Andrew and I have just spent almost a month with my parents who were visiting from Canada.
Not only did everyone survive unscathed (possible exception being my mother’s heart after three weeks of driving on European roads with her lead-footed son-in-law) but I gained a valuable perspective on my expat life as well.
You see, my parents landed at Zaventem almost a year to the day after Andrew and I first arrived here in Europe. We arrived much as my parents did — tired, confused and tossed into a world that looked somewhat like our old one, but sounded totally different.
My parents reminded me of those bewildered people we were one short year ago. But moreover, they helped me to see how far we’ve come.
Andrew and I don’t remember much about our first summer in Belgium. In fact, most of our first year was bogged down with paperwork (much of which evidently should have been done before we left Canada).
There were rental contracts for the house, contracts for our car, our phones, our water, our power, our internet connection, documents for pets — and most of all — paperwork that allowed Andrew and me to be here.
In fact we spent so much time last year dealing with paperwork, it wasn’t until my parents arrived that I realised we are actually (mostly) settled now in Belgium.
The things that my parents marvelled at are things that Andrew and I have now grown accustomed to. But they are also things we had to learn the hard way.
A year ago, for example, a trip to the store took agonisingly long as I tried to figure out what the heck a basic thing such as baking soda was called in Dutch.
So when I took my mother to the grocery store here in Belgium, I recognised the look of confusion as she stared at the meat aisle. Now I can grab a steak with (relative) confidence that we will not be dining on horse meat.
My father was impressed with the speed and ease that I got us on a train bound for Antwerp. Sure I can walk into North Station, directly to the proper platform and onto the train — now.
A year ago, the thought of taking a train anywhere alone was enough to send me into a full blown panic attack. I was certain that I would end up in Munich while trying to get to Mons. My first trip to Antwerp to meet a friend required no less than seven text messages to assure me I was on the right track (no pun intended).
My parents were also impressed at how our language skills have improved. My long lost French is starting to find its way home and while I still am far from carrying on a conversation in Dutch, I can often understand what is being said and make myself understood (albeit at the level of a three-year-old).
It actually shocked me how many times my father asked me what a Dutch word meant and I didn’t have to make something up.
While on a two week, 5,000km, driving tour of Western Europe, my parents were most surprised by how different the cultures of each country were even though they are in such close proximity to one another.
You can drive 5,000 km in Canada and still see the same style homes and shop at the same stores and hear the same two languages (with the possible exception of Newfoundland, but they assure us that they are actually speaking English).
Canadians may be able to tell an Albertan from a Blue Noser, but we share a lot more commonalities than differences in our culture.
My parents were impressed at how Andrew and I were able to function successfully, despite the different languages, food and customs in each country we visited.
I realised that over the past year of my expat life I’ve learned how to adapt. (This came as quite a shock to me as I’ve always considered myself pretty set in my ways.)
Somehow, while Andrew and I were caught up in paperwork over the last year, we acclimatized to life in Belgium.
I may still grab baking powder when I really want baking soda, but I can deal with it.