Expats Again

Expats Again

“So. . . what do you think? Do you think I should apply?” My husband, V and I are sitting in our air-conditioned living room in Plano, Texas. It’s been hot. It’s October 2015. But of course it’s hot. It’s Texas. All three kids are asleep, for now. It’s only a matter of hours (or minutes) until Baby B awakes, wanting a bottle.  Our four-year-old, Holden, has been put back to bed for the seventeenth time. Cosette, our five-year-old is like a princess in peaceful slumber.  V has his computer open on his lap. A job opportunity with his company glows at him from Belgium. A college football game hums lullabies in the background from the TV.  After nine months, I can say it’s been a good transition back to Texas. It’s been hard, but we got back into the swing of things. We’ve updated the house we left three years prior. We’ve enrolled our daughter and son in kindergarten and pre-school, respectively.  Sure, we received last-minute invitations to parties, perhaps were left off of guest lists entirely “I’m so sorry, but we just we took you guys off the annual Evite a few years ago after you left!”  But we’re making efforts to reconnect and re-adapting to life as we knew it. I started a book club with my best girlfriends, I’ve been meeting and making friends with new moms at Cosette’s school, and I’m enjoying hanging out with old co-workers who knew me pre-3-kids.  As for V and I, we’ve been embracing what we missed while living overseas and introducing our kids to American culture – friends, family, Tex-Mex, baseball games, Chick-Fil-A, riding in big SUVs, swimming pools, Kraft mac and cheese, Texas country music, trips to Austin, Waco, Target, etc.

Visiting San Antonio
Visiting San Antonio
Cosette and me in Big Spring, Texas
Cosette and me in Big Spring, Texas

I lean over V’s shoulder. I peer at the job description.  It’s a good opportunity for him. Really good. Flashes of our life for three years dance through my head – the Netherlands with visits to Paris, Brussels, London, and so many more places . . . being outside, eating unprocessed foods, being inspired by the daily beauty around me. . . I sit back on the couch. Take a sip of California wine and look towards our soaring Texas ceilings.  I take a deep breath, then shrug. I tell him what I always say, “Why not? If it works out, great – if not, we’ve got a lot going on for us, here too. What’s meant to be, will be.”

When we moved back to the U.S. in February 2015, we already knew we needed to go back to Europe for a visit.  It was important to us – to return before the kids forgot everything we had seen and done. Moving overseas is a nightmare of logistics. The never-ending to-do-list drowns the emotional impact of saying goodbye to everyone and everything you love – it’s hard to be present at any moment.  We woke up in temporary housing in Texas as if from a dream. We were gone. We needed to return and remember that it was still there. That it wasn’t an insignificant three years. Just as we had visited Texas ten months after we left, filled ourselves with everything we needed to push through our time in the Netherlands – we knew a return to Leiden was important to the balance of making Texas our home again. We just weren’t sure how it was going to happen.

On a June evening, Delta Airlines announced a huge miles sale and we had jumped on the opportunity minutes after receiving the email notification. My husband and I booked our tickets without a problem, but we had to call for the kids’ tickets.

“Okay, so. . . let me get this right. You have a four and a five-year-old with 30,000 miles?” the Delta airlines agent asked.

“Yes. Yes, that’s right,” my husband nodded into the phone.

“Okay, well then,” she laughed. “I don’t believe we’ve ever had that before. Let me see how I can push this through the system.”

In the end, that’s how we were able to return.  We planned on visiting the Netherlands, Paris, and Brussels during a two-week trip over Thanksgiving.  The entire family was ecstatic. For months we counted down the days until our trip. We prepared for the journey armed with a refreshed view of American culture that we knew we needed to introduce to our old expat friends. We bought Bath & Body Works holiday hand soaps (what are the holidays without your hands smelling like Frosted Cranberries, am I right?!) and Tyler candles for my girlfriends. We bought Pinkalicious and Pete the Cat books and light-up toothbrushes for the expat kids. We bought warm jackets and boots from Osh Kosh (on-line!) and Minnie Mouse and Paw Patrol scarves and mittens for our own children. We. Were. Set.

In the meantime, Vinny had applied for the position in Belgium. They were interested.

“Ja, so, my colleagues and I are supposed to be in Dallas at the first of December. We can meet up then, yes?” they asked him.

“Well, my family and I are already planning a trip back to Europe to visit old friends and our family. We will be in Brussels near the end of November. If you’re interested, can we schedule an interview, then?”

And so it was planned. With anxious hearts, we flew across the world to visit old friends. We indulged ourselves in their hospitality and arrived just in time for Sinterklaas. Screams of surprise greeted us on the streets of Leiden when unexpectedly ran into old friends. Our new boots stepped into the rain and the cold with confidence. We were armed with stroller covers and umbrellas to combat the North Sea wind and rain as if nothing had ever changed. I was amazed at our adaptability, even with three, as opposed to two, kids in tow.

