509.The Man in Blue – Big decisions !

Life ain’t easy ! Those that know me and those of you who read column 503 and 504, know that I want to go back to Southall.

Although Belgian Limburg is not a bad part of the world, and although I love the walking and cycling, I do miss the big sangat and the many Gurdwaré of London. I miss the big city atmosphere and all the buses, trams, undergrounds and trains. I miss meeting with people of many cultures and religions, I miss working together with people of all different backgrounds.

And in this first generation community you do not have the diversity of sangat that you have amongst the well-established Sikhs in the UK.

Two weeks ago in the Gurdwara, after the Sunday divan, I was called into the room where committee members and some others active in the community sat together. They promised me to support me financially if that was needed to keep me one more year in Sint-Truiden. This came not just from committee members but also from ordinary members of the sangat.

I am in a difficult position. I badly want to go back to the UK (see above), but here I helped start various projects in education that are not easy to leave.

I recently discovered that the two UK organisations that have been my main sources of income over the ten years that I lived in West London do have work for me, but no money to pay me. Although I think that in the UK I will be able to earn some money to top up my pension (I’ll be 65 on the 6th of May), there is the added problem of currency conversion.

I will receive three bits of pension, and two of these are in Euros. With Spain causing new unrest and the conversion rate between sterling and the Euro already down to about 80 pence this will add to the uncertainty.

Sorry to bore you with my personal financial affairs, but these are important issues. I am sure that there are many people who have lived both in the UK and in the Euro-zone and who face similar problems.

And trusting in God does not mean that one should not look at all sides of a question like the above. To cut a long story short, I have decided to stay here one more year till June 2013.

My Dutch pension will just about cover my expenses here, and if I can earn some more money doing tuition and by charging for some of the things that I have done  for free so far, I might be able to recoup part of the 8000 Euros that I spent here the last two year.

Please UK friends and relatives come and visit us here in Belgian Limburg. Eurostar still offers tickets to any Belgian station, and although the Brussels area is famous for its overcrowded motorways, driving from Calais to Sint-Truiden is not too bad.

And next year is going to be exiting as we might be able to lift the ban on the wearing of patka, turban and híjáb in secondary schools this country !

493.The Man in Blue – Guru Nanak Nagar Kirtan, Sint-Truiden 23 October 2011

I do not think that there is a religious obligation to organise Nagar Kirtans on or near Vaisakhí or the birthday of Guru Nanak. But Nagar Kirtans can be used to make non-Sikhs more familiar with our beliefs, practices and traditions. Most countries in continental Europe do not have a long shared history with Sikhs, and their populations are not aware of the ‘what and why’ of the beards and turbans.

All occasions outside the Gurdwara should be used to manifest our values. This applies to the Levensloop fundraiser and the Kamal Nath demonstration that I have described in my two previous articles. It also is relevant for our annual trip to Ieper, where we remember all the young men who gave their lives in World War I, and to the Vaisakhí and Guru Nanak Nagar Kirtan.

During the Levensloop fundraiser and the 11 November Ieper parade and ceremony the emphasis should be on our visible presence and the joined remembrance of the dead of all nationalities of World War I.

During a Nagar Kirtan or a demonstration we should have banners and handouts in the local language, which make clear why we are ‘singing of Guru’s hymns in the town’, or why we are demonstrating. In this context the shouting of Khalistan slogans instead of Kamal Nath slogans was not helpful.

In the period preceding the Nagar Kirtan we used the experience of last year to get the ‘official’ part of the organisation sorted out in time and equally to get all the materials and vehicles needed in place for the day.

Last year the Nagar Kirtan was held mid-November, and it was a dark and dreary day, although it stopped raining shortly after we left the Gurdwara. This time it was a brilliantly sunny autumn day, which helped to bring more locals out of their houses.

It was a pity that the French Gatka group was not able to come, but we managed through the efforts of some of our older members, who did manage to demonstrate some of the skills involved in Gatka.

The Sint-Truiden Sikh community always honours non-Sikhs with whom we have a good relationship, varying from the mayor, someone from the local police to a representative of Masala, a group of volunteers who do their utmost to help newcomers in this country and a lady from the Naamsesteenweg who is always happy to help new residents in her area.

