January 11, 2016. The day the we spent 8 hours in a metal machine, crossing time zones in the middle of the night, fast forwarding through six hours somewhere over the Atlantic, getting bumped around by some wind, landing on the runway in Brussels. Now we lived in Belgium.
When I think about that flight I remember dark colors. Browns and blues. The midnight blue sky we could hardly see outside of the windows because we had middle row seats. The navy blue seat fabric and socks they gave us on the plane. The brown of my long, soft sweater that I wore because it would be like a blanket on the flight. The dark brown of the hot fudge on the ice cream sundae my son was so excited to get with his meal. The shadows in the dimmed cabin. Lights low because it was a red-eye flight and you are supposed to sleep.
But I didn’t get much sleep. It’s hard to sleep when your life is significantly changing. I was already disoriented by the idea that I was taking off as someone who lived in the U.S. and landing as someone who lived in Belgium. Isn’t it strange that something so major about your life can change in a (relative) instant like that? Add to that the disorientation that we were in backwards-facing seats on the plane. I hate that feeling. Backwards motion while moving forward.
We arrived to a cold gray day in Belgium, typical for January, as I have come to know very well. A low layer of clouds hanging above us, moving steadily, creating a perfect environment for hibernation, aside from the chill. Winter here is a consistent, wet cold. A damp cold that seeps through your skin into your blood, entering your circulation and thus very hard to shake. I now understand why soup is a pillar of Belgian culture.
In War and Turpentine, Stefan Hertmans (translated from Dutch to English by David McKay) describes a day like this as “…one of those chilly, lightless days that give you the feeling this part of the world is buried under a centuries-old damp rag, while elsewhere on the planet, in more fortunate climes, the sky is filled with bright and endless blue.”
Was the sky blue in North Carolina that day? I don’t know.
We got to our house and met with our Relocation Agent and our Realtor to make sure everything was in order. They suggested we grab a quick lunch at Quick, our only “fast food” option nearby, before settling our paperwork and doing whatever was supposed to come next on one’s first day living in a new country.
We walked into Quick and struggled to read the Dutch menu and struggled to place our order. We found a table near the children’s play area and waited for our food. I couldn’t understand anything I was reading or hearing and that was such an isolating feeling. I’ve written before about how I have come to enjoy that feeling, but at first, it was like reality slapping me in the face. This transition was not going to be easy. I knew that the language barrier would be a hurdle to clear, but I couldn’t have anticipated what that would actually feel like. It’s still hard for me to describe in words how belittling and degrading it can feel when a simple task like reading a menu or placing an order is difficult.
Our food was ready and my husband brought it over to our table. The salad I ordered was not what I expected it to be. The chicken seemed different. There were toppings we wouldn’t typically use in the U.S. I didn’t know the flavor of salad dressing. And, like so often happens when one has bottled up stress or tension or fear, that simple disappointment in my salad released a flood of other emotions from within me that I had been suppressing for weeks.
I was tired from lack of sleep. I had been stressed about the logistics of moving in the weeks prior – packing, selling cars, preparing our house for rental. I was sad from saying goodbye to good friends and family. I was worried about our sweet old dog, Beau, who was scheduled to fly to us the next day. I was afraid of the unknown. Sitting at that table, hearing a women and child nearby speaking a foreign language, staring at the disappointing salad in front of me, it all needed to be released. Tears welled up in my eyes and I choked back a sob. I didn’t want to break down there in the middle of Quick, but I needed a good cry.
When I was still in the hospital after giving birth to my son, one of the nurses was explaining to me the range of emotions I might feel when I got home. She told me I might feel stressed and blue. She said I might feel like things will never be the same again. I might be feeling big emotions and having big thoughts about life and then lose it over something little like a full trash can that needed to be emptied when I didn’t have the time. She was preparing me (which is brilliant and should be done for every woman everywhere after giving birth) for postpartum blues, or worse, depression, and she was absolutely right.
One day, in the midst of all the newborn-at-home craziness, I burst into tears while going to the bathroom because I looked at the hand soap (from a specialty store) on the sink and determined that I would never be able to buy nice hand soap again because I would never have the time, energy, or organizational ability to leave my house for more than one hour at a time, and thus I would only ever be able to shop at one store ever – the grocery store. Surely all my soap and everything else I would ever need to live would have to come from that one store, because I would never have my shit together enough again to manage a trip to more than one destination at a time outside the home. I truly believed this in that moment.
The tears that I couldn’t keep from coming out of me in the Quick were cousins to those hand soap tears. They came from a deeply emotional place, but also one far from logic. I felt those emotions so strongly in each of those moments, but I know now that I got through those tough times and am better for them now that I am thinking clearly again.
On our third anniversary of moving to Belgium, I am happy to report that it has been an incredible experience for our family. It was difficult at first but as we look ahead to our last 6 months here and start preparing for our move back to the States, I can say with absolution that the decision to take this expat assignment was one of the best decisions we have ever made for our family. We have no regrets and will always appreciate this period of time in our lives. When we were saying goodbye to our family before the move, my mother-in-law told me how much they had enjoyed their few years living in Belgium (~30 years ago) and that it was one of the best things they ever did. I always knew they felt that way about their experience, and now I now why.
As I think back on those early days after our move, I want to offer some advice to any expats who are in that part of their expat experience. It will be difficult at first, but it can get easier and better, and will if you let it! Give yourself time to get settled and comfortable. Say “yes” to things and get out and explore as much as possible, even if it is outside of your comfort zone, because that is the only way to expand your comfort zone, but do so at a pace that is healthy for you.
My sister, who has moved many times in the U.S. gave me some advice when I was freaking out to her in our first week here. I don’t remember her exact words, but here’s the gist of what she said: Think of yourself as the center of a circle. Picture that circle around you as your comfort zone. It includes the places around you that you know and understand and are comfortable with. Every day, push yourself to go a little bit further outside of that circle, seeing new things, learning more about what is around you, and figuring things out. Slowly, the circle will keep expanding with every new journey you make “out” of it. Eventually, you will have your routine and you will feel comfortable and normal again. She was right. Thinking in these terms helped me. I am still pushing the boundaries of my circle further and further. Somewhere along they way, my fear went away because so did the unknown.
I also like thinking in these terms because it allows you to set your own pace. You can decide how far you want to push yourself each day. Sometimes one baby step is enough. Earlier I said, say “yes” to things, but notice I didn’t say “everything.” I do believe that to thrive in an expat experience, you do have to push yourself through discomfort, and some people interpret that as saying “yes” to every invitation and experience offered to them, but I think it is okay to know your limits and say “no” sometimes if it is all too much, as long as you don’t say “no” to everything!
We have six months left on our assignment here and I intend to enjoy every day to the fullest. I’m trying really hard not to focus on “counting down” days because I don’t want to miss anything while being preoccupied with that, but it’s hard. There will be a lot of logistics to sort through and emotions to process. One day at a time. One step at a time.
But there is also daily life to live, work and school and other projects to finish, and a few more trips to take! That said, if you had two separate weeks to travel in Europe this spring, which I do, where would you go? 🙂