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: 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.

Things we learned on holiday

Apparently ‘obli-cations’, where you spend your leave doing administrative tasks or seeing people you feel you should see, are now ‘a thing’. Expats are pretty au fait with this sense of ‘how-much-can-I-cram-in’ when returning home.  This year, we did three things differently.

Just as well, considering we didn’t know then that we were about to be separated for a year.

First, to redress last year’s tilt in favour of time with Mr B’s family, we organised a week in Spain with my family. The first time we’ve all been away together since leaving home. And the first time with spouses and children in tow. Mr B is a patient man and it is important to balance time between our families. Life is too short.

And despite all the men in the family prophesying (since the planning started a year ago) that it was a terrible idea, bound to end in chaos and acrimony, we all had FUN. We drank a lot, we ate a lot, we were LOUD and silly, in the true tradition of the family. The children were spoiled and cuddled. We all loved beautiful Menorca, with its prehistoric monuments, gorgeous cities, fresh produce and some of the most stunning beaches in the Mediterranean. If you haven’t discovered this Balearic gem, go.

Secondly, on our trip [to his] home and, I admit, mostly as a result of my continuous complaints that we’re both missing out by letting obligations stand in the way of ‘our’ adventure time, we took a few days to be alone. With ageing parents, siblings and a wide circle of friends, we normally wear ourselves out trying to see too many people. This time, we focused on catching up with his best friend and those of his oldest friends who we haven’t seen in a while. It was awesome, an approach that really worked for us. It allowed us to spend real time focused on what matters: reconnecting. My favourite part? Learning new things about Mr B; the places he used to go, the times he sneaked out of the house.

And we got to spend time in the beautiful mountains of British Columbia. Always a bonus.

Thirdly, our Long Distance Relationship element that began at the end of the summer has meant a re-evaluation of our travel plans for the rest of the year. You never know when things are going to change. We’re unlikely to be able to return to Canada at Christmas which is bumming Mr B out.

Instead, we’re trying to snatch time together during his R&R breaks and thinking about new regions and new adventures over the course of the next year.

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside

My best friend A is lucky enough to have a family apartment at Oostduinkerke on the Belgian coast. It is from A that I first heard about the dying tradition of paardenvissers, an ever-shrinking group of shrimp fishermen who still use horses to trawl for their catch. It is a tradition that can be traced back half a millennium and was once common not only in Belgium but also in the UK and France.

By 1968, there were only seven horseback shrimp fishermen left in Oostduinkerke, this number had risen to around twelve when they were recognised as an ‘intangible cultural heritage’ by UNESCO in 2013.

Being a bit of a sucker for quirky Belgian events, seeing the fishermen in action has been high on my ‘must see’ list for some time (the Ypres cat-throwing festival is also waaaay up there, roll on May 2015). Mr B and I had checked the timetable for this summer, only to be thwarted by his departure for a year-long project abroad.

Readers, the stars aligned and Mr B returned for a few days of R&R that coincided with the last outing of the season. The morning was gorgeous, one last shot at summer for this year. There is always something magical about having a day off when the rest of the world is working, isn’t there?

We decided to start at Koksijde, the amusingly named village just down the coast from Oostduinkerke, and strolled along the broad, golden sands hand in hand, feeling quite giddy with being reunited, albeit briefly, and the sense of pending adventures.

The UNESCO recognised shrimp fisherman of Oostduinkere, Belgium

The UNESCO recognised shrimp fisherman of Oostduinkere, Belgium

Clam diggers and horse lovers alike at the Belgian coast

Clam diggers and horse lovers alike at the Belgian coast

High tide markers, Koksijde, Belgium

At the Oostduinkerke end of the beach you’ll be able to see a small group of the shrimp fishermen working together (Alison at CheeseWeb has a beautiful account of her visit last year here). We, however, were lucky enough to stumble across a lone fisherman, well away from the crowds, surrounded only by his wife, a couple of clam diggers and shrimp fisherman working by hand…and a practically every seagull in Belgium.

Paardenvisser, a rarer and rarer sight in Belgium.

Paardenvisser, a rarer and rarer sight in Belgium.

We caught the paardenvisser as he emerged from the sea after his first run of the morning, unloaded his catch for his wife to sort and went back in for a second trawl, his feet hitched up high by the horse’s neck in the traditional way.

Fisher horse

Fisher horse

Hitched up & heading for the sea

Shrimp fisherman gears up

Horses scare me but this little fisher horse was a peach. So patient, and perfectly accustomed to wading along the water up to his neck, fearless in the face of the waves breaking around him.

Heading out to for the 2nd shrimp sweep of the day

It is an incredible sight and, I can’t help feeling, a much more sustainable way to gather the tiny, grey shrimp that Belgians love so much.

New start, new shoes

New start, new shoes

It is a tradition that started because of Mr B.

Buying a pair of fancy shoes to mark new beginnings. It’s literally me putting my best foot forward.

When I left my second job, it was to follow Mr B to India and get married. I used part of my last pay packet to inaugurate this tradition of buying shoes in order to prepare for the wedding. The other part I used for the dress itself.

