Expats and Belgians: living happily ever after?

The ancient palace of the dukes of Burgundy in Brussels

17th century view on the ancient palace of the dukes of Burgundy in Brussels by Jan van der Heyden and Adriaen van de Velde. The palace on the Coudenberg was the quintessential meeting place for European diplomats and a true expat heaven for centuries before it was completely destroyed by fire in 1731. Its foundations can still be visited today in the Museum on the Coudenberg.

When The Bulletin (for those who don’t know The Bulletin, it’s the first, best known and largest of the media targeting the Belgian expat community) featured the results of the Expat Explorer Survey undertaken by HSBC, the reactions on social media were far more interesting than the results of the survey itself. Many of the issues discussed on social media weren’t even part of the survey and had nothing whatsoever to do with the article featured in The Bulletin. As the comments on social media demonstrated, people are often bewildered by the culture that surrounds them, even if that culture is not so very different than the one they left behind.

First of all, HSBC is a global banking company and represents the financial interests of thousands of expats worldwide. So its decision to undertake an ‘Expat Explorer Survey’ is not so strange. Expats in 39 countries were for instance asked to reflect on financially related categories, like entrepreneurship and career growth, next to issues like health or safety. The Bulletin discussed the results for Belgium and for categories such as culture, integration or social life, we Belgians seemed to score quite badly. So on certain social media, expats and Belgians alike tried to find an explanation for what seemed to be a somewhat surprising problem: could it be that expats are not at all happy in this country?

What was clear from the first comment, was that misunderstandings rule among expats and ‘locals’ (which I personally find a bit of an offensive word to be honest) in Belgium. People discussed the Belgians’ lack of hospitality to foreigners, which is odd, considering Brussels happily houses some of the world’s most powerful international institutions and is home to quite a large expat community. Expat comments lamented the fact that Belgians apparently don’t want to be more involved in that community, which is even more odd, considering that some Belgians joined in the conversation and were thus clearly very much involved. One comment even suggested that the Belgians’ lack of enthusiasm had its roots in history: all those ‘foreign’ powers that had once ‘occupied’ Belgium must have made the Belgians weary of the expat community here.

Frustrations about the lack of ‘local’ friends, about a clear lack in the general understanding of Belgian culture and history to even frustrations about the ‘dull’ climate and generally ‘boring people’, all point to the fact that one huge issue is always overlooked in any survey on expat life. People are never interrogated on their actual knowledge of ‘local’ history and culture, nor on their ‘cultural wellbeing’. Personally I believe that the notion of a cultural wellbeing is an often overlooked, yet crucial factor in determining people’s happiness – whether they are expats or not.

Royal palace in Brussels

Postcard of the Place Royale in Brussels ca. 1825-1860. This 18th century design was commissioned by duke Charles of Lorraine, governor-general of the Austrian Netherlands, for his fellow Habsburg ‘office holders’ and ‘diplomats’. In other words: built by an expat for other expats.

Culture is often interpreted in the sense of ‘participating in cultural life’, ‘visiting museums and exhibitions’, or of ‘getting to know the local cuisine’. But a culture is much, much more than just the outward, organised translation of customs and traditions that have been evolving for over a thousand years. It’s all very good and fine to visit all of Brussels’ museums – and don’t get me wrong, some of the finest museums in the world are located in Brussels, so by all means keep on visiting them – , but this will not help you one bit in getting to know more Belgians, or in understanding Belgian culture. True cultural awareness is not found in museums, it’s hidden in centuries of history. Yet of all the comments I read on social media, only one actually referred to history. It seems history, or rather a deeper understanding of certain historical trends, is not automatically linked to people’s ability to relate to a country’s general culture. Am I the only one to find this quite baffling?

On the other hand, both expats and Belgians pointed to the importance of learning the local language. In this case, it means expats have a pick of three languages, Dutch, French and German, the official languages in Belgium. But is it really true that expats will make friends faster or will integrate faster if they speak French in Brussels or Dutch in Gent? I don’t know of any survey – let alone a decent scientific study – that has investigated a direct link between knowledge of the language and the ease or speed in making local or expat friends.

