Expat Life in Belgium: An Interview with Alison

By - July 12, 2010 (Updated: December 1, 2014)

My residence room in second year with Megan and LeeAnn

My residence room in second year with Megan and LeeAnn

If you’ve been following the expat roommate interview series, you’ve already met four inspiring expat women that I had the honour of living with, in university. Now they’ve turned the tables and thrown some of my questions back at me – and added a few of their own. Today I’m talking about expat life in Belgium and finding my way as a photographer in a new country.

Since you’ve seen lots of current photos of me, I thought I’d have some fun with a few more oldies. I’ve added a lot of links to old posts, for those of you who are new to CheeseWeb and want some background. Because many of you already know my expat story, I’ll go ahead and skip right to the questions:

What challenges did you face when you first moved to Belgium and how did you resolve them?

I think any expat who moves to Belgium without the help of their employer will have the same answer – paperwork. Belgium is notorious for red-tape. There is always another document needed, another form to sign, and another line to wait in. Heck, I wasn’t even considered married when we got here.

The requirements are never spelled out and seem completely dependent on what commune you live in, what nationality you are, what time of day or day of the week it is and what the paper-pusher you are dealing with had for breakfast that day. Of course the communes are open Monday to Friday from 9-11 to serve you better… After reading the other interviews though, this sounds like a universal problem for expats.

The other biggest challenge was language and Tez asked me the question below:


Megan's Wedding: Marilla, Megan, Tez our friend Christina and Me in the front.

Megan’s Wedding: Marilla, Megan, Tez our friend Christina and Me in the front.

Has your experience being in a non-native English speaking country been vastly different from your impression of how our experiences have been? (since we’ve all stuck to English speaking countries!)

I don’t know if I would say vastly different, because certainly I relate to much of what you all have talked about in your interviews. The language issue was/is certainly a hurdle we’ve had to deal with.

When we first moved to Belgium we didn’t realise language would be an issue, since we both took French Immersion in school. We had no idea how strict the language borders were and stupidly rented a house in Flanders. It was a total shock when we went to register at our town hall and discovered they could legally only speak to us in Flemish… What the??

There was a lot of hand gesturing and frustration on both sides. Eventually, we were taken into an office. The door was locked (thoughts of deportation were running through our heads). The woman who was in charge of the office explained in perfect English what we needed to do and why she wasn’t allowed to speak to us in English. As soon as she opened the door she went back to speaking Flemish.

In Brussels, thankfully, it’s not really an issue. We even belong to a commune (neighbourhood) where English is spoken at the town hall and, worst case scenario, we can fall back on French. I have to say though, after 10 years of not speaking French, I have lost so much. I understand it 85% of the time, although there are some regional differences for sure. I have lost a lot of my vocabulary since school and my grammar is horrendous. As for writing in French, forget about it. I can manage a short email with a dictionary in one hand and a bescherelle in the other and that’s about it.

That said, English is pretty widely spoken in most of Europe, at least in major centers, so being a native English speaker is definitely an advantage over someone who speaks say… Swahili.

Andrew and I ready for a ball

Andrew and I ready for a ball

Did you experience ‘culture shock’ in Belgium? How different is it from Canada?

I definitely did, although I wouldn’t have given it that label at the time. I’m sure I suffered from depression for the first couple of years we were here. On the one hand I loved all of the traveling we were doing but on the other I was incredibly lonely. I also had to re-define my ‘self.’ Suddenly I was jobless, but yet I wasn’t a stay at home mom. My self-worth hit an all-time low. Fortunately I was blogging, both for CheeseWeb and for another expat site here in Belgium. I recently wrote how blogging saved my expat life. Building my photography career was the other life-saver.

Belgium is different from Canada in so many ways, but surprisingly similar in a few too. We both have more than one official language and there can be tension between the different cultures. We both believe in health-care for everyone, although the standard is much higher in Belgium.

It is much more crowded here. People live in much smaller spaces. That took some getting used to.

There isn’t as much competition here to have the biggest house, the nicest car, the most prestigious job. There is a much better balance between work and life. People actually take their holidays – long ones, without thinking twice. It can be a bit surprising at first when you turn up at your favourite shop or restaurant only to find out it’s closed for three weeks for the staff holiday.


How has your life as an expat influenced your photography?

