On being a Remedial Wife

As I write, you are in the kitchen, whipping up yet another curry for us. Since our time in India they have become something of a point of pride for you. You love nothing more than playing with the spices, toasting and grinding your own mixes. I am truly lucky that you found me. That you did not give up on me during those first months when I was not available or later, when I descended into dark days and you struggled to understand what was happening and felt helpless but still pulled me through. You are a gem.

The real reason I call myself ‘Remedial Wife’ is that I never feel like I pull my weight compared to the amount of love and care you provide. I’m always playing catch up. You are much more patient than I am. You see the humour in the blackest situations which threaten to swallow me whole. You call me out when I begin to wallow, having learned the signs. We pay someone to clean the house and iron your shirts because I’m not one of those wonder women who can do everything with style and panache. I am easily overwhelmed, with a tendency to throw too much of myself into my work to the detriment of everything else, particularly myself. It is your love that cocoons and protects and anchors me.

It is almost Valentine’s Day. Traditionally this is one of the two (yes two!) times a year that I try to make an effort and cook for you. The dish is not going to be a surprise because I tend to fall back on the same things repeatedly but at least it is something you claim to enjoy. It is a meagre sign of my love and deep respect for you but it is a start, right?

Who knows where we will end up next, my love? It is not always easy, this cycle of packing up and moving on but we both love it and you are a most excellent partner in crime for adventures.

Happy Valentine’s Day my boy.

Treasure-hunting for Belgian antiques

When I first moved to Brussels I was lucky enough to have room-mates with an amazing eye for treasure which meant we furnished our flat for next to nothing and with a unique style. You know the type – you all go out to a flea market and you blithely walk past rows of overflowing cardboard boxes of what you consider ‘junk’, while they spot original 1950s china at 200 paces AND get it for a bargain price.

I’m not a die-hard bargain-hunter. During our time in Asia I discovered that I’m just too British to be a good haggler. I find the whole exercise incredibly stressful and distasteful while Mr B revels in it.

Nevertheless, when I heard about Belgium’s largest antique and flea market in Tongeren I was curious and wanted to pop along ‘just in case’. You understand that after our postings in India and China Mr B and I have absolutely no need for any more furniture but one of the great things about expat life is the ability to find beautiful things that add a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’.

Are Expats Born or Made? My thoughts

If you haven’t already done so, you should read the interesting piece by Aisha Ashraf who argues that expats are born, not made. [Incidentally, if you haven’t read her blog before, you should. Her conversion to Islam makes her world view particularly interesting.]

I tend to agree with her. I think there are people who are born curious. Who get itchy feet on a regular basis. Who are innately bored by the boundaries of the world they are born into, both literal and in terms of other people’s expectations about what you should do with your life.

I also agree with her that even the most introverted, self-conscious and delicate amongst us can feel this way and still summon the courage to move out of their comfort zones, such is the pull of ‘the Other’ for us.

I still find myself surprised when I speak to friends who remain contentedly in my home town. They may have gone abroad once or twice after saving up. Some see it as a treat they’d love to do more often but know it is unlikely. Others have no desire to go again.

Likewise, I met a colleague last week who has been given a job in Africa I would give my right arm for but he is desperate to find an alternative that would mean he can stay local instead.

It does take a lot to leave family and friends behind. It takes a huge amount of adaptability. It takes a lot to trust; to feel that any relationship will be able to stand the challenges and stress and adjustment, especially in the period when you first arrive. It takes a lot to give up a career to move around and to redefine yourself.

But.

I fully believe expat life is addictive. We’re certainly hooked. Always searching for the next fix. The thrill of the new. The caché of being ‘different’ to those around you and yes, I admit it, of feeling ‘special’. The priviledge of learning for yourself about other cultures to an extent that goes beyond the normal glimpse you get on a holiday. If you’re lucky, the lifestyle that you wouldn’t be able to afford if you’d stayed put. The chance to reinvent yourself if that’s what you want and you still believe it’s possible.

So yes, expats are born but each adventure, each experience we have, each good that cancels out the bad is a reinforcement of the calling we feel deep down inside.

Mr B’s advice for driving in snow

Mr B hails from snowy wasteland-like climes. And so when Brussels gets its annual snowfall he is more exasperated that enthralled. Particularly if he has to drive anywhere.

