Who are you?
I am Rebecca Bramlett, an American living in Belgium.Prior to my move abroad, I worked in higher education as a fundraiser and marketer. Now I am studying digital storytelling and working to document my experiences living abroad. I also stay busy as a mother, wife, and volunteer for humanitarian and animal welfare causes.
Where, when and why did you move abroad?
I moved from North Carolina in the U.S. to Ghent, Belgium in January 2016. I moved here with my family as a result of a work opportunity for my husband.
What challenges did you face during the move?
Everything is a challenge! It is hard to acclimate to a new culture, especially when you have to learn the local language from scratch. It feels like you have to relearn everything including where to shop, what brands you like, and understanding simple processes like recycling and garbage collection.
I also experienced a bit of an identity crisis going from working full-time to being an “accompanying spouse” on an international assignment.
How did you find somewhere to live?
We were lucky to be able to work with a local, professional relocation agent who helped us navigate the process of finding a place to live.
Are there many other expats in your area?
Yes. Ghent is a very international city with a great, supportive expat community. It was very helpful to connect with other expats though the local International School community and through groups online on Facebook and other digital platforms.
What is your relationship like with the locals?
In the service sector, they have been friendly and helpful, although there have been occasional individuals who didn’t seem to like interacting with a foreign resident.
On a personal level, it has been difficult to get to know Belgians. They are very private people. It has taken time to make friendships with locals, but it has been possible through volunteering, taking courses in a local school, and participating in local activities and events.
What do you like about life where you are?
I am fascinated by the depth of the local history which dates back many centuries before anywhere else I have lived before. I also enjoy Belgium’s more relaxed lifestyle that values leisure and family time. And I love that our location allows for easy, accessible options to travel all over Europe.
What do you dislike about your expat life?
Even the simplest tasks can be difficult while learning the local language. Achieving fluency is hard and takes time, and in the meantime, overcoming the language barrier can be mentally and emotionally draining. Also, being physically far away from family and friends is hard.
What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?
The people and the culture here are more laid-back and relaxed than my home country. There seems to be more value placed on work/life balance here, and on living a stress-free life. There is a more casual approach to everything, which is often refreshing but can also be disconcerting when it relates to issues of safety, security, and professional procedures!
What do you think of the food and drink in your new country? What are your particular likes or dislikes?
There seems to be more respect here for healthy, fresh, quality ingredients, thoughtful preparation, and pleasing presentation of food and beverages. Belgians appreciate a high-quality, pleasing dining experience, even if it is a casual, simple meal or coffee break. With cold, rainy winters here, I have grown to appreciate the local affinity for hot soups, tea, and coffee. I also love fresh Belgian broodjes, and of course, the waffles, chocolate, frietjes, and beer. I dislike that it is hard to find some ingredients I need to make some classic, favorite dishes from back home.
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
I would tell anyone considering a move abroad to absolutely do it! Be prepared for challenges but recognize that if you approach those challenges bravely, openly, and with a sense of exploration and humor, you can overcome them and experience some incredible personal growth.
Especially when first arriving, find a network of local expats to help you figure things out and to commiserate on the experience when things get tough. But also, immerse yourself in the local culture as much as you are comfortable with in order to meet locals and get the most out of your expat experience. Try to learn the local language as best you can to help accomplish that.
What are your plans for the future?
The work assignment that brought us here ends this summer, so we will move back to the U.S. I’ve been documenting my expat experience on my blog, and have plans to add new digital storytelling elements to that between now and then. Once back in the States, I hope to continue to work producing digital storytelling projects using text, photography, audio, and video. I will always be open to the possibility of future international moves!
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