Eight Months In: All Change

The last three months have been, for want of a better word, insane. In November, after weeks of searching for – and finding – a new (two bed – more room for baby) flat in Brussels, it was all-change on my husband’s job front and we had to abandon signing the new tenancy agreement at the eleventh hour and re-focus our attention on finding a new flat in London to move into the first week of January. With a seven month old baby this was not the easiest task, but somehow I managed a two day trip to London with a ridiculous amount of luggage and my son for a series of back to back flat viewings, half of which I had to cancel due to a 1.5 hour delay on the train (thanks for that Eurostar). And the good news is that despite the cancellations and the tight timeline we were hugely fortunate to find a place that ticked almost every box.

Upping sticks and leaving Belgium so suddenly has been difficult to adjust to. One minute we thought we would be there for at least another year, the next we were moving back to London, the city where I lived on and off for 10 years but in all honesty didn’t see myself returning to live in, especially with a baby. But here we are. And now the dust is starting to settle I am seeing the many positives to this move. For one, we are closer to our friends and family. For another, I have been able to switch from a distance learner to an on campus student to complete the remainder of my Master’s course, which has just re-started after a year’s hiatus. The move also forced my hand where returning to work was concerned. I knew I didn’t want to to return to my job, but had been feeling nervous about quitting with nothing else lined up. Now I have the freedom not only to re-start my studies but also pursue my dream of becoming a freelance coach. And we have managed to find a lovely nursery for our son to attend three days a week whilst I pursue my goals.

In short, everything is positive. And as much as I don’t want to put a ‘but’ in here, I have to be honest and admit the last few weeks have been really tough. Our son is wonderful and he lights up my life, but the nights are still not great and besides being chronically tired I am constantly battling the inherent mum guilt about his well-being (Is he eating properly? Is he stimulated enough? Am I doing any of this right?) Since we returned to London my anxiety has returned ten fold, for reasons I can’t fathom other than a combination of tiredness, hormonal changes and a latent reaction to the stress of the past few weeks. C starting nursery the week before last was also anxiety-inducing, and since he started he’s had back-to-back coughs and colds which is inevitable but has nonetheless been tough to deal with. As his mother and the one who is not technically working in a nine to five role, the responsibility for his welfare lies with me. If he’s sick, I’m up all night with him, and I have to pick him up early from nursery. If the nursery is closed for bad weather (which is on the way, apparently – wonderful), he has to stay at home with me. Suddenly, the three days I have earmarked for work and study disappear, and my stress and anxiety levels increase. On the two week days I am scheduled to have him with me I worry that I should do more with him. The one downside to our new home is that the nearest park (Hampstead Heath) is a half an hour walk away, and in the immediate vicinity the pollution levels are very high (another thing I worry about, especially given our son is showing signs of having a weak chest). Whereas in Brussels I would take him out every day in the local area, here I wonder if it’s good for him to be constantly exposed to all of the pollution. But if we don’t go out my mental health plummets and he gets bored.

I hope I don’t sound ungrateful. Not a day goes by when I don’t count my many blessings. But burying emotions isn’t healthy, and maternal mental health is an important issue that needs to be discussed. It’s been eight months since I had my son and at least three days a week I still feel like I’ve been hit by a freight train. I do think the sleep deprivation is a big part of that, especially after a recent meeting with friends whose babies sleep through the night. But it’s more than that. Having a baby is wonderful, but if you already had issues with self-esteem and anxiety before baby came along, the addition of tiredness, raging hormones and the overwhelming feeling of responsibility that comes with being a mother can really mess with your head. Nobody discusses it but they should, because I’m certain I’m not alone in feeling this way. Some days are good, others are really, really bad. Even now. Especially now. Because now is when I thought I’d feel completely normal again. And sometimes I feel anything but.

But. Today is a good day. It didn’t start well, admittedly (son crying non-stop from 5am), but now C is at nursery, I am at my computer with (hopefully) a good few hours of study ahead of me, I have (much-needed) coffee and the sun is shining through the window. It is in moments like this I remember to breathe in, breathe out, to cherish, to soak it all up; the good, the bad and the indifferent. This crazy life. My life. Is. Beautiful.

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Close to the Edge

As if new motherhood wasn’t challenging enough, in recent weeks my sanity has been tested by an altogether different situation. Back in March, work started on an extension to the optician at the building next to ours. Having bought the commercial property directly underneath our apartment, they proceeded to decimate it, bringing in the big guns in the form of wall-shaking drills and ear-splitting power tools. Needless to say, the residents of our building took umbrage to this unwelcome disruption. It was tabled at the residents’ meeting and formal complaints were made. As a result, the architect visited the residents, in our case reassuring us that the works would be completed by my due date in May, and giving us his number in case we needed to contact him.

