This is a reflection on the tension between human search for security and development. I will be that human, in order not to speak for others. Both are important dimensions and we are probably all in different places along that line, all searching. I do not want to speak for others, but my writing will be bitter, or at least sober, as l feel we are out of balance and l want to send a signal, a cry of some sort, to others.
‘Sooner or later in life one comes across a city which resembles one’s inner city’ – writes Anais Nin in one of her diaries wandering through the city of Fez. I have never been to Fez, but I know deep inside what she is talking about. As I write, I am not in a city that resembles my inner city.
We –my husband, my son, and I- arrived in Leuven in 2008, a small Flemish city, a student city we are told, close to Brussels. I had been offered a place in the university there. We were excited, curious, and of course as one is when one changes place, a little worried for what lied ahead of us.
I have always felt a stranger. No less a stranger in my own birth town, than in the other places I had lived. Feeling a stranger is not strange to me. I have learned to live with it, and even be thankful for it. But there is a particular flavour to that sharp feeling of strangeness that Leuven has contributed to: loneliness. I have never felt as lonely as during the past six years of my life in Leuven. I have a great companion, two children who are very present in my life, and good colleagues and friends. Anyone would ask, then: so, what are you talking about?
I am talking about a peculiar kind of loneliness, which is not solitude. Solitude is something I cherish, reading and thinking on my own, especially now that life is a constant giving and being with my children, solitude is something I often long for. The loneliness I talk about is a kind of an organised loneliness, something I feel goes beyond myself and reaches into many hearts.
In the beginning we had moved into a huge apartment block, something we thought, back then, would increase our chances for social life. This place was terror redefined. Not only was there lack of social life, but there was also a good share of dust and noise from the highway running nearby. Although we had always thought that detached or semidetached villas and houses are luxury we could neither aspire to nor want, in Leuven it turned out this solution was economically possible: not an exception at all but normality. Children could get a garden, we could get extra space, and maybe this time friendly neighbours. So the last three years of our life in Leuven is taking place inside such a typical Leuven house.
The neighbourhood we have moved in is no different from any other neighbourhood in Leuven: houses close to each other, with back gardens, all shielded from one another. It is very common in these garden to find huge trampolines and swings, almost one in each garden. In my country these are items that would belong exclusively to the circus or public parks. No children crossing gardens. That can damage privacy we are told. My son’s ball fall often on the other side, often there is no return. There are no children playing in the street. I cannot say that the weather is of a big help here, but I have also never seen any people more rain-proof than the Flemish, so I know the weather is not the reason. It is probably considered dangerous.
Families are so tightly knit together. These families all look alike, I can predict the daily rhythms and conversations. A middle class retreating to the secure cocoons of these socially homogenous suburban neighbourhoods, the most colourless and impoverished environment I have ever seen. The most dull and sterile. No class difference here, no different races, no ethnicities, no eccentric characters, no different generational types, clearly no homeless, no youngsters hanging together, no gays/lesbians, just one-dimensional types of families, just like the one-dimensional man that Marcuse had warned us about. All the complexity of human relations I had learned and I had seen in my previous years swiped out at once with one brush. A deadening and bewildering homogeneity.
Amongst this homogeneity, contacts across fences and pathways have been minimised to extreme. No possibility for conflict, no possibility for discussion, no possibility for dialogue, for passionate opinions, ideas, beliefs. Impressive shyness and avoidance of one another. Social withdrawal but an intense family life. A true cult of family life, a family model that seems totally disconnected from urban life.
A search for purity of identity, for purity of relations, a truly imagined unity here. A truly simplified and secure environment. We are protecting our homes by all means. No confusion here, no overwhelming faces, no events. One wonders what should one, as a parent, teach one’s own children, except for feeding them, and taking care of them. How to enable them to stand on their feet in a multi-dimensional and plural world? How to prepare them for thinking and relatedness, for their place in the world? How to make them strong and immune to totalitarian ideas and screen-based politics if they do not encounter plurality in their daily lives, if they are not aware of their own and other people’s complexities? How to tell them why were they brought on this earth, of what bonds were they made of?
The other feature of this organised loneliness has to do with the fact that everyone is very busy and that for most people the need for spontaneous and leisure oriented activities ceases to exist. It is literally impossible to meet someone at the moment you need contact, that need or desire has to be postponed and arranged according to a tight schedule, which often means in several weeks, or months. How to foster intimate and true friendship in this desert of human relations? How to make oneself, out of what materials, if we cut out spontaneity, plurality, human contact, even and especially human conflicts?
This is an illusion of security. Here lives a society of fear. This is not only mine but our organised loneliness.
Leuven, May 2014.
Photo credits: Cover: Francesco Strazzari’s impression of the cover of ‘España oculta” by Cristina García Rodero. Inline: Brunilda Pali.