Following a snowy adventure around town this morning, here are his top pleas (I would say ‘tips’ but I doubt anyone is going to pay attention, people don’t here in Belgium, especially when driving):

  1. If you don’t have snow tyres, don’t drive. It’s as simple as that. A lack of proper equipment is going to make you a hazard to all and sundry on the roads. Man up and wait for the train (and good luck with that).
  2. Try, really try, to spend more than 10 seconds clearing snow from your car. The windscreen should be clear but also so should ALL the windows, mirrors and your lights. Don’t fall into the trap of “Belgian half-arsed effort” again.
  3. Driving at speeds lower than pedestrians walk is dangerous. Pull over and walk yourself.
  4. When driving pick a lane and do your best to stick to it. Also indication is not optional in snow.
  5. Steady driving is key. Don’t panic brake randomly. Especially not when driving uphill.
  6. Don’t tailgate. Italian drivers in Brussels, you are the worst at this. It will not end well.

Bonnes routes!

Christmas Tree or scaffolding? You decide

Most of you who are Brussels-based are probably already bored of the most popular seasonal conversation this year. Namely the monstrosity that currently occupies Grand Place. The hot topic of conversation cette annee is the decision by some bright spark in the Brussels city council (how glad am I that I didn’t bother to vote in the municipal elections this year?) to replace the traditional Christmas tree with a “light installation’.

The Belgian press were incensed and have dubbed the result “the pharmacy’ (after the green cross signs outside chemists). Petitions have been filed. Politicians have had to deny it is all an anti-Christian plot rather than just an attempt to introduce a little bit of Belgian surrealism to Christmas.

If you’re in town and tired of being pick-pocketed at the Winter Festival, get along to Grand Place and check it out for yourself.

Remember, remember the 5th of November?

While the evenings may be properly dark and depressing now, the one thing I do miss about being in the motherland at this time of year is the  chance to celebrate the quintessentially English “festival” of Guy Fawkes (sometimes Bonfire) Night. This is not, under any circumstances, to be confused with Burns’ Night.

I haven’t been home for 5th November for a long, long time. I was waxing lyrical to Mr B about fireworks, jacket potatoes, tomato soup, toffee applees and sparklers only this morning and so was saddened to read this piece that the commercialism and “fun” of Hallowe’en seem to have taken over this time of the year.

Back when Remedial Wife was a girl, Guy Fawkes night was still magical; the bonfire in the garden or in town and the chance to choose a firework each and have a few sparklers. I must admit that as I got older and learned the history of the Gunpowder Plot and the significance of burning the Guy, it did all seem rather bloodthirsty. Like Hallowe’en, this didn’t actually diminish the fun of the evening but it did make me glad I lived in a period when tortue of political prisoners is at least frowned upon.

Here’s hoping that I will get to bring Mr B to a traditional Bonfire Night sharpish before it disappears into folk memory. Is this just globalisation in action?

Remember, remember the 5th of November

With gunpowder, treason and plot

I know of no reason why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot *

Traditional English rhyme

To Mr B

Please don’t think this is some kind of Valentine’s message because it isn’t. It’s purely coincidence. Think of this as an anti-Valentines if you must.

Mr B rarely reads this blog. I think he is vaguely embarrassed/bemused by it. He normally only reads it if his mum reads it and mentions that he was mentioned in it. And then normally he gets cross. Poor Mr B. He has a hard life but that is what happens when you marry a remedial wife.

Recently, Mr B and I had a conversation that we’ve had several times since I became a trailing spouse. Mr B is of the opinion that he has made life very difficult for me because he uprooted me from my “career” (*cough*cough*) and forced me into a life of boredom, with nothing to fulfill me.  Dragging me all over the world in his wake.

He feels guilty about this.

So let me set the record straight.

Yes, going from being a career woman to a trailing spouse is not an easy transition. It is hard to have no money and nothing to do all day in strange lands.

However, it has also made me get out there to make new friends and find new hobbies, learn new languages, to try to understand new cultures. It has given me time to think about what I want. What I really want to do. What makes me happy and what makes me miserable. It has made me realise work is not the be all and end all. That I am more than a title on a business card. That the world is a small place, getting smaller all the time. That I have to laugh at myself more and find the humour in stressful situations. That I have to look after myself. That I have to make sure Mr B also looks after himself and gets some balance in his life.

Being a trailing spouse has given me self-confidence in subtle and unexpected ways, as well as breaking down a long-held hatred of walking into a room and not knowing anyone.

Let’s not also forget that Mr B has supported me financially and emotionally and been the model of patience on many occasions and my partner-in-adventure everyday.

This is a gift.

My time in Asia has given me my mojo back.

And for that I can’t thank you enough.