life of m

Sustaining the Self and Beyond


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Note to Future Self

This year has been one for the record books, at least my own life record books, full of unanticipated stresses, betrayal, drama, anxiety, and many opportunities to shake my attachments to outcomes and life plans. The month of September, which included negotiating the beginnings of the sale of my house in Alaska, a trial by telephone from Brussels to Alaska, illness, a temporary exodus of my life partner to the United States while I moved through the final four days of my second yoga teacher training, was one of the more stressful spans of weeks of my existence. It seems that for the first time since beginning this blog, I actually did not post a single piece for the month of September. I created this blog in the July 2010, and I have never missed a month until this year.

 

Something I have wished for during the past year has been a less exciting existence, particularly in the realm of finances. My husband and I have crossed our fingers for the trial to go well, for my house to sell, and for him to receive funding for his doctoral studies in Brussels. So far, we continue to keep those fingers crossed.

 

Another desire I have held in my heart since the passing of my beloved wolf dog and since my parents “borrowed” our beloved Naih husky while we searched for a place to rent where we could have a dog and then expressed a desire to keep her around “for a while longer,” has been to bring to a canine companion into my life once more.

 

The bar is quite high, however, for a canine companion, which puts a lot of pressure on any being who might walk through the doors of our quiet home in a forested corner of Brussels.

 

My mental (and yes, I do mean this for the many entrendres it carries) wish list for a canine companion has included the following tenets:

 

Will be wolfie

Will be my shadow

Will be most bonded to me

Will get along with my cats (at least with the cat who thinks he is a dog)

Will be a gentle giant

And so on and so forth…

 

With this list, I found it difficult to ever settle on a possible dog to rescue and bring into our home. How could the dog ever meet my ridiculous standards? I was certainly not setting up any dog for success. There was also so much unknown. When we first met Okami at the husky rescue we adopted him from, he was not at all interested in any member of our family.

 

I vividly recall exchanging a glance with my husband, replete with shoulder shrug: Well, I guess we will just bring him home and see…

 

Within 24 hours, he had become my shadow, but it was still a challenging transition in all of our lives for us to adjust to this new member of the family and for him to adjust to life with our three cats and us.

 

The first night we brought Okami home, we thought we would just put him on the run outside since that had been the preference of our previous husky, Blue. We went to bed but were soon roused by the most haunting, mournful howling I had ever heard.

 

Ok. Okami was not going to be an outside-at-night kind of dog. First lesson learned.

 

Next lesson. Okami was terrified of small, enclosed spaces. He would never set foot in the bathroom, and the wire crate we had set up for him was definitely out of the question. What to do if/when we had to leave the house?

 

We tried to always either bring him with us or make sure someone was at home. At the time, my husband’s daughter was still living at home (the summer before she headed to college in the Pacific Northwest), so we were on a kind of round the clock Okami caretaking committee.

 

The times we did leave the house, he would try to break his way through the window screen to get out and knock things over in the house in the panic-ridden process. With time, he began to adjust, and after years of remembering the ease with which we settled into our life together, it was not until bringing home a new rescue dog that I was reminded of the initial stresses and anxieties of that transition time.

 

Enter the being I have been referring to as BWD (big, white dog).

 

We have a perfect life, Marieke, my husband told me on several occasions this past year when I would bemoan the absence of a dog in our life in Belgium. It is peaceful, and you have the love of two cats.

 

Cats are not the same as dogs, I would retort.

 

Can’t you be happy with what we have? Isn’t it good enough?

 

I guess, I would respond, but my heart remained steadfast on the idea of a goofy, gentle, shadow canine. Like so many things in my life (ukulele, mandolin, dog, red shoes, etc.), once I get my mind or heart set on something, it turns into a strange obsession until I either let it go, or more often, until I bring it home. It doesn’t matter how unreasonable or ridiculous the idea, I can’t seem to shake the desire. It takes root and grows at an alarming rate.

 

The other night, as I desperately texted with my husband about the stress of the reality of having all of my canine wish list granted, he responded, When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers (which he later told me came from an Oscar Wilde play, An Ideal Husband).

 

I am not one to admit defeat all that readily. By nature, I am quite competitive, and I really like being right. I rarely give my husband the satisfaction of being right, but he was definitely spot on with this one, and I let him know this without shame.

 

I was clearly crazy to bring such chaos into our perfectly peaceful life.

 

So, on the first chaotic evening with my this new, furry being, I tried to remind myself, You asked for this. There’s a reason this is happening. I was at the point of tears, listening to the strange yowling howling sounds coming from downstairs, where I had attempted to put the dog in his kennel for the night since he couldn’t figure out how to go up the stairs, and my terrified cats were hiding upstairs.

 

I eventually decided that maybe I needed to ease him into spending time in the kennel and went to sleep on the couch downstairs with him. He eventually settled down and slept on the dog bed I had placed beside the couch. Periodically through the night, I awoke to see his big head right in front of mine. He gave me kisses and went back to sleep on his bed. In the morning, I fond him sleeping on the other half of the couch, his head nestled next to mine on the pillow, the bottom half of his body extending off of the couch and onto the wide stair beside it.

 

The next day I informed my husband of my concern that I had ruined our perfect, peaceful life.

 

I still feel really freaked out about bringing a dog home, I admitted.

 

It will be fine, he assured me. Patience.

 

I hope so. I am worried, and I miss the cats and the second floor.

 

Just give him time. He needs a safe place to land, just like Jack. (Jack is a young boy in one of our favorite books series by Deborah Harkness, who is taken in a couple after a life with stability in the streets of Elizabethan England).

 

Ohhhhhh, I responded. I love you!

 

I love YOU!

 

Maybe he chose me, and it was not really me at all making the choices. So I am not to blame. I plead insanity, I responded.

 

Ha…no, you are.

Damnit!

 

Ha!

 

I am L

 

But it is FINE. Really. Or, it will be.

 

I’m worried about money, too. And our freedom to explore.

 

All in good time.

 

Ok.

 

The dog will open up different doors to explore.

 

True. I have talked to more people in Boitsfort since he arrived and more of our neighbors than in the past six months. So I am learning more French!

