this gorgeous background?

It inspired us to do some shopping too, in the area near the hotel. Well, we managed to still buy some items on sale 😉
We hopped back in the car with a lot of special memories.

Au-revoir! A la prochaine,

Sophie

 

 

 

 

 

Stories

A question mark

A short story

The light from the window fell over her right shoulder, and while she was firmly stirring the vegetables in the pot, she sensed a shadow passing. She looked up to the window, relieved. But it wasn’t him, just the willow moving from the strong wind blasts. She turned to check the kitchen clock above the table. It was almost five thirty, the time he usually came home. He would probably be here in five minutes. He was punctual.  This was one of the few things that had stayed unaltered. The thought calmed her and at the same time threw shivers down her body. Seeing him change daily became less and less endurable. Each day he seemed to have shrunk a bit more, his shoulders aimless hanging, his head bent. His tall and proud posture changing into a question mark.

Dinner, together at the table, it was even worse.  She was out of inspiration.  There was nothing more to ask about school. More personal questions she avoided since they had freaked him out last week.
– ‘Stop it Mom!’ He yelled. ‘Get over it! That’s what you told me, remember?’
– ‘Not in this way,’ she softly objected. ‘I wanted you to know it will get better. People forget after a while.’
– ‘Right. As if I can erase everything that appears on social media.’
– ‘You shouldn’t check this anymore, I mean, not for the time being.’
– ‘Great advice, really.’ He stood up, and with a fierce push from his right hand, shoved his plate of spaghetti down to the floor and vanished to his room.

The phone interrupted her thoughts for just two seconds. Her husband. She didn’t take it, couldn’t face his questions. What was the right answer? ‘I think he’s ok.’ Or ‘I have no clue.’ If she’d give an honest answer it would be: ‘He is not our son anymore. I do not recognize him. The counseling doesn’t help him a bit.’

Her husband was on a business trip. His absence didn’t make a big difference. Their conversations nowadays were limited to the mornings, together at their twin sinks in the bathroom, just facing one another in the big mirror. The domestic routines kept them going and enabled them to avoid confronting their true feelings. Their mutual goal, the well being of their child, still remained the same though, as it had for seventeen years. This appeared to be one of the only leftovers of a mountain of common interests they shared when they first met.

–  ‘This is so important, my presence at this congress. If you are home, that’s the most essential. He doesn’t talk to me anyway. But of course, my love, if you need me here, I won’t go, you know that.’
She thought this was weak, a far too easy escape. She didn’t have the strength nor energy to tell him this. He scaled down her worries anyway.
– ‘Yes, it is a big deal now. But he’s seventeen. He’ll come out of it stronger. I believe him, you believe him and if we both do, fuck the gossip and accusations. This girl is just trying to get attention.’ He said it with a smile on his face, as to encourage her to believe him. Being optimistic is one thing, minimizing a trauma something else. That is what he did, she thought, and she could not follow him anymore.

She had always felt they were equal as parents. They both decided to have only one child because of their demanding jobs. Until their little boy was five they had a nanny. After that he stayed in the after school care, and she and her husband took turns being home on time to make dinner, do homework and read his bedtime story. It went smoothly most of the time.

The first week after they heard the news, she continued working, and just tried to be home on time. It did not go well. She could not concentrate, felt guilty, thought she should solve this, although solving is not applicable for this problem. So she took an unpaid leave for a month.

She continued stirring.  It had to be perfect, this was his favorite meal. The pasta was almost done. The meat still needed five minutes.  For dessert rice pudding with vanilla sugar, he could eat a huge bowl of this, that is, a month ago.

A month ago seemed like another era now. Before they were a perfectly functioning family, she realized. Father and mother and an intelligent, social and good-looking son. She was thrilled and immediately overwhelmed with love the day he was born. When she was just pregnant, it didn’t matter to her if she’d have a daughter or a son. A healthy baby was her main concern. Once she held her newborn in her arms, she couldn’t imagine loving a daughter as much.  She wondered how the mother of the girl felt.  What if she were the mother of this girl? Would she stand behind her as fierce as she supported her son now? Would she question her, try to get the whole story out? Attempt to determine her daughter’s responsibility in this? As a teenager she had always been the first on the barricades for female rights. This was a totally different case. She hated that people made this matter about protecting their rights.

In the beginning, she had interrogated her son, worse than a cutthroat prosecutor. She needed to know, to be sure, to know all the details. So she could defend him against the great crowd of vultures looking for an easy victim they could rip apart with their holy bible of good intentions.

