5 Lessons for Expat Life I Learned the Hard Way

By - March 4, 2014 (Updated: February 24, 2015)

5 expat lessons I learned the hard way

5 expat lessons I learned the hard way.

After almost nine years of living abroad, I’ve learned countless things about myself, Belgium, and expat life. Today I want to share five of these lessons I wish I knew when I first arrived as an expat in Belgium.

Last month, I was asked to contribute a tip to the HiFX Expat Tip page. It was difficult to choose just one so I’ve expanded on that advice here. These five lessons are things I learned the hard way, over time. A few of them, like numbers 2 and 3, I still work on every day. If you’re new to expat life, I hope you’ll take these lessons to heart and embrace everything your new country and life abroad has to offer.

1. Do something you love

When I first found myself in Belgium, I was at loose ends. After the dust settled on our overseas move, and we had most of our paperwork woes behind us, I had a hard time figuring out what to do with my time. Like many trailing spouses, I wasn’t eligible to find a traditional job and with Andrew at the office all day, I was climbing the walls.

As many of you know, that’s when I turned to my two great passions, writing and photography, and CheeseWeb was (re)born. I often say blogging saved my expat life. In those early days, focusing on things I love to do gave me a purpose. I started to treat my passions seriously and, over time,other people started to take my work seriously. I found freelance work, I made friends, I delved into the art world, and most of all, I learned to love my adopted country by sharing it with others.

Find something you love

Find something you love

I’m not saying you need to become a blogger (although it is a wonderful outlet). But if you find yourself feeling lost in expat life, turn to the things you love to do. If you aren’t sure what those things are, take some time to uncover your passion.

2. Do things that scare you

One of the biggest things holding me back, from enjoying my early days as an expat, was fear. Fear of meeting people; fear of speaking new languages; fear of getting lost, looking stupid or just generally messing up. People are often surprised when I tell them I’m naturally shy and I’m a worrier. Before I do anything, I think of a thousand reasons why I shouldn’t do it and how I will fail spectacularly. The truth is, nothing is ever as bad as I imagine it will be, and even when I do screw up (and I have had my share of spectacular screw ups), it’s never that hard to fix.

Thriving Abroad

Initially, I was terrified to take public transportation on my own, for fear I’d get lost. When I finally did take my first solo bus ride into the city, the freedom it afforded me was incredible. I was scared to meet new people. What if they didn’t like me? (What if I didn’t like them?) But my circle of friends never would have expanded to the incredible multicultural family it has become, if I never took the risk.

Do something that scares you.

Do something that scares you.

While my initial achievements of riding a bus and meeting someone new for coffee may not seem like a big deal, for me, they were huge. They were the baby steps that gave me the courage to do bigger things: selling my photography and artwork, doing public speaking, traveling solo, writing a book. There are a million ways I could have talked myself out of these things (and I did try at least a couple thousand of them) but I pushed through the fear and made them happen.

3. Cultivate your inner Zen

Just as I’m prone to worry, I’m also prone to frustration and anger. (What can I say? I’m an emotional gal.) When there was yet another reason my documents were inadequate at the commune, or the thirteenth person shoved in front of me boarding the metro, or the traffic on the ring made us an hour late, or the waiter snarkily didn’t understand my (almost) perfect French, or expat life just generally sucked, I would stress out and get frustrated. It didn’t help.

Cultivate your inner Zen

Cultivate your inner Zen

I’m not saying I don’t still get frustrated. (I wish.) But I’ve learned to take a deep breath and I (try to) let it wash over me. When it comes to dealing with paperwork especially, I’ve learned not to expect things to happen in an efficient, logical way, and most of all, I don’t take it personally. Things happen in their own time in Belgium and everything works out eventually.

4. Embrace the differences

It’s human nature to compare and contrast our experiences and, as an expat, it’s natural to compare your adopted home, to your old home country. What’s dangerous is not embracing those differences. Don’t be that expat who is always talking about how great things are ‘back home.’ Believe me, everyone will be thinking ‘why the heck don’t you just go back home then?’

That’s not to say you can’t show pride in where you’re from. I love Canada and I’m proud to be Canadian (especially after we just kicked @ss at the Winter Olympics…again.) I love the nature and wide open spaces. I love the friendly people and our self-deprecating sense of humor. But there are things I love about Belgium too: the history and culture, the food, and the diversity packed in such a tiny area.

Belgium and Canada are about as different as two countries can be in so many ways, but it’s those differences that make each country so special and why I’m proud to claim both as part f my identity.

When you’re missing home and your new country is pissing you off, remember why you moved in the first place and ask yourself if the situation would be that much better ‘back at home.’ As much as the immigration process in Belgium drove me nuts, I know several expats in Canada who had to jump through equally ridiculous hoops. Customer service at Belgacom, ING, or GB may be nonexistent, but was the service at your home telco, bank, or supermarket that stellar? Mine wasn’t.

Thriving AbroadSometimes life is frustrating wherever you live. And even if the customer service is much worse here, surely there are some things that make suffering a snarky waiter worth it, (the food, beer, transportation links, architecture, culture – take your pick.)

