What does it take for someone to leave everything behind? To move to a new destination with a thousand unknowns, dive headfirst into starting over with a new culture, language, people, cuisine, novelty abound. It might look glamorous at times, but longterm life abroad isn’t without hardship or awkward adjustments; it’s also full of beautiful and surprising twists and turns.
This #WanderWomen series highlights diverse women every Wednesday around the globe who took a leap of faith to leave comfort and familiarity behind and embrace expat life. In some cases, it was to find love, work, to follow someone themselves or someone else entirely. I’ll share candid stories to inspire the inner adventurer in you, to remember that no matter where you start over, there’s a new home waiting for you if you’re up for it.
Meet Katrin Dürkoop, a Love and Divorce Coach Based in Brussels
Katrin grew up Sweden before moving to Germany with her parents. In her 20’s, she had an inkling she didn’t quite belong there and yearned to tap into her more adventurous and nomadic side. She eventually moved to Brussels, Belgium – a place she admits isn’t on most people’s tourist radars, but has been a great place to live and work. Belgium has allowed her to thrive for the past 16 years and as a Love & Divorce coach, she works with expat couples. Read on for tips to manage conflict in your expat relationship and more.
I used to live in Belgium for three years! What has your experience been like so far?
Once I decided to ‘quit’ my life in Germany, I made a fresh start in Brussels, Belgium.
The best parts of Belgium: Cultural diversity, great restaurants, access to the sea-side, it’s acceptable to come 15 minutes late to a meeting in case of need, availability of rental eg apartments, the international community, a diverse range of activities to choose from eg cinema festivals, music festivals.
The most difficult: Inefficiency of public transport system, too much car traffic and thus pollution, food is expensive in supermarkets, daily life is more expensive than elsewhere, if you have a problem, eg in your apartment or legal or administration, it takes a long time to get it fixed. There’s a lot of complexity – lack of clarity on certain procedures of daily life eg taxes, being an entrepreneur, rental law, etc, lack of a coherent and sustainable public transport and traffic management policy for example, hardly any bicycle infrastructure.
My favourite thing to do in Brussels is going for a walk in Parc de Tervuren and then for a tea in Felix cafe in Tervuren centrum.
Germany isn’t far from Belgium, yet culture and way of life are very different. Can you tell us why you left?
I have been living in Brussels/Belgium for 16 years now. It has not always been that way.
My parents were expats and I spent my childhood and youth abroad. At the age of 20, I came to Germany to study Hotel and Tourism management. I felt a bit like an expat in my home country, After graduating from university, I had a hard time finding a job. Potential employers seemed to see me or my CV as too exotic. Even though I had a representable and interesting curriculum to show for. I’ve always had an optimistic outlook on life yet this is when I started to doubt myself.
Why did nobody want to even invite me for an interview and at least get to know me? In the UK you could work in a bank even though you studied geography – why was this not possible in Germany? I realized that I had a very different mindset which did not seem to match the reality of the environment and culture I was living in.
Part of me felt squeezed into a way of life and being that did not resonate with my soul. Everything seemed so predictable, the adherence to rules, the seemingly strict way of thinking inside the box. Life seemed rigid in some way. I was a nomad, adventurous, I needed to feel life-energy, be in touch with my instincts.
Maybe life in Germany was not meant for me?
One day I decided to take the Thalys train from Cologne to Brussels. Belgium. Had never been. The blind spot on the map of Europe. I spent a day walking around Brussels and started to discover…this old town, the sandwich bars, the bohemian vibe, a bit of dirt on the streets, seeing Moroccans, Arabs, Africans being part of the cultural fabric, the incoherence of architecture.
Since you’re a Love & Divorce coach, I’m curious on your thoughts regarding ‘Trailing Spouses’ and the relationship dynamic that creates?
If you’re a trailing spouse, you already gave A LOT: your professional identity (even if only temporarily), your energy (for moving, settling the whole family, kids included, re-creating a new life, finding new support networks) and your emotional capital (expat grief, culture shock). To support your stressed partner working long hours, you’ll be tempted to take even more onto your plate.
Beware: don’t give yourself until you’re spent and empty, because you’ll be so angry that it’ll just make things worse. It’s important to pay attention to YOUR needs. What are they? To feel loved, a woman needs to get a lot of little things done for her and PREFERABLY without asking. Her husband, on the other hand, needs a lot of appreciation for what he does. Of course, nobody ever wants to be taken for granted. Fair enough, right? What make things more complicated is that men need to be asked, at least initially. Women struggle to understand this fact: when they love someone, they spontaneously offer their help. This urge is almost irresistible.
Men view things differently. Men assume that if you don’t ask for help, you don’t need it and you’re happy to give more. This misunderstanding has tragic consequences because a man derives lots of fulfillment from giving and from being needed even if he’s not aware of it!
What would you say is the ‘kiss of death’ for expat couples based on the clients you’ve worked with?
One partner having the feeling of sacrificing too much.
Mostly women making way for their husbands career and thus giving away their financial power/ financial independence. And raising the kids as a ‘job.‘
Above you mentioned expat grief when it comes to moving to a new country. What are some ways to overcome that?
It’s about taking the time to grieve what one has left, but still keeping up contact with friends and people in the other country. Feeling all the feelings as they may show up.
Honouring them as path of the cycles of life. In the new country, as a first step, I would advise finding an expat group (eg on FB at first) and then try to get in touch with people there and ask if someone would like to meet up for a coffee. It’s better to meet people bilaterally first vs going to gatherings where everyone seems to know everyone. Maybe your new contact/friend will invite you along somewhere in the future.
Do you have advice for my expat readers in a relationship? Do’s and Dont’s?
Leave your partner some time off without resenting him. Men need some time off, alone, to cope with stress. They engage their mind in all kinds of distracting activities: watching TV, practicing sports….( = male cave time)
There’s another reason why men need to withdraw from time to time: they are uncomfortable when they’re getting too close in an intimate relationship. They’re afraid of losing themselves. This is why they need to take some distance to “touch base” with their own self and be available to engage again.
Being aware of this natural and healthy pattern makes a big difference: you can stop worrying! No need to feel sad, angry or resentful. No need to listen to this inner voice torturing you “What if he doesn’t care? What if I did something wrong? What if I wasn’t good enough? What if he doesn’t love me anymore?”
When things go wrong in a relationship, the most difficult step is to get out of the vicious circle of wound-argument, deeper wound- stronger argument, which automatically leads towards a downward spiral. In the end, finding the strength in yourself to communicate lovingly seems to me the only way up, even though it sounds difficult. You’ve got to get out of this negative and destructive downward spiral. Your future might as well depend on it.
What does life look like for you now?
It took me 6 weeks to find a job at the European Commission. Today I work as a Love & Divorce Coach, supporting expat women to heal their hearts after separation/divorce and eventually to open up to new love again. Here, in the capital of Europe I feel like a fish in fresh water. I continue to meet interesting people from all corners of Europe and the world.