Each Saturday I talk to someone who moved to Belgium and ask them about their life here. This week’s Expat in Belgium is Maxine from South Africa.
1. Hi Maxine, Would you please introduce yourself? Tell us a bit about who you are, where you are from, where in Belgium you moved to and when/why you made that move.
I am Maxine, a South African expat experiencing my seventh year living in Brussels and embarrassed to admit that I still can’t speak French. I’m married to Him who is Portuguese and speaks five languages (and thankfully with French being one of them!). I love food in all its glory… reading about it, making it and eating it! I write on the blog Why I Am Not Skinny which has just celebrated its third year of existence of recipes and restaurant reviews in Belgium (Brussels), South Africa (Cape Town) and wherever else my suitcase takes me.
I had decided to take a sabbatical break from my job in South Africa in order to travel and explore the world, got offered a job in Brussels, Belgium, and was under the impression that I would only be here for 18-24 months where I could use the opportunity to explore the rest of Europe, but I fell in love (not just with Him) and now call it home!
Last year I got the opportunity to meet some wonderful bloggers based in Belgium and before we knew it Brussels Food Friends was born. A Belgium food blogger community offering an online platform to promote bloggers’s published work, as well as organizing “get together” events during year, so that bloggers could meet face to face, connect and create a supportive environment.
2. What were your expectations before you moved to Belgium and did the reality align with those expectations?
I thought it would be easy to learn a new language and “fit in”, but working in an international company with English as the professional language meant that the opportunities to practice were limited. Plus with the high number of expats from all over the world living in Brussels there is a tendency to use English as the easiest way to communicate. (Don’t let this discourage anyone – it is really important to make an effort to speak the language of the country in which you reside!)
I was also under the impression that travelling was glamorous and although friends back home would get jealous with my weekend jaunts to Edinburgh, Prague, Budapest, Amsterdam, Paris, etc. it soon became tiring rushing to the airport or train station on a Friday after work to try and squeeze in 48 hours of travel before landing around midnight on a Sunday night. Not to mention expensive.
Now I find that travel arrangements are more methodically thought out – with longer periods spent exploring (not just a “quick” weekend) and more research into what I want to see (not just the traditional tourist attractions)
3. What’s the biggest difference between life in your home country and living in Belgium?
Fresh fruit/vegetable markets are a given! On any day of the week, you can find a market in one of the communes selling everything from freshly cut flowers, homemade breads, cakes and treats – plus mountains of fruit and vegetables. This normally means that folks living in Belgium are very likely to cook their meals from scratch – and don’t seem to rely on convenience packed foods (For those who know the “Woolworths” brand in SA – know what I mean about convenience packed foods).
Having said this, I would definitely say that I eat out a lot more in Brussels that I ever did in Cape Town! And fast food isn’t really big here (or at least not with the people that I know!)
The other interesting characteristic is that people are quite protective of their weekends and holidays. In respect of working hours – banks and some post offices are only available during working hours on Monday – Friday (not Saturdays) and getting an appointment at lunchtime is impossible – so you need to take time off from your job to get things done. Shops are closed on Sundays – with the logic that it is a day of rest for everyone – but for those who work Monday to Friday, it means that the entire population descends on grocery stores on Friday nights (extended shopping hours until 9 pm) or on Saturday mornings.
4. What do you love most about the Belgium?
I love the diversity. Brussels is an expat city which means that people are friendly and helpful because they have been through the whole relocation situation themselves.
There is an amazing amount of restaurants – ranging from “cheap and cheerful” to “impress the in-laws/boss” and can fit any purse size or cuisine. You could probably visit an eating establishment every day for years before coming to the end of the list!
5. What do you like least about Belgium?
Shops being closed on Sundays.
6. What do you miss most about South-Africa?
South Africa also has some amazing destinations and every time the plane lands on Cape Town soil I gaze upon the infamous Table Mountain (knowing that the beach is on one side and the wine lands are on the other) and think how beautiful it is to be there! It is one of the most beautiful cities that I have ever had the pleasure to explore…
7. Do you think you’ll stay where you are now, or do you think you’ll migrate again some day?
For the time being our life is in Brussels, Belgium. Both my husband and I work here and we don’t have any immediate plans to move.
But …. Who knows…
If an amazing opportunity presented itself – I think we would both consider a new adventure.
8. Could you share some of your favorite spots in Belgium with us?
Going for a drink after work – I love the little wine bar at the end of our street – called “Le Petit Canon” – which is where I first tasted a Half’n’Half (half bubbles & half white wine) – it is unpretentious and relaxed.
Food wise, I enjoy my weekly bowl of cheap and cheerful pasta from my local Italian restaurant “La Piola” in Place Chatelain or healthy and tasty rice paper rolls from “Knees to Chin”
I recently got to enjoy fine dining at Bowery – and I can’t wait to return!
And of course – Bookalokal is always a firm favorite – where you get the opportunity to sign up & eat at someone’s house!! (I host Murder Mystery dinners with them… but I have also attended some great dinners hosted by others – from Indian to Mexican to Portuguese to name a few!)
Occasionally – a trip to Stonemanor (the British shop) in Everberg is the perfect outing to stock up on English birthday (or any occasion) cards, magazines, books and seasonal items (like fruit mince pies in December & Hot Cross buns before Easter – which can normally not be found in Belgian grocery stores). Plus they have a super cute tearoom…. and are open on Sunday mornings.
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!