Expat life in Belgium: You've survived, now thrive!
Once you've settled in, it's time to branch out in your new surroundings. Expat Linda A. Janssen offers ten tips to deepen connections and enrich the expat experience in Belgium.
Settling into life in a new country requires time and energy. You are often dealing with a different culture, language, and climate while getting accustomed to your new home, job, neighborhood, school and local Belgian community. Attention and effort are focused on dealing with mundane issues, learning new things and just trying to survive.
But, at a certain point you will begin to feel more settled. You will no longer think of yourself as having recently arrived. This is a wonderful time to seek out ways to broaden your experiences, become more fully involved in Belgian society, and enrich your daily life in Belgium. In other words, it's time to thrive!
Here are ten suggestions on how you might do just that. Regardless of how long you have been in Belgium or how long you intend to stay, these tips will help you flourish in your new surroundings.
Learn something new
A great way for expats to experience personal growth, maintain mental acuity and meet others is to take up something new. Learn new languages. Take an art or wine-tasting class, or a course in writing, quilting or crafting. Start or continue your university education through individual courses or a specific program of study. Take up a musical instrument. Learn to cook Belgian delicacies or your favorite foreign cuisine. You could do any of these activities elsewhere, but what makes the experience unique is doing them here.
Explore as a local, not a tourist
Expats will certainly want to visit many of the popular places Belgium are known for. But also try getting to know Belgium better by exploring different parts in day trips and short excursions. Don't just visit those attractions that typically draw the tourist crowds. Deliberately seek out lesser known places and regions which provide more genuine perspectives of Belgian life.
Expand your cultural horizons
Attending a cultural event works wonders for broadening one's view of society and the world. Visit an art gallery, museum, cultural exhibit or the theater. Attend a book reading or a band, orchestra or choral concert. Fresh eyes and fresh experiences bring fresh perspectives.
Celebrate holidays Belgian style
Regardless of how long you've been here, you probably have a general sense of the various holidays the Belgians celebrate. Rather than passively observing these holidays, consider participating more actively. Do as the Belgians do. Join in a local yard or street sale of your used goods. Visit the circus the day after Christmas. Go to an amusement park or furniture shopping on Easter Monday.
Join a photography club, writing group, sewing circle. Sing in a choir or play your favorite instrument in a band. Support an organization or group whose cause or hobby you share. Attend services at your preferred house of worship. Join a chess, bridge, mahjong or scrap-booking club. Get involved, meet new people, enjoy yourself, all with a Belgian twist.
Brush up on Belgian politics, issues, history
Your knowledge of historical events, political concepts and important societal issues in your own country help provide context to current headlines. But that knowledge didn't simply appear overnight. You learned about these topics bit by bit, over time and in both formal and informal settings. The same holds true for expats in a new country. One of the fastest and easiest ways to feel more connected to Belgian society is to become familiar with this country's history and current affairs. In addition to radio and televised news programs, there are many websites, local newspapers and magazines available in English as well as in French and Flemish. Make an effort to learn about what's going on and why. Seek the views of Belgian neighbors, colleagues and friends. Ask them to help explain issues simply and in their own words.
Forge deeper connections to Belgian society by contributing your time and effort in making life better. Needs are always great and volunteer opportunities abound. Help out at a school, nursing home, food bank, soup kitchen, homeless shelter. Donate your time and skills to a non-profit or public interest group. Get involved and help out.
Boost your skill set
Whether your career brought you to Belgium, you are temporarily between jobs, taking a break from employment, plan to return to the job market in your previous occupation or in a related line of work, envision a change in careers or you just aren't sure, it's time to review your skill set. Spruce up your CV. Enhance your marketability through training. Keep abreast of the latest developments in your current or possible future field. Attend a seminar, conference or symposium. Learn what it takes to enter the local or international job market. Consider seeking career counseling or life coaching. Enhancing your skills while in Belgium not only offers insight into Belgian and European business practices and perspectives, it also makes for a unique experience not replicated elsewhere.
Widen your circle
Certainly no two expat experiences are alike. However, sometimes job, school and housing choices result in expats living and socializing together. Whether intended or not, they may find themselves living virtually parallel lives to the Belgian population. The shared experiences among expats that bring them together is not to be underestimated. But it is also important to consider broadening your friendships to include others. Invite your Belgian (or other) neighbors over for coffee. Meet a new acquaintance for lunch. Entertain. Branch out and initiate friendship with others who don't mirror you in age, nationality or stage of life. Not only will you gain a friend or two, you'll see the world and yourself through different eyes.
Get out and about
The Belgians are wonderful at getting outdoors and enjoying the fresh air. They recognize the importance of regular exercise in keeping physically and emotionally fit. A few hardy souls will ride their bikes in the rain, joined by others when the weather improves. When the sun is shining and the weather is gorgeous? Everyone seems to get into the act. Take advantage of the miles of biking and jogging/walking paths through countryside and dunes. Join a running group, a football club or other sports team. You'll meet others and see the country from another perspective.
It might seem counter-intuitive to seek out new activities and adventures after having just gone through the challenging process of moving to a new country. Indeed at this point many expats are only too willing to settle into their daily routines. They may feel satisfied with living a relatively separate expat existence, comfortable with the notion of viewing themselves as guests in this country rather than full members of Belgian society. Some may even question how much more change they could possibly accommodate.
Yet this is precisely the time to dig deeper into the Belgian experience. The point isn't change. It's growth. When you go beyond surviving to thriving, you flourish and prosper. By trying some of the aforementioned tips, expats experience personal growth while they broaden their understanding and deepen their connections to the society they live in. This can only help to integrate expats more fully into their surroundings and the fabric of Belgian life.
These suggestions would certainly be beneficial to anyone having experienced the tumult of moving to and settling into a new place. But when that place happens to be in a foreign country, these efforts take on additional significance. By branching out into the community around you, you're essentially expanding your personal horizons through the prism of Belgian society. You choose to become a part, rather than apart. The result is a fuller, more rewarding expat experience.
Linda A. Janssen writes articles on expat issues, and has a blog www.adventuresinexpatland.com.
She currently lives in The Hague, Netherlands.
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