 

We engaged in many of these kinds of texting conversations. They mostly involved me freaking out over this huge transition and questioning my sanity and whether life could ever be peaceful again.

 

For example:

 

I don’t know what I was thinking!? I texted my husband.

 

I really think it is going to be just fine. You should write a blog or note to your future self, telling how you are feeling right now and how the initial experience with BWD is going.

 

So my future self will never adopt another dog?

 

No, so your future self will remember how nervous you were and how good things are “now” (in the future). Showing you that things WILL work out just fine.

 

Oh my gosh, I STILL love you.

 

Well, that is good.

 

You get the idea. So, future Self of mine, remember this:

 

Remember this crazy time.

Remember the peace of life with two relatively subdued cats and the overwhelming stress of bringing a new being into the mix.

Remember how nervous you were about whether or not everything would work out.

Remember wondering if the dog and cats would ever carve out an amicable or at least tolerant existence.

Remember the stress of the unknown.

And, most importantly, remember to keep breathing!

 

Everything is already alright.

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It’s about the adventure

In my life after being a park ranger, I have become a kind of Renaissance woman, cobbling together a humble living as an editor, yoga instructor, and songwriter (the latter has been mostly pro bono since moving to Belgium). Editing tends to be slower in the summer, as the bulk of my work comes from students during the fall and spring semesters of the academic year.

 

To keep myself busy, I pore over animal adoption sites in search of a dog I might be able to convince my husband to let me bring home. I study texts about philosophy and the path to enlightenment, I practice handstands at the wall, and I go for walks. I also do a lot of writing.

 

Since we are on a limited budget with my work being part-time and even less than that during the summer months, I have also begun researching different foods that I would like to be able to eat but cannot really order at restaurants, essentially because we don’t ever go to restaurants in order to save money. My most recent epiphany was that I should try to make dim sum. This revelation came when our favorite couscous stand was absent from the Sunday market in Boitsfort, so we opted for Thai and Balinese. Both were super overpriced, which completely bummed me out. The Thai food was disappointing all around, especially toward the end when I found a hair in mine (this is never fun). My husband suggested that I pretend I didn’t see it, but I was not very successful in this endeavor. The dumplings from the Balinese stand cost 8 euros for four tiny morsels. The shrimp dumplings were amazing, but the friend sesame ones filled with red bean paste were pretty sad.

 

All told, we spent 7 euros for the sad Thai noodles, 8 euro for the dumplings, and 5 euros for two glasses of white wine. The wine won on all fronts.

 

Maybe, I could just figure out how to make the foods I love to eat? I suggested to my husband.

 

Go for it, he acquiesced.

 

Ok, so 20 euros on the Sunday market lunch was nothing when compared with the small fortune I spent at three different Asian markets and two western grocery stores this morning and afternoon. My morning trip was shared with all of the adorable, old ladies of Watermael-Boitsfort, who left their carts sitting in the middle of the aisles so it took me a while to wind my way from one end of the store to the other.

 

My day of adventuring began with a visit to an Optician for an eye exam. Learning about inner workings of the health care system in Belgium is also a challenge, particularly when French is not my native tongue. I had a lovely time visiting with the Optician and asking all kinds of questions about the machines and method he used, all the while trying to decipher the code and meaning of his explanations, which were, of course, all in French. It turned out that I had gone about the eye care process in reverse, as most people began with a visit to an Ophthalmologist to test for tension in the eyes, glaucoma, and an overall medical exam, which an Optician could not provide. (At least, the eye exam was free!)

 

Learning the ins and outs of a foreign culture is an exhausting adventure, which requires figuring out public transit systems, following maps to find venues that Google claims exist but in actuality have long since closed, and beyond. My stamina is not what it was ten more more years ago when I last lived in a foreign land; however, I somehow made it through an eye exam and a visit to five different grocery stores (the sixth had come up as an Asian market but did not look like through the windows, so I didn’t go in because at that point I was beyond exhausted). The final stop of my day was also the highlight. I found the Alimentation Asiatique and quickly befriended the owner.

 

His name was Wang, and he was delighted when I asked if he could help me find some items.

 

Do you like Chinese food? He asked me.

 

I do! And I love trying new things.

 

Then you must try the radish. I just opened some. You can try first before you decide to buy it.

 

He went into the back and brought out a pair of chopsticks and bowl of radish coated in something red, which looked spicy and dangerous for my sensibilities.

 

Can you use chopsticks?

 

I can, but I am not sure I hold them correctly.

 

I modeled my chopstick holding stance.

 

Good enough, he said. He was now speaking in English, explaining that he spent three years studying in New York. Apparently, most of the English speakers who came into the shop had British accents and had a hard time understanding his English.

 

I have a hard time understanding a British accent.

 

Me, too, but it’s so wonderful.

 

It is! I love British English accents, I agreed.

 

I gingerly picked up a piece of the radish, brought it to my mouth, and smiled.

 

It’s so good! Definitely spicy.

 

And it’s very cheap. Everything here is much less expensive than other places because we sell to restaurants.

 

He continued: Where are you from?

 

The United States.

 

Where?

 

Arizona, but I have lived all over. I started listed states on my fingers.

 

You are very nice. You smile all the time. I can tell it is because you travel a lot.

 

Well, not everyone who travels is nice.

 

True, but we can ignore the people who aren’t nice.

 

Yes, we can.

 

I went through my ingredients list, asking about different items. When I asked him if he had red bean paste, he lit up, handed me a can, and told me how his mom would put red bean paste into things she cooked as a treat for him when was a child.

 

We then spoke about our moms and how their cooking is wonderful and full of love.

 

My mom lives far away, so now I have to try cooking things myself, I said.

 

Wang was all about helping simplify my cooking experience. He suggested that I buy frozen dumpling wrappers and already made ravioli.

 

I explained that I really wanted to try making the recipes myself but that I would buy some ready made to put in the oven if I failed so I could pretend that I had made perfect ones.

 

When I asked about bamboo steamers, he said not to waste my money and drew me a picture for how I could put water in a pot and place another bowl inside, covering the pot so the boiling water would create vapors to steam the dumplings.

