Wednesday, August 03, 2011

"It is the other who exposes me to unity.”*

Because Hubby’s grandfather emigrated from Schuivers Kapelle, Belgium, in 1920, our family has always had an affinity for things Belgian, even while not quite understanding what that meant. All I’d ever learned about the country over the years was the capital (Brussels), the two-language split (French and a form of Dutch called Flemish), and that they were really good at making beer and chocolate. This weekend, we were fortunate to learn more.

Through the auspices of the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Twin Lake, Michigan, and the local organizing efforts of the hard-working Brent and Rachel, we hosted a pair of musicians associated with Concert Band Maasmechelen from Maasmechelen, Belgium. For three days, we were privileged to immerse ourselves in their culture while sharing ours with receptive participants. The United Nations should be so successful.
Our guests Bart and Marijke (it took me a day-and-a-half to pronounce her name correctly) were delightful. From our first meeting in the parking lot of Wright State University’s Center for Creative Arts at two-thirty Friday morning (the group had transportation problems out of Chicago), we continually found common ground from our love of nature and hiking to a shared sense of  being overwhelmed by too many choices in restaurants, supermarkets and bookstores. The four of us talked for hours about daily life, education, food, family gatherings and of course, music. Bart plays euphonium (baritone, for most of us Westerners, although there are subtle differences) and trombone; Marijke plays violin, viola, and cello, although not on this tour. For the U.S. trip, she is part of the organizing staff. We chuckled together over her task of asking each member, “Do you have your papers?” before boarding the bus to head north to the second of four concert stops.

We knew immediately upon our arrival home in the wee hours of Friday morning that things would go well because our dogs loved them, and they loved the dogs. We spent the day (after sleeping off their jet lag) strolling through downtown Yellow Springs and lunching on the patio at Peach’s Grill. American meal portion sizes stunned them; Marijke took lots of pictures of food and beverages, along with the scenery. We learned quickly to counsel them on when to share an entrée to avoid difficulties. The practice of taking leftovers home in a doggie bag amazed them, as did the standard glass of water served gratis at each meal.

Following Friday’s rehearsal at Wright State, we went to Abuelo’s for dinner (Mexican food is so American, isn’t it?). Saturday included a trip to the Yellow Springs farmers’ market and a visit to the Glen Helen Raptor Center. In the afternoon, we attended an informal wedding reception for friends in Waynesville where Bart and Marijke became the main attraction, graciously answering the same questions over and over as they were introduced to each new arrival.

Concert Band Maasmechelen’s performance Saturday evening at Young’s Jersey Dairy was woefully under-attended, but the musicians played like they were at Carnegie Hall. Enthusiasm, passion, and talent were evident in every piece from Bert Appermont’s “Saga Candida” to “Soul Bossa Nova” by Quincy Jones. In a nod to their American hosts, the band ended with a spectacular “Stars and Stripes Forever,” complete with a talented piccolo solo. And naturally Young’s provided the visitors with ice cream after the show.

In keeping with the international flavor of the visit, on Sunday the four of us attended the Celtic Festival at RiverScape Metropark. After enjoying a typically rousing concert, our Belgians went home with a CD of Dayton’s own Dulahan.

All fifty-eight members of the tour and their host families gathered at John Bryan State Park for a potluck picnic Sunday afternoon. Organizers managed to crowd nearly everyone onto the bridge over the Little Miami River for a group photo before we scattered for one last evening at home. We ended our visit with a campfire in the backyard where Bart and Marijke experienced their first taste of s’mores. Nothing like Belgian chocolate, of course (their parting gift to us – yum!), but memorable just the same.

Monday morning brought a sad parting, back in the Wright State parking lot where our adventure began. The group moved on to Frankfort, Michigan; Strongsville, Ohio; and Dowagiac, Michigan, before returning home August 10th. Follow their journey at their tour blog – you’ll need Google Translate (it’s in Dutch), and technology provides an interesting perspective with unintentionally humorous results.

I’m still processing much of what I learned during our cultural exchange, about Belgium and about us, having been given the opportunity to see our world through another’s eyes. It’s not always a comfortable vision. Bart and Marijke take for granted many things we as a country are just recognizing as important: government supported recycling and composting programs, quality affordable medical care, alternative energies – their solar programs have been so successful, government subsidies are being phased out. In contrast, we take for granted our over-consuming, commercially-focused lifestyle. They were astounded at the wastefulness we surround ourselves with every day, from excess packaging to enormous food serving sizes where much of what is served goes into the trash. “Everything here is so big,” Marijke noted more than once.

But more important was how much we have in common with Bart and Marijke. From our love of animals, to family traditions, to Star Trek and the Franco-Belgian comics of Asterix et Obelix, our cultural differences faded away into camaraderie. We shared jokes and laughter, quiet times and intense conversation. And I’ll never look at a truck labeled “Penske” (Dutch = “little belly”) in the same way again!

It was an experience we will long remember, even as the lessons learned may not be realized for some time. I hope the exchange was mutually beneficial, and I’m reasonably certain they weren’t bored with our quiet lifestyle and not just being polite when we didn’t visit the Air Force Museum, the malls or a zoo. We parted with sharing email addresses and promises to meet again. They’ve invited us to Belgium for a Scottish games festival in September, and we want them to come back to Yellow Springs. I want to cook for them. I want to take them to the theatre and introduce them to our adult children. I want our friendship to grow.

Our Belgian family has two new members, and we couldn’t be more delighted.

*Maurice Blanchot in The Writing of the Disaster

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