Norway, Sweden

Ten Years an Expat

A decade is a really long time. Yet when I think back about all that’s passed and all that’s been done since I left Belgium my departure feels even longer ago. First Sweden. Then Norway, New Zealand, Australia, more Sweden and Norway, Nepal. As I sit and write around the bonfire while darkness engulfs the forests and the hills around our house I actually find it incredible that, of all places, I ended up here. And yet I cannot think of a better place to land after all that time than where I am sitting right now.

If anyone would have told me ten years ago that I’d end up living in a log house in the Norwegian mountains together with 14 huskies I would have declared them utterly delusional. I thought that I was a city person and a people person. Back in 2011 I left Ghent to study in the Swedish capital, pursuing a political science degree that I figured would ultimately land me a job in one of Europe’s major cities. This goal could not be more alien to me today. Looking back at it I can only conclude that I did not know very much about myself at that time.

The study program lasted two years. I did know from the beginning that there was a chance I wouldn’t go back. You see, I had been the odd one out in Belgium for a long time. I did not feel like I fit. I could not figure out what I wanted to do in life. I remember my friends and I used to take rounds talking about what we saw the others become after we graduated. When it was my turn I always hoped that one of my friends would come up with a clever answer for me as I didn’t have a clue. But there was always a silence. They did not know either. I left looking for answers. I left trying to get rid of that feeling of being the odd one out, looking for a place where I could be myself. Flanders is a very passive aggressive place and I am very direct. I have always been a strong, stubborn, willful person. But it seemed hard for the world around me to accept those character traits in a woman. Belgium had long made me feel uncomfortable with and guilty about who I am.

My instincts told me to go north. I really did not know why but I decided to follow my gut feeling. I’ve done so ever since. Thanks to that I slowly started figuring out what I wanted in life. I met wonderful people who accepted me simply for who I am. Ironically enough I am the meek one among my female friends these days. It has been much easier for me to find my place in Scandinavia than it ever was in Belgium. In my last job interview I listed stubbornness as a negative quality and the other side of the table replied: “Oh, you’re stubborn? But that means that you stand up for what you believe in. Good.”

I write this because I wish that more people would trust their gut on the big decisions in life even though it’s not always the easy path to follow. In spite of the fact that I wasn’t finding what I was looking for in Belgium it was still not easy to leave. I had a really nice place to live, a lot of friends, a boyfriend, my whole family. I remember sitting on the airport bus into Stockholm, seriously questioning what I was doing. I did not know anyone, I did not speak the language, I did not even have a place to live. Was I out of my mind? Maybe. But I would have been wrong not to try it. To not dare to dream, to not dare to jump would have resulted in missing out on so many wonderful things. For one, I never would have met PJ along the way.

Following your gut feeling is not always a sunshine path. The number of ups equals the number of downs, some of them deep. I found it for example really hard to leave Stockholm and the people I met there. I still miss them fondly. But every dream comes with a price and to pursue it you must be prepared to pay it. Nothing comes for free.

A somewhat unexpected upside of being burned out these past few months is that I had a lot of time to reflect. Last week I was asked the question what I find the hardest about this life. The answer is always missing people. Throughout the years I’ve met so many good people but they are all over the place and I see them way too little (obviously the past 1.5 years has not helped here). I see my family too little. I miss out on birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, celebrations. Though perhaps I do not always say it out loud this does sadden me. But it is simply my price to pay. For that price I live a life of considerable freedom and I value that highly. I would not put myself in a situation where I feel my free time is overtaken by obligations and limited by my surroundings. It is perhaps a selfish thought, but I’ve always been very focused on my own projects and I need to have the space to make them happen. I have created that space.

I suppose it would be a logical question to ask whether I’m happier now. I don’t know if happier is the right word. I know that I am more myself and that I’m confident that I’ve prioritized the right things in life. I know that those priorities might change as life takes new courses and they might need to be reshuffled. That is okay. One of my favourite life lessons taken from the past 10 years is to see where life takes you and to take it as it comes. I am really at peace where I am now. I love our house in the woods, I love spending time with the dogs, I love being here and if I didn’t have to go down I’d probably stay up here all the time.

I really have no clue where I’ll be 10 years from now and that is very much okay for me. Perhaps I’ll still be here, perhaps I won’t be. I know that I will always want to be somewhere where I am close to the mountains and to the forests, in a place where I feel connected to my surroundings. Could I go back to Belgium? I do like the occasional visit to the place that raised me. But honestly I like it more when my Belgian family and friends visit me here. Away from the busyness, the traffic, the noise, the hectic life. It’s then I really feel that we can sit down and catch up.

So what I want to say is: dare to dream. And like I famously said to a friend in New Zealand before he tried to ran over a swamp but ended up falling face-first into its murky waters: just go for it.

5 thoughts on “Ten Years an Expat”

  1. As always, I read your posts like I would read a good book. You write so well and have so good reflections. I recognise myself in parts of what you write – I also had to follow the gut feeling, going northwards, I have also had a period of severe burnout which led to going even further north. Keep on writing! 😊

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great post Eff! Love to read your reflections about the path you are walking in life,a highly unusual path which is entirely in your hands. You reveal personal qualities of courage, love and kindness to nature and animals, and the ability to see the beauty of all things that surround you even in difficult situations. An example for others to follow. Looking forward to your next post! 🙂 Love, Jeanette

    Liked by 2 people

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