 

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Later in the evening, when I had spent hours attempting to make the ravioli with the flour I used because I couldn’t find wheat starch, I told my husband that I probably should have listened to Wang.

 

He laughed.

 

We had a good time trying everything. While the proverbial fruits of my labor were a far cry from the photos in the recipes online I had been following, I felt pretty good about my first effort.

 

It’s all about the adventure, my husband said. You should be getting out there, exploring and meeting people.

 

It’s true, I said. Thank you for braving my most recent adventure!

 


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Mr. Pauper and his singing ostrich

I remember when I was a child, and I could just open the fridge or a drawer and find any number of items to eat. If what I wanted to eat wasn’t there, I could simply add it to the grocery list, and at some later time it would magically appear.

 

Ah, for the good, old days!

 

Wait. Something must be amiss if I am pining for my childhood. Childhood was no cup of tea. I always longed to be an adult, to be taken seriously, and to make my own choices for my own life. From my child version of my self, it seemed that adults could do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. They could eat ice cream for dinner!

 

Well, it turns out that being an adult can be overrated in many ways. For one, I am lactose intolerant, and if I eat junk food instead of a well-rounded meal I just get a bellyache. Two, the jokes I used to make in high school and college about how I wouldn’t ever wind up making much money because I wanted to make the world a better place have caught up with me and kicked my ass.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I have lived with many privileges. I have never been hungry a day in my life unless I forgot to bring snacks with me. I have not endured poverty, and I have gone through a series of academic pursuits, earning a PhD in Sustainability Education in May 2013. By many standards of living in places around the world, including the United States, I am a wealthy individual.

 

In the area of love from friends and family, I am wealthy indeed. However, I after visiting a tax company for what my husband had thought would be a simple process this afternoon, I texted my husband that he was going to have to change his name.

 

Apparently, I have not only set out to make hardly any money in my life, but I have also made a habit of making awful puns on the side (thus far, those have been purely pro bono).

 

When my husband took a leave of absence from his job to become a doctoral student in Belgium, giving me the title of breadwinner for our family for the next four years, I had to refrain from telling my favorite joke, I married Rich!

 

You chose the worst country for taxes, I texted my husband as I walked past a row of expensive cars parked in the tax consultant parking lot. You need to change your name to something more a propo.

 

Mr. Pauper, he wrote back.

 

Yes, and I will shape shift to an ostrich.

 

Mr. Pauper and his singing ostrich.

 

When I first walked into the tax place, the woman at the front desk looked me up and down and asked, Yes? (in French) in a nonplussed tone, which required no translation. I was clearly not dressed in an appropriate manner for asking for assistance with taxes, and in her book I did not belong there.

 

My hair was frizzed out from the humidity (I had barely managed to contain it by tying it back into a ponytail). I had put on earrings, which is commensurate to getting dressed up in my book, and every article of clothing except my pants had not been worn since being washed. What I was missing in my capacity as a “woman” was high heels, panty hose, a dress or skirt, pearls, and a hairstyle that required some kind of blow dryer or straightener and a lot of product. Were I a man, I might have possibly slipped by had I slung a sweater across my shoulders and tied the sleeves in front. Perhaps, in my next life…

 

Clearly, heels are out of the question. I can barely handle a new pair of shoes. I had purchased a pair of red Birkenstock sandals at the airport in Frankfurt on our way home from Germany the week before, but I hadn’t been able to walk after wearing them for a few hours. Today is the first day that I have been able to walk in a way that does involve hobbling and extreme pain.

 

Now, back to Belgium. I thought the visa process for being granted the ability to stay in Belgium for more than 90 days was confusing. It turns out the tax process wins by a long shot (Stretch? A mile? A kilometer?). Metric references just don’t seem to have the same impact.

 

From what the tax fellow told me, it sounds like we now have to submit and claim income for both the United States and Belgium (regardless of where in the world that income derives), and then the two countries duke it out for which one actually gets to keep the money we pay. It doesn’t matter that my income comes solely from clients in the United States, whose payments go directly into my bank account in the United States. The whole thing was incredibly confusing, and then the tax guy had to give me a new envelope for mailing my Belgium tax documents because I had taken notes all over the one that was sent to me.

 

Even with the stress from the meeting—the accountant did apologize for scaring me—I cannot help but feel special having two countries vying for my income, however meager. It’s like having two suitors duel for my favor!

 

I’m going to go home and drink for both of us, I texted my husband.

 

Ok. Shall I pick something up for dinner? Shall we celebrate our poverty with takeout?

 

Thankfully, we are not poverty-stricken. The fact that I could leave the tax place and buy groceries is an incredible boon. I still can’t help but sigh, however. I really do want to make the world a better place, and I know I can do this at a very little expense, but I would also like to be able to afford to be able to attend trainings for yoga and meditation to promote my own health and wellbeing. I would like to be able to buy things that are handmade from venues where I know that the profits go back to the artisan.

 

They say that money can’t buy happiness, but a bit more money than I make would go a long way toward easing my constant preoccupation and stress over spending it. I am suspicious of them anyway. They clearly make a fine living because that line just seems like something that only a person with money would ever claim.

 

2017 has been quite the banner year for me, so much so that it has shocked into silver more than a few of my thick, brown curls. The tax fiasco didn’t even really register on my stress barometer because it has already been broken by previous events from the current year. At this point, I just chalk up anything stressful that happens to 2017.

 

I keep hoping that the future foretold to me in a fortune I received this past fall—Much needed relaxation is in your future—will come true sooner rather than later, but I suppose I should not hold my breath. Yes, it could be worse, but that doesn’t mean that I cannot hope for it to be better.

 

There is certainly never a dull moment in your life, my dad told me on a recent visit.

 

I wouldn’t mind a few more, I responded.

 

Right now, life feels like a confusing blur, and I am caught between countries. I know that they say to be careful what you wish for, but the intention I send out to the universe is hope for greater ease, be it with my own response to challenging times, as well as my desire for fewer surprises and more tranquil or “dull” moments in my life.

 

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As Bobby McFerrin has said countless times (in my house, at least, since I have been playing his song on repeat), Don’t worry. Be happy!

