Bipolar Belgium

In my life as an environmental educator and park ranger, I frequently worked with kids. I spent a lot of time out walking trails, planting gardens, and enjoying wild nature with them. I also spent a lot of time creating boundaries in attempts to contain and/or redirect their crazy energy (ex. kids from Seattle, who had never seen a tree without a sidewalk of cement around it, went especially nutty when presented with a forest of old-growth trees, ferns, and raging river at their “disposal”).


“I love your enthusiasm, but…” I would hear myself say, over and over again. Typically, in order to get little boys to stop throwing rocks, I needed to give them a job.


I have heard this description for how to redirect unwanted behaviors among breeds of dogs as well. This breed of dogs needs a job, read descriptions on animal rescue sites. I never really understood what this meant? Could I train a dog to vacuum for me? Would I even want to? (Note: when I am uber stressed, which is often because I have a major anxiety attachment [see Amir Levine “Attached”], I tend to clean to relieve some of the nervous energy).


I have not figured out how to redirect my big, white husky’s zest for life energy. One of the behaviors I need to curb is his propensity to go flying out the door the moment I open it. Even with my hand firmly grasping his leash, the challenge is that the forward momentum tends to take me with it. This has resulted in skin rubbed raw to bloody on my hand and major jolts to my already persnickety back.


I am fairly certain that I traumatized a little girl the other day. She was dressed all in pink down to even her backpack. When I opened the door, Atticus bounded down the front stairs.


“Fucker!” I screamed at him. Upon seeing the little girl, who had frozen in her tracks, a look of horror painted on her face, I quickly followed (in English) with a mumbled, “Sorry.”


I dragged the dog back into the house. When I popped my head back out moments later, I caught a final glimpse of the little girl, ponytail bobbing as she ran down the sidewalk and around the corner.


Bad expat moment, not to mention that I was carrying a big empty bottle of wine. Way to go, Marieke, traumatizing/ruining the innocence of a small Belgian child first thing in the morning.


All in a day’s work, I guess, but I felt bad even though I was laughing a few moments later while I walked with my husband and the dog, empty bottle of beer in his hand and previously mentioned empty bottle of wine in mine.


Just taking our bottles for a walk. They are empty, don’t worry! I thought, as we passed a man standing outside of a house just down the road.


I mean, there are definitely mornings when I wonder if it is too early for whiskey, but I generally try to abstain until at least lunchtime. Just a nip is ok, right?


Since an annual transit pass costs under 100 euro and you can get just about everywhere within Brussels via bus, tram, metro, and subway, my husband and I have abstained from getting a car. Of course, being an unfunded doctoral student and a part-time editor/yoga instructor/pro bono songwriter does not exactly bring home the veggie bacon. I am really over hearing about how “the company” paid for so many other expats to bring their family, house full of furniture and worldly belongings, and their car to Belgium. I remember sitting in the car with an expat and asking if it was super expensive to move from the United States to Belgium.


Oh, the company paid for it.

I’m sorry, I thought, I don’t know how to talk to you anymore.


Going into people’s beautiful homes, where they are surrounded by familiar objects they have collected over the course of their lives, can send me into a small spiral of temporary depression.


Yes, I realize that there are many thousands (possibly millions) of people who are forced to leave their home with only what they can carry. Yes, I realize I am privileged to have been able to bring so many of my possessions with me to Belgium, including my two cats. I realize I am privileged to have been able to adopt a dog when my parents refused to let us have our dog back after “temporarily” caring for her until we could find a place to live where we could have a dog.


I just don’t think she will be happy there, my dad said to me on a visit when I mentioned that we would like to have her with us here. I mean, I want you to be happy, but…


Since my dad would do just about anything for my happiness, I figured that this was his way of communicating how very attached he had grown to our female husky, Naih. I understood. I think she was born to bring joy to all beings. She has helped young children who were terrified of dogs to overcome their fear. The vet posts photos of her on their Facebook page. A photo that my dad took of her even made it into their town newspaper, for crying out loud.


Since my husband jokes that I am a needy animal magnet, it only made karmic sense that our independent-minded, “love the one you’re with” husky would stay with my parents and I would proceed to bring home a dog with extreme abandonment issues to try to fill the husky-size void in my heart.


