With an impending return home, V-Grrrl discovers that her children have few memories of back home after only two years. What of Belgian souvenirs?
Like most Americans, I’m a bit mad for photography, and I have lots of photos, both digital and print. When my parents died years ago, they left behind a hopeless jumble of photos that raised more questions than answers. This is why I’ve been committed to keeping my own photos organised.
All the prints are dutifully enter them into family albums with names, dates, and places noted. I also have duplicates made of my favorite shots, and I use them to create albums for the children so that both my son and my daughter will have a visual record of their lives to take with them when they leave home.
Unfortunately, I’d fallen way behind in updating the kids’ albums, and so with the return of drizzly, windy weather, it seemed the perfect time to catch up. My dining room table is covered with envelopes of photos that I’m sorting and adding to my children’s albums, along with brief descriptions.
Memories of expat life in Belgium
My daughter has loved looking at photographs all her life, and she’s been frequently checking in on my progress these last few days, lingering over the pictures and asking questions.
What’s astonished me during this process is how much she and her brother have forgotten about their life in the US.
My son was unable to recall the names of some of the boys in his Cub Scout troop, boys he’d known for years and seen every week and camped with. My daughter asked me what colour our house had been in the US. Both kids had difficulty recalling the names of their teachers.
My jaw dropped. We’ve only been here two years. My kids were 6 and 8 years old when we arrived; they weren’t babies. I’m a bit freaked out that so much is sliding out of their memory, that the past is retreating so quickly for them.
When we were preparing to move to Belgium, people often commented on what an amazing experience it would be for the kids. They were the perfect ages for this type of adventure! They would have an opportunity to travel and see things that most Americans never see! What a tremendous advantage this would be for them!
Now I realise that while we’ve dutifully taken them to see the most famous sites in London, Rome, Paris and Brussels and visited countless other points of interest in Belgium, Germany, England, and the Netherlands, chances are they won’t remember much of what they’ve seen.
A child’s experience of the world is so different. An adult sees a Michelangelo and brings so much knowledge and emotion to bear on that experience. A kid sees a Michelangelo and thinks, “Cool. I can’t believe that’s made of stone,” and then wonders aloud when we can stop for gelato and whether they get an extra scoop this time.
Let’s face it: years later the kid will remember the gelato and forget the sculpture by What’s-His-Face.
What do expat children remember from their life overseas
I have no doubt that when my children recall their time in Belgium, what will stand out in their memory is the local friterie and bakery, the fact that they thought our yard was too small, the way it rained a lot, and how great the playgrounds were. They will also never forget nor forgive the lack of snow. This will be the major regret of their expat years—they didn’t have snow days off from school. They didn’t go sledding!
Still, I know the expat experience and all the travel hasn’t been wasted on them. What they don’t consciously remember still shapes their perspective and their outlook on the world and will affect them all their lives.
Now they know…
…that America isn’t the centre of the universe, that people from many cultures can co-exist more or less peacefully, that there’s not one right way to do things but many different ways to accomplish a task, and that we’re all products of our cultures and must be aware of how that influences how we think about life and politics and right and wrong.
My kids have had the experience of being the foreigner, the stranger, the outsider, and so they’ve come to appreciate the value of being welcomed, tolerated, and accommodated. I hope this will forever colour the way they interact with the variety of people they’ll meet in life.
And maybe, just maybe, the photos I neatly arrange and label on these rainy afternoons will help them recover the best memories and lessons of expat life long after we return to America.