We certainly didn’t intend to live in Belgium. My husband Dan, a Vice president of HR in the US and Canada for a major French company, and I, as an HR consultant for an international consulting firm, loved to travel to Europe. We went as often as we could.
Our interests were, for the most part, transportable. Dan is an avid runner who routinely logged 5-6 miles a day. He loved exploring foreign cities at a jogger’s pace. I loved drawing, painting, and flea markets, all of which were even more fun in a new location. We both loved languages and people.
We first visited Belgium in 1994, when we spent a week in a castle studying French. The school, specializing in total immersion language training, marketed itself mostly to business executives from Europe and the US. It appealed to us. Included in the hefty fees were all meals and accommodation for a week, as well as instruction. The classes were conducted in small groups (maximum 4), and they were very intense, very demanding, and very, very effective. We called it “French boot camp”. Here, I'll call it "The Castle".
The Castle is located in Eastern Belgium, in the Ardennes forest, in a town called Spa. The name pretty much tells you everything about the town. It was the first spa, and all the others are named after it. Peter the Great took the waters there. It’s a beautiful area, surrounded by old-growth forest, within a 30-minute drive of Holland and Germany, 45 minutes from Luxembourg, and an hour from France. The countryside is full of dairy cattle and orchards. It’s quiet, it’s rural, and it’s the antithesis of Washington DC, where we had lived for many years. We found the school to be so effective and challenging that in a perverse way we enjoyed it. We decided to return to French boot camp in 1995, for two weeks.
This time my group was very different from the first time. About 80% of the students at The Castle are men. But in 1995, my group consisted of four women: One American, one Dane, and two Lithuanians. We were not only unusual because we were all women, but also because all four of us stayed for two weeks. We got on so well that the teachers called us “the dream team”.
During the normal two-week stay at The Castle, class groups typically form strong bonds. People are called by their first names, and since the groups are formed from people with similar levels in the language they are studying, everybody starts off more or less on equal footing. As a part of each day’s work, you write a story to be told in class the following day on an assigned topic—something like “a time I was afraid” or “I succeeded at doing something” or “I didn’t succeed at doing something”. The purpose of the stories is to practice the language and grammar learned the previous day, but some of the stories can get quite personal. They often give the students a good understanding of each other. Certainly after two weeks I felt as if my group and I had known each other for a long time. One factor in this “bonding’ is that everyone is struggling to communicate in a language that is not their own. For me, a child of the 60’s, there was also the opportunity to speak to Lithuanians who had lived in the former USSR. This was something I had never thought I’d have the opportunity to do.
Because at The Castle they believe very strongly in the importance to total immersion in the target language, they discourage sharing rooms with people who share the same native language. The first time that Dan and I went there, we had to insist on sharing a room. The management relented only after we swore that we would not speak English in our room at night. And we didn’t. We DID find the twin beds a problem, though, and so when we enrolled for our second “tour” in 1995, Dan requested a double bed. When told that they didn’t’ have one, he replied that he knew of no theory of language learning that claimed that you had to be a monk to learn. As we arrived four our two-week stay, we saw a double bed being delivered. Wahoo!
By the end of the two weeks, we certainly felt like old hands. We knew the routine and skipped blithely from lesson to language lab with never a problem.
The last night we were there, we all felt a little sad, because the following day we would all disperse, and our all-woman group, our “dream team” would in all probability never see each other again. We stayed up late after dinner, talking and laughing. Someone brought our a guitar and someone else a French song book, and suddenly I found myself sitting in a castle in Belgium, singing “blowing in the wind” in French with Russians. This song was a song of my youth, a song I learned growing up in Atlanta during the Civil Rights Movement. It was a song that I learned when I was young and the Iron curtain was an impassable barrier and we all thought that we would change the world one day. It was 1995, I was grown up, the Iron Curtain was no more, and the world had changed indeed, though perhaps not in the ways we had thought.
The next morning, I woke up, opened the window of our room and looked out over a misty field and the forest beyond. Everything was tinged with that glorious early morning light, and there were even some deer grazing. It was gorgeous. I told Dan, "Before I die I want to live in Europe". Little did I suspect.
To be continued...click here for part 2