The first come back

You have to forgive me. I haven’t written in over a month. I went back to my country. Well, not really though… I guess now the UAE is my country. I mean I went back to Belgium. People were thinking I was going back home, but it was more of a holiday in a country I know very well. My son Jack was so terrible on our last trip abroad, we decided to go back to Belgium for 2 weeks, enjoy the fresh clean air, see friends and family, and let him be awful in a country we don’t really care about what people think. 

But the closer we were to going back, the more nervous I was. Ghosts from the past, plus unrealistic expectations; The recipe of my old life. But I have to admit it now, it turned out way better than I expected! 

First, my son Jack was perfect (at just 2 years old). No screaming on the plane, slept immediately through the night, even enjoyed himself. I guess we were in a good phase. He discovered a country he had absolutely no memories of. He was one when we left. The baby boy everybody knew had become a little boy very afraid of all these new faces. My daughter is more of an open book. She says what she thinks. She immediately said, “This is a lovely country, I’ve never been here”. And so, began the talk about where she was born and where she used to go as a baby. She was super interested by what was her life back then. She wanted to try every dish she used to like as a baby, go every place she ever went. But she also had no memories of Belgium. Not of any place, not of anyone except from some pictures. It was hard for people, they didn’t understand. But Agnès kept on telling them “I don’t know you, but you seem pretty nice, we can be friends if you’d like”. Kids don’t really have memories before 3, true story.

It was funny to see them rediscover what a European country is like. The first day we arrived, it was 16 degrees in Brussels, compared to 42 in Abu Dhabi. Every Belgian was in a T-shirt, we were wearing 2 sweaters and a jacket. The first reaction of my daughter was to ask me “Mom could you please turn off the AC, I’m cold”. There is no AC here darling, it’s Belgium, it’s cold. So, I turned on the heating system in the house. System she had absolutely no recollection of because she asked me “Mom, why is there some strange boxes in every room of the house, what is it for?”. She had already forgotten about the radiators. How quickly did they adapt! 

When we went to the grocery store, we had to self-scan and pack the articles we bought (the cost of labor is extremely high in Belgium, so they cut all services). As a little girl raised in the UAE, it was impossible to imagine. “Mom, you’re not going to do that yourself right? Someone is going to help you”. And, somewhere deep inside me, a little voice was telling me the same! I hadn’t fill up my gas tank myself in a year… but, hey, a little reminder that not being entirely normal every now and then is quite necessary and a blessing. The first time I went back to the grocery store in the UAE, I packed my things myself as an old habit. The Indian guy in charge of packing was super upset, thinking I was snubbing him. I tried to explain but, he ended up carrying all the things in the trunk of my car for me to compensate. Not normal, still pretty awesome.

Second, Belgium wasn’t as bad as I remembered. I probably made it a little darker in my mind than what it is to be able to fall in love more quickly with my new country. The survivor strategy. Anyway, it’s not a hellhole like Trump said. It has some benefits; the soft green of the lawns and forest, the fresh air, the water, the social security, the food! Being able to drink the tap water and not feeling your hair completely damaged after every shower with the chemical water of the UAE was so pleasant. We went completely crazy with the food… Prices are on average 3 times cheaper in Belgium than in UAE. We went nuts on chocolate, wine, and meat. Up to a point after 10 days that our livers were seriously complaining.

We enjoyed all these things but not without missing all the things we love in the UAE; the opening hours of the shops (Need something in Belgium after 6pm or on Sunday? Too bad…), the sun and the smile (these two go in pair, I think), the service, the cleanliness, the size of the roads, … 

When I arrived in the UAE, I was impressed by the traffic and very scared. Going back to Belgium made me realize why. In the UAE, there are lots of cars, but the traffic is very fluid. You never stop and they drive very fast (80km/h in the city center). In Belgium it’s a permanent start and stop. It drove us crazy. We took 2h to do 80km to go visit Brussels. This country has a serious congestion problem, and it seems to get worse every year.

I couldn’t help to notice that the mindset of people was different. In Europe, it’s almost a tradition, you go sit on a terrace (with some cheese and beer) and you watch people coming by. You criticize them. It’s almost a sport. People stare at you. I immediately felt uncomfortable. This is completely inexistent in the UAE, where nobody watches you. You can literally go pick up your daughter in your pajama pants, nobody will notice (yes, I might have done it, for experimental purposes). Except maybe in my compound, where you will be judged, but it’s full of Europeans, so it doesn’t count. 

Third, as I was meeting friends and family, I realized nothing had really changed and we talked like we met the week before. Years go by so quickly; everybody is busy and me not being there wasn’t such a big issue. Nobody really changed. Not even me, I guess. Although I’m a little bit more open to telling the truth since I’m living so far away, or I thought so… my best friend reminded me I had always a tendency to say whatever I want. She’s right. But I was prepared to all types of questions, even rude ones. But in the end, they didn’t ask (m)any questions. First because I posted a lot, so they knew about our life here, second because we are happy, people are often uncomfortable with happiness, and third because expats are specimens not really understandable. And this might be the trickiest thing when you live abroad. Your whole world is overturned, and you have the feeling you live 10 years’ experiences in one. People back home, they stay on track, and they don’t really understand or care about what you live. And it’s ok. That’s life. We follow different paths. 

In the end, we were happy to go back but it was far from a holiday. We saw around 140 people in 15 days, went all over the (tiny) country. We also did what expats do when they go back… dentist, administration, work meetings (the ministry does like it when you pop over once in a while)… it was a real pleasure. Besides, we had the excellent idea to take a week off here in Abu Dhabi, to enjoy the amusements parks, the sun and the family time by the pool. 

What about next time you’ll ask me? Well, I don’t know, I try not to plan too much in advance. Agnès, she’s 4 and already pointing at life’s limitations. She recently told me, out of the blue, « Mom, your dad must be sad that you live so far from him and never go visit. I mean, you would be pretty sad too if I didn’t live with you. But don’t worry I’ll never leave you, even when I get boobs » I laughed but I also had to tell her already that life is what you make of it. That she’ll take decisions in her life later on that will lead her to be happy (I hope). And if it means not living in my country, I’ll deal with that even if I’ll be sad from time to time, I’ll be happy if she’s happy. I’ll probably spend all my money on plane tickets, but I’ll be happy for her, or at least I’ll try to. 

Expat life isn’t always easy. You see the exotics, the change, the money. We see the challenge of starting a life from scratch. You don’t know anything or anybody. This is the life we choose, and I love it, so I won’t complain. But it does not fit everyone and even if you like it, it doesn’t mean everything is easy. Now we are back among the expat animals, sharing our stories about this summer. Complaining around a pool about how tired we are from vacations. Oh, home sweet home!

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