#Invisible Man, the Tale of an #Expat Spouse

“Perhaps to lose a sense of where you are implies the danger of losing a sense of who you are.”
― Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

When my spouse told me that his company wanted to transfer him to #Europe, I knew what I was getting myself into–well, sort of.  In retrospect, not really.

A few years back, I was writing at a local #Starbucks in our hometown of #Arlington_Heights IL, when the entrance of a large group broke my concentration. I did what any good writer would do–eavesdropped hoping for usable material.  A woman, blonde, large-framed with a German accent emerged as the leader.  She towered over her charges, four or five couples, whose conversation tagged them as Korean expats.

The German woman was a contractor.  The male halves of each couple worked for Motorola, the company moving them and their families to Chicago.  Husbands and wives had been flown to Chicago to familiarize themselves with the northwest suburbs, the communities to which they were likely to relocate.  House hunting would come later.

“I’m not vorried about the husbands,” the German said. “They have their job und the community that goes along with that. Kids vill be fine too. They have school, built in friends.  No,” she added with a nod toward the wives, “it’s you I vorry about.” She explained that in her experience, non-working spouses had difficulty integrating into their new lives. “You’re basically set adrift in an unfamiliar sea–no friends, no contacts, no lifelines. Practically invisible.” Her German accent made the warning sound even more ominous.

Her words came back to me when Jim and I moved to #Brussels in January 2014.

O'Hare Airport, My #Expat Adventure Begins

O’Hare Airport, My #Expat Adventure Begins

The first clue that I was soon to find myself an Invisible Man came when Jim and I went to ING to establish a bank account and apply for euro-based credit cards. When we went to pick up the credit cards, they handed us only one–for Jim. With no ‘local’ income, I wasn’t eligible. (My visa doesn’t allow me to work) However, I had to sign, giving the bank authority to go after my assets in the event that Jim defaulted.  With the emotional stress of giving up my established life in Chicago, downsizing a lifetime of possessions and the physical exhaustion of the actual move, I teared up. I was a nobody. “Not to worry,” the ING lady said. She’d be happy to authorize a pre-funded card such as the ones parents give their college-aged kids. In so many words, I told the bank what they could do with their ****ING card.

In time, I brushed the experience aside.  We were too busy setting up our new home, an incredible townhouse in the heart of Brussels.

#Grand_Place, Quintessential #Brussels

#Grand_Place, Quintessential #Brussels

But, the lease, and all utilities were in Jim’s name. Even our car was a manual transmission which I can’t drive. I was becoming invisible.

Finding new friends wasn’t easy. Jim’s company doesn’t go in for camaraderie outside of work. In the fifteen months we’ve lived here, there hasn’t been a single company-sponsored social event. Jim’s peers aren’t a sociable bunch either. He and I haven’t been invited out by a single one. With the exception of a small dinner given by one of Jim’s direct reports, the only interaction I’ve had with any of his work colleagues were the parties we hosted in our home. As far as his company is concerned, I am invisible.

Walking on the streets of Brussels was yet another lesson in invisibility. Coming from America’s midwest, we’re used to smiles, if not actual greetings as you pass people on the street. Here, pedestrians make an art out of avoiding eye contact. Greetings are ignored; smiles usually met with sneers.  Once again, I am invisible.

Many expats likely share another of our experiences. In the initial weeks and months, after we left #Chicago, we got cards and notes from the many  friends and family we left behind.  These little pieces of home tucked into our physical and digital mailboxes told us that we were not forgotten. But those notes have slowed, and in some cases disappeared altogether.  I still send out cards and postcards to people back in the USA.  After all, we plan to go back home some day. But many of these notes and emails are no longer answered or even acknowledged. Out of sight, out of mind?  Invisible? Time will tell if we’ll be able to plug back into our former life when we head back to the USA.

My latest taste of invisibility came earlier this month. Jim’s and my Belgian resident cards expired. A postcard arrived from our Town Hall, the authorities responsible for the renewal process.  The card was addressed only to Jim. My heart sank, my stomach soured.  What about me? As I feared, when we showed up the Town Hall had processed only Jim’s paperwork. They had nothing for me. So now with an expired resident card, and my renewal lost in a sea of bureaucratic red tape, I truly am set adrift, invisible in the eyes of local officials.

I sometimes wonder if those Korean women I encountered at Starbucks have fared any better?

Jim and I are fortunate to live in a vibrant, European capital–culture, history and exciting experiences within easy reach. Most people see only the party balloons and glitter of our new life. I share the blame with my social media posts. In my defense, it’s hard to post a picture of an Invisible Man. But behind the romantic stories, if you look real hard, you can see the blemishes.  And, it’s not one thing, it’s the many little things that wear you down, chipping away at your identity, confidence and self-esteem, rendering  you #invisible.















  1. Patrick

    Brings back memories of being the very first male trailing spouse of a foreign country manager in the history of the airline industry. Think of those Korean ladies, then think about one of them being a man. Who does he talk to? The other men? They just talk shop. The women? They’re talking about clothes, kids, schools. I think your experience must be very similar.

    Still, living abroad was more than worth it, as I bet you will agree.

  2. Lynda Oros

    really insightful article. I really never thought about this kind of a situation before. Just wanting you to know I follow your posts. Send me your address and I will send you correspondence.
    I enjoy your writings.


    • T.D. Arkenberg

      Thanks Lynda. I don’t know what people did before social media. The entire Internet in general has been good at keeping me connected.

  3. Bobbie

    Dear Jim, Just had to comment & tell you you don’t even need to leave your home country to become “invisible.” When I married (in ’76) my husband was a contract programmer. He’d get a new job assignment every 4-12 months. We moved from BOS>SPI>STL>ORD within 18 mos. We did have some good co-workers (his) but I had none of my own crowd, only shared his. I ended up working a few crap jobs just for the socialization. My suggestion is to keep up with the entertaining even though it’s one-sided. Then get yourself out among some sort of group. What about a writer’s group? Library group? Genealogists? Photography? Basically anything that you’re into, or think might interest you. Take a class or two? A lot of your issues may be from isolation, but I suspect it could be the winter blues as well. Consider it.
    Know that you have support from all of your ex-UA buddies, too, though we might be physically distant, we’re still out here!
    Bobbie (ORDCSUA-retired)

    • T.D. Arkenberg

      Dear Bobbie, thanks for the reply. The post seems to have resonated with many people who have found themselves uprooted. Luckily I did find a local writers group which has been very gratifying. And yes, we’re entertainers so we’ll keep doing so… Thanks much…

  4. Fran Sleezer

    You will never be forgotten. I’m glad so many of your old friends have visited you. If it was not for DVT and blood clots and pulmonary embolisms I would come visit you too. Has been many years since I was there. Glad I traveled the world when I was young. Took intl flts twice a year then. No svc chefs, no dept fees etc
    and you could get on with totally free passes! With love, Fran Sleezer don’t like invisible

    • T.D. Arkenberg

      Thanks Fran. So glad you got to travel when you could. Appreciate the note.

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