When a European city beats a tropical paradise island.
Or how I’m loving my return to Brussels.
I have to admit that if there was a “Luckiest Person on Earth 2020” title, that would be mine. End of January 2020, when the virus was getting out of control in China, I moved to a tourist paradise island, Gili Air of Indonesia. I stayed for two years, and having evaded the craziness that you all went through, I got back to the city that I called home for the last decade, Brussels.
A bit like, “Hey there! Long time. I didn’t miss anything big, did I?”
So how does the radical change of environment, lifestyle, and routine from a tiny island to a big cement jungle feel? The short answer is, it depends on me but more on this, further below.
And how does a busy European city beat a sandy island running on fresh coconuts and bicycles?
First, some things that don’t depend on me. Mosquitoes. No buzzing here, no bites, no need for sprays. At least, not in March.
Second, my friends. We have shared laughter, tears, and everyday moments for more than a decade now. What I had missed most in Gili were my family and friends.
However, meeting with friends in Brussels and in Gili is different. Everything takes time in the city, so outings have to be arranged. Here, I set to meet friends a few days in advance. With my closest ones up to an hour before. And we usually spend but a few hours together.
There are organised outings in Gili too, but on any other day, I would just meet people walking around or at the Rock’ n’ Roll Bingo or darts night. That’s where everyone was. We would spend many hours together, sometimes whole days. Time and again, I would visualise how Gili would be with my Brussels friends around. And how Brussels would be if Gillionaires were here (a party).
Third, my job. When my sabbatical started, I felt empty — like pensioners in their first year after decades of work. Devoid of purpose, low on energy. I am lucky to have a job that I consider meaningful, a job that I missed.
I did useful things with my sabbatical time. Online courses, journaling, one hundred dives in some of the world’s most pristine sites in a period without any tourist around, and hundreds of sunsets. I loved, I made friends, I danced, I loved again. But something was constantly missing. It turns out one thing I didn’t do in Gili was to create a new purpose for myself. And the day I got back to work (after my return to Brussels), I felt again energised.
Fourth, I will say the obvious. In most quantifiable comparisons, Brussels is better than a tiny island. Things that matter: clean water, affordable quality healthcare, decent jobs, social protection. Only second to these, beer, Brussels sprouts, and wines. Markets, restaurants, bars — a thousand options (or better, a thousand distractions from what really matters). Bouldering walls, museums nights, and an architecturally diverse environment that I love experiencing on my bike. I look up, and instead of palm trees, it’s Rue Dansaert.
After gulping the first sip of white wine on Gili, I turned the rest of the bottle into cooking vinegar. I remember the joy of tasting olives from my mother’s homeland, Kalamata, from a Swedish restaurant owner who stumbled upon them in a market in Bali and bought them for me. I will always thank him. In Brussels, I find Kalamatas in the supermarket at the corner.
Yet, there is one thing in which Gili Air beats Brussels in the everyday-goods-and-services comparison: Mama’s pizza. It’s the best pizza I remember eating, and naturally, it’s prepared by an Italian.
How do I feel getting back from paradise?
There are many reasons to suffer here — cloudy days, expensive everything, lack of nature. The same goes for Gili with Greek olives deficits, months of consistently low-quality wine, and cheese scarcity. Or seriously, the horrendous plastic pollution.
Nonetheless, my life experience should not depend on anything outside me.
Reasons do not decide my mood. I choose it. Reasons don’t do groceries or go to the office — I do.
In short, getting back from paradise feels just fine, if you know that that’s a choice.