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What is “Normal”?

An essay published in the Fukui Shimbun-Newspaper, on 16 August 2017

Shichio MINATO

There are several things in everyday life that end up being "normal". Of course, it goes without saying that the standards for "normal" will vary for each individual. For example, if you turn a faucet, water will come flowing out. You have electricity. But unless you find yourself in a situation without those things, we tend to forget to be grateful for how blessed our environment may be.

In early April, I moved with my family to the suburbs of Ghent - located in the Flanders province of Belgium.

It was a 1-year overseas business trip. This was a country I was familiar with, so I had no particular worries about everyday life. However, in recent years - due to immigration issues and rampant indiscriminate acts of terrorism - living in this land as a "foreigner" brings with it remarkably increased difficulties. And so things tend not to go quite as I would like. I get the sense that my standards of what is "normal" have been shaken.

Documents for staying permission, my children's education, a driver's license, a car, a telephone, bank accounts, taxes... Things keep happening one after another - like I'm in a slapstick comedy. So I'm never in want for topics for my essays.

All jokes aside, I had a particularly difficult time finding a home during this move. I'll skip the details, but in the Flanders region - due to an amendment in their laws - it is no longer possible to sign a rental contract under 3 years.

Even when I found a good property, all of the real estate agencies would turn me down. For a while, I couldn't see a light at the end of the tunnel, but thanks to a very helpful friend in Belgium, I was able to secure a wonderful house located on a large plot of land. And it came with furniture and major appliances included. My children screamed that it was a "haunted mansion!" But I found it to have a charming atmosphere, which I liked very much.

On the day of our move, I received the keys from the landlord (a wonderful lady in her 70s), and together we inspected the house. However, I found that the washing machine which should have been there was nowhere to be found. When I asked about it, she responded, "maybe next week I can go and shop for one. Hopefully, the store I always go to will be open." Quite a vague answer.

I tried to convince myself that "the way time goes by in this relaxed manner is just how it is in Europe," but starting the next day this issue with the washing machine became a big problem. The amount of laundry for a family of 5 is relatively large, and even sharing duties with my wife was not enough to keep pace. Draining the water and drying were particularly hard.

When I would ponder the state of things in the world today, I felt insignificant and small for letting myself get worked up over a washing machine. But life without a washing machine was truly a chore. In the end, the delivery dates kept getting postponed, and we spent close to a month without the benefit of this convenient and modern appliance.

In any case, this was a situation that would be unthinkable in Japan - where internet shopping is thoroughly and well-structured. However, it turns out that a similar service has become established in Belgium, and I realised that life had become much more convenient than before. And in addition, buying on the internet was cheaper. But even so, our landlord was stubbornly fixated on making her purchases at the "local appliance store".

When I amusingly dramatized the circumstances of this "washing machine incident" to my friend, I received a most unexpected reply. He too - just as my landlord did - endeavored to do his shopping at local establishments. And he gave me 3 reasons for doing so.

First, all of the major internet retailers are funded with Dutch capital. Belgium is surrounded on all 4 sides by larger countries, and harbors anxiety over the possibility of their nation being economically hijacked. Secondly, the people of Belgium feel a need to protect their cities' environment - built of long-standing traditional stores and cafes - by themselves. There is a deep-rooted belief among the people in their region's unique cultural resources and capital. And then there is the cultural restraint against the "swelling of egos". The belief is that an unchecked spreading of selfish thinking will lead to the destruction of the world. I concede that "things that are convenient for myself" have a darker side. In other words, if we don't pay attention to the things that we sacrifice or the burden that come at the cost of such conveniences, we could end up in a situation beyond repair.

In these modern times - when our standards of what is "normal" continue to expand as we seek out ever more diversified conveniences, how will we comprehend our levels of "normalcy" at private and public levels, respectively? We should not leave the answer for others to provide. We must treat these issues as our own, and take the first step towards the challenge of finding a solution.

Photo@Shichio MINATO

Photo: A "normal" scene in Ghent, where you can see bicycles in every part of town. As part of its policies to protect the environment, the city is encouraging its citizens to utilise bicycles and public transportation.

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