Hi, I am Nancy Denney-Phelps and I moved to Belgium from San Francisco, California.
My husband Nik and I, we lived there for almost 30 years. I grew up on a farm in Missouri, of all horrible places. I left home when I was 15 and I went to Stanford University. I lived there until I was 19 years old, when I decided to join the first group of Americans to break the blockade to Cuba. When I returned to the States, I moved to New York City to work for the
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) national office.
After we organized the March on Washington (1965), I moved with the whole office to Chicago and a friend of mine from the office said: “We need a vacation. We can hitchhike down to Texas and my parents can take care of us and feed us.” Right then, feeding sounded REALLY good. So when we got to Texas, I stayed there for a while to help set up an SDS chapter in that state, because at that time, the University of Texas in Austin was still segregated. How unbelievable is that? And that’s where I met my husband, Nik, who was from Texas.
Relocation to Belgium
It was about 15 or 16 years ago when we decided to move to Belgium, but it took us a couple of years to do it. My husband is a composer for animation, and I’m a journalist who writes about European animation and animation festivals. We had already spent a lot of time in Europe because that’s just where the work was and still is for us. We had it in our mind that we wanted to move to Europe, because we noticed things getting worse in America. We really wanted to leave.
We started spending a lot of time in Ghent. By the time we moved, we knew the city and we knew some people. It was a logical place for us. Ghent is a lot like San Francisco was in the ‘70s: a lot of music, a lot of arts and a lot of fun.
We haven’t been back in 14 years, but we have two sons who live in the States with their families and I keep up with the news and follow the developments. Belgium might have a funny government, but it’s nothing compared to the craziness of the United States. The people have become so divided, and their pettiness just gets in the way of getting anything done. To me, it’s a pleasure to live in a country where people are civilized and where they appreciate good food. I personally believe America is turning into a third world country
In Belgium, I feel safe. Before we moved from San Francisco, it got to the point where, when Nik would go out to play as a musician, and I would go to pick him up at 3 in the morning, there started to be so many car jackings in those neighborhoods, also a lot of home invasion robberies, that I didn’t feel safe to go out anymore. I always took the dogs with me in the car, but I definitely didn’t want to go walk on the streets anymore.
One time, we had an Irish animator staying with us. He took the tram a couple blocks away from our house and when he was walking home, he got robbed, in the middle of the afternoon. Here, I can walk around on the streets at 4 o’clock in the morning and feel perfectly safe. The other big change, and for me this is a really important one: I got to a point in America where I was deathly afraid of the police. You didn’t want to get stopped, no matter what. I was completely terrified of them. I don’t have that feeling here. In fact, I have friends who are policemen here, instead of being afraid of them.
Animation and writing
I have a big passion for writing. I’ve always liked to write, but about 20 years ago I really started on a professional level. I started writing about animation, and I still love every aspect of it. Animation festivals, reviewing animation books, …
I’m 77 years old, but I still feel like I’m 15. Animation keeps both of us young, and my husband always says I’m just a big kid. I have the best job in the world: I get to travel the world, get to stay in fancy hotels and I get the nicest food. It doesn’t feel like work for me, I just really love it.
Last year, we went to a festival in Cyprus, and they have a deal with one of the big resort hotels on the island. They put us up there as their guests, and wined and dined us for a week. The festival itself only started at 6 in the evening, so all day long I got to lay on the beach and read books. It was amazing. Name me one job that gets the same benefits? But I still have to work of course. From early in the morning until late in the evening, I watch movies and review them, and I have to write my papers and present them to the people who want to listen to me.
“Belgium might have a funny government, but it’s nothing compared to the craziness of the US. Here, I feel safe.”
My favorite animation festival is KROK, and it takes place in Russia. It’s always organized on a boat and it continues for 10 days in a row. 200 animators on a boat together – it’s just always so much fun. These are the people you become the best of friends with. The festival is funded by the Russian government, but there are lots of Ukrainians who attend and organize the event. Because of the political problems between those two countries, the Ukrainians now encounter problems getting to the festival in Russia. The world has already forgotten about this problem, but the consequences are still there.
Fun fact: trains are good places to meet new and interesting people. When I got to Moscow, I had to take a two-day train ride to the docking place of the boat for the KROK festival. I spent two days in a compartment with five Russians, who didn’t know any English. My fifteen words of Russian didn’t get us very far either, so we drew pictures to each other to communicate, and we sat together to eat and drink and I had an amazing time with those people. Journalism can take you anywhere you want it to take you.
Gorgeous, elegant and politically correct
If I could be any other person for one day? Definitely Lauren Bacall. She was the actress who was married to Humphrey Bogart. She was such a great actress and moved with such grace, she was tall and gorgeous.
Politically I really respected her too, because when the House Committee on Un-American Activities was going after actors and actresses for being communist, she and Humphrey Bogart were two of the people who led the fight against this committee. I admired that a lot. Not only was she gorgeous, sexy, elegant, she was politically correct.
If you see someone do something wrong, you’ve got to stand up. If you see millions of people come out on the streets for their abortion rights, you just know something’s not right. Same for Belarus. If they all just sat back and did nothing, there wouldn’t be any change.
“If you see someone do something wrong, you’ve got to stand up.”
Another person I’d like to be, there’s a foreign war correspondent on BBC News, Lyse Doucet, and I’ve always been envious of her because I’ve always wanted to be a war correspondent. I would go to the Balkans for that job. I’m truly fascinated by that region and its politics. A friend of mine is making an animated film about Serbian politics. Truly fascinating!
I must say: I love people. I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m a successful journalist and people read my work. And the reason people
talk to me, is because they trust me. If they tell me something and say “this isn’t for print”, it won’t show up in print. I hear all kinds of stuff from people, about their personal lives too, because they know I’m not going to pass it on.
I believe people find me trustworthy. My integrity is very important to me. You’re not a very good journalist if you have no integrity. Because the animation community is this small and amicable group, there’s lots of things I could write about that would be gossip. I would be the best animation gossip journalist for one week, but after that nobody would speak to me again.
We animators, we love to sit and talk and have a drink together. We love to have a good time, and it’s in these moments that you get to know each other and start trusting one another. That’s the reason why I don’t like set-up interviews. In those kinds of conversations, they will give you the exact same kind of information they told the last journalist. Instead, go to the bar with your interviewee, have a drink and casually ask “what’s new?” That’s when people start telling you the interesting stuff.
I find people interesting, and I love to meet new people. You get really far if you’re nice to others, and take the time to get to know them.
Written by Maarten Bockstaele
Photos taken by Nancy and her husband, Nik