Our Expat Adventure Comes to an End
There are places I remember all my life
Though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain…
(Lennon-McCartney – In My Life)
Hard to believe four weeks have passed since Jim and I boarded a plane in Brussels for our return trip to Chicago. Returning to our house and lives after a two-year absence has been a chore. Not to mention the pangs of separation and the clutter of two major holidays. Although our furniture and other possessions are still in route from Belgium, we feel somewhat settled. Therefore, with a bit of distance, emotional and physical, as well as a sizable chunk of resettlement chores behind us, I can blog about our farewell.
We Love Chicago,
We Miss Brussels!
If given a choice, we’d hop a plane back despite the ‘imminent’ or ‘probable’ terror threat. Maybe that’s natural. It’s hard to break out of a familiar orbit, especially one that delivered great adventure. We made a great life for ourselves in Belgium. Even though we left family, friends and our beloved house behind in Chicago two years ago, Brussels became our home. Or rather, we made Brussels our home. There is a difference. Left to passive indifference, a deep connection with our adopted city probably wouldn’t have happened. I’ve blogged at length about Belgeface, the scowl most natives flash as you pass them on the street. It’s an expression filled with a mix of anger, misery and contempt seeming to dare passersby to offer a spirited bonjour. Brussels isn’t Paris, London or even Chicago. It’s sophistication is imported. As Headquarters of NATO and home to the European Commission, Council and Parliament, the city is awash with interesting foreigners. Service and infrastructure are mediocre. The Grand Place is a global treasure. But the other top tourist attraction is a small statue of little artistic merit—a perpetually peeing boy. Sidewalks are not for the feeble with doggie-doo land mines and missing pavement stones. My favorite are the pavers that protrude an inch or so above the rest of the pavement. Frankly, Brussels always looks as if it could use a good power washing. But, if you demand style and cleanliness along with sophistication, Antwerp is only a short journey away.
Yet despite Brussels’ many blemishes, Jim and I embraced the city and connected with many others who call Brussels home.
Brussels Writers Circle
Of course, I had my writer’s group, the Brussels Writers Circle (BWC) that provided great personal and professional satisfaction. The group spawned many wonderful friendships. During the last few weeks, many made a point of sending me off. I’m grateful to Ocean and Lida for coordinating my farewell gift and to Patrick and Andreas who hosted my sendoff toast and to the others who attended. Sorry to say that I don’t have pictures of that event. How unlike me! I miss my Tuesday night chairing duties. Sessions were always entertaining, stimulating and inspiring.
Jim and I had our favorite neighborhood restaurants: Nuovo Rosso, Ma Folle de S0eur, Premier Comptoir Thai, Malte. I think we dragged every visitor to Nuovo Rosso which Jim declared the BEST pasta he’s ever eaten. Nuovo Rosso is the kind of neighborhood place (literally 10 meters out our front door) where you shake hands with the owner/chef, and where regulars can usually walk in without a reservation.
While neither flashy nor daring, the Brussels restaurant scene is excellent. Food is consistently fresh and good. We also like the Belgian dining custom. The combination of tax and tip that easily adds thirty-three percent to your restaurant bill in the USA is missing. Taxes are already included and tips aren’t expected although a small gratuity is greatly appreciated.
Best Coffee in Brussels
After brief dalliances with the Maison du Peuple and JAT, I finally settled into my favorite cafe, Bocca Moka. I found myself walking there to write more and more. It’s a place where everyone knows your name and you can sit down at a table and get your favorite offering without ordering. I loved chatting with the friendly staff and locals. Jim considers the flat-white served up by Bocca Moka as the BEST in Brussels, if not the world. Karina, the owner/operator has an incredible passion for service and coffee. At the cafe’s sunny back table under a giant print of the Brooklyn Bridge, I edited all of my soon-to-be launched novel, None Shall Sleep and completed about eighty percent of my next project, Two Towers. The Bocca Moka team offered so much good cheer and encouragement that you’ll find an acknowledgement to Karina and her staff in None Shall Sleep. Starbucks just isn’t the same.