When I left my, frankly hellish, posting in Jakarta, Mr B strongly encouraged me to blow the last pay packet on another fabulous pair of shoes during a visit to Hong Kong as a ‘pick me up’ therapy.

And a few weeks ago it was time for another new start.

And so I bought these.

On being a Remedial Wife (part deux) or No Housework for Expats

On being a Remedial Wife (part deux) or No Housework for Expats

It turns out that there is such a thing as ‘no housework day’ (thanks Non-Domestic Mama). I am all over it. I’ve cleaned for a living and it is hard, hard work. Drudgery.

Our expat life means that we’ve been able to pay people to clean for us while we were in Asia and now also here in Belgium, thanks to the ‘titres services‘ system (basically it ensures a minimum wage and healthcare for many low paid workers who were working ‘in the black’, outside the official tax system).

I know that makes me very fortunate. I work hard to ensure my whole life is ‘no housework day’, particularly ‘no ironing day’ which I loathe above all else. Now that we’re both working demanding jobs and travelling frequently, having someone whom we trust to come in and straighten things up, scrub the shower and iron is a necessity.

For the record, I don’t think expats should feel guilty about having some help around the house, even if they’re not working. If you’re setting up life in a new location, there is plenty to do and if you’re navigating unfamiliar territory in an unfamiliar language, it takes much, much longer than it should. Or you’re building a social life, a support network. Or you’re just enjoying yourself which must also be part of the expat experience.

I’m often asked where ‘Remedial Wife’ came from, what makes me a ‘Remedial Wife’. It is this: I like pretty things and I like my house to be clean and neat. I can often go the other way and get slightly obsessive about things that need to be done around the house (right now, how to clean a set of windows that are filthy but too high to reach even with a ladder).

I get zero pleasure from cooking (unless it is dessert and only then when I am in the mood) which I leave to Mr B. It is well known that I am pretty inept at laundry. Mr B had 3 shirts ruined one day in India when ‘stain remover’ turned out to be neat bleach. And to make matters worse I combined this with a wash that was too hot and shrunk said ruined shirts beyond all repair.

I am not one of those expat wives whose house looks like a magazine shoot, who is always incredibly dressed and groomed, who mixes cocktails and arranges flowers, never forgets a birthday and is never short on small talk.

Instead I’ve learned to become Mr B’s sous-chef and to clean up around him as he works his culinary magic. It’s a work in progress.

Life is too short. Happy no housework day!

5 Things I Love About My Expat Life

Like all expat bloggers, I frequently return to variations on the navel-gazing question of ‘what have I learned from this posting’ and ‘what is the meaning of (expat) life? It’s almost an occupational hazard but no less interesting for it…if you’re an expat.

If you’re not, it’s very boring perhaps even vainglorious. Look away now.

Those of us who are expat bloggers strive to report and reflect on what we encounter in the realm outside our comfort zone.

To document and vent and seek advice when things are bad. To rejoice when things are fun and going well and the possibilities seem boundless.

It goes without saying that experiencing different cultural norms, learning languages, trying new foods and making new friends are cited as the best things about expat life. And with good reason. They are the very bedrock of expat existence: The Broadening Of The Mind.

Reading a travel briefing for those preparing to visit our offices in the US brought it back very clearly this week. I understood why my company explained it was not necessary to call those above you in the hierarchy ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ (India) or to use the first name of colleagues without honorifics (Indonesia), why some colleagues would need to be warned that upon receiving a gift Westerners would open it immediately (China) precisely because I’ve experienced these things from the other side…and all without getting the memo.

So, here are 5 things I love about my expat life:

1. The sense of starting over: I’m not yet at the point when I am tired of picking up and starting again. Since I was tiny I’ve been simultaneously drawn to the ‘new’ while being equally terrified of it. New beginnings are still fresh for Mr B & I. I don’t believe complete reinvention is possible (although there are plenty of expats that try). Each posting seems to bring a different element of your personality to the fore and to reveal something new. I believe that what you find is a reflection of something in the character of your host-country and above all the people you encounter. So, in India, it was self-confidence. In Indonesia, tenacity. In China, sociability. In Belgium, I’m experiencing a healthy sense of laissez-faire.

2. Distance from family: I’m going to call it. I enjoy this. Mr B cites this as his top reason to be an expat. I can’t imagine being one of those people who lives two streets away from their parents all their lives. As time passes and when things go wrong, this reverses to being the worst aspect of expat life but for the moment…

3. Gaining perspective: When the internet goes down I am frustrated with the length of time it takes Belgacom to rectify the situation and the lousy customer service that is the norm here in Belgium. After living in developing countries I’m accustomed to dealing with incompetent administrations but then I think back to those still living behind the Great Firewall of China or those in India who are not even literate…and I get over myself.

4. Travel: hands-down the best bit, especially once you’ve got beyond the ‘must sees’. Getting to explore cities and regions in-depth using tips from the expat community and local colleagues alike is wonderful.

5. Feeling special: Knowing that you are part of some mythical global elite….or is that just me?

Amanda at Life with a Double Buggy writes extremely well about the challenge of raising sensitive kids as an expat mum in the Netherlands and has set this link-up. If you haven’t had a chance, pop on over and add your own top 5 loves.

Expat Life with a Double Buggy