Fast forward nearly four months, our baby is now six weeks old and the works are STILL not finished. The last thing any new mother needs to deal with is indiscriminate drilling, which is legally allowed to happen in Belgium between the hours of 7am and 6.30pm, six days a week. Some days there is relative peace and quiet, but on others we are woken by drilling so loud I have to leap out of bed, grab the baby and run to the opposite end of the apartment. I even had to buy ear defenders for him, because at times I have genuinely feared for his hearing. All this, and our texts to the architect have mostly gone unanswered. Admittedly, nobody wants to be bombarded by messages from an irate and sleep-deprived new mother, but the lack of response has really got my back up, not least because of his original insistence that we contact him should we ever need to.

On Monday I finally reached the end of my tether. Arriving home at 4pm, I was greeted by loud drilling beneath every room in the apartment. With literally nowhere I could take my son to protect him from the noise, I stormed, wild-eyed and raging, down to the optician with him in the buggy and demanded to speak to the manager. Confronted by this half-demented she-beast, I can understand her reticence to engage. But after some initial heated words we managed a civil conversation, which ended with her saying she would speak to the architect and ask him to call me. Has he done so? Has he bollocks (excuse my French).

So here I sit on high alert after another terrible night, clutching my coffee and staring glassy-eyed into the middle distance as I attempt to find the words to describe the ongoing shit show unfolding beneath us, about which I can apparently do precisely nothing.

Perhaps one day I will laugh about this.

Or perhaps one day I will be writing the sequel to this blog post from my padded isolation cell after going on a one-woman rampage with a power tool.

Such is the rich and varied tapestry of life.

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The Power of Nature

There is so much to be said for getting out of the city and into nature. After a busy few weeks with little time to ourselves, this morning we packed the mountain bikes into the car, selected a place close to Brussels where we hadn’t been before (Gaasbeek) and drove there. The weather was a bit on the glum side for mid-July, but nonetheless it was a joy to roam around the countryside for an hour and a half, cycling past fields of corn and poppies, overtaking people travelling by horse and cart, stopping to admire miniature ponies and baby donkeys, and exploring the impressive grounds of Gaasbeek Castle on foot before heading back to the car.

It’s terrifying to think how easy it would be to never step outside the confines of city life; to subsist on a schedule of work, sleep, the (very) occasional gym visit, drink with friends or snatched moment of downtime. If we never take time to break away, physically and mentally, from the routine, or unplug ourselves from our draining digital and work lives, we risk missing out on the best things life has to offer. Being in nature, even if it’s just the local park surrounded by trees, affords a type of freedom – mental and physical – that is hard to replicate by any other means. It gives us space to daydream, to switch off, to exist without the myriad pressures that weigh us down. It helps us to be the best version of ourselves, untainted by thoughts of what we ‘should’ or ‘must’ do, open to experiencing the moment we are in and being content with that and nothing more.

So here’s to Nature. May none of us become immune to her wonderful healing ways.

Food with Friends

On Thursday evening (aptly also Thanksgiving Day) I went down to the Gare du Nord with five more sleeping bags, five winter coats and three boxes of (homemade!!!) chocolate brownies for the community dinner. Funded by the International School of Brussels and fantastic new charity, Unless, it provided a proper sit-down dinner for around 150 people, who, for whatever reason, have found themselves in hard times without a roof over their heads. There was a delicious curry with rice and lentils, salads, fruit, cakes, brownies and tea. The students from the ISB helped the regular volunteers to serve food and spread cheer. Everyone ate together, talked together, laughed together. It was without doubt the most inspiring evenings I have ever had the privilege of being involved with.

I met some more lovely people, a new Eritrean friend called Taha with a cheeky smile, and another man from Afghanistan, who told me that he fled his home three years ago to escape the Taliban, after his brother was killed. He arrived in Brussels on Thursday after being made to leave Sweden, where he had settled, because he had originally been fingerprinted in Belgium (apparently once you’ve been fingerprinted somewhere that’s where you have to stay – can you imagine?). He showed me pictures of his friends in Sweden, told me that he had resigned himself to staying in Belgium now, even though he wanted to go back. He had tried to go to the office to sort his papers on arrival but they had told him to come back the next day. Who knows how long the process will take to be registered here, let alone to have somewhere to sleep that isn’t a park bench or a doorway?

It’s so hard to comprehend how so many people, purely by virtue of the place where they were born, end up in such difficult circumstances. But I am constantly inspired by the hopefulness and cheerfulness of the people I encounter in the face of such difficulties. It makes me realise that so many of my ‘Western’ problems are not really problems at all. I have the freedom to go where I want, when I want. I have a place to call home, documents to prove it, and a support network to help me when I struggle. And for all those things I am truly thankful.

