life of m

Sustaining the Self and Beyond


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The belly of the beast

I received some interesting and hilarious responses to my first post about our adventures in Darmstadt. One friend wrote of Darmstadt that it was “the intestine city,” a description which has now begun to weave itself into our conversation as we have moved through our second day here.

 

We had a relatively restful night’s sleep, though I could hear someone walking around in the room above us and experienced a few waves of panic, hoping this would not turn into a repeat of the nightmare neighbor we recently escaped from at our first apartment in Brussels. Thankfully, a simple turning on of the air fan and earplugs solved the noise from above. My husband was elated at the opportunity to sleep through the night without interruption from the two feline characters who share our home. He practically did a dance he was so giddy (ok, he definitely did a little dance, and it was adorable). I really love this man.

 

The day before I had called down to reception to ask about the internet, so this morning it was my husband’s turn to call to see if breakfast was included in the price for the hotel (feel free to judge, but we are on a student and part-time editor budget). Breakfast buffet was indeed gratis, so we headed down to the dining room.

 

We were greeted by the sounds of men in the lobby speaking American English.

 

Where are we? I asked my husband.

 

The little placard in our hotel room had informed us that there were more than 50 options at the buffet, and I would say the majority included some kind of meat and/or dairy product. While I have been impressed to see many vegan and vegetarian signs posted on the windows of restaurants around the town, the breakfast buffet at H+ Hotel was decidedly leaning toward the carnivorous with omnivores a close second.

 

There were little signs telling us the names of all of the meat products in German and and English.

 

Huh, bacon is bacon in German and English, I noted, not that either of us are going to eat any. I did wind up with a couple of rogue pieces of bacon in my eggs, however.

 

The soundtrack for the buffet was decidedly weird. When we first walked in, we were serenaded by a male voice, telling us, you’re in the army now. Oh, oh oh, you’re in the army now.

 

Ok, I thought. Why not?

 

I wonder what the + is for? I asked my husband when we were seated at a table on the patio. A truck had pulled up, and the workers we had seen putting up a relatively small hotel sign the day before were unloading a much larger one to put up today.

 

 

Seems a little strange to be staying at a hotel that isn’t actually labeled as such, but the patio is sure nice, I continued.

 

We sat beneath a beer tent with Pilsner written in various locations. The breeze was lovely. I found myself feeling anxious and hurried and took a moment to exhale fully.

 

I’m quite happy to sit, my husband said in response to my fidgeting. There’s no hurry.

 

Ok. So what’s with the weird music? I asked. You’re in the army now? Really? I never even heard that song in the United States.

 

The things you hear in the intestine, my husband replied.

 

After breakfast, we headed on foot into town to wander around before the start of the conference we were here for my husband to attend.

 

Here are some of our observations from our wandering:

 

People in Darmstadt are kind and helpful. Apart from being skeptical of our choice to take an extended holiday in “the intestine city,” expats and locals have been quick to offer assistance to the foreigners who clearly do not speak the language and have no idea what they are doing when they try to place an order at a restaurant or bar.

 

I took a photo of a house on one street, and a man walking toward us who lived in the house wanted to tell us all about its history in a mix of German, English, and enthusiastic hand gesturing.

 

 

People have adorable dogs in Darmstadt. This man’s dog had hardly any teeth but smiled as only a dog can nonetheless and was very gracious in allowing us to place our hands by its muzzle so it could smell us. My husband and I even got to give its head a good pat before it went running toward its house.

 

The man stayed and told us how the front façade of the houses on the street were from 1600-1700 while the houses built behind them were of newer construction. Previously, there had been farms and chickens. The man was not enthusiastic about the graffiti that had been sprayed onto the front façade of many of the houses, so I waited until he had moved on to take photos. I am fascinated by the culture of graffiti, street art, stencils, and stickers that I find in places I travel, and I take a ridiculous number of photos everywhere I go (my husband can attest to this because we will be walking and I will stop to take a picture without saying anything so he either walks several paces ahead before realizing I am not there or walks directly into me when I stop abruptly to take a photo).

