Hilton on Immigrant Life in Belgium, Part I
By Jonathan Hilton   
January 14, 2012
I left the cozy mountain city of Grenoble, France--where I first penned my thoughts on chess cosmopolitanism --at the end of August, speeding off by rail to the college town of Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. My pretext for spending a semester there was to become sufficiently proficient in French to work with Cincinnati’s growing number of francophone African immigrants upon my return. Yet perhaps my strongest motive was to satisfy my own desire for adventure: to strike out for a new land where I had no friends, no host family, and only a basic knowledge of the language. I fancied the idea of arriving with nothing but a suitcase and having to establish myself from the ground up, much the way so many immigrants do in Cincinnati. Throughout my previous globetrotting, I had always had some sort of ready-made social fabric in place upon my arrival; Belgium, however, was to be my first time facing the unknown.

Going in, I had any number of grandiose visions of what my new life in Belgium would be like. I had planned to join student groups, to integrate with my Belgian suitemates, to travel all over Europe, and to form close relationships with my new professors. These thoughts evaporated upon my arrival, when I began struggling just to take care of my basic needs. Louvain-la-Neuve is a pedestrian city, with all the traffic running underground (a feat of either architectural genius or sheer folly, though I believe it to be the latter). Thus September was spent playing a tiresome walking game, in which I, moving at the king’s “stately pace” of one square at a time, traversed the board from one end to the other to go grocery shopping or to find a particular class, the post office, a cash machine, or a laundry mat. The walking was endless.

There were other challenges I faced, such as completing the paperwork necessary to keep food on the tables of the local bureaucrats, or registering for classes at a university without a well-managed centralized computer system. In any case, by the time that October rolled around, I had settled into a joyless routine. My “life space,” if you will, consisted of one or two grocery stores; a couple of fast-food restaurants; the laundry mat; two school buildings; the gym; the crêperie; the local government bureau; and my apartment, with the last of these being where I spent most of my time. Any moments I spent in town consisted of me shuffling listlessly from one of the previously mentioned points to another, much in the way one might shuffle a rook along the back row when attempting to reach a draw by the 50-move rule. I worked on my next volume of my Wojo’s Weapons book series and anxiously awaited the arrival of my parents, who had recently arrived in Europe and had planned a visit to come see me. Other than that, however, my life seemed quite pointless.

The worst of it was that I failed at making many Belgian friends. It wasn’t that the Belgians weren’t amicable. Rather, it was simply that meaningful friendships take time to form, and so one can hardly expect to make friends in a month. With the exception of those students who were out recruiting tasty young freshmen to feed their fraternities--and note that hazing in this country is akin to that depicted in Animal House, or perhaps worse--I didn’t find many Belgians who had a desire to get to know me well. And because they all returned to their parents’ homes at least three days per week, I felt a fundamental disconnect with the rest of the student population, my Belgian suitemates included.

My status as an exchange student also left me marginalized in the classroom. Those students who are strong academically are often not willing to take a chance on including a foreigner in their work groups, since the stereotypical image of exchange students is that they are too busy traveling and partying to put much effort into their studies. So I was generally shoved into the least ambitious work groups, i.e., the ones who failed to ever meet. In one particularly horrid case, my partner on a two-person final project was expelled for plagiarism, after which I inherited most of her share of the work. My French, while passable, did not serve me well enough to make much protest against this fate--a couple of good-hearted professors eventually intervened to lighten my workload somewhat, but the whole incident still left me feeling isolated and abandoned by my Belgian peers. Perhaps the oddest thing about the matter is that my inability to establish strong social ties in my classes left me unmotivated to do any of the work, thus reinforcing the stereotype that exchange students are slackers. This type of vicious cycle is pervasive in education systems the world over. As someone with a record of one academic success after another, it was disconcerting to realize how powerless I felt to be stuck on the outside looking in--merely “waiting for Superman” to save me from the perils of the classroom, as it were.

My fortunes finally took a turn for the better in early October, when I first met Driss Saabou. Driss, a 22-year-old business student from Morocco, had come to Belgium in pursuit of a Master’s degree in Human Resources. He was at least a good half foot shorter than me, and he carried himself with a quaint Yoda-like mixture of both pride and humility. His eyes were set far back and framed by dark eyebrows. And, although I didn’t know it yet, Driss knew a bit about chess.

I made Driss’s acquaintance in the following way. My mother and father had just arrived from Paris, and we were heading out to dinner when the young man stopped all three of us to introduce himself. He explained that he had seen me in class, that he lived just three floors below me, and that I should join him for tea at the first available opportunity. Now I do not believe myself to be a grumpy person, but I certainly can be hard to reach at times; and having just been reunited with my parents, I had no desire to lose time chatting with a stranger. I tried to handle the situation as diplomatically as possible. I was very glad to meet him, I would see him next week in class, of course I would come for tea, etc., etc. Surely this would get rid of him, I thought. Yet by some sleight of hand--a type of Moroccan social magic, if you will--my parents and I nevertheless wound up taking tea with Driss that night, with our African host seizing the opportunity to foist his English upon the three of us native speakers. At the time I was unsure what to make of Driss, but in his defense, his tea really was excellent.

