Expat Careers: The Inside Story

By alison - June 1, 2006 (Updated: November 29, 2014)

Like many expats, Andrew and I moved overseas because of Andrew’s career. Unlike some, we were given a choice and we decided together to take on the challenge. Since then, we’ve faced many obstacles together, but there are some that Andrew has had to face alone.

I don’t talk about Andrew’s job often (mostly because even he can’t really describe what he does — without putting people to sleep anyway.) We usually just say he works in the computer industry and leave it at that.

The company he originally worked for was a start-up in Halifax and he was one of the first employees. It was the heyday of all things computer related and people were eager to invest. Our first experiences in Europe were all-expenses paid and relatively hassle-free.

Fast forward to a year ago. Andrew’s little start up had grown and was purchased by a larger American company. There were a lot of changes, but if we wanted to pursue a move to Europe it was now or never.

From the get-go it was unpredictable at best. At worst it was frustrating and stressful.

Andrew had gone from a big fish in a little pond to a guppy in the ocean. Our support network was suddenly gone. Whether or not we had a place to live in Brussels, didn’t seem to concern most people in the California office.

“Besides,” said one ultra-helpful Human Resources person, “we have expats move from the United States to Canada all the time and they never have this many issues.”

So we struggled along with some help from Andrew’s new European colleagues and a few of the old Halifax crew. While settling into a new life was hard, Andrew was also settling in to a new job.

He had gone from a cubicle-based programmer to ‘Global Services’ (a catch-all term that has come to mean ‘he who wears many hats at once’.)

The European team is so small that everyone has to be able to do everything. On any given day he could be a manager, a salesman, a technician, a programmer, a documentation writer or a trainer. It’s a long way from a cubical in Halifax.

The other problem with Andrew working in Europe is physically being in Europe. You see, some of Andrew’s North American colleagues think of Europe as one big country. They expect that business dealings will be the same across the continent. Andrew has learned quickly that this is not the case.

From the hours of operation (siesta in Spain), to how you address colleagues (always Herr or Frau in Switzerland), to how long it takes to get a contract signed (could be years in Italy) — things vary greatly from country to country.

Another issue has been proximity — the “Give it to Andrew, he’s in Europe” attitude has been common. This results in nearly weekly flights to Munich, Madrid, Milan or Zurich. The travel sounds glamorous to the uninitiated. Andrew assures me, however, that there is nothing glamorous about traveling from the airport to a business park and back to the airport. He hasn’t even seen the centre of most of the cities he’s visited.

Finally, there is the time issue. Between California and Brussels there is a nine hour difference. A five o’clock conference call in CA has Andrew dialling in at midnight. 9-5 has not been customary in our house for the past year.

Working in a new country has been challenging, but despite the stress and long hours Andrew is glad he broke out of his cubical box. He has gained more experience in the past year than ever before; he has a wealth of new skills to add to his resume and he has proven that he can be thrown into an unknown situation and land on his feet. These skills will be invaluable throughout his career and our life here in Belgium.

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Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel photographer and the founder of She is the author of The Foodie Guide to Brussels: Local Tips for Restaurants, Shops, Hotels, and Activities. Alison landed in Belgium in 2005 and, over the years, has become passionate about slow and sustainable travel, in Europe and beyond. She loves to discover hidden gems - be they museums, shops, restaurants, castles, gardens or landscapes, and share them through her words and photos. She has visited 45 countries and is currently slow travelling through North America in an RV, with her husband, Andrew, and two well-travelled cats. You can also follow her work on Google+
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