I was strolling down Avenue de la Toison d’Or a couple of days ago, window shopping and daydreaming on my way to E’s play group, when I realized that we’ve officially been expats for 6 months. Half a year. On one hand, our life in Milwaukee feels like it happened a million years ago. The pain of leaving our house has slowly faded, and I can barely even remember what an Egg McMuffin tastes like. But yet it feels like we just got here. I’m not sure how those two feelings coexist, yet somehow they do. Much has changed in those 6 months though, that is certain. And yesterday, as I was walking along that busy shopping street in the heart of the city I felt an overwhelming sense of joy. This is my life and its pretty fucking amazing.
I can rock my 20 words of French like a pro. Sometimes, I can even say “bonjour” and people don’t immediately know I can’t speak French. This is progress. I somehow managed to fumble my way through the process of registering Ellia for school, which entailed a two hour information session in French, yet another trip to that evil commune building, and a bunch of paperwork (also in French). And perhaps some of my glee yesterday came from the fact that I walked into that school yesterday with the last of the paperwork and didn’t feel an ounce of intimidation. No one there speaks much english and I don’t speak much French but you know what…you figure it out. You point and gesture, profusely say “desole” and give them your best i’m-really-trying-here smile. Some Belgians don’t give a rat’s ass if you’re trying and they’re rude anyway, but most tend to soften up if you give a little effort and let them know you’re doing your best. Even if your best is really pretty bad.
I’m getting better at being a full time mom. It sounds like a walk in park. JUST watch my own kid all day? No commute, no boss, no schedule, no other responsibilities? Fuck yeah, sign me up! But after a few weeks you realize its not all its cracked up to be. Its actually a lot of work. You make all the meals, you do all the laundry, you try desperately to keep the house clean (basically impossible), you grocery shop, you try to keep a tiny human from killing itself, you meal plan, you try to keep said tiny human entertained and if you’re lucky teach it something…and somewhere in there you try to drink a little coffee and maybe even read a book (IF the tiny human naps). But the hardest adjustment for me has been the often overwhelming sense of loneliness. Sure, I’ve made some wonderful friends here, and we have playgroups and play dates and we keep entertained for the most part, but I still spend the vast majority of my days alone with someone who can only construct 5-word sentences that mostly revolve around what sort of snack she’d like me to fetch for her. Combining all of that with my initial anxiety about getting around, meeting people, communicating, and just getting by in a foreign country was a recipe for some major doubt about my ability to survive as a stay at home mom. Somewhere in the last few months I found my footing though. We’re establishing a routine and figuring out how to get along ALL DAY LONG. Some days the house is a disaster, we eat peanut butter toast for lunch, and I yell a lot…but thats ok because most days we have dance parties in the kitchen, color pictures, and I somehow remain mostly patient through all of my two year olds daily shenanigans.
Every day life gets a little easier. I can grocery shop with the best of them. I know where to find most everything we need (in other words I’ve figured out the 20 stores that sufficiently replace one Target….oh, sweet dear Target). I can get around on public transit, reload my bus card, and even have some of neighborhood memorized well enough to shut off my GPS! I know where the good parks are, some good places to grab lunch with the kiddo, and I’m even getting close to memorizing my Belgian phone number. They seem like small and silly things now, but they didn’t feel small or silly when we first got here.
Most importantly, I’ve found the confidence to not worry about all the uncertainties living in a foreign country brings. There will always be challenges- probably until the day we leave. I’ll never sit in a cafe and have a conversation in French with a native about the flora and fauna of the Ardennes. I’ll have days when I feel as though I’m failing miserably at being a good mom. But I’ll get better at tackling the problems, I’ll hopefully be able to order a coffee and a pastry in French at some point, and doesn’t everyone think they’re failing at parenting now and then? Instead of worrying I’m making a point to soak in every moment here because it will be over before we know it. Standing on top of a mountain in the Alps, taking apart our faucet and flooding the bathroom, sitting on a beach in Spain, standing alone at the playground while all the moms smile and laugh and chat in another language, enjoying a romantic (childless) dinner with my husband in Bruges…these memories, good and bad, are all a part of this amazing experience.