In the first season of the RB Abroad Podcast, Rebecca shares what it’s like to move to another country and live in another culture. In Episode 1: Becoming RB Abroad, she explains how she came to move to Belgium in the first place and why she is doing this podcast thing.
Please note, this episode does contain some instances of language that you may consider offensive. In other words, Rebecca says a few cuss words.
Music in this Episode
Peach Pie – Contemplative Acoustic – Provided by Jamendo
Peach Pie – News – Provided by Jamendo
Peach Pie – Tears of Happiness – Provided by Jamendo
Audio in this Episode
All audio (excluding music) and narration in the RB Abroad Podcast is recorded, edited, and produced by Rebecca Bramlett unless otherwise noted. In this episode, audio also includes:
- “Accordion” by user “lepolainyann” on freesound.org, Creative Commons license.
- “Crowded fast food restaurant” by user “boedie” on freesound.org, Creative Commons license.
Hello and welcome everybody! I am Rebecca Bramlett and this is the RB Abroad podcast, where I tell you about the time I moved abroad for three and half years.
(music begins playing)
In this pilot episode I’m talking about how I came to move abroad and why the heck I’m doing this podcast thing.
Just a warning for my clean mouthed listeners, or my friends who might be listening with their kids riding along in the car, this episode does contain a few instances of some curse words. Sorry.
I’m an almost 40-year-old mother and wife, among other things, who moved abroad with my family from the United States to Belgium three ½ years ago. This podcast, RB Abroad, and particularly the first season, is something I wanted to create because I wanted to share what it’s been like to live through the stressful, frustrating, complicated, and exhausting, and challenging, but also beautiful, and rewarding, and fulfilling experience of moving to another country and living in another culture.
It’s been such a unique and life-altering experience for me, I want to share my story so that my friends and family can more deeply understand what I’ve been experiencing these past few years, but also to encourage, and inspire, and inform other people out there who might be considering a move abroad, or who are just curious about what it is like.
In a few months, my expat experience will end and we’ll be moving back to the States. So, I’m using this podcast, particularly this first season of this podcast, to reflect on my past three and a half years living in Belgium, and tell you everything about the experience, and hopefully to bring some closure to it for myself.
So, my story of how I came to move to Belgium starts well before the actual move. The more I’ve thought about it, I realized that my story of how I came to move to Belgium started well before I even knew it would ever be a possibility.
For the first two decades of my life, I would not consider myself a “traveler”. I grew up in a family that didn’t really take many vacations. Our holidays were most often either spent at home, or visiting grandparents in upstate New York. And, when we did take vacations, it was pretty much always the same summer vacation to the same location, in Upstate New York, every year. Aside from those vacations, I can really count on one hand the other family vacation experiences I remember.
But all this is to say, I was raised in a family that didn’t travel much and never really went too far from home. We lived in Alexandria, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C. and until I was 17 and headed off to College, my world was this safe little bubble that was restricted to this just small strip of land that was on the East coast of the United States. That was it. That was my world. Any other place on this earth was just a spot on a map or globe, which was lovely sounding but really mentally inconceivable to me as a real place.
So, maybe you can imagine how rocked my world was when I did have to pack up and move to college in Williamsburg, Virginia.
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I had been so sheltered and in my bubble that it’s fair to say when I did move for college, my world was rocked.
I remember the first few car rides to and from college, being driven by someone else, because I wasn’t taking my car to school yet, and I genuinely had no clue where I really was on a map. Now mind you this was 1997, this was pre-smart phone, pre-Google map era, but since I hadn’t really been in this region before I just remember driving down Virginia’s Highway 64, both sides of the road flanked with these tall pine trees just for miles and miles and miles, it was just an unfamiliar terrain to me at the time, it felt like I was in another world.
I probably learned about the Treaty of Ghent at some point in high school, surely it was covered in my European History class, but the first time I really remember hearing about the existence of a country called Belgium was in college.
I met two students in my first year of college whose parents had worked overseas in some capacity.
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I have no idea what they did, but I remember being fascinated by these students who had lived in Europe as teenagers. One of them would dazzle me with his stories about how he lived in Rome and would ride around the streets around the Colosseum on his motor scooter and we’d eat at the student café and he would encourage me to order a grapes and cheese platter because he remembered eating them in France, and he taught me that these are normal things to eat together. What???? A grape and a piece of cheese, in your mouth at the same time? That’s so weird.
