When is an expat not an expat?

At the end of January, Mr B marked three years since moving to Brussels for the second time. I have very mixed feelings about this. The fact is, we passed the point at which we planned to move on a year ago and there are no new postings on the horizon. We’ve come to accept (very grudgingly on my part it must be said) that there are unlikely to be any moves anytime soon, what with the lingering recession impacting Mr B’s company and my inability to find something interesting to do overseas.

I’ve been trying to work out whether there is any point in a posting at which you stop feeling like an expat or a foreigner and simply just be? Perhaps it is easier if you have a strong tie to a place, with the instant family that marriage can provide, for example. Mr B and I have now been “out” of our respective homelands for long enough that spending more than a few days at “home” provides plenty of opportunities for us to see how much our perceptions and memories of our own cultures have become ‘frozen’. For example, I still labour under the impression that shops close at 6pm in the UK and that nothing is open on Bank Holidays. Mr B is constantly surprised at the speed of which his home city is spreading and is cut adrift from a lot of cultural references. Neither of us mind particularly, after all living abroad is an adventure that we both actively sought out but it is disconcerting. Disorientating.

 When I arrive back at the airport or Gare du Midi I am glad to be back with Mr B and in a great apartment, in my own bed but that is all. Walking around on the streets I always have a sense of being ‘other’. Perhaps not in the same way you do for the first few weeks in a place, the kind of feeling that automatically sends out a signal to those around you that you are ripe for a scam. And certainly there is a huge difference between being a working expat here and being a trailing spouse in Asia. And again, being an expat in Europe as a European myself (whatever Mr Farage says) is not the same as being an expat in Africa or South America where the culture is markedly different.

Still, for all its odd charms and laissez-faire madness, the truth is that Brussels will never be home. And I don’t want it to be. Part of me notes each passing month with a sense of incredulity and sadness and sometimes despair that we are still here which is not at all helpful. I try to ignore that bit and look on the bright side – the ease of living here, the proximity to family, the basic grasp of language. I have struggled, really struggled with being here for a second time which is pointless but depression is like that. Therapy and medication and looking for a new way to see Brussels has helped, particularly because most of our friends have moved on (mostly metaphorically into a different world of small children but literally too).

One thing I am grateful for, though, are those people we’ve met on our travels who continue to be important to us, who we still wish we saw more often and travel to see.  This is the part of being an expat that I like, that keeps me sane. That keeps me hopeful.Grand'Place Brussels, sunny day

7 responses

  1. I understand the feeling. There is something very “laissez-faire” about Brussels but also a sense of heaviness. I come from Belgium but after moving to the UK, I instantly felt more home than in Brussels. It depends on what you are searching for I guess. It’s an incredible experience though, because it helps you understand what you really value and it makes you discover many new things. Try to see it as an adventure as you said, until another one comes along!

  2. Very interesting post. I grew up as in “expat” in Vietnam, but in many ways it was more home than my real home (Colorado). I guess life and reality will always escape the categories we create for them!

    • I think you’re right. Creating categories is one of the patterns I think we all fall in to, especially when we’re away from “our” cultures. Vietnam is an incredible country. Lucky you to have spent time there.

  3. I don’t think you ever lose that feeling of “differentness”. Hang on, when I left the UK after 26 years I DID feel British, so what am I talking about?
    It takes a long to feel “part” of a place, and however comfortable you may feel, sometimes a topic of discussion or a chance remark can make you feel as alien as the first day you arrived.
    I’ve found the best way for me, is to accept I’m a Borderline – I’m not entirely Irish, nor am I entirely British, I’m half of a mixed-race marriage so there are people in both societies who shun us and finally, I’m an expat too so I always feel as though I’m on the periphery, the borderline. Yes, sometimes it can make you feel lonely, but I have my beautiful family and a great position from which to observe people!

    • Absolutely. I think it is the ability to retain a sense of ‘other’ and observe people that I love most about being an expat! 😀

  4. What a touching piece of writing. I think you express the feelings of many of us. I enjoy your postings very much!

    • Thanks Hilary. I have to be in the mood to write about some of these topics, otherwise they come out too dark… ;D

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