Note to readers: this is an abridged version of an article appearing in the current issue of Together Magazine, a glossy Brussels bi-monthly catering to the Anglophone expatriate community. Sheet music cover from "The Singing War" of Johns Hopkins University Sheridan Libraries.
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Some of us have made this expat business our life’s work. In public service (I’m most familiar with diplomats and the military), multiple postings abroad are often the norm. And Brussels is brimming with semi permanent expats whose professional lives revolve around the EU institutions. But I’ve known lots of private sector people too for whom a life overseas is the culmination of a dream, and who have trouble going back. It’s an old problem.
How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm? (After They’ve Seen Paree) put to song the dilemma facing American soldiers who’d been sent to France in the Great War, survived the trenches, then met a pretty Parisienne on a weekend pass. Some, like Ernest Hemingway, stayed on for a while, and a similar thing happened after the Second World War. Less dramatic, but no less of a quandary for today’s HR department: how 'ya gonna send ‘er back to Baltimore, after she’s seen Bruxelles?
This expat thing gets into your blood, and it may be hereditary. Ever notice how many expats are children of expats? It comes from going to school with classmates from every continent, and from growing up with a different – if not downright confused – sense of nationality. There are strident nationalists in every grouping, but as a class expats are probably more inclined to see at least two sides to every question.
“Far away fields look green” goes the adage, which makes almost every destination potentially appealing. Born and raised in the United States, I’ve spent most of my adult life outside my native country. Mine is a conscious choice, a sort of “reverse migration” for someone whose parents came to the US from County Mayo, Ireland. But I know a Frenchman, an interpreter, who chose to settle in the US because he finds it “exotic.” And he lives in suburban Washington D.C.!
“I've seen things you people wouldn't believe,” reminisced Rutger Hauer’s dying replicant in Blade Runner; “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” You don’t have to be an alien to feel like you’ve come in from outer space. Just be a typical expat returning home to family or old neighbors, who feign interest in your international life for a few seconds before changing the subject back to local matters. They probably don’t share your reverie about the good life abroad. Which is why many expats befriend other expats, who can at least relate to a life lived outside the boundaries of “home.”
Oh yes, Home. Many of us have a clear, unequivocal notion of where that is. Others aren’t so sure. Where home is, when home was a certain house, who was at home… home can be, as another old saying goes, where the heart is. Expats don’t necessarily live out of a suitcase, but they often have a more flexible idea of what “home” means. When I consider Brussels as home, it doesn’t mean I reject my Pennsylvania upbringing, and feeling “at home” in Ireland is more an emotional link to the memory of my parents than anything territorial.
All of this is not to build up the expatriate condition as a universal solution. After all, not everyone can or should leave the land of their birth – you might not really want your embarrassing younger brother to show the flag abroad, at least not in your presence. I remember puzzling over some of my fellow diplomats who persisted in living abroad when their time there was spent largely in the company of their countrymen.
That can be a challenge, mind you – not just getting to know some locals, but actually befriending them. In a place like Brussels, people have seen scores of expats come and go, and may shy from establishing friendships that risk being broken by a subsequent transfer.
And if it’s hard on the locals, it’s also hard on the itinerant foreigner. Just listen to the BBC World Service program “From Our Own Correspondent” and you’ll hear the occasional heartfelt goodbye to a place a journalist has called home for years. Hard as it is to say farewell to foreign places and people, it shouldn’t keep us expats from making local bonds, as the whole experience of living in another country is so much richer with the knowledge that host country friends and neighbors can provide.
So, is there a cure for the expat bug? I’m in my sixth decade, living in an adopted country, married to a French woman, with a dozen countries I’ve called home, and the siren song of foreign fields still beckons. Is that living the dream or postponing reality? Not sure, but it’s in my blood.
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