Expat Voices: Irma Claeys on life in Belgium
Having recently lost her husband to cancer, Irma Bringas Claeys is grappling with Belgian paperwork but remains positive about life abroad.
Name: Irma Bringas Claeys
Nationality: United States/ Mexico
City of residence: Brugge, West Flanders
Date of birth: 24 October 1965
Civil status: Became a widow this year in January 2009. I lost my husband to cancer.
Occupation: Homemaker in the last 10 years. business owner, salesperson, make-up artist and hair design, office manager, etc, a bit of everything really.
Reason for moving to Belgium: I got married and followed my husband, work-related and simply to experience life as an expat.
Lived in Belgium: I have lived in Belgium since 1997, 6 years living in Waterloo, 1 year in Brussels and 5 years in Bruges.
What was your first impression of Belgium?
My first impressions were ‘cosmopolitan’, ‘cultural’, ‘interesting people’ and ‘art’.
It was a bit overwhelming with the cultural differences within the country, between Flanders and Wallonia, but overall interesting, to say the least!
What do you think of the food?
Simply fantastic!! We lived in France for a while and everyone has such a high regard for French cuisine, which is true, but Belgian cuisine is superb. I’ve been lucky enough to dine at some of the country’s best restaurants and at the same time I have had excellent simple and local dishes at our neighborhood bistro.
What do you think of the shopping in Belgium?
Shopping in Belgium is fun. You can find almost everything: from a great range of designer brands to the simple things, especially when the ‘Sales’ come round twice a year.
On a not so positive note, the rule where ‘the customer is always right’ is practically non-existent here. I feel if what you are returning a defective item you have just purchased in perfect condition, you should be able to get your full refund without having to exchange it for something else. This is a matter of principle for me. Once I went back to a shop to let them know that the shoe rack I bought could not be assembled and that I thought it a waste of money. The lady looked at me as if I had insulted her and her family and the rest of the Belgian population;
What do you appreciate about living in Belgium?
I have come to appreciate the culture, people, art, food and mostly its diversity, even though I have been studying Dutch and French, I still feel I am always discovering something new. I love the cultural side of Belgium, the architecture and history. People are friendly and I feel privileged to have many very special friends. They have made me feel at home and I consider Belgium my adopted country.
I’m grateful to the Foreigners Club in Bruges, these wonderful and caring people have helped me through, with a lot of support, helping me through my loss, and they have helped me with many kind gestures; bringing groceries, cooked meals for me and my daughter. I have to say without their support I could not have managed the first month after my husband’s passing. And many Belgian friends have been very supportive and helpful and kind. They are my moral support and I am forever grateful to all of them.
What do you find most frustrating about living in Belgium?
Well, I have to say all the paperwork that is needed to get something done, especially now that my late husband has passed away. He managed all the paperwork. I am facing now some difficult times, settling paperwork to receive a widow’s pension. Moving to another home, settling all necessary papers to be able to move on with my life and take care of our only child.
I am overwhelmed with paperwork now and have gone from office to office trying to resolve, inheritance, pension, logistics, financial help, etc. I really haven’t had the complete and total opportunity to mourn my husband. I find this chapter of my life somewhat daunting and unforgettable, yet I wake up every morning with an optimistic smile and prepare myself to face and accomplish something in my day.
What puzzles you about Belgium and what do you miss since you’ve moved here?
As I mentioned before, when you find yourself in a difficult situation and you don’t know the legalities of certain issues, especially under my circumstances. I miss certain laws that are simpler back home, laws that makes life easier. My friend Cheryl went through the same experience and she said, “One day you will have a good cry after all is done, you will see the light at the end of the tunnel and even if you are then swimming in paperwork, then… just then, you know you have survived one of the worst times of your life.”
How does the quality of life in Belgium compare to the quality of life in other countries that you’ve lived in?
The quality of life overall is good in Belgium. I admire their Social System for Healthcare. Here I find it suits everyone, we all have a right to have health insurance and hospitalization, which in my opinion is something the US could learn from.
If you could change anything about Belgium, what would it be?
PAPERWORK!! It is a fantastic country which offers a lot, gives a lot as well, the only thing I feel I would like to change is the depressive way many people look and feel every day. Perhaps the weather doesn’t help, I understand that, but I know from living and being raised in Texas we always have a smile and we say ‘thank you’ and ‘have a nice day’, maybe too much, but the day goes much smoother and is much more pleasant when you know you have a smile even when you’re not in a good mood. I am a great believer in being positive and that the energy you project comes back at you.
What advice would you give to a newcomer?
My advice would be to be open-minded. Don’t expect life to be like where you are from or somewhere you have lived before, to embrace the good and the not so good’and make it work for you. To enjoy life here in Belgium; there is a lot to discover, just don’t try to do it in one day, a week or even a year. It takes a bit longer to really come to appreciate Belgium. But once you do, it is very difficult to get it out of your system, that is the reason I am still here, after losing my best friend, my partner and my soul mate. I know I could not leave and begin my life back in Houston as if all these years have not made an impact on my way of life, my views on things and my appreciation of a great experience of being an expat.
I would like to add: don’t forget your family, I mean mainly your children who follow you through this expat experience, they too have to face the changes and challenges in life in a foreign country; they also go through the same everyday challenges as you and as such it can be a great experience but also a difficult one.
My daughter is my strength every day, and my promise to Marc to provide, educate and raise our daughter.
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