One Month Later: Our New Belgian Life

I can’t believe it! It’s been over a month since we moved countries and things are going really well.

What a huge change full of emotions, excitement, uncertainty, and new beginnings. I was exhilarated at the idea of moving and now that we’ve settled in and have found our feet in Belgium, I’d like to recap our whirlwind move back to Europe.

Emotions, feelings and lots of ’em:

The last big party in JB.

I’ll start with the uprooting part. Leaving our home of two years was a surreal and bittersweet transition to say the least. The days leading up to our departure were so normal, it was as if the move wasn’t going to even happen. Then, sure enough, a mix of hormones and emotions surprised me with a random bout of sappiness – I burst out crying out of nowhere when I realized that even if I was looking so forward to the next move, my body and mind weren’t in sync regarding the change. Honestly, leaving Malaysia was emotional because of the bonds we’d made with other expats, and leaving behind our great friends who were just like us and connected to our experience as foreigners far from home wasn’t easy. And maybe, deep down it was emotional for me because of the uncertainty on the other side. But okay, I tried to put those feelings aside, and I looked forward to enjoying our last few days. The best part of leaving was that we had an amazing goodbye party with our friends and it was a perfect way to remember the good times. The day after, we said our final goodbye to our best friends Nat and Nico and man, that was rough. We hugged and cried and off they went. The rest of the night Laurens and I felt gutted and a bit sad. That feeling is one I know all too well; saying goodbye has always been the hardest part of coming and going.

But then it was time!

The last day went perfectly. The only thing I couldn’t leave without was a glorious last cheap massage at my favorite spa in JB. It was just what I needed, because it took all day and night to finish cleaning and packing. That apartment was great to us and then we said goodbye to it, too. As we got on our way to Singapore, I was so physically beat after packing that I knew sleeping on the plane would be a piece of cake — I yearned for a hot meal and a good snooze. We weren’t quite there yet as we hit a snag at immigration when I got pulled aside and was questioned about my passport. (After all its been through, it’s a bit tattered and doesn’t scan so well.) After dealing with that, we finally arrived at the most glorious airport in the world; I’ll miss the peaceful and easy-going process of flying in and out of Changi Airport. We were starving at that point, so at around 10pm we devoured our last Thai meal: curry, mango sticky rice and all. What a relief that our last travel out of Asia would be such a smooth one: trust me – I never say 13 hour flights are good or even slightly enjoyable, but this one really was.

We had the entire middle row to ourselves allowing us stretch out completely. 6 hours for Laurens, 6 hours for me. As the two tall people we are, this was heaveeeeen. People glared at us in scathing jealously, but we were so happy we didn’t care. And just like that, we arrived fresh and ready in Paris where it felt so good to be back. It was cold, but I was so ready for relief from the heat and humidity of Asia. Naturally, the first post flight snack we ordered was baguette ham sandwich and croissant. On the train to Brussels, I started to feel that jet lag fog come over me, so I made my way to the snack-car and dusted off my French to order an espresso. Here we go, I thought as I smiled to myself.

From the “honeymoon phase” to settling into normal, everyday life:

It’s normal that the beginning of a big move feels like a honeymoon. I had missed Europe so much, and coming back felt familiar and new all at the same time. I was a completely different person when I last lived here three years ago, and felt more ready than ever to take on this new chapter of our lives.

It’s green heaven out there.

Funny enough, everyone had warned me about the crummy Belgian weather, but two days after our arrival the snow and rain disappeared and the sun was out in all its glory for almost 12 straight days. Not a cloud in the sky, and for sure the weather played a huge part in making us feel at home and happy. I was on such a high, really. We enjoyed drinks on terraces, people watching, and observing the promise of summer in this new beautiful city. On the first weekends back, we traveled around and took in the sights like real tourists. I assessed my new country and decided I really loved it. Running around the sunny streets of Brussels, Ghent, Bruges and Antwerp, it was great to reconnect with Laurens’ old friends and family; they were so welcoming and warm to us and that helped tremendously, too. While we waited for our apartment in Brussels to be ready, we stayed at my mother-in-law’s house out in the beautiful countryside, and that felt like a relaxing getaway in and of itself. The crisp fresh air, and green open land seemed foreign to me.

