I must have met Caroline circa 2002 through a mutual friend. At the time we would organise game nights and one evening she came along. Over the years we haven’t seen much of each other, you know how it goes. However I did hear Caroline had moved to the US. It is not until recently that we reconnected through a blogger’s group on Facebook. When I asked Caroline to be part of this series of interviews on expatriation she immediately said yes. We started the process by e-mail and continued with a long chat via Skype mid-December 2016. I find Caroline to be an inspiring woman who created her own company to support entrepreneur women all over the world with their communication strategy. I closely follow her website as it is full of wise advices, interesting interviews and videos on useful topics related to communication. Her newsletter is one of my favorite, it is always a pleasure to read it.
Caroline, tell us a bit about you!
I am Belgian and have lived almost all my life in Belgium. My background is in journalism and communication. During my career I worked in communication, advertizing agencies, as a freelance journalist and communication advisor. I am a mother to 3 girls aged 8, 6 and 4. I enjoy swimming, pilates, traveling, eating healthy. I am very conscious of the impact I can have on the environment and the preservation of our planet. By reducing our family’s consumption of prepacked goods I try to bring my own stone to the edifice with concrete actions.
Do you think you always had it in you to live abroad?
As crazy as it may sound, as a kid I would tell my parents I wanted to live in the US! My dream came through when I was 18 and spent 9 months as an exchange student in a host family in California. Upon my return I jumped on the first occasion to leave again through the Erasmus program (a European program allowing students to pursue their studies for a semester in another European country) and spent 4 months in Dublin. Later on, with my husband who had his own adventures abroad (Australia, Sweden and Peru) we had a shared project to experience life elsewhere. And here we are, in Philadelphia since November 2014 with our 3 girls.
Did you embark on the expatriation adventure on your own, as a couple or as a family? How did it impact your move?
For my student exchanges I was single. This time we arrived as a family, we packed everything and left. It was completely different. There is no more language barrier this time around. The family unit is the central pillar and kids are a factor of integration through school and activities.
Was there any specific challenge moving as a family?
The challenging aspect was that we wanted to make sure each one of us would find something in it for them and could shine in their new lives. For me, working whilst staying flexible was at stake. I created a portable professional activity in my field of expertise, communication, geared towards entrepreneur women (What color is your communication).
In your opinion, what facilitated your move in terms of settling in?
I discovered « Philadelphie Accueil » which is part of the incredible French welcome network (this network exists in many cities all over the world). This association gave me tremendous support, from practical information to the chance to meet incredible people leading to friendships. Thanks to them I led a very social life as from the moment we arrived. « Philadelphie accueil » also allows me to contribute and give back which brings me great satisfaction: I am in charge of the « Club pro » which mission is to help expat accompanying partners to professionally thrive.
On the contrary, what made expatriation a bit more complicated than expected?
I had not expected, hence not anticipated, that our family gravity center would shift and fall on my shoulders for all logistical, organisational and social aspects.
If you could do it all over again, what would you do differently?
Everything went really fast. We barely prepared ourselves. We were really busy back home at the time. We had one week to get to know Philadelphia. I had no time to inform myself and we really relied on our relocation agent. If I had to do it again I would pay more attention to schools and making sure I know what the options are. Due to a lack of information we had to switch schools which was unfortunate; especially when you only get to spend a few years somewhere. It is for the best but even so. My advice would be investigate and find as much info as possible beforehand.
Did you manage to create friendships with Americans?
We had really nice American neighbors during the first year of our stay and connected with them. Unfortunately they moved. Other than that we don’t really have local friends. It is complicated to get to know Americans; they have a very easy contact and approach but it is not that simple to get past that and actually become friends. When you tell them you are renting a house they don’t want to invest time in building a relationship with you as they expect you to leave. It changes once you buy a house; people look at you differently. We have just been recently invited to a birthday party; it gives me the impression we will finally enter in the intimacy of that American family. Socially I meet with the French expat community, not with the international one.
Is there anything that surprised you in the US?
