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Singing the Expat Blues | Flashback

By alison - July 15, 2010 (Updated: February 24, 2015)

Expat life can leave you feeling lost.

Expat life can leave you feeling lost.

Recently I’ve been getting quite a few comments and emails from new expats in Belgium who are struggling with adjusting to life here. Expats in Belgium tend to be pretty transient; with terms of 2-3 years before moving on to a new posting. I wanted to find a way to answer some of these common issues and also demonstrate how we all go through rough patches in the beginning.

For that reason, I’ve decided to repost some of my older CheeseWeb posts as a Flashback series. Because there are over 500 posts on CheeseWeb now (wow! Did I really write all of that?) many of the old posts get buried and lost to the internet ether. I’ll be re-posting these with the original comments section, but adding my updated thoughts.

This first Flashback post is from February of 2007. Winters in Belgium were always rough on me and, especially in the early years, the time that I struggled with depression the most. In this post I explain some of the strategies I used to fight the blues. You know what? They still work.

Thriving Abroad

I thought that once I got past the six-month hurdle, my expat days would be bright and sunny. I’m learning however, that the Expat Blues can sneak up on you when you least expect them.

On the surface, I’m the picture of the well adjusted expat – I’m settled in my home, I can find my way around Brussels and travel easily to neighbouring cities (more or less), I’m getting more comfortable with the languages I face everyday, and I’ve found ways of maintaining my career while playing the role of the trailing spouse. I even tend to be the person in my group of friends who’s always pointing out the positive aspects of living in Belgium. I couldn’t possibly be unhappy here… or so I thought.

I try hard to be positive to my fellow expats, to friends and family, and especially in my blogs. The truth is, I was so busy convincing everyone, including myself, how wonderful expat life is, that I started avoiding all of the things about it that make me unhappy.

Besides, I have great friends, an amazing family and a wonderfully supportive husband. I’m living the life I always wanted to live. I felt I didn’t have a right to be depressed about anything.

But as things contained under pressure have a tendency to do when you shake them up a little, I exploded. Suddenly all of the negative feelings that I had bottled up spewed out and now I’m trying to clean up the mess.

Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t changed my mind about expat life, or even Belgium itself. I still love it here. But I’m learning that it’s ok to have down days too.

Thriving AbroadI’m not sure exactly what triggered the Expat Blues – maybe it’s the weather (I always have been a bit prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder); maybe it’s that birthday with a big fat zero on the end of it that’s arriving in a few weeks; or maybe it’s just an ordinary old case of the blahs. Whatever the case, now that I recognise the problem, I can try to cope with it, instead of bottling it up or blocking it out.

So to cope, I’m trying to take my own advice by doing all of the things I have told my expat pals to do when Belgium is getting the best of them: I’m setting myself some work related goals and a schedule, even though I work from home; I’m trying to soak up what little daylight is available and eat healthier; and I’m trying to inspire myself creatively by surrounding myself with beautiful things.

Most of all, I’m reminding myself that it’s ok to reach out to people for help when I’m feeling down. So I’d love to hear any advice from my fellow expats who have overcome the Expat Blues.

Looking for more resources for trailing spouses? Check out our Expat Resources page.

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Alison

Alison

Big Cheese at CheeseWeb
Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel photographer and the founder of Cheeseweb.eu. 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+
Alison
Cheese + Goats = My personal heaven. We discover an oasis in the cheese desert. https://t.co/Os8U86UEiX - 14 hours ago

30 comments

  1. Comment by Drew

    Drew February 8, 2007 at 18:04

    Expat depression is probably the hardest issue to understand unless you’ve been there… you give up everything you know, your only friend is your spouse, and you need to rebuild without the typical supports we take for granted. Even when you are enjoying life, there are still days when it just feels too much. This is really hard for non-expats to understand… when you’re an expat, life is business as usual, just in a different language, with different rules, and different expectations. It’s not a vacation, it’s life-squared!
    For a working spouse, depression doesn’t seem to be as common as we get to go to work and socialize… we can busy ourselves with day-to-day work things. It’s also really hard for a working spouse to understand the issues faced by a non-working partner… it takes a lot of listening and putting yourself in their shoes in order to begin to understand. Not only is the non-working partner dealing with having to rebuild their social network (often in a foreign language), but they also have to deal with the faux-pas of not working, of putting their life on hold.
    This kind of experience is something that will either drive a couple apart or help cement their relationship. Doing it with kids must be even more difficult as the stresses of normal life are multiplied by the stress of being outside your support network.
    Alison, you’ve been a wonderful support for me over the past 2 years and as I’ve said many times before, I can’t do what I do without you. I hope that I can and do provide the same level of support for you. I know that this is a bumpy road to travel but I think you’ve been doing amazingly well with your self-determination to make the photo stuff work. I’m looking forward to our next vacation as it will be a chance for us both to relax and get away from the day-to-day chores of life. I love you lots and remember that the days are now getting longer!