It is mysterious to me now to think of how ungrateful I was toward Driss, a stranger who had taken the initiative to meet me. I suppose that I have always been wary of anyone who seems too eager or persistent in befriending me--a fear that was perhaps once well-founded at a time when I was swamped with requests for this or that in the chess world, but one which is altogether unhelpful to me now. At any rate, when I found myself once again alone with my parents, I summed up the whole affair by suggesting that “insistent hospitality is often a form of imposition.” I think that this unashamedly negative attitude toward hospitality is prevalent in many parts of the United States--those parts where people seem to want to be left alone more than anything else--and that it may still be some years before I’m finally free of it.

concentration.jpgThe following Saturday at midday, Driss paid me a social call and invited me over for lunch. For him, preparing a meal was an elaborate affair that took over an hour. He cooked a type of Moroccan roast of chicken and vegetables in broth. I sat and watched most of the time, doing my best to make small talk in French, my stomach growling. When the meal was finally ready, Driss instructed me in the art of Moroccan dining. We were to eat off of the same plate and to use only our hands. Given my ravenous appetite, this suited me fine. Driss explained the spiritual significance that one was supposed to derive from the act of sharing a plate--that life is meant to be shared--but it was all but lost on me at the time, given that I was thinking with my stomach and not with my head. Luckily, Driss would repeat these words often enough for them to eventually sink in.

Sometime after the meal, the topic of chess came up. I mentioned my affinity for blindfold chess, and when I described to Driss the idea of me turning my back to the board and calling out moves, he insisted that should I ever play him that way he could beat me. When I asked him how he could be so sure, he offered the following explanation: “I’d cheat.” Yet in our first game, Driss did not have the opportunity to put this devious plan in action. I met his 1. f4 with From’s Gambit, 1. ... e5, and after 2. fxe5 d6 3. Nh3?? Bxh3 4. gxh3 Qh4 mate, Driss simply looked at the board, stunned. “Wait,” he said. “Foaud, my compatriot, is a strong player. I will call him, and then you’ll have a real challenge.”

This was my first glimpse into how Driss’s social network functioned. Among the Arabs in Belgium, social ties are strong; everyone knows each other, and so it is never hard to find someone with a particular skill set. Foaud arrived within an hour, and I was impressed by his dashing good looks and his fluency in English, Spanish, and French in addition to Arabic and Berber. Tall, confident, and adventurous, the 25-year-old Foaud brought a sense of vigor into the world of the Belgians, which is chronically overcast. Blitz chess had been one of his favorite pastimes growing up in Morocco, and true to Driss’s word, he did indeed have the skills to challenge me in it. He kept pace with me for about the first 25 moves of our first game before cracking, but in our second game, he obtained a sizable advantage with White:

Boudra, Fouad – Hilton, Jonathan
Blitz match, October 8, 2011

White has the upper hand here thanks to his control of the d-file and pressure on f7.
A surprising pawn sacrifice.
I take the bait. Of course better is 1...Qxh3, after which White has simply lost a pawn and has no real follow-up.
2.Kg2 Ng5 3.Qf6
For some reason, I had overlooked this obvious blow. 3.Rd8+ Qxd8 4.Rxd8+ Rxd8 5.Qf6 would also have proved devastating.
3...Qf8 4.Qxg6+ Qg7 5.Rd8+ Re8, while not pleasant, would have been a more tenacious defense for Black. I played the text only after having seen the drawing possibility used in the game.
4.Kg1 Rae8 5.Rd8
5.Qxg6+ Kh8 6.Qf6+ Kh7 7.Rd6 is also good, but the text is White's best.

Played with the idea of allowing White a draw.
White fails to see the win and cashes out for a half point. 6.R1d6! would have left Black paralyzed and unable to generate counterplay. White simply threatens Rxe8 followed by Bxf7, destroying Black's pawn shield. Black could resign.
6...Rxe8 7.Bxf7 Rf8

Now, there is nothing better than for White to take the draw.
8.Qxg6+ Kh8 9.Qf6+, ½-½

By the time this game had finished, the Algerian students Nabil and Rachid--two more members of Driss’s network of Arab friends--had joined in as spectators. That night, I became linked to the entire group. By mid-November, my time in Belgium would be transformed from one of repetitiveness, isolation, and drudgery to one of inclusion and belonging. In the next installment, I will detail what I learned from spending time with my new Muslim friends. Driss’s words, “In life, everything should be shared,” would become the mantra that would guide me through the challenges of forging a meaningful existence for myself in a foreign land.