One thing is certain however, ‘language’ is a key issue in Belgium. The whole country’s political, judicial and cultural system is based on the issue of language and the language barrier. Much more than actually speaking Dutch or French, the idea of language in itself is a key defining issue of Belgian identity. Personally, I speak English with my expat friends and I don’t really care if their French or Dutch are good enough to order a bread at the bakery. Even more, bakers in the most remote villages will probably happily sell you a bread in any language of your choosing as long as you pay for it. And as long as you know, and (make an effort to) understand that this does not mean the baker doesn’t care about language. In Belgium, language is more than speaking Dutch, French or German, it is speaking our culture. That is the real reason why most Belgians with a basic knowledge of English will easily switch to that language when you have so bravely tried to address them in French or Dutch. By trying to speak our language you have acknowledged the cultural importance of language, and in return you are ‘rewarded’. Only true language purists will keep on insisting that everyone who lives in Belgium – however briefly – will have to speak the language perfectly.

Yet in my opinion language does not account for the majority of what I have termed the ‘cultural malaise’ some expats seem to be experiencing in my home country. I’m not suggesting expats in Belgium experience anything as serious as a culture shock. After all, who is really shocked to be drinking the best beer in the world, eating the best chocolate in the world or seeing some of the finest historical buildings in the world? Enough with the clichés, Belgium is also an incredibly complicated country, not just because of a language barrier that has existed for nearly 2.000 years, and not even because most people – including Belgians – really don’t realise how many governments this country actually has.

King Leopold I, King of the Belgians

Handsome king Leopold I was probably the country’s first expat. After his young wife the princess Charlotte of Wales died, he was invited to become king of the Belgians.

Over the course of its history, Belgium has played a major part in the development of what we could call a ‘modern industry’, its ruling dynasty at one point managed to control half of the monarchies in Europe and its political, economic and cultural traditions are much, much older than 1830. Its territory functioned as a true cultural crossroads for at least half a millennium, before the 19th century trend of creating nation states had gotten a hold on it. Sadly, it’s fascinating history is often overshadowed by its surreal political situation today. And that political situation – and some historians will probably disagree with me on this one – is also much more than the product of half a century’s full of ideological Flemish-Walloon opposition.

In any case, it’s not that I’m arguing that if expats had a better knowledge of its history Belgium would suddenly overtake Singapore in the Expat Explorer Survey’s bid for popularity. But I am convinced that with a better understanding of history, people’s cultural wellbeing would improve. And I equally believe that if we take better care of people’s cultural wellbeing, their general happiness will improve as well.


This is what a lunar eclipse feels like

Lunar eclipse of 28 September 2015

The lunar eclipse and blood moon as seen in Belgium on 28 September 2015

By now your Facebook and/or Instagram feeds have probably been flooded with photographs of last night’s lunar eclipse and blood moon.

I just couldn’t resist adding my own impressions to the multitude of beautiful images already out there.

Lunar eclipse around 3.55 a.m. on 28 September 2015

Lunar eclipse as seen in Belgium around 3.55 a.m. on 28 September 2015

Last night over dinner we debated if we were going to get up at night to see it or not. The offspring was particularly adamant in stressing the importance of the event, given the fact that she would have to wait another 18 years to see it, if we wouldn’t grant her this. Considering waiting 5 minutes is already a challenge for most 7 year-olds, we decided that she was actually right. Then again this is also just the thing we do.

Lunar eclipse around 4 a.m.

Lunar eclipse as seen in Belgium around 4 a.m.

Like the time we decided to go on a midnight picknick/bike ride, because there was a slight chance of witnessing the northern lights. Bad luck, it was cloudy that night, but we had great fun eating half cold hot dogs under an old oak tree (it was less fun when next morning I discovered I had mustard dripping in an inside pocket of my backpack).

Total eclipse around 4h11 a.m.

Total lunar eclipse as seen in Belgium around 4h11 a.m.

Anyway, last night we awoke spontaneously at 3h45 a.m., went to get the offspring out of bed (which went surprisingly easy), cuddled up under a warm blanket and drank hot chocolate while sitting in front of the open window looking up at a cloudless night sky. The 30 minutes we spent like this amply made up for an otherwise annoyingly busy weekend and we happily went back to sleep.