  2. Comment by Alison

    Alison February 8, 2007 at 18:20

    Aww, I love you too and I never could have made it this far without your love and support over the years. You’ve let me grow and explore my creative side and you’ve helped me believe in myself. I can’t imagine doing any of this without you and a look forward to exploring the rest of the world with you. You are my rock. xx

  3. Comment by Alison

    Alison February 12, 2007 at 13:52

    Christina – I’m sure it’s something we all go through, I guess that’s why I felt I could write about it. I think so many of get caught up in the fact that our life is ‘different’ and forget that it is still ‘real life’ complete with all of the ups and downs that that implies. Thanks for sharing. It does help to know I’m not alone in this 🙂

  4. Comment by christina

    christina February 12, 2007 at 13:22

    You guys are wonderful!
    I never really got the impression that being an expat also gets you down at time, Alison. I guess it’s because your blog is so postive and you’re out there doing and creating.
    But believe me, I KNOW how you feel.

  5. Comment by dARK sIDE dAD

    dARK sIDE dAD February 13, 2007 at 20:31

    Yo Yurup,
    Even adventurers get the blues! From someone with a few years under his belt (no comment necessary!) … life is a series of exciting uphills … downhills … twisty mountain roads … wavy benches … and dipping your toes in the waters. We get energized by the adrenalin that it takes to be happy and successful, to feel good … to have fun in the most broad, generic sense You do all of that so well, especially as a team. So when we come to a plateau we miss the effect of the energizing … the thing is that we need the plateaus as much as we need the challenges and the adventures. They give us time to celebrate, to reflect, to evaluate, to catch our breath, to rest, to revisit who we are, where we’ve been, how we feel about ourselves, and get some sense of direction or directions (some might connect this to homesickness, if that’s the case we all have it! – that’s okay!). When you are in a plateau, switch into cruise control and relax (you’ve already heard that you’re not alone in the Expat blues), play some great music that you haven’t heard for a long time, sip some wine, scrapbook a bit, do lunch with a friend … you’ll know when you’re ready to move on. As partners, respect and value each others plateaus as much as you do other achievements.
    I thought I’d throw this into the mix, the Expat situation has very unique factors that I haven’t experienced and that colour what I’ve commented on but I think that they may relate to basic human nature in similar ways. It’s a bit lecture-ish and I apologize for that … a hazard of my (former) profession. I think taking your blues to the blog was brilliant … it’s not only good to blog it out but it’s doing the pebble-in-the-pond thing for others. Good-on-ya!
    Lots of love … Palms Pops

  6. Comment by Alison

    Alison February 14, 2007 at 10:03

    Hey PP, Thanks so much for the comment. It wasn’t lecture-ish at all (although I’m sure I can use a good lecture every once in a while). I think you are exactly correct about the plateaus. Particularly as it seems Andrew and I have been living life at full tilt lately, and that’s been wonderful, but when we do actually slow down a bit I think everything emotionally comes crashing to a halt. I have to remember that the plateaus are an excellent place to stop and admire the views 🙂 And yes, I think it is important to blog about the difficult things too because life (particularly expat life) isn’t as easy as it looks from the outside and I think sharing the bad stuff helps. It has definitely helped me.
    xx

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  8. Comment by Tavus

    Tavus July 15, 2010 at 10:05

    Thank you for writing this and reposting an old post! It has made my Expat Blues fade a little. You are right, it’s ok to reach out to people to help and to let them know that you are a little low on smiles. And to try to concentrate on the positives. After all, living in Europe is a dream for some people! And we are living in the heart of it.
    Cheers,
    ~ T

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison July 15, 2010 at 10:34

      I’m glad it helped Tavus! It’s ok to be sad and have bad days. The important thing is to keep moving forward. Hopefully as time moves on there will be less sad days and more happy ones!

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  10. Comment by Amy

    Amy July 15, 2010 at 15:45

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. I’m still struggling with this, and the long winters here do NOT help. Hopefully things will continue improving as they have been lately, but I know it all depends on my attitude. Thanks for reposting this and for being brave enough to write it in the first place. You’ve been a very positive influence on me since I started reading your blog. 🙂

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison July 15, 2010 at 15:49

      Aw, thanks so much Amy! It really means a lot to me to know that sharing my experiences, both positive and negative, has helped in some small way. Honestly, it’s comments like yours that keep me going. There’s an amazing community of expats here in Belgium and we just have to keep reaching out to one another.

