As the fall equinox arrives, I find myself once again having migrated to a new (for me) place. This is a familiar pastime for a nomad like me. I spent the first decade of my life after university working by the season, following the funding. Depending on who was hiring, I worked as a USFS, NPS ranger, or Washington State Parks ranger and an environmental education staff person at multiple outdoor education programs. I moved every few months, cultivating a kind of rotating existence around the northern region of Washington state.
Working for very little pay and no benefits got old after several years, and I eventually moved on to more permanent work, at least for a little while. The migration itch continued, however. With each change of the season, I would find myself fighting a deep desire to pack up shop and move to a new locale. I loved imagining myself, starting over in a new place.
Even in the search for more steady work with the national parks, my longest stint was only two and a half years at a national historical park in Lowell, Massachusetts. My final departure from government work came in part because I was in love with someone living in Arizona and we had both decided that four years of long distance was more than enough. I also left because the culture of the government workplace was not in keeping with my own vision for self-sustainability and wellbeing. My partner assured me he had a good job and would be happy to support me in my search for a career that was more reflective of my authentic Self, so at the end of October 2014 we drove west from Massachusetts, bound for Prescott, Arizona.
One reality of maintaining shallow roots is the painful and often shocking experience of groundlessness when those roots are pulled out of the ground. Each place I have lived, I have had the opportunity to form deep bonds with the natural places that fill my heart and also the people who fill my need for human connection. Every time I leave, life goes on for all of those people and places without me. Eventually, I become a distant memory.
Meanwhile, my life goes on in new environs, and I feel the void from having cut those ties.
One way that I maintain some sense of balance is to write about my journey. It is easy to view a very one-dimensional, intentional perspective from photos and words crafted for a social media post. It is another to share as much of the whole story as mere words on a page can express.
This year has been a whirlwind for most, and my husband and I were not the exception. Tickets purchased in January to return to the states were just one of many COVID-related reimbursements. Yoga trainings were also cancelled, and we found ourselves bound to our small corner of Brussels, Belgium for an undefinable period of time. for my husband, this period of lockdown was an unexpected boon of sorts. He was able to work without interruption on the final chapters of his dissertation, finishing fairly close to the original timeline he predicted four years ago upon arriving in Brussels and beginning his studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). Translation: free university of Brussels. We came to Brussels because my husband had dreamed for decades of living in a French speaking country in Europe and earning his doctorate. Funding did not work out in France, but he also had connected with a member of the Global Media Ecology network who happened to be a professor at the VUB and spent a few days in Brussels after a completely demoralizing academic visit to Paris. Suffice it to say that we were extremely thankful to have chosen Brussels for the four years of doctoral study.
I had never been to Brussels (or Belgium, for that matter) before moving here a few weeks after my husband arrived. Initial research informed me that there were three regions in the country, each with its own language. There was the Flemish region of Flanders. The French region of Wallonia. And a small region where German was spoken. I assumed that I would hear all three languages in equal parts upon arriving in Brussels, but I found that I heard mostly French and Dutch, French being the predominant language spoken in shops and on the street. Dutch and English came next in order of predominance. My husband’s colleagues at the VUB, which is a Flemish university, spoke Dutch and English unless they were studying abroad from another country, in which case they tended to speak English as the common language.
Brussels is a bit like a coming together of every culture around the world. It is not a melting pot (thank goodness) but more a place where a foreigner can feel relatively at home. Because Brussels is the EU capital, there are people living in the city from everywhere.
Over four years, I had a love-hate relationship with Brussels. Most of my ire stemmed from my own path of practice and piles of self-work, stress from persistent ties that I was not able to disentangle myself from in the United States (like renting and trying to sell a house in small town Alaska, for example), and having too much time to reflect on the existential questions of life since I was not legally allowed to work on my visa, which was tied to my husband’s student visa.
