“Antwoorden worden niet alleen bepaald door de vragen, maar ook door de vrager.”
(Answers are not only defined by the question, but also by the seeker.)
My decision to arrive in Belgium over a week before my Fulbright Orientation and a full two weeks before the start of classes had a number of advantages and disadvantages. I certainly benefited from the extra time I got to explore the city and process the shock to the system that comes with such a drastic move. On the other hand, navigating an unfamiliar city on your own, surrounded by locals who don’t share your native language, or by tourists who are already traveling with friends and family, can be extremely isolating. Tack on the fact the student dorms I stayed in while apartment hunting had no in-room access to wifi and that after I switched the sim card on my phone over to a Belgian number, lost the ability to call or text home, I was left with the impression of existing out of space and time. If this were the movies or a TV pilot, I may have experienced a few hiccups during my initial settling in and at the very least an awkward encounter to demonstrate how much of a fish out of water I am. From at least one of these such encounters I would have unwittingly been introduced to a few people who would go on to be supporting characters for the duration of my Fulbright year.
I am disappointed to report that no such first act introductions took place during this time. Instead I took advantage of the down time to read, reflect, and observe my surroundings as I prepared for the week to come. That said, my week of solitude was not entirely unproductive either. I got to play tourist in my new city and in the process truly began to fall in love with the idea of living in Belgium. Moreover, I was able to close on an apartment, get a bank account set up, and most importantly make friends with most of the restaurant owners within immediate walking distance of my apartment.
Another added bonus of the neighborhood I now live is that I’m now in walking distance of the Kineapolis, the largest multiplex in Ghent. I kicked off my first night in the new neighborhood by enduring through Mel Gibson’s Blood Father, which aside from seeing the occasional glimmer of the former Road Warrior seep through, I was mostly entertained by matching up the English dialogue with the Dutch and French subtitles.
The sense of stasis that I felt throughout much of my first week in Belgium, quickly changed as soon as I arrived at the Fulbright Orientation in Brussels that Thursday. I bypassed Brussels completely when I made my initial trip from Paris to Ghent a few days earlier, so I wasn’t fully prepared for the bustle of a much larger city, or the confusion of navigating through one of the very few bi-lingual zones in Belgium. This was balanced out by at last meeting a group of like-minded people who will more than likely fit into the regular cast of characters featured in later posts. The one-week head start I had on most of my fellow Fulbrighters certainly gave me a bit of an advantage during an orientation session that was more or less designed to ease the transition into life in the Low Countries. Combine good conversation with two rounds of day drinking, first at lunch and later by way of a brewery tour given by a brewmaster who was the spitting image of Slavoj Zizek both in both looks and demeanor, and I could tell that this would be unlike any other academic experience I’ve had.
The following Tuesday was the first official meeting of the year for UGent’s Centre for Cinema and Media Studies (CIMS). I was asked by my adviser to plunge right into the process by giving a presentation on my research proposal at the meeting. It was certainly intimidating to have to give a talk on the history of Belgium and Belgian cinema to a group of Belgians, but most of my anxieties went away as soon as I got into the rhythm of talking about a topic that I’ve buried myself in over the last few months. Altogether after meeting the CIMS group I can safely say that I’ve found a group of seekers who are as dedicated, if not more so, as I am to questions pertaining to cinema. Lastly, returning to the late Flemish author, Hugo Claus, I’ll add that the answers I shall uncover in the coming months will be shaped as much by my question of cinema, as by the support of my fellow seekers at Fulbright and CIMS.