Each Saturday I talk to someone who moved to Belgium. This week Vi from Latvia tells us about her life here.
1. Could you please introduce yourself? Tell us a bit about who you are, where you are from, where in Belgium you moved to and when you made that move.
My name is Vi Proskurovska. I was born in Jūrmala, Latvia. My very first visit to Belgium was in November 2000 – a study visit to the EU institutions. It was a visit of two days, very short. But I decided already then that I would like to stay in this country. I made a wish and it came true! Upon my return to Odense, Denmark, where I was finishing my Postgraduate Certificate in European Studies at the time, I was headhunted by an organisation based in Denmark, who invited me to work in their Brussels office. Call it luck ;)
So that’s how it all started.
2. Why did you move to Belgium?
I would not say that it was a targeted move. I just saw this as an opportunity to “embellish” my CV. I was only offered a one-year contract at first. And then things went well and I stayed with the same employer for six years. Many things happened in those years, and by the end of 2006 I was prepared to move to the next job, my next challenge. And in the meantime I realized that although I was open for job opportunities anywhere in Europe or even Africa, somehow Brussels grew on me, and I felt like a local among the (many) strangers.
3. What were your expectations before you moved to Belgium and did the reality align with those expectations?
I promise that I had no expectations whatsoever! I was only 23 when I moved, and I was on my own. All I knew in the first couple of years was that I had to find the strength and the willingness to survive in a foreign world, to prove to myself that I could do it. It was about learning French, finding common subjects of conversation with trainees from all over Europe and the locals, and finding a hobby I would enjoy. Then, the rest is history of course.
Brussels is lovely in a sense that living here for a long period of time is at first like a roller-coaster, and then it makes you zen and wise. Yes, you burn your fingers in the beginning (eg: integrating into the local Brussels environment is nothing of what one could imagine – what culture are you going to integrate into, given that probably most nationalities of the world are represented here? Or: did anyone see this level of bureaucracy, combined with a strong resolution of the local bureaucrats to not speak English with foreigners, anywhere else in the world? Or yet: is it worth making friends with people most of whom are here on temporary contracts?).
However, the longer you live here, the more beautiful and culturally rich the city appears to you. It is easy to find a niche for most culinary, cultural and lifestyle tastes. You can live in the busy and buzzing city center (on your own or flat-sharing), or in the calm and peaceful out-of-town residence. You can cook all bio home-made food or go to restaurants every day. You can taste thousands of different beers, or hundreds of different wines (not a specialist on vodkas, surely there’s a good choice, too). You can travel by train, car or airplane across Europe, and even have good deals to travel beyond.
At any rate, I think my spontaneous tactics of having no expectations was the best thing I ever did for myself. It allows for the place and the time to just unfold, leaving me to decide whether I like it or not, and act accordingly.
4. What’s the biggest difference between life in Latvia and living in Belgium?
Negative: There is less sun.
Positive: There is such a wonderful mix of cultures!
You’d say: “But Latvia is in the north-east of Belgium! How can there be more sun?”, and yet, yes, there is. Our summer days are so much longer than down south. And even in winter, even though the days are shorter, when it snows, there’s more light during the day. I am convinced that it plays a huge role for one’s psyche.
And on the positive side, the mix of cultures is so enriching. I cannot say that it is 100% peaceful, of course there are occasional clashes (related: owing to the presence of the EU institutions the protests and manifestations sometimes go overboard and scare me, but that’s inevitable in this political capital, I suppose). This being said, the richness of the cultural mix opens one’s mind, makes one more curious and less scared of the unknown, more tolerant to the differences with other people. The jewel is the easy access to different cultural events, cuisine and arts.
5. And what’s the biggest difference in mentality of the people or their lifestyle?
Funny enough, I often compare Belgium and Latvia in the context of ethnic differences. Belgium has three main ethnic groups (let’s put it this way), three official languages and one territory. Latvia has one main ethnic division into two main groups (Latvians and non-Latvians, most of whom are Russian-speaking), one official language (Latvian) and one territory.
Belgian political system is extra complex, thanks to the fact that they decided to adapt it to the ethnic differences (roughly speaking, political parties function in their territoriality only). Latvian political system is one, and everybody fights for the place under the sun, no matter what ethnicity they represent. And the ethnicity-based clashes are present in either of the two countries.
At least, in Latvia, you have to know one language to cross the country, including its countryside. In Belgium, you need two.
Perhaps related to that, Latvians are not really the ones to organize public protests and complaints, by far not as much as the Belgians. Latvians can tolerate really a lot before they even take it to the streets, even though they work longer hours, and earn less money.
In that sense, one of the elements of my culture shock all these years ago was that generally Belgians are so laid-back when it comes to working (compared to Latvians), but when the sh** hits the fan, they take it to the streets and start protesting or just call a strike, and block the entire country’s traffic. I cannot think of something like this happening in Latvia even for one second!
6. What do you love most about Belgium?
French fries? :-)
Well, the best part about Belgium is that I am not far, really not far from anything: from the city center, from my home town, from my friends and parents, and I can either live here for as long as I want and have my job forever (I really find it amazing that this country institutionalizes limitless work contracts!) or just take off and do what I want in any format I want.
No dream is far away.
7. What do you like least about Belgium?
Traffic. I do not drive, but even being a passenger in a car or a bus or whatever, one wonders how Brussels still survives with this crazy traffic?
And, did I mention taxes? ;)
8. What do you miss most about your Latvia?
The sea. I was born by the seaside, and would walk along the shore for hours, several times a week. Here, they say: “The sea is so close! It is just 1.5 hours’ drive!” I tell them that they are just crazy.
9. Is there something about your Latvia that you don’t miss at all?
Cold weather. I am so bad at tolerating extreme temperatures, that when it goes below -10 Celsius, I hibernate, and really do not want to go anywhere. This is hardly ever the case in Belgium, so I am blessed.
10. Do you think you’ll stay where you are now, or do you think you’ll migrate again some day?
I leave this chapter open. Admittedly, it is nice and comfortable to live in Belgium. Still, I believe that it is a loss to not take an opportunity to travel or even live somewhere else. My heart always pines for new discoveries.
11. A word of advice for other people who are thinking of moving to Belgium?
People! Think twice about the “why” of “I want to move to xxx”. If you move because you think that the grass is greener on the other side, then think again. It is up to you to make your own grass greener!
Now, if you have been given a great opportunity to be part of a project in another country, or it is a family affair, or you have the means (of various kinds) to stop the world and check out other places, that’s a much better idea to change location.
12. And lastly, can you share with us your
favorite place in Belgium:
In Belgium, I do not have a favourite place, really. I like to discover new places and I do so less and less, in fact. I really like to go to the seaside, but I like the wild side of it; and perhaps the nicest part was the beach north of Ostende.
favorite place in Brussels
In Brussels, I like some areas with beautiful architecture, but the greatest are places with massive views. For that, the view at the square in front of Palais de Justice is the first one I found, and it remains my favourite. Sunrise, sunset, storm coming, or any other phenomenon – its never boring to be there.
favorite restaurant in Brussels
For restaurants in Brussels, its not easy: some of them are amazing one time, and two years down the line, they are not so great anymore. The one which stood (my) test of time is Le Circle des Voyageurs.
All the amazing photos in this article are by Vi.
Are you a Belgian who moved abroad, or do you know someone who is? I’m always looking for new Belgian Expats to talk to. Check out the X-pat Files for more information on who exactly I’m looking for and drop me a line!