 

He also says that he is going to give his listeners his number to call him when they re worried—Here, let me give you my phone number. When you’re worried, call me. I’ll make you happy—but I don’t blame him for not actually providing one.

 

Ain’t got no cash, ain’t got no style, ain’t got no gal to make you smile, but don’t worry; be happy.

 

I might be lacking in the cash department and seriously lacking in style by European standards, but I married Rich, so I have much to be happy for!

 

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Mission nearly impossible

In these days of global travel, most romantic comedies include an airport scene with some cupid struck person running through a labyrinth of travelers to profess their love just before the human object of their affection gets on the plane.

 

I have been joking for some time that the book writes itself when describing the insane process my husband and I have gone through to secure his long-term student visa for Belgium, but I didn’t envision him making a mad dash through the airport to make his flight to Brussels.

 

Had I only known what I know now several months ago when my husband mused, what if we moved to Brussels? Would I have done anything different? Probably not, but I can already imagine this portion of the movie of our lives. I hope they choose someone really good to play us. Maybe Kate Winslet or Drew Barrymore or Zooey Deschanel for me? Hey, no laughing now!

 

By now, I have kept you updated on the story behind how we came to choose Brussels for the next four years of our lives and some of the details of this process. I have not yet written the story of the visa because until only a couple of hours ago, it was still in process. I could just say that our experience gives new meaning to the expression down to the wire, but it would be less fun than telling the entire crazy story, right? So, here it is in all of its bureaucratic, indigestion-inducing glory.

 

It all started on a dark and stormy night…just kidding. There are not too many dark and stormy nights in central Arizona. The sun shines just about every day.

 

We did begin the visa application process at the start of monsoon season, and there were more than a few bolts of lightening and thunder strikes, literal and figurative, in the process. Our visa application process was definitely an unbelievable story of suspense and intrigue. It even involved bribing a mail carrier with cookies.

 

Moving overseas is not for the feint of heart, and the visa application process to move to Belgium is labyrinthine and pricey. My husband began studying the details of the application process immediately upon his return home from a trip to Paris and Brussels in the beginning of July. He made lists of all the steps, which were many. As we dove in full tilt, we started to get the feeling that because Belgium really didn’t want the likes of us or anyone else to move there. They have devised an entry process that will drive most people to the edge of sanity until they give up and go to Canada.

 

I imagine that most normal (and by normal, I mean sane) people stay home and watch movies with mad dashes through the airport rather than making the mad dash themselves. Of course, neither my husband nor I is entirely sane. My husband even has his own saying: Anything but normal.

 

For the long-term student visa application that we would eventually send to the Belgian consulate in Los Angeles, there were many different forms we needed to have signed and notarized and then sent out to get apostilled, which is the state level approval and confirmation that our notary stamps were legit.

 

Here is a list of the requirements we had to fulfill in no specific order:

 

  1. Get tested for one of several diseases to demonstrate that we would not be bringing any strange illnesses into the country. We chose TB; you know, just for fun and both came up negative. Phew!

 

  1. A bill of health signed by a medical professional. This was challenging because we had to find a health professional that would not charge us an arm and a leg since our health insurance had run out when my husband’s job ended on July 1. Even though I had just gone to a doctor for blood work and a wellness visit, I was told that I would need to schedule an appointment for that doctor to fill out the single page form because I would be taking time out of his very busy schedule to do it. That visit would have cost us nearly $300 plus another interaction with a less than pleasant medical professional. Finally, a friend referred us to her naturopath, who charged a very reasonable fee to fill out a separate form for each of us.

 

  1. Order an abstract of our marriage certificate that was no more than six months old. Thankfully, we just made the cut-off date since we were married on November 11 of the previous year.

 

  1. Order a copy of my birth certificate, also no more than six months old. This had to then be sent back to the state of my birth, Ohio, to be apostilled at the state level.

 

  1. Authentic letter of acceptance from the university in Brussels. This took an entire month after R was formally accepted into the program and many email communications back and forth with faculty and admissions to prove that yes, the faculty who agreed to be on his committee really did want him in the doctoral program.

 

  1. FBI background check. This was a doozy of a process that nearly kept the visa from coming through in time for my husband’s flight.

 

  1. Provide proof of income while in Brussels or tax documents from a financial guarantor in the United States. All of this had to be filled out on forms written in Flemish by R’s dad and his wife.

 

Applying for a visa became a full-time job. Each step alone became an in-depth and expensive process. Every time R reviewed the consulate site’s requirements, he found something new.

 

  1. Write a letter explaining why you want to move to Belgium.

 

Finally, we got everything but the FBI background check finished. R discovered that we could send in our application to the consulate without the completed background checks if we included tracking information and receipt as proof that we had submitted our application to the FBI for the background check. Actually getting the completed background checks in hand was another insane story. The last week of July, we mailed everything to the Belgian consulate in LA with prepaid priority envelopes to return passport and visa to us upon approval.

 

These were all of the steps we took just to send out the visa application. Then, we waited several weeks for a response from the consulate, telling us the components that were still missing and the ones that needed to be corrected and resent. For example, R’s dad and wife had filled our financial guarantor forms and sent tax documents for both of us, but apparently they could only do this for R. I needed to send my own proof of income and tax documents to accompany my visa application.

 

We went through several iterations of our plan for leaving our house and heading to Belgium. Initially, we thought we might drive to my parents’ house just south of Boston, spend a few days there, and then get on a plane together. We then found out from the office for international students at the university in Brussels, as well as the Belgian consulate in LA that this was not to be.

 

Because it was my husband applying to study in Belgium, it would be his visa application that would be processed first. My own visa would be contingent upon his getting approved and would thus not be officially reviewed and processed until this happened. My visa could take anywhere from two to six months to be finalized. Because we had finally decided that we would bring 1-3 cats with us to Brussels, my parents’ house in Massachusetts was out. My mom was allergic to cats, and we were not going to put our cats through the trauma of being boarded for that long nor did we want to foot the bill for this.

 

Our second plan was to drive up to the Pacific Northwest and stay with my mother-in-law in Edmonds, but we had to convince her that this it was a good idea to move into her basement with two cats that her dogs might want to eat for breakfast. Thankfully, she gave us the thumbs up, and we began planning potential departure dates.