In an apartment in Antwerp, V dressed for an interview. Chilled raindrops fell from the sky, muddling our view of the art deco train station. I kissed him goodbye, wished him good luck, and holed up with the kids until he returned a few hours later. We had driven the route to the office in Brussels the day before, but with the rain, the traffic delayed him. The three kids and I made friends with the hotel management, allowed the cleaning staff to change the sheets while I hung out with them in the living room, and awaited V’s return from the interview. V returns, nearly an hour after check-out time, but the hotel management wished us luck. We packed up the car, thanked the staff for their hospitality, and headed down the road to Paris.

“How did it go?” I asked, the Belgian countryside stretching before us.

“I did well. As best as I could do. That’s all I can ask of myself, right? If it’s not meant to be. . . right?” he cast a glance sideways in my direction.

I grabbed his hand. Squeezed it tight. “Of course. We’ll see, right?”

Visiting Paris in November 2015
Visiting Paris in November 2015

Months later, we still are awaiting an answer. In February, Holden’s Texas pre-school is pressuring us to commit to enrollment for the fall. I tell them we have to wait for job opportunity reasons, but I don’t indulge additional information. I’m anxious. I want to know. V wants to know. We need to make plans. Exactly one year after we arrived in Texas, on February 2nd, we receive an offer to return to Belgium. V and I are a mix of emotions, but I’d describe mine as mostly shock, with a little denial, sadness and excitement mixed in.

It takes until Thursday, March 17th to finalize the contract. It’s a back-and-forth process with a magnitude of stress that can only happen when two cultures, a lost-in-translation HR staff, and Europeans being on holiday, can only prescribe. There were times that although the verbal offer had been granted, we still doubted that the transfer would solidify, but in the end, the details are finalized and paperwork is signed. V and I blink. He has a job. In Brussels, Belgium! It’s all happening! Brussels! The announcements and the planning begin.  

The following weekend, my best friend Nikki hosts a birthday party for her nephew. Her entire family is in town for the event. We share our news between piñata bashing and munching on chips and salsa. The responses vary – from “Oh, that’s great – no, it will be fine, I know we’ll see you at least twice a year, anyway,” to “Oh really? I’m surprised you’ve been here this long,” to “Oh my goodness, no!!!! We’re going to miss you sooooooo much!!!!” But in the end, the responses were positive and supportive. I watched my kids play with Nikki’s nephews. They fell asleep on the couch curled with each other watching a movie. A warm fuzzy feeling entered my heart then turned to ice as I realized what we were doing – saying goodbye, not just V and I this time – but my children, too.  Saying goodbye, again, to my best friend, her family, Texas, and everything. . . I danced the night away in her garage to Tejano music and cried on the way home.  

We told my parents and a handful of other close friends over the weekend. My mother was sad, but summed our decision up perfectly, “I knew you weren’t going to let the grass grow under your feet.”  Everyone close to me understood our decision.

Tuesday, March 22, five days after we accepted the position, I wake up and turn on Good Morning America. There are people bleeding, there’s smoke. There’s a baby stroller on the screen – the same brand and color of the one we bought in the Netherlands and brought back with us – amongst the chaos. I’m confused. At first, I grab the remote to turn it off, it’s just too early for me to stomach the violence and the baby is in the room, but then I see the scroll.  Brussels. Terrorists attacks. My heart drops.     

The previous fall, we visited both Paris and Brussels just a few weeks after the attacks. We drove through the Belgian country side and were stopped at the border; everyone was stopped at the border. We showed our passports and were waved through. The G-8 summit was in Paris and security was at its highest. Major roads were shut down, police and military were everywhere; just as they had been in Antwerp, Brussels, and Amsterdam Schiphol. But we felt safe.

Eating Belgian Waffles
Eating Belgian Waffles

We were eating Belgian waffles from our favorite stand in Antwerp Centraal Station when Cosette had asked, “Are there bad guys, Mama?”

I eyed the military patrolling station. They sported tiny hats, hefty vests, and large automatic rifles. I weighed my words – the importance palpable. “Yes, honey – there are. But there’s are a lot more good people than bad.  See those men? They are just a few of the many, many people working hard to keep us safe.”

Months later, back in my bedroom in Plano, Texas – I’m shaking. The empty stroller, my stroller, is surrounded by smoke and screams. The image repeats on news lapse. I grab my phone just as it’s ringing. I answer. V is on the other end. “Have you seen the news?” he starts.

I blink at the television. “Yeah. I’m watching it right now. . .”

