Expats in Lockdown is a special series – a collection of interviews with expats around the world and how we’re all dealing with the coronavirus outbreak as best as we can. None of us have an instruction manual for times like these, especially while living abroad. My mission with this series is therefore simple – to show you how similar our experiences can be despite living in different countries.
Nora from Wander with Nora is one of those expats who unintentionally ended up in lockdown in a country that she was just visiting for a wedding (which got cancelled). Getting stuck there wasn’t terrible news because it was her home country, Belgium. Soon after, her Belgian husband also decided to leave Egypt, the country where the two have been living and working for the past three years.
Although Nora was mentally ready to move abroad, three years of living in Cairo has forced Nora to reinvent herself as well as learn new things about what’s truly important to her. One of those things surprised even herself – that she’s more attached to family and friends than she originally thought.
Despite the fact that she’s happy to be closer to family in a time like this, she finds it bizarre what considerations she has to make to create a home out of thin air for an unknown period of time to come.
Katherine: What led up to you getting stuck in Belgium?
Nora: I’ve been in Belgium for a month now. I actually only came for a wedding with a tiny suitcase and nothing really in it because I was just supposed to stay for the weekend. Two days later the wedding and everything got cancelled. There were no more flights out of Belgium either.
So I got stuck basically. Because we didn’t know how long this situation was going to last, and luckily Egypt’s borders were still open for European citizens to leave the country, my husband got on the first available flight and joined me in Belgium.
Even so, for me it seemed safer to be back home because these are some very uncertain times. Even if you don’t see your family, you’re still an hour’s drive away.
Knowing that I’m close to my family makes it more bearable to be in lockdown here.
It’s very strange to live through this kind of a situation as an expat. You think you’d found your footing in another country, but all of a sudden you’re not so sure anymore. Suddenly you just want to be back home.
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Katherine: What brought you to Cairo, Egypt?
Nora: It was my husband’s job, he lives in a different place with every project and they change every 2-3 years. I was not with him during his previous projects in other countries, and when we got married we didn’t yet know that the destination was going to be Cairo either.
I remember being in the town hall and everyone gifting us things for our new apartment. Meanwhile, we didn’t even know where that apartment was going to be (laughs).
Marriage is a leap of faith, but so is moving to a completely new country as a married couple. It’s a good challenge because in such a situation you only have each other and you have to make it work. It’s an interesting way to start a marriage but I advice it to everyone (laughs).
If you really want to get to know your partner, just move abroad together for a while. It’s incredible how differently people can react when they’re outside of their comfort zone.
But even before I met my husband I was looking for jobs abroad, so I already had the mindset that I was going to leave Belgium some day.
But this third year in Cairo is really challenging for me. It’s not an easy city to settle in as an expat. And that’s even despite having a job, which is not easy to get as an expat in Egypt.
Nevertheless, I often wonder if I had known these things about myself and about Egypt before, would I have left? I think I still would have but perhaps with a more realistic mindset.
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Katherine: What sort of experiences have given you a reality check then?
Nora: It’s funny, I wanted to leave Belgium because I felt so out of place. It just didn’t fit me anymore.
But now that I’ve lived abroad, I’ve learned that my attachment to my family is a lot stronger than I previously thought. I miss the sense of home a lot and I come back quite often.
Only expats will understand what it’s like to feel constantly stuck between two realities. The life you have in your adopted country is of course nice with your different comforts, your new friends and a new sense of home, but at the same time you’re far from your family and friends.
It’s a constant choice we have to make between these two worlds, and it’s very heavy.
It matters all the more in a strange time like this where you think a lot more whether you should choose your expat life or to be closer to your family, even if you can’t actually be with them. This is a choice that people who don’t move abroad never have to make.
I didn’t know this before I lived abroad myself. For my husband, who has lived abroad for 13 years, it’s a completely different question. For him, being abroad has become second nature – he doesn’t have that connection to Belgium anymore like I do.
For me it’s only my third year abroad and I’m not yet as used to living with this feeling as he is. Regardless, I’m very lucky to have a very supportive partner with things like this.
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Katherine: So how is it now when your husband is back in Belgium, almost against his own desire, and you’re quite happy to be back for this lockdown?
(laughs) I obviously convinced him to come. We were both scared about the borders being closed and potentially not being able to see each other for 3-4 months. That would have been awful.
Thankfully he said that he will take the first flight so he could be with me. During such times you don’t really think about anything other than being with your family or spouse.
The other option would have been that I go back to Cairo, but I said that that’s not going to happen (laughs). I’m emotionally not ready to be in a country that isn’t mine in times like these. I really want to be as close to my family as possible.
But for him, being in Belgium is definitely something to re-adapt to. He hasn’t ever stayed in Belgium for such a long period since leaving.
It’s very funny because he made me discover abroad but I’m making him discover Belgium again.
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Katherine: How did you get everything sorted for lockdown in Belgium right after a cancelled wedding?
Nora: We’re very lucky to have our own place here in Brussels. It’s where we always stay when we come for holidays. Thankfully we didn’t have to stay in an AirBnB for a while.
It’s very difficult for me though because I don’t have all my stuff here. For me, comfort and my own stuff are very important. But here I am, having to make a place, that is only technically mine, into a home.
When I open my closet I only have my summer clothes here but it’s practically winter outside, you know? (laughs) Nevertheless, I have taken the time to clean out everything and make things a bit more cozy.
It’s in the small things that the surrealness of the whole situation comes out. Should you buy a new television even though you know that you’re going to leave again in the near future? My husband and I are negotiating all the time what is worth doing and what is not (laughs).
These are all things that locals don’t have to think about. When you need a vacuum cleaner, you simply buy one. But I can’t take a vacuum cleaner with me in my luggage back to Cairo. I already have one there and I have one at my mom’s. What am I going to do with three vacuum cleaners?
The considerations you have to make in a situation like this are absurd (laughs). My friends wouldn’t get it at all if I shared this with them.
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Katherine: What signs are you looking for in terms of deciding when to go back to Cairo, move back or move on?
Nora: To be quite honest, it would all depend on the coming months. That’s when we will find out which country is next work-wise. It also depends on our future goals as a couple. I think once we can see more clearly through the woods we will decide.
Right now I have no idea. It’s very exhausting to be giving this answer every time. We don’t know what the next project will be because everything is changing now due to the coronavirus crisis.
We have certain factors that are important to us, but the plan for now is no plan.
Katherine is a retired world traveller and former serial expat of 15 years. Based on her professional and personal experience as well as PhD research, she now helps expats, travellers and location independents decide whether to stay or go, whether to move back home or where to settle down.