 

 

Shoes seem to be reasonably priced, but my feet are too small to fit into even the smallest sizes. Score one point for my bank account.

 

Food also seems to be very reasonably priced. Our entrees at the Mexican restaurant Hacienda were each under 10 euros. The water we ordered was the priciest part of the meal. I really need to figure out how to ask for tap water in German.

 

When I asked for an insalata at a Kebap place, I received a salad large enough for several meals. My husband ordered a pizza funghi (mushroom pizza), which became lunch for him and leftovers for dinner for me. The total cost was also under 10 euros. Apart from swimming in the yogurt style dressing they seem to serve at restaurants (from my experience at two), the salad held up pretty well for lunch and then an early dinner.

 

There are a lot of advertisements for cigarettes, as well as little cigarette vending machines placed all over town, but we have seen very few people actually smoking. I am refraining from sharing any photos of these advertisements so as to not promote the agenda of any cigarette companies.

 

Blue and white striped shirts, bicycles, and hippie pants are in. At one point while we were walking, we passed a group of people and three out of the five were all wearing blue and white striped shirts. The two women who bicycled past us at this same scene were wearing identical blue and white striped shirts.

 

You fit right in, my husband told me.

 

Yeah, but my shirt is purple and blue stripes. I think there may be some kind of striped shirt conspiracy going on here.

 

There were a couple rogue pink and white stripe shirts and red and white, but otherwise blue and white were the colors of the day.

 

I am not habituated to walking around a city where the number of people riding bicycles seems to outnumber those on foot and easily rival the number of cars driving around. I have been the cause of several near collisions. Every time my husband has to repeat my name before I realize I need to step out of the way. Walking around on my home after dropping my husband off at the conference center, I have gone through several more slow motion close calls. It’s particularly interesting when the person on the bicycle isn’t looking where they are going because I do a kind of tenuous step the left and then the right, trying to guess which way they will move past me. I’ll get there.

 

We walked to a park with our carry out lunch and sat in the shade of a large oak tree to eat. With our shoes off, a cool breeze whispering by, we were completely blissed out. Well, mostly.

 

 

I can’t ever feel fully relaxed with my house in Alaska stress, I sighed. It’s always there.

 

It will sell, my husband assured me. There is no question about that, so maybe you could put yourself into that future where it’s all done and spend some time there. You could think about time as not being so linear. It’s what I did when I was in Alaska. It was so hellish that I would visit places in my memory. It’s more than a visit, though. It’s really experiencing it. It’s a more intentional embodiment of the experience. You really try to viscerally feel and relive it. It’s like the memory of being at my grandpa’s pool as a kid and lying in the sun. I could feel the heat of the sun when I embodied that memory. So, there’s no reason why you can’t go into the future, especially something like this when you absolutely know that it’s going to happen. You can think of it as reliving it before it happens. In a sense, it’s a kind of time travel.

 

As he spoke, I typed away on my iPhone, and my husband joked, did Richard really say it if Marieke didn’t write it down?

 

Earlier in the day, I had spent the better part of our walk to the town center typing his words while he spoke.

 

I had laughed and said, Dear diary, my husband says the most amazing things. (Insert the line: He’s ever so dreamy, and I could be a 1950s gal. well, it might take a bit more than a one-liner to get my frizzed out hair and big personality into that box.)

 

Well, I responded, I think it’s important to share, and it seems to speak to people. We’re not the only ones who struggle with this stuff.

 

True.

 

After our picnic, we headed toward the conference center where my husband would be spending the bulk of his remaining time in Darmstadt. It was an incredible building that was constructed around ancient looking stonewalls.

 

I used the restroom (because I never know if or when there might be another opportunity, and I have a thimble bladder), and then we parted ways for the next several hours.

 

 

I wandered around the city center for a little while and then headed back to the hotel for a cold shower, a few sips of whisky, and some quality time editing a dissertation.

 

I thought about my husband’s earlier musings about the city of Darmstadt.

