Community life: The International Study Group runs lectures on topics ranging from politics and science to culture and art
What is the background to the International Study Group?
Patricia Raymond (pictured below): It started in 1960 as part of the American Women’s Club of Brussels, which then had a membership of around 1,000 people. A group of six women wanted to broaden their horizons beyond the American community, get to know their host country and get in touch with other international people living in Brussels. They relied on people within their own and their husbands’ sphere of contacts for speakers.
The first meeting took place in one of their homes but after a while, there were 100 members, so they met in local places, renting a room in a château or were hosted by an embassy. In the early 1990s, they moved into the AWCB clubhouse in Rhode-Saint-Genèse. That’s where we met until 2017. Since then we have held our meetings at the Château Sainte-Anne in Auderghem.
How many members do you have today?
Angela Oestmann (pictured above): We have 86 members from 19 different nationalities. The majority are Belgian but lately we have been adding new ones. Our youngest member is in their mid-50s and the oldest who just died was 97. We are mostly women who are retired, that’s why we can meet on Monday mornings for our talks. But we are all women with broad interests.
Can you provide some examples of lecture topics?
AO: Our last speaker of the year before taking a break for the holidays was Dr Stefan Grobe from Euronews’ Brussels office who spoke about fake news and fact checking, which was followed by a lively discussion. In January, the author of the Brussels Da Vinci code, will present his book that links the capital of modern Europe to ancient Egypt. In February, we will hear about Joe Biden’s first year as president, with a speaker from Democrats abroad; in March it’ll be a talk about transatlantic relations by the Director of American University. We will also have someone talking about the gut microbiome, our second brain, and in May we welcome a speaker on forest therapy. Another of our favourites is the world of art and we usually start the season in September with something cultural. This year we had a speaker from the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition, talking about the background of the famous event, how they select the musicians and how the jury works, for example.
PR: Among previous talks and events that I found interesting, one was by Célia Sapart, a glaciologist at ULB, who had returned from an expedition to Antarctica. Another was by a specialist in international relations and geopolitics on the Chinese Belt and Road initiative. We’d like him to come back and tell us what he thinks about China now. We share our talks and events with other English-speaking clubs in Brussels via Zoom and they’re also welcome to attend in person. One of our board members is a published author, Larisa Doctorow, and she reports on the talks in our newsletter. Angela writes up her descriptions of her visits to unusual or lesser-known gardens, museums and other places in and around Brussels. We’re known within the English-speaking clubs in Brussels as having one of the most interesting newsletters!
In addition to visiting exhibitions, what other activities do you organise?
PR: A couple of times a year, we organise a visit to an exhibition or a museum. One of the most memorable was the Living Tomorrow innovation centre in Vilvoorde. I’m going to suggest another visit to this exhibit at our next board meeting because since the last visit five or more years ago, the home of the future then has certainly become outdated and will now be something entirely new again.
Tell me about your recently published book, Amazing Women?
AO: A former member, Janette Howell, wrote a section in our newsletter called Our Calendar Girl. Of course, this wasn’t a page three girl, it was the story of different women in our club. She was a very good writer and she managed to get a lot of information out of them about their struggles and development as women. When some of these women were young, they were expected to get married and that was it. We decided last year that we would turn these 46 interviews into a book for our anniversary. Then Janette died suddenly at the end of last year, so we have dedicated the book not only to ISG’s 60th anniversary but also to her. It’s a book of living history, on the development of three generations of women and how they overcame obstacles. Unfortunately, we don’t have the agreement of all the members to publish the material in it so it’s for internal use only, but people can contact us if they would like to know more about it.
Why is it so important for you to continue to learn more about Belgium?
PR: It makes you feel at home. I’ve been here for more than 30 years, and I have Belgian citizenship and am very close to my Belgian friends, but I just want to know my home and the people in it.
AO: I’ve lived here for over 20 years, but I worked mainly outside Belgium, travelling to the US, Australia and around Europe. Now that I’m retired, I travel a lot around this country and it is an amazing country when it comes to exhibitions and museums. There are privately maintained museums in the middle of nowhere, with collections of textiles, glassware, water, private art etc. It’s so astonishing. I don’t think Germany (my home country) has this many and I suspect this is something special to Belgium.
Do you have a message to anyone interested in joining your activities?
PR: We meet at the Château Sainte-Anne, usually on the second Monday of the month, for coffee and can talk to new members or anyone interested in joining us. Board members take the speaker to lunch at a local restaurant. Members receive a monthly newsletter and updates. Last but not least, we opened up our club to men a couple of years ago and so far, we have two, but more are welcome!