Today marks our 10th day in Brussels, Belgium.
If you’ve been watching my Instagram stories over the past few months, you’ve likely wondered:
- Weren’t they supposed to leave in January?
- Is this delay voluntary? What’s taking so long?
- Why does this feel so dramatic? Aren’t they moving for one calendar year?
Even having lived it - and just recently having Marie Kondo’ed my visa anxiety - I’m still in disbelief over the bureaucratic nightmare that enveloped our move to Belgium. What had promised to be a lighthearted (and life changing) move abroad with virtually no heavy lifting outside of setting foot on a plane quickly devolved into over five months of stress, anxiety, and unyielding red tape.
Here’s how it started.
My boyfriend Erik is a consultant at a global firm in Toronto. Every year, they host what’s called an “Ambassador Program”, whereby top candidates from upwards of 40 offices are selected to participate in a global exchange program for one year. Naturally, my wicked smart boy was selected.
I was (and still am) so proud. Erik is one of those people you watch Jeopardy with and immediately wish you could turn back the clock to Wheel of Fortune, where Hangman meets America and shouting a consonant at a middle aged woman in a floor length gown feels vaguely smart. Erik is the guy who yells “What is Uzbekistan!” - confidently - after an ambiguous clue about the former Soviet Union in a way that’s both rousing and humbling. I knew Erik was smart when I met him (a quick Google search even before having met him confirmed his “book smarts” credentials), but his ongoing drive to be better and worldly knowledge around virtually every topic under the sun still manages to amaze me.
Have we all swallowed our barf so I can press on? Great.
I’ve always fantasized about living in a city that wasn’t Toronto with my partner. I assumed I’d live in Chicago, New York, or San Francisco at some point in time, though as years passed, realism came to trump romanticism.
Early on in my relationship with Erik, he mentioned the Ambassador Program and his relenting curiosity to seek out more information (“Nothing’s set in stone”). We discussed the opportunity at length, and even waxed poetic about what our lives would look like in Tokyo or Kuala Lumpur or Casablanca. Then, as the months wore on and our relationship developed, the Ambassador Program started to feel like a legitimate adventure we could tackle as a team.
To be clear, Erik’s company has offices in virtually every major city in the world, so our choices for moving were as daunting as Moscow to as comforting as Calgary. We had our pick of the litter.
After months of deliberating, we landed on Brussels for a few reasons.
Erik travels a lot. His demanding schedule isn’t lost on me, nor would it magically come to a halt in a new city. Though we initially tossed Jakarta and Johannesburg on the table (mainly to sound daring for 5 minutes), safety became a non-negotiable. I needed to be able to spend the day alone and be comfortable living how I normally live.
But we still craved a good bit of the road not taken. London or Sydney would have been fine - amazing, even. There’s a reason a large chunk of people migrate to London or Sydney: they’re incredible cities. But a big facet of choosing to uproot our lives and (physically) say goodbye to our networks for a year was marked by a desire to experience the unknown. To challenge ourselves in a city that housed no one from our extended circles (to be fair, I think we have a network of three strong in Belgium), where English was spoken, but not necessarily widespread. Brussels is central, multicultural, metropolitan, and often overlooked by travellers. It’s not Paris or Rome or Berlin - and we liked that. We wanted to live in a city that didn’t necessarily draw a crowd for its landmarks, but that would enrich our day-to-day lives with its people, neighbourhoods, and those quirks you only come to know when you live in a city.
So, we selected Brussels as our destination. Erik then got an official confirmation email that the Brussels office had also selected him (it’s a courtship of sorts; each Ambassador has to “apply” to a host office and rank their choices, similar to Med school and residency programs) on October 30th, with an intended start date of January 14th. As I’m sure you can gather, we didn’t quite make it on time.
Here's what happened.