We had our favorite shops, shopkeepers and neighbors, chief among these were Michelle and Barbara. Michelle operated the sandwich shop to one side of our house and Barbara and her husband, Patrick and their six cats lived on the other side. Barbara is the neighbor with whom we shared a garden wall and a cat or two including Puhi. When Puhi decided to ‘adopt’ Jim and me, Barbara was the one who recognized his desire to become an Arkenberg. She unselfishly allowed Puhi first to move from number 6 to number 4, and then to become a Yankee. Jim declares that Puhi is the BEST cat he’s ever met!
If you read my prior posts, you know that my favorite things in Brussels were the markets: the Monday and Wednesday evening markets at Saint-Gilles Hotel de Ville and Chatelain, respectively, as well as the weekend market at the Parvis Saint-Gilles.
Jim declared the rotisserie chicken served up at the Sunday market in Saint Gilles as the BEST in the world.
One of the greatest benefits of living in Brussels was the city’s central location, an easy hop by car, train or plane to any one of a number of places. We explored every nook and cranny of Belgium. The country has much to offer from Ypres to Bastogne in addition to the familiar tourist destinations of Antwerp, Brugge and Ghent. Edgar Hutte’s well-run Expat Club brought us new friends and new destinations including Koln, Kukenhof, Champagne and Trier. One of the joys of Jim’s and my life together has been the number of interesting people we’ve met around the world. They’ve enriched our lives and opened our minds. You know who you are. I’ve blogged extensively about our travels, and there isn’t room here to list every location or share many photos. What follows is a smattering of those places that meant the most to us, chiefly because we met up with friends. As those who travel with friends know all too well, sharing adventure is the BEST! Places are great, but relationships are greater.
Houseguests and Visitors
For those familiar with my Facebook pages, you know that Jim and I didn’t lack visitors. In our two years, we had twenty-three sets of houseguests. Janice Rodgers and her boss Rae from Chicago were our first houseguests in March of 2014 while Gia was the final houseguest in November of 2015. Mixed among the houseguests were a number of other visitors. We entertained some of these visitors in our home and others we met for coffee, drinks or a meal. Many were quite generous with gifts and hosted meals. Thank for your generosity! Coincidentally, our first visitor in February of 2014 was also our final visitor in November of 2015, our flight attendant friend, Janice D. Houseguests and visitors provided a vital supply chain of those goods not easily found in Brussels. What would we have done without American peanut butter and Sadie’s canned pumpkin?
Time to Say Goodbye
Jim and I said our goodbyes over several weeks in late November and early December. We thank the many people who hosted lunches and dinners for us including Anne-May, Klavs, Andreas & Patrick, Jim’s Nielsen team of Malay, Praveen & his lovely wife, and Soundharya, Philippe & Laurent and Barbara. Your kindness and friendship meant the world to us.
With a heart heavy at what we were leaving behind but also joyful at reuniting with family and old friends, we flew to O’Hare with Sadie our Golden Retriever in the cargo hold and Puhi, the once guest cat but now an Arkenberg. One adventure was over, and another may have just begun…
Two years ago Jim and I welcomed the posting to Belgium. “Years from now when we look back on our lives, we’ll remember Brussels,” I said to Jim. “We’ll call it a highlight of our lives.”
We don’t have to wait that long. Recognizing our good fortune, we already recognize the people, places and things of our time in Brussels as one of life’s prized adventures.
Would we do it again? In unison, Jim and I respond with an enthusiastic YES!
By the way in case you were wondering, Jim did declare our time in Brussels as our BEST adventure yet. I happen to agree with him,
And I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life….
(Lennon-McCartney – In My Life)
While Jim and I will carry pieces of Brussels with us till our dying days, memories and faces will fade over time. In place of detail and sharp recollections, we will be left with gentle musings and comforting reflections of a most excellent adventure, a highlight of a life well lived and loved.
A special thanks to all who shared this adventure with us, whether in person or at a distance through social media and emails.
Reflections on Visitors
I post here a few images. literal reflections taken in a mirror in the foyer of our home, of a few of the people with whom we shared our life in Brussels. I apologize if I’ve omitted someone from mention in either narrative or photo. Some adventures are TOO Big to capture everything in a single blog.
Wait for the book and movie!