One Christmas in Belgium

This is our third Christmas season living abroad, but the only Christmas we have stayed in Belgium instead of flying home to the U.S. for the holidays. Like many decisions we have made related to this expat life, this choice and its consequences has given me mixed emotions.

Christmases Past

For the past two Christmases, we’ve gone back to the U.S. for three weeks to spend the holidays with friends and family. These have been the only two trips we’ve made “home” since we moved to Belgium in January 2016. They were wonderful trips that gave us precious moments with friends and family. They also gave us much-needed tastes and senses of home.

But, they were also incredibly stressful and exhausting. I am not a fan of the long-haul flights. They drain me physically and emotionally. Then, once we got there, of course, there was dealing with jet lag. Add to that the fact that our “home” is in one state and our family is spread out over four other states, we spent those entire trips catching flights over the U.S. and bouncing between family guest rooms.

I’ll never forget a moment, last year, when we arrived in the Raleigh-Durham airport. I sat down at the baggage claim, exhausted from our long trip, and I realized that I could understand everything everyone was saying around me. Back in the land of native English speakers, I was surrounded by people who I could understand … and I hated it! I couldn’t ignore it. It was jarring and unsettling. I missed the soft drone of people around me speaking languages I didn’t understand. I missed the ability to blissfully tune out my surroundings and just enjoy it as beautifully exotic background noise.

These trips also involved the stress of taking gifts with us, making sure there was enough room in our luggage, or shipping them in advance. There was the stress of making sure our son had a happy Christmas experience without wondering why all his presents from Santa were so much smaller than his cousins. (Because son, they have to fit in your two checked bags back on the airplane because Santa knows Mom and Dad don’t want to pay for international shipping of large items to Belgium.)

There was the stress of making sure everyone felt like they were getting their due time with us and the guilt over not having enough time to see all the friends and family I wanted to see.

Let me be clear that I understand that all of these stressors are a result of the fact that I am incredibly blessed with family and friends, and the ability to provide gifts for them and my son, and the ability to afford these trips and experiences in the first place. I am very aware that these are privileged problems and I deal with guilt associated with that, too, so please know I understand that!

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Christmas Present

The bottom line is, that although I enjoyed these trips for the good things they did for my soul, they were still hard. So, I strongly encouraged my husband to agree to staying in Belgium this year for Christmas. The decision was made even easier by the fact that I am now enrolled in my postgraduate program and had school responsibilities here through last week.

It was the right decision for us this year. It has allowed us to have a more relaxed holiday season leading up to Christmas. It has allowed us to enjoy the full Christmas season in Belgium, including many, many trips to our Christmas market. It kept me and our son from having to miss any school. And it will allow us to leave the day after Christmas to visit Prague, Vienna, and maybe Bratislava, three more cities we want to visit before we move back to the States.

That said, of course, it isn’t without some sadness. The greatest sadness is not being with family and friends. This is a year-round negative consequence of living so far away, and not going home for the holidays exasperates it. To remedy that, I will do my best to make phone calls and Skype calls on Christmas Day. Nothing makes up for time spent together, but we will do the best we can.

On perhaps more trivial levels, there are little things I miss that make Christmas here feel different.

I miss starting the whole season off with a Thanksgiving Day spent watching the Macy’s parade and the National Dog Show.

I miss hearing Dan Fogelbergs’s Same Old Lang Syne on the radio. I haven’t heard it here even once! And yes, I have it in my iTunes library and can listen to it anytime I want, but that isn’t the same as hearing it pop up organically on the radio.

I miss crappy, store-bought, in-a-paper-carton Egg Nog.

So, you see, there are pros and cons to this expat life. Like every other experience where I’ve had mixed emotions that include a little sadness, I will let myself feel it and then will get up and move on and appreciate the moment for what it is.

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I will appreciate that tonight, on this Christmas Eve, my little family unit of three enjoyed a relaxed evening together with a nice meal. I will appreciate that tomorrow, we will enjoy our family Christmas together with another nice meal and gifts we are privileged to have. We will speak with family and feel their love no matter the distance between us. And the day after that, we will travel to new places and have new, wonderful experiences and memories added to our lives.

I will be grateful for all of this with the understanding that not everyone has these blessings and privileges and luck. I will do my best to ensure my family appreciates this and feels grateful as well. I will look forward to a new year and new opportunities to share blessings and kindness and love with others who need it.

Wherever you are and however you are (or aren’t) celebrating this Christmas and New Year, I wish you and yours all the best! Cheers from Belgium. Prettige feestdagen!

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2 thoughts on “One Christmas in Belgium

  1. This. So much this:

    It was jarring and unsettling. I missed the soft drone of people around me speaking languages I didn’t understand. I missed the ability to blissfully tune out my surroundings and just enjoy it as beautifully exotic background noise.

    It’s not exactly the same, but I feel the same way when I leave Boston to go back down to NC. Because of where I grew up and where my family lives the diversity of people and languages just isn’t there. It’s definitely more diverse than when I grew up, but it’s always a little overwhelming to be back–I can’t imagine the full on language immersion that you’re experiencing!

    Also I’m very jealous of the Christmas market, they really do know how to do them in Europe don’t they?

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  2. I just wrote a whole response to this and I think it disappeared! I’ll see if I can remember what I said. LOL

    I could totally see the same experience happening in different regions in the U.S. I guess it is all about getting used to our surroundings and reaching a comfort level and then adjusting to change. It’s funny though, not achieving fluency in the local language is (I think) typically a very isolating and alienating aspect of expat life, but for me as an introvert, isolation isn’t always a negative thing!

    In Amsterdam recently for my studies, I heard Americans everywhere and kind of grumbled about it to Belgian classmates. They were so surprised that I wouldn’t be comforted by hearing my fellow country-people. I don’t mean to sound like a jerk, I guess I’ve just gotten used to not having Americans around!

    And yes, the Christmas markets are great. They set such a nice, festive vibe. That said, one thing I think we Americans do better than Belgians is home Christmas decorations, especially exterior. We don’t see much of that here at all and I miss it!

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