 

Moving to another country was quickly becoming an all hands on deck family affair. It would prove to continue in this vein until the very last moment before my husband walked into the airport on the morning of September 10.

 

We booked our tickets out of Seattle before we received the news that my visa could take up to six months after my husband’s to be finalized. Flights that cost the fewest number of miles and added fees were going fast, so we tried to make choices on dates that seemed reasonable. My husband chose September 10 so that he would get to Brussels in time for a faculty retreat with the philosophy department that he had been invited to attend. It seemed feasible that my visa would come in not too much later than this, so I booked my flight for a month and a half after on October 26. This was one of the few remaining flights that were under 12 hours of flying time, which is the standard for traveling with live animals (the story of deciding to bring cats and the requirements for importing live animals to the EU from the United States is yet another crazy diatribe that I will save for another day).

 

So, are you still with me? Don’t say I didn’t warn you that this was a long process!

 

We were determined to make it happen. We had been telling so many people that we were moving to Belgium. We did not want to wind up unemployed in our house in Arizona, dreaming of waffles and fries. To be honest, up until a few weeks ago, I was more than a little worried that this latter possibility might become a reality.

 

The second week of July, we submitted our background check applications, replete with two sets of fingerprints that we had done at the police station in Prescott, Arizona. When we first sent our applications to the FBI, it seemed from their website that the turnaround time would be 2-3 weeks. I religiously checked my credit card online account to see for the appearance of the $36 processing fee from the FBI but to no avail.

 

A couple of weeks after submitting our applications, my husband decided to check the website a second time just to make sure. He was met with an ominous red warning box at the top of the webpage that read, Background check applications 12-14 weeks for processing.

 

It was this moment when panic and dread began to set in.

 

12-14 weeks!?!?!?!?!? That would put us well into October before R’s visa could be processed and approved. We would have to change our flights. He would miss the faculty retreat and the start of classes.

 

My husband sent an email to the FBI, explaining our situation and asking if our application might be expedited. The response he received was not at all sympathetic to our plight.

 

This is where other people might sigh and then just wait for 12-14 weeks to go by. I mentioned earlier that we are not normal. Well, we are also not ones to just sit around and wait for bureaucracy to catch up. Trusting the process is not our MO, and it was a good thing that we didn’t or my husband would still be in Edmonds, waiting with baited breath.

 

My mother suggested that we contact our local senator to see if their staff could communicate with the FBI on our behalf to expedite the process. I rolled my eyes in response, not because I didn’t think it was a good idea but more because I just did not have faith that a politician would actually do something on their constituents’ behalf.

 

R wrote a letter to Congressman Gosar and received a positive response. He needed to fill out and sign a liability form that would allow the congressman’s staff to advocate on our behalf. We didn’t hold our breath, but we felt some faint glimmer of hope through our fog of despair.

 

I can’t remember how long it took, but eventually R received word from the congressman’s office that someone they knew at the FBI could retrieve our applications if we sent the tracking information. Tracking information sent, their person at the FBI walked down to the mailroom and found our applications, which had been sitting there for nearly two months. Don’t even get me started on our reaction to the news that they had just been sitting there. They would probably be still be sitting there now if we had not started raising our voices from the peon peanut gallery.

 

My husband was told that our applications would be processed that very day and mailed priority to the address he provided for his mother’s house in Washington. I checked my credit card account online and saw a charge for $36 fee from the FBI and breathed a sigh of relief. It was starting to look like things were moving in our favor at last.

 

Something we have learned in this entire process is that every time we get good news, it tends to be followed by bad news. Two steps forward, five steps back, we have joked. Just as we prepare to celebrate, we are stopped in our tracks.

 

After seemingly endless house repairs, packing, and scrubbing our house from floor to ceiling with sponges, we packed our Prius to the brim with our bags for Belgium, three cats, and whiskey (if we were not drinkers before the visa process, we certainly were now), and we headed north for the Pacific Northwest.

 

The trip was mostly uneventful, save for a near accident in Las Vegas, which my husband avoided by slamming his fist on the horn so hard that it got stuck in full honking mode. Now, I know what you are thinking. A Prius horn cannot be that bad, but a Prius horn that does not stop honking after a near miss collision is enough to send anyone over the edge (and we were already at dangerously high stress levels from the past several months of limbo, visa hell, and moving preparations).

 

My husband was able to fashion a device that would make MacGyver proud by breaking one of my nail files into four pieces folded together that, when inserted in the space between the horn and the steering wheel managed to stop the horn from honking just long enough for him to pop open the trunk and take out the fuse to quiet it permanently. It was difficult for me to hold the device in place. The tiniest shift in energy on my part set the horn blaring, my husband jumping and yelling. We definitely got some strange looks from the people walking by to get into the towing facility next to where we had pulled the car over.

 

I did some research on Google and was informed that taking out the fuse was typically all that was needed to reset the horn and resolve the problem. However, when we arrived at my husband’s mother’s house and we went to replace the fuse, the horn returned to full blaring alert status.

 

Seven hours in diagnostics at a local Toyota dealership, and the mechanic was still nonplussed as to what had happened and how to fix it. The only solution he could figure out would be replacing everything having to do with the horn for the tidy sum of $2100.

 

We called our auto insurance company to look into the possibility of filing a claim. It had been by avoiding an accident that the damage had been done, after all. Maybe, we would be rewarded for not having gotten into the accident.

 

After an hour on the phone with adjusters, we were filled with hope that we might not have to dip too terribly far into our precious savings accounts. Then came the call telling us that an appraiser would not be coming out to inspect the car because the damage was a result of normal wear and tear.

 

Furious, I held my hand out for my husband to hand me the phone and went into full angry customer mode (my mom taught me well how to not take no for an answer). Even though I have confrontation, I can put on a pretty good show when I need to.

 

I tried to talk over the insurance representative, who was explaining to me in a nasty voice that there was no way this damage would be covered. Finally, I yelled into the phone, You need to stop talking RIGHT NOW and get a supervisor on the phone unless you can give me an answer that resolves this problem.

 

I will get a supervisor on the line, came a timid voice.

