Girl standing on a beach with Table Mountain, Cape Town, in the background

COLUMN – From Huh? to Home

This story won’t make much sense if I don’t introduce myself. I am Danica Van der Merwe, a 21-year-old International Journalism student and I come all the way from South Africa. No, I am not doing a semester abroad, and I won’t be returning after I have my degree in hand. I live here and have, for almost four years, called Belgium my home.

‘Where is Belgium?’ was my first reaction when my dad told me he was applying for an international position within the company he works at. Needless to say, he got the job and, six months later, he flew to Belgium ahead of us to sort out a few things. A year later, I joined my family and I can proudly say that I now know where Belgium and several other countries are.

My time in Belgium has been interesting, to say the least. I arrived in January, which is the middle of summer back in South Africa, and I was not happy. I had left my entire life behind and had to erase every future plan I had made. No one understood me, and my family and I were called a word I have never warmed up to: vreemdelingen. But that’s exactly what we were. Strangers in a strange land. But somewhere it all changed. The weather warmed up slowly and I along with it. I started noticing the good that surrounded me. I started meeting people, got a job and enrolled in a school. I went through all 5 stages of grief and had finally come to a place of acceptance, and that’s where the magic began.

Sisters hugging in Brussels airport 2018

Do you know how good you have it here? You can just go to another country when you feel like it (within the EU, of course). From South Africa, you need a VISA to go everywhereI will never forget how shocked I was the first time my parents took us on a DAY TRIP to Germany. A day trip. To Germany. It blew my mind, and honestly, it still does. (And living with euros in my pocket is definitely something I enjoy as well).

Don’t even get me started on your cities and shopping streets. I don’t think I ever went shopping in a street in South Africa except for maybe at a few beach markets in the summer. The freedom you have here to do that is something I know is often taken for granted and I hope reading this offers you a brighter view of your country.

A street in Antwerp full of people and a sculpture on the ground

How about the architecture! I can’t count the number of times I have walked with a Belgian (or any European) and marveled at the buildings around us only to hear, ‘oh yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever really seen them in that way. They’re normal to me.’ I mean, what? Wherever you go, it’s as if you’re in one of those medieval-set fairy tales or old English novels. I had only ever seen buildings like your ‘normal’ ones on a screen before I came here. Although I must admit, I do miss our ground-floor, spacious homes. These mini-towers that touch one another are still so bizarre. No gates, fences, or sometimes even gardens which are all common in South Africa. And those STAIRS. Flanders may be flat but my legs never worked as hard as they do here.

However, although I accepted Belgium for what it was and started loving being here, my heart will always long for South Africa. My roots are deeply rooted in the rich soil. My skin craves the heat of the blazing African sun. My language will always be one of the 11 official South African languages and my accent will forever tell of my journey over the continent into the unknown. My tastebuds will always water for the flavours of the many cultures I have had the pleasure of growing up with. My humour, my perseverance and my passion will always come from the core of who I am, the core that was cultivated by the South African way of living. I will always be proudly South African.

So, this is me. A small South African girl dealing with culture shocks and awkward moments where two cultures clash. Making friends from countries I never knew existed, never mind thought I would ever go to. Learning a new way of life while desperately trying to hold on to pieces of my past. Realising that the world is so much bigger than I ever dared to dream. Speaking languages I never imagined I would learn. Ja, ik spreek ook Nederlands. Y puedo hablar en español. Et j’apprends lentement le français.

Standing with art in Valencia, Spain

I’m often asked which country I prefer and it often feels like I am expected to shoot one country down and praise the other. But I can’t do that. Both countries have their dark sides, their faults, their elements that need to change. And both countries have their wonderful, unique elements that make them special. Both countries challenge you in ways that make you grow. Both countries have a wonderful mix of cultures that are all around you. Both have multiple beautiful languages and dialects and accents. And both can offer you a life of joy and passion and love, if you will let them.

Text:  Danica Van der Merwe, final edit: Adrei Stiru
Pictures: © Christelle Van der Merwe