James Ensor’s Colonial Connection

James Ensor’s Colonial Connection

On a routine visit to the archive in February 2022, I stumbled upon a letter signed by one of the most famous Belgian artists of the late 19th century, James Ensor. I was at the Archive et Musée de la Littérature in Brussels, looking at documents on performance groups in Belgium’s former colony of the Belgian Congo (current-day Democratic Republic of the Congo). It was while sifting through the letters of James Thiriar, a Belgian painter and sometimes–theater producer working in the Congo, that I encountered Ensor’s large, scrawled signature at the bottom of a short note from 1937. I was shocked to see, in the space of a few lines, Ensor alerting Thiriar to a new article he had written on “African masks.” I double-checked that I was not mixing up sender and recipient. If there was one thing about Ensor that I had learned at the myriad Belgian art museums displaying his art to this day, it was […]

Lifelong Lessons Learned in Luxembourg

When I think back on the nine months that were my English Teaching Assistantship, I am appalled at the speed with which they went by. I think of the lessons I learned, both intentionally and a majority of them accidentally. Big and small. Easy ones and challenging ones. I remember the countless buses and trains. The sprints to catch them and the looks of defeat at missing them (both mine and those I saw as I sat by the window while we pulled off). I remember the language barriers, the feelings of unfamiliarity and the triumph when I understood that the cashier had asked me whether I was paying with cash or card in French. And more lessons. Daily, weekly, monthly lessons. Giving lessons while learning them. Like, lesson one (in case you’re ever in Luxembourg): bring the Öko-Tut! Öko-Tuts are these eco-friendly bags that you purchase at stores across the country and when the time comes to restock your […]

A Street View of Belgium

One thing that almost immediately struck me about Belgium, and Flanders in particular, is the sheer amount of cardio that people do on a daily basis. I saw mothers biking their children to school, professionals in full business attire biking to work, and countless people jogging through the streets on a daily basis. I come from a running family—one of my earliest memories is being strapped into a bright red stroller that my mom would push in front of her as she logged her daily miles—so I wanted to get involved in the running scene during my time as a student at Ghent University. I had only done half-marathons up until this point, but this time I was going to go all-in. I signed up for the Ghent Marathon, and began training. After a tough day of classes, learning Swahili grammar or the principles of medical anthropology, running was a release of stress and stopped me from getting overwhelmed by […]

Tidbits of advice for future Fulbrighters in Belgium

My name is David Defries, and I am an associate professor of history at Kansas State University.I study the Middle Ages with specialties in the Christian cult of the saints and early medievalFlanders. My Fulbright fellowship helped fund a year-long sabbatical in Flanders, based at theKatholieke Universiteit Leuven, during which I worked on a book titled Flanders and the NorthAtlantic World, 864-1127. My sabbatical has been incredibly successful, even if in mostlyunexpected ways. The process of securing visas to spend the year in Belgium was byzantine. My partner, who isalso a professor and was also on sabbatical, and my 7-year-old daughter came with me. Onething that we did not understand is that apostilles are like state-level notary public stamps. Youhave to get the apostille from the government that issued the document. This meant that in themiddle of the COVID lockdown, we had to send to California from Kansas to obtain an apostilleversion of our marriage license. We spent over $1,000 […]

Embracing the moment

Perhaps the moment that best reflects my time in Luxembourg would be the night of my final Lëtz school. For a majority of my time in Luxembourg, my Wednesday night’s were spent within the walls of the monastery of the Brothers of Verbum Spei. Each week, the Brothers would welcome young adults to their home and present a seminar covering topics of philosophy and theology. Following the seminar, they would invite us upstairs to enjoy snacks, home made beers, and fellowship. It was a true community. When the night was ready to be concluded we would gather in their chapel to pray together before returning to our homes. During the closing prayer of my final Lëtz school the magnitude of the last nine months finally hit me. I remember as people left the chapel one by one I remained on the floor with tears in my eyes for the first time in a long while. Yet the tears were not […]

Trains of Thought

Over these last few months of my Fulbright English Teaching Assistant grant, I’ve been enjoying my commute to school, gazing out the window of my train as it zooms past the mountains, the rivers, and the farms of Luxembourg. But I can still remember my apprehension when I first learned that I would be traveling 63 kilometers (about two hours) on the train each way from my host city of Esch-sur-Alzette, in the south, to teach at a wonderful secondary school and an amazing primary school in the small town of Clervaux in the north, an area known for its historical significance as a site of heavy combat in WWII’s Battle of the Bulge. After crunching the numbers, I discovered that I was traveling across approximately three-quarters of the entire country each way.  Despite the long distance, over the nine months of the grant, I’ve come to savor these long train rides. The trains have not only transported me from […]

A Taste of Ghent

Tucked away in Flanders, Ghent is an interesting mix of old and new: known for its Medieval architecture and famous historical skyline, the city is also very much alive and equally known for its vibrant student culture, music, and art scene. There’s something for everyone in this hidden gem of a European travel destination. You can take a kayak down one of the canals, enjoy a drink on a café terrasse, stroll along the banks of the Leie river, and check out the city’s formidable Gravensteen castle. The view from the Belfry, topped with a golden dragon affectionately nicknamed Roland, offers a beautiful vista which includes the city’s cathedrals. If you’re a fan of Medieval art, the Ghent altarpiece in St. Bavo’s cathedral is a must-see with a mysterious past (a significant story lurks behind the unsolved case of a missing panel.) If you’re a fan of spontaneous street art, take a quick look at Graffitistraat or sign up for […]

Honorable chair, distinguished delegates: a Belgian delegation to the London International Model United Nations Conference

One of the most unexpected and rewarding parts of the last several months has been my work with a newly formed Model United Nations delegation. BelgaMUN, as the fledging delegation has come to be called, is the first delegation to unite bachelor’s and master’s students from Flemish- and French-speaking universities across Belgium, including some from my placement, l’Université Saint-Louis in Brussels. Together we attended the London International Model United Nations Conference in February 2022.  The students who participated in BelgaMUN did so as incredibly hard-working volunteers. They participated not for class credit or degree requirements, but for their belief in the work of the UN, for their belief in the value of model UN experiences, and for their belief in the concept of a united Belgian delegation of students, regardless of their mother tongue or university affiliation. I met these students for the first time in September when they arrived from cities and towns all over the country at the […]

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