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Success as an Expat

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

THIS POST MAY CONTAIN COMPENSATED LINKS. FIND MORE INFO IN MY DISCLAIMER.

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.

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Alison Cornford-Matheson
Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian travel writer, author, and photographer. She is the founder of Cheeseweb.eu, a website dedicated to slow and sustainable travel, off-the-beaten-path destinations, and cultural awareness through travel. She and her husband, Andrew, are the founders of RockFort Media, committed to helping entrepreneurs tell their stories online. Alison has visited over 45 countries and, after living in Belgium for 11 years, now lives full-time in a Bigfoot motorhome named Yeti with Andrew and their well-travelled cat.
Alison Cornford-Matheson
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