Expat Interview With Alison - Canadian Expat In Belgium

Published: 19 Oct at 9 AM
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Filed: Interviews,Belgium
Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian photographer and writer who followed her husband to Belgium in 2005, with a whole flock of pets. After suffering through months of paperwork, battling with languages, mildewing in the constant rain and struggling with an identity crisis, she kicked herself in the butt and decided to find the good in Belgium. She founded her website called CheeseWeb.eu (please see the ExpatsBlog listing here) where she shares Belgium’s hidden gems with expats and Belgians alike. Her goal is to encourage people to get out and explore Belgium and make the most of their expat adventure.


Here's the interview with Alison...

Where are you originally from?
Saint John, New Brunswick on Canada’s beautiful East Coast

In which country and city are you living now?
Smack in the middle of Brussels, Belgium

How long have you lived here and how long are you planning to stay?
I’ve been in Belgium for seven years and the last four of those have been in Brussels. We originally came for a two-year contract, so you could say our plans are flexible.

Why did you move and what do you do?
We moved for my husband’s job with an American software company. I am a photographer and writer and over my years abroad, I’ve created an online resource for expats (and locals) in Belgium, called CheeseWeb.eu.

Did you bring family with you?
I was the trailing spouse in our case, so my husband brought me. We also arrived with our four cats and a Saint Bernard.

How did you find the transition to living in a foreign country?
It was a lot tougher than I expected, once the initial excitement wore off. We had a hard time with the languages here and the paperwork was a nightmare. We were living in a more rural area, to have space for our dog, and that made it difficult to get out and do things. When our dog sadly passed away, we decided to move into Brussels and that really changed everything. We fell in love with the city and all it has to offer.

Was it easy making friends and meeting people; do you mainly socialise with other expats?
We have been so lucky with our neighbours in Belgium. In both places we’ve lived, they’ve been great. Brussels is such an international city you really meet people from everywhere and I’m proud to say I have friends from every continent. That’s something that just doesn’t happen in Eastern Canada. And yes, we do have Belgian friends too, from both sides of the language border here.

What are the best things to do in the area; anything to recommend to future expats?
Well, I’ve spent the last seven years building a website about exactly that question! Belgium has a reputation for being boring but that is so not the case. In fact, I think you’d have to try really hard to be bored here. There are festivals, events and exhibits going on every weekend. There are galleries, parks, zoos and more castles than anywhere else in the world. The food scene is amazing and diverse – not a good place to try a diet. Really, it’s an incredible little country.

What do you enjoy most about living here?
There are two things I just love about Belgium. The first is the food. Because of all of the expats in Brussels, you can get just about any type of food you can think of here. There are actually more Michelin starred chefs per capita in Belgium, than in France, so the calibre of food here is incredible. The second thing I love about Belgium is the ease of travel, both within the country and internationally. It only takes two hours to cross the country. The rail network is extensive and affordable, the roads are free of tolls, and there are international flights to just about everywhere.

How does the cost of living compare to home?
Things in Belgium are a bit more expensive than Eastern Canada for the most part, but accommodation prices are lower or on par with most big North American cities. Brussels is actually one of the cheapest Western European capital cities so you definitely get more bang for your buck than London, Amsterdam or Paris.

What negatives, if any, are there to living here?
The weather is a big complaint for many expats. It’s typical Northern European weather so it rains a lot and it’s very dark and wet during the winter months. The other major negative is the paperwork. When you first move here, it feels unending. There’s always one more document to sign. After being here for a while you realise the paperwork isn’t just to torture the foreigners, Belgians have to deal with it too. Dodging paperwork is a bit of a national sport.

If you could pick one piece of advice to anyone moving here, what would it be?
Keep your sense of humour intact. Belgium’s most famous artist, René Magritte, was a surrealist for a reason. This little country is full of bizarre traditions and strange situations. Kafka also spent some time here. Keep this in mind when you have to deal with the government and always have a glass of wine handy.

What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?
One f the hardest things for me was being a trailing spouse and having to redefine myself after leaving my job behind in Canada. It took some time but I was able to return to two of my passions, photography and writing, so it has been worth it in the end.

What are your top 5 expat tips for anyone following in your footsteps?
1. Make connections before you leave home. There are lots of blogs and on-line communities, which didn’t exist when I first arrived. Now you can ask questions and meet people before you even reach Belgian soil.
2. Be patient. Paperwork and bureaucracy abound in Belgium. Getting frustrated doesn’t help (believe me, I’ve tried).
3. Get out and meet people. There are loads of international clubs and activities here and although it can be intimidating to go out on your own, the faster you met people, the faster you will settle in here.
4. Dress in layers. Belgian weather is erratic. Be prepared for sun, rain, wind and hail... all in the same afternoon.
5. Get out and explore the country. Expats tend to get locked into their own little neighbourhoods but this tiny country has so much diversity to offer. It’s easy to travel from city to city and an hour on the train can take you to a town that feels a world away from the one in which you live.

Tell us a bit about your own expat blog.
CheeseWeb is seven years of our best discoveries in Belgium. It’s a friendly English-language resource for eating, shopping, living, discovering and escaping this amazing, diverse and exciting country. We also offer tips on coping with the hurdles of expat life. For travel-lovers, we offer a free newsletter, called CheeseWeb Escapes, which features a different travel destination, alternating between Belgium and the rest of Europe each month. We have an active community of expats and Belgians on our Facebook Page who are always quick to help and offer suggestions.

How can you be contacted for further advice to future expats coming to your area?
Readers can contact me through CheeseWeb.eu of course, on our Facebook Page or on Twitter (see below).

Alison, as mentioned, writes for her own expat blog called Cheeeweb http://cheeseweb.eu, to which our readers should definitely pay a visit! She can be found on Twitter @Acornn and her Facebook page. Cheeseweb has its own listing here at ExpatsBlog.com, so please leave Alison a nice comment if you have time. If you liked Alison's expat interview, please leave her a comment below.
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