Sometimes we think our lives ordinary and mundane, yet to others it can appear exciting, attractive and romantic. That is why we love storytellers, writers, and filmmakers so much, they help us escape from what we feel may be boring and normal and go to far away places if only for a short time.
So this got me thinking about the reality of our lives and how each one of us experience highs and lows. Many have told me they dream of living abroad and envy me each time I board the plane to Belgium. But living and experiencing a culture is much different than vacationing there. When you visit a place on vacation it is new and exciting and your are ready for the adventure. When you live somewhere you experience a different place. A place you need to adapt to and learn and accept. You will be faced with many adjustments and hurdles to cross.
I am living that lifestyle today and thought I would offer you some of the highs lows and challenges of living in a foreign country even though I am only living abroad part time.
First if you did not know I am married to a man from Belgium but I was born and raised in Illinois, and now call Colorado my home, well sort of which brings me to the first challenge.
- Where is Home?
I go to Belgium around the end of April or beginning of May and stay until September. Reason being I am married to a wonderful guy and he has a job that is offering a pension and reasonable health care so since these things are a necessity in life we decided that for him to finish out his career in Belgium would be a wise move for our future. Otherwise we both agree we would rather live on a mountain top somewhere in Montana, Colorado, or Wyoming.
I also have a condo in Littleton, Colorado because I have 4 grown children who have blessed me with 8 active grandchildren. When I was living full time in Belgium as I did for the first 4 years I was missing out on special moments as these little people were growing up before my eyes. So we made the tough decision for me to split my time so I could have a marriage and be a grandparent.
But that leaves me with the question of "Where is home?" I guess I have to answer that by saying it is where I find myself today, but tomorrow or next month it will all look quite different.
This is a big challenge and at the same time a real adventure.
- What to Bring
What to take and what to leave behind. When I am heading either to Belgium or back to Colorado I have to bring with me a limited amount of clothes and all my camera gear because of the work I do. Airlines are making increasingly difficult to travel by charging high rates for extra luggage and packing for a six month stay is much more difficult then a 2 week vacation.
You may be asking why not just buy your clothes there? Several reasons, one the sizes are different in Belgium and I dislike trying clothes on in the store. Second the styles are completely different from what I am use wearing in Colorado. Belgium women love to dress up, so not to many jeans, boots and sweatshirts can be found in the specialty shops that are available here. There are a few shopping malls but nothing like we are use to. Third the price of clothing is ridiculous high compared to what we pay in the US. I just cannot justify buying a pair of jeans for $150.00 euros, which converts to about $200.00 US dollars. Which brings on the next challenge of money conversion. If I bring dollars I loose 30% value, so I leave dollars back in Colorado and keep the Euros here in Belgium.
- Language & Culture
Another hurdle to jump is language unless you go to England, New Zealand or Australia . But all country have cultural differences. I have been coming back and forth since 2008 so you would think I would be able to speak fluent Dutch…ha! The first excuse or lame reason would be that I was in grade school in the 60’s long before they new what dyslexia was and pretty much barely made it through, so I am still learning about grammar in English let alone take on another complicated language. Believe it or not Dutch is one of the harder languages to learn not sure why but I have been told it is not easy. I had to take 2 years of language classes here for immigration but it still sounds Chinese to my ears, particularly since there are so many different dialects to contend with. Which means different words for different things just a few miles away.
As far as culture, well I find the Belgian people to be very friendly and helpful especially when they get to know you. They also are very willing to speak English rather then suffer through you butchering their language. So I can get by fairly well here. But I do find them to be a bit complacent about things and not willing to take on action or challenges or new ideas. Mostly because I believe they have life pretty easy with the help of their government. After all vacation is a necessity here and not considered a privilege. They get paid for having children and get an average of 3 weeks or more paid vacation. I wonder how much longer that can last. They also have a very unusual government system among many other things. It is very hard for them to get anything done. Last election the country held the record for a country with no working government. Maybe we should try not having any government. Not much changed. What this video to see why such a thing could happen. And some unusual things about Belgium
Check out Belgium for Dummies in this video and you will understand what I mean.
- Being A Working Photographer
Well, this is where things are vastly different from the USA. Being self-employed is very difficult and as a foreigner almost impossible. I would have to have a degree in photography in order to have a business, I would have to be able to speak fluently (which is quite understandable) and the taxes and red tape can drive you crazy. I do also believe you have to join a union and your prices are regulated. So no hanging out your shingle here. It all has to be official, unless you participate in the not so official underground work of black money (cash) then you can manage.
So I have to redo my business practices drastically when I am here. Which also provides the big challenge creating a business model that works within both countries. This is always a work in progress for me.
- Time Change
Of course I always have to check the international clocks when making phone calls and conducting business. Which can mean I have to work during the day and also in the evening if I have to contact a client, business or visiting with friends. Also attending online courses or webinars would mean watching in the middle of the night. I also miss the regular TV programs that I enjoy so much. Lucky for me I am back in Colorado for the season opening but always miss the season final episodes. So I have to fork out some money to iTunes to watch the final episodes.
- Food & Cooking
Here is where Belgium shines for me. The food is far and away superior to the US. I can buy fresh bread (oh the bread it is to die for) fruit, meat, fish and vegetables easily everyday. There is still a local bakery and butcher and gardening is a breeze here compared to my attempts in Montana. I love going to a Sunday market where your eyes can feast on amazing fresh food.
Since I was a chef before becoming a photographer I do not have to much trouble with making a good meal, but baking is a challenges because of the different ingredients and reading the labels and of course another learning curve of doing conversations to the metric system.
- Family & Friends
Biggest challenge of them all. I really miss all the conversations, visits and activities that go on during the summer months with friends and family. Yes, todays technology makes it easier but talking on Skype with all the echoes and delays is a poor replacement to being with your friends and family. With the grandchildren heading toward school age I may have to adjust my time so I can see them during some of their summer vacation.
If it were not so expensive to fly back and forth I would cut up my time into short periods of just a few months rather than 6 but at the cost of flying always on the increase it is an expense I can not justify at this time.
I always feel that when I am in Belgium I need to be in Colorado and when I am in Colorado I should be in Belgium. I also need to make several trips to Illinois to visit the two children and grandchildren that live there.
I guess that is why I have not been on a so called “real” vacation in over 15 years. I would rather spend my time with friends and family when ever possible than lay on a beach somewhere. Besides I can jump on a bike or in my car and photograph some amazing places which many have to pay or travel to see. This is another great benefit of this lifestyle.
So there you go, a quick glimpse at life abroad with its challenges and amazing opportunities.
Here is a video of 5 things you will love and hate about living abroad.
We all dream of far a way places but in reality I think we have to find happiness right where we are today. What are your thoughts? Do you dream of living in a foreign country? Are you living in a foreign country now? Please share your thoughts or experiences here.