I asked my husband this morning if he had read my post about going to Belgium.
He read it.
Did you like it? I asked.
I did. It seems like you could have added more context on Brussels, thought, came his response.
So, I need to add more context on how we came to choose Brussels as our intended destination for the next four years and possibly beyond. There is so much to share that I have been searching for the right order with which to unload the events of the past several months.
I will start by saying that Belgium was not a part of the dialogue for quite a while. It began with my husband (remember, he is R) researching possible doctoral programs in France and contacting faculty at each institution.
R spent hours each day searching for possible programs at French universities. This meant trying to navigate some fairly hopelessly labyrinthine university websites and trying to understand the French university system (bonne chance!).
Our first destination became Metz or Nancy in the northeast corner of France, where a couple of faculty responded enthusiastically to the possibility of working with my husband. My husband emailed back and forth with both professors, revising his research proposal to meet their requirements until they sent a message saying that it had changed too much to fit with their research lab.
Huh. We were both perplexed, to say the least, but it seems that there is much that becomes lost in cultural translation, particularly when communication happens predominantly via email.
My husband wrote back to thank them for their time and also to communicate his surprise at their response. After he had contacted several professors at other institutions, he eventually received an email from the Metz faculty, stating that they would still like to work with him but it might be only one of them rather than both. By that point, we had already moved on to Paris, Lille, or Brussels.
R found a professor at a university in Brussels who had written a book he had found in his research and who was a member of a global media ecology network. And so, Brussels entered the scene.
The short list soon became Paris or Brussels, and we went back and forth each day on where we might wind up. Writing about it now, it seems a fairly mundane exercise, but at the time the limbo nearly drove me insane from the stress. I live in limbo a lot in my life. Life itself is a state of limbo, and I do my best to practice acceptance of the unknown. However, choosing to actively live in a place of limbo that goes beyond the daily vicissitudes represents a different level of madness. It was in the plane of madness that R and I took up residence until finally deciding on Brussels.
How did we decide?
Funding was a big issue. If you are over 31 and not a member of an EU country, it is very difficult to get funding for doctoral students in Belgium. While the Brussels program and faculty seemed a better fit than other possible programs, this initial discovery pushed us closer to Paris, where a university in Le Marais arrondissement (neighborhood) of the city had invited R to compete for a scholarship that would provide nearly $2k euro/month for the three years of the program. While Paris was much higher on the list than Brussels of most expensive cities to live in, we could not ignore the relief that a monthly scholarship could bring to our soon-to-be poor graduate student economic status.
R spent several more hours preparing a presentation for the scholarship competition and then flew to France (using my miles, I might add….not resentment there).
My nerves were nearly shot that week, while I waited in Arizona for news from Paris. R met with one professor whose research seemed a good fit for his interests. She spoke English a bit better than he spoke French, and his description their meeting at a burger joint in Paris was pretty hilarious.
She sat there rolling cigarette after cigarette and smoking in the restaurant, he told me. It was so funny. So French!
They really hit it off, and she asked R to keep her informed on his decision-making process. He had missed the initial scholarship deadline for the university where she worked in Paris, but sometimes scholarships were not all handed out in the first round and would become available later in the summer/fall.
The next day, R gave his presentation to a committee at the CNAM (Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers). He was one of five presenters for four scholarships.
In the end, the committee only wound up giving out three scholarships, and my husband was not one of the recipients. The professor he had been working with was not pleased after he spoke with members of the committee. It turned out that the committee members did not think my husband, the research librarian, had included enough research in his presentation. They also seemed to think he was only pursuing a possible paid ride to live in Paris for three years.
We were horrified. How could they have such a low opinion of my husband, who had spent hours creating a presentation and flown all the way to France! R was told by his professor and a colleague, who had also been interested in working with him, that ego played a large role in the committee’s decision-making process.
In order to demonstrate their point, one of them shared a metaphor about having to shoot a Frenchman several inches above his head because that was where his sense of self existed.
R was encouraged to write a letter requesting the committee to rethink their choice to withhold a scholarship for him, but in the end it did not make any difference. We decided that it was a sign from the universe that we were meant to go to Brussels.
R traveled to Brussels from Paris, where he spent a couple of days of reconnaissance. He met with professor Yani at the university he would eventually wind up choosing to pursue his doctoral studies. He ate frites and watched the Euro Cup. No waffles were sampled. Shocking, I know!
Brussels felt good. R described it as having a very international feel. It was more casual than Paris, and when he spoke French, the people responded in French. The city felt less chaotic and busy than Paris, which he thought might be a good fit for us since we tended to enjoy peaceful quiet.
By the time my husband returned home, it seemed that Brussels had risen to the top of the list. Gradually, we were moving through limbo to a state of some certainty.
Hip hip, hurray!
The process for getting there would prove to be yet another hurdle in our “Europe or Bust” adventure, but that is a story for another day.
Stay tuned for musings on the visa application process, which instruments to bring, and what to do with the furry four-leggeds!