I met delightful Belgian couple Ben and Leny on the Bolivian leg of their world wide wander; Ben taking a break from his physiotherapy practice and Leny (like so many of our generation) deciding on her next move. I identified hugely with Leny, as like me she had recently quit her job and was in a decision-making process conducted in the colourful surrounds of South America. We met on the Bolivian salt flats as we transversed them with a variety of interesting characters. Later on, we took that party to Sucre; eating enormous vats of spicy food (before stomach bugs would eventually render me useless) and putting others to shame on the dance floor.
How has being Belgian left its mark on you?
BEN: I think it leads to not being as vocal or expressing your opinions as much as other nationalities do. I’m introverted and I don’t always speak my mind. I was always taught that you don’t have to be the most exuberant person in a group to be liked.
LENY: We constantly compare ourselves with the Dutch. We speak the same language, but Belgians, and I, are very modest. We often won’t dare to make our point. If we think something we won’t necessarily say it. That the Dutch make things happen and “get further” than the Belgians is something you know from childhood.
What would your 13-year-old self think about you if they met you?
BEN: First, they’d say: “What’s with the double chin?!” No, but really, they’d be fairly content that I never did what I didn’t want to do, that I never caved in. And I have a girlfriend now, so that’s new – they’d say “Goooood!”
LENY: She’d think “What happened?” (laughs) At 13 I had a lot of dreams, I thought I would have a great job and know what I wanted to do by now.
If you could meet your 13-year-old self, what would you say to them?
BEN: Go with the flow.
LENY: Don’t pay attention to what other people think. Dare to have dreams and follow them.
How do you make decisions?
BEN: If something comes to me, I take it. I’m opportunistic.
LENY: I think a lot, but in the end, I don’t know what to do, even if I have listed pros and cons. I want to keep my options open, like for example, I made the decision when I was younger as to what to study…but I think I made it too fast.
Do you think you’re on the right path?
BEN: (sincerely) Yeah.
LENY: I’m at a crossroads and don’t really know which way is the right one.
How do you feel when you think about your future?
BEN: I think you can’t control the future, you have to handle it as it comes. Something always happens which you can’t account for.
LENY: I think a lot about it and want to do many things. I imagine a bright future: With kids, a career, an open mind.
What fascinates you about Belgium?
BEN: That we’ve been able to be such a fucked up nation, but still be a nation.
LENY: That people are happy with a traditional life – kids, marriage, a house and garden, a family vacation each year. I want a bit more.
BEN: That we’ve come this far.
LENY: That people can reach for the stars if they really want to do something. During my travels, I’ve heard a lot of stories. It’s cliché, but it’s what fascinates me: That people can go further.
BEN: That I’m always objective. I’m able to look at what I’ve done from a third person’s perspective.
LENY: That I have such a childish way of looking at things.
What scares you about Belgium?
BEN: Nationalism in the Flemish part. That people want to split up the country.
LENY: The state of the election in 2010 when the country remained without an elected government for so long. At that time, the parties stuck to their ideas and wouldn’t change.
BEN: That we’ve come this far and don’t realise that we’re fucking it up. And that some of us know what we should do, but that we don’t. And other people’s ignorance as to all our problems.
LENY: How little it takes us not to care about others and not see them as people.
BEN: That I know what I should do, but I don’t always do it.
LENY: My indecisiveness. It’s terrible.