Oh wait. Gah, that’s good. Mind blown.
So, one day, these two third-culture-kids (that’s what you call kids who grow up in a culture outside of their native culture, I’ll talk about that more in future podcast episodes) anyway, they were talking about their experiences in front of me and they came to this joyous and enthusiastic conclusion that Brussels was their favorite city in all of Europe.
(sounds of a public square begin playing)
They talked about its beautiful buildings and its Grand Place and its laws that permitted 16-year-olds to drink beer in public.
(sounds of the public square end)
And the next year, I met another student who had once-upon-a-time lived in Belgium. Spoiler alert, this guy, Matt, would eventually become by husband. We started dating and as I got to know Matt and his family better, and I learned that they too had a love for Belgium. I kept hearing about the beer and the moules en frites at this restaurant called Chez Leon in Brussels. His mother and his sister both have pictures of this restaurant hanging in their homes. So, okay, like, there must be something to this.
Matt and his family had actually lived outside of Brussels for a few years in a small town called Mons. Actually, even further outside of Mons, in a teeny village called Montignies-lez-Lens. His father was retired Air Force and worked there at NATO’s operational headquarters, called SHAPE, Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. And so, their stories continued and they would share all these wonderful memories of their time spent living in Belgium, which to me, I could really only imagine as a sort of fairy tale.
Matt: Yeah, I think everybody liked it, I mean, yeah, you got to know people, we got to know our neighbors.
That’s my husband Matt. I made him sit down with me for a little while and talk about all this.
Matt: The old man down the street that took care of the house, he would come by and like, peek in all the windows to see where I was and tap on the glass and I’d go out and spend a couple hours with him trying to catch moles in the yard.
Rebecca: It sounded like you said “puke” on the windows. (laughing)
Matt: Puke? No, peep. Peep in the windows. Yeah.
Matt and I continued to date and things got serious, so serious in fact, that in 2001 after my college graduation, I followed him, with no job prospects of my own, to College Station, Texas where he was attending graduate school, and I was going to do something, anything, as long as it meant I was still together with him. Ah, young love. This move to Texas, which arguably, for me, might as well have been moving to another country, was a huge step outside of my East Coast bubble, and I see it now as a foreshadow to the future world expansion I would experience in my life thanks to Matt. Thanks, Matt.
In 2004 we got married and Matt finished his PhD, and we moved to North Carolina for his postdoctoral research position. After a few years, once we were more established financially, we planned a trip to Europe as a gift to ourselves for, you know, becoming adults and having stable jobs, and to make up for the fact that our honeymoon was a weekend at a Bavarian Inn … in West Virginia, not actually in Bavaria.
This was going to be my first trip to Europe so we planned to visit the obvious, popular cities of London and Paris, and also agreed to visit Brussels, so that we could walk down his family’s memory lane and so that I could finally see what all the fuss was about.
Indeed, the Grand Place was grand.
(sounds of a public square begin playing)
And it did feel cool as hell to walk around the city with an open container of beer in my hand without fear. So, yeah, Brussels was pretty cool, but it was also a little terrifying. It was big and busy and diverse, diverse in a way I had never seen before. Mind you, I grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C. I was used to diverse, but this was even more diverse. This was European diverse. And it was a little grimy. I know now that grime to be pollution and diesel exhaust, but that’s Brussels.
(sounds of the public square end)
So, we rented a car and drove out to Montignies-lez-Lens and Mons. Even that was terrifying.
Rebecca: On the way out of town you…
Matt: Yeah, I went down a bus lane and they had purposefully built these like pits in the middle of it to keep people from going through them and we definitely went through one. I thought I had broke the damn rental car.
Rebecca: And that was scary. Like I feel like I remember that feeling like we were in like a whole other, I mean, we were in another country but it felt so foreign then.
Matt: Yeah, it definitely doesn’t now…
Rebecca: Like, why were we so scared? We were so scared then, of that.
