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Understanding Belgium: Classes, coaching and events designed to help expats integrate

Sep 29, 2017
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Puzzled by Belgium? Look no further, the Belgian Academy of Culture and History specialises in courses in English explaining how and why the country works.

They are run by researcher Mirella Marini who shares teaching duties with a roster of guest lecturers. A woman on a mission, she is passionate about history and helping people feel more at home in Belgium. The classes are also designed to be of interest to Belgians and show them how the different regions have a shared history.

Multilingual Marini is Belgian, living in Vlaams-Brabant, but boasting international roots. Her father is Italian and her mother has a German, Belgian, Dutch and French background. Marini’s husband is a French-speaking Belgian with Belgian, Dutch, English, Jewish and American heritage.

After studying history at university in Leuven (KUL), Marini conducted doctoral research in Amsterdam and later worked as a researcher at the University of Antwerp. It was her experience as an expat in the Netherlands that forged her interest in explaining the underlying cultural motives of a country. “A better understanding leads to less misconceptions, less conflict, less communication problems, as well as an improvement of the relation you have with your cultural surroundings here. It also helps you to become a happier person,” she says.

Belgium has a reputation for being a notoriously complex country. For Marini, the historical context of federalism, dating from the 19th century, is key to understanding its structures. “It’s important to show people the reasons behind it, why people thought it was a good idea. I’m not saying they were right, but I want to give context to what people see every day,” she says.

One of the most popular courses is The History of Belgium Integration, which takes place in autumn winter and spring in Brussels and is now also available as an online course (this makes distance learning possible: you can access it anytime, anywhere). Other classes include History coaching: in search of your personal history, and Congo: before, during and after colonisation.

Says one former student of the integration course, Lorena from Costa Rica: “Now when I hear political or historical conversations around, I no longer feel like a foreigner who has just arrived, I can participate and, curiously, on many occasions I have the impression of knowing more of the history than the locals.”

Learning about Belgium is not restricted to newcomers. Sarah, who is Irish and has been in Brussels for 10 years, signed up because she knew little about what makes Belgium the country it is today. "It can be easy to live in an international bubble in Brussels but that also means you can miss out on a real connection to your adopted country," she says.

Another Brussels-based Ireland native, Enda, was motivated to take the course because he had so many questions. “My desire to find answers and learn more about Belgium was heightened by all the commentary about Belgium being a failed state following the terrorist attacks in March 2016. I got the impression that there were many misconceptions about the country, particularly among expats and I felt that I shouldn't engage in criticism of Belgium if I didn't actually know anything about it."

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