We honoured our mayor, Ludwig Vandenhove together with the visiting mayor of Sint-Truiden’s sister city in Nicaragua. Last year another visiting group from Nicaragua came to the Gurdwara, and asked us very good questions, showing a real interest in our faith and culture. Even in Nicaragua the awareness of Sikhí is increasing through our activities in Belgium !

491.The Man in Blue – Levensloop, Sint-Truiden 1 and 2 October 2011

‘Levensloop’ (walk for life) is a fundraiser to help people suffering from cancer. The walk started at 4 pm on Saturday and finished 24 hours later. Participants could walk or run, and the idea was that throughout the 24 hours each team would have at least one member running or walking.

Palwinder Kaur, who works in the Sint-Truiden town hall, appealed on the Sunday before to the Gurdwara sangat, which resulted in more than 50 volunteers coming forward. We wanted to support the charity but we also saw this as an excellent opportunity to show that Sikhs want to work together for the common good with our fellow human beings of whatever background.

We demonstrated that Sikhs, with and without turban, are not people who only are concerned about their own group issues.

The main ‘events’ of the ‘Levensloop’ were the opening and closing rounds, when all team members, including VIPs, took part. Seeing so many Sikhs wearing turbans walking through the park around the ‘Speelhof’ buildings was very good and we had many positive reactions from fellow participants.

Sint-Truiden is a small market town and it is blessed with some very nice parks and around it are many country lanes which are ideal for people like me who like walking and cycling. Although I have taken part in the ‘Sikhs in the City’ relay marathon, I am not a runner.

It enjoyed taking part and to notice that due to my daily cycling and walking I was in good condition. I found it easy to walk several rounds, take a little rest and start again. The response from other participants was mostly positive, but when I walked early on the Sunday morning I felt a bit uncomfortable as some of the younger walkers were not quite sober.

Apart from fundraising through walking or running we also raised money through selling parkoré. Nanak Singh, the Gurdwara cook, and his volunteers had been busy and we had enough to serve both our own people and the more adventurous Limburgers. We also offered tea and free cola. Even I drank coke, not because I like it, but because I was thirsty and there was nothing else available.

When we walked the last round the sangat started doing simran, which was wonderful.

Sikhs would do themselves an enormous favour if they were to do more seva outside the Gurdwara. The true Sikh, the true Khalsa is she or he who serves all.

Guru told us to fight against injustice, nowadays we specialise in fighting each other. Guru told us to serve all, we prefer to serve only fellow Sikhs.

486.The Man in Blue – San Bonifacio (Verona) – Montecchia di Crosara (Verona) – Sint-Truiden (Limburg)

I came back to San Bonifacio from Pegognaga on Sunday evening 31 July and was booked to leave by train from Verona to Sint-Truiden on the evening of 5 August.

I stayed three nights in the Gurdwara, the second night disturbed by the heat, the mosquitoes and the 3 am arrival of the 10 young men strong Jatha of Duisburg (Germany) based Bhai Ranjit Singh. The third night I slept even less as there was a short-circuit in the system and the fuses kept tripping : no electricity, no fan !

The rooms in the front part of the Gurdwara are underneath a flat roof on which the hot summer sun shines all day, so you can imagine that nights without the cooling effect of a fan are tough. Opening the windows more mosquitoes enter, and these got to my feet and arms even when the fan was on.

So on Wednesday I made an emergency phone call to Montecchia and asked Harpal Singh and Gurminder Kaur if I could come back to their apartment for the last two nights. Gurminder Kaur told me that their house was my house.

On Thursday I went to the Gurdwara from early afternoon to early evening and on Friday I stayed in Montecchia till 4 pm. Bhai Manjit Singh came to visit us and we returned him home before I went for my last visit to the San Bonifacio Gurdwara.

It was good to see Bhai Manjit Singh before going back to Belgium, as it was on his invitation that I came to Italy in the first place. It was also good to say goodbye to many of the friends I made in the gurdwara since arriving on the 18th of July.

