Bubble and Chic: Making friends in Belgium
Friends make a bad place bearable, and a good place fantastic. Here are ten points to help newcomers and expats make friends in Belgium.
A year since my move, my life in Belgium is more than bearable. Friends make a bad place bearable, and a good place fantastic. Where would you be without them?
Of course they don't come with the furniture so when moving to a foreign land, one of the toughest things is making the effort to get out there and meet people – especially when you really would just like to carry on unpacking the boxes and checking out the new scenery.
Here are my 10 pointers on how you might go about finding people you want to start sharing a bit of your life in Belgium with:
1) Ask friends to put you in touch with people who already live there. Very obvious, yes, but it's very useful to be put in touch with people who are already in the place. They know the ins and outs and when you need a favour or don't know how things work, they can give you a hand. Even better, if they're from your home country, they'll understand just exactly what niggles you about your new home.
2) Sign up to Expat blog or one of the expat communities such as InterNations or People to People International. Of course, the whole point of moving to a new city is to experience a new culture, but these expat communities can help you meet local Belgians as well. At the InterNations gatherings in Brussels – which can get reasonably wild (you first have to prove why you are an international citizen) – membership also includes Belgians looking to meet international residents. The first time I went out socially in Brussels was with a group of people I met through expat-blog.com. They were all very cool and weren't treating it as a match-making service, although messages via this service since then have made me realise that I may just have been very lucky.
3) Learn the language. Despite the fact that you can survive (to a certain extent) with only English, learning the local lingo is one of the greatest skills you can come away with. You may think you're not going to be here long enough to need it but you can never underestimate how language has a habit of coming in handy further down the line. Learning in a classroom is perhaps a completely unnatural way of tackling a language (I learnt Italian hardly stepping foot in a classroom) but when the language is very different from your own, and then you finally understand something on the telly, in a magazine or on the street, the sufferance is worth it. In Brussels you have the luxury of choosing between French or Dutch. Language courses at EPFC (which also offers a range of professional courses) or The House of Dutch are cheap as they're subsidised by the EU. From my experience of teachers at EPFC, they have been excellent. Be prepared that the French classes will be full of international expats, while the Dutch classes will most likely be full of French-speaking Belgians.
4) Do a course to further your career. I met a very cool group of friends at a course I took at ICHEC, the Brussels Business school. By upping my knowledge on everything that was web 2.0, I also got to meet a crowd of people who had similar backgrounds and professional experiences. Night school professional courses may suck your social time away but will help you connect to a nice network of people. (Note: ICHEC only teaches in French though.)
5) Start tweeting. How can virtual reality make you friends? The power of Twitter is not to be underestimated in this regard. I had lunch with someone last week after meeting them via twitter and blogs. Twitter is a great way to find people who share your passion and who live close by. What rocks your boat? Tweet about it. Mine is wine and I met a great group of wine-loving tweeters and bloggers through these media – and who, thankfully, are very patient with my beginner Dutch (which gives me extra motivation to go to the classes ).
6) Sign up to a fitness class. You may not be able to say much at the time but you'll get fit and will get chances to meet people – albeit not when you're looking your best. There are gyms all over the city, some slightly mouldy but some are great, and reviews can be easily found online. Basic-fit have gyms over the city with a concept similar to Ryanair – you get fit, no extra service. Something a bit different and a lot cheaper than a traditional gym is Friskis and Svettis – the Swedish way to get fit. Classes in summer are held in Parc Cinquentenaire and are free (giving a you a chance to check it out), whilst the winter classes are held inside at various locations, many close to the EU area. It's high-energy stuff, although they do have different levels so you can work your way up. Seventy-eight percent of members are expats, so yes, there's a good chance that when you're cursing about how strenuous it is, someone will understand you.
7) Join a club or workshop. Wine is my thing and if you read my article on wine education, I mention wine workshops held by R99 in Brussels. One of the things I love about wine and food is that they unite people from all backgrounds. If cooking is your thing, Mmmmh! do some good cooking workshops where you get to get your hands dirty and then eat the food all together around a large table. A couple of outings to the same place and you're sure to see some familiar faces.
8) Borrow a cup of sugar. I'm told this is what new neighbours did a couple of decades ago or perhaps it has something to do with a coffee advert which ran forever. Anyhow, it's also a good idea to introduce yourself to your neighbours. They may not turn out to be your cup of tea but it's always good to know who's living around you and you never know, they may even help you in meeting new people or be fundamental in solving any domestic mishaps.
9) Offer a glass of wine (suggested by my two friends and fellow wine bloggers/tweeters Bart and Warddem). Now this may be one for the gentlemen, because as a woman I would never think about buying random people a drink, but guys seemingly can get away with it. Due to popular demand, it's on my list.
10) Smile. Last but not least, if you look bored, scared, worried or worse, you can do all of the above and still not come home with any more friends/acquaintances. Unfortunately, meeting people requires a considerable effort for naturally introvert shy people (such as myself). Stick it out – it'll be worth it in the end.
Most importantly, it'll take time till you find that group of people to share the ups and downs of life with you, but there's no list for that.
Having lived in five different countries, Faye Cardwell enjoys sharing her travel adventures and experiences of life as an expat on her hobby blog Bubble and Chic. She has been working in the world of wine for almost 10 years, and travels the globe organising trade fairs, events and promotions for consortiums and regional promotional bodies.
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