As I nod into the phone and watch the images – my heart goes out to the country we’ve visited so many times, the country I already love, and my future home. My friends from the Netherlands message me over WhatsApp. “Such sad news to wake up to,” they say.  They give me the play-by-play of what’s happening in the Netherlands – trains shut down, borders closing, etc. I’m a mess of emotions, but throughout the day, I try to hold on to the facts: A. It can happen anywhere. (A fact that unfortunately, was proven by the Dallas violence a few months later).  B. A life full of fear is no life at all. If I had let fear dictate my decisions in life, I’d started doing things differently a long, long time ago.  C. Typically, the result of tragedy is unity. Just as we had seen Brussels bind together and host their annual Christmas festival months earlier – there are more good people than bad.  And D. With time. All things heal. With a determined heart, V expresses condolences to the management at his new job and tells them again how excited we are about the opportunity. We wait a few weeks before making the official “Facebook announcement”.

The next few months are a flurry of activity. Our previous expat experience was a rotation – in which we always had a set end date. This opportunity is a transfer, with an open end date. People would ask, “Does that make you nervous? A permanent move?” and I answer, “No! All it means that if and when we need to move back, we can! We’re in control of our schedule as opposed to them.” Which, in reality, just makes it similar to well, most other jobs, right?  

In order to obtain our long-term visa for Belgium we had a pile of paperwork to obtain and complete. The government wanted birth certificates issued within the past six months. (Funny, I wouldn’t think they’d change much?) The Belgian government also requires a special medical checkup and documentation. There are seven Belgian-approved doctors in the whole of the United States. So, we make a family vacation out of a visit to one located in San Antonio. It was three-hour ordeal complete with blood samples and x-rays (which was hardly enjoyable with three crazy kids bouncing off waiting room walls) – but in the end, we are stamped Belgian Approved.  V and I celebrate by drinking a margarita (or two) on the Riverwalk afterwards.  

In the meantime, I was emotionally preparing to leave Texas again.  I had worked hard to reconnect with old friends. As strange as it was to be back after living overseas, it was still comforting to return to the city I grew up in – but this time as a mother. I took my kids to libraries and parks and frequented as a kid. Cosette was enrolled in the same elementary school my brother attended and she is on the same path to attend the high school I attended. Holden was enrolled at the preschool at my church I had been a member of since I was in second grade. We celebrated our baby’s 1st birthday at the neighborhood clubhouse where we celebrated my sister’s eleventh birthday. I could see everything clearly.

“I think we like it right now,” V would tell me, “because we’ve been through a lot. This is easy. But I bet in a few years. . . we’ll get restless again,” he’d tell me.    

“Maybe,” I said. “Yes, you’re probably right. Yeah. Probably so,” and I chase after my one-year old who is throwing plastic tea cups off the second floor landing onto the foyer below.

I indulge myself on everything Texas. We eat fajitas and tacos once a week. We take the kids to Chick-Fil-A a little more than usual. I start stocking up on Carter’s footed PJs, Children’s Place & Kids GAP clothes, and American Eagle jeans.  For 4th of July my daughter and I head to Big Spring, in West Texas. I wear a cowboy hat and country girl shorts the entire weekend. We visit Wal-Mart four times in three days. For the rest of July and August I have friends over for dinner. Often. I know how isolating moving overseas can be, especially in the early months. I take every smile, hug, and laugh and put it in my pocket. As if I could retrieve it on a lonely, cold Belgian day.

As the departure date nears, tensions grow higher. We put our house up for sale – a new experience for my husband and I. The market is hot – everyone says so, and I show our house 25 times in three weeks. Each text message notification (reply YES to accept the appointment) prompts a flurry of activity and stress to get the house to show-worthy perfection. Too many times, I am picking up Legos in the living room while the baby is unloading books from a shelf upstairs. There’s a tug-of-war-energy outside as I pull out of the drive, three kids in the car, while a Lexus or BMW eyes our ‘curb appeal’ and parks in the front.

We shop for necessities. This time, I know that European mattresses are different sizes from American. Fitted sheets are unheard of on the continent. I stock up on linens, pillows, and fluffy towels. (They don’t have fluffy towels in Europe, you ask? No. No they don’t.)

“Oh, this is your second time around, you guys must be pros at this!” everyone says. Yes. I know what to expect. But this doesn’t make it easier, just more prepared.       

We negotiate and finalize a contract on our house. We sign papers and before we can breathe, we’re on to the next step – we must decide what to ship, what to sell, what to donate, and what to trash. We’re leaving nothing in storage. Everything must go. V’s company is setting us up with temporary housing upon arrival. We won’t know where we’re living until we find our place during that first month. We eye our furniture with hope that it will find a place in our imaginary home. The container arrives and they load it up – like a hungry monster the men gobble everything without a label (and my phone charger) into a box. This. This day is the hardest. This is the test of your organization and foresight.  Everything they leave must go in a suitcase. A sale. A donation box. “Oh, it must be so nice! Having people pack for you!” It’s a control-freaks nightmare – just sayin’.   