Brussels is one of 26 countries in the “Schengen Area”. If you’re granted a Schengen Visa, it means you can travel seamlessly between each of the 26 Schengen countries without worry; it's like a mini passport within a passport. Given the list of countries includes France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal, (I could go on) - it’s a popular one. It’s also notoriously difficult to get, with the majority of rejected applicants citing solvency concerns, housing issues, and home citizenship flags. In short, if you can’t prove you can support yourself, or you’re migrating from a historically high risk country, you’ll get rejected. Canada, thy home and native land, you’re simply the best.
We were given a relocation contact to help walk us through the Visa application process, and assist with any questions we might have. Oh the (government) places you’ll go, oh the questions you’ll have.
First up, we had to wait for Erik's work permit to arrive. We were told the process would take 4-5 weeks. It took 12.
After it arrived, here’s what I had to collect / do / submit:
- Have a valid national passport, still valid for 15 months
- Submit 2 visa application forms
- Submit 3 passport-sized photographs
- Complete a language intake form
- Send a fee of 288 CAD
- Request & submit a non–criminal record not older than 6 months, legalized by means of Apostille by the Ministry of Justice
- Create & submit an original recent marriage certificate or cohabitation certificate from the local Canadian authorities (not older than 6 months), legalized by means of Apostille
- Find & submit an original recent birth certificate legalized by means of Apostille (not older than 6 months)
- Request & submit an original medical certificate (not older than 3 months), signed and stamped by an accredited doctor
- Provide & submit proof of health insurance
- Submit a declaration from an employer mentioning I would have sufficient lodgement during my stay in Belgium
- Submit proof of payment for the contribution fee in Belgium, as Erik’s “spouse” for 200 €
- Fly to Montreal to get my biometrics taken
- Create a 50+ slide PowerPoint documenting my relationship with Erik, including texting history, email history, social media photos, and the like
- Arrange a courier from Montreal to Toronto that included my passport and visa
Here’s what else we did:
- We ended leases at our respective apartments in Toronto, and moved back home with our parents (with New Year’s up north, and an original intended departure date of January 9th, a few days at home didn’t feel pathetic)
- We moved all of our stuff into a storage unit
- We ended gym memberships, and all the other logistical stuff that comes with living in a city for 29 years, like cancelling hydro accounts, Internet packages, and renters’ insurance
- We waited, and waited some more
We were told the going processing time for a Schengen visa was 7 to 14 business days. Mine took two months.
To be clear, I know I’m writing from a position of privilege. I understand this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and most people hailing from North America never get to pack up and move to Europe for a year. I get it.
But those watching from the cheap seats that is social media didn’t get to see the full picture. You didn’t see my insomnia, my anxious breathing, or bear witness to my first aura migraine, after which I walked myself to the Mount Sinai Emergency Room to test for a mini stroke. You didn’t watch months of stress manifest in my body such that talking to others about Brussels felt like a chore. You didn’t see hours of contingency conversations, or waking up every day to the feeling of living in a perpetual state of mental and physical limbo. In a word, it was exhausting.
But after five months of email threads, three months of delays, two round-trip flights to Montreal, and a partridge in a pear tree, we made it.
And 10 days in, I’m happy to report that Brussels has been nothing short of spectacular. Prior to our move, I found myself in an online forums hellhole of discussions about Brussels, the likes of which were dominated by mentions of rain, bureaucracy, and difficulties around meeting new people as an expat.
On the rain piece: we haven’t had a drop yet, but I get it. The snow laden months leading up to our move were marked by an unhealthy dose of ennui - so I truly believe no one should ever discount discussions about hardships around the weather. There were days in January it became too trying to leave the house (I work from home, and everyone was in hibernation mode), and it took a serious toll, both mentally and physically. So if rain is to Brussels as snow is to Toronto, I understand the underscore, and feel better equipped to handle it.
On bureaucracy: see above.
On the difficulties around meeting new people as an expat: I’ll get back to you. Erik and I are still in exploration mode and loving life as a unit, though I’m sure as time ticks on, I’ll want someone a little less Alex Trebek to join us in our Jeopardy tournaments if only to (maybe) place second of three (or four).
Brussels, you were worth every frustrating minute. Now let’s put this Schengen puppy to good use.