Once we got our (temporary) apartment in Brussels, reality started to set in. Yes, it was great to be new to the city, but I couldn’t just café hop and sightsee forever — I’d have to declare myself new to the country that I was hoping to settle into…to work in, to live in. The first day Laurens left for the office I realized it was up to me to make the most of it and find my way here like in Indonesia and Malaysia. So, explore I did, and explore I have. Seeing the city on my own has been helpful and has given me an idea of whether I’d want to live and work here for a few years. I wouldn’t say the honeymoon phase is over yet, but in recent weeks I’ve been actively trying to declare myself as a new resident and look for jobs which is less fun and more…sobering. Overall, my impression of Brussels is still pretty good, and the more I get to know the city, the more I like it.

The beginning is always the best part: the new sights, sounds, tastes, and new people. The newness is part of why I don’t mind moving, and since adapting is one of my fortes, I feel most in my element during this phase when others might feel overwhelmed or stressed. Getting into the rhythm of things also meant changing whether we really realized it or not: For starters, our diet changed. We’re eating healthier now as it’s easier to find good ingredients we love. For instance, I’ve opted for almond milk, yogurts, and natural granolas over normal milk and sugary cereals. For lunch I eat lighter meals (Belgians love their sandwiches), and dinner is more varied and less stressful to prepare because the choices are so plentiful at the grocery store! Secondly – our fashion: This part is the most fun because living in hot, hot, hot Malaysia didn’t inspire us to try very hard to dress up, usually resulting in me wearing shorts and a simple top with my hair up to avoid a humid, frizzy mess. Lately, I’ve been taking notes on Belgian’s effortless, casual-chic style and I love it. I’ve been enjoying putting outfits together I never would’ve cared to in Malaysia. White sneakers and espadrilles are huge this season.

Beautiful Brussels. The first week was full of perfect sunshine.

Languages and my multilingual dream:

A huge part of integrating into a new country is the language. And similarly, a huge part of possibly feeling alienated in the beginning can also be the language. I experienced that shock in Indonesia when I realized English wasn’t useful in my day to day life there. Out of necessity comes motivation, and before I knew it I was speaking Bahasa: bartering my way through markets and making small talk in taxi cabs.

Here in Belgium, language is a more complicated, beautiful thing. There’s a Dutch, French, and German-speaking part in this country the size of Maryland, so it can be hard to keep straight who speaks what at times, especially in an international city like Brussels. Most people here speak at least two – but not uncommonly – three languages.

I was excited to come back to Europe because I knew there was a chance I could finally achieve my dream of being a multilingual badass. Years ago in Paris, I made huge strides in understanding the language I’ve always loved but thought impossible to master. It’s always been my dream to be able to switch effortlessly from one language to the another, and I’m so determined to finally reach that goal. It’ll give me a sense of fulfillment and also, it’ll make things so much easier. I’ve been making the effort to use my French daily when out and about, and I have to say it’s been a successful, mostly pain-free experience. Sure, sometimes people respond in English, but most of the time they could care less. I listen to French podcasts every morning, turn on the TV to constantly hear it, and read the newspaper as I enjoy my cappuccino. After about a week in Brussels, my confidence to speak up was back and I found people much more accommodating to foreigners than they were in Paris. Maybe it’s because Brussels is so international and language fluidity is a necessity, regardless of how good or obvious the person’s accent is. I’m getting to the point where I’m not as afraid to make mistakes anymore and that’s key.

For the time being, yes, we’re in Brussels, but we’re aiming to move to Ghent which is Dutch speaking. I’m intimidated even more by Dutch than I ever was by French, but realize if we live there I’ll have to get over my fear pretty fast. Not only is it that region’s language, but it’s also Laurens’ native language. And although all his family and friends speak perfect English, I know it would make him and them so happy to see me make the effort.

 A changed city after the attacks:

A somber place: Place de la Bourse with flowers and flags.

