The Fear of Standing Still

By alison - March 22, 2010 (Updated: December 1, 2014)

Moving forward or standing still?

Moving forward or standing still?

In another couple of weeks, it will be April, 2010. This will mark the fifth anniversary of our expat life in Europe. I can’t help but feel introspective about this milestone.

In fact, I never really intended to have a five year anniversary of life in Belgium. Our plan was always to try and move on to a new location after three years or so. Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans.

For our first three years here in Belgium, I was sure that I didn’t want to stay here very long. Looking back now, although my first blog post in Belgium was filled with optimism, I can see with the 20/20 vision of hindsight how unhappy I was when we lived in Everberg.

Almost two years later my life is radically different. I am at a good place in my life. I have a circle of wonderful and supportive friends here in Belgium. I have a great network of expat blogger friends around the globe, who make CheeseWeb such a rewarding endeavour for me. I have a photography career that I am proud of that is slowly but surely building everyday. I’m excited about pursuing the artistic side of my profession and showing my work to the Belgian public. I live in a flat I love in an exciting and vibrant city that grows on me more every day.

But all of these positive things scare me – a lot.

I’ve finally hit the point in my expat life that living in Belgium is the easy option. And believe me, I never thought I would say that. After years of struggling just to get through the little daily struggles, I now feel pretty comfortable in this country. That’s certainly not to say our life here is without its challenges; but the day to day worries of getting groceries, surviving public transportation and meeting new people are things that I am comfortable with now. So why does this scare me?

It scares me because now, when I think about moving on to somewhere new, I dread having to build all of this again. I worry about surviving another three years of paperwork, learning a language, meeting new friends, networking with new clients. I also fear I would miss all of the things Brussels has to offer: increadible food choices, an endless cultural events calendar, ease of travel within Europe and a great expat network.

But I also fear standing still. I’ve met so many people who came to Belgium on a three year contract and are still here ten, fifteen, even thirty years later. As much as I’m enjoying my time here now, I don’t want to ‘go native.’ I don’t want to wake up in Brussels in ten years and wish I had travelled and experienced more when I was younger. And most of all I don’t want to let the fear of the unknown hold me back. After all, if I had have let fear stop me five years ago, I would never have had all of the incredible opportunities I’ve been blessed with these past five years – something I would never trade all of the stress, worry and sacrifice for.

At the end of the day, all of this introspection is purely hypothetical. Staying in or leaving Belgium depends largely on Andrew’s job. We could wake up tomorrow and be forced to move or find that we don’t have any choice but to stay. Still, I can’t help but wonder what the next five years will hold for us.

I’d love to hear your experiences. Have you ‘gone native’? Do you fear moving on or staying still – or both, like me? Please share your stories in the comments below.

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Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel photographer and the founder of She is the author of The Foodie Guide to Brussels: Local Tips for Restaurants, Shops, Hotels, and Activities. Alison landed in Belgium in 2005 and, over the years, has become passionate about slow and sustainable travel, in Europe and beyond. She loves to discover hidden gems - be they museums, shops, restaurants, castles, gardens or landscapes, and share them through her words and photos. She has visited 45 countries and is currently slow travelling through North America in an RV, with her husband, Andrew, and two well-travelled cats. You can also follow her work on Google+
I loved my time in Riga, Latvia a few years ago and Adi's post takes me right back. It's a European travel... - 11 hours ago


  1. Comment by Unexpected Traveller

    Unexpected Traveller March 22, 2010 at 18:17

    There is a certain comfort to be had from standing still, I will agree, but there is a certain exhilarating got-you-by-the-short-and-curlies feeling that stems from moving into the unknown.

    I personally have experienced the highs (and lows) of this several times before. I grew up on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean. At the ripe old age of 22, I upped sticks and moved to Suffolk, UK. it took me 4 weeks between deciding and finding a job and a further month to finish my degree and move. Whirlwind is the best way of describing it but I don’t regret a single bit.

    Within 18 months, I moved again; this time back to Malta since I was getting married. Culture shock was not as bad second time round but there was married life to get used to. Fast-forward seven years and a separation later and I moved to Brussels.

    Each time, I’ve found that there is a sequence of events that accompanies you on the wave of adventure:
    1 – The cathartic experience experience you get when you pack your things and ditch the unwanted stuff;
    2 – The intense sense of appreciation when you do certain simple things for a last time;
    3 – The ohmygodwhatthehellamIdoing sensation when you arrive at the airport before you leave;
    4 – The overwhelming sense of fascination when you do simple mundane things in a new way.

