I’m not sure why I’ve been away for so long. I’d say I haven’t had time, but you can always make time for things when you’re motivated, so let’s just say I haven’t had the motivation to blog for a while. Things have certainly been busy, especially at the weekends; since the start of February every weekend has been taken up: I’ve had the family visiting and went to an excellent gig with my sister, two weekend conferences in the UK, and friends visiting Brussels for the last two weekends. Things have felt as if they are starting to settle in with work, as well; the report I’ve been writing is finally nearly finished, even after a near-catastrophe with the computer.
The conferences have all contacts and ideas and new momentum. In Oxford we talked about the intricacies and challenges of advocacy work in Brussels at Young Friends General Meeting. At Woodbrooke the following weekend I attended the excellent Quakers in Criminal Justice annual conference. And last Thursday it was off to Utrecht in the Netherlands for a CEP working group on the problems of foreign nationals in prison. I like the Netherlands, based on this visit and a day I spent in Breda midweek just to get a break and a day off. There’s more on these events elsewhere, and this blog isn’t for me to talk about work. But it’s nice to feel that there is some connection between the deskbound work I’ve mostly been doing so far, and a wider community of people pushing for a more humane justice system. Perhaps the reason I’ve been blogging less is because things have settled into more of a pattern; living in a new country is less raw and exciting than before, and it feels like there’s less interesting to say. There are more questions about the future, as well, now I’m no longer distracted by working out how on earth to buy fresh milk, and riffing on insane supermarkets and bureaucratic nightmares.
You can feel isolated here, though, and this is despite all the visits I’ve been getting. Brussels is transient, with people coming and going often. One new friend has just moved to Turkey for the foreseeable future; another old mate from the UK, whom I didn’t see very often because we were always at different ends of the country, has arrived in Brussels for a new job. She has been living literally across the road for a month or so; it’s always good to pick up an old friendship and find it still exactly to your liking. So it’s not really the friendships, it’s not really knowing where I belong at the moment.
Is it Brussels? It’s certainly a good place to live, and I’m starting to feel I know enough about the European institutions to have a decent chance of finding similar work here in the future, but it’s hard to feel committed when all of the signs are that I’m going to be elsewhere come next autumn. I have an application in for a job in Geneva, which would pass another year; another option if that doesn’t come good would be postgraduate study in criminology, which might mean Cambridge or possibly somewhere else. Another option, though more for the longer term, might be a PhD, again in criminology, and possibly in the US. Or there are options to head back to the UK and work closer to the ‘coal face’ of the justice system there. Part of me would love to go somewhere even more different, and when I want to escape for a while I enviously eye the kinds of jobs I know I couldn’t get in very exciting and far-flung places. But unless I go back to teaching – a backwards step – it all points to the need for more experience and training, unless I were to get lucky. And anyway, much as I like the thrill of the new, such as the Transformer-like trains and the exciting Dutch noises coming out of everyone’s mouths in the Netherlands, wouldn’t it still be just running away?
Not that there’s much more than a year in one place with any of the options I’m looking to do next. It’s a sense of dislocation. My friends all seem to be getting married and having babies; it’s not what I want right now, but it’s a reminder of the stability and certainty that were taken away from me, which I don’t know if I’ll get back. Intimacy and solidity are nice things to have, though their seductive pleasures can lead you to forget that they need the right object, not to mention that the right timing and the right setting. From this point of view, the intern’s life is tortuous sometimes, since it’s almost perfectly designed to remind you that you and most of the people you meet are transient. There’ll be another one of you and another one of them along in a minute: why settle for more? So while you can live well in Brussels, it’s hard to put down roots. London wouldn’t be right; too many reminders of before, and too many friendships with people whose lives are racing ahead while I sit and scratch my head, not quite sure what’s going on. Berkhamsted? Forget it; that’s the past; nothing for me there now.
In this kind of situation it seems that all you can do is hang onto one bit that’s interesting, and beg it to drag you somewhere worthwhile. But the strangeness of the rest of the surroundings mean that you’re constantly looking around, like a tourist looking for non-existent signage on the Metro, feeling like you’ve lost control, and thinking: “Where am I going, and where do I get out?” It’s not exactly dangerous, but it’s not really like being on holiday, either.