Lunar eclipse around 4h20 a.m.

Lunar eclipse as seen in Belgium around 4h20 a.m.


Keeping busy: what I’ve been doing in the past few weeks

Leaving the harbour of Ostend (Belgium).

Leaving the harbour of Ostend (Belgium).

These past few weeks have flown by so quickly. I finished editing a book, spent about a month travelling in July/August and have just started my own business. I don’t even know where to start…

The book I’m talking about is actually a volume I edited with a Dutch colleague on the dynastic identity of early modern aristocratic families, which will normally be published in December of this year by Ashgate publishers. If you want to know more about it, you can find details on their website. It took us about 4 years to finish it, I don’t think either one of us imagined it to take that long. Not that this in itself is an exception in academia, my husband is waiting on a publication to come out which he wrote about 8 years ago…. So things could be worse 😉

The good thing about finishing a project, any project, is the mental rest that comes with it. After I sent my final e-mail this Saturday,  I felt completely exhausted. I couldn’t think of anything else, I just wanted to go to sleep early. I’m still really tired strangly enough, but it also feels as though my head is clearing up and new ideas are slowly filling it up again. That feels so wonderful!

I need that space too, because I have decided to become an entrepreneur! Not that this is a new idea. This is something that I’ve been thinking about for ages. It was more of a nagging feeling I had for years and years that I needed to set up something for myself. The only problem was that I was never able to settle on just one idea 😉 I’ve recently come to the realisation that I am what is called a ‘creative generalist’. I seldom have less than 10 ideas in my head, rarely think about less than 5 books to write, and I am bored disturbingly easy (and quickly).  With every job I’ve done came boredom, not after 10 years, but usually after about 6 months. This is something I was never able to talk about, because most people don’t seem to understand this or expect you to do the same job for at least 5 years. Oh hell on earth, the same routine for 5 years or more?

The only thing that has kept me interested is history research, and thankfully it still does. Which is probably why I decided to start as a historical consultant, although that doesn’t even begin to describe all the things I want to do. As soon as I get a (temporary) website going, I’ll write more on this.

And I had such an amazing vacation! My husband gives lectures on board of cruise ships during summer and this means our family vacations are largely spent on board ships, visiting beautiful cities or enjoying the scenery. We were on a Russian cruise in July travelling from Moscow to St-Petersburg, and in August we cruised the Mediterranean. I could not possibly put all of those experiences and impressions in one blog post, so again, more on this later.

Until next time!

Trees and histories

Tree in Houwaart

Trees and fields in de little village of Houwaart (Vlaams-Brabant) in Belgium

After my camera broke down on my trip to Berlin, I knew I had to have a new one. It took me a few weeks to buy a camera, but since then I take it with me everywhere I go. Looking over the pictures I took in the last couple of weeks, I expected to see a lot of pictures of ‘the offspring’ or of buildings (I tend to take a ridiculous amount of pictures of buildings, especially of churches). Surprise, surprise, most of the pictures I took were actually of trees.


Tree in my backyard

Now this is the tree in my backyard, which as you can see looked magnificent three weeks ago. It now looks utterly dreadful alas.


Now, I do live in the countryside, so it’s not that I never get to see a tree and when I do get completely overwhelmed by the fact that I see a green leaf. Nature is, so to speak, all around. But trees tend to make me feel small. OK, that’s not a complete surprise either, I am small actually, but seriously, really small. And they make me feel young too! I grew up near a forest, but I can’t remember feeling like this as a child. And I’m usually not that sentimental (quite the contrary it seems to the utter disappointment of my family members; my husband frequently complains that I am as romantic as a broomstick. I disagree).


Tree at the abbey of Averbode

Once in a while I seem to combine my obsession with trees with that of religious buildings. Like here in Averbode.


Anyway, somewhere inside me there seems to be a treehugger (I love that word! We should all hug a tree more often, maybe we would actually save our forests if we did!) waiting to burst out. Now, I can hear you thinking, what has this got to do with histories??? No idea, I just liked the title this way. But I do promise to write something a bit more historical in the next couple of weeks.


