– Greet Vandenrijt
The lyrics to a song by Hugo Matthysen are in my head while I listen to Julie—coastal product manager at VISITFLANDERS—talk about the place she is from: the town of Blankenberge. She was born and raised there and never intends to leave. After school, she picks up her son and they go to the beach to play. She leaves her work behind and her worries blow away with the sea wind. I wish that I had a Blankenberge in my back yard, as the song goes. We talk about hospitality. I ask her to recall a moment when she experienced the power of hospitality from a community, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a story from Blankenberge!
It’s interesting that a conversation about hospitality led her to recount stories about her childhood, school and local area. Can you ‘weave’ a few conclusions from these experiences at school into the meaning of hospitality: how can Julie’s story inspire our thinking on hospitality? You can do this by jotting a few things down in the third person, for example, per paragraph and/or by relating your sub headers to the theme.
One big family
Julie: “I have really good memories of my old school. It was a very welcoming place with a close group of people — the pupils, teachers and everyone who worked there. The parents were very active and involved. Nursery school, primary school, high school, I grew up there. It was not a large school, we all knew each other, it was one big family and I felt at home there.”
Windows wide open
I look down at my notebook. My own school memories were so much darker. Surely it wasn’t just the sea breeze that made the difference?
Julie: “It was the space, the openness, the freedom! Our school was situated in a large park with beautiful, old buildings.” Julie explains that she could run around the park and that she knew the labyrinth of school corridors like the back of her hand. In the classroom, the windows were always wide open. “The teachers knew how to pique our curiosity. I still feel the excitement, the enthusiasm, of every morning when I went to school. What was going to happen today? For example, when a new pupil would join our class, I’d look forward to it immensely! You had the room to be who you were and were encouraged to think for yourself, and form your own opinions. When I look back on it, I feel nothing but respect for the teachers. Those who give, receive, right?”
People make the difference
What sticks with Julie is the personal attention that each child was given. They knew every child’s name and there was a homely atmosphere.
Julie: “I remember the smell of the tomato soup in the cafeteria. And the dinner ladies had a few tricks up their sleeves: if a child didn’t like a certain food, they said, ‘You don’t like this, do you?’ and sometimes they would conjure up an alternative. That made us feel very at home at the big school.
Did everyone feel at home there? Were newcomers easily welcomed? Were there no children that were excluded or bullied?
Julie: “It’s not as if nothing negative ever happened, but I think everyone found their place and was accepted. When I come across old pupils they always speak positively of our school. It was the people, the entire school team, that made the difference.”
A lifelong gift
Julie: “I realise that the school made me who I am today. It’s amazing what an impact that can have! I happily take on new challenges at work and I’m more curious than I am afraid of the unknown. That’s why I’m happy to do my best for Travelling to Tomorrow, even though the end point is unknown. I will always give my opinion, whether to the big boss or the cleaning lady. I always say what I think. But I always do so with respect, because that’s what I was taught. My opinion is just as valuable as other people’s. At work it’s important to hear from many different voices. I also find it important that the people around me feel good. If we have a new colleague, I always approach them and try to make sure they feel at home as quickly as possible. These are things that I learnt from my old school in Blankenberge. It was a gift that keeps on giving throughout my life.”
Julie’s idea of hospitality is a place that brings people together, where people treat each other with respect, give personal attention and show engagement. It provides a safe environment that encourages you to discover new things.
We talk more about the thousands of tourists that descend on the place she loves. Tourists that walk in large droves from the station to the beach and dike. It doesn’t bother her, on the contrary.
Julie: “Who are we to say that people shouldn’t come to Blankenberge? That only we should enjoy the sea and the beach, or only a select few of us? Everyone is entitled to a holiday. We’re happy to share the sea and beach. Even if you come in your track suit,” she laughs. “Everyone is welcome.”
Blankenberge Blankenberge, a pearl along the shore
The best place on earth if sand and shells are what you adore
Perhaps I should pay it a visit some time.
Julie Pauwels has deep roots in the Blankenberge beach. She has worked for VISITFLANDERS as the coastal project manager since 2009. She’s a creative and entrepreneurial colleague who loves to get stuck into a new project, with boundless energy. As a young mum she began sewing nice, simple baby clothes to suit her own tastes. This hobby quickly turned into something bigger, and she now makes and sells stylish items for babies, and other knick-knacks, in her own unique style on her web shop L’atelier de Juliette.
Greet Vandenrijt loves to travel. Visiting an unfamiliar environment, immersing yourself in another language and culture, being active and looking at life from another perspective… For over 20 years, she’s worked at VISITFLANDERS to create a strong travel experience in Flanders and to make travel possible for everyone. As a storyweaver, she wants to demonstrate the power and impact of travel through the stories of travellers and holidaymakers.