Living abroad changed my life
Living abroad has been on my bucket list ever since I was a young girl obsessed with watching American movies and series. I remember being glued to the TV whenever The Hills was on. I dreamed of living in Los Angeles with Lauren Conrad and her girl squad. Of course, we would all become successful (and loaded $$$) fashion designers.
Unfortunately, that dream never became a reality. But I did visit LA (during our US West Coast road trip) and I lived abroad twice. Moving to other countries has taught me SO much and it formed me into the person I am today.
In which countries have I lived?
I moved to Valenciennes (France) during the third year of my studies (2008-2009) because I took part in an Erasmus program (a student exchange program). I feel so old realizing this is 10 years ago! Gosh, time flies. Anyway, I studied international marketing (in French and English) at the University of Valenciennes. This university was well connected with mine (grades could easily be transferred) and Valenciennes is situated close to Paris and Lille (hello, weekend trips). Those six months were amazing and I had a blast exploring France and meeting international students.
My next abroad experience (2017-2019) took place in Antwerp (Belgium) for a total different reason: I moved for love! Michel choose Antwerp (he previously lived in the UK) as his base when he got a job in the Netherlands. The company he worked for was located in a tiny Dutch village and he didn’t see himself living there. So I headed towards Belgium and we moved in together.
Although I have lived abroad twice, this blog post is solely focused on my abroad experiences in Belgium. In France, I was mostly being a happy teenager enjoying the student life to the fullest (if you know what I mean!). I did I learn my fair share of life lessons (partying with Brazilians leads to a headache the day after). Those days…Good times for sure!
Why has living abroad changed my life?
Moving to Belgium turned my life upside down. Before I moved I didn’t expect it would make such an impact on me. After all, Antwerp is situated only 30-minutes away from my previous (and also current) home town Bergen op Zoom. Plus I had already visited Antwerp multiple times and I felt I knew the city pretty well. However, living just half an hour away from my hometown enriched my life more than I could have imagined.
1. From a full-time employee to a full-time student
Before I moved to Belgium I left my marketing job in the Netherlands and this forced me to re-think my career path. Ever since college, I had been working full-time non-stop. To me, that has always been my idea of how one should develop a successful professional career. You work full-time, give it all you have, and (hopefully) you will be rewarded at the end of the year or make a promotion. I thought that was how I was supposed to live my life too.
Secretly, I had been wanting to go back to school to refresh my knowledge and to gain some extra skills. But I wasn’t sure if taking a break from my professional career was a smart move. I mean shouldn’t I just get a job first to save up some more money? Instead of picking the safest option, I took a risk: I signed in for a six-month full-time bachelor-after-bachelor program. The courses of the program “Creative Technologies and Entrepreneurship” really appealed to me.
I thought to myself: it is now or never. I was 27 back then and I didn’t feel too “old” (it sounds silly I even worried about that – you are NEVER too old to study!) to be a student. Also, this study wouldn’t keep me out of the job market for too long. Looking back the program turned out to be a great decision! I picked up on a bunch of cool stuff such as what it takes to run your own business (and a seed was planted in my head to start a blog).
Going back to school (completely voluntary this time, lol) felt relaxed compared to going to work. There were no unexpected deadlines, no team meetings (that occasionally led to layoffs), and no one stressed about a target we missed. Nobody could “punish” (that’s how I often felt at work) me for a bad (homework) assignment besides myself.
The school environment added more playfulness to my personality. I never realized I was so serious and somewhat uptight until I was surrounded by (only slightly) younger students. I graduated from college (I’ve got a bachelor in marketing) at the age of 20 and I started working full-time one month after graduation. I think I often acted way mature (aka stiff/boring) than I was. Hence, why most people were always surprised when I shared my age.
It took me some time to open up to other students but I am glad I made an effort. I forgot what it was like to make jokes in class and secretly giggle when someone made a smart comment to a teacher. Overall, I was being a good girl though, trust me!
I think being serious and taking your responsibilities as an adult is fine. But I took it too far the last couple of years. I was so focused on moving ahead in my career I had become more robot than human!