  11. Comment by Maria Foley

    Maria Foley July 15, 2010 at 18:44

    I wish I’d seen this post back in 2007, when it originally saw the light of day. I was still an expat then, and boy, was I struggling. The comments alone are worth the price of admission. When I read Dark Side Dad’s comment that “we need the plateaus as much as we need the challenges and the adventures,” a light bulb went off in my head. I realize now that I’d been looking at things from the wrong perspective — I wasted a lot of energy fretting about stuff that didn’t really matter. Thanks for bringing things into clearer focus for me. I’m filing this away for my next expat adventure.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison July 15, 2010 at 19:57

      Hi Maria! I’m glad you found this useful even if it was the second time around 🙂 DSD is a pretty insightful guy 🙂 I think at the end of the day, we do all get hung up in the hard parts… that’s what makes them hard in the first place. But it’s about learning to move through them and see what they can teach us when we make it to the other side.

  12. Comment by Sherry Ott

    Sherry Ott July 17, 2010 at 21:04

    All I can say is that I can’t wait to meet you, sit down and chat for a good long time over a Belgian beer.
    I used to have the expat blues all the time in Vietnam!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison July 19, 2010 at 12:34

      Absolutely! As long as I can have a glass of wine instead of beer 🙂

  13. Comment by Heather Marr

    Heather Marr July 18, 2010 at 03:23

    Perfect timing for me– thanks! I’ve been going through a good bit of those myself lately. Thought I was more or less immune, since I have lived abroad before in two other countries. But of course, Uruguay is completely different from Germany and Taiwan, and my situation now is completely different: I work for myself; I have a husband and child; and I relocated from a city (San Francisco) that I absolutely love and a wonderful network of friends and family. Because my family and I decided to make such a drastic move mainly just for the experience and adventure (and sold our condo, quit my cush job at a big tech company, etc.), I feel weird about complaining at all to my nonexpat friends. It’s good to be reminded that the blues are just part of culture shock and transition…and life in general, no matter where you are.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison July 19, 2010 at 12:37

      You’re right, it is just a normal part of life expat or non to have bad days. I do find that it helps to have a few expat friends to vent too. At least they can understand exactly what you are going through and hopefully help you get through it. Failing that, a blog is a great way to get it all out 🙂

  14. Comment by GO! Overseas

    GO! Overseas July 18, 2010 at 03:51

    Based on my own experiences and talking with other travelers, I’ve observed that living abroad is a mix of extreme highs and lows. I taught English in Taiwan for two years and I can honestly say that some of those experiences were amazing and life-changing, but there were also moments of incredible depression. The dreaded, what am I doing with my life question.

    In the end, the highs outnumbered the lows and I came away with few regrets. Just part of living abroad I guess.

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading this and included in our weekly roundup of blogs I enjoyed reading: http://www.gooverseas.com/go-abroad-blog/week-overseas-july-16th/3683. Feel free to share this back to your readers.

    Cheers,
    Andrew


    Andrew Dunkle
    Senior Editor
    http://www.gooverseas.com
    http://www.facebook.com/GoOverseas
    twitter.com/GoOverseas

    Email: andrew@gooverseas.com

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison July 19, 2010 at 12:44

      Thanks so much for the mention on your site Andrew. The ‘what am I doing with my life’ question can be a huge one for expats, especially if you are a trailing partner. But you’re right, the experiences gained from traveling and living in another culture can give you so much that the highs do tend to outweigh the lows.

  15. Comment by pugwash pops

    pugwash pops July 18, 2010 at 17:06

    Great stuff! … love ya! … PP

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison July 19, 2010 at 12:37

      Your advice is still as great as it was then 🙂

  16. Comment by expatraveler

    expatraveler July 19, 2010 at 04:48

    I think I get hit with the blues a lot. But things that definitely make my day are awesome sunsets, a great photo hunt out, photography with fellow friends, a great walk to release some endorphins. And of course the support of your partner is the most important!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison July 19, 2010 at 12:38

      Absolutely! You need to remember the things that make you happy and allow yourself the time to do them.

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  19. Comment by Dominika

    Dominika August 15, 2010 at 22:38

    Hello everyone,

    I am not an English expat in Belgium, but I have found this blog very helpful. Frankly speaking, sometimes I would love to tell that there are more advantages than disadvantages of being abroad. Currently, I am leaving my country and going to Brussels to study (10 months)-that’s my aim and it caused my decision. Without this, I wouldn’t have came back there as I have the impression that Belgium is very difficult country to live in. I am going to Brussels alone and I hope I can join this awesome community!
    Regards from the lovely country- POLAND:)

    • Comment by Andrew

      Andrew

      Andrew November 9, 2010 at 17:01

      Hi Dominika,

      Thanks for your comment and apologies for taking so long to respond! I hope you have settled into Belgium and are enjoying the variety of the shops, restaurants, and people! Would love to hear your impressions after your first couple of months.

      Cheers,
      Andrew

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