Matt: Well, we didn’t know where we were going, we were worried about getting lost, and I remember that wherever we were, there were some street signs on poles, but most of them didn’t have it, I know now there probably on the side of the building, but I don’t think I knew that then, so it seemed like two thirds of the streets we were going by didn’t even have street signs up so you didn’t know what road you were passing, I was, I don’t know, it seemed…
Rebecca: Yeah, it was, yeah…
But we got out of the city and we drove by Matt’s preschool and primary school, where he had studied French and suffered at the hands of teachers who were still practicing corporal punishment…
Matt: I got spanked. Can’t remember for what. But with like, pants down, like the pants came down and spanked, so it would hurt.
Rebecca: With their hand? Or with…
Matt: I can’t remember. But the class got to see it. It wasn’t like, a private affair.
… who taught him how to swim by literally just throwing him into the pool’s deep end.
Matt: Yeah, I mean, I was terrified of it because they basically would just push you in the deep end. Yeah.
Rebecca: That’s sad.
We found the little white brick house where Matt and his family lived and stopped and took pictures for his parents.
It was this beautiful, sunny day and it was the middle of a weekday and the street was quiet, and this small little village was so calm. The sky was bright blue, there were white fluffy clouds. There were colorful flowers blooming in the front garden of his family’s old house.
Across the street there was a field full of tall grass, and yellow flowers, and horses grazing. Now this is a detail worth noting for me because horses are a big deal to me. I always notice the horses. I’ve always loved horses, I grew up riding and, in my opinion, horses make anything and everything better.
It was one of the last days on our trip and as we drove away from the house and I took in this idyllic, pastoral scene one more time I thought, well no wonder his family loved it so much here. No wonder his mother has such fond memories. It’s so quiet and peaceful and she got to stay in this quaint little home and look at this view every day. I GET IT. Of course, Matt tells me the horses weren’t there back then…
Matt: No, I think it was cows. Pretty sure it was cows across the field.
Whatever. I got it and, further, I thought, and maybe even said out loud, I don’t remember, but I thought, I could totally live here, like this. I could run away and hide from reality in this quaint little village and be so happy. But then this thought was immediately followed by the next thought which was, except that will never happen because neither of us work in a capacity that would give us that opportunity. So, that dreamy little village disappeared in the rearview mirror and we returned to our reality in North Carolina, which is a good reality, and was a good real world, I mean, blessed really, but not one that involved me sitting at home, staring out the window at a beautiful field full of flowers and horses.
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When Matt finished his postdoc, he faced the common decision point for research scientists, do I pursue work in academia or do I pursue work in industry? And, ultimately, he started working at the North Carolina site of a global biotech company, which had headquarters in Europe but sites all over the world. At some point, employees are asked if they’d ever be willing to consider an international assignment from the company. We discussed how he should respond to this inquiry and agreed, well sure, why not? We never thought much of it but it’s always easy to say “yes” to something like that when it is abstract.
A few years passed by and our family grew when we had our son. And one day, Matt actually was asked to consider a position at the company’s site in Beijing. China.
We knew the company had sites everywhere, but I think we somehow always thought an international assignment that came along would be in Europe, not Asia. We hadn’t considered Asia. Our son was three at the time and I was experiencing increased stress over trying to find work/life balance. A two year-assignment in a foreign country sounded exciting and exotic so, we said yes.
We booked a trip to meet with a relocation agent in Beijing and to find a house. I told my boss at work that we were considering the move but didn’t officially give my notice. We told family what we were doing but not really anyone else. We were waiting for it to be more “official.” So, we made the house-hunting trip. We just kind of told people that Matt was going for work and I was going along for the experience.
I found Beijing fascinating but also terrifying. While I had made many baby steps over the years and slightly expanded my safe little east coast bubble, at that point in my life, a move to Beijing was going to be a huge leap.
The air pollution there was so bad, it bothered my breathing and it gave me headaches every day. After a week of exploring and tentatively settling on a house, we were sitting at the airport waiting to board our return flight home and I felt this like, crushing weight start coming in around me. I literally couldn’t breathe. Anxiety was setting in. I was exhausted. I was stressed. I was still jet lagged. I just was having this realization. I knew in my heart that I could not make this move.
