Letter from Ghent, Belgium

Jozefien De Bock

Dr. Jozefien De Bock WH Top Banner.

I am writing this letter from the terrace of our tiny but lovely courtyard, with my back to our tiny but lovely 19th-century workman’s house in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Ghent. We are lucky with the set-up for our quarantine. Both working in education and research, we can work from home. Blessed with a one-year-old baby, we are never, ever bored.”—Jozefien De Brock

Trying to Figure It Out

By Dr. Jozefien De Bock

Aerial view of Ghent, Belgium.

Aerial view of Ghent, Belgium.

Dr. Jozefien De Bock, Weekly HubrisGHENT Belgium—(Weekly Hubris)—1 May 2020—I am writing this letter from the terrace of our tiny but lovely courtyard, with my back to our tiny but lovely 19th-century workman’s house in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Ghent. We are lucky with the set-up for our quarantine. Both working in education and research, we can work from home. Blessed with a one-year-old baby, we are never ever, bored.

In Belgium, “lockdown light” began on March 13th and should end around May 15th, or so we are being told. All restaurants and cafés are closed—for a party-city like Ghent, this was unimaginable, until it happened. Only shops providing food are open; all other shops are closed. Medical providers have cancelled all “non-urgent” appointments (basically anything that you won’t die of immediately). We are forbidden to go to the beach or to the Ardennes, the only real wooded area in Belgium. However, this is still a light version of what many other European countries are going through. Unlike, e.g., the people in France, we can still walk and cycle as often as we want, albeit near our house. Families like ours, with small children, are even allowed to drive to a nearby nature reserve to hike, which is an enormous blessing. Our favorite bakery is still baking our favorite bread, and we are free to cycle the extra mile to go get it.

Clearly, we have no right to complain about anything, and yet . . . .

As I am blessed and cursed with a body that immediately reacts to any kind of stressor, both acute and chronic, this past month has not been without problems. Last week, things came to a peak with several days of extremely painful stomach cramping, lasting anywhere from a couple of hours to all through the night, leaving me completely debilitated. As a result, my husband decided that it was time our boy went back to day care (which never really closed in Belgium).

So, this morning, feeling sick with guilt and fear, I delivered our little guy to day care. He is started up in a new group with three other small children who have also stayed at home until now, and guided by two lovely ladies who also have not been in contact with anyone for the past weeks. They all seemed very relaxed, and my baby was actually thrilled to be back there (it is a lovely place, with a huge garden) instead of stuck in our little house and courtyard. Talking to one of the mums, I managed to diminish some of the guilt:  they are in pretty much the same situation as we are, and have made the same decision. But still . . .  sitting here and writing this letter, I am finding it difficult to breathe.

Being the mother of another baby boy who was lost during pregnancy due to a bacterial infection, I am concerned about our little one’s health more than the average (sane) mum. I have been in therapy for this, and it has helped, but COVID-19 does put a strain on my progress. Old demons are flying back in, showing themselves in my many nightmares, which invariably deal with some kind of disease that hits one or many of my loved ones. I guess that, at night, my rational self, occupied with work and day-to-day affairs during the day, is being overruled by my subconsciousness, which would rather focus on protecting the people I love. As I listen to our politicians talk about the urgency of restarting the Belgian economy, I hope they will also consider our lives. And I am hoping I will get better soon, so I can bring our baby boy back home.

Jozefien De Bock

About Jozefien De Bock

Dr. Jozefien De Bock is a historian with an MA from Ghent University (Belgium) and a PhD from the European University Institute (Florence, Italy). She is a public historian who spends her time and energy to ensure that the findings of her research reach an audience wider than the two reviewers of the papers she now and then submits to academic journals,  just for the sake of it. She is an unwilling as-yet-unpublished author currently based in the beautiful medieval city of Ghent. And she is the mother of Thomas and Pieter-Jan, two baby boys, one now a star in the sky, the other a happy little fellow here on earth.  Until recently, she pursued a career in both academia and the cultural sector, working at the University of Ghent as well as for various museums and archives. At the moment, however, she finds herself in the shoes of many, many women before her, home with the baby she loves so much but without the job she worked so hard for. Basically, she is looking for ways to combine motherhood, a very sensitive body and mind, and a fulfilling professional career (and utterly failing to do so). (Author Photo: Matthew Langthorne.)
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