I will admit that after several winters in grey, rainy Belgium, I found myself looking forward to returning to sunny Arizona. Sure, I was not looking forward to returning to the quagmire of politics or unsustainable, expensive healthcare system. In Brussels, I could see a General Practitioner for one euro. In the United States, it would cost nearly $300 just to walk through the door of a medical center. I missed being in a place where everything was familiar and the ease that came with that familiarity. It was easier to express myself, to explain to a therapist or medical practitioner what psychological or emotional challenge or ailment I was experiencing. In the United States, I had a car and a standalone house, as opposed to the attached houses in and around Brussels, where as many people as possible are literally squished into confined spaces. Our neighborhood, the Coin du Balai (broomstick corner) at the southeastern edge of the city was fairly quiet in comparison the other areas around Brussels, but I could still feel the high concentration of people and sound and it often drove me crazy. In addition, as I noted earlier, I am a being who is meant to move. Without a car and on a very limited budget, I stayed relatively still and in one place for just under four years. By the spring 2020 when the pandemic hit and subsequent lockdown went into place, I was already chomping at the proverbial bit to stretch my wings and take flight.
My husband and I had been not-so-secretly hoping that something might happen that would allow us to stay in Brussels or at least in Europe. We never envisioned our intentions might be so strong as to bring on a global pandemic, which was the ultimate reason we were unable to return to the United States.
It was with initial relief (and a lot of excitement for my husband, who still dreamed of France) that my husband was offered and eventually able to accept a postdoc position in Lille, France. With the uncertain financial situation in the United States, it made sense to put off returning to his job in Arizona for another year, thereby saving the college from having to pay his salary at a time when matriculation could be quite low.
Had I known beforehand just how long it would take and how incredibly frustrating, demoralizing, stressful, and exhausting it would be to move just beyond the Belgian border to northern France, I honestly think I would have insisted we return to the United States instead, virus be damned.
Many friends have expressed envy at our seemingly charmed European existence, but I can tell you that it has not been a walk in the park or a cup of tea, not even a spiked one (and I drank a lot of those this year).
After the honeymoon period, it took months for my husband to receive a formal job offer in writing. It several more months of waiting for France to reopen their visa application department. In the meantime, my husband figured out the how to create an online account in order to be able to secure an appointment to begin the visa application process the moment it became possible. He did this and succeeded in scheduling a “rendezvous” the very first day visa application business resumed. We got dressed up (our US American version of fancy, at least) and went to the French Embassy in Brussels. We assumed that since we were married we would be able to go in together for the appointment, but since only my husband’s name was noted I was asked to wait outside in the rain….because…pandemic.
Less than 10 minutes later, my husband returned. He had been informed that he did not have the right documents to even begin the process. In hindsight, we should have fully anticipated this and lowered our expectations. At the time, I was completely downtrodden. This emotional state did not improve when the next appointments we were offered were for August 15, a month and a half later. When we explained that our lease in Brussels had already expired and we needed to find a place to live because my husband’s job was slated to begin September 1, we were given back-to-back appointments on July 30th. Fantastic.
So even as the lockdown restrictions were eased, we did not have anywhere we could go because we were hoping that an earlier appointment might be cancelled and we could squeeze in our second attempt (which we now fully expected would end in utter failure) to begin the visa application process.
We then wondered if perhaps we could have gotten an earlier appointment if we hadn’t insisted they be back-to-back. Who cares if we go together if we have to see someone separately anyway, right? Just got to get ‘er done, as they say in regions of the United States. In the end, it was better that we had booked our appointments this way because the staff told us to go in together because of course we would go together, we were married.
And so the enigma that is the French visa process continued. We had brought every possible document and made copies of every single document. We had passport photos. We had marriage certificates, birth certificates. We handed each document to the staff person, holding our breath as she reviewed each one and asked follow-up questions.
When she asked if my husband’s salary included housing and said, “This isn’t very much,” I held my breath, certain that our application would be rejected. We insisted, “We don’t like money. We are very happy with this salary.” I did my best not to respond, “Welcome to my world, honey” and to pretend that I was indeed thrilled that my husband was going to be paid two and a half times less than a post doc researcher would be paid in the Netherlands, where another postdoc had recently come up as a possibility. I was certain that all would glitter as gold had we followed that route. Didn’t everyone who moved to the Netherlands receive a welcome bicycle and round of cheese?
