Expat life isn’t about the destination; it’s the journey that counts

According to the Oxford dictionary, an expatriate is “a person who lives outside their native country”.

There are over 250,000 of us in Belgium, according to the statistics I found.

And most of us live in Brussels because many expats (a term that can be both affectionate and a curse, often at the same time) come from elsewhere in Europe and are here to work for or with the European Union in some212 Flags on Library Lomo resized capacity.

Many others are here to work for multi-national or European companies that have their headquarters in Belgium, or they work for the diplomatic corps in one of the over 200 embassies  and diplomatic missions located in Brussels.

In other words, most expats who arrive here haven’t really chosen to live in Brussels (or elsewhere in Belgium).  It just happens to be where the jobs are.

 

So what’s my point? Who cares why people come to Brussels?

Well, it’s my experience that choosing to go and live in a place breeds a different way of looking at your circumstances than if you were moved to that place by an employer (even if you had a choice to say no).

When I think of the former, I envision someone departing on an adventure, deciding to move to a new city to have a life experience that will change them, or at least provide new challenges and opportunities.

Yet when I think of people being relocated or sent to a new location, it makes me think of chess pieces being moved across  a board, between the squares of alternating colours.

Which leads me to compare these two very different ideasto the thoughts and images evoked by these two quotes:

We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm, and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open. (Jawaharlal Nehru)

 

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Vs.

“Move to a new country and you quickly see that visiting a place as a tourist, and actually moving there for good, are two very different things.” (Tahir Shah, Travels With Myself)

 

I think that the majority of expats living in Brussels would zero in on the second quote, smile, and say: “Very true. It`s usually worse when you’re moving there!”

I don’t get where you`re going with this, I can almost hear you saying…

My experience (16 years of being friends with, working with, and talking to expats) suggests that when you’re ‘sent’ to a destination you didn’t proactively choose, particularly one that carries the political connotations of a European version of Washington DC, you start out on the wrong foot.

How likely is it that you’ll arrive in your new city and feel excited about it under these circumstances? Especially if you’ve got a family who needs to figure out a whole new way of life, new friends, a new language (or two) and new pastimes?

 

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 (Photo courtesy of Trevor Waldron)

Perhaps I’m attentive to these differing impressions because I came to Brussels under different circumstances. Yes, I came for a job. But it was absolutely my choice – I put my hand up and volunteered for the job, because it was my dream to live in Europe.

My love of the French language had spurred me to travel Europe for 6 months after university and make several temporary moves within Canada and France, but moving to Europe long-term? That was the adventure of a lifetime.

Luckily for me, whoever coined the term “ignorance is bliss” knew what they were talking about! If I’d known just how difficult it would be, the administrative ‘walls’ I’d be banging my head against, the cost of living differences that meant I was depending on my last restaurant cheque at the end of every month just to eat, I`d never have made the move. My head would have overruled my heart and I’d have considered the risks too great.

Instead, I got caught up in the adventure, not knowing what I didn’t know, and I created a new life for myself. I’m not saying it was easy, because it wasn’t. But I learned things about myself I’d never known.

I overcame challenges I would never have bumped up against at home, I made friends with people I would never have had the opportunity to meet in Toronto, I appreciated my family in Canada more (and vice versa) because we weren`t embroiled in the day-today details of each other`s lives, and — best of all – my dream of travelling became reality. I was able to speak French on a regular basis and I only had to pull out a map and decide where I should travel to (once I earned a bit more money!).

 

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So, after 16 years of pondering expat life in Belgium, I`ve concluded that my reason for moving to Brussels made me optimistic about seeking opportunities to find the wondrous things about my new home.

Whereas many other people, who feel an obligation to come to Brussels, look at the city as the place they don`t really want to be and that permanently colours how they see it. There`s a tendency to constantly compare Brussels to `home` — and find it lacking.

Maybe some of those expats think my glasses are rose-coloured, and that’s OK. I prefer my view! You see, expat life isn’t about the destination; it’s the journey that counts.

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Feel free to disagree; this is just my opinion. You’re certainly entitled to yours and I’d be happy to hear it!

