How to: When Everybody Leaves Town

As is characteristic to Brussels and the expat community the world over, people change jobs and consequently their country of residence in the summer because of school holidays and also it’s more fun in sweltering heat. Thus, ’tis the season of goodbyes and people trying to get rid of their house-plants and unwanted kitchen knick-knacks by smuggling them to office in the name of “circular economy”.

The Summertime Expat Tombola is every bit as stressful as is the pre-Christmas social drinking season. This year’s Brussels edition is particularly distressing, because the five-year political mandate is crawling to its end and the giant blender has started to rattle, shaking everybody inside for a month or so,  before spewing them out in various directions. We are currently experiencing the moment where most people still find themselves mid-air.

The consequence of the above is a non-stop stream of invitations to office farewell parties. It will be over soon, but before then, keep the following in mind:

1. Always keep cash in the office.

From mid-June until beginning of August there will be a trainee at your office doorstep every morning, collecting money for a farewell present to a colleague you last saw at Christmas drinks. The trainee will not accept plastic, and also you will be massively frowned upon should you proceed to sign the farewell card without contributing to the gift. I personally keep notes of €5 and €10 at hand so that I can get rid of the trainee, the card and the whole situation smoothly, without involving myself in a complex exercise of running around the corridor asking colleagues for change.

2. Keep it simple.

The act of signing a colleague’s farewell card seems to turn every adult into an elementary-school giddy girl who’s filling in her bestie’s journal of BFFs. Extra sheets of paper frequently need to be added to the card, or shall I say leaflet, because every person must individually express exactly all of the following: Happinessbecause of a new job. Sadness because the colleague leaves. Encouragement that everything will be fantastic. Hope that paths will cross again. How is this not enough? Because it is not. Multiple limericks, Ancient Greek wisdoms, choruses from fun songs will, without fail, find their way into every leaving card. Everything, as is customary, scribbled in a maddeningly small, illegible handwriting. 

– Oh gee guys, thank you, I will frame this and hang in my new office! And every office after that! 


3. Don’t fight the awkwardness.

Office parties are awkward whatever you do. There are absolutely no exceptions to this. You have to prepare yourself for the moment you hear the clinking against a half-drunk glass of cava. It signifies a start of the farewell speech, which more often than not is an impromptu exercise without any prior thought process. Concentrate on clenching your glutes, for example. Squeeze and hold for at least 25 times. 

4. Eat the cake.

Sometimes people feel that they must bring in baked goods. If they have gone through the trouble of baking stuff from scratch, I’m afraid you’re gonna have to tuck in. They are clearly proud of their pies and tarts, otherwise they would not be on display in your conference room. Forget about your summer detox and complicated exclusion-diets: have a slice. 

You can pass the crisps and any industrially manufactured snacks, but home-baked items shall be savoured. Then you say “Why, is this delish!” very loudly. 

5. Prepare how to end a conversation.

In terms of starting a conversation, farewell situations are easier than regular networking cocktails, because there is a topic and the celebrated individual. Feigning interest in the new job, how the removal is going, how the kids are adjusting, what the new team will be like always works.

Summertime perennial classic is also pretending that you care about your colleagues’ summer holidays. This comes with a risk, though. European holidays are month-long deals. It’s a lot of ground to cover and relatives to meet, and you might not be ready to hear all of it. Therefore prepare a couple of quick exits. Mine is usually “OK, bye“. 

Top diplomatic-level tip: never leave a person standing alone. However dreadful the situation, you must wait for a third individual to emerge, so that you pass the baton of suffering to an innocent bystander before scooting off.

6. Update your contacts of correspondence regularly.

A good third of your daily contacts suddenly changing their mobile phone numbers and emails spells an epic disaster, hypothetically. Especially if you have been involved in WhatsApp-groups where politically incorrect material has been exchanged between colleagues because fun. Don’t leave the updating of your Rolodex to the quiet days in August – replace every single contact detail as they become known to you, delete the old ones and double-check the recipient before sending dubious material.

Receiving text messages for months from ex-colleague’s wife who thinks she’s sending them to her husbandis entertaining. Probably less for her, though. Or the husband.

7. Let the emotions come.

It’s such a Circle of Life, innit? The comings and goings of people? Colleagues getting new opportunities, moving on, having their lives changed. People talking excitedly about their new apartments, new language skills that need to be acquired, new ridiculously monstrous barbecue-grills that need to be installed on their football court-sized new backyards. 

Your old colleagues being celebrated for their new jobs and shiny careers and them leaving town and … none of this is happening to you.

Let it all out. But do go to their parties. You’ll get your turn eventually. And try to look ahead: By the end of the summer there will be a new batch of hopefuls bringing in their fresh office supplies. And because of all the farewell speeches you’ve suffered through, you’ll have an ass of steel.

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