Living in a city is practical, environmental, energetic, culturally interesting, overwhelming and challenging. Our family goes to school and workby bike, but metro, tram, bus, care sharing or bike sharing alternatives are literally around the corner. We combine city life during the week with walks and gardening just outside the city in the weekend. The children can find clubs within a 3 kilometre radius around the house, offering courses in anything from deep sea diving to football, arts or music. The abundance of cultural activities is overwhelming, with performances, museums and activities in every language and for every budget. Going to the library or market, I probably hear about 5 languages on average in the streets. There is French and Dutch, but also German, English, Arab, Polish, Albanian and Moroccan.
Oh, the hard life of too many options! What shall I do? Which language shall I speak? Which options to choose? Pity the fool, who lives in Brussels. It is hard to be a city dweller, I tell you… * sigh*
Of course, I’m taking the Mickey out of you. In reality, we run on routine. We ignore the majority of the options, behave as we always have, do what we mostly do. Arriving in Brussels 10 years ago, a friend with much more city experience warned me: “Watch out: Brussels can be your best lover, but she can always sneak up on you.” What he meant was that coming from a small town, the thrill of living in the ‘big, anonymous city’ is fantastic. Even in a ‘small’ big city like Brussels with 1 million inhabitants, you can disappear in the crowd. You can go, learn, act and love whatever you feel like without crossing neighbours, ideas or friends. The magic of cities, for me, lies in the freedom.
The downside – and my friend had experienced that – was that liberty can come as a huge price: indifference. Nobody hassles you about the choices you make, but nobody really cares either. In abundance the enemy sleeps. With a thousand choices to make, it is less likely you will run into the neighbour you just greeted for the first time, meet the lovely guy again in the pub or get recognised by the cashier lady while doing grocery shopping. If it weren’t for my kids, there would be days I would hardly (need to) hear my own voice.
And so it goes: if you were to ask me, where I lived, I spontaneously would answer “Anderlecht” instead of Brussels. Or to be more precise: “the old Anderlecht, near the football stadium”. Sticking to routines, I created a village within the city that knows me, where I feel at home. Sure, this village has different boundaries than you might think. It is not restricted to streets, languages, religion or ages. My village consist of my Polish baker who puts aside my usual cinq croissants when I show up half awake on Saturday morning, the Flemish librarian who smiles every time I take out gardening books (knowing I will pay fines for not returning them on time), my daily bike trip along the park where a French old gentleman waits for me to greet him (I don’t know his name, but noticed his dog is no longer with him). It is buying hallal hotdogs if we organise a birthday party, using sign language when I congratulate my Russian neighbour on having a new baby, saying hey to someone in the community center who you will meet again across town an hour later because you both have to pick up your son at the youth movement centre.
I’m lucky. I feel at home. I am at home, in this city of choices. For years, this was not the case. Even living in Brussels, my closest friends didn’t live here and our relationship was created long before arriving to the city. Because how do you make friends in a city? Who do you turn to with questions? Who wants me here? Can somebody please talk to me!
I wonder: would my integration gone smoother nowadays with social media and social innovations? In the recent years, at the Social Innovation Factory, we see a lot of innovative minds coming up with solutions for loneliness and lack of social cohesion. In fact, the majority of àll the societal innovations, have a social goal, at some point. Do you hear the irony: the beauty of the city is the fact that you can create a village within?
That is why I applaud those social innovators: they challenge jobseekers, home owners, newcomers or pioneers into connecting with others, so they too can create their own super divers ‘villages’ in the city. The innovators of Peerby for instance, created an app that lets you exchange stuff with your neighbours. It is cheaper than buying (yet another machine that would mostly collect dust in your attic anyhow), more ecological since you save on materials ànd more social. I do not consider them my friends, but after borrowing a sleeping bag, I now know that there is a lady living from three blocks down from me who has a lovely smile. And across the park the street seems less anonymous knowing that a family of five lives there who have travel books.
If I need help, have a question or want to help others, I can post it in one of the “Dare to ask” groups online or I check in with Solidare-it!, a new online platform that links people who want to help to those who need help (assisted by a social organisation, in case they don’t have internet). The pioneering work of Kenniscentrum Woonzorg Brussel is also promising. In their project “Neighbourhood pension” (Buurtpensioen) they connect people who are in need of care with those who can (still) provide it. By helping them, you earn points, which you can either donate to the organisation, transfer to someone who did not have the time to earn credits themselves or save them for a rainy day. When you later on become in need yourself, you use the points to make your pension last longer by relying on the help from others.
Another example: looking for a job is always daunting and depressing. When you are a young non-European the challenge is even bigger. Duo for a Job wants to give everyone the opportunity to find work, thanks to intergenerational mentoring. The results of their approach are amazing, as is the scheme’s financing through a Social Impact Bond. They link young job-seeking immigrants with people aged 50 or over who are willing to coach them, in the conviction that each can broaden the other’s horizons. It has already had 160 duos working together in Brussels for six months. Successfully. 35 to 40 percent of them find a job within six months, whereas on average only 29 percent of young people in Brussels with a migrant background are able to find work within a year. But it’s more than that: the duos also find jobs at the right educational level, another 40 percent start an apprenticeship or training course and even the remaining 20 percent say that the experience has made them stronger. Even for the coaches, the volunteer work offers them connections and insights they would not have gained anywhere else.
You see, people, this give me hope. The city reinvents itself. Bottom-up, (still) small-scale and very social.