InterNations Featured Blog
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Belgium, etc.
I am Leah, a young American on the later side of 25. I was raised in the heartland of the USA in a humble little state called Kansas. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish in May of 2011 after spending a year studying abroad in Pamplona, Spain. I moved to Belgium to begin a new part of my life in July of 2011.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
I’ve always had a love of culture. For as long as I can remember I’ve always been fascinated by languages, art, history, and all the other things that make up the uniqueness of one particular place. Belgium is not the first foreign country that I’ve called home. I began a blog called One-Way Ticket to Spain to document my experience of studying abroad and really enjoyed blogging. When I made the choice to move to Belgium I was very excited to continue blogging and to bring new cultural experiences to life via OppositeOcean.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours? Please add the URL as well.
- ‘Of’ means ‘or’ and ‘en’ is no longer ‘in’ but ‘and’: This is a new entry concerning the difficulties of learning multiple languages simultaneously. Flemish people are famous for the ability to speak multiple languages and this post covers my curiosity about how this could be possible for me without the loss of my sanity.
- A Belgian-American Thanksgiving: This is a post documenting my first Thanksgiving in Belgium. It will always be remembered as one of the best, certainly.
- Horse Milk, Drink Up! This post tells about the experience of tasting horse milk for the first time. There’s a horse dairy near Ghent, which provides a fascinating day trip for the dairy-open-minded individual.
Tell us about the ways your new life in Belgium differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
My experience moving to Belgium was a bit unique because I didn’t actually move to Belgium from my home country. I had just finished my year abroad in Spain. I knew that Belgium would be my new long-term home and I found it comforting from the start. I cannot say that I experienced a culture shock because I came to live here after spending a year among the Spanish culture. The Belgian culture - the way people interact with one another, the basic manners, and the dispositions - I don’t find so different from what I’m accustomed to in my own culture. From the start of my experience here, I recognized Belgium as a hospitable place where people greet you with friendly smiles and a willingness to help.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Belgium? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
I was prepared for the experience of living as an expat but my life also developed in other ways in addition to just relocating to a new country. I don’t believe I would change any decisions or preparations. Every event that occurred has shaped my experience so far and at this point I see it as a very positive thing. That is not to say that deciding to become an expat doesn’t involve a lot of decisions and preparation. It certainly does. I’m fortunate to have such a supportive family and partner to have made the process go much more smoothly.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
A very integral part of the Belgian culture is riding a bike. Of course, as an American child growing up in a rural Midwestern town, I learned how to ride a bike at a very young age. I didn’t think it would be a problem to join the fietsers (cyclists) and fit right in. Well, I was wrong. Riding a bike on the open Kansas road is not the same as riding a bike in Ghent. I’ve suffered a multitude of calamities while trying to master the art of Belgian bike riding. I have written a blog post dedicated to one particularly embarrassing weekend full of bike mishaps. You can read about it in the post What a ‘nieuwe fiets’ is and why I need one.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Belgium?
- Go with excitement but also go realistically. The new will wear off and normal life will replace it. Moving to a new country will not erase the difficulties that exist in life.
- Find people that are in your same situation because they are the ones that will understand what you’re going through and how you feel about it.
- Learn to laugh at yourself. Learn to laugh when you fall off your bike, learn to laugh when you accidentally say something vulgar in your new country’s language, and learn to laugh when there’s nothing else left to do but laugh. I’m still working on being able to do this.
How is the expat community in Belgium? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
There are many expats living in Belgium. As part of the immigration process you must participate in an integration program. The integration program requires that each participant enroll in a Dutch course. My goal since moving here was to continue studying at the University, and all Flemish Universities also have a Dutch language requirement (unless otherwise specified in a particular program). I began studying the Dutch language immediately after I arrived and I found this an excellent way to meet other like-minded people. Through the Dutch courses I’ve gained a lot of knowledge, more confidence in understanding and communicating in the Dutch language, and also a lot of unique and interesting friendships. Learning the local language is an integral part of life as an expat and it can also be very helpful in making you feel more at ease in your new home.
How would you summarize your expat life in Belgium in a single, catchy sentence?
Oost west, thuis best.
This is a Dutch proverb that translates as ‘east west, home best’ in English. I think many expats struggle with the idea of what home is to them. It’s important to remember that home can change. Home is really a feeling and not a place.