Instead, we were going to France. The company was not paying for our move, helping us find a place to live, sending workers to pack our belongings (yes, I have friends who have had this happen), or giving us a company car. Through the magic of synchronicity and patience and my husband’s incredible ability to do any kind of work with his hands, we managed to buy an ancient Saab 9-5 from our neighbors. My husband watched YouTube videos and figured out how to get the car started after it had been sitting in storage for four years.
By this point, my own psychological state had deteriorated to the point where I spent most of my time sleeping or sobbing (or wailing). It was a dark time, as I know this year has been for so many, and I also recognize that my own existence is a privileged one. I think my sense of adventure had dried up after four difficult years. I was exhausted, physically and emotionally, even before the pandemic hit. When neighbors began work demolishing their house to turn two structures into one, which turned into an all-day every day pounding, drilling, crashing, unending barrage of noise, I literally lost my mind. I just barely kept it together with a new pair of Bose headphones, the forest next door, and several months of the most beautiful, sunny weather spring had seen in Belgium since people began keeping records of seasonal weather patterns.
Even given the month between appointments, our visas for France were ready within the two week timeframe the staff person had predicted. We were floored and moved into the next phase of the Belgium to France fiasco: finding a place to live.
Never in my life have I had such a challenging time securing a residence. The world of renting in France turned into a complete nightmare. We followed all of the steps that had been recommended by people on both sides of the Belgium-France border, researching houses on rental sites, sending messages, and calling potential proprietors. I have an aversion to making telephone calls in general, even ones in my mother tongue, but I dutifully got on the phone and shared our story, time and again, in my best attempt at French.
Most people were kind, except for one person in Bailleul, who said she would call us back after talking with her husband if we made the cut to look at their house. When she didn’t call back, my husband suggested I call her the following day because calls had not gone through on our phone with a Belgian Sim card.
Our conversation went a bit like this (only in French and not English):
Me: Hello, we spoke yesterday and I wanted to check to see if you had tried to call because have been experiencing trouble with our phone.
Her: No, not at all. We are not going to rent to you.
Me: Oh. Why not?
Her: There is a problem with your application. Your husband’s position is a CDD and not a CDI.
Me: But my husband’s position is renewable, and we have sufficient income.
Her: It doesn’t matter. We are NOT going to rent to you.
End of story. I sat at our kitchen table, completely nonplussed. After four years of tightening purse strings on an unfunded student budget, we finally had an income. Not a big one, but an income nonetheless. My husband was thrilled because he was going to be able to live his dream (after his dream of earning his doctorate) of living in France.
I began noticing that many of our inquiries were being outright rejected. People would tell us that with a CDD position they had no protection. I had no idea what they were talking about. How would they not be protected? We would sign a lease. We would pay rent. We had already been informed by a realtor outside of Lille who was about as contrarian as they come that we would be at the bottom of any list of potential renters because of this CDD position.
Let me explain here that a CDD is a Contract Durée Determinée, which is a fixed duration contract. His particular contract is renewable at the start of each academic year. The realtor we talked with explained to us that most people with unfurnished rentals were looking for long-term renters, so we should look instead for furnished rentals. Furnished rentals tend to be more expensive, and as we have some furniture and animals we prefer to rent an unfurnished place so we don’t have to worry about damaging another person’s stuff. She sent us to talk to a person at a company that helps people moving to France for a limited time find a place to live.
The staff person at this place was much nicer than the aforementioned realtor. He proceeded to tell us that everything she had told us was nonsense, which made me wonder who to believe at all? Unfortunately, the furnished places this company rented to people did not allow animals.