This morning I read this article from the Irish Times about homelessness, and it brought home to me more than ever the importance of helping others wherever we can. You never know how much it means to someone if you just take the time to have a conversation, or to buy them a coffee. Though a small gesture to you, it might just be enough to help them get through the day without turning to drink, drugs, or worse. And as Christmas approaches – surely the hardest time of year for those who have fallen on hard times – it’s more important than ever not to look the other way. Because, to me, the true spirit of Thanksgiving is not just being thankful for what we have, but, in turn, offering whatever help we can to those who aren’t so fortunate.

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A snap from Thursday’s Community Dinner – volunteers and friends alike. Such a great night!

 

The Motions

And so, here we are again. Mere weeks after the first ‘Brussels Lockdown,’ we are in the midst of another one. Only this time it’s different. This time our fears have been realised. This time the carnage that was originally predicted has happened. This time there have been deaths (over 30 at the time of writing, but with many more critically ill in hospital); at the airport, on the metro. Two places where we most want to feel safe, but no longer can.

One of the three terrorists from the airport is still at large. Sirens blare on every street corner. Stony faced soldiers stand watch over frightened pedestrians. No matter how much we don’t want to be, we are afraid. And we are angry. But alongside our fear and anger is something else, something far more unsettling: the total absence of shock. I can only speak for myself, of course, but when I woke up yesterday morning to see my phone going crazy with messages from concerned loved ones, I instinctively knew what had happened. And I wasn’t surprised. Not in the least.

Thankfully I had stayed at home ill (the only time in my life that I will ever be grateful for a tummy bug), which meant I hadn’t taken my usual route to work via the metro. Instead of being physically caught up in the chain of sickening events I therefore watched the horror unfold on the news and social media, where the vile reactions of people like Trump and Hopkins turned my stomach.

Today, as a new day dawned, I still felt numb. And I still do. The outpouring of sentiment from around the world is fitting for the victims, but no amount of brightly coloured monuments will bring them back. And sentiment alone will not address the threat that we are facing – which, let’s be clear, is far more than a group of radicalised people on the rampage in the name of their twisted and hate-fuelled ideology.

We are as threatened by the ignorant, yet terrifyingly prevalent, attitudes of the Trumps’ and Hopkins’ of this world as we are by the terrorists themselves. In the battle between love and hate, hate is gaining ground. But it will never win, because for every ignorant, hate-filled person there are a thousand more who can not only see the truth but whose hearts are fit to burst with love. Yes, LOVE; the one emotion that the people who are trying to threaten our freedom are incapable of feeling, and the only thing that can unite us in the face of such unspeakable terror.

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Idiots Abroad

It’s just  hit me (in the freight train sense) that in a little over fifteen weeks I’ll be a Mrs. Given that I’ve been engaged for almost a year now it’s impressive I haven’t grasped this fact before. I blame the inordinately large number of organisational things that have to be done in order to pull off a wedding abroad. Nobody ever said it would be easy. And that’s because, well, it isn’t. In fact it’s really bloody hard.

People ask why we chose Austria, and I enjoy telling the story about the weekend my fiance booked a romantic break in Bavaria, only for us to be turned away from the hotel because he had accidentally booked the wrong weekend. And, as it was a public holiday in Germany, neither the hotel nor any of its immediate neighbours had any rooms available. We ended up driving for forty minutes in silence, over the border into Austria to a hotel where my hapless other half had eventually managed to locate a room. I was so angry I couldn’t speak, and we had an uneasy (and not the least bit romantic) sleep that night. When we went down for breakfast the following morning, however, everything changed. The sun was beaming down and the views of the mountains were spectacular. As we drank our coffee and ate our toast our mood thawed like the snow outside, and we jokingly said we would return to Austria for our wedding.

Fast forward a year, and we are indeed having our wedding in Austria. Right now it feels a little more foolhardy than romantic, but we have to hope the gamble will pay off. Admittedly we didn’t get off to the best start, when our first choice of venue cancelled on us three months after we booked it. By this point several guests had booked their flights, which meant an Austrian wedding was happening whether we liked it or not. So we went back to our second (much nicer, but also much more expensive) choice venue, which – nothing short of miraculously – still had availability on that popular weekend in June. So we snapped it up, pushing our concerns about nearly doubling the budget in one fell swoop to one side.

It took a while to fully comprehend the myriad complications of getting married in a country that is not one’s country of origin. Our situation was further complicated by the fact we already live in a different country (Belgium) – indeed the UK government website has a special page for people (read: idiots) like us. Not only would we have to prove residence in the country we wanted to marry in for a minimum of three days, we would also have to visit the British embassy there to apply for documentation and post notice of our marriage. Before we could go to Vienna to do this, however, we had to first request copies of our birth certificates from the UK (our existing ones being invalid because they were more than six months old), then send them back to a different address in the UK to be legalised before we eventually had what we needed for our embassy appointment. Painful doesn’t begin to describe it.