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I wasn’t ready for this much change. I couldn’t do it. And then I had to face this horrible flight home where we hit turbulence and bad weather, and I had to slowly reveal to Matt how I was feeling. And then I had to ask him, “can we please not do this?”
Rebecca: Okay, so, should we talk about, ugh, China.
Rebecca: How was that for you, having to deal with me saying I didn’t want to do it anymore? (laughs)
Matt: (laughs), um, well, there are multiple layers there, I guess. On one plane, I think, I mean, I essentially agreed with your reasoning, but I was worried because we had basically already told my job that, ‘hey we’re going to do it’. Then we got back and I had to arrange meetings to go talk to my boss’s boss’s boss and tell him personally why we weren’t going.
Rebecca: (laughs softly) sorry.
Poor Matt had to rescind his acceptance of the offer, thankfully at no immediate harm to his career.
Matt: I mean, he understood, it’s, what can you do.
Matt: Yeah, at the time, I mean, I don’t, I did not have the feeling that it was going to hurt my career. But I didn’t think they were going to offer me another one.
I felt so responsible for that and I felt so terrible about that, but not as terrible as I think I would’ve have felt if we have moved.
Rebecca: You would’ve gone, though, like, you didn’t feel that way when we left the house hunting trip.
Matt: I would’ve gone. Yeah, I would’ve gone.
Rebecca: You didn’t feel what I felt.
Matt: No, I mean, but maybe I don’t always think things through as well as you do. I don’t know, but…
Rebecca: I think it would’ve been harder for me. I worry that I would’ve had a horrible experience and then maybe wouldn’t have been open to others in the future. I don’t know. Just because it would’ve been so different and so difficult. I don’t know if I was ready.
I still think it was the right call for us at the time, but man it was hard to live thorough.
So, every year, Matt would update his answer to that question of, ‘would you consider a move abroad? Would you consider an international assignment?’ He continued to say yes, and his company acquired a research site in Belgium, and we would secretly daydream and joke and say, ‘yes, we’d consider a move abroad, but not in Beijing, only in Belgium.’ But you know the saying, ‘lightning doesn’t strike twice,’ I could not imagine his company taking a chance on us again after the way I put an end to the Beijing assignment, so I could not believe it the day Matt came home and said that they had asked him to consider an assignment in Belgium.
Rebecca: Then I think I remember being in the kitchen at home and being kind of like, ‘oh,’ you know, ‘oh shit, okay yeah, that we would do!’
Rebecca: Like, Belgium we would do. Not Beijing, but Belgium, yeah.
Belgium, the country I had not really even heard of until college. The country that his family loved so much. The country that first planted the seed in my head that I could even consider living somewhere else outside of the United States.
This time we said yes and I knew I wouldn’t change my mind. I knew I COULDN’T change my mind, but I didn’t think I’d want to.
Matt: Yeah, we weren’t going to back out this time. It was, it was on.
Rebecca: But I think we were more comfortable with that because we…
Matt: Well, you had been to Belgium even.
Rebecca: …we had been to the country, and yeah.
Matt: You had been there. I had lived there.
Rebecca: It still seemed really foreign but…
Matt: Yeah but not Beijing foreign.
At that point our son was six years old and while I was working in a job that I loved, my work/life balance stress was through the roof. I was ready and excited for a change. So, we fully committed.
Now, this sort of move does not happen overnight. The actual logistics of doing the work assignment within the company, and then the logistics of physically moving and registering to live in another country, these are all tedious, confusing, complex process that are riddled with massive amounts of paperwork and red tape.
We had to get an apostilled copy of our birth certificates. What the fuck is an apostille? I had never heard that word before. And our marriage license, and our social security cards, and social security information, and Visa applications and work permit applications, and new bank accounts, and bank information. All these things of paperwork that had to be certified and stamped and mailed and processed, and you know, we had to take a quick jaunt one afternoon to Atlanta from North Carolina to do some paperwork. We had to prove everything about our life and our existence and our functioning and our permission to be here, and to be there, all on paper, and stamped and sealed and processed and approved.
It took months for us to be able to officially announce the news that we were moving, and a few more months to actually complete the move. And while it was thrilling and exciting, it was also exhausting and emotionally draining.
