Catherine is a good friend of mine I met through my husband circa 2001 when they were colleagues. I absolutely wanted to interview her as she has lived abroad twice, in London then New York, repatriating in-between to Brussels, her hometown. Talking with Catherine was extremely interesting, understanding how one experience differs from another, how repatriation can go smoothly at one point in life and on the contrary be extremely difficult to overcome on another occasion, how working in another culture can be a shock and how life abroad can be a dream come true. We sat down on a Wednesday morning of November 2016 and chatted for quite some time via Skype.
Catherine, tell us a bit about you!
I am 43 years old, mom to a 6,5 years old little boy. We have recently moved outside of the city after having always lived centrally in Brussels. I enjoy watching movies and am a TV show addict! Although it has become a bit more complicated now, I find myself lucky to have had great opportunities to travel the world when I was a bit younger. Career-wise I have been working for multinational companies, in human resources, for almost 20 years. I lived for 1,5 year in London when I was 30 and 1 year in New York when I was 35. Both times I was single which made the moves easier.
Do you think you always had it in you to live abroad?
No, absolutely not! When I was younger I travelled a lot and went on great trips but never did I imagine I would go live abroad. Work is the reason I moved: I just seized the opportunities! The first one was London. Thinking about it now, I realize I had no clue as to what type of adventure I was about to embark on. This first move was a bit of an escape door in the sense that the company I was working for was going through a huge reorganization when the London office contacted me to offer me a job. It was a good opportunity: I liked London and it wasn’t far from Brussels. I didn’t prepare myself in any way and had no project in mind. It was more like “let’s see what happens”.
In your opinion, what facilitated your move in terms of settling in? On the contrary, what made it a bit more complicated than expected?
The move to London was difficult. Housing was not what I had expected. My budget was tight so the harsh reality of housing in London hit me really hard. I quickly realised I would not be living in the city centre which was disappointing. My expectations were far from reality. I ended up in a collocation with roommates I had to find on my own as the relocation agency was not dealing with this type of housing. I was lucky to find something nice. At 30 it was my first time living with roommates, it was interesting but extremely tiring as they were partying all the time! It is OK when you are 20 but at 30… At the end of my one-year contract the office offered me to stay but I said no. The living conditions were complicated. I needed my own space and found London to be an extremely tiring city to live in for the everyday life. For example, reaching the city centre from where I lived would take me on a 45 minutes commute. It was so tiring I just didn’t want to go out anymore. Moreover the office was in the opposite direction, which meant longer commute time to reach the centre to go out at night. Based on this and on the fact I had just bought an apartment in Brussels, I was ready to move back to Belgium.
How did your move back to Brussels go after London? Was it easy to fit in?
Yes! Well, I don’t actually remember. I guess it went really well. I think I was so happy to have my own space that it was a smooth process. I was also happy to be close to my parents. When living in London I would go back home every 6 to 8 weeks to see family and friends and had a lot of visitors. It didn’t feel as if there had been any break of some sort.
Do you ever go back to London?
I do sometimes but after 2-3 days I have enough. It is a very noisy and tiring city.
How long did you stay in Belgium before leaving for New York?
Did you approach your stay in NY differently based on your London experience?
When my boss offered me a job in New York I was absolutely not expecting it. I couldn’t refuse it. My reaction was: “Oh yes!! I’m going!!” The strange thing is that I had never been to NY before, ever. One month prior to my move I travelled there on a business trip. I have a vivid memory of that moment: I am on the plane and from a distance I see the Manhattan skyline and I think to myself “This is home”.
I think I was better prepared for this move, this time around I knew what to expect, mainly the administrative bits. By then Skype had become a thing so the distance was not that important anymore, I never felt there was an ocean between me and my family and friends.
In NY the installation went smoother compared to London as my budget was consequent. My living conditions were ideal which helped a lot: a great one-bedroom apartment in the heart of Manhattan. With New York it was love at first sight. I was over the moon and everything was going well. The city, my apartment, my colleagues, everything was brilliant. I had the feeling I was living in a dream, a real one!
Socially I was not alone, I became friends with 2 of my colleagues who were also expats and lived in my neighbourhood. At night we would go out and we would support each other when needed. To this day we are still really close friends, I recently went on a get together trip in NY, it was great!
New York is a city I love and will love for the rest of my life. When I was there last it felt I had gone home. It’s crazy!
How was it to work in the US?
Professionally it was fascinating and really hard. Understanding how Americans function is quite something. They are very competitive. I had to get used to the way my direct colleagues would address me. I had to learn to not take it personally, not to feel attacked or being reproached things. That was just wow, it took me a bit of time to adjust and thankfully I had my 2 British expat colleagues who helped me keep a sense of proportion otherwise I’m not sure I would have survived!
On a lighter note, Americans clearly don’t have the same scales: having a meeting in San Francisco was easy and a no-brainer, you would just hop on a plane, even though it is a 6 hours flight and 3 hours time difference. It is normal, you just cross the country and you are still in the US. In Europe you don’t have time zones and in 3 hours you go from North till South and the other way around!
What did you learn about the US mentality?
