Sunday, June 15, 2014

How I chose to become an ex-expat

I’ve decided to write a few words about why we're moving back to Norway next month. This way, I’ll get at least one more wordy post in before the blog enters the internet equivalent of cryogenic stasis.

A few months ago, Bika and I made the biggest, toughest beast of a decision we’ve ever made together: moving back to Norway after four years in Belgium.

The move to Belgium in 2010 was easy in comparison: A wild adventure starring a couple in their early twenties clinging together in the warm spring of a to-the-end-of-the-world relationship. We flew down to Brussels carrying only a couple of suitcases and a dream. We lived on a day-to-day basis, grasping for straws wherever we smelled grass. It was terrifying and awesome.

Now we're parents with jobs. Bika has spent three years in a wonderful job, forming close professional and personal connections. As for me, I’ve spent four years falling in love with so many aspects of my new home: a cultural spice mix of colliding European cultures; a long list of Belgian peculiarities; a history a thousand times richer than that of my homeland. I’ve been a toddler on a grandfather’s lap, listening to old mystical tales of the past enveloped in the scent of beer and chocolate.

Our son was born here. No matter where Kevin ends up, he’ll always have “Made in Belgium” stamped on his butt. (A figure of speech, of course. Of course.) What could make a place more special than that?

Even as we slowly settled into a life as Flemings, the pros and cons of Belgian vs. Norwegian residency battled it out at the back of our minds. Eventually, the two sides became locked in a stalemate, like two World War I armies huddling in opposite trenches in anticipation of deliverance or demise.

Finally, Norway rose out of the trenches and overran the Belgian positions. We set a course for the north. From the 4th most densely populated country in Europe to the 2nd least densely populated. To a full year's maternity leave when more babies start popping out. To free healthcare. To fjords, fields and forests. To a lot of things that matter, and a lot of things that don’t.

This also means leaving behind a great many dear friends and family, as well as all of the great things I’ve mentioned above.

If you’re still with me so far, chances are there’s one question burning the tip of your tongue: Why?

Maybe you’ve had to make a similar decision in the past. Maybe you’re dreading having to make it in the future, just as I have for several years. Maybe you’re in the middle of making it, like a skydiver halfway out the door for the first time.

What made us choose Norway over Belgium?

The short, completely misleading answer: Objectively speaking, Norway is better than Belgium.

Scandinavia is known for wealth, stunning nature and amazing healthcare and social services. Although peaceful and progressive and with a rich culture, Belgium is also known for an over-complicated administrative system, the greatest income tax burden in the region, high unemployment and massive traffic jams.

Of course, objectivity only gets you halfway there. What about family, friends, all the stuff that speaks to the heart? We’ll be four hours’ flight away from one of our families and dozens of good friends. Nobody wants to make that move.

What tipped the scales? The disappointing answer is that I’m not quite sure myself. I just know that my doubts evaporate like morning dew when I think of my son growing up where I myself took my first steps. He will celebrate his first birthday in the house I grew up in.

When I think of the smiling faces that welcome us there. When I feel how everyone not only wants us to stay, but will do anything in their power to help us find jobs and a nice roof over our heads, preferably with some walls and furniture to go with it. It’s something I want to be part of again. I’ll admit it: I’m homesick. It’s an itch all expats feel every once in a while, and I’m in for a big scratch.

I’m not looking down my nose at people who would choose differently in a similar situation. I have expat friends who have decided to remain in Belgium and raise families here, and I support them 100%. People are different, with different lives and different circumstances, so they make different choices. I just know that in our place, in our lives, this is the right choice.

Ultimately, that's what it all boils down to: It doesn’t matter what’s right, unless it’s right for you.

3 comments:

  1. You're lucky, I'm jealous :) Well, always been into Scandinavia, especially the north of Scandinavia (Tromsø-Kirkenes areas and, considering it an extention of Scandinavia, Murmansk). I have tried to move to Norway myself, sadly enough jobs seem to be exclusively for those who speak fluent Norwegian (even though everyone speaks English there). If this decision is the right one for you and for Bika and Kevin, then go for it. With one year maternity leave, free healthcare, little unemployment, unspoiled nature everywhere, ... I guess the benefits are plenty, and Belgium is "only" a few hours away (note the " signs, because 4 or 5 hours of flying seem more than it actually is, emotionally the distance feels bigger than in terms of travel options). It's funny how different people have different choices made in similar situations. I was in Barcelona already 3 years (and abroad for 8 years) when my mental health (quite extreme OCD, and Asperger Syndrome) forced me to move back to Belgium, and although the benefits (healthcare wise and in terms of housing and family help) were numerous, it was a tough choice to leave Spain behind. I would have rather stayed abroad, but sometimes ratio has to outnumber emotional input. I hope to leave again when my health gets better, although that may take quite a while and who knows by then I'm stuck here with a poetry career and a wife (which makes it feel quite odd to be back in Belgium, but having mainly dated foreign girls from as far as the Middle East, but being in Belgium themselves in fact living my dream a bit... that's an odd feeling, although again rational thoughts usually win in the end). I hope you will manage to get jobs and a long term home in Norway, that the (re-)integration may be smooth and that the future brings all the best to you and your family. For sure you got some great prospects ahead, and in that time in Belgium you did find the woman of your dreams, became a parent, and discovered a tiny yet fascinating new country. Those experiences will stick with you for life and it's going to be something that makes you a richer person emotionally, as few will take the experiences you had in the bags when going back home. You also proved love can overcome even the longest distances, and that no dream is impossible as long as you're determined. Good luck and all the best, hope you'll find the time for a goodbye drink before you leave :)

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  2. Dear Erlend,
    Dear Gerrit,
    I am a second year Master student in Business Engineering at the University of Antwerp, Belgium.
    Currently I'm in the process of writing my master thesis with the aim of producing a practical approach for Belgian companies and organizations to expand their activities to Scandinavia. For this, among others, I'm researching the main differences (cultural, economical, political, demographical, social) between Belgium and Scandinavian countries, and among Scandinavian countries. A case study concerning a Belgian lingerie brand will be incorporated in this thesis.

    Having lived in Oslo, Norway, for five months during an academic exchange in 2014, I hope to have experienced a little of the Norwegian culture. However I am still unsure about many of the nuances and on how these relate to other cultures.
    For this reason, I hope to undertake some short interviews with individuals that have experienced one of these cultures and wouldn't mind elaborating on their opinions concerning the differences between any of these countries, and concerning buying behavior, preferences if possible.

    Having read your blog post (Erlend) and your reaction (Gerrit) I understand that you have experienced certain aspects of both the Norwegian and the Belgium culture. For this reason I was wondering if it would be possible to ask you a few questions regarding your impressions?

    If you have any questions regarding my study before deciding, please let me know!
    Thank you very much in advance!
    Kind regards,
    Kimia Namadchi

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    Replies
    1. Hi Kimia,

      That sounds like fun, so ask away! My email address is erlend.johan.alvestad@gmail.com

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