Becoming an expat actually let me become a full-time photographer in a roundabout way. Back in Canada I was doing photography but always in my spare-time after my ‘real job.’ My real jobs paid my bills but certainly didn’t fulfill my soul in any meaningful way. I was never willing to take the risk and do photography full time because I was afraid that I wouldn’t make any money and therefore not ‘contribute’ to our family.

When we moved to Belgium, I couldn’t legally get a job so I was forced to find other ways to fill my time. Naturally I turned back to photography, especially since I was so inspired by the travel we were doing. I had the time to build my website and submit work to on-line agencies. I also have time to do more training on-line and my reading books by inspirational photographers.

Most recently I’ve been inspired by the incredible artistic community here in Belgium and that is definitely taking my work in new and exciting ways that I don’t think I even understand yet. I really doubt any of this would have happened if we stayed in Halifax.


Mexican Murder Mystery Party: LeeAnn, Marilla, Amy and Tez and Andrew in the front

Mexican Murder Mystery Party: LeeAnn, Marilla, Amy and Tez and Andrew in the front

How do you define ‘home’ and where is that for you?

I did a blog post on my definition of ‘home,’ way back in 2005 and I still feel the same way. There are places I feel at ease in as soon as I know I’m close by. Some are places I lived and some are only places I’ve visited. They all give me the same feeling. It’s a feeling of comfort, of relaxation and more often than not it has to do with the people there I love and who make it special for me.

What have you learned from being an expat?

I’ve learned so much – about the world and about myself. The more I travel, the more I learn people are more the same than they are different. At the end of the day, we all want the same basic things in life: safety, health, freedom and love. It doesn’t get much more basic than that.

I’ve also learned a lot about the fragility of this planet that we live on and that we have to stop passing the buck and take responsibility in our own lives for the messes we’ve made. If we don’t, there won’t be anything left for future generations to explore and discover.

In my own life, I’ve learned that I can’t control the future. Having a plan is helpful but you have to be willing to make changes. You have to take each new day and new challenge as it comes. The hardest thing for me is not to worry about things before they happen – because they may never happen. I’m a worrier by nature so this has been a tough one.

Have you done anything since moving to Belgium that you never would have expected?

SO many things… I guess the biggest shock was I discovered that at heart I’m a city dweller. I always thought I was a country girl. I grew up outside of a small city, surrounded by loads of land. When Andrew and I bought our house, we had three acres, well outside of the city. Now I sit on my terrace and am surrounded by houses and see skyscrapers a few streets away. I’m smack-dab in the middle of the capital of Europe. My ‘yard’ is a 10 m2 terrace. But I love it!

I love that I can walk to the biggest gallery in Brussels; the royal palace and EU headquarters are right around the corner; that every where I look are different skin colours and languages being spoken; that there are so many festivals you couldn’t possibly attend them all; that I can jump on the metro, just up the street, and be anywhere in the city in minutes. I love the hum and vibrancy of the city.

I do miss peace and quiet and wide open spaces and especially the ocean, but I can’t imagine giving up the excitement or convenience of the city.


At my Wedding - Roommates re-united

At my Wedding – Roommates re-united

Since you’re a self-professed foodie – what’s the best food discovery you’ve made as an expat?

Seriously? Only one? I can’t do it! My whole concept of food has changed since I moved over here. It’s only since moving here that I considered myself a foodie. Belgians have a passion for food that I would argue rivals the French or Italians. Although instead of being steadfast to one particular type of food, Belgians take in and adapt foods from all over. In Brussels you can eat any style of food you can imagine: French, Italian, Portuguese, Ethiopian, Romanian, Polish… you name it. So that said, my best food discovery has been – Food!

Ok, that’s a cop-out I know. So here are a few things I hadn’t eaten before I moved here and now love:

Stoofvlees (Dutch) or Carbonade (French) – This is a magical dish of beef that is stewed for hours in beer. There is much debate over which beer to make it with (there’s 600+ Belgian beers to choose from after all) and what else to add. It is always served with perfect Belgian Frites (French fries, actually invented in Belgium).

Foie Gras – I don’t know how something that sounds so wrong in theory can be so amazingly right. I know this is a very controversial food from an ethics stand-point. I’m always very careful to buy sustainably and ethically produced foie. But honestly, I don’t think anyone who eats factory farmed chicken has any right to point a finger at foie eaters.

Moroccan Food, particularly tajines – There’s a huge Moroccan population here in Brussles and a lot of great Moroccan restaurants. Aside from couscous, I hadn’t had Moroccan food before moving here. The tajine is a type of stew, named after the conical dish it’s cooked in. My favourite one is made with chicken, preserved lemons and green olives. Yum!

