I’m writing this post from Fontainebleau. After two and a half years of living in Belgium, we’ve made a four-hour shift to la douce France. I’m pinching myself realizing that we’ve come full circle; Laurens and I are back where we met exactly seven years ago. Here’s our first semi-selfie as proof 😉
…Fast forward to December 2018
The past two weeks of holiday feasting, packing up and saying goodbye were satisfying, but also a bit sad. With an exciting move always comes the reality of uprooting again and leaving a place and amazing people behind. Needless to say, I was one big ball of emotion during my last weeks in Ghent. The short time I had left in between packing and moving, I wandered around the city, taking it in one last time and riding waves of nostalgia, nerves, and excitement.
Up until two days ago, I was emotionally spent. I finally feel back to my ‘normal’ self with enough energy to seek after this year’s new adventures.
So, why did we leave Belgium?
Over a year ago, Laurens’ company offered him the chance to apply for an MBA program of his choice, provided he got in. He chose to apply to INSEAD, ranked as one of the top business schools in the world. After months of hard work and preparation, he got accepted. I was ecstatic for him and knew what this opportunity meant. The move seemed so far off then, but here we are a year later. Now, he’s a full-time student and I’m unemployed, free to fill my year with the same vigor I did seven years ago in Paris. It will no doubt be a busy year – when we arrived there were already plenty of socials and orientation sessions to dive into.
More on our new French home in my next posts. I want to talk about Belgium because it’s by far one of my favorite places we’ve lived as a couple.
The luxury of starting over is not lost on me. There’s nothing like standing on the edge of change and swiping your slate clean every few years. A new country, a new backdrop to start the year is exhilarating. I’ve come to get high off this change, but I’d be lying if I said it’s gotten easier with time. It’s probably the opposite. This move was especially hard this time around considering I came to love the city as much as the people in it; Ghent fit like a glove and life there was amazing and comfortable, almost as if we’d been there before.
What was my overall EXPERIENCE LIVING IN Belgium?
After 2.5 years, I feel like I got to know Belgium from an intimate perspective. It helped that my husband is Belgian and some of my closest friends are as well. We enjoyed Ghent as much as we did because we were able to dip into normalcy and settle into our lives with a house, car, Laurens’ family, friends, a full-time job, and a place to thrive in my hobbies. Overall, we had an amazing experience.
Belgian sensibility, according to a Texan
I came to admire Belgians so much. In general, they’re humble, intelligent, open-minded and don’t take themselves too seriously (they know how to slather on self-deprecating humor when needed; I love that!) In fact, some of the most hilarious people I know are Belgian.
The humble trait shouldn’t be overlooked, either. I met so many Belgians with a fluent level of English – in addition to their 2-3 other languages – but they always seemed apologetic for their ‘bad English’. No matter how many accolades or bragging rights a Belgian might have, it’s not common for them to flaunt them since that would be tacky.
Most Belgians feel a strong affinity for family and friends, having stayed close with the same friend group since grade school or high school. Family is super important as well and most have aspirations to build a nest early on. When it comes to items high on the bucket list? Buying property. Many twenty-year-olds we knew wanted to buy a house and actually did (impressive since real estate isn’t cheap there).
They work hard and know how to savor their free time with the people they like and trust most. I was lucky that I met Belgians through Laurens’ circle and that I also met people who were open to making new, international friends. If you come here completely unconnected it might be a bit hard to make local friends at first.
Belgians stick to their rhythm
This is something I noticed that’s harder to put into words, but planning habits come to mind. I saw firsthand the unease that some Belgians feel if their weekends remain too ‘open’. They are strong social planners and prefer booking their schedules weeks in advance. I personally never got used to this since I prefer spontaneous meetups and outings, but even I started planning more to be able to see the people I wanted to see! Coming from the US where “let’s grab dinner ” is more of a nicety, it was refreshing to hear it in Belgium and know it would actually get planned in soon.
The forward-thinking mentality also shows in Belgian eating habits. For example, some people plan their meals to the hot/cold principle. Did you have a sandwich for lunch? Then a hot meal is most likely coming your way for dinner. Two hot meals in a day? A no-no for some. Even Laurens and I would text each other during the work day to figure out our meal plans: “hey babe, hot or cold?”
Speaking of food, I came to love mayo as much as the next Belgian, got used to bread vending machines on the side of the road, and witnessed a love of broodjes meat spreads I had never seen before.
Weather blues baby ☔️
Yes, the weather can be as bad in Belgium as people say it can be. I’ve seen every kind of rain from tropical downpours to Texas thunderstorms, but nothing is more annoying than Belgian rain spatters which I like to call ‘spit rain’. Complaining about the weather was something I got really good at – did I mention how grey the winters can be?! The 2018 summer was one of the hottest on record, so I guess I can’t complain too much.
Wearing a sweater in the summer? Yup. The winter blues? Definitely. But hey, that goes for France as well!
Ghent was exactly what we needed at the right time
Moving to Ghent was honestly the best thing that could’ve happened to us after our two years in Malaysia. The way I saw it, I needed to get off the sidelines. Although Laurens’ career was booming, I felt mine was at a stand-still and each month that went by reminded me of that. In Ghent, I had loads of writing projects, a fun full-time job and an inspiring outlet to take my photography and blog in another direction. Gorgeous Ghent is what was born and it became one of the biggest food guides in Ghent.
I loved my day-to-day in Ghent and felt right at home
When we moved to Ghent, I was spoiled with the quaint alleyways, cobblestones, and winding canals that made up the city. Every morning I’d hop on my bike and cycle a scenic route along the water into our stunning medieval city, the second oldest after Paris in this part of Europe. Ghent offered the perfect mesh of suburb and city, with all the inspiring elements to people watch, take photos, seek out new locales, and meet cool characters. The city was my playground and I retreated into it to enjoy the sights and sounds when I could. I fell in love with Ghent and it was great.
Belgium is an easy place for an expat to be, to live, and to thrive
Belgians have a knack for remaining neutral and it shows. Expats thrive in Belgian because Belgian doesn’t exert itself onto you with rigid ideas of what it takes to be Belgian. Although there’s definitely a way of life here that locals are accustomed to, it’s easy to carve out your own existence within this country and I appreciated that. The standard of living is quite high (it hurt to pay taxes but it was so worth it!) and there are loads of things to do, see, and experience in any given month. Plus, the travel possibilities are amazing when keeping Belgium as a base.
All in all, I would recommend it any day to anyone — especially Ghent!
Why I’ll miss it so much.
In our expat lives, we’re always making plans and looking ahead. Belgium was the first country where we didn’t have to look ahead, where we could let our hair down and cozy up to the idea that we might grow some roots. It was also great to see my husband in his natural element, to understand him better and get to know his family and friends on a deeper level. As picture perfect as the city seemed to me, the real reason I’ll miss Belgium has to do with more the people. I made life-long friends and connections I didn’t expect to make when we moved there.
That’s what I’m taking with me. As for Ghent, I have a feeling we’ll be back…