 

I like that it’s that not pretentious, he had said. It knows it isn’t Berlin, and it’s ok with that.

 

I thought about this later on my walk back to the hotel. Darmstadt reminds me of Lowell and Boston. Boston is easy to love. It’s all right there on the surface. Lowell takes some dedication and persistence. It isn’t typically love at first sight, and it isn’t always a smooth relationship. However, if you take the time to get to know Lowell – I mean, really get to know it – you will find the full spectrum of emotions that accompany love.

 

Given time, I think I could come to love Darmstadt as well.


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It is Darmstadt

I joined my husband this week for an academic foray into Germany, where he will be presenting at a conference for the Society of Philosophy and Technology on Friday. I am hoping that I will be able to sneak in to film his presentation, but in the interim I get to wander around the city of Darmstadt.

 

Darmstadt is a new place for me, and it took a while for the name to imprint itself into my memory. I have been studying with an Anusara teacher who lives and teachers in Amesfoort in the Netherlands, and my brain decided to combine these two foreign places.

 

Where are we going again? Darmsfoort? I asked my husband every couple of days.

 

No. Darmstadt, he would patiently reply.

 

Ohhhhhhh, yeahhhhhh.

 

It took me a while to figure out where the foort was coming from. Even when I figure it, it still took me a few minutes to make the switch in my mind before speaking the words out loud.

 

Sometimes, I wonder how they gave me a PhD, but that is a story for another time.

 

We left our two cats this morning to a quiet house, their food and water bowls filled to the brim in anticipation of our absence. We decided to splurge and pay a few extra euros each to take the train instead of the tram, then metro, and then bus to get to the airport. When possible, it is starting to feel reasonable to pay a little more for ease.

 

We made it to the 94 tram with a few seconds to spare after running up the hill when the transit app said we had only two minutes.

 

What’s a trip without having to run? I said.

 

True.

 

We took the tram a few stops to the train and headed for the airport. The entire trip to the airport in Brussels and then on the bus from Frankfurt to Darmstadt (got it this time!) took far longer than the mere 40-minute flight. It’s still remarkable to me that you can fly to another country in so little time.

 

We walked from the bus to the hotel. On the way, we saw many people riding bicycles, including one young woman on a monocycle.

 

That does not look easeful, I said to my husband.

 

When we arrived, my husband asked the gentleman at the front desk if he spoke English.

 

No!

 

Awkward silence.

 

Ha ha, just kidding.

 

Exhale.

 

You have a reservation?

 

Yes. Lewis.

 

Ah, Mr. Lewis. You are here for five nights.

 

Yes.

 

But what are you going to do in Darmstadt for five nights?

 

I am here for a conference, so the question is what is my wife going to do for five nights?

 

Great.

 

It wasn’t until the end of our conversation that he said, Wilkommen. Welcome.

 

This does not bode well for Darmstadt, I said after we had stepped into the elevator and headed up to the third floor.

 

No, it doesn’t.

 

It took a few attempts to figure out how to get the door open, and once inside I went straight for the air conditioner.

 

I can’t figure it out, I said. The heat and fatigue from travel (any amount of travel seems to exhaust me these days) was making me cranky.

 

It was my husband who figured out that you have to put the card key into a little slot by the door in order to turn on the lights or air.

 

That is brilliant, I said later after I had rested and had a snack (I have the metabolism of a squirrel, so I need to eat snacks on a regular basis to keep from being called Cranky Britches by my husband).

 

You can save so much energy by not running the air when you aren’t in your room.

 

Yeah, and this way no one can forget to turn the lights off either.

 

Score points for Darmstadt and Germany!

 

We went for a walk around the town.

 

We pondered over German words, stickers, and graffiti.

 

What does bembel with care mean? My husband asked.

 

I don’t know. I was just wondering the same thing.

 

We found the answer at the grocery store.

 

 

It was fun being in a new place. We took photos to share with family and friends. My favorite was the sign that read, Schmuck for sale inside, which I promptly shared with my Jewish mother. I marveled at how many places had vegetarian and vegan options.