Moelleux Chocolat – I’m not a huge dessert eater but this French dish is incredible. It is essentially an individual chocolate cake that is cooked on the outside and runny and gooey on the inside. Serve it with a bit of vanilla ice-cream or some crème anglais… enough said J

What do you miss from Canada?

London May 2010: Home for us is wherever we are with good friends.

London May 2010: Home for us is wherever we are with good friends.

As everyone said, I miss my family and friends the most. It’s hard missing out on the day to day stuff and the big events. Thank god for Skype, Facebook and e-mail. We’ve also been lucky that both sets of parents have visited as well as my sister-in-law Katie and some of our friends. That’s always great.

There are a few food items I miss like garlic fingers, sushi pizza and fresh, un-sweetened cranberry juice.

I miss huge, affordable, English bookstores like Chapters.

Besides that, I miss the ocean. I grew up overlooking the Bay of Fundy and was never far from the Atlantic in Halifax. We’re a few hours from the Belgian coast and it’s just not the same.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

I gave up trying to predict the future. I never would have imagined this life for myself even seven years ago. I’m open to whatever life throws at us as long as there is lots of travel, good food and wine and a bunch great people in the mix.

Looking for more resources for expats living abroad? Check out our Expat Resources page.

If you like this, you might like:

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+
It's after Halloween so I can officially share Christmas Markets now right...? 🎄🎅 - 1 week ago


  1. Comment by Sion @ paris (im)perfect

    Sion @ paris (im)perfect July 12, 2010 at 12:56


    What a rich, compelling interview – I hardly even know how to respond! So rather than writing a mini-blog in your comments box, I’ll simply say you are a smart, inspiring woman and have such a good attitude about your expat experience. I, too, have stopped trying to predict the future. With all that we learn about ourselves and others living abroad, we’ll be able to tackle any adventure! Really enjoyed reading this and I identified with a lot of what you said. Thanks!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison July 12, 2010 at 13:23

      Thanks so much Sion! I’m glad you enjoyed it. To be honest, the good attitude took a while 🙂 While I never regretted taking on expat life, I did have some doubts and bumps along the way. But that’s life in general and I can honestly say that I’m glad I stuck it out. I’m very happy with where I am in my life now.

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  3. Comment by expatraveler

    expatraveler July 12, 2010 at 16:45

    Great interview Alison. I would say one significance is the food! I love your location too, and would agree that if I had a place like that in the city center with a balcony, I’d be right at home too. And funny story about the first country house in Flanders.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison July 12, 2010 at 17:06

      Thanks! There have definitely been a few funny stories along the way… at least when we look back on them now 🙂

  4. Comment by Tavus

    Tavus July 14, 2010 at 11:02

    Great answers to great interview questions! I am an expat in Brussels. In the second year and some of the things you’ve said really hit home for me. I think I’m still going through a depression. Not really liking Brussels and feeling lonely. Naturally, like you did, I found myself blogging. Taking care of young kids isn’t easy. Taking care of them in a foreign land with no family and friends around and without knowing how long I’ll be here is even harder. I find better days and smiles in your blog/web. I don’t know how long I shall be here, but I’m hoping to find beauty and peace in my life like you seem to have done.
    ~ T

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison July 15, 2010 at 08:37

      Hi Tavus and welcome to CheeseWeb! I’m glad you found something here you could relate to. I can’t imagine how much more difficult it is to raise children in a new country, without your usual support network.
      It took me a long time to like Brussels. All I can offer for advice is to try not to focus on the negative things (I know sometimes that can be very hard), but also don’t beat yourself up when you have a bad day. I used to have “I hate Belgium days,” particularly after I had been to the commune. After the day is over though, move on and try to do something positive. I think blogging is a great choice! It takes time, years often to be comfortable living in a new country so hang in there and take each day as it comes.

  5. Comment by Megan

    Megan July 14, 2010 at 19:54

    Love it.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison July 15, 2010 at 08:37

      Thanks Megan! Hope you’re having a lovely holiday!

  6. Comment by Louise

    Louise July 24, 2010 at 14:53

    What insigthful answers to intelligent questions. Though I didn’t know you when you took on your expat life, it’s obvious that you have learned a lot from it. It’s a prviledge to read and learn from your personal and yet so general expat challenges. THANKS for sharing!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison July 26, 2010 at 10:53

      You’re welcome Louise! I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

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