Top 10 Reasons A Walk Through Brussels Will Morph into a Wondrous Wander

  1. The first thing you need to know about Brussels is that it’s quirky. Don’t expect the smack-you-in-the-face beauty of Paris or P1130530Florence. That’s far too obvious for Brussels. Brussels is a city that expects you to work for the reward of finding its wondrous side. If you haven’t befriended any Belgians, maybe you don’t know that they’ve got quite a sardonic sense of humour. So, naturally, so does Brussels. It has a personality all its own. And if you don’t like it, well, I suspect that if Brussels could talk it would probably say “If you aren’t prepared to get to know me better, it’s your loss!”.
  2. The city is full of hidden gems. Think about it as if Brussels is playing hide and seek with you. Only the curious will be rewarded with the jewels in the crown of this grande dame of a city. Gorgeous architectural design like La Bellone hidden behind another building, lovely private courtyards hidden from the street, little-known streets and alleys remaining as they were in medieval times, odd traditional brasseries hidden down alleyways, a cannon ball hidden in the pillar of a church, a cemetery – the site of Edith Cavell’s execution during WWI — hidden behind a modern radio and TV complex, vistas to be viewed from the roof of buildings like the Cinquantenaire Arch and the Koekelberg Basilica, remains of the 13th century city wall hidden behind the cathedral presbytery, little movie theatres hidden away in the recesses of buildings, and over 100 museums, some with quirky collections like old toys, plastic objects and mantelpiece clocks…there is no end to the wondrous objects and places to be discovered!P1130851
  3. There is one word many expats living in Brussels would never use to describe their adopted home: romantic. I, on the other hand, think Brussels has romance in its soul. It just doesn’t like to overwhelm you with it. Go out and seek the romantic hidden corners like neighbourhood parks and little houses on dead-end streets, pathways in the woods, beautiful restaurants and cozy cafés. It’s worth it.
  4. One of the best ways to surround yourself with the romance and the history of medieval Brussels is to use your imagination. Go to the Grand-Place, Place St-Gery or Place Ste-Catherine early in the morning when no one’s about, take a good look around…then close your eyes and go back in time. Go on, visualise! Visit places like the Museum of Brussels in the Maison du Roi on the Grand-Place and the Porte de Hal to help you see the medieval town that hides beneath the modern city…and periodically peeks out at you.e10 - TDW_8829 - St Catherine group
  5. Brussels has character. Some people just don’t appreciate it. Brussels is brash, sometimes rough, even down and dirty, but oh how this city can also do trendy, classy and even luxurious. All you have to do is decide which mood you’re looking for  and pick the building, the bar or restaurant, the boutique, the event or neighbourhood you prefer as your setting.
  6. Brussels, like most interesting people, has a varied history. The city rose from the middle of a swamp amid the islands in the Senne river in 979 to become the capital of the European Union. In between, the country has been led and overrun by so many rulers and nations that its citizens learned to keep their heads beneath the parapet and get on with their lives. It’s why there’s a cynicism and an inherent — light disrespect, shall I say? — for the rules. They changed so many times in the past that people learned to go around them or avoid them altogether. Add to that the fact that Brussels is a political region unto itself, sitting between Flanders to the north and Wallonia in the south, and you shouldn’t be surprised that processes and procedures can be rather… original (to be diplomatic). This is what creates much of Brussels’ quirkiness. It winks at you and dares you to look deeper, while appearing – on the surface — to be a rather typical major European city, a place that many people mistakenly believe isn’t worth spending much time in.
  7. From Manneken Pis (along with his ‘sister’ Jeanneke Pis and their dog Zinneke Pis!) to the Atomium, by way of cemeteries, statues, monuments, castles and other historic buildings, Brussels is overflowing with stories! This is where its character and quirkiness play a major role. You don’t often see or hear the anecdotes so some curiosity and ingenuity are necessary to discover the tales that add so much personality to the city as you wander through it.e - P1200139 - HEAD
  8. The devil’s in the detail. One of the things I love best about Brussels is discovering unexpected details. The city’s architecture is full of often unnoticed gargoyles, faces, flourishes, mosaics and sgraffiti that are worth your attention. It’s renowned for its Art Nouveau heritage but there’s so much more!
  9. And that leads me to my personal motto: Look Up! Many of Brussels’ loveliest architectural details are nowhere near street level. They’re further up, on the sides or the top of buildings. So put your smart phone in your pocket. Take your headphones off or your earplugs out so you’re not distracted, lift your eyes, meander through the city streets and pay attention to what’s over your head. I promise you won’t be disappointed!
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  10. Always remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If you expect plain or ugly, that’s most likely what you’ll find. But if you walk Brussels’ boulevards and alleys expecting to discover the wondrous, I’m certain you’ll find it. Perhaps when you least expect it. So the next time you wander in Brussels, open your mind, polish off your curiosity and sense of humour and make an effort to see this intriguing city through new eyes.

(Third & last photos courtesy of Trevor Waldron)

Wondrous Wanders

Wondrous Wanders is a unique way to touch, feel and discover Brussels and Belgium!

One of my passions, the one closest to my heart, is to help people discover Brussels and Belgium; to see the country, its culture and people through new eyes, with a new perception.

Wondrous Wanders brings this vision to life through a series of themed discovery walks and excursions. Come and join me!

Themed Wanders

We explored the hidden and surprisingly romantic side of Brussels on Valentine’s weekend, feeling the emotion with a wide-eyed sense of wonder. Our Wondrous Wander through the historic streets of Brussels uncovered hidden gems and set the trend for future experiences in the city and beyond.

See Through New Eyes

 

One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.

– Henry Miller