Another resident of the Piazza Umberto in Montecchia together with my tabla playing friend brought me to the station.

The train from Venezia to Paris Bercy arrived 25 minutes late in Verona and 2 hours late in Paris. I missed my connection but the Thalys staff at the Gare du Nord booked me on a train to Brussel that had spare seats. I arrived in Sint-Truiden at 15.43, three hour later than expected.

On the way out I shared the Paris – Verona ‘train-a-couchettes’ with a French couple, two Korean girls (or Japanese or Chinese ?) and an Italian girl.

On the return the ‘crew’ was made up of a young Italian woman who was going to walk from the French side of the Roncesvalles pass to Santiago de Compostella, one older Italian woman who was going to cycle in Bretagne (Brittany), one French men of African descent who also spoke Italian and an Italian father and son from Alto Adige/Südtirol. Südtirol is an autonomous German speaking part of Italy between Bolzano (Bozen) and the Brenner Pass.

This just goes to show how interesting it is to travel slowly, in spite of the minor delays ! In my next column, which will be less of a travel log, I will look back on my Italian experiences from the Sikh point of view.

482.The Man in Blue – Sint-Truiden – Brussel – Paris – Verona

Manjit Singh, who lives in San Giovanni near Verona, twice came to the Sangat Sahib Gurdwara in Sint-Truiden to do katha, and we became friends. He is in his thirties and speaks Panjabi and English.

He invited me to come and visit him in Italy, and meet with the Sikh communities there. As I did not fancy the Ryan Air flight from Charleroi to Verona I decided to go by train, which is at least twice as expensive. For 250 Euro I bought a ticket to Verona Puerta Nova, valid from any Belgian station, via Brussel and Paris.

From Sint-Truiden I took the ordinary IC train to Brussel Midi, changed there for the Thalys (high speed train) to Paris Nord, then by metro from Paris Nord to Bercy (change at Chatelet) and from Bercy by ‘train à couchettes’ to Verona.

In a train ‘train à couchettes’ you travel in a compartment that seats six people, which at night is converted into a compartment with six beds. I am not a good sleeper, not even in my own bed, but at least you do not have to sit up all night. My fellow passengers were a French couple, a young Italian lady and two even younger ladies who were Chinese, Korean or Japanese. As is mostly the case on these trips at the end of the night you are a bit like a little family.

This train was non-stop between Paris and Milano. All went well as far as Milano Centrale, reasonably well between Milano and Brescia and became real Italian between Brescia and Verona, where we arrived at about 10.00 am instead of 7.25. This was mainly due to a long and unexplained period of non-movement between Brescia and Verona.

From Verona I took a bus to the wrong San Giovanni, and had to return to Verona from where I went by local train to San Bonifacio. Two Singhs met me there and walked me to the local Gurdwara, the Associazone Guru Nanak, Mission Seva Society.

I met with a Granthi and a Pardhan who both spoke English. They recently had a change of committee, and the old Pardhan and the new one were peacefully sitting in the same room. These are un-Sikh practices, I must bring it to the notice of the Akál Takhat Jathedar and request him to issue a hukamnama against it.

My best encounter of the afternoon was with four girls who were in the higher classes of the secondary school. They spoke sufficient English to have a good conversation with. The main subject was : I study economics, how can I be a good economist from guru’s point of view. I worked very simple with the principles of simran, honest work and sharing.

After rahiras I was given a lift to the right San Giovanni by Manjit Singh’s sister (who also speaks good English) where I was delighted to meet Manjit Singh.

461.The Man in Blue – Wednesday, Friday and Saturday

I have been in Sint-Truiden, Belgian Limburg for almost 8 months. By now I know the local Sikh community quite well, and I have found some new good friends amongst them.   

Since the 1st of January I live in a small ‘studio-apartment’ in central Sint-Truiden, but I still spent most mornings in the Gurdwara. In the late afternoon I again cycle to Halmaal to attend Rahras and Sukhasan and help Granthí Singh when needed.

What I have not yet achieved is to have a full variety of friends of all ages, male and female and from different communities. But I am making progress.