In regards to the food, people expect it to be really greasy and think we have a really bad diet in the US, solely composed of burgers. That is such a huge prejudice, I discovered so many new ingredients; vegetables I didn’t know in Europe such as Kale, sweet potato, the large variety of pumpkins, black beans and their different uses. In the end our eating habits are healthier and better balanced than when we lived in Belgium.
In terms of habits, people eat much earlier. For example we were invited for dinner at 5PM, by 6 we were eating! Cheeses were served at the aperitif when in Belgium (and France) we tend to end our diner with it. We adapted and changed our habits: we now eat dinner at 6, go to bed early and start our day earlier as well.
What did you discover about the US culture by moving there?
I am much more indulgent with Americans who do not have a perfect knowledge of the European geography. We often make fun of them when they can’t place a European country or a city on a map. I defy any European to put Ohio on a map and to name its capital. In US schools the focus of the geography class is put on the 50 states and their capitals.
The low number of holidays Americans have is another big “cliché”. We take pity of them thinking they are really unlucky. From my experience we shouldn’t. Life here is different. Wherever you are in the US, within a 2-hour drive you will always find a nice place with good infrastructure for the kids (in Philadelphia we can reach the beach in 2 hours). There is no need to go far, to drive 8 to 10 hours or to fly away to go to a nice holiday spot. Most of all, when the weekend begins, Americans enjoy their time off: they relax. Europeans don’t seem to be able to disconnect in the same way and come the holidays they are on their knees. It is different here.
Another misconception is that in the US you can lay off someone within a week, that there is no social protection in the work environment. It is not as black and white as that. Companies are so afraid of being sued they need to build a solid file against an employee to fire him/her which can take months (it might be different for blue collar workers). At the same time, when an employee wants to leave, within a week he can be gone. This flexibility goes both ways.
What role do social medias play in your life?
I often think about the expat woman 40 years ago, now that was real expatriation: no access to her home country media, no easy contacts with her friends and family. Today we are virtually everywhere. I also use social networks as a business tool; it is very useful.
In a few words, Belgium is ….
A surrealistic pocket handkerchief!
When did you visit Belgium last? Missing anything from there?
I came back last summer to refuel on conversations, spending time with family and friends I no longer see everyday. The human warmth is what I miss the most.
I love the North Sea in Belgium, especially Saint-Idesbald. To fully appreciate its buildings with their sixties look, its dike, the paper flower shops, the smell of waffles and warm sand you have to have spent a few weeks there during your childhood.
What do people say when you tell them you come from Belgium?
I think people are really disappointed! They hear a French accent and conclude I’m French, I immediately feel their interest fade when I say I’m Belgian! I sometimes think I should just keep their illusion alive. Very often they have a story to share: they have been to Bruges, they have a relative who fought in WWII, they have a friend living there and so on. They are always positive.
When in Belgium, what are the most frequent questions you get?
During our first summer people would ask a lot of questions about the kids: their integration and how their English was improving. During our second summer the recurring question was « When do you move back »?
Did moving away change your views on Belgium?
My vision of Europe has changed but it could also be due to the agitated times we are living in. We had barely touched ground here that we witnessed, incredulous and helpless, the terrorist attacks of Charlie Hebdo (January 2015, Paris), the Bataclan (November 2015), Brussels (March 2016) and Nice (June 2016). Then the Brexit (June 2016), the attempted coup in Turkey (July 2016) and the election of Donald Trump (November 2016). It makes you think. In the middle of all of this Belgium seems to be a vestige of the past where it still feels good to live.
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?
You would be in Philadelphia and I would take you to the Barnes Foundation, a fantastic private collection of paintings by great artists (Renoir, Van Gogh, Matisse, Caravage…). The layout of the exhibit is unusual. The masterpieces are hung based on their shape and colours, matching the furniture and ironworks to form ensembles unique in the world! We would then head to the Reading Terminal Market for lunch where you would have to try the local specialty: the Philly cheese steak. To burn all these unnecessary calories you would walk in the footsteps of the famous boxer Rocky Balboa by climbing the stairs leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Caroline, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions about expatriation and being part of this interview series.
What is your experience of expatriation? I’d love to hear about it in the below comment section.
If you are an expat or once were and would be interested in being featured in an interview about expatriation, 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.