Expat Voices: Anne Randerson on living in Belgium
Intercultural consultant Anne Randerson admits her reasons for living in Belgium are "the scent of melting chocolate", the kriek and very few earthquakes.
Name: Anne Randerson
Nationality: American and Belgian
Occupation: intercultural consultant
Reason for moving to Belgium: very few earthquakes, world’s best chocolate, great beer, friendly people, varied weather, good location
Lived in Belgium: 19 years and nine months (minus six years when I was living as an expat in Japan, but I visited often during that time)
What was your first impression of Belgium?
It was nearly spring in 1985, I was living as a student in Paris, and I needed a break from my studies. It was a Friday night when my train pulled up at the Gare du Midi. As soon as I got off the train, I could smell chocolate coming from the Côte d’Or chocolate factory, which I soon found out was right next door. I’ll never forget the scent of melting chocolate drifting into my nostrils.
Next, I walked across the street to try a Belgian beer. I had heard they were great. Nothing prepared me for what hit my taste buds: I had a kriek au fût (cherry beer on tap) that was so sweet and refreshing—it was out of this world.
The next day, it was Carnaval and someone from the youth hostel I was staying at told me to get on the train and go to Binche. So I did. It’s a long story—which I promise I will write about one day—but after that unusual experience, where I met so many friendly Belgian people, I decided that one day I would move here. And so I did.
What do you think of the food?
As you can see from the above comments—it’s excellent. I would be lying if I didn’t say that one of the reasons I became a Belgian citizen is because of the food: I love the chocolate, beer, regional dishes, and atmosphere that goes with Belgian dining wherever it takes place: in restaurants, cafés, and in people’s own homes. Even mine.
What do you think of the shopping in Belgium?
Nowadays, there’s much more to see and do when shopping, compared to twenty years ago when I first moved to Belgium, that’s for sure.
A great variety of shops exist in Antwerp. I love to go there just to take in the designs and creativity displayed in their windows. It’s all so colourful. You can find some interesting, chic shops in downtown Brussels, Ghent, and other cities too, but in general I find shopping in Belgium rather expensive, especially for clothes.
Also, after living for six years in Japan, I must admit that the service could be better while shopping in Belgium. In Japan, the shopkeepers literally run to help you with anything you need. You don’t even have to ask.
What do you appreciate about living in Belgium?
I appreciate the laid-back attitude here. People living in Belgium know how to live. They work hard during the day, but in the evenings and on weekends, they know how to relax and enjoy life. Family and friends are important here.
I like taking day trips to nearby towns on weekends, and seeing everyone relaxing at outdoor cafés when it’s warm, or taking walks in the park on Sundays, when shops are closed, or just strolling arm-in-arm down the street.
I used to live in Brussels, which is exciting when you’re younger and want to go out all the time. It’s a great cultural city, full of art exhibits, foreign films, music festivals, lively cafés, and succulent restaurants.
Now, I live in a small town in Flanders, where it’s much calmer. People spend their weekends taking care of their gardens and homes. They put pretty flowers out in the spring; they clean up the sidewalk after their dog. They say hello to their neighbours. It’s a nice change for me, and I get to practice my Dutch (Flemish) whenever I want.
What do you find most frustrating about living in Belgium?
The service. It’s not always the case, but sometimes, shopkeepers, waiters, bank employees, etc. don’t want to be rushed into serving others, but it’s their job and I wish they would be more motivated to do it correctly and politely. Also, when people let their dog do its thing on the sidewalk and don’t pick it up afterwards, or when they throw rubbish on the ground. That really annoys me!
What puzzles you about Belgium and what do you miss since you’ve moved here?
After nearly twenty years here, there’s not a lot that still puzzles me… Actually, my job is to help expats become more culturally integrated into the Belgian lifestyle, so I think I’ve figured out most, if not all, of the pieces to this marvelous puzzle called Belgium.
I guess there is one thing that still puzzles me, now that I think of it. In Japan, everyone talks about the tale of Flandas no inu, as they call it in Japanese. I have no idea what that is, but the Japanese always bring this up when I explain that I live in Belgium. Apparently, it’s a story that took place in Antwerp a long time ago, and I assume it’s about a Flemish dog (Flandas no inu). If anyone cares to explain the story, I’d appreciate it.
I used to miss air-popped popcorn, frozen yoghurt, granola cereal, Mexican tortillas, bagels, refried beans… All these American items that we couldn’t get here. Now, we have all of this and more… It’s amazing how the world’s getting smaller.
How does the quality of life in Belgium compare to the quality of life in other countries that you’ve lived in?
I’ve lived in the United States, Mexico, Spain, France, Italy, Japan and Belgium, and I must say that I’ve remained in Belgium (and become Belgian) because I like the quality of life here. Our salaries in Belgium are not as high as many of the salaries in the States, but as I mentioned before, our quality of life is exceptional.
What I also like is the fact that Belgians don’t take themselves too seriously. That is, they don’t have attitude problems. Once you get to know them, they’re friendly, welcoming, and like to discuss a variety of topics, which always seem to begin and end with…the weather. Probably because it changes all the time here.
I guess I’m lucky because I speak both French and Dutch (Flemish), and I can get by in German too. But so far, I’ve never needed to speak German with a Belgian in Brussels. Belgians are also very multilingual. That’s probably why I feel so at home here.
If you could change anything about Belgium, what would it be?
It would be nice if the toilets were free all over the country as well, but I guess that’s asking for a lot, isn’t it?
Also, I think they should add more road signs—not more confusing ones, because there are already a lot of those, but ones either to indicate “stop” or “priority on the right.” Where I live, the indications aren’t very clear, and I think it’s hard for foreigners driving in Belgium for the first time to understand what to do. That’s the number one complaint I get from my clients.
What advice would you give to a newcomer?
Culture shock is normal. Take your time to adjust to your new host culture. Learn the language(s) in Belgium. Be daring. Try new things, get out and mingle. Expand your comfort zone. If you’re really having a hard time adjusting to Belgian culture (or the climate!), don’t hesitate to get some professional assistance from someone who specializes in helping expatriates (contact me, for example: www.crossculturalhorizons.com
Here is one final bit of advice: if your plan is to try all the delicious foods (such as chocolate) and drink all the exceptional Trappist beer made in Belgium, don’t try to do it all in one week, one month, or even in one year. Take your time and déguste les délices du pays. That means, savour the delicacies of your new host country.
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