 

That’s right, I thought. Don’t mess with me, lady!

 

I know from experience, however, that there is not much arguing you can do with an insurance company because in the end, they hold all of the power. I could certainly make them squirm a little in the process, though.

 

I was standing in the parking lot of the Toyota dealership, where we had just pulled into pick up the car with horn temporarily disengaged until further repairs would be done. I stood shaking while listening to cheerful oldies music while I waited on hold for a supervisor to get on line.

 

Seven minutes later and the higher up assured me that yes, an appraiser would still be coming out to inspect the car. In order to determine whether the problem with the horn was due to normal wear and tear or the near miss, he would be conducting research on Prius horn, inspecting our car, and communicating with the Toyota mechanics.

 

Let me begin by saying that we are thankful you are both safe and the accident was avoided, came her honey sweet tone.

 

I was not impressed by her attempt to lull me into quiet acquiescence. I rolled my eyes and responded, my husband I find it incredibly disconcerting that the only way to be assured of insurance coverage would have been to have gotten into the accident rather than avoiding it.

 

She went on to explain that usually, damage to a vehicle caused by a near miss would be covered if the vehicle swerved and hit something else, like a guardrail.

 

My husband’s hand collided with the horn as a result of the near miss, I explained. That would be considered the same thing, I said.

 

From my research and from talking with the folks at Toyota, the solution for normal wear and tear would involve resetting the horn or replacing the spiral in the horn mechanism for $621. Seven hours of diagnostics by their mechanics and still not being completely certain of what happened does not seem like normal wear and tear to me.

 

In the end, our financial fate over the car lies in the hands of the insurance appraiser, who will be inspecting the car and offering his recommendation to the insurance company in a week. Fingers crossed, though I am certainly not going to hold my breath.

 

But where was I in the visa saga that had become our daily life? Ah yes, we were headed north to the land of salmon and cedar.

Two long days in the car, and we pulled in to my mother-in-law’s driveway in Edmonds, Washington, exhausted and cranky but safe and relieved to be on familiar ground.

 

We brought our things into the basement, including three traumatized cats, and settled in.

 

My mother-in-law had been out of town and had her mail held at her local post office. When she collected the mail that Tuesday, there was no FBI background check included in the mix.

 

That’s ok, we thought. If it was sent priority from Washington D.C. the Thursday or even Friday before, it would likely show up by Wednesday or Thursday of this week.

 

Would that it had been so!

 

Wednesday came and went with no sign of a priority mail enveloped from the FBI. My husband got the phone and called the staff person he had been working with at Gosar’s office, who assured us that it would likely arrive by Thursday.

 

When no package arrived Thursday, we started to get really nervous. My husband called Gosar’s office, only to find that the staff person he had been working with had called in sick. Luckily, her colleague offered to step in and try to figure out what happened.

 

Now, I should explain that our frustration during this entire visa process has been caused in great part by unreal expectations. If you are ever thinking about moving forward with any plan that involves red tape, be prepared for it to take far longer than what you might think is a reasonable timeframe.

 

We naively assumed that everything visa would happen on a much faster timeline than it did. We figured if we sent in all of the required documentation everything required that it would be processed right away and sent back to us in a reasonable amount of time. This was unrealistic on our part because clearly bureaucracy does not work this way, if it works at all. I wouldn’t use the term work to describe our government. I hesitate to use the phrase slow and steady, either. I will say that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and we had to do a lot of squeaking to finally get a visa in hand.

 

If you recall, we had been told that the FBI would be processing our applications the previous Thursday and mailing them out priority that day to the address in Washington state that my husband had provided. When Gosar’s staff person called my husband back, she told him that the FBI does not ship anything priority, that they had mailed the package regular mail, and they had shipped it out on Monday instead of the previous Thursday.

 

Now, what did I just say about false expectations? Even so, we were pretty floored by this news. In addition, Gosar’s office had told my husband to make sure to have our mail forwarded, just in case the FBI was to ship our package to our Arizona address instead of Washington. Turns out that there is a big stamp on each envelope, which we later found out that they were shipped separately, that reads DO NOT FORWARD.

 

Awesome!

 

Gosar’s staff person recommended that my husband contact the FBI to have a new package shipped to our new address in Washington (you know, the one he had already asked them to use). R contacted the FBI, who told him that he needed to fax specific signed documentation in order to accomplish this task. He tried faxing from his mother’s printer without success. Email back and forth the FBI, and he drove over to a UPS store to try again. This time it worked, but we had little hope that the duplicate processed background checks would make it to Washington in time to get them to the consulate in LA and get my husband’s visa in time for his flight.

 

What else could we do but move forward and hope for the best. The alternative was the sit down and weep from frustration, and we had worked too hard to give up.

 

While my husband was faxing information to the FBI, I got on the phone with the Prescott post office to see if they could track down our mail carrier and find the envelope from the FBI.

 

I will see what I can do, and I will call you back, the post office employee told me. I never received a call back.

 

My husband cancelled the forwarding service for our mail, and I found a friend to drive to our house and check our mail the next day, Friday. We were now at a week and a day countdown to my husband’s flight.

 

I received a text message from my friend that read, Affirmative!

 

 

Really???? I texted back. FBI????

 

My husband and I squealed with joy!

 

Then came the response: Yes, one big manila enveloped addressed to you.

 

What? Me? Could they have sent both of our processed applications in one envelope addressed to only one of our names?

Can you open it to see if it is mine and Rich’s stuff inside? I texted back.

 

My friend was loath to open it.

 

Ok, but it might be booby-trapped. And has all kinds of warnings not to open it if you are not the person it’s addressed to.

 

And then….

 

Um, it’s just for you, followed by a photograph of the offending document.

 

This was how we found out that the FBI had mailed each of our processed background checks in individual envelopes. Of course mine would arrive before R’s because it was his that we so desperately needed first. Isn’t that Murphy’s law?

 

We hoped that my husband’s simply had not yet arrived because it if had arrived the day before it might have been returned to sender. I called the post office a second time to see if they had found anything on their search the day before.

 

Who did you talk to yesterday, the mail clerk asked me over the phone.