Once the legal stuff was sorted we rejoiced, thinking that surely the worst was now over. How wrong we were. The legal stuff had nothing on the nightmare of coordinating a hundred people in booking flights. Salzburg being nearer, most people sensibly opted to fly there. Until, that is, British Airways decided to cancel the return flight on Sunday. As in, the only flight that day, which meant that all the guests who couldn’t book Monday off work having to cancel and re-book flights into Munich. On top of that it transpired we couldn’t have the legal and religious blessing on the same day, and since the Protestant church in Austria no longer recognises the Protestant church in the UK, the only way we could have a blessing at all would be to enlist the services of a ‘free'(lance) priest. Still following? I’m not at all sure I am.

Then there are the challenges of working with a wedding planner and suppliers who are not only not in the same country as you, but also don’t speak English as a first language. They are all pretty good, but a lot gets lost in translation, and, let’s face it, that’s not really what you want when it comes to your wedding. It’s also been a nightmare trying to coordinate dress buying for six bridesmaids when you can’t meet everyone face to face. My girls have rallied, God bless them, but I know it’s been a royal pain in the arse doing the endless cycle of purchasing and sending back (thank god for ASOS and its free returns policy).

Now we are at the three-months-to-go-stage, things are really cranking up a gear. I’ve never been much of a fashionista, nor very design-minded, which perhaps explains why I’ve found it so difficult to choose wedding apparel (less so the dress, which was the first I tried on – hell, something had to be easy) and decide on all the smaller details like flowers, cake etc. There is still SO much to do it makes my head spin. I’ve really no clue how it will all come together, but I guess I just have to trust that somehow it will. All I can say is that it’s just as well I only plan to do this once in my life. More than that would send me absolutely nuts!

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Thoughts from Brussels

Exactly one week ago we woke to the news that 129 people had been murdered in cold blood by terrorists in Paris. These were ordinary people like you or I, who were letting their hair down after a busy week, enjoying a few drinks, dinner or a concert on Friday night. But the terrorists had other ideas.

It has since transpired that one of the masterminds behind the Paris attack came from the Molenbeek district in Brussels, one of the most deprived areas in Belgium, which is purported to be an easy target for Islamic State (ISIS) militants trying to recruit young Muslims. It is also, incidentally, where my office is located.

Belgium is coming under fire for its lax security measures where tracking terrorists is concerned. For a small country a disproportionate number of people have been recruited to ISIS and left to fight for them abroad – indeed some reports claim Belgium has supplied the highest per capita number of fighters to Syria of any European nation –between 350 and 550, out of a total population of 11 million that includes fewer than half a million Muslims.

These are worrying times, made more worrying still for those of us residing in Brussels by the news this morning, exactly one week on from the news from Paris, that the threat level in Brussels has been raised to very serious, with metro services suspended all weekend, concerts cancelled and a warning not to go to public places.

I feel conflicted by this latest threat. A part of me is defiant and wants to continue exactly as I always would, because to do otherwise, to change our way of life, is to show them they are affecting us, to let them win. But obviously there is also a part of me that is concerned for my welfare, for my partner’s and friends’ welfare. A portion of my daily commute involves taking the metro. Should I now avoid it, in case of an attack? Or carry on taking it and trust in the security forces (and statistics that would probably say my likelihood of being caught up in an attack is small) to protect me from harm?

At any rate, I can’t help but feel the terrorists would be stupid to do anything now the threat has been raised. Far better to wait until it has subsided, until people are less scared and come out of their shells to resume normal life, and do it then. We must remain vigilant. But, beyond that, what can we do?

The bigger issue does of course tug at my heartstrings every day. The ignorance, bigotry and racism shown by so many in the face of the refugee crisis is not only dividing communities but playing directly into the hands of the terrorists. I am not so naive to believe this situation can be resolved purely with love. Sadly now we have let it develop this far the only way it can be addressed is with more violence and bloodshed. But I do believe it is essential that people are tolerant, and that they seek to be informed about the situation instead of believing the hateful bile reported in the tabloids.

In the West, until now, we have been largely protected from the terrible things that have been happening across the world for decades – many of which were, ironically, brought about by the actions of our own governments. Our hands are not clean, and it’s time we stopped pretending that they are, that what is happening now in Europe is nothing to do with us. We funded terrorism for our own economic gain, and it backfired. Now those terrorists have become strong, and they are striking at the heart of the freedom we hold dear. They are also, let’s not forget, driving terrified people from their countries, terrified people who now reside at refugee camps across Europe. These people are like you or me. They are not, as the idiotic Republican hatemongers in the US would have us believe, ‘rabid dogs’ seeking to kill us all.

We started this, it is our responsibility to finish it. And beyond the guns and rhetoric, it is all of our responsibility to bring about a society that is centred around tolerance, hope and love. If we can succeed in this the world, and humanity as a whole, may yet be saved.

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