Last week Wednesday I went to Leuven. I went to see a student who is writing a thesis on the Sikhs. We met a number of times in the Gurdwara but this was the first time I went to Leuven to see her. She was at the station and we went to one of the University buildings to discuss the progress of her project.

After that we walked back to the station taking the ‘scenic route’ and I took the train back to Sint-Truiden. Nothing special happened, but we do feel at ease with each other in spite of the age difference. I enjoy talking to her and walking with her and I know that she also feels at ease with me.

On Friday I went to Hasselt to meet somebody we closely work with in the ‘campaign’ to convince the educational sector and the politicians that allowing hijáb, turban and patka in schools will not cause a revolution in Belgium.

She works for an outfit that supports organisations set up by immigrants or children of immigrants. On this visit I first met a young woman who is partly of Kurdish descent and then I spoke to the person I came to see who hails from Kosovo, and to a young Berber trainee, who wore a híjáb.

Three women of different ages, all three from Muslim countries but with quite different cultural backgrounds, and different degrees of commitment to the faith they grew up with.

This 63 year old Sikh Netherlander, born in Dutch Limburg, living in Belgian Limburg, cannot even begin to tell you how much he enjoyed talking to and listening to these fellow human beings.

You can wear a híjáb and work together peacefully with people with a different outlook on life. You or your parents may come from Morocco, Kosovo or south-eastern Turkey but you can find a place for yourself in Belgian Limburg, speak Dutch with a local accent and not lose your connection with your background.

On Saturday I went to see friends in Brussel. The wife grew up in Austria and is of Panjabi Sikh background and he is from France. Long live diversity !

438.The Man in Blue – Three Months in Sint-Truiden

 I started writing this week’s column on the 15th of September, which is near enough three months after the 17th of June when I left the UK. Apart from some seriously annoying bureaucracy around where I can live to have a legal ‘domicile’ in this country, without which I will not get an ID card, no medical care, no use of the library and a few more related issues, I am happy living here.

There is also a serious problem with racism, with especially the radical Flemish party propagating a narrow interpretation of ‘Flanders for the Flemish’. But we must not underestimate the racism in the UK, openly propagated by the dirty rag called the Daily Mail.

I am happy here because I live near a small market town that reminds me of the slightly bigger small city where I was born. Wherever I am in the borough of Sint-Truiden (which includes the surrounding villages) I am within minutes from the countryside on my 50 Euro wonderful new second-hand bicycle.

There is an extensive network of country lanes and enough hilly bits to keep the old man in good shape in spite of the karah prasad, the mattai and the sometimes over rich Gurdwara food.

I am happy because I feel very much at home in the local Sikh community, and I have also met a good few ‘white’ inhabitants of Sint-Truiden who are not frightened of people who look different.

I am happy because I can make a contribution to more understanding between communities in this country. Many Belgians believe that turban and hijáb represent anti-Belgian values, symbolise a wish not to integrate.

Our most urgent problem is the ban on wearing of turbans, hijábs etc in many of the secondary schools. I was involved in three actions related to this problem. The first was a meeting with a Christian Democrat politician, the second the answering of a letter from the leader of the Flemish Socialist Party and the third a manifestation on one of the squares of Sint-Truiden.

Both the meeting with the Flemish Christian Democrat MP and the Action in Sint-Truiden involved Sikh youngsters, with the grey beards in the background. I have made some nice pictures of the manifestation in Sint-Truiden, which will appear on my Flickr account and on my maninblue1947 blog.

Because we are a small, mostly first generation community, the young Sikhs who are growing up here and are being educated in Belgium are the only ones who speak fluent Flemish and therefore they get a chance to play a leading role. This is important as another ‘western’ prejudice is that all young Sikhs who wear turbans or patkas are victims of dictatorial parents who force this on their children. There is plenty to do for me here, there are some real challenges here and I like it.

434.The Man in Blue – Meeting Limburgers

Last week I went on my bicycle to Hoepertingen to visit the local Gurdwara. I did not go along the main road, but followed one of the cycle routes which you find throughout Limburg. These routes are not the shortest way to get from A to B, but they do take you along nice country lanes.