 

I don’t know. A man?

 

It was probably Randy, she said. He is on the phone right now. I will write him a note and walk it over and hand it to him the second he gets off the phone, she said. I will personally make sure he calls you back.

 

A half an hour went by with no return call.

 

I called back and got another person on the phone. I explained the situation again (by this time, I had gotten pretty good at reducing it to a few short sentences).

 

The woman assured me she would get to the bottom of it and call me back. I sighed as I hung up the phone, fully expecting to never hear from her again.

 

A few minutes later, the phone rang. The woman at the post office told me that there had been a substitute covering our mail run mail carrier but that they had not seen anything official looking from FBI the day before. I was skeptical that they would have noticed one manila envelope in the hundreds they delivered that day, but I hoped she was right.

 

That meant that R’s envelope would hopefully arrive the next day, Saturday.

 

My friend was not available to check our mail the following day, but my husband was able to find a friend to check our mail and then swing by my friend’s house to get my FBI envelope so that they could both be mailed together to the consulate in LA.

 

We were on the edge of our seats as we waited to hear if R’s envelope had arrived.

 

Finally, we received the confirmation text. It was there, and our friend had it! All she had to do was overnight the envelopes, and they would arrive at the consulate by Monday.

 

Isn’t Monday a holiday? I asked, terror rising as I realized it was Labor Day, which meant that no mail would be delivered. The consulate might not even be open. Our friend found out that she could pay an extra fee to have the package delivered on a holiday, so we went for it. What’s another $15 when you have spent over a thousand?

 

My husband had our friends take photographs of the official letters from the FBI, which he emailed to the staff person at the consulate who had been overseeing our visa application process. He also informed the staff person that he had included a prepaid express envelope with the processed background checks and asked that they use this envelope to return his visa and passport instead of the prepaid priority envelope he had included in the original application package.

 

Then, we waited.

 

Labor Day came and went with not delivery confirmation text or email.

 

Tuesday morning, my husband received confirmation that the background checks had been delivered to the consulate at 11:03am. Hallelujah, we thought.

 

A couple of hours later, he got an email from the consulate staff person, telling him that she had processed his visa and was dropping it off at the mail center in the priority envelope from the original application. Apparently, she was leaving the office and did not have 5-10 extra minutes to procure the express envelope that would ensure the visa arrived overnight instead of the several days it could take for priority to travel between California and Washington.

 

Even with news that the visa was being mailed priority, my husband was thrilled and felt like celebrating. I was less than thrilled, feeling saddened by his impending departure. I would like to be able to write that I have been grounded, positive, and have offered unending support and encouragement to my husband throughout this entire process, but that would be pretty far from the truth. We have a very strong bond, and this process has worn both of us to the quick. There have been a lot of tears, laughter, and expletives launched back and forth. Suffice it to say that if your marriage is already on the rocks, I do not recommend adding an international move to the mix.

 

We spent the rest of the day cranky and at odds with one another, until we finally succumbed to a celebratory pizza dinner with mom. We toasted with the special bottle of whiskey that we had been saving to celebrate the completion of the visa process. True, we did not yet have visa in hand, but we wanted to share with everyone who had helped make this dream a reality. We figured that drinking and toasting our intention to have the visa arrive in time was almost as good as actually having the visa. Plus, we were ready to hit the hard stuff by this point.

 

The next morning, we drove down to Portland to visit my husband’s brother and his daughter, who was a student at Pacific University in Forest Grove. My husband had been checking the tracking number the staff person at the consulate had sent, and it still showed the package sitting in their mailroom.

 

Maybe, they need to review every document before they can ship it? He suggested. We were not amused, and our hope that the visa would arrive before his Saturday morning flight was fast diminishing.

 

I crafted and sent an email to the staff person while my husband was driving and received an Out of Office reply with another email to contact in case of an emergency.

 

Oh my god, I said to my husband. Imagine if she were out of the office yesterday? It was too terrifying to imagine. Instead of giving into my unwarranted fears, I clicked reply and added the additional email in the CC line, requesting they get the express envelope and use that to ship the package. I had enough to worry about already without adding what if’s to the mix.

 

One thing I have learned through this process is that it can be easy to get so swept up in the emotional response that you fly off the emotional edge. My husband and I have had to learn to allow ourselves an initial emotionally laden response, followed by meditation and acceptance that we have done all we can do the move the process forward.

 

Trust me, we literally did everything possible to get my husband’s visa and passport in time to fly to Brussels save flying to LA and going in person to the consulate to get the visa from their mail room.

 

We never did receive a response to our email requesting the switch to an express envelope, not that we were really expecting one. In this never-ending saga, we have found that most people out there do not seem to see the person behind the bureaucracy. It can be pretty disheartening at times, though we have tried to put on a good face. To the woman at the consulate, we were just another couple trying to get a visa, and she wanted to take the day off. Why take extra time for which she wouldn’t be compensated for to help us out by getting an express envelope?

 

It has been the select few individuals who have gone above and beyond to help us out that have restored our faith in humankind. For them (and you know who you are), we are forever grateful! Who knew that it would take a village to get a visa? We are also thankful for all of you out there (and you know who you are, too) who have been following our story and sending words of love and support and good thoughts and energy our way.

 

At 8pm Wednesday night, my husband received a text with tracking confirmation, stating that his visa and passport had left the consulate and been sent to a sorting facility in LA. At just after midnight, he received confirmation that it had arrived at the sorting facility and been sorted.

 

Praise the lord! The visa was on the move. I started looking up maps for how long it generally would take priority mail to travel from LA to Seattle. The map I found showed 2 days for southern California to western Washington. It might actually get to us in time!

 

We headed north back to Edmonds later that afternoon.

 

Friday morning, a text came in, saying the visa had made it to Federal Way in Washington, a community between Tacoma and Seattle. Then another, saying it had left Federal Way. Our hope lifted every so slightly.

 

We were now down to the 24-hour countdown to my husband’s flight, scheduled for 9:40am the next day. When we got word that the visa had been taken to the mailroom at the consulate on Tuesday, I had imagined it would arrive by Thursday. It was looking like we would be cutting it even closer by having it arrive Friday afternoon, if it arrived.

