Thursday, February 28, 2013
|From Main Street America...|
Usually, expat assignments last under five years. But when we rented our current house in Belgium, we had to sign a nine-year lease. We did this because if we were to leave before the end of the lease, the fees would be much less. I almost laughed out loud as I signed the paper and thought, "Yeah right, we'll never be here that long."
After that signature, I was officially an expat. Before leaving the US, telling people of our move abroad sparked great interest because it seemed so out of the ordinary. But in fact, arriving in Brussels proved just how normal it was. I was excited to hear stories of other families who had already lived in five countries or more. Considering we had already lived in three States in our first four years of marriage, I expected the same globe-trotting life. My husband's assignment had indeed been specified as a two to three-year deal...
Hoping to travel a bit through Europe in those couple years, I expected to be back in the US for my first daughter, then only 1 year old, to start kindergarten. Instead, we have
had a second baby
a sprained neck from falling off a swing
traveled to a dozen countries at least once (excluding the USA)
celebrated baptisms and communions
started both daughters in school - local and international
survived lay-offs, budget cuts, furloughs
benefitted from job title changes and promotions
made a slew of friends
said good-bye to many of them
learned about the world through these friends
and continue to make more...
At some point between comparing potty-training practices and starting the children in primary school, I stopped feeling like an expat. I was just another woman, mother, wife, writer, living somewhere else.
Nothing replaces family but when your closest friends are also away from their families, a natural and strong bond forms. We support each other no matter the color of the hand being held, how smooth or rough it may be, or to where that hand waved good-bye. We celebrate our children's birthdays, help out when they fall ill, and have a good laugh at our cultural faux pas.
I have been also fortunate to make some very dear Belgian friends. Speaking French before the move certainly helped. I could comfortably attend local playgroups, go shopping, explain various ailments to medical professionals, read the newspaper, pay my speeding tickets and parking violations (I'm getting off track)... but all that to say, I did my best to integrate.
After five years, my husband was rehired under a local contract. We aren't even technically expats anymore. Regardless, I am still referred to by the neighbors as l'américaine qui parle français (the American who speaks French).
And so this “expat life” has slowly taken shape as, simply, “life.” I just happen to live in Belgium, raise my kids as bilinguals with two nationalities (neither one being Belgian), renew passports on a regular basis, pay taxes in two countries, and rack up quite a few frequent flyer miles... like so many other people.
And what about these Third Culture Kids I'm raising? This life is the only one they have ever known, except for my eldest daughter's six months at a YMCA daycare. When we go back to the US, I take my daughters around to my old neighborhood, to my friends' homes, to play at my old playground, to have ice cream at the same stand open only in the summers and still run by the same family. But to them, that's “Mum's country” (yes, they even call me 'mum' instead of 'mom'). The US is a world of cook-outs, swimming pools, beaches, and amusement parks.
Visiting their French mamie and their English grandad in France doesn't seem all that different than being in Belgium except that they happen to live in the Alps and the bread is... well... crustier. Considering we spend almost every holiday with them (except for the Christmas during which the above-mentioned appendix was removed from my daughter), France is the land of skiing, hot chocolate, pain au raisins, long meals and late-nights.
But in Belgium, my children are who they are. They like fries, but also snails, and pâté. They love bandes dessinées (comic books). They don't even bat an eye when a different language is spoken. And still, they are influenced by my American side (i.e., I do accidentally speak louder than the kids like in public places) and my husband's French and English sides (i.e., we systematically have to stop for an espresso mid-morning no matter where we are or where we are going and the same is true at 4pm for a tea). And so, my children are living their unique hotchpotch of a culture beside all the other Third Culture Kids running through the Belgian playgrounds. This is, simply, their life.
I would be quite happy to move the family to another country, to see new monuments, to learn another language and about a new culture first-hand. But at the end of the day, whether we're sitting at the dinner table around moules frites or fish and chips, couscous or coq au vin, or even mac and cheese (for which I've spent a small fortune at an American food shop), we're still here...growing, learning, living...and loving it.