It's nearly sixteen years now since we moved to Ireland from Belgium. I can still see the scene in the airport. My dad was pushing the buggy with Fintan (2) in it around the departure area in Charleroi airport, Sipke (5) was walking with him and singing ' Molly Malone', the only Irish song we knew at the time, apart from a few notes from 'No, Nay, Never' and 'All Kinds of Everything'.
I don't know what must have gone through my dad's head at the time, he never told me. It must have been tough for him, but he didn't show it.
He did send me a sweet letter a few weeks later, which I keep as my treasure, the only letter my dad ever wrote to me and me alone. Now that he's no longer there, that letter has become the most precious of my posessions, together with my mother's old wrist watch.
A lot has happened since that day, and I think it's time to have a look at my Irish experience so far.
What has Ireland ever done for me?
I have shed the unpleasant Belgian habit of being too formal.
When I first got here, I was seven months pregnant, and went to see a doctor. I was totally shocked when everyone in the clinic called me by my first name. Such rudeness! It didn't take long for me to get used to it, though, and if I go back to Belgium now, I find it very hard to get used to anyone calling me mrs. Demol. I much prefer the Irish way.
I have rediscovered my singing voice.
I used to sing a lot when I was younger. I loved stealing the show during family reunions, or with my friends in school and later in nursing college. But then I met mr Wrong, who told me I was making a complete fool of myself. So I stopped. I never thought of it again. Life took over, and in Belgium life is all about work, and a tiny bit of free time.
It was only when,in Ireland, one night during an after-hunt singsong, I was put on a table in the pub and announced as the lady from a far away country who would sing a tune, that I remembered how I used to sing. I was in a panic and sang the first song that came to my head, a Flemish folk song, which I would have laughed at as a teenager. I sang it and got a warm applause, and I fell in love with the Irish singsongs. I realised I needed some party pieces, and was much better prepared after that. A friend of mine invited me to join the Chorus of Opera Cork, and about 3 years after I arrived in Ireland, I was standing on the stage in the Opera House in Cork as a member of the Chorus in Strauss' 'The Bat' or 'Die Fledermaus'. I never stopped singing since, until a couple of years ago, when family troubles took my voice away again. But the love of music has remained.
I have been able to get rid of the shackles of Catholisism.
This may seem odd, as I have come to a very Catholic country, but the Catholicism here is not what it is in Belgium. I couldn't believe how much the Church rules the lives of most Irish people. The horrible stories of child abuse, the shock I felt when I learned about the Magdalenes, made me sure that I did not want to belong to any religion. I had long had serious doubts before, but the scandals and the exaggerated involvement of the Church in politics and state matters, helped me to make my decision. I am now happy to call myself a secular humanist, and that, thanks to Ireland.
I talk to people that I never met before as if I've always known them.
This is something you do very rarely in Belgium. The chitchat on the train, in a shop, in a lift, in the doctor's waiting room, or just anywhere two strangers are in the same space, is something I would never have done before. Even saying hello when passing someone on a walk has become strange over there. You keep yourself to yourself and the people you know.
It is definitely different here. I have become a true chatterbox. I talk to anyone willing to have a chat, and I find it a lot of fun talking to complete strangers. The funniest is though, that everyone always knows someone I know, whether I meet them in Galway or Dublin, there is always a connection with Cork.
If I have an idea, I can just go ahead and realise it.
It is so easy to be creative in Ireland. Maybe it is in Belgium too, but I have never felt the need to do something different over there, probably because everything is organised for you there anyway..
Apart from starting a jazz club ( which is on a stand-by at the moment due to lack of money), I have organised several concerts. It started with 'Classics in The Countryside', where The Chorus of Opera Cork and The City of Cork Male Voice Choir performed in small churches in the country side, after that I organised a couple of very successful concerts called 'It Must Be The Music' with local artists and a few very willing professionals, and it culminated in the musical theatre that Swiss woman Olivia, together with director Ciaran Bermingham and myself created. It was a love story, told with the use of French songs. We performed during Culture Night in Cork, and at the Bandon Arts Festival. Always with great success.
Unfortunately real life became too much like the story we were acting out, when my husband decided to leave the family, and that's where I lost my voice. But I know for certain that I would never have been able to do this in my own country.
Right now we are in talks to start a community radio in Bandon town, just because we can.
I can now produce and present a radio show.
It's virtually impossible to find an interesting job at my age,but I have become involved with an online radio station, where I have been allowed to produce my own show, The New Rebels and Sounds and Places. The first is a show for immigrants like me , the latter is a world music show.
I didn't apply for a job, I just talked to the woman who was in the process of creating Irish Radio International, and told her I always dreamed of doing a show for immigrants, and she gave me that chance.
So, although it is unpaid, I have learned a load of new skills, and have found something I really enjoy doing. I have in the mean time completed a course in radio documentary making, and can hopefully start monetizing at least a little in the future.
I have found the best possible friends in this country.
Women help each other out so much more than in my old place. The friendships I have here and the support I've had from my friends during the time I had cancer, and now, during the separation, are second to none. And although I'm sure there are deep friendships to be had anywhere, there just is't time enough in busy places like Belgium.
I turn off the immersion and I know what a hot press is.
Yes, I have come to that stage now, where I worry about the hot water costs.
Last but not least, I have had a glorious time with my children
I have cursed the Irish lack of childcare facilities many a time when I first got here, but now I look back and think it may not have been all that bad.
The Irish country side is just perfect for children to grow up in. There is a freedom here that you don't find anywhere else. Belgium has a lot more facilities, much more activities . There are plenty of music schools for everyone, there is always a sporstclub, a sports hall or a youth club. There is pre- and after school care, and great child care facilities. Maybe it's just a bit too easy though. That is what makes Irish children strong. Not everything is organised for them, they have to put a lot of effort into what they want to do. This makes them more independent and much more mature than their peers in Belgium. I know, I know, it is just an idea I have and I may be totally wrong. what do you think?
This is not the full list of good things I have found in Ireland, but I could probably fill a book.
And for the bad things? Well, I've written enough about those.