Friday, 6 October 2017

I Feel At Home

It was my eldest son who said it out loud first - "Mum, you fit in here."  We were in Antwerp buying small electrical items for his new home, wondering at this city, its zigzag frontages, its mercantile heritage.

Antwerp is in Flemish Belgium: in Flanders.  The language is Dutch: Flemish Dutch.  In those simple facts lie layers of history, politics and numerous cultural sensitivities with which I am only just becoming familiar: sensitivities which this blog may in some way trample across unwittingly - I hope to come to understand more of the complexity, and may need to re-write parts of this in future.

My son expanded on his verdict by saying that I look like many of the women we passed. I'm tall and apparently I dress in middle class Dutch style. His analysis fitted with my feelings.

I have often felt at odds in new places - in Thailand I was too tall, in Paris too casual, in Bari too pale, in Los Angeles too introverted, in Scandinavia too jealous - whereas on arriving in Antwerp, even when driving on the right, I felt immediately at home. 

It wasn't just the weather which settled me, although the grey rain with its moments of intense sunny glory set the backdrop.  It wasn't just everyone's (but everyone's) ability to speak English during a week in which I struggled to commit any more Dutch than the words 'dank je' to memory. I knew I was amongst a tribe I recognised.

From this tribe, the Plantin and Moretus families emerged in the 16th century to establish a phenomenally successful printing business, and the Plantin-Moretus is amongst the best museums, no, it's the best, I have ever visited. The two oldest surviving printing presses in the world live there amongst drawer upon drawer of beautiful fonts.

So far, my son is settling well to his three year BA course in Fashion Design.  I'm hoping to pay several visits to Antwerp during this time and said as much to my Uncle Bob on the phone last weekend.  "Of course, my dear" he said, ever-affectionate, "our Huguenot ancestors were in the cloth trade in Flanders and they fled persecution back in 1570 or so."

My uncle's reminder explained in some way that sense of alignment that comes to me from time to time, when for a moment it feels as if the world, quietened for a while from the clash of empires, fits snug as the new coat I bought yesterday for my niece's wedding. When I got the coat home and looked properly, it turned out, of course, to be Dutch.

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