Updated: Oct 29
30 June 2023: The flight takes off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. It's a one-way flight. Destination Brussels, Belgium. We're observing thousands of acres of palm oil plantations from above and I pinch myself. I got to live in this tropical paradise for 3 years. And before that, for 4 1/2 in China. The Middle Kingdom always in my heart.
August 2023: After a few weeks in Denmark (where we helped Samuel and Rebecca get settled into their new homes/schools) and a visit to Francesco’s native island of Sardinia, it was time for us two empty nesters to hit the road and drive to Brussels. A city we had called home for 13 years (between 2002 and 2015).
On 19 August, as we entered our house (which had been rented out all these years), I was overcome with sadness. Although the house had been painted, there was so much to do and so many things to be fixed. I saw projects wherever I looked and realised that in Asia, we would have simply called “some company” or “some guy” who would have done it for us in a day, whereas it took days to even convince someone to come and have a look - let alone send a quotation for the works. On top of that, we had started the bureaucratic process of re-becoming residents in Belgium and our shipment from Malaysia was hugely delayed. But with some cleaning, new, crisp carpets, a few deep breaths and a water heater that was finally working, we found happiness in the shape of a mattress on the floor and a foldable plastic table lent to us by friends. Minimalistic bliss set in and we started to wonder why on earth we had shipped a 40-foot container with ‘stuff’ across the world.
But, it turns out that opening boxes containing your ‘stuff’, can truly spark joy, as Marie Kondo would put it. On 8 September, a bunch of strong, Greek guys from TeleTrans removal company pulled up outside our house and worked tirelessly all day, unloading boxes and assembling furniture. It felt like Christmas. We were reunited with things that we like to look at, things that mean something to us, objects and gifts from Asia that hold enormous sentimental value and bear witness to an enriching family adventure which has broadened our horizons in ways that words cannot describe.
Admittedly, it was also great to see my clothes again and I was in dire need of something appropriate for work.
Back to the office
My Council of the European Union career 2.0 started on 1 September. I had been on leave from my job since December 2015 and went back to my “old” Directorate General. But, this time as an assistant in the fisheries directorate whereas before I was mainly dealing with agriculture. I was greeted on day one by my dear colleague Conny (one of the colleagues who is still around) and my new office would turn out to be 2 doors down the corridor from my former office.
Seeing familiar faces, corridors and (to a certain extent) work procedures, has meant that there are days where I feel like someone picked me up and dumped me right back down into a familiar, safe environment where I’m only “sort of new”. Working full-time on a 40hr weekly contract means that I am no longer in control of my own time. That has been one of the major changes for me. In Asia, I would decide, every day, what to do with my time. I had my routines. Pilates, cycling on Wednesdays, Choir on Thursdays etc. But I could always opt out if I had to. Take the car and go on a day trip. Have a two-hour lunch with a friend. You can't really do that when you're working - neither be spontaneous nor schedule leisurely activities on weekdays, during daytime hours. But I'm not complaining. I re-signed up for this because I've always liked my job.
Back to friends and music
How privileged are we to be back in a city we used to call home for 13 years? The place where our kids grew up. Having friends here who were waiting for us has been truly wonderful! We're trying to catch up with as many friends as possible although it's not that easy when we're both working full time - but we've had some friends around and met with people after work. That includes my band mates from Foreign Affairs! Despite some changes in the formation, the band has kept going all these years and we're now practising for a gig on 2 December - to which you're all invited! I've also joined the Council choir and we'll be performing some Christmas songs in various European languages including Hungarian and Irish which is proving to be quite the challenge.
As for Francesco, he's signing up left and right for races and runs and he celebrated our return to Europe by completing the 175 K Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc in 38 hours, taking even one pic of the snow clad mountain peaks during the adventure :-) 2 weeks later, he was off to Ibiza, Spain for his first ever Oceanman. A 10 K open water swim!
Healthy body and mind
Recently, I spoke to a dear friend who told me that the first thing her elderly mother did upon moving to a new city was to look for a gym. This was certainly not on my list of priorities when we landed in Beijing on a winter morning in 2015 with 3 kids, 15 suitcases and a cat. But, over the past 7 years, I've come to realise just how important it is to be physically active. As someone so beautifully put it: "Training for my summer body? F*ck no! I'm training for my old lady body. Dense bones. Strong muscles. A healthy heart. Good balance. Functional independence". Although, sadly, nothing is guaranteed in life, I want to give it my best shot and knowing myself, I also like to do sports in a nice, soothing environment. So, one of the first things both Fra and I did was to sign up for Royal La Rasante - only 10 mins from our house. Going there (for swimming, strength and group classes in the early morning or after work) is not just about dense bones and giving ourselves the best chances as we age. It's about mental health too. I've understood that making exercising part of my daily routine (although my day is really full) is fundamental for my mental health.
What about writing?
Admittedly, this is a bit of a sore subject at the moment. Since I started my blog Ninemillionbicycles about everyday life in Beijing back in 2016, writing has been a huge part of my life. It was a creative outlet, a way for me to research, share people's stories and get published. Writing was also a source of income for me. When people asked me whether I'd still be writing back in Europe, I naively replied: "definitely". However, I have come to realise that I just don't have the time. When I get home from work at around 6 - 6.30 pm, to be honest, the last thing I want to do is open my laptop again. But, the stories are inside my head. I want to keep pitching ideas, I want to keep writing. I need writing in my life. I just have to figure out how to combine it with a full-time job.
Closer to family - closer to Europe's treasures
In September I left for an epic weekend with my cousins in Denmark. For the first time in 8 years, I was able to hop on a flight after work, arrive on Friday evening late and come back again Sunday evening. Being closer to our native countries and our families is a huge plus! Brussels is situated more or less in the middle between Denmark and Sardinia (around 1000 K to my home town Aalborg) and it's a really good feeling to be closer to home - and to the kids. Rebecca and Samuel are currently living in Denmark and Simon in New York City - ok a 6-hour flight but still much closer than from Malaysia :-) Since we moved back, my parents, Rebecca and my brother and nieces have visited us in Brussels - and Samuel is arriving this week.
A colleague of mine once said jokingly "The reason why people love Brussels is that it's so easy to get out of here". And yes, we're in the heart of Europe. We can take day trips to France, The Netherlands and Germany. London is a 2 hr - Paris 1 1/2 train ride away. We want to make the most of this location again. Take those trips. Just like we'd hop on a plane to Cambodia, Indonesia or Thailand for the weekend while living in Malaysia. 2 weeks ago, I went to Paris for an amazing Wild Women on the Wall reunion with friends from Beijing. And in November, Francesco and I will be going to Budapest for 5 days. A city we have been wanting to visit for ages.
Do I miss Asia?
The short answer is no. I miss the adventures, the lifestyle and the people we met there. We've made friends from all over the world, been blessed with local friends, our kids attended incredible international schools, we traveled, explored, ticked boxes, learned, expanded our horizons.
I feel unbelievably lucky to have had a soft landing here in Brussels - rather than the dreaded 'reverse culture shock'. For that I am so grateful.
If you're an expat about to move back home, here are my 5 tips for a 'softer' landing:
Don't cry because it's over - smile because it happened
Work if you can - even unpaid
Keep active - for your body and mind
Join a club - sports, book, music, theatre...whatever you're interested in