The food was ready now. She turned off the gas of the stove and sat down at the kitchen table. With the newspaper in front of her,  she tried to read the headlines. But even with this, she found it too hard to concentrate. It was five fifty now. She checked her cell phone, no messages.  Should she call the school? She had already requested, demanded really, that the minute he wasn’t present, they should let her know. They said they understood, in these circumstances. The bus could be delayed, although that did not happen often. She could call Eileen, a few houses down the street, her daughter was in his class. The moment this idea popped up in her mind she rejected it with a bitter feeling. They all took the side of the girl. Of course. It is so much easier to follow the herd, not to think for yourself, just to lynch the so called perpetrator of the imaginary crime. She hated them all, wished something even worse would happen to them.

Six o’clock now. She was walking slowly around the kitchen table, in her mind listening to her son telling her what had happened. He seemed honest. The story sounded real. She believed him, definitely did. Why was he late? She got nervous now and returned to the stove, put the fire on and started stirring again. She added oil and scraped the carrots from the bottom, they cannot get burned.

Time stood still. So it seemed. As a robot she kept on stirring the vegetables. The meat and pasta must have gone cold by now. So far she resisted looking at the clock again. But now she did: six fifteen. She called him, it went straight to his mailbox. She put out the fire, and sank to the kitchen floor, pulled her knees close to her body, tried to make herself as small as possible. As if evil couldn’t get to her when she was a smaller target. Thoughts catapulted in her head, causing her migraine.

The doorbell rang, firmly but short. She did not move. A minute passed. It rang again, this time longer and louder. She kept quiet.

 

 

 

 

Interior happiness, Puglia

Interior happiness at Casa Vita

Dear readers,

One of the things I love to do is decorating, redecorating, making a place cozy and pretty.

At Casa Vita we started with a fully furnished house, mostly by Ikea. The former owners were great in reshaping and rebuilding the two old trullis and in making a beautiful yard. But I guess for the interior of the house, they preferred the simplicity of Ikea. Could be a practical side to it too, renting out a house brings along a big risk of damage.

We rent the house out as well. But if we stay at Casa Vita, we don’t want to live in an Ikea showroom 🙂 And so far, our guests have appreciated a more personal approach too.

 

We didn’t want to throw anything away, nor did we want to buy expensive things, so this is what we mainly did:

  • we had two big grayish Ikea armchairs which were comfortable, so we had them upholstered with dark green velvet
  • a few dark wood racks and side tables I painted white
  • we added some old antique furniture from my parents’ home (a coincidence, when we bought Casa Vita, we had to empty my parental home at around the same period), that otherwise would have had to be given away
  • we bought a few things: a new carpet (Sanderson) and Fermob furniture that we use indoors as well as outdoors
  • I regularly check Zara Home for sales, and buy sheets and covers to bring in colors
  • I made a lot of outdoor and indoor cushions myself
  • I adapted some pictures (of Sofia Loren and Claudia Cardinale) in photoshop and had them printed.
  • recently we added the two pink tabourets and golden side table
  • we chose dark green and pink as main colors for the living room and kitchen
  • all the outdoor cushions were also redone in dark green
  • with some help, I used leftover wallpaper (remember my wallpaper addiction?) and designed a new screen

We did do a big renovation. The kitchen is totally redone, in Puglian style. I searched through a lot of books with old Puglian kitchens, and we had the kitchen made by a local carpenter. We are very pleased with the result! For the custom made tiles we also stuck to green and raspberry pink. The countertop is from pietra di Trani, a local stone. The floor was also made from the same stone. By the way, Trani is a beautiful town a little further north in Puglia.

 

But let me show you in several pictures:
the armchair with old fabric:

Upholstered with good quality velvet fabric. The screen you see here is from Maison du Monde, I found it attracted a bit too much attention

So I designed a new screen, with leftover wallpaper from home

And we put the other screen in one of the trulli


Here you see the pictures I redesigned.  And the old dark side tables I repainted white.

Cushions I made and the new carpet – tropical style 😉

The old Ikea kitchen and the new one in Puglian style

The dark green comes back in the cushions in the outdoor areas

 

Can you give me advice?

In each room I have a Fermob chair to put some clothing on. I want to use these chairs for the outdoor table now. What do you think of these rattan ones instead? Other suggestions? Let me know!

On the left, you also see an old closet and a little mirror from my parents home. And you can see that this trullo room is made on the rocks of Puglian ground.

Some white rotan chairs
Image result for rattan chair maison du monde

Thanks for your help!

Ciao, ciao, Sophia

Most of the photos are by Marie Bouly Photography and Mable Photography