What does it take for someone to leave everything behind? To move to a new destination with a thousand unknowns, dive headfirst into starting over with a new culture, language, people, cuisine, novelty abound. It might look glamorous from the outside, but longterm life abroad isn’t without hardship or awkward adjustments; it’s also full of beautiful and surprising twists and turns.
This #WanderWomen series highlights diverse women around the globe every Wednesday who took a leap of faith to leave comfort and familiarity behind and embrace expat life. In some cases, it was to find themselves, love, work, or something else entirely. I hope these stories ignite the inner adventurer in you, to remember that no matter where you start over, there’s a new home waiting for you if you’re up for it!
Meet Elke, A Belgian Living Out Her American Dream in Colorado
This week’s #WanderWomen is one of my absolute best friends in the world! When I met Elke, I was working and living in Belgium and I realized quickly that we were kindred spirits. We both felt disconnected from our home countries and we both had a deep love of travel and exploring. Elke’s love for the USA was always obvious and she beamed anytime we would talk about life there. I knew it was only a matter of time before her dream was actualized. Sure enough, she took the leap to move to Colorado this past February, and since then, she has found the piece of herself she always felt was missing in Belgium. We talk about the disconnect with her home country, the openness of Americans, life under Covid lockdown, dating and more!
As long as I’ve known you, you’ve always had the ‘expat urge’! Do you remember when it started for you?
A couple of months ago, I was having crepes with my mom at the Christmas market in Ghent. Just by saying the words, “Mom, there’s something I have to tell you,” she reacted with, “Where?”
She just knew it was time.
When I told my dad about my move, he said that as a kid I mentioned moving to Australia when I was older. I always had that urge to travel, so it’s definitely not something new I developed recently. What caused that urge? There’s no straightforward answer to that.
You’ve mentioned feeling a disconnect from Belgium in the past. Can you put your finger on why that is?
In general, Belgian lifestyle is just not made for me. It’s felt like a bad Tinder date since the beginning but I somehow felt stuck with my match for years and years. The Belgian culture is fairly introverted, local, and simple. Most Belgians won’t take risks, and that’s in multiple layers of our lives: on the job, in relationships, sports…Openly giving a compliment about someone’s clothing? If you do that in Belgium, they give you a weird look. Chatting with the person filling your shopping cart at Colruyt? Why would they if their mobile phone is just as interesting?
It’s probably just the general Belgian culture and mentality I don’t feel a connection with.
And of course, in any country, there’s something you don’t align with, but the trial period in Belgium was over for me. There was always something missing.
I needed to discover if that piece was really to be found abroad, where I always thought it was. Spoiler alert: since I arrived in Denver, I found that piece, and I can finally say I found my identity. Being surrounded by such open-minded, extroverted, outdoorsy people, being able to use my language skills every day and the change of scenery…It just feels right.
So far it’s been 3 months of you living out your dream in the US. How are you doing?
I currently live in Denver, Colorado.
I moved here from Belgium mid-February and I’ve absolutely been loving it so far. I’ve been coming to the States once every year for the past 5 years so the country felt very familiar. I absolutely love the culture, American accent, lifestyle, nature, etc. and as I studied languages for 8 years, I always said I wanted to go abroad to practice those languages. One of the favorite things about this new setting is – without a doubt – the friendliness and openness of the people. At the grocery store cash register, Starbucks, or on the bus, Americans really take the time to say hi and exchange some words with you. Also, the stunning city or mountain views that take you by surprise at the most random moments. This country’s incredible nature can definitely be added to my list of favorites. Even in the most urban settings, you’ll still find the most gorgeous parks, trails, and lakes, and they’re often just right around the corner.
One of the challenges for me was the grocery store, no matter how silly it might sound.
The new products, other names for products you know so well, the expensive cheeses, etc. I’m a big cheese and wine enthusiast, so paying 10 dollars for cheese and having to drop by a liquor store for some wine, it makes you re-evaluate your habits. But maybe that’s not a bad thing at all. Hehe. Apart from that, the hardest part is, of course, the stay at home order right now. But it’s actually quite an interesting and extraordinary experience when you think about it that way. Go outside and explore your surroundings even if it looks like a ghost town now.
Who can say they’ve wandered the empty streets of Downtown Denver? Try to see the beauty of it.
A general tip that I can give to others considering moving abroad is to enjoy the abundance of firsts you get to experience. And with that, I mean absolutely enjoy every single minute of it. Say yes to every opportunity. The last one is a tip I got from another expat and yes, she was absolutely right.
Before moving you had to choose between Colorado and New York. Are you happy with your choice?
Denver is small enough for me, the people are incredibly kind and most of the people I meet here (I would say 90% of the people) also moved here from elsewhere. Denver locals are pretty rare so I have the feeling that the friendships you create are just more intense because they become family in a certain way. And so are you to them. Not many people have true roots here, so you basically only have each other. I absolutely love that about this city. In other cities or areas like California & NY, I think you get placed in the box of ‘(just) another expat’ more easily.
