I moved to Belgium during my last year of University and stayed as an au-pair girl at a family living in Wallonia, close to Tournai, for almost a year. Once graduated, I was offered an internship in Brussels so I moved there for 6 months and could experience a very different atmosphere from the laid-back countryside.
I had an amazing time living as an expat in Belgium but of course each Country has its own pros and cons.
Living in Belgium: the 5 things I loved the most
1- Beer and chocolate
Before moving to Belgium, I had no idea this is of of the main producers of chocolate besides Switzerland. Imagine my surprise when I first saw chocolate fountains in the shop windows of chocolate vendors such as Neuhaus or Govinda, to name only few among the most popular ones. I soon got used to buy boxes of “fresh” chocolates on my way to the office to share with my colleagues. More or less at the same time, I got acquainted with beer, that I had disliked until that moment. Right upon my arrival, I was introduced to Belgian artisan beers (called “Trappist” when traditionally brewed in Trappist monasteries) that made me change my mind. Did you know that in Belgium more than 1500 beer varieties are brewed?
2- International atmosphere
I spent my first year in Belgium living as an au pair at some friends of my family in a small village at the outskirts of Tournai, in the francophone Wallonia.
There I really soaked up in the local culture, being basically the only foreigner at sight. Different was the situation in Brussels, a city inhabited by loads of interns and international workers involved with the European Institutions, where you can breathe an stimulating international atmosphere.
3- EU work experience
I was just graduated when I moved to Belgium and found myself working as an intern for a not-for-profit association operating closely with the European Institutions. Though my tasks had nothing to do with my university studies (I graduated in marketing and tourism but I worked in media education), this experience was extremely formative and gave me the chance to get an insight of the complex world of the EU. What I learnt, turned useful several times in my following work experience, and besides that, finding yourself at 19 years old among international ministers and watching the European Commission from your office, makes you feel kind of an important person 🙂
4- Belgian people
I love the Belgian people. They are easy going, friendly, sometimes a bit crazy but definitely good hearted. I had a great time living in Belgium, probably the fact I already knew the Country as I used to come and visit these family friends during the Christmas holidays when I was little, helped me to integrate more easily.
5- Belgian towns
I am firmly convinced that Gant, Bruges, Antwerp have nothing to envy to Amsterdam or other Dutch towns. Each weekend we used to travel with some friends to a new town and it was often a pleasant surprise.
Here you cannot indulge in the popular red light district or coffee shops that have made Amsterdam so popular, but as far as architecture and canals are concerned, I find no reason these gorgeous towns should be overlooked.
Living in Belgium: the 5 things I didn’t like
1- The weather
Have I already told you that my mood is strongly affected by the weather? It is not hard to imagine that Belgium is not exactly the right place for a moody person like I am. Contrary to islands like Ireland or Great Britain where it rains a lot but it also clears quite quickly, my souvenirs about the climate in Belgium are long dark days with heavy grey clouds hanging over your head. In addition to this, being at a higher latitude, the daylight hours are tremendously reduced. This resulted in a real sun hunting during the weekends where you tried to benefit of the “warm” hours (meaning between 11 am and 2pm) finding an open-air café where to have a brunch or grab a coffee with friends.
Moules-frites, beer, gauffres, chocolate are probably the only food products that have made Belgium popular among foreigners. Don’t get me wrong, I love them all , but for an Italian nothing in comparison with the varied Italian cuisine tradition.
After one year in the Belgian countryside living mainly on steaks and potatoes, and a second year in Brussels where I gained little extra treats, my stomach started to long for some Italian food 🙂
3- Six-month turnover
Living in such an international city also has some downsides. One of which is the people turnover that takes place every six months or a year, the average time period of a internship or short term job related to the European Institutions. It was sad to make new friends and see them go short after, this made it difficult to build strong long-lasting relationships.
4- Wallonia vs Flandres
The rivalry between the francophone Wallonia and the Flemish region of Flanders is not a joke and can actually be quite nasty sometimes, especially when it comes to the language since only few francophone Belgians can speak Flemish, whereas Flemish who generally can speak both languages, often refuse to speak French. My personal perception during my time spent in Belgium is the Flemish don’t like very much their brothers and sisters from Wallonia, they consider themselves a different people and often look down on them. This is an old story of rivalry that you can easily find in other Countries, starting from my own. Italy has long been “split” between North and South, but honestly I think it is a pity that people living in the same Country are not able to get on well.
5- Be aware of the bilingual signs 🙂
As a consequence of the above point, you may find names of street, towns etc. both in French and Flemish. Not a big deal as far as they look pretty much the same as Gant / Gent or Bruges / Brugge, but things start to get more complicated when you find yourself waiting for the bus or you are driving on the highway and suddenly Tournai turns into Doornik, not an easy guess 😉
This was my personal experience as an expat in Belgium but I am aware that each person is different so may have a different perception. In fact, I have asked my colleague blogger Federica about her experience and you can find her pros and cons in this article.