Two years abroad – Pt. 2 – Leading Towards (our departure)
For Pt. 1 – Leading Up, please see my previous post:
Upon reflection, coming home from work on that Thursday night in December seemed a little surreal. That morning, Kelly and I were looking forward to a laid back 2-week break. We had both been working very hard during November and December. That evening, we were thrust into the unknown. Things changed and moved quickly. We had mountains of information to review. We began exploring what living in Belgium might look like. And, of course, we looked at one map after the other, tracing the distance from our new home to places like Paris and London and Brussels and Amsterdam!
Accepting the posting at the CAF overseas school in Belgium was just the first of many steps in the process. The clearance process was more rigorous than the application process. I needed to successfully complete a series of screenings: security, financial, psychological and medical. Kelly needed to complete the same steps. Each of us needed to successfully ‘pass’ each stage for the posting to be approved. Nothing was confirmed until this took place. There was an unending amount of paperwork. This was underlined by an email on December 21st I received the Finance Manager of my new department entitled “First wave of required documentation – Principal placement – SHAPE CIS – Belgium”. This first wave of documentation was also due by January 6th so we had no time to lose.
We used the two-week break at Christmas to start the ball rolling. We left messages with our doctors. We contacted the bank. We located and copied documents. We needed to provide our birth certificates, passports, marriage certificate and criminal reference checks. I needed to sign two different confidentiality agreements (which is part of the reason why I will rarely use names nor, in some cases, go into significant details about my experience in Belgium). I needed to review my Loan of Service cover letter which summarized mine, my school board’s and the Department of National Defence’s responsibilities in this endeavour. I also needed to review and sign the 20-page(!) Loan of Service Agreement itself which oversaw the terms and conditions of my employment as well as our life overseas. If the screening process was successful, I was, for all intents and purposes, becoming a civilian member of the military. Kelly, as my official ‘dependant’, was doing the same. Our actions overseas would both be governed by the National Defence Act. We would be supported and disciplined as if we were military members.
Although neither of us were concerned about any of the categories we needed to clear, there was nonetheless a sense of apprehension. What if they discover an underlying health condition? What if we’re not as sound financially as we think we are? The Canadian Military expected us t be in good general health, partly as a condition of employment and partially because the health services available to us freely at home may not be readily available overseas.
We took it all in stride and completed each component of the documentation and screening process. We visited our doctors. We went to our local police station. We completed questionnaires. We gathered character references. By the end of January, we were done. On February 7, 2019, I received official word that we were headed to Belgium.
As part of our preparation process, we were invited to spend one week in Belgium for initial processing and to find adequate accommodations. The military refer to this process as the HHT (house hunting trip). It provides a member an opportunity to seek out and confirm accommodations and begin the process of relocation while on the ground in their new location. For all educators being loaned to the CAF overseas schools, this process takes place over the March Break. This period was already hectic for me. I had previously planned on attending two conferences: one in Toronto at the end of February with the Learning Partnership’s Academy of Principals; the other in Austin, Texas, by invitation from the I.T. department of my school board. Heading to Belgium for a week at the beginning of March would add to that frantic pace. Our flight to Brussels left less than 48 hours after my flight from Austin landed.
Our HHT week was a whirlwind. We departed Toronto on Saturday afternoon, landed in Brussels on Sunday morning, picked up our rental car and headed to our hotel in Casteau, the small town that houses NATO’s Headquarters. We had no time to deal with jetlag although we were certainly feeling it. We were scheduled to meet the current and outgoing principal and the other two incoming staff members that afternoon in our hotel lobby. We chatted a little and received our schedule. Monday afternoon and Tuesday were set aside for property viewings. Imagine a situation where you and a real estate agent have 48 hours to find, view and confirm a home. This gives you a sense of the pace at which the HHT operates. We were quickly informed that it was mandatory that we find a place and sign a lease before our departure on Saturday.
Selecting a home was not the only item on our agenda. I had a school visit, a visit to the Canadian detachment on base and administrative appointments with the local bank, the Canadian post office on base and with NATO security. We also wanted to take the time to get familiar with our new location. We had also been invited to a staff get-together on Wednesday night and the weekly military TGIF/DMCV social gathering on base. This would be a March break unlike any other!
We met our agent late Monday morning. We had been in touch previously. To pre-select properties that we wanted to see. These included single dwellings, townhouses and apartments. Since Kelly doesn’t drive, we needed to have access to essential services by foot or by public transit. We also wanted to have dedicated workspace for Kelly and a room for guests. Since our housing was being subsidized, we had been given strict (but most certainly adequate) guidelines as to our permitted living area, number of bedrooms and rent cost ceiling. The pressure was on! This was the first of many times I would directly feel the turmoil that our military members and their families must feel every time they most posts.
The first half of that week in March went at an unbelievable pace. We visited 14 different places over that time period. Although we saw a few that were adequate, nothing said “Live here!” to us. Our agent took a chance and showed us a new build on the edge of the outer ring road in the city of Mons. It was a spacious three-bedroom apartment with a home office, large kitchen and an open concept living space. From here, everything in downtown Mons was easily accessible on foot. We loved it. We put our bid in and, by Friday, had signed the papers securing our Belgian home. Task one accompli!
As previously mentioned, finding a home was the primary but not the sole purpose of our initial trip to Belgium. Over the course of the week, we visited the Canadian school building, the teachers, the outgoing principal, the detachment offices on base, secured our Canadian P.O. box so that we could continue to receive mail at a local Canadian address, opened our Belgian bank accounts, attended an information session for newly arriving Canadians and became initially familiar with what our life would look like in Belgium. We walked the streets. We visited the Grande Place. We ate and drank; we shopped and wandered.
If we thought this would be a holiday though, we quickly dismissed the idea. Our days were full of administrative tasks. However, having now secured our home, we did manage to ‘sneak away’ to the Belgian coast. On Wednesday afternoon, we took in the cold, damp salt air in Oostende for a few hours. It also highlighted for us just how close a beach getaway would be once we relocated here.
Exhausted but exhilarated by this new week-long experience, we finally boarded our flight back to Toronto. The surprise upgrade to Business Class made the trip much more enjoyable! We spent the next few months preparing for our departure. We sold, gave away or donated items we felt we would no longer need. We filled in even more documentation, including an item-by-item itinerary of all our household goods. I drove to Ottawa for a final one-day orientation with the DND’s staff at the Children’s Education Management office. And our moving dates and flights were finalized. We then booked our temporary accommodations and rental cars in both Orangeville and Mons and waited impatiently for the arrival of our pack and load dates. The packing and loading of our goods were really the least of our work. The moving crew did everything: disassemble, pack, load and ship. We were very lucky. Our work was to stay out of their way.
With our goods gone, the last important thing to do was to say goodbye to friends and family. We did this in stages. The ‘band’, comprised of my closest friends and my son Sebastian, rocked a final 80s mini-gig in our home..
Our friends generously hosted a good-bye party so we could say our final farewells to everyone without needing to prepare anything. And we took my daughter Claire, Sebastian and their respective partners out for a final farewell dinner. This was by far the hardest goodbye. I had never been very far away from my kids. I had never gone an extended period without seeing either of them.
As we chatted with people at these get-togethers, we made loose plans to travel back to Canada and we offered to host anyone who wanted to travel to Europe in our new home in Belgium. There were lots of takers. People even started putting tentative dates into the calendar. We had lots of room and our location was in Belgium so central. It made the perfect jumping off point to explore most of Western Europe.
Little did we know, great plans aside, we would not see any of our friends or family in Europe at all. Any visits would have to wait a full two years when we returned to Canada.