My husband was very anti adopting a dog, but after a year and a half of tears and pleading, he finally gave in.


If you need to have a dog, I think you should find a small female that isn’t white, he suggested. Since we don’t have a car and it is expensive to board large dogs in Belgium, this made total sense.


The issue is that most of my life choices really don’t make much common sense.


Who did I bring home?


A large, male, all white husky.


I think the reason I make so many choices in life than are necessary or reasonable is that I have chosen the path of learning to create equanimity in chaos. Why else would I bring home a 30 kilos dog who I have to pin down in an attempt to assert my dominance; who makes it that much more difficult for my husband and I to go out for an evening or travel (not that we have done much of either on our very limited budget)?


I really don’t know how people (mostly moms) survive the daily struggle of maneuvering small children, strollers, bags of groceries, etc. I experience regular meltdowns from the stress I experience trying to deal with my own large furry toddler, at home, on transit, on walks. I cannot imagine throwing human toddlers into the mix (and no, I am not suggesting the act of actually “throwing” a small, human child).


At least, after about eight months I am now able to leave Atticus at home in his crate for a little over three hours. You definitely cannot do that with a human bairn. Also a plus, Atticus does not scream and play a dead weight when he is overtired and cranky. He does make what I can only describe as a Chewbacca, yodeling sound that ends in a mournful howl when I leave him tied up for a few minutes outside of the grocery store and other shops that don’t allow dogs inside. On several such occasions, I have come back out to find people standing with him, worried that something terrible had happened and sometimes giving me a nasty look to communicate what an abusive parent I was.


I am doing the best I can, I attempted to respond with my facial expression. Go judge someone else….or better yet, work on your empathy practice.


My husband and I have a running joke that our life in Belgium represents practice that will guide me toward eventual enlightenment. Every day brings with it challenges that arise from living in a foreign culture, challenges which my husband refers to as “cultural adventures.”


There are many days when I dream of getting into my Toyota to drive to the grocery store and back without having to run to catch multiple forms of transit, missing one by mere seconds; attempting to understand the visa process, medical system, etc.; information from the latter being communicated in French. The other day, a dermatologist suggested I might have mushrooms causing the inflammation and lesions that have been plaguing several fingers on only my right hand since mid-January of this year. It took me a minute to realize she was not suggesting a large mushroom had taken up residence on my hand but that there might be some kind of fungus afflicting my skin.


I miss Trader Joe’s and my local swimming pool. I miss wide-open spaces and wilderness. I miss the Arizona sunshine. I miss being able to buy shoes and clothing at affordable prices. I miss being able to afford ethical, healthy dog food (How can people afford to spend 80euros on a 12 kilo bag of dog food here? Why are there so many US American brands of animal food and so few Belgian/European brands?). I miss living near my sibling and my closest woman friend.


At the same time, there are so many elements of life in United States that I don’t miss, so much so that I still cannot truly imagine returning to the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Sure, the doctors seem to know what they are doing and might actually be able to figure out what the hell is going on with my right hand, but at what horrific price tag?


Do I really want to live in a land where freedom means that young children must die at the hands of crazed, psychopathic, gun toting peers? Another reason to be thankful I don’t have human children, albeit a bittersweet gratitude.


Do I want to live in a place where people are so insular and arrogant that they describe themselves as “Americans” as if the United States is the only America? I never thought about it until moving to a place as diverse as Brussels, where there are people from all over the world inhabiting one city. Truly, the United States is just one of several Americas, so I have revised my self-introduction to be a US American.


So, I have a kind of bipolar relationship with my current country of residence and the one I left behind. I regularly create pro/con lists in my head for Belgium vs. the United States, and the jury is still out.


There is very little likelihood that in Belgium I will receive a bill for medical expenses that ranges from hundreds to thousands of dollars. However, there is an equally low likelihood that I will see the sun for more than a handful of months a year.


Regardless of this seesaw of emotion I experience on a daily basis, I am determined to follow my husband’s advice and practice less entitlement and more gratitude for the incredible gifts I experience in my life every day. I am surrounded by furry beings who love me. My husband loves me (despite his ire over my regular communications of protest against Belgium).


Onward on my path.

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