And people don’t like to invest in friendships that are only temporary, that’s why expats usually search each other’s company.
Have people been welcoming as you try and make friends? What do they say when you tell them you’re from Belgium?
It often takes them a while to notice I have a different accent, and then when I tell them where I’m from, they usually don’t really know where Belgium is situated on the map. Or Brussels is in Germany. Or in Bulgaria. Or in Croatia. It always makes me realize how tiny my country is, but they’re always very interested to know more about my origins. What language do you speak? Do you like Belgian beer? How far is Paris for you?
Something I also notice is how easy they go on you when they know you’re not from around. They explain everything, and you can take that literally. From what are the best products at the grocery store, to these are the rules for playing flip cup (maybe don’t be the last in line, you don’t want to be the anchor point for your first time).
The people I know here are so patient and kind; we could genuinely all learn something from this.
What habits & routines do you have right now that you never had in Belgium?
One of my best friends lives in Dallas (Hi Jordan!) and she gave me the advice to always say ‘yes’ to anything. Every time someone asked me to do something, go to a happy hour, go to bingo night at Larimer Lounge, go for a hike, go brewery hopping, you name it, I had to say ‘yes’. Of course, we’re talking ‘BC’ here. And I did. Even when I more felt like hanging on my couch and watch Netflix, I just went for it. Geez, looking back at this habit now, I’m so thankful for that advice. And this is an awesome habit I’ll definitely keep up with when everything opens back up again.
It’s the best way to meet new people and places, and those moments usually end with the craziest and most memorable stories.
Sooo. Let’s talk dating. What’s it like in the US for a single Belgian lady?
When it comes to dating in another country, there are definitely quite some obstacles. The language barrier is of course the biggest hurdle. Even though my level of English is fairly good, I still can’t express myself the way I otherwise would in Dutch. I’m a huge language nerd so making mistakes is something which I think is rather unattractive; sometimes I’d rather not say anything at all than making mistakes. Oh, and then there is the European accent of course.
Even though I hate having an accent, it sure makes an opening conversation a lot easier and more interesting.
Some differences I notice, is that compared to Belgians, guys here are really impressed (or worried?) about the fact that I have 2 master’s degrees, I speak about 7 languages, I don’t know how to snowboard and that I never had mimosas until recently. But hey, we’re taking baby steps here.
You moved to Denver and then Covid hit. Has any ‘good’ come from these lockdown months for you?
Of course, all of this is an incredibly awful time, but I try to find the beauty in it. I truly treasure how it forces you to move and experience things at a different pace. I was going at such a high speed that first month, that I hadn’t even been to a park that’s just one block away from my house. I have more eye for my surroundings and neighborhood now. Walking to the park every night around 7 pm with a margarita, do some people watching (my favorite hobby), and join the 8 pm howling to cheer for the frontline workers, those moments are precious to me. Now that I discovered how such simple things can bring me joy, I will definitely know what to fall back on if I board the discovery train again (yes, feel free to call it a bar-hopping train).
What’s your advice for someone wanting to work in the US but thinks it’s too difficult to get a foot in the door?
I would say don’t be afraid to reach out and contact companies even if there’s no obvious job opening! I did lots of research on LinkedIn, but in the end, Belcham (Belgian Chamber of Commerce) reached out to me to see if I’d be interested in doing a traineeship. I got 2 job offers, and from there I just followed my gut feeling.
I’m looking forward to growing in my current position at my company, NGDATA. I’m here on a J-1 visa, so as a trainee/intern. It’s cool to notice how every week I love the job more and more, as I really start to understand very well what we’re doing, where we’re going and what my role can be in all of that. I have a good connection with my team, even though they’re all in Belgium, so the timezone difference can definitely be a pain sometimes. Literally. Waking up at 5.30 to be at the office for your 7 am meeting, not always easy when it follows after a bingo night. Haha.
Now that your work visa has been extended (woo!), what does the rest of your American year look like?
I’ll be exploring Denver every day of course, and hopefully I can have that full experience then. With the sports season going back to normal and concerts being allowed again. Also, there are some trips I’m really looking forward to such as a road trip to Mt Rushmore & Yellowstone with my roomies, and visiting some friends in Dallas (Hi Jordan!), Los Angeles (Hi Bianka), San Francisco (Hi PJ!) and Phoenix (Hi Chris!). Next to that, the outdoorsy levels here are mile-high (Denver is the Mile High City, get it?) so it’s quite difficult not to get influenced by that. That’s why I’m hoping to discover some new passions, as I am already really digging the weekend-y hikes in the mountains. Maybe some biking, rock climbing, or snowboarding?
I’m excited to see what the future holds for me.