The container pulls away. I wave and wish it a bon voyage. I breathe. We are left with the aftermath. I bring the contents of my pantry – olive oil, packages of rice, un-opened bottles of ketchup to my book club meeting. “Have at it, girls!” I eye the remaining baby clothes, lamps and appliances with American plugs, and sundresses with suspicion.  On a rainy day, after everything else has been shipped, we host a huge garage sale inside our home. We donate everything else to Hope’s Door.   

Not everyone received our plans to move with warmth and understanding coupled with sadness. It must be said, as I’m sure many other expats have encountered, it was met with anger from some members of my own family. Guilt, fear, and fury was thrown in my direction.  Terms such as “selfish” and “abandonment” were thrown around, my husband was accused of being “irresponsible”.  Outbursts were met with outbursts. In my angst I screamed that I didn’t want my children to grow up to be “close-minded!” and reminded them “that open-ended wasn’t permanent!” It was real. It was raw. Some of them came around to listen and gain understanding, for which I was thankful. Some did not.

The day and evening before our departure, I spent it with Nikki, her family, and my best friend from high school. As we sat around Nikki’s cousin’s patio table listening to Texas country and sipping wine and local brews, a weight felt heavy on my heart. We’d packed up our house, hosted goodbye parties, traveled all over the state, and crammed as much time as we could with friends and family into eighteen months. I felt empty. I still doubted. I eyed Holden, asleep on the couch – with the jetlag that was to follow, bedtime was irrelevant – and was reminded of what he had said I few days earlier. As I tucked him into bed at my mother’s house he hugged my neck tight and said, “Mama, thank you for taking me on so many adventures,” and I nodded. Thankful for perspective.

I excuse myself from the patio and ease into the kitchen chair. With anxious fingers I press my brother’s number on the phone. He answers, joyful, as always, “I think you’re doing the right thing, I mean – what’s the alternative? That you raise your kids in Plano, Texas? I mean. . . we grew up there, sure, and we turned out alright.  . but, I mean, the first time I met someone gay wasn’t until I moved to Chicago for college,” I nodded. Agreed. Perhaps times have changed in Plano, but the point was the same. “And besides, you move over there and what if you don’t like it after a couple of years? You just come home, right?”

“That’s what I’ve been saying,” I told him. “Thanks. That really means a lot to me, you have no idea.”

“Excellent. Good luck with the flight and those crazy kiddos.”

I hang up the phone, renewed with his endorsement. I return to the party on the patio.

“Heeeey! Girl!” Nikki’s Uncle O waltzes in. It’s his birthday and he has two bottles of champagne in his hands.

Me and Uncle O
Me and Uncle O

“Oh, Uncle! I’m SO glad you’re here!” and I throw my arms around his neck. “I would have been so sad if I didn’t get to say goodbye!” He holds me at arm’s length. And we study each other, creating a memory. His eyes sparkle, tears threaten to cloud both of our eyes, and I alight with an idea.   

“We must dance!” and he throws back his head in laughter. With Nikki’s cousins, my best friend, and V laughing around the patio table I dance with Uncle O by the pool. “Bailar, bailar,” echoes from my iPhone, crispy and faint, but I didn’t care. There was nowhere else in the world I’d rather be at that moment. “Mija,” he told me, grabbing my hand. I follow his footsteps. “We are SO proud of you. You must do what no one in our family is brave enough to do. This is for you. This is for us. My father, would have been so proud of you,” and the tears I’ve been trying to tame, let loose.  

“You really think so?” I yearn.

“Yes. I know so. You go. See. Do. And write. Keep writing, girl.” My thoughts scamper across the world, drawn to all the lights like a moths. Amid the laughter, the champagne, and the Texas stars, I whisper, “I’ll keep writing. I promise.”       

About Celeste Bennekers

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  1. Good luck! I completely understand the feeling of being settled “finally” after returning home and then the conflict of wanting to leave again. The hardest part is leaving family & hoping that the kids will still have strong relationships with everyone. My husband turned down an offer for Australia and then London less than a year after coming home from Den Haag. Maybe next year for us, as we too get restless. There is something comforting about the adventure of packing up, having only each other, & experiencing the world together. Only people who have done it truly understand. I am excited to read about your new chapter!!

  2. Celeste,
    I know we haven’t actually seen each other in so many years; I am so grateful I am able to keep up with you and your beautiful family. Reading “your” story has filled my heart with all sorts of emotions today, most importantly pride in the woman you have become. I will look forward to reading more and knowing what is going on with you all. Maybe one of these days my husband and I can come over and see you all. <3

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