Kristine Smets is a self-employed genealogist, historian, and bibliographer from Kalmthout, a town north of Antwerp in the Flanders region of Belgium, and this image is of the well-known nature park in that area. Kristine says, “Every time I go back home I am again stunned at how beautiful this park is. And how I took it somewhat for granted growing up.” This is one of a series of “raw and unspoiled” images by her father from the 1950s, when taking photographs was a real luxury. “When I look at these slides I feel the same nostalgia I have for the town and family I left behind.”
Even though she knows she no longer belongs in Kalmthout, Kristine says it still feels like home to her, and she hopes to spend more time there in the coming years – perhaps even own a place to live there again part of the year. When she first left Belgium, she didn’t really think she was leaving anything behind. “I was 24, and assumed all would stay the same there forever,” she says. Of course, that’s not what happened. She comes from a large family, and missed a lot of celebrations. She’s also lost several people who were very dear to her. “My oldest sister passed away 16 years ago. And while I had wonderful times with her while I was still in Belgium, I regret not being more with her those 13 years.”
Kristine left Belgium originally because she didn’t really know where she was going with her life. She was in Leuven, finishing her college education, trying to make ends meet by working a variety of jobs. Through those jobs she’d met a number of foreign exchange students, many of them Americans, who were having a grand time with their experience abroad, something she’d always wanted to do. “Then I met an American professor who encouraged me to apply for graduate school in the United States.” She applied to three schools, was accepted at all three, and picked Kent State University in Ohio. “The prospect of going abroad provided focus to my life, which I desperately needed,” she says, adding, “I am not sure what would have happened otherwise.”
The first three years in Ohio were difficult. The average student there was not at all like the American students Kristine had met in Belgium. There were no Starbucks, Whole Foods, artisanal bakeries, farmers’ markets, or independent breweries in Ohio in 1987. The only restaurants she knew of and could afford served fast food. She started baking her own bread. Her parents would send her coffee. Quite simply, “Kent, Ohio, was not Leuven, Belgium.” Still, she did her best to like the experience, and she was too proud to go home. “I actually never really considered going home,” she says. With masters degrees in history and library science in hand, Kristine could get a visa that allowed her to work as a librarian in the U.S. for six years, and she found a job in Chicago, on the South side, near the University, where she met her future husband. When he was offered a post-doctoral position at Johns Hopkins University, they moved to Baltimore, a city that grew on them. “We love it here,” she says.
It wasn’t until Barack Obama became President that Kristine seriously considered taking American citizenship – perhaps the shared experience of Chicago’s South Side had something to do with it! – and she became a naturalized U.S. citizen on January 7, 2011. “I do love many things about this country,” she says. “Not the least that it gave me the opportunity to come here to study and work. But I don’t feel ‘American’ deep down in my bones, the way I feel ‘Belgian.’ I am not sure that will ever happen.” Even so, Kristine believes that immigrating has opened up her view of the world, brought her new perspectives. “It has made me a much better person. That would never have happened had I stayed in Belgium. Perhaps that has been the absolute best part of going abroad.”
When Christine was still living in Chicago she went to an Ed Miller concert, and she found that one of his songs summed up exactly the beauty of her own immigrant experience. You can listen to it here: At Home With the Exiles.