OneWorld.nl has sent Reinier Vriend on a mission to identify the everyday European values and concerns. In the interview series #ThisIsMyEurope he speaks with colourful individuals in and of the continent, trying to find out what ‘Europe’ means to us. This week he speaks with Dutchman Maurice, who lives with his wife and son in Ghent, Belgium.
“For me, Europe is connected to holidays. Politically it doesn’t mean much to me, Europe comes alive when I travel.”
Maurice de Haan (36) is a Dutchman who lives in the Belgian town of Ghent. Staying there for four years was never part of the plan. “When I met my wife we lived in Utrecht. We wanted to start afresh in a different city. We couldn’t agree on a Dutch town, so we crossed the southern border and settled for Ghent. We both didn’t expect to stay for such a long time, but time flies.”
Living in Belgium can be challenging
Living and working in a different country presents challenges. “You’d say that neighbouring countries have similarities, but I don’t see them. I have trouble getting used to this place, it’s hard to become one of the Belgians. It’s a special people, people are polite and correct, but you won’t often hear what someone actually means. It may sound like a bit of a cliché, but it specifically concerns criticism. When it comes to language it’s also not that straightforward: we may have a common one, but the local dialect here deviates a lot from what you read in the paper.”
You’d say that neighbouring countries have similarities, but I don’t see them
On the institutional level, Maurice doesn’t see much European integration. “We wanted to register ourselves here officially. Getting an ID card here in Belgium should be easy for a Dutch citizen, right? It took us six months, from the one civil servant to the next. For every word you say, they have a separate desk. In the meantime, we’ve had moments where we thought: why are we here in Belgium in the first place?” Maurice missed a job opportunity because of convoluted bureaucracy. “Upon arrival I could start at a job in the hospital. But to qualify I needed a ‘attest of similarity’, which I had to receive from my home university. But this type of attest does not exist in the Netherlands. My diploma is valid in the whole of Europe, but for me to work with it in Belgium I needed a paper from the Dutch minister of Health. I tried for seven months. By that time, the job opening was long gone.”
Cycling through Europe
Maurice has come to know a lot of Eastern Europe during a long bicycle trip in 2011. “It moved me to visit so many places that have a culture that’s not mine. We halted at all the old border posts. There’s nothing left there anymore. It made me think of when I was young, when the Belgian Dutch border was still guarded by serious looking men with machine guns. That was exciting. The boom gate would only open if the machine gun liked you. Then you knew: I’m in a different country. Now the border crossings look desolate, a lost place without a function.” The invisibility of the actual borders has only accentuated the cultural breaks. “You cycle from Germany into Czech Republic and from one moment to the next you can’t make out any of the signs anymore. You think: where is the bank? In those countries you’ll have to gamble. In Hungary I saw Kereskedelmi és Hitelbank. You can only hope that you can get money out there. That confusion creates a much stronger division than a boarded up border post.”
After the Brussel attacks, you know why borders are there, it’s not to give people a holiday feeling
Aware of borders
That men with machine guns at the border have reappeared after the Brussel attacks, forces Maurice to revisit his childhood memories. “You know why they’re there, it’s not to give people a holiday feeling. In the past decades, borders didn’t seem to matter, but now you hear people think: ‘Imagine if they come to my country!’ You’re confronted with your concerns when the whole town of Ghent is locked down because of conspicuous luggage.” His recent fatherhood hasn’t changed much. “I keep my faith in the good in people. But yes, we try to give our son everything he needs to be confident. At times I thought: is this the kind of world you want your child to enter? But it’s a knockdown argument. Seventy years ago it was the height of WWII, but that’s also when my father was born. I’m quite down to earth, I know what I can give my child. I know what the world looks like. But if you let that determine your decisions, you’ll never get anywhere.”
This interview is part 15 of the series #ThisIsMyEurope. Join the conversation on Twitter [@OneWorldNL] and read the other interviews on the special #ThisIsMyEurope Oneworld page [https://www.oneworld.nl/blog/thisismyeurope-english/].