🇧🇪 Fransje & Liliane

Beveren-Waas, November 2021

Growing Up

Fransje and her grandmother arranged to meet me at a cultural hall in Beveren-Waas, a suburb of Antwerp, where Franjse is from and her grandmother still lives. The culture hall is hosting a café that acts as spaces for organisations and some sports equipment. It seems to be the main meet-up place for the neighbourhood. On this somewhat rainy Sunday afternoon, many people gather here. The journey from the moment I closed my front door to the time I am sitting at the table took 1.5 hours. Everyone in the café speaks Flemish, which should come as no surprise, but my ears can't help but try to listen to the group sitting beside me to see if I can understand anything. 

Fransje arrives and sits down opposite me. After we have ordered drinks and food, it is only a short moment before Liliane and her husband arrive with their dog in their arms. Fransje warns me, her grandmother is really nervous. Neither of them talks much about politics between themselves and Lilian prefers to concentrate on more pleasant things. Nevertheless, both have agreed to give an interview. After a short round of introductions, Fransje's grandparents order drinks and I get out my notepad in the meantime. Liliane's husband is more reserved and a little shy. He keeps a low profile during the conversation and drinks in silence. Liliane speaks surprisingly good English and understands everything I ask. But the larger discussions between Fransje and her grandmother take place in Flemish and then Fransje translates for me anything I didn't understand. 

Liliane was born in 1939, near the small town of Beveren-Waas. She very rarely left Belgium. "We were a very poor family. After my sixth brother was born, our alcoholic father left us, leaving my mother alone with six children at the beginning of the Second World War.” She says she lacked nothing and had enough to eat during the war, but as the conversation progresses, an anecdote comes up and we understand that there were moments when food became scarce. Her brother, for lack of food, killed her cat and served it to her, making her think it was a rabbit. Liliane also recounts that her mother only ate when her children had already eaten and there was still food left. She also remembers the underground passages where civilians hid during the bombings and the sound of water running under the bunk beds. During and after the war, her mother worked in a bar. In the mornings before school, Lilian went there to have breakfast next to drunken old men. At 14, Liliane left school and started working as a seamstress for her uncle. Her uncle was very violent and constantly told her,"Seamstresses have to show good posture.".  

In 1957, Liliane was the same age as Fransje is today: 28. Liliane describes the world back then as slow, and her life as happy. No more bullying at school because her mother was in debt and she had no father."It was a quieter life, but I understood early on that the world was unfair."She worked with her husband in a bakery."It was a lot of work, but the people were pleasant."The bakery became the central place of the family, where the children and grandchildren grew up until the bakery was sold.

Fransje describes her world as very different from that of her grandmother. Liliane had a difficult childhood and was able to develop more and more over time. Fransje lacked nothing. But she sees that more effort has to be made now to maintain a certain standard of living.

Protect yourself 

Outside it is raining more and more, and the café is filling up. The clinking sounds of glasses clashing are becoming more and more audible, conversations are drowning in an inaudible babble of voices. I am busily taking notes on the stories being told to me. At the tables are mostly groups of older people or young couples enjoying the warmth and food of the place. I ask Liliane and Fransje if there is a historical or social event that was particularly profound in their lives. Liliane replies that she didn't get much from the outside world in her small village and that there was no event that was particularly formative for her. Fransje thinks for a while. Many things come to her mind, but one particular person who has become known beyond the borders of Belgium is the most memorable: Marc Dutroux. The serial killer who is known throughout Belgium and beyond. Numerous women and children had been abducted and raped by him. Fransje says that this had a strong impact on her childhood. She was told repeatedly to be careful. All parents were very afraid to let their children - especially the girls - out on the street. Fransje says,"That really shaped me. My mother kept telling me to be careful when I went into the street.".
That's when Liliane remembers an encounter: during a holiday in Spain when Liliane was already married, she went to the beach alone one morning to go snorkelling. A man came up to her and asked,"Are you going swimming now?"while approaching her. She tried to run away, but the man blocked her way."He blocked my way. I didn't know what to do. So I hit him in the face with one of my diving palms and ran away."Fransje laughs with a proud look at this story,"I have a badass grandmother! This is the first time I've heard of it."At that time, Liliane's husband had angrily told her not to go to the beach alone. 60 years separate the grandmother and granddaughter and yet they have had similar experiences. For a while, they exchange stories about this constant harassment that takes place in the lives of young women and is only talked about ashamedly or not at all.
Fransje was followed one evening during her Erasmus studies in France. She was going home from a party at night and could hear footsteps behind her. When she turned around, a man was very close behind her and tried to grab her. She slapped his hand and shouted in Flemish until he went away. Her grandmother then says,"I think there are more incidents like that today."But Fransje replies,"No, in your time there were also many incidents, but they were more hidden or people didn't recognise them. Today we talk about it..."We are interrupted, with new drinks brought to us. We look around and remember where we are. Fransje continues angrily,"Again and again they say to young women: 'Watch out when you go out.’ Only yesterday in the metro I heard a grandmother say to her granddaughter, ‘Watch out that no one puts anything in your glass.’"

Finally, I ask Fransje: "What do you associate with the word power?" - "For me, there are two kinds of power respons Fransje. One is to use one's power to harm others and to show one's superiority. This is always to be fought against. The other form of power is to step out of one's own circumstances and reach out to others. That means the power to get out of your social background, and assumptions, learn and develop the context you grew up with." Am Ende des Gesprächs mache ich ein Foto von den beiden Frauen. Der Hund darf natürlich nicht fehlen und sitzt auf dem Schoß von Liliane. Ich verlasse sie, um nach Brüssel zurückzukehren und vor allem, um sie den Freiraum zu lassen, über fröhlichere Themen zu sprechen, um unangenehme Situationen und manchmal verletzende Erinnerungen wieder zu vergessen. Ich bin dankbar, dass sie sich bereit erklärt haben, mir eine Stunde ihrer Zeit zu schenken und Geschichten zu teilen. Ich bin aber auch stolz darauf, dass sie in dieser Stunde etwas übereinander gelernt haben und sich vielleicht stärker gefühlt haben, nachdem sie sich an all ihre Geschichten erinnert haben und wissen, dass sie in der Lage sind, sich allem zu stellen.