Success as an Expat

By - December 15, 2005 (Updated: November 30, 2014)

One of the hardest things about being an expat is leaving friends and family behind. Suddenly, all of the friends I had made over a lifetime in Canada were an ocean away. The prospect of making a new circle of friends was daunting.

When we arrived in Belgium, I believed that making Belgian friends was important. I felt that to appreciate my new country, I had to see it from the Belgian perspective.

I saw that some expats only seemed to make friends with their fellow countrymen (or women) and I found this very exclusive.

It seemed that most of the expat clubs were focused around a particular country. I didn’t see the point of leaving Canada, if I was only going to befriend other Canadians in Belgium.

I’m starting to alter my opinion … somewhat.

I still believe though that having Belgian friends is important. I have great neighbours and Andrew’s co-workers have also been kind to us. I value these relationships and the insights they give me into my new home.

Last weekend, Andrew and I attended an expat party as guests. The party was for New Zealanders and we were the only Canadians in the room. I learned two valuable lessons:

First, Kiwi’s are extremely welcoming and give great parties.

But second and more importantly, I realized that other expats get IT.

This IT is a biggie. IT is why most of us are here.

IT is the desire — or in some cases the need — to travel as something more than simply a tourist. IT is the wish to experience new cultures from the inside. IT is the ability to turn your life totally upside down and inside out just to see what IT would be like.

Expats also get the downside of IT. They understand why you roll your eyes when you are questioned about your last trip to the commune. They have the same battles with unpronounceable Dutch consonants. They know how hard it is to be far from loved-ones for the holidays.

It is next to impossible to explain IT to non-expats. The folks from home usually nod and smile and continue thinking that you are on an extended holiday. While your new neighbours believe that your home country must have been very inhospitable.

Oh sure, there are expats who still want everything to be like their home country and will only shop in familiar stores and will never learn a new language. I think these people are in the minority and will not remain expats for long.

I now believe that successful expats are a rare and special breed of people. We have to be strong to give up everything that is familiar and start over again.

We have to be extremely open-minded to be successful at adapting to new ways of life. We have days when we miss familiarity, but we still try to find joy in the unexpected (or at least learn to laugh about it later).

By maintaining friendships with Belgians, Canadians and expats from around the world, I am constantly exposed to new perspectives and ideas, not to mention new foods and new travel destinations.

Being an expat — particularly in a city like Brussels — gives me the unique opportunity to meet and interact with people literally from all over the world.

To limit myself to being friends with people from only one country — be it my new or old homeland — is to exclude myself from amazing new experiences.

If you like this, you might like:

Alison Cornford-Matheson
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+
Alison Cornford-Matheson
- 17 hours ago


  1. Comment by mare

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    mare December 15, 2005 at 14:35

    Some of the best times I remember from France were when I worked at the Memorial museum in Caen – with people from Russia, Argentina, Spain, Germany, England… aside from the expat thing, we all had the added fun of having our second languages in common. I often think back on that gang with fondness and still exchange cards etc with the one from Russia.
    And as for Paris, I don’t know, I think you ARE that lucky… but Paris redeemed itself greatly in my last mad visit, which was delightful. I’m firmly in the anti-Reims category, having been spit on and told off and had all kinds of rude things happen to me there… which hurts, as it’s in the Champagne region, and there are few vacations I love more than toodling about the Champagne region of France.
    Great blog, Alyson, I enjoy following your adventures greatly. Jenn says you found a divine new chocolate source, I’m most envious. I’ll have to see if I can track one down when I’m over this summer.

  2. Comment by Alison

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    Alison December 16, 2005 at 08:08

    Hey Mare,
    Thanks for the comment and I’m glad you enjoy the blog. I do have one point that I think needs to be made.
    I don’t believe that working and/or staying somewhere for a few months is the same experience as being expat. I have had both experiences and can tell you there is quite a difference.
    The working traveler, as Andrew was several years ago when we were in Amsterdam two years ago for three months, often doesn’t have to give up everything before they leave. We knew our house and it’s contents were waiting safely back in Canada for us and we could get back to them easily enough.
    On the other hand, this time we had to sell our house and everything we owned that wouldn’t fit into four suitcases and a couple of trunks and start all over again. In addition, we know that if we do go back to Canada, we have to start from scratch all over again. It’s basically jumping without a chute.
    I’m sure different people have different experiences with the expat situation, but this has been mine and for me it’s a long way home.
    BTW: (to channel Anna-Maria Tremonti) it’s Alison not Alyson.

  3. Comment by Di

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    Di December 16, 2005 at 09:02

    I know what you mean, there’s something terrifying, and yet liberating, about selling off EVERYTHING you own, knowing that you ‘have to’ make in your new world … and you ‘have to’ succeed, because there’s no place to go if you mess up.
    Life becomes about learning the intricacies of living in the new country; the language, how to deal with paperwork and non-english office workers, about creating a new social scene that you may have to live with for a long time. It’s about making a new life, and beginning again.
    I already know that going back to Istanbul on a working holiday would be pure delight. I think about it sometimes. I would play hard, knowing that I didn’t have to survive the grinding 8-5pm, five day weeks for long.
    I remember traveling to work one day, and realising that ‘Monday morning-itis’ is the same in any country if you’re working to live as a resident. Somehow, the mirror slips, and even a magnificent city like Istanbul, can all but disappear, sacrificed to the gods of stress and financial demands.
    Anyway, great blog, I loved it! You captured the feeling of being an expat really well.

  4. Comment by mare

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    mare December 16, 2005 at 18:05

    Gak! Alison! That’s what I meant! Alyson… well, that’s a different person entirely, and enough said.

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