A lovely friend sent me a list last night entitled “Things people don’t know about their astrological signs.”
Under my birth sign, Taurus, it read “gets nervous about any change in their life because they fear the unknown and other things they aren’t used to.”
Once upon a time this was very true (apologies to my parents for the 6 million panic attacks I had before leaving for college). Don’t get me wrong, I’m usually the hesitant one ensuring risk assessments are mentally checked off before making a big decision. But it is with a smile that I’ve come to realise the change I often fight against can also make me immensely happy.
And that has been one heck of a life lesson I’d like to share…
That first travel bug
I was first bitten by the travel bug in high school when my mom rightly pointed out that “No, I didn’t need a car. I needed to travel abroad.” (On behalf of teenage Americans everywhere, I – again – apologise.) I’d started taking French and my school’s study abroad programme had a fantastic three week trip to Paris, the Loire Valley and Provence – with a week long family stay in Switzerland in the middle. I signed up and was immediately horrified to learn I was the only 16-year-old girl paired with a host brother. Funny how those things pan out: fast forward 5 years later and you’d have still found us dating.
While ultimately that relationship may not have lasted, that first trip changed me in hundreds of ways. It taught me about cultural differences and gave me a respect for tradition and history. It taught me that, no matter how embarrassed I was to make a mistake in French, it was worth it the first time I wasn’t corrected and got through a conversation. It taught me that I love the countryside as much as I love city life. And it occasionally shocked me (you won’t see as much violence on French TV but, man, will you see nudity. Try discovering that for the first time sitting next to your 16 year old host brother…)
Perhaps most of all, that first trip opened up a curiosity I’ve had a hard time getting rid of ever since.
Years passed – countless trips to Geneva and a year studying in Paris – and I embraced living in countries where I didn’t speak my mother tongue. I moved to Brussels. Brussels was never really an “end destination”, as many who live there will tell you, but it was one I found myself “embracing”. And by “embracing”, I mean, tried to get a visa.
Going for it with a visa
I’m often asked: how did I manage to get that first visa and how have I managed to stay abroad this long? And the simplest answer is one third perseverance (I applied everywhere I could think of), one third creativity (I started on a student visa to gain time to find a job) and one third luck (I was ultimately in the right place at the right time).
Perseverance is highly inter-changeable with patience.
In an effort to get a visa, I threw myself into the EU world, learning the ins- and outs- of the EU and NATO. I did everything I could to prove I was worth keeping and that I “got the EU” even though I wasn’t European (not an easy task for anyone who has ever slogged through comitology… European or not.)
Staking it all on Brussels
The “EU bubble,” as they like to call it, is a unique beast. Career bureaucrats, shorter-term politicians, corporate lobbyists, NGO activists and armies of over enthusiastic interns all mix together… like any political town, you’re going to find a whole cast of characters.
I found the constant mesh of nationalities fascinating and, for awhile, I loved being in a city of people who were all searching for what they wanted. You bond really quickly. I was lucky to have wonderful mentors. But it was also for that reason that I found it hard to stay. So many friends left for their next posting. Others made it clear that Brussels was “great for now” but not for the long term. I was one of those.
For a very long time – and here we get back to the point of the story – a fear of change held me back. I’d worked so hard to specialise in the world of EU policymaking that I worried I would never be able to work anywhere else. Would my skills translate elsewhere? All this niche knowledge I’d build up… did anyone outside of Brussels see a value in it? Something held me back from feeling like the Brussels track was what I wanted to be doing when I was 40… but what did I want to do? The idea of starting over was exhausting.
Here’s one thing I’ll say: I quickly assumed the answers to all of my questions would be negative. I didn’t realise that testing new opportunities was half the fun.
Don’t be scared. Give yourself a long, hard talking to. And then give change a test drive.
It took an honest assessment of what I loved, turning 30 and an opportunity practically landing in my lap from London to make me really start thinking about change. And then I wished I’d done it earlier. Just because you’ve spent 10 years in a place doesn’t mean you can’t leave it. And change doesn’t mean you abandon what you’ve come to love and leave it behind. You take it with you.
Travel means a lot of things to a lot of people. It can mean leaving home, exploring far off lands or it can mean relocating to the country next door. I haven’t really had an adult life in my home country. Belgium is only just across the English channel from the UK and yet sometimes it seems like I’ve traveled much further away. I feel at home and like a tourist at the same time in London these days. And I often wonder how long I’ll feel that way…
I’ve made wonderful friends here and have fallen for neighborhoods I can’t bear the thought of leaving. I’ve found distractions that I didn’t know I craved in the form of theatre and museums and books and culture. I wake up on weekends wondering “what’s next?”
That curiosity I crave is always on in London. And that, for me, is proof enough that changing careers and countries can be good for you.