I gave my notice at my job, which was a job I loved in a place where I had worked for eleven years and grown and gained increasing responsibility to a really good position. I had to say goodbye to colleagues that had become friends, and goodbye to work that I enjoyed and fulfilled me. Though I will say, as I said, I didn’t mind saying goodbye to the stress of constantly trying to find balance and alleviate the guilt of being a working mother, it was still hard. It was hard to say goodbye.
We had to work through the news with family and friends who were excited for us, of course, but sad to see us go. And who we were sad to leave.
Our son had to say goodbye to his teacher and the friends he had just begun making as he was just a few months into kindergarten.
And then terror struck.
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In November of 2015, while we were in the midst of all the final preparations of our move which was going to take place in January of 2016, terrorist suicide bombers made several attacks in six locations in Paris, killing 130 individuals and wounding 494 more.
The news of this event alone is shocking and terrible and horrifying. And the fact that it was another instance and reminder that terrorists were still actively operating in Europe was additionally scary. And then it eventually became known that many of the terrorists involved in this particular series of attacks were from a cell that was operating in Belgium. And that, in fact, was truly terror inducing for me. This was too close to our future home. And what did it mean?
Was Belgium now a hotbed of terror activity? I remembered Brussels being this big, international city with some sketchy areas, but it was still okay. Was it not okay anymore? Was it overrun with terrorists now? And what had happened to that beautiful flower, horse-filled meadow dream of Belgium that I remembered? That memory was being replaced by fear, fear ultimately from my unfamiliarity with the rest of the country, and fear of the unknown, terror induced by people who wanted to do just that. Induce terror.
So, I panicked. I found every Belgian news agency I possibly could and read their sites daily. Okay, like, hourly. I would read them and refresh them fiendishly, many times a day looking for new pieces of information. Looking for news. Looking for something. For some sign that would say, like, it’s okay to still move there, the terrorists are all gone, it’s safe. Or, maybe, it’s not okay, back out now, here’s your excuse. But deep down I knew I couldn’t make that choice again.
So, I kept watching the news and we spoke with Matt’s colleagues in Belgium who tried to assuage our concerns. I mean, they were going about their daily lives, so should we. It was just hard to imagine what our daily lives would look like when I hadn’t set foot in Ghent yet. The city where we’d be moving. I can’t picture what I don’t know. We spoke with family and friends and colleagues who were probably covering up their concern and uncertainty, and were still supportive, but certainly, they asked about it. They were worried about us. We were all worried but we proceeded. We were moving to Ghent. Belgium.
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We had to pack up all our belongings and sort them – what to get rid of, what to put in storage, what to send in the small air shipment that we were permitted so that we could have it within two weeks of arriving, and then everything else to send in a freight shipment that would take about six weeks to arrive, if we were lucky. And all of this was happening during the Winter holidays which is a time of year that I already find a bit nostalgic and melancholy, so, I was an emotional wreck, churning with excitement but also fear, and anxiety, and stress.
I remember standing at the bottom of our driveway in North Carolina watching everything we owned, well, at least 70% of what we owned, that had been packed into this shipping container on the back of a truck, roll its way down the street and out of sight, headed to a ship to hopefully make its journey to us to be opened six weeks later. I tried not to think about that container with all of our possessions, sitting on top of a ship, out in the middle of a rolling ocean, for six weeks.
We said all our final goodbyes, and pulled out of our driveway in North Carolina, and headed to D.C. where we would stay with family until our flight the next day. I cried as we backed out of our driveway and I took one last look at our house. I was excited, of course, but also scared. But I tried to hide the tears from my son. Matt and I had gone through a Global Cultural Training course as part of our move preparation and one of the things that really stuck with me from that was that children generally take the lead from their mothers about how to respond to a move. Because of that, it was really important for me to try and stay positive and approach the move as an exciting adventure – which I truly did believe – but I really wanted my son to see it that way, too, and of course I wanted him to know that it was okay to be sad and it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to feel all of those emotions, but I was still trying to keep it to a minimum, because I wanted him to be happy and excited. So, I wiped the tears from my eyes and posted something on Facebook about leaving, and off we went.