5. Learn to laugh – a lot

My biggest lesson has been to learn to see the humor in every situation. At the time, the Kafkaesque levels of bureaucracy may not be fun, but months later it can make for great dinner party stories (or blog posts).

Want even more expat advice? Check out our 10 tips for successful expat living.

What lesson would you share with new expats? Leave your advice 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.

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 Gerry

    Gerry March 4, 2014 at 12:33

    Thanks for this! I have just arrived in Belgium with my husband’s work. My husband is from the US and I’m from the UK and we were living in England before we came here. We are based in Brugge.

    I’m excited and a little scared to be here. Unfortunately we don’t have children, so it’s just me and my dog at home during the day! I really appreciated all your tips, but number one struck me the most. I have a degree in Fine Art Painting but haven’t painted for years – I think I’ll get back into it. I also love buying old paintings at auction, but I’m worried that I won’t understand a thing if I go to a Flemish auction, maybe I should just be brave and throw myself into the Belgian auction world! Also, I miss the English countryside, but I love the Belgian food and beer and walking on the beach with our dog in the evening – those things help me to feel less homesick. Thank you so much for writing this! I was really excited to find your blog.

    • Comment by Andrew

      Andrew March 4, 2014 at 14:27

      Thanks for commenting, Gerry! I’m sure Alison will chime in as well, but I wanted to add a couple of thoughts.

      First, it is important you have acknowledged those fears openly. One of the mistakes I often made in our early years in Belgium was to push Alison to “go out and do something” … as you know, it is easier said then done. It is very intimidating in any new place, let alone in a new culture and language. Take your time. You will eventually need to go through the uncomfortable stuff in order to get beyond it, but you don’t have to do it all at once.

      Second, set yourself attainable goals. If you want to feel comfortable going out to visit auctions, try to set up a series of smaller, easily achieved milestones. For example, build a list of auction houses, see if any offer services in English, plan to attend one with your husband, etc. By breaking down the end goal you build up your confidence. In the meantime, give Flemish a shot (I just ran across Taalthuis, which is free; I’ve not used it so you’ll have to see for yourself). You won’t be an expert overnight but again every bit helps build confidence.

      There are some beautiful places to walk in Belgium, so take advantage of the dog. 🙂 These places may also inspire you to paint. You never know.

      It will take some time to adjust, but if you are open to the differences, I think Belgium will surprise you. Good luck with your adventure and we hope you keep coming back to visit us on the blog, facebook, and wherever. 🙂

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison March 5, 2014 at 11:51

      Hi Gerry. I’m so glad this post resonated with you! I understand exactly what you’re going through. When we first arrived it was just me and our cats and dog in a big empty house all day. It was so lonely and I was really scared to push myself to go out and do things. It wasn’t easy, but Andrew’s advice of taking small steps is spot on. Just do something… anything. And don’t be afraid to be proud of yourself for doing it even if it feels silly. The sooner you get out there and start having positive experiences, the sooner you feel at home in your new surroundings. Best of luck!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison March 5, 2014 at 11:52

      Oh! By the way, the art scene in Belgium is phenomenal, so get painting!!

      • Comment by Gerry

        Gerry March 6, 2014 at 15:02

        Thank you so much for your replies! I’m definitely going to take your advice and act on it – I feel more positive already!

    • Comment by Ann tristani

      Ann tristani March 6, 2014 at 15:58

      Wow! This is so cool! So happy to have found this “support group”…as my husband and I are planning a move to Belgium within a couple months. We are thrilled beyond words, yet still a little (ok, a lot) afraid.
      I am a professional oil painter and once we are there it will be my first opportunity to actually paint, without being a mommy, or a teacher, just an artist. So Gerry, we should find each other and paint together!!! I can help you get back into painting and you can help me get situated in Belgium because by then you will have a lot figured out.
      Blessings to you!

      • Comment by Alison

        Alison March 6, 2014 at 16:14

        What a great opportunity Ann! I think you will really enjoy the art scene here in Belgium. There is plenty of inspiration. If you and Gerry do get together, I’d love to hear about it! It could be our first CheeseWeb ‘play date’!

  2. Comment by Liz

    Liz March 4, 2014 at 14:20

    Well said!! I can relate to all of these as an American moving over with a young family just 3 years ago. Things you take for granted in “The States” aren’t the same here (like signing the lease on an apartment quickly or stores open later than 18h), but I have to say we persevered and have found not only that life in Belgium is quite lovely, but that it produces some pretty funny stories and unforgettable experiences. The thing I’ve learned the most is don’t expect to be immediately “comfortable” in your new life; it’s worth the paperwork, frustrations and mistakes. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else!

