Last week, during the King’s Day Celebrations hosted by the Consul-General of Belgium, Mark Van De Vreken, I got to meet him and welcome him to Chennai, a city that will be his home for the next four years. When I asked him about his preparation to move to India as this was his first time in India he said, “Before I came here, many people told me to be prepared for a big shock. I started reading some books, and after reading Shantaram, I was prepared to see a stark contrast of the very rich and the poor. Chennai is a very well-developed city and nothing like the pictures the book paints of India and I’m pleasantly surprised.”
They say first impressions last a lifetime and he was singing praises of the kind of welcome he has had in this city. “The people here are very friendly and welcoming. Your first months in a new country are the most difficult and it also sets the tone for the duration of your stay; you come in with just your suitcases. On my first weekend here, I was invited to a wedding. That’s a sign of accommodation and welcome that on your fourth day in a new country you attend a wedding. When my predecessor introduced me to the staff here at the consulate over email, one of them called Swathi responded with warm regards from a warm city with warm people and that summarises what Chennai means to me.”
Mark is a career diplomat and after postings in Moscow and Warsaw, and a stint as Deputy Chief of Staff to the Belgian Deputy Prime Minister, he tells me he is here in Chennai by choice. “India is now the fastest growing major economy and Tamil Nadu has the second fastest growing economy in India. South India is one of the most dynamic parts of the world and it is an exciting time to be here. Businesses in Tamil Nadu, including many of the big companies, are family oriented; they are in touch with their roots and focus on their products. They are humble and media savvy and let their work do the talking. This way of working I feel is quite similar to Belgium captains of industry. I feel the chemistry of doing business is quite similar to back home,” he said.
When I asked him about what he likes to do in his free time, he said, “I like to travel and I haven’t had much time to do that yet. A visit to the Taj Mahal with their Majesties, The King and The Queen of the Belgians, on the occasion of their state visit to India to celebrate 70 years of Indo-Belgian relations, exclusively reserved for us was an unforgettable and once-in-a-lifetime experience. In my free time, I look forward to discovering India starting with Chennai.”'
Amid hectic eight weeks of settling into a new city and a State Visit Mark found some time to try the local cuisine. You could hear the excitement and the eagerness in his voice as he said, “Chennai was voted by a big international magazine as having the second-best cuisine in the world, so even before I came here I was looking forward to the culinary experiences. I like Indian food a lot but what I had before was European Indian and so I wanted to taste authentic local cuisine. I had dosas or Indian pancakes as I think of them. They are a new favourite. I want to learn to surf and golf and both are quite popular in Chennai. Maybe even learn some Tamil and at some point, and work up the courage to brave an auto ride!” I’m hoping that he finds some time to write a book on Chennai and India so that other foreigners coming to visit have a more realistic view of the country and our city and hopefully fall in love with namma Chennai!
Time for Epipens in India?
All this talk of food reminds me of my recent trip to the emergency room as I had an allergic reaction to something I had eaten that resulted in me having trouble breathing. They say there are two kinds of people those who react well under stress and those who don’t. This experience has taught me that there is a third kind, those who are scared but they care enough to fight that and get you help! I’m quite fortunate that I work in a company like Star Sports India, where practically the whole office came together to help me reach the hospital in time. Thank you!
After this experience, I did some research to find that you only get anti-allergy pills in India and you have to make it to a hospital to get a shot, but sometimes there isn’t enough time or people might not have the kind of help that I had. Isn’t it about time we had Epipens (to be used in case of allergic emergencies) or the equivalent available in this country? I hope the Pharma companies are reading this!