On my blog I wrote a post on the occasion of our three-year anniversary of living here where I reflected back on the first day, and what it was like for me on that first day after arriving in Belgium. I was thinking about reading it here on this episode of podcast, but I’m not going to take the time to do that. I just suggest you go on over to my blog, rbabroad.com, and read it and check it out for yourself.
But what I will say here about that day is, I just remember how emotional it was. It was such a weird feeling to leave home one night, get on a plane, and wake up the next morning on that plane landing in a new home in a new country. It was January in Belgium which means it was gray and overcast and drizzly and cold and all that just added to my general feeling of sadness and being overwhelmed. We got into our house and met with our relocation agent, but of course we didn’t have any of our belongings yet so we didn’t really have much to do.
We went to lunch at a fast food restaurant and that is where all my emotions caught up with me. I ordered a salad and when I got it and it wasn’t want I expected, I just lost it and broke down into tears and was trying not to sob as my son ran off and was playing in the play area, but, just all the stress and emotions that I had been holding in for weeks, just, feeling sad about leaving friends behind, and family, and feeling nervous about was I moving to a hotbed of terrorism, and just general fear of the unknown, it all caught up with me and came out over my salad.
(sound of a restaurant playing)
Sitting there in that fast food restaurant, I had my first feeling of what it was going to be like not knowing the language, and not being able to read a menu, and not being able to place an order in the language, and the struggle that it was going to be to communicate, and listening to people around me and not understanding them, and just, it was that first moment of feeling how things were going to be different, and how things were going to be foreign, and new, and were going to be challenges to overcome. And for me that was scary.
Rebecca: I don’t know, I don’t you were as maybe stressed about it as I was? Or emotional about it as I was?
Matt: Probably not. I’ve moved a lot in my life, maybe that’s it. I don’t know. But I don’t remember being like … It was, there was stressful things because you realize like, oh I need these ten different things and I don’t really know where to go get them. That was the first thing, right? Like, where do we get the stuff that you want? And, yeah, so I mean, there’s stress there, it definitely was stressful but, I don’t know, I kinda felt like we’d get through it.
Rebecca: Well, you’re more easy going than I am.
One thing I didn’t include in that post was the fact that during our first full day in our new house, city workers came by and cut down all the trees in our front yard in preparation for installing a new bike path on our street.
(Construction digger noise in background)
Was this foreshadowing? Nothing is going to be as I expected it to be here? Was it a lesson, or a warning? Don’t have any expectations or preconceived notions about what to expect here! In hindsight, those sound like appropriate lessons to learn from that experience, but at the time, all I knew was that something else was changing in my life. Challenges lay ahead.
(Construction noise fades and ends)
On that day, January 11, 2016, our relocation agent gave us, among other things, a “Happy New Year” postcard that read “2016: 366 New Days, 366 New Chances. Merry Relocation. Happy Immigration.”
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That wasn’t a typo, 2016 was a leap year. I instagrammed it and kept it out on our counter for a while. It was right in line with my thoughts about how to use the next three years. I wanted to be purposeful with what I did and how I spent my time so that at the end of my expat experience, I would be able to show that I used the time wisely and that it contributed to my personhood.
In the episodes that follow in this season, I’m going to tell you more about just that. What have I been doing these past three and a half years? What’s the experience been like? What has it done to me? And what do I have to say to anyone considering a move abroad?
Next time, on the RB Abroad podcast, I’m talking about The Expat Identity, how moving abroad changes the way you think about yourself, and kind of makes you an obnoxious pain in the ass, but also hopefully a better person. Thanks for coming along. Keep listening.
I am Rebecca Bramlett and you have been listening to the RB Abroad podcast, my series where I tell you about that time I up and moved abroad for three and half years. This podcast is 100% independently produced by me as my final, personal project for my postgraduate certificate in digital storytelling from KASK School of Arts in Ghent, Belgium. Thank you for listening.
If you like what you hear, I appreciate your support through subscriptions, reviews, likes, comments, and shares on whatever platform you are using to listen, and/or on any of my social media channels. Until next time … tot ziens. Bye!
This episode contains three tracks of music by Peach Pie, provided by Jamendo. It also contains some audio acquired through freesound.org and the creative commons license. Complete details about all the music and audio used in this episode can be found on this episode’s post on the RBAbroad.com website.