 

My husband started contacting people at the post office to see if it might be possible to intercept the package rather than waiting for delivery. We were not sure it would even be on the mail truck for delivery to Edmonds that day. He started with the local Edmonds post office person, who first told him there was no way for him to get the package because there had to be an attempt at delivery before he could pick it up. When my husband explained the situation, he eased up every so slightly (this guy was clearly a by the book to the t person) and suggested my husband contact the main office for the area to see what he might be able to find out.

 

When he called this office, he was told that even though the tracking information showed the package had left Federal way, it was still actually there, either waiting to be sorted or more likely, sitting in a locked a truck, waiting to be driven further north.

 

Swell!

 

What if we just drove down to Federal Way to get it? I suggested.

 

So my husband got on the phone to the postal facility in Federal Way and left a message to receive a call back. The wait time was 23 minutes.

 

He finally received a return call and was told that the facility did not have any customer service answering phones but that he could try calling them at the number the representative provided.

 

He called 12 times, letting the phone ring for an extended period each time, and gave up.

 

Plan B was to hope that the visa would be delivered to the main post office for our area and that the mail sorters (who arrived between 3 and 6:30am) would have sorted the mail by the time the post office manager arrived to work at 7am Saturday morning. We could then call and hope he picked up the phone so that we could try to pick up the visa on our way to the airport.

 

I had thought that waiting for the visa to be delivered Friday afternoon was calling it close, but this experience was bringing the phrase down to the wire to an entirely new level!

 

We decided to upgrade Plan B to Plan B Plus by leaving a note in my mother-in-law’s mailbox to see if her mail carrier might have any insight into how to improve our odds at getting the visa first thing in the morning.

 

I mentioned earlier in this post that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and I continue to stand by this claim. When we were trying to get the FBI background check envelope for my husband at the post office in Prescott, I had called so many times that they held it for our friend to pick up the moment they saw it and even called us and left a voicemail to let us know. We still had to send a letter with a copy of my husband’s driver’s license and our friend’s name written out in order for them to pick up our mail, but what’s another bit of red tap when we have already used a Costco supply and then some?

 

My mother-in-law’s mail carrier already had the tracking information for the visa and was planning on going into work on his day off to try to help find it.

 

My mother-in-law assured him that he did not have to go to such lengths, but he told her he was up early anyway and it was not trouble at all. He left house with a batch of freshly baked cookies and profuse thanks.

 

There was nothing more we could do but wait. My husband finished packing and weighing his bags to make sure they did not exceed the allotted 50 lbs. (I forgot to mention that the rolling duffle bags we had ordered months earlier wound up being too big to check with excess baggage fees, so we had gone searching through my mother-in-law’s storage in the basement to see if we could find smaller bags. No stress there!).

 

I was so exhausted Friday night that I fell asleep before 9pm and slept like the dead until 6:10am the next morning. I hadn’t even woken up when my husband got up at 5:45am to take a shower.

 

I dutifully got out of bed in the dark, pulled on a pair of sweatpants, a tank top, and a sweatshirt, and went upstairs to make coffee and a couple of cheese sandwiches for him to take on the plane.

After starting the coffee, I walked back downstairs to put on a good luck necklace and the magic earrings that a friend had gifted to me before we left Arizona. I was not leaving anything up to chance!

 

Originally, we had hoped to leave for the airport by 6:30am. The I-5 corridor can be unpredictable with traffic, and it would only take one accident to ruin our chances of getting there on time for my husband to make his flight.

 

The night before, we had determined that the latest we could leave for the airport in order for my husband to check his bags at the required hour before departure was 7:30am. If there was not traffic and not too much of a line through security, he could just make it.

 

My mother-in-law printed out several maps and contact information for the post office. It was 6:45am, and we were loading my husband’s luggage into the car when he noticed a missed call and voicemail from the mail carrier.

 

He has the package! My husband called out.

 

We screamed and jumped for joy, dove into the car, and sat back while my mother-in-law stepped on the gas to get to the post office.

 

Down. To. The. Wire.

 

We followed the directions but could not find the post office. My husband called the mail carrier, who told us that it was kitty corner from where we were and behind a bunch of trees. It was definitely well hidden. Never a dull moment in this mad dash for the airport!

 

We pulled up to the front entrance of the post office, a tall man met us at the car door, and extended a hand to my husband, who had jumped out of the car and run up to him.

 

Let me give you a hug! My husband insisted.

 

As we pulled away from the post office, I said that I should have taken a photo for my book, but there was no way we were turning around now.

 

Who knew something so small could cause so much trouble?

 

We headed for I-5, and my husband opened the envelope, revealing a passport with his photo and beautiful visa placed on one of the inside pages. In the priority envelope were all of the original documents he had submitted with his application and a small note with compliments from the kingdom of Belgium written on it.

 

Belgium has a king? I asked.

 

It used to, my husband responded, and he went on to tell us some of the history of Belgium while his mother drove as quickly as was legally possible toward Sea-Tac airport.

 

Traffic was clear, and it was just after our exit for the airport that the pile up was beginning. Another close call! We needed every possible second to get him to the airport on time.

 

30 minutes after the visa package hand-off, and we were pulling into the departures drop-off area of the airport. I hadn’t even had time to write my husband a note to hide in his carry-on luggage, a first for me in the entire time we had been together.

 

I helped him carry his bags inside. He gave me a hug, followed by a kiss, and he was off to check-in.

 

Back in the car, my mother-in-law and I headed north, exclaiming disbelief every few seconds that we had made it.

 

Texts came in every few minutes from my husband as he made his way through checking his bags, security, and heading for the gate.

 

He made it! I exclaimed as I read the final text. He actually made it!

 

Now, he is on the plane and on his way to the next part of the story in Brussels, where he will look for an apartment for us to live in, while I prepare to meet with an insurance appraiser to get the horn fixed on our car and wait for my visa to come through so we can be reunited, hopefully soon, in Belgium.

 

Thanks, as always, for reading. Stay tuned for more in the Adventures in International Living by Marieke and R.

 

I am your host, Marieke.

 

Have a beautiful day, and try to enjoy every moment of it!

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