2. My career path and ambitions changed
About a month before the six-month program would end I felt the pressure to start looking for a job. I randomly applied for marketing jobs in Antwerp and even went on a couple of job interviews.
But, deep in my heart, I felt something was wrong. Was I applying for these jobs because they would full fill my passions and ambitions? Or just for the sake of having a steady monthly income? In the meanwhile, I could hear the clock ticking. And then I told myself: stop. Stop worrying and find a job you love. Your time is now and you only have one life to live (I took it that seriously).
When the six-month program was over I first did some serious self-exploration. Who am I? What makes me happy? What kind of job do I really want? Previously, I had only worked for technical B2B companies. However, I often felt bored marketing the same technical stuff. I’m not techie, but more the “creative” type of person.
So I went on the hunt looking for marketing jobs in the creative sector. After a few days, I got tired of scrolling through hundreds of job ads and checking daily email notification from job sites. Wasn’t the main thing I learned entrepreneurs have a pro-active attitude? Why was I depending on those silly job sites?
Instead of waiting for the perfect job to simply appear in my mailbox I started sending out open job applications to companies I thought were awesome.
My hard work paid off and a few weeks after the six-month program finished, I found a job at the marketing department of the MAS and Red Star Line Museum (both museums are located in Antwerp and owned by the City of Antwerp). The only thing was: they couldn’t pay me and I could only work there as a volunteer (I will spare you the details). At first, I was disappointed but it was such a unique opportunity to switch my career path around. In addition to that, my future colleagues seemed really nice. The heart wants what it wants? Hell YES.
Working at a museum made me feel useful. The team’s efforts contributed directly to the people of Antwerp and everybody that visited the museums. And, here comes the twist, after 6 months of volunteering I got a real (as in paid) job working for the City of Antwerp (in their business division). While volunteering I enrolled in an application procedure for a web and social media role. Lessons learned? Following your heart can lead to great opportunities.
I had a great time working directly for the City of Antwerp and, being in the business division, allowed me to learn even more about the entrepreneurial world. Antwerp is a start-up hub and seeing people following their passions is inspiring. During my new job, Michel started his own company and now I was surrounded by entrepreneurs!
It made me wonder what it would be like to be a freelancer myself. I’m seriously considering to give it a go. That’s why I’m currently reading all about the pros and cons of being a freelancer. To be continued…
3. More flexible and patient
Moving to Belgium in one word: paperwork. In the Netherlands, I carried a Dutch passport and I’ve been insured ever since I was born basically. In Belgium, I had to get used to the fact I was a ‘nobody’. Getting my Belgian ID turned out to be challenging because I came to Antwerp to study full-time and therefore I did not have a job.
It took ages (and lots of frustration on my side) to prove I wasn’t just an unemployed girl. I spent my first months handing in documents (my student contract, bank account, previous job contracts, and the list goes on) and driving to the immigration service office.
Michel had it easy as he holds a Belgian passport. Not having a Belgian ID for the longest time just freaked me out. What if I would get rejected? Could they kick me out of the country? Help!
In the meantime, the City of Antwerp gave me a Belgium social security number. Luckily, that number allowed me to apply for all the important insurances I needed. I was surprised by how many insurance companies still use paper forms. In the Netherlands, nearly every form is digital. I could not help but feel annoyed by the slow and old-fashioned way of working in Belgium. The control freak in me wanted everything to be taken care of in a split second.
Slowly it hit me that countries, even Belgium (to me there was never much difference between Belgium and the Netherlands), all have different rules and regulations. After a while, I accepted the slow registration process and just focused on my studies.
A flexible and patient attitude is necessary when you move to another country involves. In the end, if you do what you are asked to do, everything will turn out fine. Just. Be. Patient. Trust me! Worrying doesn’t do you any good.
4. More confident and independent
Before I moved to Antwerp I was stuck in the same daily routine: work, sleep, eat – repeat. I worked for a company in a position that didn’t fit me and I lived in an apartment that didn’t feel like home.
I was longing for change but I didn’t have the guts to quit my job or find a new home. Changing either one of those seemed a hassle. At least I had a job and an apartment. I had no reason to complain, right? I simply kept finding excuses for why I should accept my situation instead of trying to turn my life around and be happy.
