During our first year living here, I was very aware of time and reaching milestones – 3 months, 6 months, 9 months, a year. Everything about living here felt so foreign and new, and sometimes painful. That is not to say I was unhappy, it was just hard.
In the first year as an expat, everything is new. Even the simplest tasks are being done for the first time in a new place. The first trip alone to a grocery store. The first visit to a new hair stylist, or doctor, or pharmacist. The first time leaving your kid at a camp. A first language lesson. A first visit to the movie theater. Finding a place to buy new clothes. All these things that should be totally easy and normal, and yet, in a new country where things are done differently and in a different language, they are not.
The mantra, “you live in Belgium now,” constantly repeated in my head. I was counting days and weeks and months as a means of tracking progress and survival. Reaching certain milestones gave me hope and energy.
The mantra, “you live in Belgium now,” constantly repeated in my head.
Once I had lived here a full year, things did get easier. A year meant a full cycle of the calendar had passed. A school year. A full set of annual experiences, of life. Most things had been done before. Most of the difficult firsts were over.
At some point in that second year, a comfort zone was reached. A point where we were living normally, as comfortable as we were going to get. The mantra in my head stopped. We weren’t just surviving, we were thriving. We were seizing moments and opportunities. We were falling in love with this place. I stopped counting milestones and started just enjoying life. That is how, sometime last fall, we unceremoniously reached the halfway mark of our time living in Europe. It came and went without notice.
Despite challenges and hardships and awkwardness, this move abroad has been an amazing and positive experience for our entire family. It has been good for my husband’s career. It has been good for our son’s education and growth. It has been good for our family’s mental, physical, and emotional health. It has been good for my sanity and stress level and blood pressure (turns out, the key to finding work-life balance, for me, was to stop working full-time. Voilà! Balance!).
We have made wonderful friends. We have seen more of the world. We have learned, and we have grown. We have made this place a “home.” I am starting to think that as an expat, you actually lose the idea of having a single “home” and learn that you can create a sense of “home” wherever you are and can have “homes” all over.
We extended my husband’s work contract from 3 years to 3 1/2 so that we wouldn’t have to move back to the U.S. in the middle of our son’s school year. It felt like that gave us so much more time.
Yet, somehow, here we are, now 12 months from our scheduled move “home” in July 2019. A milestone suddenly screaming at me again. One year left. 12 months.
A milestone suddenly screaming at me again. One year left. 12 months.
It dawned on us recently that we have started to have “last time” experiences in Belgium. Our last Gentse Feesten (an annual summer festival in the city), our last summer visit to Legoland (the only place we have visited 3 times apart from Paris), our last full summer in Europe. It already hurts. Tears already form when I think about leaving in a year. I already feel the carving out of the Belgium shaped piece of my heart that I will leave behind.
I don’t want to spend the next 12 months sad or obsessing about “lasts”, but that will be hard. I do want to make sure we continue to live our time here to the fullest benefit. I am proud of how I have accomplished personal goals I set for my time here and how our family has done the same.
I have made purposeful choices about how to spend my time, either though projects that give me experiences to put on my resume and keep me professionally relevant, or through projects and volunteering that personally fulfill me and make me happy.
We’ve met travel goals (though we still have more to do!). We’ve done our best to learn about our city and get to know new people and integrate as much as we can. Yet there is always more to do.
With this final year, while continuing everything we’ve been doing, my husband and I want to work harder toward a final goal of dining out more often at local restaurants. There are so many here, both Belgian cuisine and international, and so many are known to be good. I feel confident that we could dine out once a week and never eat in the same place twice. We are going to try. (I realize this is not a grandiose goal, but we love food and see its cultural value, so to us, it is important.)
Additionally, I have enrolled in a post-graduate certificate program in Digital Storytelling (in English!). I hope it will expand my skills and experience in digital media and storytelling. I also hope that it will help with my re-entry into the workforce in the U.S.
On top of continuing to try and just live the best life possible and experience as much of Belgium and Europe as possible, these are the two new goals/experiences I want to focus on during our last year of living in Belgium. And so, the countdown begins.