    • Comment by Andrew

      Andrew March 4, 2014 at 17:25

      Great point, Liz – it takes a while to get “comfortable”. We’ve found once you do get comfortable, it’s really hard to leave. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing your story!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison March 5, 2014 at 11:54

      Right you are Liz! We all have crazy expat stories which, in the moment, are maybe not so fun. But once you move on and relax a bit you can see the humour. Different doesn’t always mean worse, it just means different 🙂

  3. Comment by Jean

    Jean March 4, 2014 at 15:09

    Great article Allison – actually everything you said is so – life lessons- in every way – wherever you are. I could relate to a lot you said with my experience of living in Florida 6 months of every year which we have done for 13 years now. Thanks for sharing your experiences and outlook on life…… way to go girl!!!!

    • Comment by Andrew

      Andrew March 4, 2014 at 17:28

      Thanks for sharing your story and thoughts, Jean! I’m sure Alison will comment later but wanted to say I agree with you, these can be applied to (and learned from!) many situations.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison March 5, 2014 at 11:56

      Thanks Jean! You’re right, none of these things are exclusive to Belgium. Integrating anywhere has it’s own set of challenges. Life is what you make it and choosing to put a positive spin on things goes a long way to living a happy life 🙂

  4. Comment by EuroTripTips

    EuroTripTips March 4, 2014 at 16:58

    Such a great post, Alison. I have faced all these issues as an expat (twice!) and acknowledging the fear of the unknown is oh so important. It’s ok not to have the feeling of being “at home” for a while, just as it is ok to not be completely in love with where you are.

    • Comment by Andrew

      Andrew March 4, 2014 at 17:33

      I like the last bit you shared, specifically “It’s ok”. That’s the hardest lesson I think for anyone to learn is to accept that it’s ok to have those feelings and that you shouldn’t be ashamed of them. Not being ok with these emotions I think causes the most stress for a person and a family.

      Thanks for sharing your story!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison March 5, 2014 at 11:59

      You’re so right Marie. I think as expats, and even as travellers, we feel guilty when we don’t love all aspects of a country or an experience. It’s totally ok to have bad days, or to not love all aspects of where you are. The important thing is to move past it and make positive changes and focus on the good things, because there’s always something good.

  5. Comment by Sarah H

    Sarah H March 4, 2014 at 22:38

    All great advice. 1, 3 & 4 were particularly critical for me.

    If you’re a trailing spouse who’s spending most of your time at home, go find a group of expats to hang out or volunteer with. Don’t fret that hanging out with other expats means you’re not integrating. Abandon your anglo-saxon time frame for integration.

    I spent our first 6 months in Paris focused on trying to integrate ASAP: find apartment, furnishings, & work. Take French lessons constantly. By the 6 month mark I was suspicious of anything French, from grammar to internet providers, and felt completely incompetent at everything.

    Then I started volunteering at the American Library (I love to read), and got to talk to people again. Talk *normally*, that is, without having to think about every word that came out of my mouth. It was such a relief. So was having a break from the monotony of household chores and running errands.

    Slowly my self-confidence came back, and I started working for the Library on a contract, then when that I was over I found a ‘career’ type job. So it took me about 3 times as long as I expected to find a ‘career’ type job, but if I hadn’t taken that time to readjust, I wouldn’t still be here in Paris, loving it, now 4 years later.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison March 5, 2014 at 12:03

      That is such a good point Sarah. I think a lot of us feel guilty hanging out with other expats… like we should only have local friends. But befriending other expats is more than ok. I love that my friends come from all over the world and I think sharing their experiences and ways of looking at things makes me a richer person. What is dangerous is only spending time with people from your home country and not integrating at all (I think we all know a few of those expats). The key is striking a good balance and being open to EVERYONE, expat, local or otherwise. I’m so glad you’re loving Paris and hopefully you’ll pop up to Belgium sometime!

  6. Comment by Hege

    Hege March 16, 2014 at 17:53

    Hi! I have lived in Belgium for ten years now, and wish I had read these lessons before! However, I am well integrated now, and I am writing my own blog, in Norwegian, so I was hoping it is OK to write about and link to your article there?

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison March 19, 2014 at 10:32

      Hi Hege! I wish I didn’t have to learn these lessons the hard way either! Of course you are welcome to link back to our article. Cheers!

  7. Comment by Hege

    Hege March 20, 2014 at 21:08

    Great! Thanks :S

  8. Comment by Hege

    Hege March 20, 2014 at 21:09

    Ups! It should have been an 😀 and not :S 😉

  9. Comment by emily elling

    emily elling May 6, 2014 at 13:59

    Thanks so much for this post. At the end of June I’ll be moving my family (with 4 little kids) to Belgium for my husbands job. I’m excited, I’m terrified. Depending on the hour of the day….

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison May 6, 2014 at 14:19

      My pleasure Emily and thanks for reading! What you are feeling is SO normal. In fact, you’ll probably be feeling it for the first 6 months or so of your time here. I sure did. It is HARD, exciting, terrifying and stressful all at the same time. All I can say though is the big details that seem life or death (obviously not literally) right now, WILL get sorted out, eventually and it will all be ok. There are loads of expats in Belgium, as you’ll soon see, and most of us are more than happy to help answer your questions and get you sorted. Just take a deep breath and enjoy the adventure!

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