Monday, January 6, 2014

Expat Experiences: First Moments in Belgium

This morning I saw this post about expat experiences in my reader and I thought it might be a good idea to join Arni of Travel Gourmande and take part in this january expat link-up hosted by Molly of The Move to America. I found the prompt for today particularly appealing because there's no better time to reflect on the starting point of something than the beginning of a new year. So let's take a trip down memory lane!

The Move to America

I moved abroad for the first time in September 2007. I lived in Antwerp, Belgium, for a year as exchange student and it was for sure one of the best years of my life. Even before starting college I knew that I wanted to spend a year abroad for my study. I had always been curious about the world, I enjoyed learning foreign languages and getting to know different cultures and people and I was yearning for adventure and more travel possibilities than Tenerife allowed me to. Planning my exchange year was already a thrilling experience and as the leaving date got closer I became more and more excited. My biggest dream to date was about to be fulfilled, living abroad on my own! But two weeks before leaving reality hit me and I broke down. I was moving to a foreign country where I didn't know anyone, where people spoke a language totally unknown to me. I don't think I knew much about Belgium before, except that Brussels was its capital and also home to most EU institutions and that Antwerp had one of the world-leading fashion schools.

I landed in Charleroi Airport in August and the first days were rather confusing. I hadn't done much reserach but I expected Antwerp to be a big metropolis, as it was the second biggest city of the country. However, it was more like the kind of regional town which you own in a couple of days, with a main shopping street, a couple of good museums and several eye-catching buildings spread around the city centre - plus a lovely historical core with a sky-soaring cathedral and a grand central square. Everything looked very unfamiliar to me. I was surrounded by neon lights displaying logos I had never seen before and no matter where I looked, I only spotted signs written in Dutch, thus totally unfathomable to me. A week upon arrival I began an intensive Dutch course for foreign students and slowly everything started to make sense around me.

I knew very early on that I would be more than fine in Antwerp and I don't remember having felt homesick at all. One of the things that first caught my eye was how often Antwerp women wore black clothes and I liked that because back then black made up approximately 50% of my wardrobe. I also liked the laid-back vibe of the city, despite its love for expensive fashion and gourmet eating and drinking. And I really enjoyed getting lost in the cobbled backstreet alleys while the weather was still warm. I met some great people at the Dutch course and we remained good friends throughout the year and beyond and traveled extensively around Belgium and neighbouring countries. And with so much going on the first moments turned into days and then weeks and then months and before I knew it a year was gone.

Six years is a long time but I still remember clearly those first weeks in Antwerp and if had to summarize those first moments I would say that I was feeling overstimulated and exhausted. And above all, content and thankful. I've since moved twice abroad again and the experience has been similar, if only I'm not a careless student anymore and I do worry about more serious expat matters, like finding a job. Still, I count myself lucky for having experienced and enjoyed the expat life, even during the first moments. And I think the following tips are key to survive those overwhelming first weeks.

Be open-minded, it is easier to like a place if you don't have any preconceptions about it.

Embrace the differences. Maybe you hometown is better than this foreign place but it is not fair to compare if you haven't made the effort to get to know it.

Make new friends quickly, especially if you're alone. They will see you through the hard times and become like family.


  1. Thank you so much for joining in!

    I loved reading this - especially about the way things were confusing at first for you (me too) and your tip about just embracing the differences makes so much sense!

    Molly @ The Move to America

    1. Thank you for coming up with this great link-up! I really liked the prompts and I'll try to join you in the upcoming weeks as well.

      I also enjoyed reading your story and previous posts about how much effort took you to be able to move overseas to your Hubby!

  2. No sabía que hacía tanto tiempo que te habías marchado de tu casa en Tenerife. La verdad es que los comienzos siempre son duros( donde quiera que sea) pero creo que ahora estás completamente adaptada a tu experiencia europea( después de haber vivido en Bélgica y ahora en Suiza) Bss, Irene:)

    1. Sí, la verdad que el tiempo pasa volando. Sobre todo cuando hago las cuentas de seis años atrás más la edad que tenía y me doy cuenta de cuantos años tengo ya jajajaja Pero bueno, desde entonces me he ido y he vuelto a Tenerife un par de veces así que he estado fuera de manera intermitente aunque ahora llevo ya dos años y medio sin vivir en Tenerife!

  3. This is awesome. .I am so happy you joined the link up and it's great to read your post. I completely agree with making friends. It's fascinating how friends are the closest to family when we are overseas.

    1. It is, especially when you have no one you know around you - and you're also young and inexperienced!
      I also enjoyed reading your post and decided to follow along :)

  4. Irene, I so admire you. I think that was gutsy and very mature. I think it's sometimes fear that holds us back. Then when we jump out there we say, what in the world were we ever scared about. HaHaHa Traveling helps you to grow. I've traveled within the US but not outside the country yet. It's been mainly financial as the desire is there. So hopefully I'll get to do so. You're definitely an inspiration. Great post.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, I'm blushing!
      I hope that you get to travel abroad soon, Kim! I agree with you that it helps you to grow but I think i is especially important if it's something you long for because otherwise you'll be left wondering what if. But it is not always easy. I'd love to visit the US sometime, I think it is a really fascinating country :)

  5. Great post! It is really important to embrace the differences. Otherwise it can make you really homesick and miserable. I mean,no place will ever be like your hometown so you need to make the best out of it.


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