Emigration Lessons About Human Nature

From Leinster to Flanders — being an Irish expatriate

I had been thinking about moving to Belgium for quite a while, but the decision to really do it was made in an instant. The thought of the hassles of emigrating over Christmastime didn’t even occur to me. I just kept thinking about how stifled I felt in Dublin, and how much I wanted an adventure. It’s not that I wanted a new life, really. I just had to get out of my surroundings.

Two months in, I’ve discovered that it’s surprisingly difficult to move from one EU country to another. I had been under the impression that as an Irish person I could just leave and live wherever in Europe I wanted — which, due to the language barriers and it not being North America, had never truly appealed to me until now.

The Certificate of Celibacy

I was, of course, terribly, terribly wrong about it being easy. My forms still haven’t been processed yet. They’re up in Brussels somewhere. That was one of the first things I learned about living here in Belgium: they really do love their red tape. I even had to go up to the Irish Embassy in Brussels to get a letter that confirmed that I was an unmarried woman. The name of this letter (which cost €40 by the way) roughly translates as a Certificate of Celibacy.

In English, this ‘celibacy’ of mine isn’t the right word to use, but in French, and more so in Dutch, it doesn’t seem to have the nuances of the word in English — it just means you’re unmarried, really. This minimalist approach to language is the second thing I learned about Belgium by living here.


In English, there are so many words to describe good food. In Dutch they usually just use lekker. It’s on all the food ads, from billboards to TV commercials, and was the first word I learned to pronounce properly.

Other words are the same. If you’re feeling bad, you’re slecht. If the weather is stormy, rainy, cold or just plain horrible, the umbrella word is also slecht. You could be feeling horrible, nasty, or even downright ghastly and the word would still be slecht. At first I didn’t like this not one bit — and then it made me realise something about

  1. English as a language and
  2. Human beings as living creatures.

What I learned about English as a language

English is a big monster. It gobbles up other languages, spits out the words it doesn’t feel it needs, and keeps the ones that do. Banana, for example, comes from Wolof, a Niger-Congo language spoken in Senegal and Gambia and other countries in West Africa. Penguin (somewhat amazingly) comes from Welsh (an Indo-European language spoken in the UK region of Wales).

It absorbs phrasing patterns from other languages as well. This is how we end up with the diverse differences between Hiberno-English and American-English, for example.

Melvin Bragg argues in The Adventure of English that this is how English scrambled its way into being a dominant international means of communication. Rather like the Catholic Church, it just fit itself in with the ways and traditions of the places it found itself so that its presence wouldn’t seem so threatening (until it was too late).

What I learned about human beings

Language is a complex thing. It shifts around like water and can be difficult to get a solid answer from. Pet in English is a domestic animal you keep in your house, but in Dutch a pet is a hat.

There are even differences within the same language, as I’m sure you’ve noticed even if you didn’t know you have. Words are pronounced differently from place to place. Flanders, where I live now, is a region of four principal dialects of Dutch: BrabantianEast Flemish,West Flemish, and Limburgish.

The crossover of the vocal sounds from one language to another and the variations of dialect both got me thinking about how humans are just like words. Words are complicated, and fluid; they can have shades of grey and multiple facets. Languages can even have a feel to them. In The Secret History, Classical Greek is described as having an intrinsic but chilly beauty (I’m paraphrasing here). I’ve found that the Irish language (called Gaeilge in its own tongueis a poetic one, chock-full of adjectives.

Like people, languages cannot be stereotyped. They don’t fit neatly into boxes. You can lock a language into a textbook, but the truth in that book will only be one facet of a larger truth, a more complicated, luxurious truth. So it is with people. You can chain people down and examine them all you want, but you’ll never be able to define what makes them themselves.

This post appeared first on Medium.

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