I have known Deborah for a few years. Originally she was a friend of my younger brother and a friend of a friend. It so happens we moved to France at approximately the same time. Deborah is a very interesting person who turned her life upside down when she moved to Paris. She has a bubbly personality, her laugh is communicative and when she looks at you she really connects with you. When I sent out an email to my Belgian friends living around the globe about this new project of mine, Deborah was the first one to answer. She was very enthusiastic and suggested we meet in Paris the following week in a typical Parisian brasserie over lunch, which we did in November 2016.
Deborah, tell us a bit about you!
I am Belgian and come from the French Ardennes, really close to the border with France. I moved to Brussels for my studies and have lived there a dozen years. A degree in marketing in my pocket I applied for jobs and said yes to the first bank that offered me a job; I stayed with them for 7 years occupying different functions.
What prompted you to move to Paris?
Four years ago I met someone online. We hit it off immediately; the only thing is that he was Parisian and living in Paris. Seeing that our relationship was getting serious I decided to move and join him. I left everything behind me: my job, my apartment, my friends and my family (well not really as we keep in touch and I try to see everyone when I return to Brussels/Belgium). Arriving in Paris and changing everything in my life, I thought I might as well do a professional reconversion. The contemporary art market had always interested me so I enrolled in a one-year program at IESA, a higher education center for arts where I obtained a diploma allowing me to work in the contemporary art sphere. After a 6-months internship with an art broker followed by a 5 months contract with an insurance company specialised in private art collections and exhibits I realised it is a very complicated and demanding world that requires a lot of investment. I slowed down and got involved in the Rotary club where I am in charge of the youth commission. I am also a member of the “Palais de Tokyo” friends association that is very active in discovering and supporting new young artists and organising a lot of exhibition visits.
Do you think you always had it in you to live abroad?
Not really. As I am a very spontaneous person, I took moving to Paris as a chance, an opportunity. I didn’t ask myself many questions. I just went for it! That’s it! I did it to build a couple and give my relationship a shot. I have no regrets even if life in Paris is nothing similar to the one in Brussels in terms of quality of life. Here you can put your comfort behind you. Brussels is so much more accessible and comfortable compared to Paris.
In your opinion, what facilitated your move in terms of settling in?
Integration was not an issue. It is very easy for me to meet people, to connect with them. I have built a very nice social network for myself here in Paris. It is a source of comfort and makes me feel good. Studying helped a lot, as it was the first step towards creating that network. Most people were my age at the school I attended, which was a chance. I was 35 and everyone was in a professional reconversion, just like me.
On the other hand, what made it a bit more complicated than expected?
The daily life is complicated. Belgians don’t have the same references as the Parisians. It surprised me because we don’t live very far; Brussels is only 1h20 away by fast train. It is so close and yet so far, so different from our concept of life (I must say I share the same view). It is quite impressive; I took a slap in my face: it is a different world. It is like doing the spills in terms of apartments, way of moving, grocery shopping, even the way of talking (expressions and words are different). It took my partner and I some time to understand each other.
Any experience related to cultural differences that surprised you?
I have one but it doesn’t make me happy. Not so long ago I took a test with an art school and I failed. As I didn’t understand why I asked to see my copy. That’s when I realized it was not a question of knowledge but more of language and expressions used. I had forgotten to mention I am Belgian, I don’t know if it would have made a difference. So I’m a bit lost as to whether take it again or not: if it is a question of language I will probably always flunk it…
In a few words, Belgium is ….
It is where I was born. It is the land that makes me vibrate. Each time the train stops in Brussels I feel good, it brings me a positive feeling.
When did you visit Belgium last?
2 weeks ago.
Do you go back often?
No, not really. That’s probably why each time it makes me feel good (she passes her hand on her belly as to mimic butterflies in her stomach).
What do people say when you tell them you come from Belgium?
Belgians are fashionable in Paris, which also helped with my integration. They are immediately curious and as I do not push people away conversation starts really quickly. Funnily enough, people always take me for a Canadian here in Paris, never for a Belgian.
Did moving away change your views on Belgium?
A little bit. On my smartphone I still read the Belgian news so somehow I don’t loose the connection. But when I go back to Belgium or to Brussels I find everything looks tiny (starts laughing).
Do you watch the news on French TV?
Always! I follow politics closely.
Do you watch the news on Belgian TV when you visit?
Yes. It makes me laugh. My partner who is French and who watched a few political debates on Belgian TV finds it really nice to see these debates as he finds our politicians to be natural. He wants to laugh but not in a bad way, more in an affectionate one.
In the long run, do you see yourself living in France?
I’m not sure because if the far-end right political party comes to power we already agreed with my partner we would leave. My husband-to-be who is a bit older than me will not work as much as he does now forever so we could consider building a new life (probably) in the US at a certain point in time.
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 are in Uccle (of one the 19 boroughs of Brussels), in the area between Winston Churchill Avenue and Edith Cavell Street. First of all that’s where I was born and that’s where I lived when I moved to Brussels. I don’t know why, when I rented my apartment in Brussels, I ended up in that same street. I had all my habits in that neighbourhood. I miss it terribly. This was my home and it felt good. It’s another life. That’s the place I call home.
The “Maison van Buuren” is a beautiful art deco house that is really worth a visit: the architecture, the garden and the interior. It makes you feel like you are time travelling. I visited this museum several times; it is dear to my heart. You need to book your visit in advance, as it is not always open. I am very much into contemporary art but this place I just love it.
When in Belgium you need to eat Belgian French fries! I know I do each time I go to Belgium. It’s silly. It’s not beer it’s fries!! I need this. You can’t miss on that, they are just so much better in Belgium compared to Paris. It can be in a restaurant or in a “friterie”(kind of a non-moving food truck that mostly sells fries and sauces that go with them, typical for Belgium) it doesn’t matter as long as it is on your way.
A place not to miss is the Bois de la Cambre (a big park in Brussels). As we have a dog I take my partner there for a walk. I know we have the Bois de Boulogne in Paris but he told me he thought the bois de la Cambre was extraordinary. Each time we go to Brussels we go there. It pleases me because it reminds me of my childhood and my partner, who discovered it as an adult, really enjoys it.
Deborah, I am at the end of all the questions I wanted to ask you. Is there anything you would like to add?
I find your project to be an excellent idea because it is a sociological study of people of our generation who go through this expatriation experience. There is nothing better than sharing experiences and views in which everyone can find/recognise themselves. I was very enthusiastic when you asked me to participate as I find this project to be useful and interesting and it can be of interest to other people.
Deborah thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions 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, 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.