 

 

We stopped for a drink at a place a friend from the town where I grew up had recommended. Over drinks, my husband looked up places where we might go for dinner.

 

There’s an American-esque burger joint with good reviews, my husband said.

 

But you are a vegetarian?

 

He showed me the review, and I laughed out loud.

 

Best in town….but, well….it is Darmstadt.

 

We finally settled on a little Mexican place right near the hotel. We hadn’t eaten Mexican food since leaving Arizona last summer, and the thought of cilantro-laden salsa and tortilla chips was beyond enticing.

 

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Our bellies sated, we headed back to the hotel for some whisky, stapel-chips, and dinkel doppel keks. All in all, it was a nice start to our little adventure across the border.

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Be. Here. Now.

A few days ago, my husband and I moved from our first apartment in Boitsfort to a house on the other side of the same town. In my many years of traveling and moving from one place to another, I have begun to see a pattern to the process.

  1. The first place I live in will likely not be the last. In other words, it generally takes me about two tries to find a place that will provide the kind of sanctuary I desire in a living space. I have experienced this in many places I have lived, and Brussels has once again proven to be the rule rather than the exception.
  2. Don’t expect to feel instantly in love with your new environs. For some, it may be love at first sight. For me, it can take a while to adjust to being in a new place. As a friend once told me, it can take a while for the spirit to catch up with the physical body when you travel a great distance.
  3. It can take a while to create community. Good friends and a feeling of being a part of a meaningful community doesn’t happen overnight. I recommend diving into the pastimes that bring you joy, especially the ones that get you out of the house (if you are an introvert like me, you might need an extra nudge). This will bring you to other people with similar values and passions. This is how I have been able to find kindred spirits in my own travels.
  4. Moving sucks. It was a pain in the butt to get our selves, our two cats, and our stuff to Brussels. It was less painful but still not fun to move 1.3 kilometers from our first apartment to a new house. Even with the limited belongings we brought with us to Belgium, I somehow manage to accumulate so much stuff everywhere I go. Case in point, as we were walking to the new house to meet the realtor and proprietor to sign the lease, I noticed a beautiful lamp in a pile with sign that read À Donner (To Give Away).

I want that lamp, I said to my husband, making my sweetest possible, pleading eyes at him.

We are already asking our proprietor to remove most of the lamps at the house, he replied. I don’t think we should walk in with another one.

Maybe, I could take it and hide it in the bushes? I suggested.

How about you can take it if it is still there after we sign the lease?

Ok, I responded forlornly.

We began walking away, but I kept turning back.

Finally, my husband said, Ok, go back and get it. I scampered back toward the lamp, trying to get there before the woman walking toward the free pile from the other direction. It was my lamp, not hers!

You are ridiculous, he laughed and rolled his eyes at me when I returned, triumphantly carrying the lamp like a precious baby.

Later in the afternoon, I walked by the spot where I met my lamp on my way to meet my husband our new landlord at the bank, where they had driven in her sporty two-seater Mercedes, I saw that every single item that had been piled up on the sidewalk completely gone, as if nothing had ever graced its presence. Had we walked a different way, I would have been none the wiser. My material load might have also been lighter, but such is life.

We moved into our house the next day. We woke up early, drank coffee and ate a hasty bowl of oatmeal. Then, we proceeded to make countless trips down and back up the stairs, bringing our not-so-small collection of belongings to the ground floor so my husband could pile them into a tiny European Zipcar Peugeot 208.

The night before as we lay in bed, we had taken bets on how many trips it would take to get all of our stuff from our apartment to the new house 1.3 kilometers away.

Ten, I suggested. No, 12!

Eight, my husband wagered.

Good thing we had no riches to lose. I used to joke that I had married Rich, but the joke ceased it utility when said husband Rich took a leave of absence from his job to become a starving PhD student, wife in tow.