    I’d love to move again but my and my partner’s jobs are the key issues of course. I think it would be amazing to live in Lisbon and Prague (but perhaps only for a year or so) and I definitely would love to live in New York and Sydney.

    Maybe some day 🙂

    The Unexpected Traveller

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison March 23, 2010 at 09:53

      Your sequence of events is exactly right, except for me, I think I was in shock and way too over tired to feel anything on the plane. I ohmygodwhatthehell feeling hit me the first time I was sitting in our new apartment and Andrew had gone off to work. I was terrified. For now I remain open to anything that comes my way. At least now that I have done it once I know that I can survive it.

      BTW I totally fell in love with Malta when we visited a couple years ago and I’m itching to go back. What part are you from?

      • Comment by Unexpected Traveller

        Unexpected Traveller March 23, 2010 at 10:13

        I grew up in the centre of the island – Balzan. Quiet but urban in equal measures.

        Let me know if you ever plan on visiting again and I’ll pass on some tips for places to visit, restaurants, etc.

        The U T

        • Comment by Alison


          Alison March 23, 2010 at 10:29

          Will do! We were there with my parents only for a few days but we loved it and Andrew and I hope to get back and do some exploring on our own. So much history and culture in such a tiny space!

  2. Comment by Lilacspecs

    Lilacspecs March 22, 2010 at 21:27

    Not native here.
    Much more comfortable and functional and content.
    But I don’t see us settling here. We want to travel, I want to be closer to my family. In all honesty, staying here means less opportunities for me, whereas CB is in a place now where he’ll have plenty of opportunities regardless of where we go. I think soon it will be my turn to develop myself a bit more and I can’t do that here.

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison March 23, 2010 at 09:56

      We were lucky that in the end there were more opportunities for both of us here, even if my work is not that ‘conventional.’ Definitely though if CB can make it work anywhere you should follow your own dreams for a bit. I just wish it was easy to figure out what my dreams are! 🙂

      • Comment by Anastasia

        Anastasia March 23, 2010 at 11:51

        Figuring out what our dreams are….this may be our most important task.

        I’ve benefitted from a lot of life coaching. Last year I did a pilot life design program with a group of expat women entrepreneurs. (Here she runs through the program steps.) Altho she’s now focusing on 30-somethings I’d recommend you check out the coach and her dogma-agnostic 10-week program, especially because she’s familiar with the unique pressures and opportunities that come with expat life.

        • Comment by Alison


          Alison March 23, 2010 at 12:11

          Thanks for that and I will definitely take a look. I am also fortunate to have a great friend here in Belgium who is a fantastic coach. Although I recommend her to everyone I think it may be time to take up her services myself!

  3. Comment by expatraveler

    expatraveler March 23, 2010 at 00:57

    I think I do possess this fear of staying still, especially since I don’t live in my native country. I always want to travel and I always want to get away from where I currently am. On the other hand, I want to be grounded and have a place to call my home where I don’t have to worry about leaving everything behind and starting again from 2 suitcases and not so many friends. It wasn’t until a bit later that I had the luxury of picking up more belongings…

    Having said that, I’d wish for you to stay where you were but be more opportunistic on the vacations and places you travel too! You live in the center of where it is at and can travel to many amazing places that I can’t even think about touching…

    Having said that, both P and my jobs are dead next month. It’s a very uneasy feeling for both of us. I want to be traveling again but at this point will accept any job coming my way to stay afloat…

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison March 23, 2010 at 10:00

      Oh I do understand the feeling of wanting to travel yet wanting to be grounded somewhere. If only we were rich and could have multiple houses eh?

      And you’re right, Brussels is fantastic for travelling within Europe, although I do long for more sun. However, we’d both like to do some travelling in Asia and South America. Hell there’s still tons of Canada I haven’t seen, like your beautiful coast. So, it’s a tough call. There’s not enough time or money in my world to go all the places I’d like too 🙂

      As for you two, I know it’s scary to be in that position but stay optimistic and open to any new possibilities that come your way. I know it sounds trite but I really do believe that when one door closes, another one opens.

      • Comment by expatraveler

        expatraveler March 26, 2010 at 02:51

        That’s so true about visiting so much of Canada. I’d highly recommend coming to visit Victoria in either June or July, otherwise you need to go off somewhere that is WARM!!!!! (you know too much rain is never good on the brain..)