My heart sank when I saw the breaking news ticker appear at the bottom of my TV screen. Just a few blissful days earlier, we had confirmed our move to Belgium and were giddy with excitement. Then, the heartbreaking news that Brussels was yet another city hit by the evil acts of terrorism made me extremely angry, and then extremely sad. The cowardice of it all made me sick, especially since we’d be calling Brussels our new home. Arriving on the heels of an event like this was certainly not ideal, but we couldn’t let it ruin our good feeling about the decision we’d made. Despite the tragedy, life goes on and slowly things have been getting back to normal in the heart of the EU.

Weeks after the attack signs of solidarity and heightened security were all around the city.

Although I don’t have anything to compare it to, people have told me there’s a palpable difference now, a kind of sadness. When we walked around the first day, we noticed how quiet the city was. Heightened security was everywhere as the threat level remains at three. Armored military trucks parked outside metro stations, armed solders patrolling the streets and underground…In one month I’ve seen police searching young men, a false alarm building evacuation, aggressive individuals trying to rough up security, and more. Honestly, I was hesitant to ride the metro and to be in big crowds at first, just because events like these make you realize how vulnerable you really are in a big city. But okay, eventually I managed to do those all things while steering clear of areas that are too packed. It’s hard to imagine something like that can happen in a city so international and lovely as Brussels. It was surreal and chilling to pass the Maelbeek metro station where 16 people died on their morning commute.

For now the honest truth is that we’re less at ease here than we would be in Ghent. That plays a large role in us wanting to live there instead of here. I know finding work in Brussels would be easier for me, so there’s definitely still a small chance we’ll stay. Even if we live in Ghent, I could find myself commuting back and forth to Brussels for work.

In happier news, all is good and tasty on the foodie front:

Belgian Food
Of course, I had to explore the Belgian food scene. It hasn’t been disappointing!

Oh, the food! The food, the food, the food! Since we’ve arrived it’s been culinary heaven in all the cities we’ve visited. As you probably know, Belgium is known for it’s frites, waffles, chocolates, and beer. But there’s a definitely a thriving foodie culture here that goes far beyond those guilty pleasures. It’s been so great to eat cheese and hearty meaty meals again. To buy beer and wine for so cheap. You can find every kind of cuisine in the city, so it never gets boring. What I would’ve gained in weight from eating all these delectable foods, I’ve offset with all the walking I’m doing and our gym membership. Thanks to my Fitbit, I’m forcing myself to reach 12-15k steps a day.

Brussels gets my love for coffee and chic cafés.
Brussels gets my love for coffee and chic cafés.

In the afternoons, I café hop for my caffeine fix and have discovered the great café culture on all sides of the city. It’s been a great way to people watch and get out of the apartment to job hunt. Some of the nicest cafés for working are:

  • Or Espresso
  • Jat Caffe
  • Kaffabar
  • PoZ Cafe
  • Workspace Cafe
  • My Little Cup
  • Cafe du Sablon
  • Aksum Coffee House

Bring it on…Excited for what’s next:

So now it’s June and summer is almost in full swing (if you count out the random surprise of cold weather and rain some days). We just got back from a weekend in Amsterdam and realizing such amazing cities aren’t so far is still so surreal to me. With each weekend being better than the last, I can’t help but feel like we’re really in the right place at the right time.

TeegzFor those of you who knows us, of course we couldn’t forget to bring our cat! Our fur baby Tiga arrived from Malaysia a few weeks ago and she’s happily adjusted, especially after seeing the real outdoors and grass for the first time. Also, our 14 boxes have arrived from Malaysia and are ready to be unpacked. (I’m less excited about that.)

Right now the main focus is me finding a job and us finding a place of our own by the end of July. (A recent trip to Ikea proved especially tempting as I wanted to start buying things for an apartment we don’t have yet!)

So far still no luck in finding a job, but I’m looking forward to building a career and finding something I can really dive into whether it’s studying or working. I’ve been yearning to work full-time, so let’s hope that happens.

Some things are still uncertain: Where will we live? Do we get a house or an apartment? What job can I get? Should I study? How long will we actually stay? Will I ever be a multilingual badass? Either way, the transition here has been the easiest one yet, and I’m so relieved and thankful for the smooth sailing start and good things in our lives right now. I’m optimistic that all of the questions of ours will sort themselves out soon (they always do), and I’m excited to share each step of the way with you guys. I promise to update the blog more frequently and to let you in on this new expat journey of ours.

Thanks for reading!


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