At that time Michel and I had been together for just over a year. We briefly discussed moving in together but he made it clear he was fine living in Antwerp. Michel saw I wasn’t happy and proposed me moving to Antwerp. Initially, the idea scared me for several reasons. I had never lived with someone else before. What if things wouldn’t work out between Michel and me? Also, moving to Antwerp meant living in Belgium. Was I ready to be a foreigner?
I let Michel’s proposal sink in and gave it some thought. I came to the conclusion I was tired of always feeling tired. So I left my job, apartment, and doubts behind me. Michel and I rented a new, bigger apartment together and signed up for a 3-year contract. Where would we go after that? No idea!
Besides Michel, I didn’t know anyone in Antwerp. That meant I had to figure out A LOT on my own. What’s a nice and affordable women’s hairdresser or where can I get my favorite mascara? Of course, Michel was able to assist me in some areas but he didn’t know everything. On top of that, he traveled a lot for work.
I had to get out of my comfort zone, if not every day in the beginning. But each time I gained more knowledge about Antwerp and its unique culture. Doing things on my own made me feel confident and independent. With a little help from Google, I was able to fix just about anything.
I became an expert at doing research and finding my way in the narrow, cobblestone streets (#sheisnotlost). And whenever I got stuck I asked classmates or colleagues for additional advice. There’s no shame in asking people for help when you need it!
5. I became more open-minded
Coming from a small city I saw Antwerp as a huge, international city full of exciting opportunities lurking around the corner. Antwerp roughly has 170 different nationalities and about 50% of the entire population has a migrant background. I had never lived in a city with that many different backgrounds.
Strolling in Antwerp meant discovering something new. In the weekends, Michel and I explored a new neighborhood each time until we had seen them all. Each area has a different vibe, sound, and smell.
I liked how the diversity shows itself: from a Turkish bakery, a Jewish Synagogue, and a Chinese supermarket. It enabled me to see how different types of cultures live and how they manage daily life.
In Antwerp, the majority of the locals live a more Burgundian lifestyle compared to where I’m from. So Michel and I took our time to buy food at specialized local markets instead of going on a quick shopping spree. We sat down for a drink more often to enjoy a local singing band.
We both had an Antwerp city bike year pass and cycled to any local event that appealed to us. Overall we spent way more time outdoors and adjusted our daily routine. The main thing that changed was that I started relaxing more in life and fully enjoying the moment.
I didn’t just change on the inside, but I also experimented with different fashion styles. Antwerp is one of the fashion capitals of Europe! I became addicted to finding unique items at thrift stores and wore more flowy skirts, dresses, and developed a crush on mom jeans. And I donated each piece of clothing that made me unhappy such as boring office wear that reminded me of my (unhappy) life before I moved.
6. Family and true friends are gold
Besides all the positive changes moving had brought me there was one downside: life abroad can feel lonely at times.
The students I met during my six-month study all ended up taking different directions. Most of them continued their studies back in their home country or found a job in another city. On top of that, going back to school involved doing homework and tests. And, since I had been wanting to develop myself, I put a lot of time and effort into my studies. It’s safe to say I didn’t make a true effort in meeting people outside of school.
When my studies were over I signed up for several evening and weekend classes in photography and writing. I slowly learned that Belgians can be more reserved when it comes to talking about their private life and inviting new people to meet up. This made it tough for Michel and me to develop a connection with the locals. The solution? Internet?
Michel and I started to search for expat groups on Facebook and Meetup. Unfortunately, we had no luck in finding an active community that met each other periodically. It occurred to me that making friends as an adult is not as easy as I thought. The more we looked online the more uncomfortable I felt with the idea of forcing ourselves into “finding friends”. We decided to drop the Internet search and spent our weekends outdoors and just see what would happen.
While we lived in Antwerp I realized how much I value all my family and friendships in the Netherlands. Although I was only a half-hour drive (by car) away, seeing them regularly was more difficult. Before I moved I sold my car, and since Michel’s new job had evolved into a lot of traveling, I depended on public transport. The train connection (if there was no delay – UGH) was over one hour, so bye-bye spontaneous coffee dates!
