Changing Altitude or What I Learnt on an Ordinary Expat Night


I have an innate allergy to immobility. Being stuck in a place, in a time, in an occupation that don’t seem to bring me anywhere warmer, colder, brighter, darker, funnier…different. Expatriation has been the antidote to all of my fears for some time. When I felt like I’d had enough of something, I started planning a way out. I didn’t know, though (and none told me but of course none tells you what’s really worth knowing) that the number of obligations and the mobility rate are inversely proportional to age.

So as most of you know I have been stuck in Belgium for the past 11 years, in the surrealistic limbo that makes me a foreigner but technically not an expat anymore. I understand the country better than the average medium-term expat but I will always be a foreigner to locals and a local to pure blood expats. I haven’t found a way to get out of this mud other than plotting a relocation whose terms and dates are today still vague. Luckily, out there there’s someone smarter than I am and I met her last Thursday.

A British woman called B., cornered in the expat limbo as I am, decided to do something about it and founded the Full Circle, a private club dedicated but not reserved to expats where world renowned thinkers come to discuss, expose their ideas and stimulate reflexion and exchange. A Belgian friend, after having patiently listened to my usual lamentations, told me there was a newly created place I would love and she was right. British philosopher A.C. Grayling gave a lecture on European Culture and I suddenly felt very light and deeply fascinated while listening to his witty, fast paced and impossibly elegant remarks. It felt like living somewhere global and open again, instead of cloudy, cozy, comfortably boring Brussels.

At the end of the lecture, while I was queuing for coffee, a bold, smiling New Yorker came up with a joke on the huge volume I had in my hands, Grayling’s modern bible and most famous work, The Good Book. We started chatting, in that informal and relaxed way that is so American and so unusual to find in Europeans. The nice gentleman introduced himself modestly as a teacher at the local business school and explained he had only lived in Brussels for the past 3 years and loved the quiet unpretentiousness of the city, and the ability to walk everywhere. Quite a change from New York. The point – I told him – is how much tranquility is too much tranquility. And on I went with my usual list of things I just had enough of in Brussels and with my dreams of expatriating again, somewhere very different.

The New Yorker then took a serious look and asked me if I knew who Bertrand Piccard was. “Sort of – I said – Isn’t he the swiss guy that toured the world in a balloon?”. “Precisely. He said that life isn’t different from ballooning. Sometimes you are stuck somewhere because of the winds. You can’t do much about it but changing your altitude in order to move forward”.

I wasn’t sure I had grabbed the concept but the metaphor certainly is enthralling. Once home, I realized that the nice, inspiring guy I met on a coffee line actually is a world-renowned academic and I was able to find an excerpt of Piccard’s thoughts online:

Life itself is a bit like that – a great balloon flight, during which we are often imprisoned by winds of life taking us in directions that are not necessarily those of our choosing. We can certainly grumble and try to resist, but all that does is to cause more suffering. Responsibility and free will for us in life consists essentially, as for balloon pilots, in “changing altitude”, that is lifting ourselves up educationally, vocationally, psychologically, philosophically, and why not spiritually, so as to open ourselves to new influences, ways of understanding and outlooks on life that can take us to other destinations”.

Have you already felt stuck? How did you change your altitude?


  1. While I don’t feel ‘stuck’ I do get the concept of being neither ‘fish nor fowl’ (so to speak). I never really was a typical expat, no fat salary package, just a student who met a guy, got married, went away and returned to start at the bottom and work my way up.

    I like the phrase of ‘changing altitude’ – one of the pleasures of life today is having a small community of remarkable folks who are also are global, floating in and out of India for a decade or more and having trips out for work which feeds my restless adventurous spirit, making me happy to come back home every time to Bombay!

    I have the best of both and therein lies the secret of my finding that sweet spot to continue to float happily, glorying in the joy and wonder that life holds.

    Best wishes to find your new ‘altitude’ – certainly sounds like you are off to a rollicking good start!

  2. It took me a long time to to come to the same conclusion: the baggage you carry it’s the same wherever you are. An old boyfriend used to say I was obsessed with moving to new pastures. It’s thrilling for a while but having a place to really call home, whether it’s where we are born or one we have adopted, can be comforting. Hope you find it.

  3. I am stuck.
    I wanted to leave the Netherlands 3 years ago, once the contract of the job which dragged me here was over.
    But no, got a boyfriend with a contract for 2 more years, so I decided to stay with him. Married him. Still waiting for him.
    But now we are trying to change altitude (or latitude strictly speaking).
    And it is not the perfect time, and it is not easy.
    But I need to. And he also wants to. So overall it shouldn’t be impossible to change latitude..

    How I survived during two years of being stuck… work, a lot of work, an incredible amount of work. And few hobbies: courses I always wanted to take, but never had time; recipes I always wanted to cook but never had time. And friends.

    You know sometimes you just need to find the beauty of things around you. And I know it gets more and more difficult with the time. But it is the only way to go on living without feeling sad or frustrated by the “being stuck”.

  4. Lovely thought about changing one’s attitude. I’m glad you shared it.

    It also seems that we are almost on reverse sides of the expat limbo issue: you want to go (11 years may be too long) and I want to stay put (2 years is too short)!

  5. Enjoyed this very much, it came at a good time for me. I’m not so much stuck as going around in circles, unsure what decisions to make about moving back to the UK, schools, houses etc. This has inspired me to open myself up to new ways of looking at my options. Thank you x

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