A guest post by fellow seasoned expat spouse,
I have been thinking about how I can support expat spouses even more, so I have reached out to some friends who have been in the expat world even longer than I have to find out their take, looking back, on how expat life affected them and what advice they might offer to someone starting out on this journey. Below is the story of Malinda Coleman.
Unlike some, I knew I’d be leaving my country of origin when I married. My husband is British, but we met as graduate students in the United States, and marriage meant moving with him to the UK. It was exciting: I had never been to Europe, I had studied European languages and literature, it was the swinging sixties … it was all good. What I didn’t know – and didn’t worry about – was that I would come up against the unexpected and the confusing, in many ways. A silly example: upon first arrival in the UK, I didn’t know that you couldn’t buy milk in the supermarket; you had to stop the milkman in the street and place an order.
I also didn’t know that we wouldn’t remain in the UK. On one early visit to the continent, we had already been thrilled with the opportunity to buy a tiny stone house in an Italian hill village, for a pittance. France and Italy were tantalizing. After 8 years living and working in the UK, my husband got a new job, as a European civil servant. It was of course exciting to move to a French-speaking country, although Brussels wasn’t Paris. However, Belgium was to become my home. We moved here in 1974; and I’m still here.
It was a busy time. We started a family. We bought a big, old house in the city centre. Though I had worked in London, it was a different situation in Brussels, and I finally decided to focus on the family. But I was also concerned about the situation of women, anywhere, and becoming an active feminist was possible in Brussels. Through the women’s movement I developed an interest in psychotherapy, and was able to retrain in Brussels to undertake a part-time career in feminist counselling.
One important change that dawned on me only after 6 ½ years in the UK followed by a similar period in Belgium – punctuated by our visits to the Italian riviera – was that I had continued to assess the way things worked according to my American expectations. Belgium and Italy share certain more “relaxed” attitudes about getting things done in comparison with a super-efficient American approach. Bit by bit I had to become more patient; I learned that things may not happen exactly as I wanted them to; but usually eventually they did happen. Also, these cultural differences were not just American values vs. European values; even within Europe, from country to country things can be done in different ways. I learned that it is important to respect those differences, to find a way to work with them.
My major advice to newly arrived expats is to cultivate flexibility and patience. And to be kind to oneself.
This was very hard for me at times.
As far as bringing up children was concerned, schooling is generally a big issue for expats; but in my case, we had the option of the European Schools provided for the children of EU civil servants. These schools offer a high academic standard, and with multiple language options. Happily our two daughters were bright enough to thrive in that context; and all the other students, whatever their nationality, were facing the same language and cultural background challenges, so that all school friends were in the same boat. All in all, schooling for my two was a happy time.
Then, my daughters both ended up initially in British further education, which their father considered important. The eldest trained as an engineer at a prestigious university, and has gone from strength to strength professionally in an international career. The second changed her mind after three years of study in the UK, and returned to Belgium where she completed a totally different course of studies. She works in Belgium, met her Serbian husband here, and they have two children now happily attending school in Belgium. They speak French, English and Serbian, and are learning Flemish… It has worked out for them in the way they want.
Still, both daughters claimed NOT FEELING AT HOME in the UK, and even though the eldest has worked abroad for a number of years, I think Brussels still feels at least partly like home for her.
Curiously, after many years living here, the realization that Brussels is home for me really kicked in at the time when my husband retired from his successful but very demanding career. He had indeed always talked about returning to the UK, and we went together for an initial year to Belfast, Northern Ireland, where he had a post-retirement visiting professorship. I was intrigued to notice in Belfast that the two women I most clicked with were both long-term expats, both originally from the US. Indeed I finally concluded that my real “nationality” had become – Expat. Many years of adaptation led to changed expectations and habits that didn’t conform either to those of my original country or my husband’s.
At the end of our year in Belfast, I returned to Brussels, while my husband pursued his university teaching goals for several more years in the UK. I no longer wanted to live in the UK, and was able to resume satisfying activities in Brussels, including amateur theatre in English, which had developed into a consuming passion, taking art lessons, and as a volunteer translator from French to English.
We welcomed our first grandchild in Brussels in 2009, and our second two years later. My husband finally concluded that he had enough of retirement projects in the UK, and rejoined us about that time. Since then I took Belgian nationality, and eventually renounced my American nationality, which had not been important to me for some time.
I was recently interviewed by a Belgian PhD student doing a project on nationality identity. She asked me to write down how I would define my identity. For me, being a woman, a mother, a wife and a homemaker were at the top of the list; becoming a grandmother has unexpectedly also become very important. I think of myself as being a unique individual, and as an expat whose culture and values are not limited to nationality. This could be seen as a version of the American valuing of the liberty to choose; I would also add that I have learned, at times with great difficulty, to tolerate difference, and ambiguity – that it’s possible to feel good about some things part of the time, and not so good about them at other times!
- Malinda Coleman
Tanya Arler is the author of the book UNPACK - a guide to life as an expat spouse and founder of A Happy Expat. A HAPPY EXPAT offers expat spouses practical tools, mindset coaching, and advice on how to navigate the staggering change they are going through, all the while remaining the rock their family so desperately needs.
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