        As for the job, I’m opening every door in the house, but I haven’t been able open any of them yet…

  4. Comment by tez

    tez March 23, 2010 at 06:14

    You’ve echoed so many of my sentiments – both fears and pleasures of living here.

    Phill and I have talked numerous times about ‘where we’ll go next…’ but while the thought fills me with excitment it also fills me with dread. I remember (very vividly) that the first few months I was here, my flat was spotless because I had NOTHING to do. Ever. I remember the $700 phone bill (eeeeeeeek) when I was particularly homesick and just wanted to be back where it was safe and easy.

    I was only supposed to be here for two, three years maximum.

    Now here is safe and easy. It’s a bit of hard work to get to that point, but it’s worth it (I think.) Every once in a while, I get itchy feet and want that challenge of moving etc, but I am happy here.

    I suppose the ‘restart’ would be different now, since it wouldn’t be just me, but I’d be doing it with Phill. One thing I desperately missed (and still do at times) is my girlfriend time. I’ve been lucky enough to make some incredible girlfriends here though, so I count myself as extremely blessed. Would I be that lucky again if we moved? I do have to wonder.

    So yeah, I’m conflicted too! It’s nice to know I’m not alone. 🙂

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison March 23, 2010 at 10:05

      Haha! You know, I actually ironed for FUN… you know me. I. don’t. iron. I would have died without Skype. I’m sure of it and I can just imagine what my phone bill would have been without it.

      But let me say I think you are INCREDIBLY brave to set out like you did on your own. I never could have done it. It was hard enough with the two of us. So in my eyes, you’re already an expat heroine 🙂

      And yes, girlfriend time was the hardest for me too and I still desperately miss my girls back home. But we have been incredibly lucky in the past few years to meet such great people from around the world. (Which is also great when you want to travel!) And the awesome community of expat women on-line has really saved me.

      I still think it’s funny how we roomies all sort of ended up as expats in our way – spread to the four corners of the globe. It’s kind of cool when you think of it 🙂

  5. Comment by Anastasia

    Anastasia March 23, 2010 at 11:39

    The fear of standing still…yes I know that one. When I hit the five year mark in Istanbul in 2008 it was the longest I’d lived in one place and triggered a big cataloguing of life choices. If I were going to stay, did that mean this is the place I have chosen — forever? This place is better than all others? Am I going to be Turkish? No. And even if Istanbul remains temporary, is the life I live here delivering all that I need? At that moment I started taking new steps to solidify a concept that had been growing for a while and that has culminated in the expat+HAREM global niche I launched last fall…to find more comfort in a hybrid life. In order to be here, and yet not be limited or solely defined by the place I’ve started focusing even more on a location-independent career and spread my social and business net farther, and made the effort to meet friends and acquaintances passing through town, my personal and professional network now even more global. It’s all part of my response to that fear of standing still.

    Thanks for the great post Alison!

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison March 23, 2010 at 12:10

      I wonder what it is about the five year mark that makes us itchy to move. Without any planning Andrew and I have managed to move every three years almost like clock-work. Honestly I dread the thought of ever moving house again – I HATE it. But I love the benefits of living in a new place. I’ve also been working towards a portable career and on that front I’ve been successful. Now we just need to find a way to make hubby’s career portable 🙂

  6. Comment by Lee

    Lee March 23, 2010 at 12:11


    You just never know what will come up – that great job in some place you never thought about living, a chance to learn a new language, or an opportunity to settle somewhere for years and enjoy the possibilities. I gave up predicting where my husband and I would be in X years from now: years ago, I remember thinking, OK, this is it, this is where we’ll stay for the next 20 years or more. That was 10 years and 3 countries ago… so much for my being able to predict the future, eh? 😉 But I wouldn’t have traded any of it and now, when folks ask us what we’ll do next, I just tell them we’ll know when we get there…

    So, congratulations on your upcoming anniversary! Don’t let the thoughts of “what’s next” stop you from enjoying this milestone – just enjoy the fact that you now know where the best places are to go in Brussels for a great meal to celebrate. 🙂

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison March 23, 2010 at 14:24

      If there’s anything I’ve learned on this roller coaster ride is you can’t plan the future. It’s been a hard one for me but I’m actually much more laid back about it now than I used to be. (If you can believe that after this post) 🙂 But you’re right. It is celebration time 🙂

  7. Comment by Louise

    Louise March 23, 2010 at 13:33

    I very much agree with Lees comment above although I do recognice the fear both of standing still and not moving on.
    But why bother about the future when what you have right now, right here is great? Fear comes from worrying about the future or the past, so I recommend to let go of both and go with the flow of now.