Hoepertingen is part of the borough of Borgloon, just to the east of Sint Truiden. I planned to use a route north of the village and then turn right into a ‘dirt road’ which would take me straight to the Gurdwara.

 The map I have is quite good, it shows all the metalled roads and most of the ‘dirt roads’, but not all of them, and when I came to a crossing with a slightly wider road I was sure that I missed my turnoff.

I spotted a farmer and asked him for directions. He was helpful and we had a very interesting conversation. The gentleman (he was a gentle man), asked me if I believed in God, and I answered that through following Guru’s way I met with God.

The farmer had lost his belief in the ‘church’ but was still interested in God. I explained that our ‘church’ also had its fair share of dodgy characters, but I tried to follow God and the Guru Granth, which contains the light of God.

We also talked about Jesus, who did not found a Church bureaucracy with Popes, Archbishops, Bishops and other VVIPs. His followers were simple fisherman and Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, were simple people too. I explained the notion of dharm to him, the importance of being righteous, to be a positive force in society.

It was not just me who did the talking, and I was not preaching at him, I just tried to explain what guided my life, trying to share my experiences. When I talked about the fact that teachings on honesty, sharing and compassion are what the world religions have in common, he agreed.

He told me about a Turkish friend of his who had invited him to his house. Like most Turkish people he was a Muslim, and my new friend had no problem with that, but he did not like it when it was made clear to him that all non-Muslims are unbelievers.  

I have had mixed experiences in Belgian Limburg. I have been called Osama Bin Laden, some idiots shouted ‘jihad, jihad’ at me and some others called me Sint Nicolaas (Santa Claus). But I also met Limburgers who were open minded and interested to learn more about other traditions.

My best experience so far was a visit to the Mosque where we sat together after evening prayers and had a very constructive conversation.

424.The Man in Blue – London Ieper Sint Truiden

I am writing this article in my room in Gurdwara Sangat Sahib on the 22nd of June 2010. Yesterday was the first day that I had access to the internet since my departure from Southall on the 17th. After clearing the backlog of hundreds of unread emails I am now writing the column that should have appeared on my blog during the last weekend. Later I will again visit the local library and post ‘news-clippings’ and pictures.

I travelled from London with Amrik Singh (Airport), his wife Jaswinder Kaur and his son Dildip Singh and we crossed to France via the Channel tunnel. Amazingly our passports were not checked at all !

From Calais we drove to Ieper, and visited the Menen Gate and Hollebeke.  From Ieper we went via Kortrijk, Gent, Brussel, Leuven and Tienen to St Truiden. We did not rush but due to an early start we were still well in time for Rahiras, Katha and langar.

I was very happy that the Kathavachak was Giani Iqbal Singh (Rajpura Wala), who I met last year during my August visit to Belgium. He does not tell stories, respects the Sikh Rehat Maryada and firmly believes in the Guru Granth Sahib as the eternal Guru of the Sikhs.

Amrik Singh and family stayed in the Gurdwara for two nights and did a tour of Sint Truiden on Friday. I went to Hasselt, the capital of Limburg, for a meeting with a local politician. The main theme of the meeting was the problems that young Sikhs experience because Belgian schools have the right to refuse students who wear any kind of patka, turban, hijab or niqab.

It was a good meeting, the politician was well briefed and he did not just listen but also asked us questions. The youngsters made a very good contribution by talking about their experiences. The grey beards were in the minority but there was the usual minimal presence of female Sikhs.

Belgium is less liberal than the UK or the Netherlands. There are rules on becoming a recognised religion, and these rules are written with the Roman Catholic Church model of organisation in mind. Every resident has to register with the local authorities but if you live in a bedsit or in the Gurdwara where there are more than a certain number of people in a building you cannot register.

If you are not registered it is difficult to open a bank account, to get a contract with a mobile phone company or to join the local library. There are good people here who work hard to support the minorities, and together with them we will work hard for the welfare of all communities. After the recent national elections there is no federal government as yet, but the Flemish government is in place and the work goes on.

Published in: on June 22, 2010 at 1:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , , , ,