Our responsibility as expats

Sometimes it’s hard to really process all images, the heartbreaking tributes, the frightening eye-witness accounts. And it’s true, innocent people are killed everyday, all over the world, out of the glare of international media.

With the sheer volume of information and from the comfort of our own expat buncles, it is often easy to switch off. Unless the locations touched are places that we have visited, or where we have loved ones, or where we are posted. Unless you’ve been in other cities also touched by terrorism and the horror, fear and anger are awfully familiar.

Over the last week Brussels has been firmly in the spotlight.  This normally sleepy, laissez-faire capital city has had a rude awakening. The impact of the country’s linguistic and cultural divisions on its security apparatus, the lack of integration for sizeable immigrant populations, the lack of accountability for senior officials as more and more failings are broadcast around the world have been held up for all to see.

What does this mean for the city’s expats? Those living here know the rich vein of bureaucracy, sheer incompetence and weird traditions that underpin life in Belgium. Recently a journalist dubbed Brussels ‘the city that doesn’t give a damn’. Yes, it’s pretty easy to find things to complain about and mock in Europe’s capital. But this is bigger than Brussels, Paris or Beiruit.

Look, I don’t want to come across as a crazy, bleeding heart liberal but I’ve said before that expats are in a privileged position. We get to live amongst different cultures, languages, religions. We do ‘deep travel’ and the more postings we have, the more we realise that people are the same, their basic hopes and fears and dreams. We see the cultural differences and they fascinate and frustrate us but we also see the links across cultures and geographies.

I feel pretty strongly that expats have a special responsibility to pass this on. To keep debate alive. To encourage others, especially young people to get out and explore for themselves. That it’s our responsibility to live life to the fullest. To celebrate diversity. To savour the freedom that allows us to travel. To laugh. To have a glass of beer. To challenge the world views of those around us but also our own. Constantly. Above all, to draw on our experiences to tackle misinformation and prejudice.

Never Have I Ever

So, Belinda over at FoundLoveNowWhat has issued a virtual kick up the bum with her ‘Blog Everyday in May’ challenge and while I doubt I’ll get to it every day, day 5’s prompt has got me pondering.

It is waaay harder than it looks but here goes:

Never have I ever:

  • Jumped out of a plane (thank you, NO)
  • Got the tattoo I have been thinking about for years (the potential pain + wrinkliness at 70 puts the brakes on)
  • Enjoyed a fairground or playground ride (motion sickness is a fun killer)
  • Held a European driving license (only places  with truly crazy driving conditions, for some reason)
  • Owned property (ouf, seems too grown up)
  • Felt the desire to have children (ditto)
  • Gone to a music festival (just so pricey and now I’m over the age of *coughs* it just seems a bit…try hard…?)
  • Donated blood (low iron!)
  • Really missed eating meat (22 years and counting…)
  • Managed to get anywhere near fluency in French (DISGRACEFUL)
  • Visited the South American continent

Check out the lists of other bloggers here.

Lesson Learned: Three Things I Won’t Do Again

Apt wit in Amman, Jordan

The ideal traveller, as someone once said, is relentlessly curious and without fear.

Check for the former but not the latter.

I have far too many control issues to be one of those truly relaxed expats who takes everything in her stride.

 Ganesh mural, Mumbai, India

On your first expat posting, you forget more than you learn because there is so much going on. There are fish out of water moments at every turn. The second posting, you think you’ll be more in control, you’re a pro now, you’ll avoid the potholes and it will all be smooth sailing. By the third, you know better and have also learned to go [slightly more] with the flow.

Park keeper, Ritan Park, Beijing

This is what I know, now:

1. Do not believe that just because you’ve lived in India your stomach is invincible. A nasty bout of typhoid in Indonesia will cure you of that delusion fast. In fact, don’t try to “tough it out” or “acclimatise” with local water supplies or unpasteurised dairy. It will not work, no matter how long you give it. Eat street food but prepare for the consequences and understand that these may last for years. Poor Lauren has a post along these lines here.

2. Do not wait to get beyond the city where you are posted and explore as many parts of the country as possible while you can. Plan weekends away, day trips, explore interesting streets and paths whenever you can. You never know how long you are going to be in your post. There is so much of India in particular that we did not get to see because we were saving money to set up our new home together. This was important but it meant we wasted many of the opportunities we could have had.

3. Check every element of your expat contract carefully. In the buzz of the prospect of moving abroad this might seem tedious but it is naive to think that you and the employer (especially if it is not your employer but your spouse’s employer) have the same interests or needs. Some things to look out for include: previsions on weight restrictions for moving into and out of the country (more on the way out than in is ideal), a realistic rental allowance if you’re lucky enough to have this included, health insurance coverage (dental!!), provisions for what happens if the work contract is terminated (who pays for your move back to your country of origin? who deals with exit permits and processes?) and above all provisions relating to HR support both in the region you’re moving to and back at HQ.

Want to share your “I won’t do that again” travel moments? Link up with Emma, Kelly, Rebecca and Shikha!

Mechelen, Belgium

Life begins at….

Happy birthday N!

I hope you’ll forgive me but this is one for you.

I was trying to think of a way to celebrate this momentous occasion and that’s when it struck me that this might be a good time to thank you.

You’ve stuck with this little blog over the years, using it to check in on me from afar and to keep up with my life when you have so much going on in yours. Thank you for that. Thank you also for introducing me to black olives. Thanks for showing me that aiming high for grad school was not a completely ridiculous waste of time. Thanks for our conversations about a young Sean Connery and Betty Boothroyd.

My only regret is that I’ve not yet seen you do nearly enough tap dancing…

While you were gone: December

While you were gone December

This was a big one wasn’t it? We finally got to travel together, meeting up to explore a region that is new to both of us. And to do what we love best: have adventures.We were saddened to see how everyone was struggling in Jordan given the dramatic but needless collapse in tourist numbers.

In December: 

  • We explored Amman, ancient and modern. We spent some time in the beautiful desert and learned a little about Bedouin life. I fulfilled a life long dream to see Petra. The walk down through a silent Siq to the Treasury in the moonlight was magical and something that will remain imprinted upon my memory. Petra was very different to what we expected; the scale of the city took us by surprise but it was as beautiful as I had thought it would be.
  • I caught up with friends from Beijing in London, always a treat. We shopped for Christmas and spoiled ourselves with afternoon tea. I spent a wonderful Sunday catching up with my dear uni friends. I got to have a roast lunch for the first time in a long time.
  • I had an unexpected hour to wander around and explore Ghent, with its beautiful cathedral and riverside. Despite the grey and the rain, the Mediaeval buildings are impressive, with their rich, gorgeous paintings.

I missed you.

While you were gone: November


While you were gone November

November was the month you missed the wedding party of one of your best friends, I know you regretted this massively.

In November:

  • I had my first Guy Fawkes night in London for years. This involved sailing down the Thames at night and a visit to the Tower of London to see the final hours of the poppy installation. It was magical but I felt your absence very keenly.
  • There was a further trip to London later in the month, when the city began to gear up for the explosion of activity that is Christmas. Brussels opened its winter market in spectacular style too, I accidentally walked through its opening night one evening.
  • Back to Strasbourg again and a bit of pope-spotting.

I missed you.

While you were gone: October

Like Alice’s white rabbit, I’m running late.  Before 2015 gets too old, I’m posting in catch-up mode; a little photo diary to show Mr B what has been happening. And perhaps prove to myself that I’m doing OK back here too.

One of the ‘benefits’ of being in a Long Distance Relationship is the time and freedom it gives me to travel. I do a lot for work but now that you’re away, my weekends have become empty stretches that I fill by exploring Brussels itself and catching up with friends.

In October:

  • I took a spontaneous trip to Cologne one evening for dinner;
  • Went up the BT Tower and was treated to gorgeous views across the city and a freaky sensation when the Tower began to rotate;
  • Had a weekend in beautiful Paris – a chance to revisit well-loved monuments, wander Montmartre, discover suburban life and experience a Halloween cabaret featuring dead French and international singers (a lot of fun);
  • Saw autumn produce emerge; Brussels always seems to go mushroom mad at this time of year!

I missed you.