    Maybe we should go celebrating together? Our anniversary (6th) for living in Belgium is also in April!

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison March 23, 2010 at 14:26

      Ah my wise friend, you always know what to say 🙂 It’s always been the letting go that I have a hard time with, but you’re right. And absolutely we should all celebrate! Maybe you guys can come in some evening before C leaves for his big adventure?

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  9. Comment by Nomadic Chick

    Nomadic Chick March 25, 2010 at 00:42

    I’m not an expat (yet), but I can relate to having that fear of standing still. When I left my ex, a whole new singledom world opened up to me – for 11 years it was easy to ignore, snuggled in the comfort of my bf’s arms.

    But I found myself navigating a new job, new friends, interests, new apartment, and expanded social calender. It was a scary time, full of struggles and milestones.

    Having done all that and finding myself at a dozy comfort level, remaining in Vancouver would be easy – however, it won’t make me happy in the long term. I need to move onto the next thing, even if that next might represents difficult times. In the end, I won’t regret the process. 🙂

    You’ll know when or if it’s time to move onto the next.. and since you’ve done this before at least the skeleton won’t be a surprise.

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison March 25, 2010 at 08:53

      Change is difficult in any situation guess. But it is also how we grow and evolve. I just hope I have the good sense to evolve and change and keeping moving forward as I need to 🙂

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  11. Comment by Lydia

    Lydia March 25, 2010 at 16:02

    Hmmm… I would love to be able to go native here. To speak French fluently, give directions, know the best florist and dentist, vote for the right politicians, bump into friends on the metro… I am not looking for adventure, I am looking for a place that feels like home.

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison March 25, 2010 at 17:03

      It does happen slowly, but one day you’ll wake up and you will realize you can do all of those things. For me the concept of home is something a bit harder to define. I already feel I have at least 4 or 5 ‘homes’. Home to me is much more about people than anything else… but that’s a whole other blog 🙂

  12. Comment by Andrew


    Andrew March 25, 2010 at 18:13

    For the ‘working’ spouse there is slightly less angst… you know you will have a social network where you’re going because it is built into your job. However, there will be the new pressures of a new group of people, new challenges, etc. but you still kind of know how things are going to go. For a trailing spouse, I can see that this is a heart-in-throat kind of situation… wanting to explore more, but fearful of returning to square-one with no real support network. It is a dilemma and in the end I think what wins out is what you really want anyway.

    Regarding the concept of ‘home’ there’s a great discussion happening about this over on the Expat Web group on Linked In (if you are a member).

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison March 26, 2010 at 09:36

      It is true that the ‘working’ spouse has a built in social network with work. It still must be hard to adapt to the business practices and customs of a new company in a new culture though.

  13. Comment by parisimperfect

    parisimperfect March 27, 2010 at 00:04

    Hi Alison,

    Great post. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, too. Three seems to be the magic number for a lot of expats – for the first three years there’s a lot of questioning and struggle, and then you wake up and things are just better, more comfortable.

    This just happened to me (I’ve been in Paris 3.5 years and it’s only been the past few months that I feel settled here. Blogging has really helped with this!)

    So I’m excited to have finally found this measure of comfort, but it also scares me, too. I mean, there’s a whole world out there to explore! But the thought of having to do all of this all over again is frightening, too. I just don’t know.

    Last fall my husband and I went to Budapest and we both absolutely adored it. I could imagine a life there – I got excited like I did the first time I fell in love with Paris.

    Well, no Hungarian classes for me yet. I think I’ll enjoy *finally* feeling comfortable in France for awhile longer and then see how I feel. I can totally see why five years would have you thinking a lot!


  14. Comment by Alison


    Alison March 27, 2010 at 13:09

    Ugh, so true! There are quite a few places where I’ve found myself wondering what life would be like if I lived there – south-west France, Barcelona, San Francisco, the list goes on. But the thought of re-learning everything is scary. Well, if things go for threes for us we have one more year in this flat to decide 🙂

    • Comment by La Petite en Belgique

      La Petite en Belgique April 7, 2010 at 10:46

      Re-learning things is scary and tiring. Unfortunately we have only one life.