I was there in 2008, the financial crisis happened and Barack Obama got elected. I was at the Rockefeller centre for his election, what an experience, it was amazing! He quickly began working on the Obamacare and as I was in charge of benefits for my company I had to study it in detail and learn a lot about the American medical system as we needed to adapt our employee benefits package. Philosophically it was (and still is) so different from our approach in Belgium. They considered me as a communist coming from Europe with my knowledge of the Belgian social security system! It was fascinating to be immersed in this culture, I learned so much!
The approach of the financial crisis was unbelievable. Lehman Brothers was going down, we had 400 employees working there so we were faced with 400 potential people without a job! But, the American mentality was “it will be fine, we’ll get through this, we’ll find a solution”. Always look forward and be positive.
How did your repatriation (return to Belgium) go this time?
Extremely difficult. It was kind of violent but I didn’t realize it on the spot. My first mistake was to come back from New York on a Saturday and go back to work on the Monday. Big mistake. Always allow yourself to have a buffer, some decompression time, don’t go back to work immediately.
I came back in May 2009, a few months after the financial crisis; its effects were just hitting Europe. In the office everyone was depressed, nothing was going as planned, everything was seen as dark: “we won’t make it, we’ll go bankrupt, we will need to fire employees, we don’t know if we’ll be able to pay the bonuses”. Hearing that all day long after one year of “yes it will be ok” was awful. It was like I was getting slapped in the face. But I didn’t see it coming; it was insidious during a few weeks until I couldn’t take it anymore.
When I came back from London I didn’t feel me or my close ones had changed, it felt natural, it was easy. Coming back from New York I felt completely out of step, no longer in phase with my family, with my parents. I had lived something so crazy… It was violent.
Did you consider yourself to be an expat when living abroad?
I always considered myself to be an expat. In London it was difficult to meet locals and my roommates being expats we always had lots of them in the house, I was living in an expat bubble. At the end of a working day, my colleagues and I would go our separate ways and not hang out together. I had very few contacts with the locals.
In NY, my close friends were British so expats as well but I did have lots of contacts with the locals. It was quite funny because in NY I would say loud and clear I was European. Not Belgian. I was really proud of it. I don’t know why I wouldn’t say I was Belgian…
How did people react when you told them you were Belgian?
Jean-Claude Van Damme! You won’t believe the number of time I got that as a reaction! In general people refers to beer and as in NY you can find a few Belgian restaurants it helps. They usually know about Belgium but cannot put it on a map. For them Europe is a country.
Or when they heard I had a French accent “Oh you are from France” but then I would say “No! I’m Belgian!!”. Several times people asked me where it was. This is in NY, not some lost place in the US! Had I been in the middle of Texas they might have asked me if I had electricity in Belgium!!
Any experience related to cultural differences that surprised you?
Americans are easy to talk to and in NY you can start a conversation with anyone, which is very different from London where you would almost never talk to strangers. One evening I was in a bar in NY, chatting with a guy. It quickly became obvious he was following a mental checklist and ticking boxes as he was firing away very practical questions: You are not from here? Where do you come from? Where do you work? What do you do? What is your work title? Where do you live? Which neighbourhood? When I mentioned I was there as an expat it was funny to see his reasoning on his face “Is it worth investing the time and pursuing a conversation with you right now or should I talk to the person standing next to you?”. Time is money in the US and this situation was symbolic of how our systems of values differ. It was evident he was trying to assess my social status based on my job and where I lived. To me this was kind of violent, what a rough approach! You would never have that type of conversation in Belgium or in France or in Europe. It was quite impressive.
Did moving away change your views on Belgium?
Yes. Some things annoy me. For example you go to a coffee place in peak hour and end up waiting 20 minutes for a coffee as there is only one person working behind the counter! The service level is not what it should be, especially compared to the UK or the US where you would have several people working there. At the same time, social charges are so high in Belgium it is not that surprising! But it is a pity…
“Belgium is …. “
Belgium is bullshit: it is a joyful mess where it is quite nice to live and where I feel good. Living abroad allows you to put things in perspective and to realize that in the end it is not all that bad in Belgium! I do wonder how much longer Belgium is going to hold as a whole, as a country, considering the institutional imbroglio it is going through. There is one thing I can no longer stand after studying the American social security system: those who criticize what we have in Belgium, I want to smack them! We can’t complain! It can be improved but that’s the case everywhere.
I get to spend a day in the place you call home. Where am I? Where would you bring your visitors and what would you like them to discover?
(Defining home doesn’t come that easily and requires a bit of thinking)
Brussels, Brussels remains home. When I have visitors, instead of going to the city centre, I prefer to take them to the “Abbaye de la Cambre” and surroundings. It is a very green, peaceful and calm area of Brussels known by locals. I used to live nearby and always loved that place where I would go for walks. It is kind of a hidden gem. For food and drinks Brussels offers many options. My favourite restaurant is “The Brasseries Georges” (for the fun of it I wrote down the place I thought Catherine would mention and I was correct! I also love that restaurant! We had a good laugh when I showed her my piece of paper), it represents the quintessence of Brussels food and has a great atmosphere. Their French fries are just perfect, magnificent!
Would you recommend living abroad?
Oh yes, definitely. You learn so much about yourself. It allows you to put some perspective in what you live. More people should give it a go; the world would be a better place.
Catherine, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions and being part of this interview series.
If you are an expat or once were and would be interested in being featured in an interview, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me, either via the below comment section or through my about page where you will find my e-mail address.