InterNations Featured Blog
Michelle: Belgian Trips
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Belgium, etc.
Having been born and raised in Ohio, USA, I had an interest to see what lay beyond suburban America. During my French studies in college and graduate school, I lived in Tours, France on two different occasions. These experiences fueled my passion for French literature, art (especially surrealism), cinema, history, culture and gastronomy.
With a teaching degree in French, and specifically Business French, I have taught all levels (pre-K through university) as well as worked for a French company in America and in Paris.
As soon as my family and I moved to Belgium, I dove into the adventure of being an expat wife and mother. I was excited to use my French in countless real-life situations. These past eight-plus years have taught me an extensive vocabulary that a Master's degree never touches upon.
In addition, I am a published poet, editor and journalist. I write children's stories and my reflections on raising Third Culture Kids on Good Night, Sleep Tight. I write about travel and leisure on Belgian Trips.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
I first started writing on Good Night, Sleep Tight. I wanted other expats to, first of all, have easy access to English-language bedtime stories and, secondly, to have a place to laugh and/or relate to the circumstances we expats experience.
As soon as I wrote my first piece for Belgian Trips, I was energized to use so much knowledge I had learned in my graduate studies again while building upon it at the same time. For a small country, Belgium has so much to explore. It's a thrill to be able to show it to others who are either planning a trip or who know they may never see it for themselves.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
My first review focused on the Musée Magritte in Brussels. I was so delighted to surround myself in surrealism again that this is one of my favorite pieces. However, my other favorite blog posts concentrate on Art Nouveau: Victor Horta and His Art Nouveau, At the Home of Victor Horta and La Maison Autrique, chez un ami. I enjoyed researching this magnificent art movement. Visiting Art Nouveau buildings, reading books and hearing lectures on the subject gave me an appreciation of not only Horta and his vision but also of Belgian history of the time.
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?
As Belgian women never take their husband's name, I have had to revert back to using my maiden name. After eight years, I still get thrown off when people call and ask for Madame Ralph. I think they want to speak to my mother. And, every time I call my doctor for an appointment, the conversation starts, “Bonjour, this is Michelle Nott. Euh, I mean Michelle Ralph, Umm.” To which the receptionist responds, “Oui, I know who you are.”
Obviously, life is different in Belgium than in the US, but for a variety of reasons. First, I am not teaching or going to an office every day. Before starting my freelance writing ventures, I enjoyed “stay-at-home“ status with my daughters. We met local friends and leisurely explored Belgium.
Daily errands took a bit of getting used to, mainly because of mid-day and Sunday closing times. In Belgium, I savor going to butcheries, bakeries, cheese shops, boutiques, the cobbler even, rather than the one-stop shop experience a typical American would have running to the mall.
As I already experienced living in France, I bypassed a lot of the culture shock some of my American friends experienced in terms of language, food, and certain customs. Nonetheless, I was shocked that not everyone in Belgium speaks (or is willing to speak) French and Dutch, those being the official languages (plus German near the border). I thought that speaking French would get me by anywhere, but that is not the case. Consequently, I took a few years of Dutch to be functional in everyday situations.
As a mother of very young children, I often had a hard time with the less than family-sized public accommodations. Space to change a diaper was always an issue. And, of course, many buildings in Brussels were built well before the era of double-strollers.
But honestly, I have to dig deep to pull out what is so culturally shocking about living in Europe versus in America because the differences now appear normal. I have to readjust my habits and viewpoint more when we travel back to the US.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Belgium? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
No one can be fully prepared for any situation, notably an international move. I was, however, prepared to speak the local language (although I had to pick up on some Belgian-French terms), prepared to meet my neighbors, and prepared to integrate into the community.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
In American schools, St. Valentine's Day is very festive. And so, during my daughter's first year of school in Belgium, at the ripe age of 3 years old, I told her about the little Valentine cards my classmates and I made for each other in grade school, “You're super!” and “Be Mine” scribbled in magic marker on index-sized cards. I helped her decorate a little Valentine bag to collect the cards that her American grandparents and cousins would be sending. I even told her how everyone always wears red on Valentine's Day. It was one of my favorite days to go to school.
Certainly seeing that the Belgian public schools celebrate the Catholic holiday of Candlemas, surely it would do something for St. Valentine.
On the day itself, I dressed my little schoolgirl in a red sweater, a red skirt, red and white-striped stockings with sparkly hearts on the ankles and her red shoes. (Even in black and white letters, the outfit sounds a bit much. But, honestly, how many of us Americans went to school looking similar?)
I packed her lunch of heart-shaped finger sandwiches with a Valentine napkin in a red cooler bag and put a heart sticker on it (left over from my teacher days). My daughter danced around like a Queen of Hearts until it was time to head out.
Upon arriving into the school building, we looked around at all the other children. They were dressed very nicely in their school dresses and freshly pressed trousers. But, the only red was the thin stripe in her classmate's Burberry jeans (as if three-year-old boys don't get mud and grass stains).
When lunch was finished, I strapped my equally red-dressed baby back in the stroller and headed down the hill to pick up her big sister. We walked into the lunchroom where I found my schoolgirl on her chair, empty red bag at her side. She stood up ready to go and walked over to her teacher. While my daughter received her usual cheek-kiss goodbye, I got odd, raised eyebrow looks from the lunch ladies.
“We saw her sandwiches,” her teacher said.
No “that was cute” or “what a nice idea.” Shrugging off the comment, we walked home. I asked her if she had a fun time at school.
She answered, “Yes.” Then, after a pause, “My teacher asked why I was dressed all in red.”
Since that first year of school, I have never again insisted as much for Valentine's Day. I have learned to dress my daughters more discreetly in red and wait until dinner to make a heart-shaped cake. Just last year in second grade, an English classmate of my first daughter asked their teacher if the class could exchange Valentine cards.
“Non!” she answered in a very high pitch, according to my 8-year-old. “C'est la fête des amoureux (It's a holiday for lovers)!” I suppose that rightly explains the funny look I received from her first teacher.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Belgium?
- Do your best to learn one of the official languages, at least to a daily functional level.
- Find a community group to belong to. Many towns organize play groups, walking groups, etc. Check their websites.
- Do not stock up and ship over all your favorite foods/items from your home country. Trying new tastes is part of the experience.
How is the expat community in Belgium? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
The expat community in Belgium, especially in and around Brussels, is huge. With the EU, NATO, and the numerous international companies, residents are literally from all over the world. Belgium also hosts many international clubs. Expats are bound to find a community they can consider a “home away from home”. Personally, I have benefitted greatly from the American Women's Club of Brussels.
How would you summarize your expat life in Belgium in a single, catchy sentence?
If life is a dream, as some say, expat life has made mine come true.