Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash
Ting! said my WhatsApp.
I glanced at my mobile and saw that a message had come in from my newly-formed local foreign ladies group. It was just after the lunch hour on a Wednesday and I was curious who had posted a message. I clicked on the group to open the message.
“Hey I heard that there’s a new Bulgarian store in Brussels. Let’s add it to the list of international supermarkets we want to visit next weekend!!” – the message was from Irina, the Pole in the group.
Bulgarian supermarket? Hmm I wonder what they sell there. What do Bulgarians eat? I wonder if it’s anything like Polish or Russian food. I knew Poland and Russia were quite a distance from Bulgaria but I had no other East European references.
“OK for me,” I replied, then smiled and went back to my work. There was now another new culture I could discover via its cuisine. How glad was I that I had approached Irina a few years ago, just upon the chance coincidence of hearing her converse in English in public – a rare occurrence in the town where I now live.
Irina and I then met up a few times for coffee in town, and we soon discovered that we had other foreign friends living in the same town who were also relatively comfortable conversing socially in English. Excitedly we discussed getting all four of us together and after a few hiccups, we had now formed a local foreign ladies group. It was small – there were just four of us – and informal, without even a name and meetings were ad hoc.
The four of us came from different countries but had been living in Belgium for around the same length of time. Irina, our resident East European, had moved to Belgium right after her engineering studies to be with her boyfriend. Ana, from South America – Brazil, to be precise – was a stay-at-home mum devoted to her daughter while her husband travelled often for work. The other Asian, also a mother, in our group was Dewi from Indonesia. And finally, there was me – from tiny Singapore where multiple cultures lived right next to, and often even influenced, one another.
As eating together is a good way to get to know one another – and none of us were really sports enthusiasts – our first in-person meeting had taken place on a Thursday evening on the small main square of the town where we now live. We picked to meet at the one main brasserie (a French word used widely in Belgium, also in the Dutch-speaking areas, to refer to any restaurant with a more relaxed and informal setting where the menu offers one-dish meals, snacks and beverages including hot drinks and alcohol) on the square.
From that first meeting in the brasserie, where the conversation had started off a little slow as we tried to get a feel for one another’s interests and cultural influences, while making allowances for the varying levels of the English language in the group, we have since gathered for several meals at Dewi’s house with our families, where she introduces us to the delights of Indonesian cooking, which is, of course, spicy. Spiciness is not a flavour that is present in Belgian or in Polish cuisine, but both Irina and the Belgian partners present gamely try the cuisine, if a little gingerly. On the other hand, Dewi tries to reduce the level of spiciness in the dishes she prepares – either offering a chilli condiment on the side for those of us who like spicy food, or preparing the myriad dishes to varying levels of spiciness, so that everyone present can enjoy the food.
And now, we are soon to be off on “an expedition” to discover new cuisines and cultures. On the list so far are a Japanese, a Bulgarian and a Brazilian supermarket. As we live in pocket-sized Belgium, often touted as the heart of Europe, where services and amenities, especially in the capital Brussels, are often located close to one another, we are keen to grab this opportunity to access new cultures and learn more.
While curiosity to learn more about another’s culture is natural and to be encouraged, one must remember to remain polite at all times. When looking for friends in a new country, it is important to keep an open mind and attitude. Accept that the other’s culture is different from yours and try to find common points upon which you can both agree. Then, invest your time and efforts on these points, exchanging nuggets of information about your respective cultures. With time, you’ll learn more about your new friends via the cultures they grew up in.
Hi, I am Monica Devi Lim, and I am originally from Singapore. I started my career in the television industry where I got to travel to a different country every few months, and then moved on to aviation in search of more of the world. During my free time, I love cooking exotic dishes and also reading for further travel inspiration. I speak several languages and now live between Belgium and Spain with my husband of Danish descent.