The old oak at the village of Kaggevinne near Diest. This tree seriously looks as though not that long ago witches danced naked around its trunk.

The old oak at the village of Kaggevinne near Diest. This tree seriously looks as though not that long ago witches danced naked around its trunk.


Hanami people: why living in Japan is on my bucket list

Hanami in Ueno Park Tokyo

Hanami at the Ueno Park in Tokyo (2012). Cherry Blossom fun in the Ueno Park in Tokyo where crowds gathered to celebrate Hanami.


A recent blogpost by Thewallinna and other creatures about how she misses Hanami in springtime Japan, reminded me about my own fascination with all things Japanese. I don’t exactly know where it comes from, but even as a child I was incredibly curious about faraway Japan. In 2012 I had the immense pleasure of finally travelling to Tokyo.


So living in Japan is on my bucket list. Would I like to stay in Japan indefinitely? I don’t think so. But for a year or thereabouts, I would really like to experience its culture a bit more profoundly than I did in 2012. I only stayed for a week, but it’s left a huge impression. The sentiment that stayed with me most is admiration. And what I admire most about the Japanese is their elegance.


Ueno Park Tokyo (2012)

Crowds and Trees at Ueno Park Tokyo (2012)


Hanami is one of those elegant traditions. What a wonderfully sad and yet delicious thing! How beautiful the cherry trees looked beside the ugly greyness of Tokyo buildings. The funny thing is that we arrived in Tokyo from the States, where I had attended the Renaissance Society of America Conference in Washington. And of course, if you say Washington in March, you say Cherry Blossom Festival. The trees simply looked magnificent.


Yet I have to admit, for me personally, it didn’t match the atmosphere around Ueno Park. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Japanese families and friends drinking and eating under the trees. The many food stalls at Shinobazu Pond just looked incredibly enticing. M. was with me, only 4 years old at the time, but she absolutely loved Japan and the Japanese. She’s been asking to go back ever since.


Food stalls at Ueno Park

The food stalls at Ueno Park Tokyo.


So I really do miss it, but of course that’s not the reason I want to live there. It’s actually quite hard to pin down my exact reasons. The special relationship the Japanese seem to have with food? The general feeling of respect you seem to pick up everywhere? The quest for perfection, however impossible to achieve, that still seems to drive a lot of their actions, from the elevator girl at the famous Isetan department store to the white gloved taxi driver?


All I know is that I have the feeling I have something to learn there. Let’s hope the opportunity arises for me to spend some more time there! In the meantime, I try to enjoy Hanami at home in Belgium, even though there is not a cherry blossom in sight…

How to deal with being 40

What is it about becoming 40 that upsets so many women (and men?), including, if I may be honest, myself?

I don’t know why, but somehow it does feel as a turning point. Nothing happened at all – I didn’t really expect to turn into an old hag the day after my birthday – but still, it did something to me.

Maybe it’s because in our society we set ourselves a lot of goals in life. You expect to lead a happy life, a healthy life, a productive life, a loving life, in short, a perfect life. And somehow, into that perfect picture comes this idea of being ‘succesfull’ in everything you do. Of course succesfull can mean a lot of things (and I don’t think earning money has anything to do with it). But I do think we have the impression that we need to be succesfull in something before we turn 40. That age at which people stop calling you ‘young’ and at which women apparently need to start thinking about menopause…

But all these expectations leave us with a lot of stress. All those dreams and aspirations we had when we were 20. How many of those are left?

The surprising thing to me, is that many of the things I wanted to do when I was 20, I actually at some point ended up doing. My dreams haven’t changed that much. Oh sure, I wish I could go back in time from time to time to slap my 20-year old self in the face in an effort to save me from the stupidities I was about to undertake. But in essence, I more or less got to the point I imagined reaching at 40.

Admittedly, I do not have the kind of financial security I was aiming for (villa’s with huge swimming pools now spontaneously spring to mind). But all in all, I wanted to travel, and I did. I wanted a university degree, and I have one (well, actually two even). I wanted to be happily married, and I am. I wanted children, and I have the best daughter I could have wished for.

So actually, now that I am 40, what was I so nervous about?