Ready to take the first load, my husband said. He got into the Zipcar and drove off while I waved. I walked back up the stairs. A few minutes later, my iPhone buzzed. The key isn’t working, my husband had texted. Can you walk over? Quickly?

We are on the clock with the Zipcar, so I put on my sneakers, grabbed the keys, headed downstairs and out the front door, and began to jog the 1.3 kilometers. I figured I would run until I had to walk, but stubbornness runs strong with me, and seven minutes later I had pulled up panting at the house.

Goose! My husband laughed. I didn’t mean that quickly.

Well, I said, I wanted to see if I could do it. I didn’t add that it was pure stubbornness that wouldn’t allow me to stop running, even had I been in pain.

In the United States, there is a saying, No pain, No gain. I remember a former coworker musing, What if there was just no pain? No pain, No pain.

Huh. No needless suffering? What a concept. Clearly, this idea is far too enlightened for American culture.

Back in Brussels, I drank some water, and then my reward was a ride back to the apartment in the Zipcar. Huzzah! Riding in a car was a rare treat since selling our Prius and leaving vehicular travel behind.

No pain, No pain was clearly not in my immediate present or future. By the end of the day, I could barely walk up and down the stairs. Each time bend of my right leg sent shooting needle-like pains through my knee. The next day, I hobbled around for a few minutes every time I sat up and tried to walk.

Now I remember why I stopped running, I told my husband. It sucks!

At this point, we were both downing ibuprofen and hobbling around.

BUT we were out of our petit enfer (little hell) and hoping against all hopes that we had begun life anew in a petit paradis (little heaven).

A couple of nights later (when we could both walk in reasonable comfort), we decided to go a walk in our favorite forest, which was now just a few paces from our front door.

We walked along the sidewalk toward the forest, passing a row of attached houses on the way.

Is that an anchor? I ask my husband, pointing at a rusty object with three individual hooks all attached at the straight edge.

It looks like a grappling hook, he said.

How do you know these things? I try not to tell him too often, but he really seems to know everything.

Grappling hooks, I mused. I feel like I have heard that in a song somewhere.

AS we neared the forest, we felt a cool breeze beckoning us to enter, which we did without hesitate.

Ah, we sighed as we stepped beneath the canopy and into the crisp, cool shade.

Let’s follow this trail, I suggested. There was a tiny path leading up into a part of the forest we had not yet explored on our previous wandering.

Ok.

As we walked, I furrowed my brow, deep in though trying to figure out where I had heard those two words: Grappling hooks.

Dar Williams’ As cool as I am! I shouted and started mumbling the lines, trying to find the phrase with grappling hooks in it.

I think it’s loneliness, suspended to our own like grappling hooks, I trilled.

Suddenly, I felt firm hands on my shoulders, shaking me out of my reverie.

Marieke. Slow down. Be here. Now. In the forest.

I stopped and looked around. It was breathtaking, tiny leaves appeared as if suspended in the air, light trickling through the canopy from small openings where sunlight filtered in tenuous streams.

I exhaled.

We stood for a moment, breathing, and then began walking, more slowly this time.

Is that a fox?

I lifted my gaze and looked ahead.

A creature with a bushy tail had turned to look back at us before disappearing into the shrubbery on the left of the trail.

We walked to the spot and decided to turn left onto yet another enchanting path.

There he is, my husband whispered.

We stood still, watching the fox watch us for a moment before once again disappearing, this time not to return. How could he be there so completely and then just be gone without a trace, I wondered.

Let’s look for a fairy ring, my husband suggested.

Careful, I warned.

True.

As we walked, I could feel the forest healing us, drawing out our anxious energy and replacing it with energy as calm and green as the leaves that floated around us.

Stinging nettle leaves swayed as if dancing in the breeze.

You should take a video with your phone.

I didn’t bring it. I figured I could use yours if I wanted to take a picture.

Ha. I didn’t bring mine either.

We laughed. We were free.

I love you, I whispered. Raising my voice felt somehow incongruous in such a sacred, ancient space.

I love you, too.


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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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