I felt lonely for the first time during my second year in Antwerp. I remember one night, Michel was traveling for work, coming home to an empty house. After dinner, I looked out of the living room window and stared at the six huge apartment buildings across the street. It made me wonder: who are all those people? And would there be another expat out there feeling alone as well?
That particular evening I didn’t know what to do with myself. The Antwerp train station was a 25-minute bike ride, adding up the train ride itself, and traveling from the train station to my family or friends would take hours. Hmm, maybe I should put on the TV and see what’s on?
Instead of watching TV I ended up doing something completely different: I installed WordPress. I had been wanting to create a travel blog to write about my Antwerp adventures. So why not just start? That evening I wrote down at least 50 possible names for my blog and I scribbled a couple of vague logo ideas in my notebook.
The Burgundian lifestyle taught me to think less and enjoy life. Live by the day and take life as it goes. Feeling alone, or even feeling lonely, can be part of a moving abroad experience. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Living abroad isn’t exciting every day. There are good and bad days. Calling or texting a family member or a friend to let them know you feel down, alone or bored is a good thing. Don’t hide your emotions or get mad at yourself!
In the end, Michel and I met a couple of people we connected with but no long-lasting connections that evolved into real friendships. I guess Michel’s travels and me working on my blog, next to my job, slowly stagnated our search in meeting new people. Most of the time we were happy to be able to spend time together in-between work!
7. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side
In the beginning, I thought it was SO cool to move to Antwerp. It’s a big city full of fashionable clothing stores, countless amount of tasty restaurants, world-famous museums, and so on. At that time I seriously couldn’t wait to move. I was going to make a fresh start and have the best time exploring Antwerp with Michel!
But then I realized something important during a bike ride to work where I was conquering rain and wind at the same time (the worst combo ever). Those adorable cobblestone streets? Those are not fun to bike on (not even mentioning wearing heals is a no-go). Biking next to the Scheldt River? That feels like having a non-stop cold wind on your face!
The city, that once was new and exciting, started to feel ordinary.
Sure you might be reading this and thinking well maybe you should have gone to Bali or something? But I bet even ancient temples and gorgeous sandy beaches will become normal at some point. Every place has its pros and cons. Once you get over that instant rush of being in awe with your surroundings life (and its struggles) go on. For me, daily life (shopping groceries, cleaning the house – all that good stuff) didn’t change all that much.
Michel and I left Antwerp after two years (for Michel it was three years actually). There were numerous reasons why we left but the main reason is we didn’t have a true connection with the city and the locals. Living in Antwerp was temporary for us from the get-go (renting prices as well as buying a house in the city center is not cheap). We just left earlier than we thought because we found a house in the Netherlands we fell in love with.
Our house is located in a lovely, quiet, green neighborhood (with free parking!). We actually know our neighbors (they are super friendly), we don’t have to deal with traffic jams, and during the weekend we can have a spontaneous lunch without worrying about making a reservation. I guess this tiny Dutch city isn’t so bad after all?
Would I consider living abroad again?
Yes! If an amazing opportunity pops up I would be up for it. Although I didn’t live on the other side of the world, living in Belgium turned me into a person that’s more flexible, patient, and open-minded. I’m no longer scared of meeting new people or going places I haven’t been to before. I know I will be fine.
My career path and ambitions changed from being stuck in jobs into having the courage to follow my heart and dreams. Change doesn’t scare me as much as it used to. Oh, and what about those thrifted mom jeans I bought at the local vintage store? I will be rocking them anyway regardless of what other people might think.
But, as much as we adore traveling, we know that living abroad is a different ball game. At this point in our lives, Michel and I are building up a life together (creating a social life, etc.). The grass isn’t always greener on the other side so I try to appreciate what I do have. I value the simple things in life a lot more than I did before moving abroad.
I learned that true friendships are like gold. I’m so grateful to have friends supporting me during every step I make. To be honest, I don’t have that many friends but the friends I have are here to stay. And I wouldn’t just leave that all behind just for the sake of another abroad opportunity.
For now, we are happy in the Netherlands. But who knows where our wanderlust will take us…