Grasping the essence of life

A story told by Katrien Van Remortel Brussels, Belgium

Katrien has a passion for music. As a violinist, she plays with musicians from all over the world. In her new neighbourhood, she’s mainly looking for Arabic music. She currently works for the Brussels Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR), where she coordinates the United Music for Brussels festival, together with different partners. She travels to promote Belgian musicians, to play music of her own, or simply to discover new atmospheres.

‘I’m thinking of leaving my place in Ghent and moving to Brussels’, Katrien once told me over a glass of wine. Months later, when she was telling me about her trip to India, it was a done deal.


Katrien: ‘Maybe I would never have dared to make the move to Brussels if I hadn’t been to India and all those other places outside of Europe’, she said. ‘India made me question everything. My place in the world, my happiness, my upbringing, what and who I need in order to feel good. It made me question my entire personal universe. Returning from India was like a new awakening. A shock that made it very easy for me to detach myself from the place where I had been living for over 20 years. 

Recently I had a flashback to India. I was following a first aid course and we were practising resuscitation techniques on a doll that had just a head and a torso, but no legs. That sums up the whole trip for me: an image of half a human being.

I came across this man whilst my travel companion and I were on our way to Mount Abou. It wasn't really a tourist route. We had just gotten off the bus after a long day of travelling . We were extremely groggy and sticky with sweat. In the hustle and bustle of the bus station, a crowd of people swarmed towards us like flies, standing much too close to feel comfortable. You want hotel? You want taxi? There was no aggressiveness whatsoever, but we did feel a bit suffocated by their pushy behaviour. That’s when I felt something pulling on my lower leg. I looked down and saw a head with a white turban. He was wearing a white robe. He used his arms as if they were legs. He looked like something out of the American horror movie ‘Freaks’, from 1932.

"India made me question everything" Katrien Van Remortel

Even with half a body, this man exists, I thought to myself. How does he see life? Does he own anything besides this turban and robe? Is he happy? Has he accepted his reincarnation? Is the Indian caste system primarily designed to oppress people or does it allow them to find peace in their destiny? Does this possibly lead to experiencing more freedom than I ever could at that stage of life? What is freedom? How does it feel to live in a city with millions of other poor souls where there’s no such thing as privacy?

I wasn't even scared or filled with pity when I met that legless man. Yes, I was shocked but above all, I was curious. By that stage of the trip I had already adjusted to the Indian rhythm of life, which entails a lot of observation and numerous questions going through my head.

This was such a contrast compared to my first night. When I arrived in Bombay, my mind was racing as I literally dragged myself through smelly, filthy puddles, or stepped over people lying in the street coughing, spitting or sleeping. I couldn’t breathe properly with the thick smog. The human ant nest surrounding my hotel made me feel uneasy. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that so many children were living on the streets like wild dogs.

And then, all of sudden the apocalypse vanished. On the second day of my trip I saw another white tourist somewhere in the distance and – don’t ask me why – this recognition stripped away all of the terror. From that point on, I felt able to make contact with Indians and their culture, to ask them questions, to reflect on our European way of living based on their answers.

"Looking in the mirror, I realised that too often we suffocate in a demanding, materialistic environment." Katrien Van Remortel

The biggest shock came when I got back to Belgium. Looking in the mirror, I realised that too often we suffocate in a demanding, materialistic environment. This is also shaped by our own efforts to preserve it. I learned that when you free yourself from all that materialism and perfectionism, you come closer to the essence of life. That you have to accept things as they are, because they tell you something. That you should stay true to yourself in order to let all the beautiful things come towards you. That intuition is paramount. This led me to come up with my own definition of freedom: learn to let go and allow what you feel in your gut to resonate on all levels. That’s when suddenly all things come to you. Only then you can fully live in the here and now and find true happiness.

But the main lesson is to not be so afraid of the unknown. I now seek diversity more actively. And that happens to be one of the main reasons why I want to continue to live in Brussels for the foreseeable future’.

Authored by Nele Claeys Ghent, Belgium