Back to square one, which involved hours of driving to and from France to look at potential areas we might like to live and to look at rentals. Initially, we had thought we would just go and stay in Lille for several days and drive around, looking for “To rent” signs. We drove around for an entire day during one of the many heat waves of the summer in our non-airconditioned car. This was the day we spoke with the dour realtor and the kind but unhelpful furnished rental place fellow. I promptly broke into sobs after talking with dour realtor lady. After speaking with the other guy, we checked in to our hotel in Lille. My husband had chosen the hotel because it was called “Hotel Calm” and had good reviews and wasn’t too pricey. The hotel itself was calm albeit sweltering in the heat. The challenge was that the entire area surrounding the hotel was decidedly not at all calm. The street noise was deafening. The staff person kindly moved us to a room on the inner ring of the building. This worked fine until we returned from dinner to a neighbor blasting music. We tried two other rooms with no luck and finally gave up on Hotel (not) Calm and drove back to Brussels at 9:30pm. We slept about 10 hours that night and did not return to drive around Lille and its environs until the following week.
In all, I think we drove to and from France at least four times. We looked at several places and even found one we would have liked to rent in Saint-Jans-Cappel. Apart from the pond full of ducks and the deranged, barking Jack Russell, it seemed pretty ideal with trails that began just beyond the driveway and farm fields as far as the eye could see. I called and emailed the proprietary and received no reply. When the advertisement was taken down, we started to wonder if we were ever going to find a place to live. This was not the dream my husband had held so dear for so many years.
I finally started emailing Airbnb places and Gîtes de France. A gîte is a farmhouse, and there is a network of farmhouses people can rent by the week in every region of France. I also sent a message to the final property we had scheduled to look at to ask if there was any chance we might actually be able to rent, explaining the response we had received from many other proprietors, regarding my husband’s CDD. The person was very kind and responded that he had contacted his insurance company and it turned out they would not cover him if he rented to a person with a CDD.
Again, we were floored. This seemed completely ludicrous. We had an income and a work contract. Was all money not the same in France? It made absolutely no sense but was certainly in keeping with the theme of 2020, where nothing seemed to make sense, plans were ever-shifting, and groundlessness prevailed.
We went to look at one Airbnb/Gîte in Bailleul in a last ditch effort to find a place to live before throwing in the towel and trying to go back to the United States. I was hoping for the latter option; my husband the former. My husband won.
I will note that when we drove up to the farmhouse, which had been pictured as one long building on the Airbnb site, we were met by a partially finished addition/construction site.
Are you kidding me? I asked.
The farmhouse was tiny and furnished, but the property owner said he only worked on the addition a couple afternoons a week and it was not too noisy.
What could we do? I wanted to go back to the United States. My husband wanted to stay in France.
My husband won.
While he spent the following week preparing for his public defense of his dissertation, I packed and cleaned our house and tied up as many loose ends in Brussels as possible.
Friday afternoon, he successfully defended his dissertation. Saturday morning, he rented a moving van, friends came and helped us load said van, and he drove with one of those friends to the place in France to unload everything while I continued to clean the house in Brussels. We spent Sunday cleaning, sedating the wild backyard cat in order to be able to put her in a carrier and bring her with us, and driving to the new place.
I know we are the lucky ones. We have a place to live and an income (even if it is scorned by the rental community). I still yearn for stability and grounding. As the weather app predicts a week of rain, I mourn for the desert sun and worry about the pockets of mold around our house. I miss the constancy of familiar faces and places from our neighborhood and community in Brussels.
Once again, I am migrating, set in motion by unseen forces and to a place that held much uncertainty. I am groundless, without community or purpose. My dreams will have to wait. In the meantime, I find myself in another foreign land with new corners to discover and new people to meet. Tired as I am, I trust I will forge ahead and make connections that would otherwise never have been possible.
Here are a few images from our recent transition…
Saying goodbye to my beloved Willow tree neighbor
Last walk in the forest
Gratuitous adorable cat photos
Canine and feline, helping me pack
Atticus is nonplussed by the removal of “his” futon, which dad replaced with random articles of furniture
We need more of these!
The drive from Boitsfort to Bailleul
Our new proprietor
Unloading and getting “settled”
Not a bad view