  15. Comment by Mel

    Mel March 30, 2010 at 17:17

    I just found your blog, doing a search for “expat Belgium,” since I, too, am one. I’ve only been here since the summer, and am not yet legal (have my appointment in a little less than a month), but I’m married to an EU citizen so it’s not an issue. Although hopefully it’ll be taken care of soon so that I can work, we need an income eventually! heh.

    Anyway. I’ve not even been here a year yet, but I can’t wait until I can “go native.” I absolutely love it here, and want & intend to stay here forever. We have already traveled to a bunch of countries and will continue to do so; I don’t feel that “settling” here is inhibiting to my experiencing the world at all. I don’t view it as “standing still,” no way. I am here to move forward with this next chapter of my life, which includes experiencing all kinds of different things the world has to offer! I do not feel that traveling and seeing what’s out there means that I need to be uprooted to a new place, and I feel that would be a huge hassle, I don’t want that at all. I am very happy to call Belgium my home, while taking time to see what else is out there.

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison March 31, 2010 at 10:22

      Hi Mel,
      Thanks for stopping by CheeseWeb and I hope you drop by again! I’m so glad you’re enjoying your time here in Belgium and you’re looking forward to being settled. In many ways I am too. It’s nice to feel happy and settled here. There are a lot of opportunities in this country that I wouldn’t have elsewhere. I guess I just don’t want to close the door to other options and adventures just yet. It’s a big world out there and there’s still a lot more I want to experience. I agree that having a home base is not a bad thing when it comes to travelling. I’m just not 100% sure this is where I want my base forever.

      • Comment by Mel

        Mel March 31, 2010 at 10:34

        Of course, of course, you certainly don’t have to feel the same as I do, and want to make Belgium your “forever.” My point was more that, having a “forever place” doesn’t mean you are limited in your experiences; you can still go out and see the world, it’s just that you’ll have a home to come back to between explorations. =)

        • Comment by Alison


          Alison March 31, 2010 at 10:47

          Absolutely! And for now anyway I’ve very glad Belgium is my base. It’s so central and easy for exploring Europe and Brussels is a great city to live in the heart of. 🙂

  16. Comment by La Petite en Belgique

    La Petite en Belgique April 7, 2010 at 10:44

    When I came it was for only 6 or 7 months. But I loved the Expat experience, exploring new cultures. With the time, the responsabilities and the hard moments I learned that I have maybe more prejudges than I thought. I don’t want to get old here or even create a family. I really want to go back to my country, or even explore other places, but this is not the moment.

    • Comment by La Petite en Belgique

      La Petite en Belgique April 7, 2010 at 10:44

      And finally 6 months became more than 3 years and a half. Time’s running…

      • Comment by Alison


        Alison June 7, 2010 at 18:52

        It’s incredible how fast that time goes by isn’t it? I can’t believe we’ve already been here 5 years…

  17. Comment by Jo Parfitt

    Jo Parfitt June 7, 2010 at 17:20

    Alison, I found you via Robin at ExpatExpert’s retweet and Judy at Crossingculture’s. What an insightful piece. I know I know. I fear standing still too. But you know, multiple moves are wearing and as Anne Copland’s Many Women Many Voices survey shows, it does not get easier the more you do it. But then staying does not get easier either. I remember someone saying once that Shell postings are 4 years because 3 years is not enough and 4 is too many – so you won’t mind moving. When we were with Schlumberger, we moved from the best posting in the whole wide world (Oman) after 2.5 years and it broke my heart.

    I think the double-edged sword of expatriation is that we can’t bear to stay and we can’t bear to leave either. Forever in limbo, betwixt and between AND YET, it is in this halfway place that we feel most at home and have the happiest moments with the best people ever.

    Glass half full, I’d say.

    Great writing.

    Let me know if I can interview you for my blog for writers?


    • Comment by Alison


      Alison June 7, 2010 at 18:51

      Thank you so much Jo for your kind words and insightful comment. It definitely is a double-edged sword. In discussions with other expats we’ve talked about how the concept of ‘home’ changes the more places you’ve lived. There are several places I consider ‘home’ and would be happy living in any one of them… and yet, I can’t imagine ONLY living in any one of them for the rest of my life. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want my life any other way. Definitely is glass half full! I’d love to talk to you about an interview and I enjoy your site!

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