In July, we celebrated our 6-month anniversary of moving to Belgium. Since the day we arrived, I looked forward to that milestone as being important. Six months seemed like a significant chunk of time – half a year, more than just a short-term stay. We’d been cautioned by “cultural advisors” and other expats that it is typical to have ups and downs throughout an experience abroad. We’d likely feel out of place, confused, frustrated, alone, and homesick. But we’d also love the opportunities for travel, meeting new people, learning, and experiencing new cultures. I had the notion that our transition was going to be hard and that if we could make it to six months, we could make it three years, so we just had to prove that we could. I had big plans to have this blog going full-swing by then and to write a celebratory post on reaching that milestone. Instead, I got busy with everyday life of laundry, meal-planning, summer plans, and guests visiting. So now here I am, one day short of our 9-month anniversary of moving to Belgium, preparing a celebratory post for that milestone instead.
I don’t think that we will ever stop feeling like foreigners here, but we do feel more comfortable. It no longer feels like we are just on a vacation. The shock of being in a new country and in a new culture has worn off and we’ve established a “new normal” routine. With that comes comfort, but also a realization that some things will just never be like it is in the U.S. We’ve accepted and embraced that the weird, uncomfortable, frustrating, and challenging differences we face here are always going to feel that way.
Fortunately, I have felt more ups than downs so far as an expat, and my valleys haven’t been too deep. I’ve always thought myself to be an introvert and homebody, so I was worried how this move might affect me. Would I be able to summon the energy and enthusiasm needed to get out of the house and explore? Would I find the strength to put myself out there and meet new people and experience new things? It hasn’t always been easy, but I have been able to do those things.
Sure, I’ve been sad and scared. I’ve struggled with being the foreigner who can’t speak the language. I’ve had to fight back tears in a grocery store because I had already been there for two hours, translating every item name and converting every measurement on my iPhone, and completely failing to find black beans or breadcrumbs (it took me three months to find black beans and four to find bread crumbs). I’ve been frustrated and angered by cultural differences, like when Belgians show no regard for taking turns or forming proper lines (or as we say here, queues). I’ve had to watch from afar while good friends had babies, and friends and family went through serious illness and death, feeling helpless to do anything from so far away, wanting desperately to take them some food, hug them, or help clean their house. I’ve physically exhausted myself summoning the energy (remember, I’m an introvert) to go out and join expat groups and Moms’ groups at social events. I’ve been terrified to send my son off to school in a city, where he walks the city streets and rides trams and city buses for weekly excursions. I’ve had to watch my son struggle to do tough things, like go to a new school, make new friends, and go to summer camps where he doesn’t speak the language. He, by the way, was so brave in those moments he actually taught me how to live more fearlessly. Also, having to model for him the way to approach and adapt to challenging situations has helped me more than I could have imagined.
All of those “downs” were survivable and worth it because of what I learned from them and how they made me stretch and grow. They didn’t last, and they came along with some incredible “ups”. We have travelled to the Netherlands, Germany, France, England, and throughout Belgium. We have seen so many things – old, beautiful, historic, meaningful, important things. Cathedrals, castles, forts, ruins, forests, gardens, rivers, canals, mountains, valleys, monuments, cemeteries, museums, and places of cultural significance. We’ve been welcomed into an international school community that is educating all of us by introducing us to families from over 50 countries. We’ve had delicious food and beverages, which is a big deal to us because we really, really like to eat and drink. My eyes have been opened to social and political problems outside of the U.S., which I hope makes me a better global citizen. And I’ve relaxed. A combination of no longer working full-time and adapting to the slow-paced, family-centered Belgian way of life has allowed me to try to enjoy each day and each experience for what it is. It has also allowed me to spend more time with my son, which was one of the main reasons I was excited for this move. We have had so much fun together exploring our new home and creating great memories.
While it has been tough at times, I was worried that this move would be harder than it has been. I am so grateful that I was wrong. I am more adaptable, flexible, and adventurous than I thought. I feel so lucky to have this experience. When I think about the fact that we have 27 months left here, I am excited about what we will do with that time. It sounds like a lot to me, until I also realize that 1/4 of the experience has already passed. Perhaps the biggest lesson I still need to learn is to stop thinking about things in terms of chunks of time; to stop looking ahead and just try to keep living and enjoying every current moment as a part of this adventure.