My latest Interview with an Expat features Lies Veldeman.
Lies is a Belgian native who has lived as an expat in London for the last 7 years. She is an avid traveler and has ventured to 23 different countries on 4 different continents! She runs a successful, and might I add beautiful, blog called Non Stop Destination. On her blog she writes about her crazy adventures like working on an archaeological dig in Dorset, caring for elephants in Thailand, and paragliding in Cape Town!
For more about her adventures and to admire her stunning photography, be sure to check out her blog! But for now, we’re going to get to the nitty-gritty and talk about her other life as an expat.
Hi Lies! I know you’ve been in the UK for a while, but to start out this interview I want to take you way back to the beginning. Why did you decide to become an expat, and why did you choose the UK?
I’ve always wanted to live abroad, but I never really knew when I would leave my home country and where to. In my last year of my bachelor studies, I chose to go on an internship in London for 2 months. I immediately fell in love with London, but not with the work I was doing. I realised I didn’t enjoy working in the field I had studied for, so I started looking for another course in a similar but more exciting field, which you couldn’t study in Belgium at the time. I found one in Bournemouth, the South of England, and applied. A few months later I was accepted onto the course, and so my expat adventure began!
Clearly you have command of the English language now, but was it always this way?
Growing up in Belgium exposed me to several different languages, such as Dutch, French, German and English. I’m from Flanders and most of our TV programs are from the UK or America. All TV series and films are subtitled and most of the popular music on the radio is English. From a young age, we’re able to have a conversation in English, and from the age of 13 we study English at school. That said, the first few months in England were an eye opener. The different accents made it hard to understand conversations and I was very aware of the mistakes I was making. After a while, I got used to the accents and I became more confident.
After your initial move, what was surprisingly hard/surprisingly easy about adjusting to life in another country?
Settling in was surprisingly easy. I met quite a lot of people straight away in the first 2 weeks before the course started. There were many international students who were in the same boat as I was so it was easy to make friends which helped a lot with settling in. I was surprised I didn’t miss my home country.
There wasn’t anything that was surprisingly hard, although it did take a bit of time to get used to the way the British live. I was always under the impressions the British were very conservative, but nothing can be further from the truth. A night out in any UK city can be quite a shock, and it’s not only students :).
How is moving to another country different from traveling to another country?
You’ll see more of the ‘other’ side of the country when you move there. You rarely visit touristy areas, there’s suddenly all this paperwork you have to take into account and you get to know all the negative aspects of politics and the people’s qualms. It’s especially true in London, where for example the tube might have been a novelty when you were visiting for 3 days, but when you take it twice a day for an hour to get to work and back, it suddenly becomes a different story. The tourist areas such as Piccadilly Circus, Covent Garden or the Tower of London, you’ll only see them maybe once every two months, if you make the effort.
How often did you travel back home, and did you ever experience reverse culture shock?
I usually travel back to Belgium every three months. It’s very quick and easy by train, so I would most of the time go back for a weekend and stay with my parents. The last few years I have noticed some differences I’ve come to dislike about Belgium. One of them are the toilets. In Britain, you’ll have separate toilets for men and women, and you usually have 4 or 5 cubicles which are well maintained. In Belgium, you only have 2 toilets, quite often in the same room as the men, not very well maintained and if you’re in a touristy area, you’ll have to pay (even if you are a customer!). This is of course not always the case, but my last visit to Belgium, I only encountered dubious toilets 🙂
Another thing I’ve noticed is that waiters and bartenders are not the friendliest, compared to the British ones. Again, there are exceptions, but I’ve encountered quite a few very grumpy ones.
Did you successfully manage to make friends with the locals? How did you do it?
There were quite a few international students on my course as well as British students. We all became very good friends, and stayed friends long after the course. Because of us all being away from home, and living in the same building, it was very easy to become friends. The first 2 weeks, excursions and activities were organised by the university which helped us get to know each other. After the course and when I finally found a job in London, I met quite a few Londoners and even more expats. Because of the steep rent, most people share flats, which is another great way to meet new people.
At what point in your 7 years did you Really feel like you were at home?
It didn’t take long for me to feel at home, mainly because I was surrounded by other international students on the course. I started dating a British man, which helped getting integrated and getting used to all the customs. I would say after 2 years, I felt I was properly at home. I had finished my course and secured my dream job.
What one thing in the UK did you find that you wish they had in Belgium?
TV on demand 🙂 I love it that you can just watch programs you’ve missed whenever you want. They’ve started to introduce this in Belgium as well, but you have to pay for the service.
Likewise, what one thing do they have in Belgium that you wish the had in the UK?
Tasty bread! The bread in the UK is not great. They don’t have many bakeries, and most people buy their bread at the supermarket, which, compared to Belgian bread, is very appalling.
What has being an expat taught you?
Being more tolerant and appreciative of other cultures. Through my course and living in London, I’ve met so many people from all corners of the world and learned about their customs, their views and dreams. It’s been an eye-opening experience and it’s made me love this world even more. I also realise now that moving abroad is not an impossible step, and after moving to the UK, which isn’t too far from my home country, the thought of moving overseas is not as daunting as it once was. It’s just a different, but exciting experience.
And lastly, what advice can you offer to the novice expats out there (myself included!)?
Try to find other expats that have just arrived in the country. Together, you can go through all the stages of adjusting to your new country. However, make sure you also meet the locals, whether through a course, a sports club, or sharing a flat. It’s really easy to meet new like-minded people. I’ve never met any nasty people and everyone was always friendly and understanding if I couldn’t make myself clear in English.
Thanks for reading! Make sure you visit Lies’ blog at www.nonstopdestination.com and leave a comment below!
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