In two years I’ve learned an abundance about Belgian culture and cuisine while also learning the French language. I didn’t need to enroll in expensive classes and it didn’t take a lot of my time. All I needed to learn about life in Belgium, I learned from a kindergartener.
Ecole Saint Louis is nestled between a drive through liquor store and a tiny church. The two child-like figures on their signage resembles a porcelain Precious Moments figurine. Simple and quaint are two words that come to mind.
Enrolling my three year old Isabelle into a school where neither of us spoke the language was interesting, to say the least. The first year tears were shed. Hers and mine. I convinced myself we would both be okay. It wasn’t hard to do. The kids were cute as buttons and the teachers were always courteous and professional. Never had I seen a classroom of such well-mannered children (which was also a flag of concern). How would Isabelle fit in?
There were many days I felt unprepared and inadequate. Like the day of her first field trip. Driving up I noticed a yellow city bus waiting to pick up the kids. Mass transit? There were two teachers and no parent helpers. I learned quickly that it is not customary for parents to partake in their kids’ education, at least not in pre-school. Parents are advised to quickly drop off and by no means enter a classroom a minute before school is officially over. I’m a slow learner, it took a year of downward glances accompanied by pursed lips for me to get the message from my daughter’s teacher, Mme. Sadrine that parents should stand outside the door and wait for her to decide when class was over. Rain, shine, sleet or snow, a parent is expected to wait.
I also learned about kissing. After my daughter’s second week, I was pulled aside. While it is proper to kiss, it should be reserved for the cheek. My daughter had been going for the lips, a big no no! And a year into school, I learned Mme. Sadrine had been holding out on me! It took her scolding me to learn she had tucked away enough English to inform me why my daughter had been crying when I left. Again, it was the kiss! This time she was guilty of not giving her teacher the customary kiss on the cheek. Mme. Sadrine explained it’s a habit all kids do upon arrival and departure. She felt Isabelle’s tears were brought on because she wasn’t sealing her arrival and departure with a kiss. I left that day thinking the teacher had no idea about Isabelle’s needs. How could she think my daughter’s sadness was brought on by the fact her mother didn’t make her kiss the teacher? I felt like I had set Isabelle up for failure by placing her in a place neither of us understood.
Guess what, I was wrong. I tested the teacher’s hypothesis. I explained to Isabelle it was customary to kiss her teacher on the cheek when she arrives and leaves school. By this small act, I’ve learned it’s how Mme. Sadrine manages her students. The kiss isn’t necessarily out of cuddly affection, but necessity. It announces to the teacher the comings and goings of her knee high students. She watches them like a mother hen.
Isabelle is now into her second school year. We have both learned a lot. She now understands proper kissing habits. She speaks French fluently and knows a range of Belgian traditions like: Pere Fouettard, the Easter Cloche, and Sorcieres. She’s gone on trips to the beaches of Oostende and discovered art through various museums. Recently she not only toured an Andy Warhol exhibit, but also created her own Warhol look-alike painting. She’s even ventured to local farms where they sampled homemade cheese and bread. Last week her class made pumpkin soup, tasted it, then packaged it in pretty glass jars to bring home and enjoy.
Soon our family will attend the school’s annual Christmas fete. A delicious dinner will follow a holiday performance by the kids, along with a visit and gifts from Saint Nicolas. The children, along with parents, grandparents, teachers, and even the school crossing guard will be wearing smiles. The merriment is contagious.
I can’t help but feel good. Not only did Isabelle and I survive the first awkward year, but we’re better for it. Our French has improved along with a better understanding of our surroundings. And when the Christmas Fete celebration comes to a close, Isabelle and I will both head over to kiss Mme. Sadrine’s cheek and wish her Bon soir!