Charlotte Gowie (20, Belgian) spent the first 11 years of her life with her sister and parents in Dubai, Egypt, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Her Flemish expat family made many beautiful friendships during those years, with people from every walk of life, religion and background. Nine years ago they moved back to the Belgian Campine region (Kempen). Their circle of friends is still very colourful and culturally diverse.
Some of us live a whole life in the same place, because it offers stability and safety. For others, home is wherever they lay their hat. Unknown environments and new impulses bring excitement to their lives.
I had a conversation with the Gowie family, who definitely belong to the latter category. Jo had a very international career indeed, which means his wife An and daughters Louise and Charlotte would move with him every time.
An: "The expat life is a learning curve. It requires quite a lot of capacity to adapt. Things you consider the norm turn out to be not-so-straightforward elsewhere. You need to have an open mind. Each and every one of your friends has a different nationality. This sort of life only becomes fulfilling once you manage to integrate and make friends among the local population. Expat communities have a culture of their own. Country borders have little meaning to them.”
"Things you consider the norm turn out to be not-so-straightforward elsewhere. " An
When the girls were 11 and 14, An and Jo decided to go back to Belgium, not just for the quality of education, but mainly to offer their daughters a stable foundation. What they didn’t expect was the culture shock they would experience upon their return to Belgium.
Louise: "The mentality here in Flanders was totally different. All of a sudden, life was a clear-cut experience. Flemish pupils at my school had no concept of that open-mindedness towards other cultures and nationalities, and they even found it a bit strange.”
The Gowie family compensates the lack of intercultural vibes by offering foreign guests a temporary, welcoming accommodation and safe haven at their home. Conversations are held in broken Spanish, in French, in their own brand of sign language or in “Googlish”.
First it was Jensy from Nicaragua. Their hilarious communication attempts have become a fond memory for all of them. Then came a Hungarian girl for a few months. Now, they’re hosting Lucie from Senegal, a cheerful girl with a Flemish mother and a Senegalese dad. The “interim-mum” in Mol and the actual mother in Senegal are very close childhood friends. Living 5600 km apart for 30 years didn’t change any of that. 16-year-old Lucie was starting to feel a bit cramped in her Senegalese village. Belgium was calling. As she speaks only French and Wolof, Lucie has been in a boarding school in Godinne, near Namur, since September 2018. Every now and then she spends a weekend visiting her family, but she usually takes the train to Mol to enjoy the warm hospitality of An and Jo’s dinner table and the sister-like presence of Louise and Charlotte.
The family really treasures these hosting experiences, as well as the numerous international contacts it has established until now.
"Country borders have little meaning to us." An
An: “Living in the Middle-East and having Turkish friends made us feel connected to everything that is happening in the region and gives us more perspective when looking at conflicts. It makes you consider the news from the point of view of people who live there, not just through the lens of our Western media. This is only possible when you talk to people from other cultures without any prejudice."
Louise and Charlotte also told us how their lives have benefited from this experience.
Louise: “I experienced first-hand how difficult it was to connect when you don’t speak another person’s language. Communication is so crucial if you want to relate to someone!”
Charlotte: “Sometimes you have guests you would never have made friends with spontaneously; this is how you get to know people with very different values and backgrounds from your own. That’s fascinating.”
Louise concludes: “By having international guests at home, you think a lot more about your own habits and norms. And more than that, you realise no one can claim to hold the absolute truth.”
"By having international guests at home, you think a lot more about your own habits and norms." Louise
What a wonderful gift for these young people, I think to myself.
And how brilliant it is to start in life with such a variety of lenses to contemplate the world...