10 Tips for Successful Expat Living | Flashback

By alison - September 30, 2011 (Updated: February 24, 2015)

Expat life means big changes.

Expat life means big changes.
This week I had the pleasure of meeting a lovely new expat in Brussels. It reminded me of our early days here and all of the challenges we need to overcome as expats. As I was giving her some advice, for her new expat life, I thought it would be worth sharing this post again. It’s 5 years old, but all of the advice still holds true.

Andrew and I have officially been expats in Belgium for one year. It has been a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs, but we are grateful for the experience. We had to learn how to adapt to life in Belgium the hard way. We’ve made some mistakes and there are a few things we wish we could have done differently. Overall, however, we wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.

Thriving Abroad

Because hindsight is 20/20, I would like to share 10 valuable suggestions, for  successful expat life in Belgium and beyond.

  1. Learn to live in the moment. Expat life can be erratic. Plans often change from one day to the next. Going with the flow will reduce your stress level and allow you to actually enjoy some of the ride.
  2. Things here aren’t done the way they are at home – Get over it. If you want everything to be the same, don’t move abroad.
  3. You will always have to make “one more trip” to the commune and every person you talk to there will tell you a different story. Think of it as a scavenger hunt.
  4. Put up with paperwork. Complaining about it won’t help (trust me I’ve tried). Wine and chocolate help.
  5. Even if it’s sunny when you leave the house, stick an umbrella in your bag. It rarely rains when you are prepared.
  6. Learn as much of the local language as you can. If you plan to travel, learn at least a few important words in as many languages as possible (even if you know the locals will speak English). It’s tough but be brave. Remember most people here have learned, or are learning, other languages and they’ll understand if you’re making a genuine effort.
  7. Always try the local foods — they are specialties for a reason. Even if you don’t like them, you’ll have some great stories for the folks back home.
  8. Take advantage of Belgium’s multiculturalism. Make friends with Belgians, as well as expats from around the world. The new perspectives this will expose you to are fascinating (and could always lead to travel experiences with a local expert down the road).
  9. Get out and explore. Whether it is on the train, in the car, on a bike or by foot, Belgium is a country full of hidden surprises. You will never find them if you don’t go looking for them.
  10. Learn to look back on the bad stuff and laugh, or at least chalk it up to experience. Being an expat is hard and everyone has bad days. If you can look at things with a sense of humour and know it will get better, it can make all the difference.

After 6 years here, I would like to add:

Network – Even if you aren’t a social butterfly, the best way to meet people is to join a club or go to some of the informal meet-ups in the city. Have a hobby? Do it with a group. Ask your embassy if they have meet-ups. Use some of the on-line resources like Brussels Expat Club and Facebook to find people in your area with similar interests.

Thriving AbroadTravel! Just because you live in Belgium, doesn’t mean you’re stuck here. This is one of the best places in the world to travel from. If the Belgian weather is getting you down, hop on a cheap flight and find some sun.

Don’t be too hard on yourself. Despite what the folks back home may think, you aren’t on holiday. Real life has ups and downs and this is intensified in expat life. Allow yourself to have bad days. Embrace them and do something that makes you feel good – read a book, watch a movie, call a friend back home, eat chocolate or even cry. Then get up the next day and move on.

What are your tips for successful expat living? Let us know in the comments below.

Looking for more resources for living in Belgium? Check out our Resources for Expats Living in Belgium and our Resources for Expats and Trailing Spouses.

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Big Cheese at CheeseWeb
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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  1. Comment by Claire

    Claire October 1, 2011 at 10:39

    Great post! I’ve taken to moaning a lot lately and this has helped me sort out my attitude!

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison October 1, 2011 at 11:22

      Thanks Claire! I think it’s ok to moan once and a while. Being an expat isn’t always easy. The trick is not to dwell on the bad stuff… Moan for a day and then move on to something that makes you happy!

  2. Comment by Jade Johnston

    Jade Johnston October 3, 2011 at 09:03

    Its not hard to motivate yourself to try the local food when you are in Belgium….

    m……m…..mmmm… Speculoos

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison October 5, 2011 at 09:30

      Very, very true Jade 🙂

  3. Comment by Jane

    Jane October 5, 2011 at 12:58

    Really great post! Number 3 is especially true – after 10 years I have been to the commune more times than I can count 🙂

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison October 5, 2011 at 13:15

      Lol, I think it’s best not to count how much time you spend there!

  4. Comment by Marc Degreef

    Marc Degreef October 6, 2011 at 18:43

    Interesting how you see life in Belgium. But what strikes the most is the positivity. It shines through your message. Expats reading this can only cheer op. Wonderful!

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison October 7, 2011 at 09:43

      Thanks Marc! I’m glad my message is coming across so positively. I’ve really fallen in love with Belgium, but I’ll be honest, it wasn’t love at first sight. The first months were tough. The longer I’m here though, the more I feel at home!

  5. Comment by Bridget

    Bridget October 20, 2011 at 09:50

    I love this – great advice!

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison October 20, 2011 at 10:34

      Thanks Bridget!

  6. Comment by Sabine Panneau

    Sabine Panneau October 20, 2011 at 22:39

    Thanks Alison for sharing your thoughts on expat life! As a current expat in Argentina and former resident of the UK, Germany and Spain, your recommendations are all relevant anywhere in the world (except for #5 – at least in Spain and Argentina!).

    I agree with you about your last point and I often quote a German proverb: “You will become clever through your mistakes”! As foreigners in a new environment, we are prone to make mistakes or faux-pas and the secret is to turn it into our advantage and not our excuse.

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison October 21, 2011 at 13:32

      Thanks for adding your own great advice Sabine! That’s a perfect attitude to succeed as an expat!

  7. Comment by Rob

    Rob November 5, 2011 at 11:16

    I was an ex-pat in Sweden for 4 years in the 80s and I would have to add the advice “Integrate!”.

    I was shocked at the number of ex-pats I met there who had no Swedish friends or couldn’t speak the language. I buckled down (while working full time) and spoke only Swedish after 18 months and the majority of my friends were Swedes. The ex-pat community *can* be interesting, but the most interesting part of being and ex-pat is the country and culture you’re *in*, not the one you’re *from*!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison November 5, 2011 at 11:32

      You’re 100% correct Rob and I think it’s really easy to fall into that trap, especially in a city like Brussels where there are so many expats. Again, I think it goes back to balance; I have a lot of great expat friend from around the world. Sometimes you just need someone who understands the stresses of expat life. But I’m also thrilled to have some great Belgian friends too and they are really the gateway to understanding the country and its culture. It really baffles me why people move halfway around the world only to surround themselves with only people from their home country.

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