As if I entered a misty Flemish movie about the rule of the Catholic Church, my mother sent me to a boarding school run by Catholic nuns in the town of Hoogstraten. Hoogstraten was the home of a famed boarding school for boys and a separate one for girls, both with a long history of training children by means of “strict and structured” education. I was eleven years old and resided there five days a week and slept in a tiny chambrette, a doorless bedroom divided by wooden panels and a white curtain. I was released on Friday afternoons. Thankfully I did not have to stay there for the entire school semester, though parents who dumped their children there may have wished for that.
It is not that anything had gone wrong with my local education in my hometown Kalmthout. On the contrary I was thriving in every possible way and had a strong social circle. I belonged to a large family, with 10+ uncles and aunties and many cousins on either side, with endless big family celebrations and sleepovers with cousins. It was my mother Annette’s erratic decision after the example of my older sister Mieke, who had spent 7 years there, to send me to this boarding school.
It felt like a social experiment to closely experience the ambitions and routines of the Flemish Catholic nuns but I also felt unwell doing so. I was at a tender age and quickly developed a bunch of diguised mental ailments in response. I would have to stay at least 1 year and potentially 7 years if I would transfer to the secondary school. I hated everything about this place and would get depressed in bed on Monday mornings at 5am as I would be picked up at 7am to be driven from Kalmthout to Hoogstraten. I had my first bouts of insomnia and would from there onwards sleep badly for the rest of my life. Perhaps I was an overly sensitive girl or snowflake-type, but I was simply feeling miserable even though I kept performing well at school. I developed an inner “escape” mechanism—stories of walking away, cycling on endless forest path on a little bike, and not returning to the creepy cloister. The destination of these escapes was not my home in Kalmthout, though I missed it badly and specifically my cousins whom I played with daily. I don’t blame my parents for sending me to this ultra-Flemisch school, but when I was giving an opportunity to go abroad twelve years later, I jumped at the very occasion and stayed abroad for 30 years.
Now that I am back “home” I am willing to remember the boarding school: Life in the chambrette was not comfortable as it was run by a type of mean nunnery whom you would rather not mess with. The chambrette was built like a subdivided hospital room–it had a curtain that could be randomly opened and closed by nuns at all times. Sister Geertrude would walk the aisles every evening and open the curtains as we were washing ourselves and getting ready to go to bed. She would do her tour again an hour later and open curtains randomly again to see if the snowflakes were actually inside their beds. The most irritating fact was that she also used a bell to announce a strict schedule of chores to be followed inside the chambrette. There was no running water there so the first bell around 7pm announced that we all had to go get cold water in a big enameled can and carry it back. During the second bell, we had to all start washing ourselves. At the third bell we had to dry ourselves and put on night gowns. During the fourth bell we would return our dirty water back to the centralized wash basins. And then a few bells followed before the lights went out. We were not allowed to talk to each other and sleeping and rising in the morning was altogether unpleasant and drab. It would be a nice scene for our misty Flemish movie, but it was also depressing to live through this regime as a young emo-girl.
I developed my walking fantasies and creative cell routines, like very slowly molding sculptures out of candle wax that was stolen from the chapel. The hard candles were warmed up and melted very slowly up by way of endlessly kneading them with my hands into amazing shapes, including many nose sculptures There were rumors about how to communicate by means of morse code on the wooden panels of the cells, or by handwritten notes, but in fact it was mostly eerily quiet in the chambrettes. I slept badly and became prone to nightmares, especially at times when the white curtains blew wide open because of the (obligatory) open windows in the middle of stormy nights.
I was 11 years old and did not like my clumsy and chubby body, which did not fit in this reactionary boarding school. I hated to drape myself in its uniform—a thick grey woolen over-the-knee skirt with black, nylon underskirt and an darkblue blouse made of viscose supplemented with a viscose cardigan of the same color. It was way beyond dowdy and could not be easily adapted into any kind of fashion statement. Unlike Japanese or Chinese high school girls in uniforms, who sometimes proudly display their classy retro-outfits, these uniforms had nothing going for themselves. They were cheaply made and produced nasty body odors even in 11-year old girls. The girls who arguably did look good in them were the skinniest snowflakes who would have looked nice in any possible outfit.
This was not the era were corporeal punishment in schools was still allowed, but specifically one of the nuns could simply not control herself and would smack girls across the cheeks. Sister Godelieve was the alpha-nun who had her eye on us 24/7, who shouted demands with a raspy voice and who sometimes had strange requests. She was the one who demonstratively ordered around Sister Geertrude and dragged conspiratorial girls out of their chambrettes and placed them on their knees in front of a large crucifix.
Every Wednesday afternoon, we were ordered to work long hours in the garden, practice catholic choir songs, and then gather on the floor in the large gym hall to polish our shoes. It was a time when girls were still wearing leather shoes, though the habit of polishing shoes regularly had dwindled. Sister Godelieve would walk into the gym and take off her own smelly and beaten up shoes, and place them in front of one of the snowflakes. Then it was our task to clean those shoes and return them to her as if they were brand-new. Godelieve was of age and obviously here toes were a bit crooked and her feet had big bunion on each side—a big nob next to big toe. Her old leather shoes had grown into bunion shapes, which is not uncommonly for the elderly. There was not a way that these bumpy old shoes could be salvaged at all by our best efforts, but it was part of the Sadean routine.
Most of our playtime was singing dull choir songs and doing more chores in the very large garden, then doing homework for a few hours. The premium playtime was talking walks in the Flemish fields while holding hands and greeting the Madonna and child. But I felt anxious even on those rare walks outside the prison walls. I developed escapist fantasies but bonded strongly with other inmates, and learnt how to take three times the amount of food and snacks allowed when feeling ravished. I learnt how to subvert table manners by kicking a friend’s leg underneath the table and urging them to offer more food. The rule was that one could never ever take food oneself, but had to wait until somebody offered it.
At every meal we had to wait for Sister Godelieve to start the meal, then she would sit down at the head of one of the tables. We all dreaded her company and my stomach churned as she would walk the our direction. The cooked meals were pretty basic and I disliked the meals most of the time, I was nauseous and ravished often, perhaps this was because of stress or perhaps a normal condition of teenagers.
I ran into Sister Godelieve ten years late at age 21, I was dating somebody whose uncle was a priest and received an honorary award of some kind in the town of Hoogstraten. The entire family of my boyfriend and including their partners were invited to celebrate this uncle-Priest, who was an intellectual and had a high status in the seminary. I am not sure why I went along to that event but I was very close to my boyfriend and his family at the time. It was during a three-course meal that Sister Godelieve herself suddenly appeared at our table with a big tray of food. She was followed by a cackle of nuns who were putting the plates on our tables. She had certainly aged, her hair was all grey and she wobbled a bit on her bunion feet. The boarding school stills existed but had slowly shrunk in size, all of the chambrettes had already been demolished. I did not speak to her but it was uplifting to see her so demoted as a waitress at the banquet of uncle-Priest.
Images from the archive Erfgoedbankhoogstraten: