Every year, in early Spring, the team at Tourism Flemish Brabant create a Dutch language guide to exploring the province on foot. However, this year, they’ve also created a limited edition, English language guide.

The guide outlines 12 walks, suitable for new and experienced walkers, listed by the season when they’re best visited. You’ll also found details of the route markers you need to follow, plus recommendations of places to visit and eat around the walks.

And the best bit? The guide is free, all you have to do is pay the postage!

Not sure if you need a FREE walking guide in your life? Well, here are our four favourite walks from the guide. If you want the other eight, you’ll need to pick up your own copy.

Big Oak Walk – Bierbeek

Located around 30 minutes east of Brussels, Bierbeek is a small town nestled in the countryside.

The walk covers 12.6km through woodland, including over 1,000 majestic oak trees. This is a lovely area to lose yourself in nature and get away from the hustle of the city.

And when you’re done, what to do? Well, the guide gives a strong recommendation of a bistro where you can “enjoy a local beer and something scrumptious”, which is always great in our book!

Halewijn Walk – Zoutleeuw

An hour’s drive outside of Brussels sits the city of Zoutleeuw. With a population of just under 8,500 people, Zoutleeuw is home to the historical St. Leonard’s Church which is a UNESCO world heritage site.

The Halewijn walk covers 11.4km and will take you by St. Leonard’s, if you’d like to visit. Before that, you’ll be treated to trip through Het Vinne Provincial Domain, a nature reserve which includes the largest natural lake in Flanders.

Het Vinne also includes a watch tower to see the whole lake, a playground for the kids and an art trail with free art book. If you want to see the lake and learn more about it, there’s a free, 90-minute tour available.

Kesterbeek Walk – Beersel

Beersel is 30 minutes’ drive south of Brussels, though you can get there by train in just 18 minutes.

At only 8km, this walk does include some height, so get ready to elevate your heart rate. Running through the Zenne River’s valley, this is a fantastic way to enjoy the local countryside and to work up a thirst for a trip to the local brewery when you’re done.

Whilst you’re in Beersel, we’d recommend you take a trip to Beersel Castle. Built in 1300, it has a rich history and is considered one of Belgium best preserved castles.

Warande Walk – Tervuren

17.5km to the east of Brussels lies the historic town of Tervuren. A treasure trove of historical and cultural sites, the village of Tervuren is worth a visit on its own.

The Warande walk encompasses the St Hubert Chapel, Het Spaans Huis restaurant, and the Royal Museum for Central Africa. At only 5.8km long, you get a lot of sights for a short distance.

The Royal Museum for Central Africa holds a vast collection of specimens from central Africa, including over 10,000,000 specimens in the Department of Zoology, 200,000 rock samples in the Department of Geology and over 120,000 objects in the Department of Cultural Anthropology.

Finally, if Tervuren sounds familiar, that might mean you’re a dog lover. One of the four distinct varieties of Belgian Shepherd takes its name from this region.

Our thanks to the team at Tourism Flemish Brabant for letting us have a sneak peek at the latest, limited-edition English language walking guide. If you’d like a copy of your own, it is available now and you can pick it up here, for the price of the postage.




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It’s Actually not that Big…

At only 30,528 square kilometres, Belgium is the fifth smallest country in Europe. Whilst you might think that being small isn’t a benefit, it means you can get to France, Luxembourg, Germany or the Netherlands with only 2 hours driving, not bad at all.

You’ll also find yourself really close to some key European capitals including London (320km), Paris (265km) and Amsterdam (173km) with train services to all three.

So, if you’re looking for a home that lets you travel and see the rest of Europe really easily, you won’t find a better one than Belgium.

(And if you’re wondering, the four smallest countries in the EU are Vatican City, Monaco, San Marino, Liechtenstein and AndorraNow you’re trivia quiz ready!)

4 Languages, 1 Country.

Did you know that four languages are spoken widely in Belgium?

Well, there are, and one of them certainly surprises many people:

  • 59% speak Dutch*.
  • 40% speak French.
  • 1% speak German.
  • And 55% speak English as a second language.

The area you live in will define which language is most prevalent. So, make sure you know which language you need to know for your chosen home city.

Whilst the main cities will see most people able to use English, for more remote or quieter areas, even a basic level of the local language is beneficial.

*Though this could most accurately be called Flemish, which is to Dutch what American is to English. The same but some different words, phrases and pronunciations.

Local Government Rules.

Where some countries have large, centralised government, Belgium does things smaller. Every Belgian municipality has its own City Hall, called a Commune, which handles the administrative and bureaucratic side of life.

If you’re staying for more than three months, you’ll need to inform your local Commune. This is where you get your Residence Visa, so take along lots of identifying documents including your passport, ID, any marriage certificates and birth certificates, for you and your family.

But the Commune is about more than admin, here you can find out lots more about the local area and your new home. Information on local events, schools, and pre school facilities can all be found here, so don’t forget to ask!

The Favourite Form of Transport.

The Belgians are great lovers of sport and the outdoors, so, of course, they’re into cycling. The country offers a lot of choice for those who enjoy life on two wheels. If you’re a casual rider who likes the flats, fancy a challenge with hilly areas or just see a bike as a commuter choice, the Belgian cycle network has you covered.

From urban Antwerp to bucolic Flemish Brabant, getting around by bike is easy.  In fact, in a country of 10.4 million people, there are over 8.8 million kilometres of mapped cycle routes. Those are split into over 158,000 individual routes, 9,800 of which you’ll find in Brussels.

The paths themselves are really well signposted and kept in great condition. However, the Belgian weather doesn’t always play ball, so make sure you take the right clothing for any cycling adventures you have planned.

That said, if you prefer off-road mountain biking, there are over 2,800km of trails documented by enthusiasts. These trails cover over 55,500m of route descent, letting you choose the level of challenge you want from your trip.

Whether you’re a beginner or ride as a serious sport, Belgium has the terrain and infrastructure for you. Is it any wonder that Belgium gave birth to the world’s greatest cyclist, Eddy Merckx?

Dinner is Served.

While many people know that Belgium is famous for chocolate, waffles and beer, do you know just how big those foodstuffs are and what else you can get? After all, you can’t live on beer and chocolate. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Well, let’s start with the beer. As of 2021 there were over 400 active breweries in Belgium, producing over 1,500 different types of beer. Whatever your beer of choice, you’ll find it in Belgium and some distinct varieties around it as well.

When it comes to chocolate, things are even more impressive. Boasting over 2,000 chocolatiers, producing over 172,000 tonnes per year, chocolate is big business in Belgium. Though this isn’t a surprise when you consider that chocolate production in the country can be traced back to the 17th century.

If that’s dessert and drinks taken care of, what about the main course?

Many people are surprised at the importance of Belgian fries, or frites as a staple. You’ll find many shops selling them in the towns and cities across the country. That explains why Belgians eat more fries than Americans, per year, and why they’re the national dish.

But once you have your fries, what to put with them? If you’re feeling saucy, there’s a lot on offer including familiar sauces like mayonnaise, curry and tomatoes, but you’ll also find more exciting varieties. These include Andalouse sauce (peppers, mayonnaise, tomato paste, & pickles), Samurai sauce (mayonnaise, Tunisian chili, spices, tomatoes, & peppers) and sauce Americaine (mayonnaise with tomato, chervil, onions, capers, seafood stock, & celery) should you be feeling more adventurous.

From there, we’d recommend trying moules-frites (mussels with fries), stoofvlees (a hearty beef stew to drench your fries with), and waterzooi (a creamy stew of fish or chicken). Whatever your tastes, you’ll be well fed in Belgium!

These are just some of the hidden gems of wisdom you’ll need to know to live in Belgium. If you’d like help unlocking the secrets of Belgian life, then we recommend working with some of our members. They can help you plan and complete your move with ease, then support you as you find your way in your new home country.


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The Power of Empathy

Last year, ABRA keynote speaker Bart De Leeuw of The Oval Office introduced us to the Empathy Value Index. The first of its kind, their evidence-based research tool proved a direct link between empathy and key performance indicators for brands. To put it simply, brands need to mean what they say, understand their customers needs, ensure the customers feel they are empathic to these needs, and follow through on promises made.

When brands get this heady mix right, good things happen. The higher a brand scores on the Empathy Value Index, or EVI, the more likely consumers are to identify with it. Four times more likely in fact. This positive identification in turn is reflected in how likely consumers are to consider the brand (x2.7), buy it (x2.8) and become loyal (x3.4) to the brand. And with 81% of brands easily replaced in customers’ hearts and minds, the race is on to join the 19% of meaningful businesses. So does the same hold true for employer-employee relations?

Empathy as Foundational Value

It most certainly does. Businessolver’s 2022 State of the Workplace Empathy Study reports that including empathy as a foundational value is fast becoming of vital importance in the post-COVID world. Not only do 72% of employees believe that empathy drives employee motivation, 84% of CEOs believe that empathy drives better business outcomes. From investing in mental wellbeing to embracing diversity, leading with empathy pays.

The Oval Office’s 2022 Empathy Value Index Employer Edition echoes these findings. Expectations have changed and no longer do we work to survive (as our grandparents did), or to guarantee a certain standard of living (like our parents); instead we work to ensure our quality of life. And it’s not just a Gen Z thing either: Gartner reports the pandemic has caused nearly seven in 10 employees to rethink the role of work in their lives so time to sit up and take note.

Empathy has an undeniable impact on the recruitment, retention, and motivation of your employees, also in the event of changes.

Opportunity for Leadership

Employees that work for an empathic employer experience 3.1 times more overall job satisfaction and are 2.6 times more receptive to change according to The Oval Office. What’s more, employees who see their employer as empathic are 1.6 times more likely to stay with the company and are 4.4 times more prepared to recommend their employer to others.

Opportunities for growth (+350%), additional training (+300%) and a supportive work environment (+270%), are all key drivers for job satisfaction. In today’s ongoing war for talent, these numbers create serious food for thought for employers and their HR departments. So what makes for an empathic employer?

5 Pillars of Empathy

Expectations are high when it comes to empathy in the workplace. The fact that we all want to feel heard, understood, and valued is a given. We all have a unique personality, our own way of working and private lives that come with challenges, and we value an employer who understands this and genuinely cares about our wellbeing. In other words, they GET ME.

Whether it’s equal career opportunities and remuneration, or gender, religion, sexual orientation, colour, or any other human parameter, we want our employers to be FAIR TO ME. No less than 53% of people with a different ethnic background reported having left a previous employer because they felt not everyone was given the same opportunities.

Of course, communication is a two-way street, but an employer who COMMUNICATES WITH ME creates loyalty and commitment. Employees who feel ‘part of the family’ are prepared to go to greater lengths to achieve great things for the team, so fostering openness and transparency really does matter.

Additionally, being able to be our authentic self goes a long way towards creating an environment where colleagues form a genuine team. A healthy and inspiring work environment is a place where no one takes a job well done for granted. Appreciation is employees’ number one priority, and a good employer SHOWS ME they really do care.

Finally, an empathic employer EMPOWERS ME. I feel valued and appreciated and am trusted to determine my own work-life balance. Similarly, I’m stimulated to continue developing professionally. Almost 1 in 4 employees state developing skills is one of their top 5 most important requirements.

Empathy in Mobility

As mobility professionals, we’re well-versed with the trials and tribulations of our expats and their employers. Empathy is high when it comes to adapting to cultural change and the massive emotional and practical impact of an international move. But do we afford our own teams the same level of empathy? Are we managing to attract and retain the talent we need? Just like any other industry, we’re feeling the pressure, so it’s high time to be honest with ourselves.

From the 85% of people who worry about losing their jobs and paying the bills to the 57% who experience racism and prejudice, we all need a little more love and understanding. The good news is 40% of global consumers will go out of their way to help others and 28% say they want to be even more compassionate the coming months. And for 46% of European teens, being a good person is on the top of their list when they think about the future.

EuRA Conference speaker Ken E. Nwadike Jr. would be proud.


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With the launch of their brand-new multilingual website and series of English language brochures, new ABRA member Toerisme Vlaams-Brabant wants to help expats discover a different side of Belgium explains Fiene Lambrigts, Expat Expert. “Expats are an important audience for us. So many people settle into the region each year and want to get to know their new home country. We want to introduce them to some of the lesser-known natural and cultural gems of our region.”

Between a top selection of 24 inspiring walks, 36 cycling routes for all ages and the ready-made Perfect Sunday daytrips, you’ll be hard-pressed not to fill each weekend with a new and exciting outdoor activity. But it’s not just cyclists and hikers who are catered for. The region boasts 430km of rider and driver routes for equestrians that will take you through the most beautiful forests, magnificent views, castle domains, valleys and hills, stables and picnic areas.

Locals share their best kept secrets on the website, and you can even join guided tours for internationals. Whether you’re a foodie, a culture addict or a nature lover, there’s something for everyone as well as it being a great way to make new friends. Soak up interesting facts while tasting the best of Belgium’s beer, chocolates, or even wine. Yes, you read that right. Not only does Belgium produce wines, they win awards and come from, you guessed it; Flemish Brabant

As well as all the natural and culinary highlights, the region also has a strong cultural heritage, with no less than three individual locations being listed as UNESCO’s World Heritage sites. From castles, abbeys, and medieval city halls to floating steel staircases and interactive experience centres, each outing is sure to transport you into an exciting new world.

You don’t have to venture far afield to enjoy the best of Belgian nature, heritage or culture. The Green Belt around Brussels and Leuven is easily accessible by road and public transport and Toerisme Vlaams-Brabant makes a point of prioritising accessibility by public transport for all of its destinations. Combining a few top attractions with a beautiful walk or bike trip through nature has never been easier with their inspiring tours and routes.

“It’s so easy to get stuck doing the same old things, even locals can be surprised to find out what’s right on their doorstep. Relocation agents do such an amazing job taking care of all the practical arrangements for a move, but a big part of settling into your new home country is getting to know your local area. Feeling at home is one of the vital stages that make or break any foreign assignment. It’s our mission to help everyone – recent arrival or lifelong local – feel welcome and make Belgium feel like home.”

“We’ve just published our newest walking brochure, which is free to download from our website. And our next series of guided tours for internationals starts from April, so we encourage anyone interested in doing ‘something different’ to visit us anytime at all. We’re here to make you feel at home in Belgium.”

Download your copy of the 2022 Walking Brochure from https://www.toerismevlaamsbrabant.be/en or contact Fiene Lambrigts if you’d like to receive multiple copies for your expat welcome packs.

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As a child I loved dressing up and standing in front of the camera. Whether imagining myself Cleopatra or wielding a sword like Joan of Arc, I always chose women with strong feminine roles. Then I saw my cousin in a commercial with a well-known actor. As a 7-year-old, I was blown away and instantly knew I wanted to do the same thing. I contacted my cousin and that’s how it all started for me. I was offered a few commercials, which I loved doing, and my passion for acting was well and truly set alight. Sadly my fledging career was put on hold as I had to focus on school.

Someone close to me told me I would never make it as an actress. They told me that I would be better off focussing on studying something practical like journalism. And although I successfully completed my journalism degree in Belgium, I never really let go of my dream. Deep within my soul I knew I would always have to work extremely hard, but nothing in life feels quite as meaningful as performing. My hard work paid off and I landed a part in ‘De Kroongetuigen’, one of Flanders’ most popular series.

“Although I successfully completed my degree in journalism, I never let go of my dream of becoming an actress.”

It only served to further strengthen my resolve: I was going to be a professional actress. There was an acting course I really wanted to follow which was only on offer in L.A.. Obviously applying to study in the United States involved a lot of paperwork, as well as an audition. I had to record a monologue, which meant I had to prepare a script and empathise with a character I had chosen myself. Based on that audition tape I would be accepted or rejected.

When I was told in September 2017 that I was the last of the group to be accepted into the acting school, I was still living in Belgium and I was expected to start classes on October 19 2017. Packing up my life in Belgium, finding accommodation in L.A., applying for a visa, booking a flight and saying goodbye to everyone within a month was a huge rush. Thankfully, the school helped me arrange my M-1 visa, the student visa that allows you stay in America for one year, after which it needs renewing.

“It’s difficult to trust people when everyone is so superficial.”

I adapted to life in L.A. fairly quickly because I’m quite a flexible person. The worst thing was the bad food. No chance of getting a tasty sandwich with charcuterie, like we know in Belgium. Americans are generally friendly people, which makes you feel welcome. Belgians are more distant and reserved when you first meet them. However friendly doesn’t necessarily mean kind. Americans will make a great show of greeting you, but won’t hesitate to say something behind your back.

It’s the normal course of things there: you are polite to someone’s face, but as soon as they leave the room, it’s open season. It makes it difficult to trust people, because everyone is so superficial. It does mean you adjust your attitude towards people. Fortunately our international student circle had a different mentality. With all of us being in the same boat – in L.A. without parents, and under a limited visa – I found everyone quite sincere.

America is a Western country, but faith plays an important societal role, with many different types of belief systems. Around the corner from where I stayed there is, for example, “The Mosaic”, a spiritual church. A large stage welcomes you when you come in and the loud music has people swept up in a frenzy. At the other end of my street you can get baptised in a swimming pool.

“If you don’t have a visa that allows you to work, you can probably forget it here. You even run the risk of being deported.”

The average rent here for a one-room apartment is over $2,000 a month, which is a lot more than in Belgium. And that’s without gas, water and electricity. My roommate slept on the couch in the living room while I had the bedroom. Some people have to combine three jobs just to be able to pay for their housing. Without the support of my family, I would have been in trouble for sure.

Before my second M-1 visa ran out, I had to apply for an OPT visa, which means Optional Practical Training. This would allow me temporary work as a student. And despite the massive amount of paperwork it involved, I was insanely grateful to receive it the day after my graduation. Next up was my O-1B visa, a three-year artist visa, which I had to apply for before the one-month grace period following my OPT ended. Applications can take up to six months – doubling in time during COVID – and a lot of people run into trouble during the process. If you don’t have a visa that allows you to work in the given period of time, you can probably forget it, unless you’re really lucky. You even run the risk of being deported.

People think I was living the dream over in L.A., but it was mostly a 24/7 hustle and dealing with a lot of rejection. So many times I auditioned for gigs only to be turned away. You have to deal with constant disappointment. Yes, you can build a portfolio from scratch with student jobs, but big productions won’t hire you unless you either have a visa or are the golden girl they are willing to sponsor.

“If you’re not hired for jobs, you can’t take your portfolio to that next level. But if you don’t have a portfolio, they won’t hire you.”

Yes, I was free to pursue my dream and do what I’ve always wanted to do, but I was in a foreign country far away from family and friends and had to start from the bottom again. You have to be mentally strong to deal with all the challenges. The stress of arranging your visa, getting a job and paying your rent is relentless. It’s hard to keep going when you feel deflated and I was quite depressed when I first arrived there. You can’t count on anyone but yourself to pick you up off the floor. Despite all that, I kept going and was in the running for a few jobs, which helped me regain my confidence.

And then a virus suddenly took over the world and put everything on hold. Corona not only exposed the political divisions in America, it exposed centuries of repressed feelings that had been bubbling away below the surface. Thanks to the ongoing political tension and the debate about Black Lives Matter, which was openly conducted on the street, the situation became increasingly grim. It was dangerous to go outside. Lots of people flouted the corona rules anyway, but pharmacists near me saw their business shattered, helicopters flew over our apartment 24/7, and in other states people were shot or pelted with teargas. Even children were hurt in these riots.

“Freedom of speech is supposed to be a right for everyone, but it isn’t when you’re an immigrant.”

As an immigrant, you keep quiet at that moment and stay indoors. First and foremost because of corona: if you get sick in L.A., the medical expenses are likely to bankrupt you unless you have a very expensive insurance. But less well-known here is that under Trump’s policy, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ed.) was scouring the protests to single out immigrants and deport them to their own country. With my visa application still being processed, I was afraid to go outside. It was even worse for immigrants of colour, like my Guatamalan roommate who – as a Latina – would have been singled out for deportation immediately. Freedom of speech is supposed to be a right for everyone, but it isn’t when you’re an immigrant.

“Working with a smaller pool of talent and opportunities also has its advantages.”

People in America tend to be a bit more gullible than Europeans, so they are more likely to be incited by something said or decided by government or politics. Belgium has its flaws but living in L.A. has opened my eyes to our country. We have a good education system and a strong safety net. In America I relied on ginger tea with lemon when I was sick, but I didn’t dare consult a doctor because of the excessive costs. There’s no OCMW or social security in America, as there is in Europe. In Belgium you can count on monthly financial support during the corona crisis, whereas in America I received a single stimulus check for the entire eight months I was there and unable to work due to the pandemic.

Returning to Belgium and working on my portfolio here has shown me that working with a smaller pool of talent and opportunities also has its advantages. You can break through more easily when you’re fishing in a smaller pond. Moreover, Europe is no longer America’s little sister when it comes to acting. I feel that more qualitative projects are currently being launched in Europe than in America. Ultimately that’s what it’s all about for me: working on projects that offer added value and can affect me.

“I realised soon enough that even if Biden were elected, things wouldn’t change overnight.”

Trump’s policies prevented me from having a fair chance as an actress in L.A.. I actually stayed there waiting for Biden to be elected, hoping he would change the immigration system. But I realised soon enough that even if Biden were elected, things wouldn’t change overnight. The visa policy hasn’t changed yet, so I would have been stuck there, twiddling my thumbs. Obviously, things have gotten more difficult since Trump’s policy. In the past, your application was always reviewed and if you met three of the six necessary criteria, you had a good chance of getting a visa. Now you have to meet three of the six criteria for your application to even be considered. Unless you’ve won an award or a prize, you have no chance of getting a visa that allows you to work legally.

Now I’ve had some time to distance myself from L.A., I can finally breathe again. There’s no pressure to keep getting papers updated and organised, no anxious wait to see whether or not I am allowed to work in the country where I’m staying. The visa issue has dominated my life for years. Without consciously realising it at the time, I was under constant stress. Unless I’m offered a job in Belgium to work in L.A., like Veerle Baetens, or get a green card, I don’t see myself returning anytime soon.

I still dream of an international career, but coming back to your roots every now and then and coming back to life with both feet on the ground is the best learning experience you can have.


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Before I joined the project, I asked myself whether I was the right person for such an experimental programme. I had just finished my first interview with the employees of Vormingplus, who were responsible for the selection interviews of the buddies. I was asked about my personality, wishes, sexuality, hobbies and work situation. At the end of the interview I was told that I would be a great candidate for the programme. The two staff members suggested I should think it all over for a while and give them a call as soon as I knew what my answer was going to be.

“So many questions came to mind.”

When I walked to the station to take the train to Amsterdam, my home town at that time, one question after the other came to my mind. What would I like to achieve within this project? Am I really open to living with someone from a different culture? Do I want to show that Flemish people are actually cool? How can I ensure that he becomes self-sufficient? I noticed that in each of the questions a word came up each time: “me”.

By asking myself these questions, I realised I would have to go into the project with an open mind and without expectations, because my newcomer would set the pace. It was not just about my expectations, but especially about his. After being matched with Izat, our introduction and first conversation, and then of course our move, I tried to make that initial connection. This proved to be difficult as Izat did not immediately trust me.

However, after a few months he started coming out of his bedroom more and more often and we would talk, sometimes deep into the night. His Dutch evolved admirably fast as he was going to class full time and using Dutch in daily life. There was another side to the story however. Izat was very ill with tuberculosis, which was diagnosed fairly late and therefore difficult to cure. Izat often struggled with abdominal pain and ate badly during certain periods, which worried me. In my opinion, the OCMW did not monitor his situation well enough and there was not enough guidance. This was not the OCMW employee’s fault but was due to policy, in which far too little time is allocated to each client.

“Our conversations became more frequent, went deeper and often lasted for hours.”

As a result, I increasingly took matters into my own hands: a doctor’s appointment that needed to be arranged, teaching him how to make bank account transfers, talk about medication and encourage healthy eating. I took on the care function and changed from buddy to a kind of mother figure. We both felt really good about this; for the first time it felt like we were a team. Our conversations became more frequent, went deeper and often lasted for hours. He would tell me about life in Afghanistan and the things he experienced during his flight. Living in the mountains and peacefully herding the family’s animals during the day stood in stark contrast to the nights, when he would huddle up close with his brothers and sisters as bombs fell around them. Stories such as those, in which friends were shot or acquaintances taken prisoner by IS, were beyond shocking but after a while even I got used to them.

As his life in Belgium began to expand, Izat started becoming less emotionally tied to the horrors that had taken place in Afghanistan and on the road. This confused him, and coupled with the fact that he was living with a woman who was not a family member or a partner, Izat started to struggle within himself. He began locking himself away in his bedroom again, invited male friends over more often and stayed away from home overnight. Religion was his stable safe haven in this strange new life.

“I hadn’t expected that I wouldn’t see him once during Ramadan.”

At the dawn of Ramadan, he informed me that he would come home less often during the month of the fast. However, I hadn’t expected that I wouldn’t see him once during that period. Going to the mosque, praying, fasting, going to school, working and eating at night took so much time that he found it easier to spend it with friends. At least, that’s what he told me.

Later he said he did not come home because “he was not allowed to be in contact with a woman of Allah during Ramadan.” I tried to find out on Google why the Qur’an prescribed this, but could not find a clear answer to my question. I realised that I shouldn’t care if he didn’t come home, but it hurt and it made me angry. I did read that a Muslim should not have unchaste thoughts during Ramadan and suspected perhaps there was more at play. Those late nights talking about life, coupled with the care I showed while he was ill, had evolved into a crush he later admitted. This caused a lot of awkwardness in our little household.

“Whichever way you turn it around, it stands in strong contrast with our Flemish way of thinking.”

I still can’t understand why within Islam there is such a strong emphasis on the differences between men and women. It makes being friends with someone from the opposite sex hard when you have so many preconceived ideas about how relationships should be. Whichever way you turn it around, it stands in strong contrast with our Flemish way of thinking.

A month before Ramadan, I had decided to leave the project early as an opportunity with a new home came up. Somehow I had hoped that during those last two months, we would have enough time to restore our connection, which had once grown into a friendship. Unfortunately, we didn’t and I feel like I have failed.

From a rational point of view, no one has failed and the extreme cultural and religious differences simply made living together no longer feasible. This was also apparent when our OCMW contact explained that I was moving out and asked him whether he would once again live with a Flemish woman in this way. A shocked “no” was his answer. That one word touched my heart. I know he didn’t mean it that way and that he was masking his hurt about me leaving before the project officially ended. But knowing that I was able to give him the basis of Flanders and that we had wonderful moments, I made peace with it. Who knows, the future may still bring a beautiful friendship.

* while typing this last column I received another message: “hey Deborah, before you move, I’ll cook for you again.” All is well that ends well.

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As professionals in the global mobility sector we know all about managing culture shock, helping our assignees adapt to new environments, and spend a lot of time considering matters such as cost of living allowances and hardship locations. But what about those who move halfway across the globe with no help whatsoever? The people who leave their homes behind for entirely different reasons than a (temporary) foreign assignment? Freelance journalist and millennial Deborah Seymus has a monthly column on living with a young refugee with Knack online and is republished here with their permission. We look forward to bringing you her column over the coming issues as we explore a brand new view on life in Belgium.

Just over twelve months ago I met Izat*. Izat fled Afghanistan at the age of 19. He and his family lived in the village of Tagab in the northeast of Afghanistan, which has been under Taliban control since 1995. War has been raging in the region since 2001, and with Tagab trapped between the Taliban militia on the one side and government soldiers on the other, his village is under constant fire. Going to school is not an option as schools ceased to exist some time ago and career opportunities for young men are limited to being recruited by either the Taliban or the army. Realising this, his parents concluded there was no future for him in Tagab. They saved up 10,000 dollars and with a heavy heart helped their son flee to Belgium.

“Call me naive, but I hadn’t considered the impact religion might have on our cohousing experience. We talked about basic things at first.”

When I was first introduced to Izat, I was expecting to be faced with different cultural customs and habits. I had however not expected to live with someone for whom religion is such an important part of life. Call me naive, but I simply hadn’t considered it. Izat is an avid follower of Islam, but it took me a while to figure that out. Because we only talked about basic things such as housekeeping, school and work, I had no idea how important being faithful to his God was to him and how much that would end up influencing our living together.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Afghanistan had around four million inhabitants; that number has now been multiplied by at least eight. Almost all (more than 99.7%) residents are Muslim. The large majority (80 to 85%) is Sunni, a minority (15 to 19%, more than two million and mainly Hazara) is Shiite. 1% adheres to a different religion. This is because when the communist regime in Afghanistan came to an end in 1992, the Republic of Afghanistan ended too. At the end of the Afghan Civil War in 1996, the Taliban took control over Afghanistan and renamed the country the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

“I never expected that I would have to explain that praying is an extra, not something that precedes attending classes or going to a job interview.”

I left for my annual holiday shortly after moving in together with Izat in July 2018. Coming back from my Italian travels, I arrived at an apartment where prayers rang through the speakers. Things had changed since I left. There was, for example, a carpet in his room and Izat was dressed in a long white robe. He went to pray in his room a number of times a day, closing the door behind him. I wondered how that would work when he’d start school in September. He wouldn’t have the space and time to isolate himself four times a day. I wanted to point this out to him, but was afraid to. It was too early and our contact was still very superficial.
From September 2018, Izat started attending school and took additional courses through Curant. He also enrolled in a course to help him find a suitable job organised by JES. JES is a city lab for children and young people in Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels. As a partner of Curant, they strengthen the self-reliance of the refugees in our project. They organise excursions so that the group can get to know each other better and work around specific themes such as finding work.

After the course ended, the registered boys and girls were given the opportunity to show their buddies what they had learned. Just before Izat had to give his presentation he said to me: “Deborah, I have to leave now. It is time to pray.” I tried to explain this wasn’t the right time, but he had already disappeared. I spoke to one of the OCMW employees who was there too and asked for her opinion. Together we went in search of Izat to explain this wasn’t the time for prayer. He struggled with the idea that he could not pray where and when he considered it necessary.

“As an atheist, I just don’t get it. I don’t understand how dogma can make you put everything else aside to pray.”

I could not, and still do not, understand how a religion can expect you to put everything else aside so that you can pray. You also have to follow certain rituals, such as cleaning your body with water, before you can turn to Allah. Repeating the ritual and praying six times a day takes quite a bit of time. It also required a lot of empathy from me. Sometimes I came home from work late at night and then we’d sit and chat outside, until Izat’s alarm would go off: time to pray.

But as time went by, I heard his phone ring less and less often. Izat spent less time in his room praying and spent more time outside or with friends. School was going well and his Dutch progressed quickly. During Ramadan, I noticed Izat had stopped coming home in the evening and stopped sleeping in the apartment. For a month I lived there alone and when I asked him about it I received a vague answer. He said it was not my fault and that he would come home occasionally. In the meantime, I asked acquaintances, and they explained it’s not acceptable for a Muslim to live with a woman they are not married or related to.
“The only answer that became truly clear to me was that I had to look things up on Google.”

After a long conversation on Messenger, because live communication remained quite hard, I was finally able to explain to him why I found the situation so difficult. He seemed to understand that. He did, however, stick to what he had said. With the last months of our cohabitation coming up we both did our best to make living together as pleasant as possible. Summer had returned to Belgium, which meant that we often sat outside until late on the terrace, talking about politics in Belgium and Afghanistan, and also about faith. What particularly struck me during those conversations was that his answers were always based on what the Quran said or what someone had told him. Never on his own research or from personal experience. For example, I repeatedly asked him why a woman should wear a scarf or hijab, and added that it would seem that women had to do certain things that men needn’t do. The only clear answer to the question “why” was that I had to look things up on Google.

“To me ‘Because the Quran says so’ is not a satisfactory answer. I need to you formulate your own thoughts.”

Sometimes my relentless questioning of dogma would get him thinking however, and he’d try to find answers that he could explain within himself. To me “because the Koran says so” is not a satisfactory answer. Despite my best efforts, he kept repeating that one day I would see the light and if I spoke to a certain person (a guru who lives abroad), I would be convinced of the Islam. After a while I understood that Izat would always hope that I would repent, so that he wasn’t doing wrong by faith. Coming home and chatting with me caused him conflicting feelings. The moment I realised that, I understood I had to make a decision. It’s a shame Curant never considered how much value he attached to his faith. If they had, they would not matched a deeply faithful Islamic man and an atheist Flemish woman for a cohousing project.
Yet I don’t want to blame Curant. Izat and many of the other boys struggle to look inside or talk about their innermost musings. Their culture is one where men do not share their thoughts or feelings. This makes it difficult to paint a correct picture of the situation. Also, over 50% of the buddies in the project are female, and more than 70% of newcomers are male. Which makes it difficult for the project organisers and sometimes they have to take a gamble.

I did learn from our conversations that religion is not for me. I respect someone’s faith and their adherence to a religion, but I don’t want to be converted. And that’s exactly where the crux lies: the faithful find it incredibly difficult to understand how you cannot believe in God, Allah or YHWH. To them it feels as if you don’t believe them, which implies that where they have put their trust in, is not reliable. Some experience that as a personal rejection of their faith, and therefore also of their personality, and that is the problem for me. Because when exactly did personality become inextricably linked to religion or belief?

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As professionals in the global mobility sector we know all about managing culture shock, helping our assignees adapt to new environments, and spend a lot of time considering matters such as cost of living allowances and hardship locations. But what about those who move halfway across the globe with no help whatsoever? The people who leave their homes behind for entirely different reasons than a (temporary) foreign assignment? Freelance journalist and millennial Deborah Seymus has a monthly column on living with a young refugee with Knack online and is republished here with their permission. We look forward to bringing you her column over the coming issues as we explore a brand new view on life in Belgium.

Just over six months ago I met Izat*. Izat fled Afghanistan at the age of 19. He and his family lived in the village of Tagab in the northeast of Afghanistan, which has been under Taliban control since 1995. War has been raging in the region since 2001, and with Tagab trapped between the Taliban militia on the one side and government soldiers on the other, his village is under constant fire. Going to school is not an option as schools ceased to exist some time ago and career opportunities for young men are limited to being recruited by either the Taliban or the army. Realising this, his parents concluded there was no future for him in Tagab. They saved up 10,000 dollars and with a heavy heart helped their son flee to Belgium.

“Our differing views are the cause of a fair amount of frustration.”

I have never asked myself so many questions about the subject of relationships, as since I’ve been living with Izat. Never before have I had so many problems expressing myself and explaining things to someone else when talk turns to the Belgian view on love and friendship. And to be honest, it’s the cause of a fair amount of frustration because our views on these themes are so vastly different.

Let me begin by answering why our views are so different. In Afghanistan almost all (99%) of inhabitants are Muslim, of which 80-85% are Sunnite. The Sunnites follow, besides the Quran, the Hadith, which is a vast collection of established Islamic legends about the life of the prophet Mohammed. The Hadith is essentially an extension and interpretation of the Quran, with often strict rules to be followed. Additionally, Sunnism is subdivided into different ‘madhahib’ – also known as hadis – which are different schools of religious thought. The most important of these are Hanafism, Malikism, Shafism and Hanbalism. Each was named after an ‘imam’, or pastor in prayer. Izat and his parents follow Hanafism, which means Izat was raised according to certain religious rules which influence his interpretation of the differences in sex, love and relationships.

“You need to be respectful of women, turning round to look at a pretty girl is not acceptable.”

One of these rules is that Muslim women should cover their entire body and wear a headscarf, or ‘hijab’ in Afghanistan. They do this so that men in the street would not look at uncovered parts of their bodies. Here in Belgium we’d be up on the barricades if we were not allowed to dress in public the way we want to, and see this as repression of women. When I speak with Izat about this, he explains: “You need to be respectful of women and turning round to look at a pretty girl is not acceptable. It’s very disrespectful for the woman, she could be married. She must be able to stay pure for Allah and her marriage.”

“My feminist beliefs tell me it sounds like a lame excuse to keep women subservient.”

I struggle with this last part. My feminist beliefs make me think it sounds like a lame excuse to keep women under some sort of control and keep them subservient. Even so, I can’t deny the fact that I’ve been stared at hundreds of times and don’t particularly enjoy it. When I confront Izat with the fact that I’ve been stared at by Muslim men too, he explains that not all Muslims know how to behave as they don’t know or understand enough about our Belgian customs.

“Many of the young men who come here for the first time are simply shocked by what they see. This can cause strange behaviour or expressions that we struggle to understand in Belgium. Good guidance and follow-up are essential so that newcomers learn how to deal with differences and not to misinterpret Western behaviour, or dress sense,” Anneloes Van Osselaer, project leader at Curant explains. “A few lessons during an integration programme simply aren’t enough as these programmes usually only cover some theoretical knowledge. In the best case we can discuss these topics in a group with other young refugees. Themes like these require more in-depth and sustainable guidance and follow-up; by OKAN schools, teachers, imams, role models from their own culture, social assistants and youth workers.”

“No matter how hard he tries to explain the premise of our cohousing project, his friends don’t understand.”

I can imagine that it’s not easy to understand Belgian freedom when you come from a completely different culture. And if you have to make do with the limited information given during your integration course, you end up with more questions than answers. Izat honestly shares with me that he’s looked at a woman here before. His friends tell him off immediately; he’s not supposed to be looking at women when he has one at home (me). No matter how hard he tries to explain the premise of our cohousing project, the boys don’t – or won’t – understand. As far as their concerned, when you live with a woman, even in Belgium, you are a couple.

Within the Afghan culture, women stay at home to take care of the children. They run the household and the man has very little input on this. Most adult Afghan women have never been to school, but considering the country has been plagued by war for 30 years, this is hardly surprising. Even so, things are slowly beginning to change within the educational system. Girls in Kabul have been going to school for a while now and a school has just been built in Tagab* where young girls can follow classes.

“Who else would take care of the children and the family?”

When I ask Izat whether men and women are equal in his culture, he emphasises they are equally worthy and women are considered enormously important. Families in Afghanistan are almost always large, with everyone living together under the same roof. “Without women, who would take care of the children and the family?” It’s not because women don’t work, raising large families instead, that they are treated as lesser.

Afghan women’s lives are traditionally controlled by their male relatives. Women symbolise the honour of the family and community and they are expected to be pure and modest. Over the last two decades however, armed groups have used these cultural norms as a weapon. The arrival of the Taliban in 1994 caused an extreme increase in violence against Afghan women. Using rape and sexual assault, they are able to dishonour entire communities. So what does this daily reality do to your views on sexuality and relationships as a young man?

“You need to be respectful of women and turning to look at a pretty woman is not acceptable.”

When Izat and I had been living together for about a month, I met someone. Just like many Belgian couples, we regularly met up and started spending the night together. I always let Izat know whether we would be staying at our apartment or at his place. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said anything, because I soon realised that Izat would disappear anytime we were in my room. When I asked him about this, he pretended nothing was wrong and he had no idea what I was talking about. His curt reply was clear: “no, no problem”.

Only after many conversations with him did I begin to understand how incredibly uncomfortable this made him feel in his own home. He was already living with an open minded young woman he often struggled to know how to be around. But her sleeping with a partner who was not her husband, was simply too difficult to understand. Staying over at a friend’s house seemed to be the right solution; this way I wouldn’t feel guilty. I’ve now come to accept this, after all, it seems a little absurd to change my love life to meet his religious standards.

The truth? Living together will always be a quest to find the perfect middle ground, but I consider the freedom women enjoy here a vested right. A hard earned right I wouldn’t like to see changed.

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The Forces Shaping the Future

“The pace of change is accelerating. Competition for the right talent is fierce. And ‘talent’ no longer means the same as ten years ago; many of the roles, skills and job titles of tomorrow are unknown to us today,” says Carol Stubbings, Global Leader People and Organisation, PwC, in her foreword. “How can organisations prepare for a future that few of us can define? How will your talent needs change? How can you attract, keep and motivate the people you need? And what does all this mean for HR? The ‘Four Worlds of Work’ for 2030 report aims to kickstart your thinking about the many possible scenarios that could develop, and how to best prepare for the future. Remember that your starting point matters as much as your destination; the best response may mean radical change, or perhaps just a few steps from where you are today.”


The megatrends are the tremendous forces reshaping society and with it, the world of work: the economic shifts that are redistributing power, wealth, competition and opportunity around the globe; the disruptive innovations, radical thinking, new business models and resource scarcity that are impacting every sector. Businesses need a clear and meaningful purpose and mandate to attract and retain employees, customers and partners in the decade ahead. How humans respond to the challenges and opportunities which the megatrends bring will determine the worlds in which the future of work plays out.

∞ Technological Breakthroughs
Automation, robotics and AI are advancing quickly, dramatically changing the nature and number of jobs available. Technology has the power to improve our lives, raising productivity, living standards and average life span, and free people to focus on personal fulfilment.
∞ Demographic Shifts
With a few regional exceptions the world’s population is ageing, putting pressure on business, social institutions and economies. Our longer life span will affect business models, talent ambitions and pension costs.
∞ Rapid Urbanisation
By 2030, the UN projects that 4.9 billion people will be urban dwellers and, by 2050, the world’s urban population will have increased by some 72%. Already, many of the largest cities have GDPs larger than mid-size countries.
∞ Shifts in Global Economic Power
The rapidly developing nations, particularly those with a large working-age population, that embrace a business ethos, attract investment and improve their education system will gain the most. Emerging nations face the biggest challenge as technology increases the gulf with the developed world.
∞ Resource Scarcity and Climate Change
Demand for energy and water is forecast to increase by as much as 50% and 40% respectively by 2030. New types of jobs in alternative energy, new engineering processes, product design and waste management and re-use will need to be created to deal with these needs.


■ The Red World: a perfect incubator for innovation with few rules
New products and business models develop at lightning speed, far more quickly than regulators can control. Big business is outflanked in a digital-enabled world that’s teeming with small entrepreneurial companies. Digital platforms match worker with employer, skills with demand, capital with innovator, and consumer with supplier. This allows serial entrepreneurs to reach far beyond their size in terms of influence and scale. Anxious to compete, larger employers fragment to create their own internal markets and networks to cut through old-style hierarchies. Specialism is highly prized in the Red World and a career, rather than being defined by an employer or institution, is built from individual blocks of skills, experience and networks. The most sought-after skills mean the biggest reward package and workers move frequently, staying only as long as the project or business lasts.

■ The Blue World: capitalism reigns supreme
In the Blue World, companies see their size and influence as the best way to protect their prized profit margins against intense competition from their peers and aggressive new market entrants. Corporations grow to such a scale, and exert such influence, that some become more powerful than nation states. Workforces are lean and exceptional talent is in high demand – employers secure a core group of pivotal high-performers by offering excellent rewards but otherwise buy in flexible talent and skills as and when they’re needed. Human effort, automation, analytics and innovation combine to push performance in the workplace to its limits; human effort is maximised through sophisticated use of physical and medical enhancement techniques and equipment, and workers’ performance and wellbeing are measured, monitored and analysed at every step. A new breed of elite super-workers emerges.

■ The Green World: companies have to care
In the Green World, corporate responsibility isn’t just a nice-to-have – it’s a business imperative. Companies are open, collaborative organisations that see themselves as playing an essential role in developing their employees and supporting local communities. Reacting to public opinion, increasingly scarce natural resources and stringent international regulations, companies push a strong ethical and green agenda. This is characterised by a strong social conscience, a sense of environmental responsibility, a focus on diversity, human rights and fairness of all kinds and a recognition that business has an impact that goes well beyond the financial. Employees enjoy family-friendly, flexible hours and are encouraged to take part in socially useful projects.

■ The Yellow World: we’re all in this together
In the Yellow World, workers and companies seek out greater meaning and relevance in what they do. A strong desire for ‘fairness’ in the distribution of wealth, resources and privilege drives public policy. Workers find flexibility, autonomy and fulfilment, working for organisations with a strong social and ethical record. This is the collective response to business fragmentation; the desire to do good, for the common good. Technology helps by lowering barriers to entry by providing easy access to crowdfunded capital and a worldwide market. The Yellow World is the perfect breeding ground for the emergence of new worker Guilds that develop in order to protect, support and connect independent workers, often providing training and other benefits that have traditionally been supplied by employers.


PwC’s Four Worlds of Work are each markedly different, but through each runs the vein of automation and the implications of robotics and AI. It’s clear that automation will result in a massive reclassification and rebalancing of work. Some sectors and roles, even entire sections of the workforce will lose out but others will be created. Automation will not only alter the types of jobs available but their number and perceived value. By replacing workers doing routine, methodical tasks, machines can amplify the comparative advantage of those workers with problem-solving, leadership, EQ (Emotional Intelligence), empathy and creativity skills. This view is supported by business leaders worldwide who responded to PwC’s most recent CEO survey. While CEOs are keen to maximise the benefits of automation – 52% told us that they’re already exploring the benefits of humans and machines working together and 39% are considering the impact of AI on their future skills needs – the majority (52%) were also planning to increase headcount in the coming 12 months. Finding the skills they need has become the biggest threat to their business, they say, but the skills they’re looking for are particularly telling: problem-solving, adaptability, collaboration, leadership, creativity and innovation top the list.

For the full report, please visit the PwC website:

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As professionals in the global mobility sector we know all about managing culture shock, helping our assignees adapt to new environments, and spend a lot of time considering matters such as cost of living allowances and hardship locations. But what about those who move halfway across the globe with no help whatsoever? The people who leave their homes behind for entirely different reasons than a (temporary) foreign assignment? Freelance journalist and millennial Deborah Seymus has a monthly column on living with a young refugee with Knack online and is republished here with their permission. We look forward to bringing you her column over the coming issues as we explore a brand new view on life in Belgium.

Just over three months ago I met Izat*. Izat fled Afghanistan at the age of 19. He and his family lived in the village of Tagab in the northeast of Afghanistan, which has been under Taliban control since 1995. War has been raging in the region since 2001, and with Tagab trapped between the Taliban militia on the one side and government soldiers on the other, his village is under constant fire. Going to school is not an option as schools ceased to exist some time ago and career opportunities for young men are limited to being recruited by either the Taliban or the army. Realising this, his parents concluded there was no future for him in Tagab. They saved up 10,000 dollars and with a heavy heart helped their son flee to Belgium.

It’s safe to say Izat experienced culture shock when he arrived here. Many of our habits and customs are completely alien to him. When I got home after a trip to Italy, Izat had taken his desk out of his bedroom. A bit awkwardly it stood there, pushed into a corner of the living room.

I toddled towards his bedroom and knocked. Izat opened. “Deborah, hello! You had a good holiday?” Poking my nose round his doorway while smiling my affirmation of a great holiday, I noticed a large rug on the floor. “Izat, don’t you need the desk to study soon?” Izat shook his head and said with a broad smile: “I am studying on the ground, much better.” A day later I received a phone call from the civil servant of the Public Centre for Social Welfare, or OCMW, asking me how the flat share was going. In passing, I mentioned that Izat had put out his desk and that it seemed better to have the desk and some other old furniture collected. This turned out to be a huge issue because ‘Izat must learn to work at his desk, as otherwise he would not study’.

I tried to explain to Lydia* that Izat could study on the ground perfectly well, as was his custom back home. She informed me she would be visiting our apartment to make sure the desk was back in his room as this was ‘very important’.

Thankfully it occurred to me to say that this way he would be able to study with me in the living room after school hours, and I could keep an eye on things. She became a little milder and admitted perhaps it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

“The desk-drama got me thinking.”

The effort I had to put in explaining the absence of a desk in his bedroom got me wondering. Was this cohousing project prepared to give Izat a chance to integrate with respect for his values and standards? Something minor like a desk created such an upheavel, as Izat would ‘not integrate well’, while all he wanted to do was hold on to his own culture. In Afghanistan, it is customary to do almost everything while sitting on the ground. Eat, study, talk, rest, and so on. To him – and me – it seemed only logical that he should study however he feels most comfortable, but the OCMW clearly felt otherwise.

Much later it would transpire there was a more practical reason why the desk wasn’t allowed to be removed. As the apartments are rented out fully furnished and the OCMW does not have storage space, they had nowhere to put it. Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom, and we often have fun with the situations we find ourselves in. Situations that confront me with the facts of life and that serve to emphasize our cultural differences.

“Here, everything is a little crazy.”

Enjoying one of the last balmy evenings, we sat together on our apartment’s terrace. Me with a glass of wine, Izat with his mint tea. When we notice someone walking by through the park onto which our terrace looks out, Izat greets the man. I wondered why he said hello to a stranger. “Isn’t that a normal thing to do then? In our country we greet every stranger. Even more, we invite strangers to our home and eat together.” At my explanation that no, we don’t usually greet strangers, let alone invite them into our homes, he went a little quiet. Having given this some further thought, he smiled and said: “Here everything is a little crazy. If you want to see friends, you must make an appointment. I do not understand that. If I want to see friends, I just drop by.”

A few days later we went food shopping together. I showed him mussels and while I’m explaining this typical Flemish specialty a man appears behind us. “Ah,” he grins “you’re going to cook tonight, what time do you expect me to be at your place?” I gave him a smile in response, but Izat – not understanding it as a joke – simply asked me “What time Deborah man has to be at our place?” Charmed as I was by his hospitality, I had to explain it was just a joke.

“Turns out it really is all-purpose.”

The next morning I noticed the apartment desperately needed mopping. Due to my busy work schedule I couldn’t do it myself and asked Izat if he would be okay with doing that. “No problem, I mop,” was his cheery answer. In the evening I came home and the entire apartment had indeed been mopped. With a tea towel. I have a dozen different cleaning products and at least as many accompanying cloths. But if I’d never used all those different things before, I would probably have done the same.

Which reminds me of the time we went to do our laundry together and he proudly brought the all-purpose cleaner he’d purchased for the job. I didn’t have the heart to tell him and thought I’d take the risk. Turns out it really is all-purpose: our clothes came out looking clean and smelling pine-fresh.

“The unexpected kindness of neighbours is humbling.”

In the early days of our flatshare, one of Izat’s friends slept outside on the floor of our terrace. Without a blanket or pillow, because it was summer. The next morning our neighbour knocked on our door, wanting to know if we needed an extra bed. When I didn’t understand her offer of an extra bed – I hadn’t even noticed our very quiet overnight guest – she explained to me that ‘another boy than Izat had slept on the terrace’. Such thoughtfulness from a Belgian neighbour, perhaps we’re not all that unwelcoming after all.

My new realities: guests are always welcome, eating together happens on the floor, if it’s late you stay over, mint leaves are put in the tea kettle, not the cup, and showering or brushing teeth is not a daily requirement.

“All of a sudden I realised the permanent nature of cultural differences.”

Recently I realised the extent and permanent nature of the differences in our habits and customs. I had always assumed that it would take ‘just a little bit’ of adjusting, but now I realise that this is a near enough impossible expectation. Afghanistan will never leave his head, and his customs and habits will always remain close to his heart. A Belgian who moves abroad will live by his own habits and customs. Expecting a refugee to make a sudden and complete turnaround and follow all local customs from one day to the next isn’t realistic. When you leave your country, you don’t consciously choose to leave your customs and values behind. You consider them a safe haven in a strange port – a little bit of ‘home’ – an important and valuable coping mechanism I am sure.

“Afghanistan will never leave his heart and you don’t just change your habits. You should respect them.”

The incredible drive with which Izat goes to school, the zest with which he tackles household chores and the understanding he shows for my way of life is admirable. And although we are most impressed by people who adapt quickly, we must also learn to give newcomers a warm welcome by respecting and valuing their customs. When foreigners are appreciated by Belgians, they are much more motivated to adapt to our way of living.

Izat* and Lydia* are not their real names.

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Deborah Seymus lives together with the 22 year old refugee Izat*, through the cohousing project CURANT which brings together young Belgians and refugees under a ‘buddy’ system. CURANT stands for Cohousing and case management for Unaccompanied young adult Refugees in ANTwerp.

Just under two months ago I met Izat*. Izat fled Afghanistan at the age of 19. He and his family lived in the village of Tagab in the northeast of Afghanistan, which has been under Taliban control since 1995. Izat speaks Pashto, one of the two official languages in Afghanistan. War has been raging in the region since 2001, and with Tagab trapped between the Taliban militia on the one side and government soldiers on the other, his village is under constant fire. Going to school is not an option as schools ceased to exist some time ago and career opportunities for young men are limited to being recruited by either the Taliban or the army. Realising this, his parents concluded there was no future for him in Tagab. They saved up 10,000 dollars and with a heavy heart helped their son flee to Belgium.

His route started in Afghanistan, going by way of Pakistan to continue through Iran to Turkey. A journey of about 5,000 km and a solid 1,000 hours walk. Because yes, he went on foot. “Sometimes I walked, sometimes I had to run,” he told me. “The trip was very long and I crossed many forests and mountains.”

From Turkey Izat took a rubber dinghy to Greece. You know the type; it’s used as a lifeboat by rescuers, although they wouldn’t dream of ferrying 36 people across the Aegean on one. He doesn’t tell me much about the boat journey. From here he continued his journey on foot, until he arrived at Fedasil in Brussels. Following a bone scan to prove his age, fingerprinting and the granting of subsidiary protection, Izat was granted asylum, only to be moved from one asylum centre to another as they tried to find a more permanent place for him to stay. He spent three and a half months in Brussels, four months in Dendermonde, two years in Kapellen and five months in Boechout.

After three years in Belgium his Dutch still isn’t quite what it should be, being limited to what he has picked up in the various asylum centres, but in September Izat was finally able to start Dutch lessons through adult education. He’s excited about going to school, and I am about being able to help with his homework.

A Purpose in Life

Looking back upon our first encounter, it was rather awkward. Arriving at our newly assigned apartment, we were received by someone from the Public Centre for Social Welfare, or OCMW, and someone from CURANT. Smiling broadly, they handed us a large sheet of paper with a lot of blank text balloons and instructions on what we needed to write in them.

I hadn’t even known Izat for five minutes and he was expected to share his dreams and favourite breakfast with me. It was all very surreal. I had to explain to him what the word breakfast meant and what on earth a purpose in life was. I quickly gathered he was feeling incredibly lost and put an end to the mandatory getting-to-know-you round.

The four of us went for a walk around our new neighbourhood and our two well-meaning civil servants enthusiastically explained how the two of us could “take walks around the sports field together”. Very touching for a social Flemish girl like me, but for Izat it was highly discomfiting.

A Roof over your Head

Following our walk the ladies took their leave and Izat climbed on his bike to visit his friends in Boechout. Was I concerned Izat had doubts about living with me? Of course, but CURANT had impressed upon me the importance of being patient and having a little faith, especially in the beginning.

A few days later we found ourselves sitting at our kitchen table, where Lydia* of the OCMW handed us our tenancy contract. After writing our signatures in the appropriate boxes, Izat stood up and carefully walked around the apartment. I heard water running in the bathroom and went to have a look. He was trying out all the taps. He then walked around the living room and started tapping on the walls. His conclusion? We had a solid apartment. That’s when I realized how big of a shock it must be for him to be here.

Houses of stone and cement with double glazing, running water, a full and working fridge, a separate shower and bath, and a woman with an abundance of clothes who orders her furniture online. He’s never even heard of the latter. Izat assumes that you go to the shop and buy things there, online delivery simply does not exist for him.

Following his inspection, he looked around the apartment with satisfaction. Sitting back down at the table he smiled so sweetly that it almost brought tears to my eyes. I saw a little boy in the body of a growing man. Lydia made it clear that he should count himself lucky to be living with me. Izat gave a small smile, submissive in his response. I know Lydia meant well, but I found it painful. Why should he be grateful to be living with me? Isn’t it true that he lets himself live with a woman, going against everything his faith tells him? According to the Quran, a man and woman can only live together when they are married or blood relatives. Regardless of what you and I believe, that is his conviction and he is putting it aside just to have a roof over his head.

Running Water

Izat receives 892,70 euro per month. Of that amount, 330 euro goes to rent and utilities in the apartment, 50 euro to the payment of the deposit and 50 euro to the repayment of the fire insurance, which the OCMW paid for us. The rest is meant to pay for health insurance, food, telephone bills and other expenses. Instead Izat sends money to his family in Afghanistan. Izat’s father was shot in his leg last month and can no longer work. The only breadwinner in the family has fallen by the wayside.

31.82 million people currently live in Afghanistan and 68 percent of them do not have access to clean or running water. The most basic of utilities for us, a privilege for the people of Afghanistan. When I first started living with Izat, I thought he would consider my Macbook or iPhone luxuries. The truth is that he hasn’t once taken a look at them. It’s the things we take for granted that he considers to be the most important.

A little later Lydia leaves and I find Izat moping around the kitchen looking shy. Suddenly he whips out his phone to show me a photograph. Seven smiling boys of around seventeen look back at me. “Some dead, some still live,” he says. I’m not sure how to respond and stare ahead for a moment. “How?” I ask him softly. “Taliban and police shot. That’s why my friends dead.”

I try to imagine this and try taking a mental picture of a situation where I am laughing with my friends. Carefree. Those seventeen year old boys were hardly carefree but they were able to laugh together. I shake my head and say, “Sorry, I no understand.”

Izat* and Lydia* are not their real names.

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Looking across the business world, approximately 70% of family-owned businesses fail or are sold before the second generation gets a chance to take over. A mere 10% remain active, privately held companies that continue to operate under the leadership of the third generation. In stark contrast to publicly owned firms (in which CEO’s hold the reins for an average of six years) many family businesses have the same leaders for 20 or 25 years, and these lengthy and established leadership tenures can make it harder to cope with shifts in technology, business models, and consumer behaviour. Today family firms in emerging markets face new threats from globalisation. In many ways, leading a family-owned business has never been harder.So what is the answer? Stay put or sell out? ReLocate has consulted the experts in both these fields and brings you the best ways to do either.

Tips for Growing a Family Business

Offering your offspring a fallback option
Many owner/operators of family businesses built their dreams on the idea that their children would work together with them, that they would create something lasting that would provide for their offspring in the years that follow their retirement or passing. In some situations this creates a positive and profitable collaboration as the child is familiar with the running of the business and knows the product or service back to front by the time that they take over. In other family businesses, where the business is quite successful from the beginning, the children are raised in a wealthy atmosphere and may indulge in more frivolous pursuits in their late teens and early twenties. So by the time they need to get serious and settle into their role of proprietor, they are unprepared for the task and due to lack of experience the business fails in the hands of the second generation.

Ensure essential screening and training is employed
Following on from the two situations explained above, ensuring that those family members that do join in the efforts of the family business are experienced, educated and qualified to do so, is essential to the continuation of achieving profits and developing the nature of the business. Simply being born into a family that runs its own enterprise is not qualification enough to take the lead, or even a management role. There are many family businesses that employ best practices such as ensuring their offspring have attained the proper education required of such positions (in the outside world) such as a diploma, degree or even masters. This is also coupled at times with enough relevant experience in a business outside the family business. Some families even go to the extent of having their family members apply for the vacant positions alongside non-family members.

“Everybody thinks about ‘The Succession Plan’. I had great ideas, but no successor.” Patrick Oman, Chairman, Irish Relocation Services

The family expands more quickly than the business
Quite interestingly, some families expand more quickly than the business does. Growing a business can take a few decades, and dealing with economic highs and lows, market dips and competition can take its toll. In contrast to a growing family, a business expands and shrinks with the flow of economic growth and decline. When a business founder has a few children, and each of those children take a spouse and have children of their own, each of whom are interested in taking on a role within the business, employee supply can outweigh demand. Ensure that you do not merely take family members on as staff to please spouses or continue interest from grandchildren. The business must continue to operate as a business and not cater to the emotions of growing families.

Plan for growth to include the growing family
The first two tips are about planning to avoid failure. You want to ensure there is genuine interest from family members, and that this is complimented with a solid education that meets the experience requirements from the hiring company (yours). This is about developing strategies to grow the business and create roles for the ever-increasing family members. For example: two brothers who took over the family business from their father anticipated handing leadership to their combined seven children. The brothers realised that their business would need to expand to accommodate their children to the extent that enough high-level roles could be created within the business. As their offspring completed their education and found the relevant experience to join the family business, the fathers employed the strategy of purchasing two other companies in the surrounding area with the intent of dispatching members of the next generation to run things in the other locations. This in turn generated the revenue required to support the newly employed family members as well as offering enough operational roles for them to fulfil.

Bloodline determining job function when joining the business
It happens quite often in family owned businesses: the tendency for parent and child to specialise in the same aspect of the business. This could be finance, operations, marketing or sales. However comforting this may be for the parent to teach the child their specialty and for the child to feel they are “stepping into the shoes” of the parent, this can cause problems within the business. The first issue this raises is by staying in specialised silos: managers in the next generation do not gain the cross-functional expertise required for overall operational leadership. Secondly, there can be negative consequences of close family members supervising one another. Personal dynamics come into play and this can interfere with coaching and the candid feedback that’s necessary for career evolution.

Engage the services of non-family mentors
A great way to avoid this situation is to appoint mentors that are not part of the family. Even in circumstances where the business is quite small and family members need to supervise one another, ensuring there is input from an interested external party means they can provide objective performance evaluation.

It is important to recognise that family owned and run businesses will always operate differently to publicly owned firms. There are many positive elements of working closely with your family, in an industry that could possibly define the character and nature of those family members. However, to survive the long-haul, family businesses must ensure that they adopt formal policy and strategy on employment, promotion, growth and investment interests. In that way they can ensure that the business continues to be passed from one generation to the next.

Tips for Mergers and Acquisitions

In the event that there are no family members to pass the business on to, or the next generation are uninterested, uneducated or unavailable, the inevitable decision to merge with another business or to sell your business on may have to be made. Or, it could be the case that you want to increase your stronghold in your industry or expand your business to include more family members and you want to acquire another company. In general terms, more than 50 percent of mergers and acquisitions fail and more than 80 percent fail to enhance shareholder value. Let’s review some ideas on the best way to ensure the upcoming change in your business is a positive one.

There is more than just one way to merge, or acquire. Depending on the unique characteristics of your business and the business you are about to engage with, you may want to consider the following:

A buys B
B buys A
A trades shares in A for shares in B
B as above
C is created and shares provided to shareholders in A & B

In all cases, there are a few points to consider and taking note of these before you take the plunge can help you avoid the pitfalls of a joining of enterprises.

What are your motives?
Growing the business for the good of your family is a wonderful motive for merging with or acquiring another business. Selling your business due to lack of interest or lack of family personnel to take over is also a solid reason. However, be honest with yourself. Is it a good time to make this change? What is the economic climate at present? Would it be a better choice to wait a few years to grow, instead of buckling to family pressure right now? If you need to delay due to a difficult market you could ask your children to take some more time to invest in their education or experience. Making a rash choice due to family concerns is not business-savvy. If facing a merger or acquisition your role in the organisation may change entirely, so you need to be clear with yourself what you expect and what you want to get out of the new union.

“We saw the industry changing and knew we’d have to make an investment in order to stay ahead of the curve. But making such an investment at our age had us asking ‘when will we see the return?’ The time was right personally and professionally.” Dean Foster, Executive Strategic Consultant, Dwellworks

You’re building something entirely new
Building your company from scratch is something sole proprietors should be proud of. You are used to making the decisions entirely on your own and taking sole responsibility for them. Taking on a new company with a history and operational structure of its own is a big task and getting two teams of people to work together and accept the new leadership structure takes some planning. You can consider the following to pre-empt any difficulties that may arise:

• From the get-go clearly define your new role: and the role of each member of the executive team. Clarity is crucial in the early days as this will prevent any niggling concerns and enable the team to focus on the big picture.
Be exact about the new leadership structure: as you now command a larger team than previously, ensuring a representative from each area of the new business is involved in the integration of the two entities encourages cohesion and constant communication amongst team members.
Pre-empt concerns: more people in the staffing structure means more feedback and possible complaint about decisions that need to be made. Being mindful of the reasons behind taking the chosen course of action and being able to readily explain them can take the sting out of criticism during the changeover.

“I was keen for Patrick [Oman] to stick around for a while and he was keen to stay too, but you have to lay out the ground rules of how that relationship is going to continue. There has to be clarity of roles.” Dan Sennet, Managing Director, Irish Relocation Services

Be real
It’s all about the integration of the two businesses. When those involved are too distracted by the completion date and possible payouts, the new entity itself loses focus and can fail right from the start. It can be a lengthy and sometimes dull process when ironing out the logistics of the deal, however losing sight of what the two business are going to become once joined is quite dangerous. Be clear with your staff, ensure they have no unreal expectations of how much better (or worse) the new working structure is going to be, and be honest – some questions they have may not be able to be answered for a while.

Preparation for change
Those staff employed in family run businesses (be it family members or non-family members) are used to a particular way of working. Just like a family, with its traditions and preferences for let’s say, a particular supplier or a brand of soap in the bathroom, a family business can become accustomed to a particular way of operating. When change occurs, this can be confronting for both family and staff members. Getting together with the leadership team and realistically setting out possible risks and downsides to the upcoming deal ensures you’re not caught out when having to face emotional responses to change. Have a plan and you will find those tricky moments are settled more quickly than you expect.

On the same page
Making sure not only the leadership team, but also the staff themselves are on the same page is crucial to what happens after the deal has been done. You have to look ahead to after the dust has settled and agree on common goals for the future of the business. Success is more easily achieved when everyone involved is aware of what needs to be accomplished. Set down some milestones and ways of measuring attainment of these goals. Short-term goals keep the energy levels up and push you onwards towards the long-term goals.

Find out more about what the EuRA panel had to say on their personal experiences in merging and acquiring their various companies by visiting the EuRA YouTube channel.


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When the world wasn’t much bigger than a thirty-minute ride in the back of my parents’ car, I remember people being critical of those who moved across the border of our neighbouring country Belgium. These were rich folks, or at least they aspired to be, the others supposed. I didn’t understand much of it, only that they must be smart, as they were able to buy a bigger house and a fancier car by, in theory, moving just a few exotic kilometres away. Something to do with taxes, people said. I recall seeing pictures of these supposed mansions and being disappointed; it looked just like home, no ornamental pillars, eternal sunshine or prancing pink ponies whatsoever. I still don’t understand much of it today, but for different reasons. I’ve since learned that this phenomenon is called a tax haven and that it involves much more than one border, a short stretch of land and an actual, physical house.

Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti were drawn by this same question: what constitutes a tax haven? For two years Woods (NL 1970, grew up in Italy) and Galimberti (IT, 1977) worked on ‘The Heavens’, a photographic documentary research project that sheds light on the obscure workings of seemingly exotic tax havens and the so-called offshore world. Given the publication of the Panama Papers and the Lux Leaks scandal earlier this year, the duo proves their nose for current affairs.

Woods’ and Galimberti’s interest was awakened as they were bent over a map in Woods’ Haiti home. Galimberti casually remarked that after a pretty good year the Italian government would claim half of his profits. I should hide it, he joked, upon which they observed that the notorious Cayman Islands were only an hour away. Could he actually pull it off? For that they needed to unravel the workings of a tax haven, about which the duo only had vague notions, even though the subject makes the news every day. A bigger challenge, given they’re photographers, was how to picture a phenomenon you can’t see.

“Many James Bond-movies were filmed on locations where tax havens are located. Long-legged beauties, mysterious wealth and spies travelling the globe set the tone. It gave the fast-growing off shore world a sexy touch.” – Nicholas Shaxson ‘The Great Escape’, The Heavens, 2015

For over two years the duo travelled to thirteen different tax havens to capture associated phenomena, places and people. It included a lot of fact checking, “not because we’re nerds, but to avoid getting into trouble with any big companies’ lawyers”. Part of their research was setting up The Heavens LLC, incorporated in Delaware, USA with the same company Apple, Bank of America, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Google, Walmart and 285.000 other companies. It was done in twenty minutes, no papers required.

tax havens
A man floats in the 57th-floor swimming pool of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, with the skyline of “Central,” the Singapore financial district, behind him. Singapore

In a visual language borrowed from glossy annual reports and interior magazines, this is the image they present us with: shiny shoes, flawless rows of safes and post boxes, a tropical skyline (a forest of overtly designed but empty skyscrapers littering Panama’s coast), rooftop swimming pools, a moon speckled sea where a single yacht is anchored (waiting to bring Donald Trump Towers’ guests to a deserted island). Men with motorised hobbies, meetings with take away coffee, ugly carpets and comfy chairs, men and women in business uniforms. Singapore Freeport – part of the Singapore Diamond Exchange headed by Belgian Alain Vandenborre –  built with extra solid foundations to be able to carry the tons of gold, diamonds that pass through each year and more art than you will find in Firenze. Flipping through the book is looking at surfaces and shells. It’s looking at nothing much, except for the occasional outstanding view. Tear sheets collected by an ambitious young man with big dreams and a lack of scruples. It’s playing James Bond, only the villains look stunningly uninspiring and they hardly ever get caught.

The duo learned the proof is in your pantry, your bookmarks, your wardrobe: Starbucks, Chiquita, Lays, Gillette, Amazon, Google, they all make use of ingenious, questionable, but legal ways to pay less tax and make more money. Unless you’re a hermit, there’s no escaping it. Billions of private and corporate dollars are stashed in tax havens, “often legally, to escape financial regulations or to reduce their taxes, draining the resources countries can spend on education, health care and security.” During the Vietnam War the USA even attracted blood money from Africa to finance the conflict, implicitly approving of armed conflict.

What lingers besides that dazzling world of polished make-believe is a pit in the stomach. Can a book like this change anything? Maybe not, but it does challenge you to a thorough reflection on today’s society. And although some Barbie-esque villa’s and palm trees are involved, I can now say for sure that a tax haven isn’t exotic at all. Thanks guys, for a depressingly good book.

‘The Heavens. Annual Report’
Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti
Dewi Lewis media, 2015

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“I was always the one who was going to pursue the big career,” says Ilonka Vlot (1971, Wormerveer, NL). Vlot is on Skype from Singapore where’s she’s just returned from a short holiday to The Netherlands with a suitcase full of towels. “I still haven’t figured out where to go for those kind of things here, so why not rely on HEMA where the offer is sturdy, affordable and well designed?” Vlot’s ’ main occupation these days is running a household of 4,5 (I don’t have to tell my husband what to wear, she laughs), but it hasn’t always been like that.

Ilonka Vlot is specialised in supply chain; inventory planning to be precise. She started working for a global tobacco company in 2000 and when her son turned one she started commuting between Utrecht and Southampton, England every week. “My husband and I always wanted three children, but I had a lot of trouble getting pregnant. When our son was four we sort of gave up on that dream and decided to pursue another: seeing the world.”

Vlot’s parents were partial expats (“We lived all the way in Belgium for four years”) and she had paid them regular visits when, during her twenties, they were living in Singapore. The city had a great appeal and Vlot decided to apply for a job there with her own employer. Unfortunately they opted for an Asian candidate instead of flying in an expensive European. The dream of going abroad hadn’t evaporated though, so when in 2010 an opportunity to do a project for her husband’s company in Geneva arose, the family decided to take it.

Life as a Trailing Spouse
“I then applied for a job with my company’s office in Lausanne and they offered me a position. We were discussing the details of my contract when I found out I was pregnant.” They’d never given up trying and after acupuncture the very last IVF treatment miraculously succeeded. “I told my employer ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t fill the position after all’,” says Vlot. It seems strange for a career woman to put that career on a side track, “but,” Vlot argues, “I don’t think it’s fair to either employer or child to be involved only part time. That’s when my life as a trailing spouse began.”

“Instead of both of us having jobs and sharing all responsibilities, now all of a sudden Jelle had the lead career, whereas I was always the one who enjoyed working the most. He used to have this vision of working within cycling distance and leaving with his lunch box on his transporter every morning.”

Vlot, true to her ambition: “I did want to make myself useful in Geneva, so I registered as freelancer, which took me over a year because of the bureaucratic swamp, and did a project for my former employer during my pregnancy. When my daughter was three months old I wondered what I’d do next. That’s when the next opportunity came along: Argentina.
We packed up to live in Buenos Aires for ten months. Our son could go to the international school, my husband’s work was easier as he was managing the same project as in Europe, and the abundance of public holidays gave us the opportunity to travel the entire country. It often felt like a holiday.”

The Logical Next Step
Standing on a Berlin street corner, Christa Baltzer-Bakker (1964, Haren, NL) shares her motivation to swap countries over the phone. “After twenty years Amsterdam had become all too familiar. My husband owns an internationally oriented scientific publishing house. He mainly works online, so location is not of great importance. Besides, from a perspective of growth and considering the international character of most editorial boards in the business, Berlin seemed a logical next step.”

Baltzer enjoys living in Berlin where she has been able to settle into a pan-European circle of friends. Her two sons, the eldest working as a cook in a star-restaurant, the youngest finishing high school this year, have lives of their own. After working alongside her husband for three years, Baltzer reinstated her former career: “I worked as an interior designer in Amsterdam for twenty years and felt it was the right time to start offering my services again.”

It makes a lovely scenario for the next stage of a professional career. Alas, the economy turned out to be as changeable as the weather and Baltzer saw herself confronted with some of the same challenges Ilonka Vlot was facing. “It proved to be quite difficult to realise a proper business model, so my husband decided to apply for a job with a large medical publishing company. In Switzerland.”

Handicrafts and Jewellery
“We knew there wouldn’t be a next job in South-America, so we started talking about the next move soon,” says Vlot. “Our son was tired of moving and hoped to go back to the Netherlands, but my husband and I wanted to do one more.’” After turning a down a job in the US (“We weren’t sure we would be happy in an average American city,” says Vlot), opportunity came knocking: a three-year project in long anticipated Singapore. “We were relieved. It meant our son could finally start making friends and I could get back to work.”

Once more Vlot got in touch with her former employer. Once more she registered as a freelancer to realise a project, because once more she turned out to be pregnant. “We hadn’t done anything to prevent it after the successful acupuncture treatment, and this time it happened spontaneously.” Vlot is overjoyed by seeing her dream of having three children come true, but she does feel now it’s time for her side-tracked career to start moving again. “I don’t need to work for the money, but I do need an activity of my own. I don’t really have hobbies – work was always my hobby – and I’m not the type to be involved in charity apart from donating,” she confesses. “I did join a group of mompreneurs (mothers with small businesses mainly in handicrafts and jewellery – ed.) but we don’t have much in common apart from being a mother.”

Sweet Home Switzerland
Building a steady client base is a challenge both Ilonka Vlot and Christa Baltzer face. But where Vlot is experiencing trouble establishing one because of differences in culture, the fact that Baltzer does have one is causing her headaches. “I have to carefully consider whether or not I will join my husband in Basel. I have work here in Berlin and will have to start from scratch if I move. I feel reluctant to slow down what I’ve only just built up. Plus, Switzerland isn’t what you would call welcoming to foreigners. Then again, renting two houses is expensive and, more importantly, it’s not very nice not living together.’

Baltzer chooses to look at things on the bright side: ‘My husband is Swiss-German and he has lived in Basel before. The city and its museums, restaurants, a few friends, they’re all somewhat familiar. That was a consideration when looking for a job.”

“I think I have the resilience to start over somewhere new again. As a child I’ve had to move quite often and I’ve learned to form new social circles quite quickly. Of course the experience of moving to Berlin helps, and the fact that I have a creative profession too; I can always find something to do. Even financially it’s possible to take it slow and just work on a new client network for six months, although I’m really enjoying working on a couple of projects for a Polish manufacturer just now.”

Vlot has less experience to rely on. “I never took to networking,” she admits. “But, after a year and a half of befriending potential clients I finally have some actual leads that might result in an assignment. In the mean time I’ve continued developing myself by organising lectures for the Dutch Chamber of Commerce. It’s satisfying to wear high heels and make-up again, taking the subway with a laptop under my arm instead of pushing a stroller. It gives me the energy I need to give to my family.”

Like Baltzer, Vlot has another change coming. “It’s very probable that by the time my leads actually solidify, I’ll be back in Geneva again,” she laughs, “but at least I’ll have practised building a network. I’ve really enjoyed what we’ve done, but I’m also looking forward to settling in one place for a longer period if we get the chance. We would be lucky to get to live in Geneva again, we really enjoyed our time there…”

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On a day like any other, Warre wanders off into the rolling landscape to go bird watching. When he decides to look down instead of up, he finds a creature under a bush that his bird guide doesn’t feature: a tiny creature, something between a girl and a bird. Warre and his wife Tine decide to raise her as a human child, hiding her wings and forbidding her to eat with her mouth or fluttering to the ceiling in public. But Viegeltje, who has a fondness for worms, sautéed beetles and bread with peanut butter, follows her adventurous nature and heads out into the world, while the people she encounters frantically seek to keep her from possible harm.

Dutch peanut butter, a Walloon landscape and two archetypical Flemish first names; add a challenged yet hopeful and resilient character, giving you a picture of Joke van Leeuwen’s personal experiences. She grew up as the daughter of a reverend who moved around The Netherlands, family in tow, before taking up a position as professor in Theology in Brussels. Van Leeuwen was thirteen, tired of cycling to the nearest town to go to school and ready for a change, because surely ‘it couldn’t get any worse.’ But despite lots of good will, going to high school in Brussels turned out to be quite the cultural shock.

“Even the teachers were unaware of the scope of our many differences, great and small.  Little things that can really throw you off such as your place in morning roll call. In Belgium the prefix is written with a capital, so I got up when all students’ names beginning with an ‘L’ were called but was reprimanded for not paying attention; I was supposed to rise at ‘V’. Everything I’d ever considered a certainty was pulled out from under me like a rug.”

Besides the puzzling Flemish meaning of familiar Dutch words, life outside the walls of school and home meant she also had to deal with people speaking French. Like the time she went out to buy a pair of tights (‘maillot’ in Dutch) but was presented with an array of bathing suits (‘maillot de bain’ in French) instead. Van Leeuwen translated several of her experiences from this period into a series of poems (‘Kind in Brussel’ (‘Child in Brussels’) from ‘Four Ways of Waiting for Someone’, 2001) in which feelings of frustration mingled with sheer amazement are positively tangible.

After finishing high school, Joke van Leeuwen studied graphic arts at the Royal Academy of Art in Antwerp and the Saint-Lukas Institute in Brussels and history at the University of Brussels. She made her idiosyncratic debut as an author and comedian in 1978 after winning the Delft student cabaret festival, expanding her talents into many fields. Later she returned to The Netherlands because of her husband’s work, but after their divorce and her son had left the nest, she ‘voluntarily returned to Belgium.’ Van Leeuwen: “I felt stifled in Amersfoort, the small city where I lived. People thought it arrogant to talk about experiences of living abroad. I discovered I feel more at home in places that are a melting pot, like Brussels.” She chose to live in Antwerp for practical reasons: “I have regular engagements in The Netherlands.”

A hybrid backdrop of Flemish and Dutch phenomena
Frustration, the ability to wonder and a determination to get it right (“At home there would be a dictionary where I’d look up the right word”) are pretty useful qualities for a writer-in-the-making. “It had a positive influence,” Van Leeuwen agrees. “I was a creative child already and language and imagination were stimulated by my parents, but the experience of moving to a different culture as a teenager taught me to improvise and think in detours at an early stage.”

The new culture provided her with a subject and a whole new array of words and images to add to her vocabulary, writing proved a means to process the experience. It made her contrary, meaning that in her opinion nothing’s true and everything’s possible. It’s a trait you will find in many of Van Leeuwen’s characters that crowd her stories set against a hybrid backdrop of Flemish and Dutch phenomena. “It happens naturally,” says Joke van Leeuwen. “I simply choose what suits the story best – it enhances the fictitious character.”

Perhaps one of the most important aspects however, is the ability to see things from a different perspective. In daily life, her bi-culturality is as much of an influence as in her work. “It would be beneficial if everyone would live abroad, even if it’s just six months,” Joke van Leeuwen believes. “You should however make a proper effort to encounter that new culture and not stick within a colony of compatriots. Only then you can experience how relative your own habits and values are, even when it’s just a neighbouring country.”

“I see a clear role for myself, within my work but also in my private life. An example I like to give is when a Flemish jury labelled a Dutch author ‘merkwaardig’. In Dutch that means ‘strange’, but in Flemish it means ‘remarkable’.”

Ultimately you can even play a role in helping others understand and familiarise themselves with that culture. This was my main reason to accept the position as Dichter der Nederlanden (Poet of the Low Lands). With this honorary position the Algemeen-Nederlands Verbond, a foundation that encourages a greater familiarity between Flanders and The Netherlands, celebrates the fact that 200 years ago Belgium and The Netherlands were a single country for a period of fifteen years.

In her acceptance speech, Van Leeuwen refers to herself as a ‘two-legged bridge’. “Sadly not many people are interested in this assignment; remarkably less then when I was Antwerp’s city poet. There’s especially little attention from The Netherlands, which seems to be more and more oriented towards domestic issues. I’d say that’s quite worrisome in an age when mono-cultural thinking is impossible to maintain. The situation illustrates what a disadvantage it can be when people haven’t spent any time in a different culture – they keep thinking inside the box.”

Joke van Leeuwen is concerned but determined as well. “I see a clear role for myself, within my work but also in my private life. An example I like to give is when a Flemish jury labelled a Dutch author ‘merkwaardig’. In Dutch that means ‘strange’, but in Flemish it means ‘remarkable’. The author was given a compliment and he wasn’t aware of it! I was able to translate, and he went home feeling satisfied, but when you think about it, it’s wrong that we don’t understand each other even though the foundations of our language are the same. On both sides of the border television programs from the neighbouring country are subtitled. The problem with that is: you stop making an effort to understand each other. But it’s really not a problem if every now and then you come across an unfamiliar word!”

Helping Iraqi and Syrian writers settle in
It becomes clear that there is also a political motivation involved when promoting bi-culturality, also outside the Flemish-Netherlands realm. “When you’ve been part of two countries for as long as I have you should be allowed to have two passports. I’m not really Dutch anymore, whatever that may be (“I haven’t eaten an ‘oliebol’ on New Year’s Eve for years,” she jokes), but should I turn my back on a country that awarded me a state prize? (Theo Thijssensprijs, 2000) At the same time I’d like to be able to vote on a federal level in Belgium. I live here, I pay my taxes, I participate. But apparently it doesn’t work like that.”

Language can be a creative tool, but a political one as well. Learning a language can help understand a culture and enable communication. As chair of PEN Vlaanderen (PEN defends writers and the freedom of speech around the world, both through direct and indirect support.), Joke van Leeuwen is well aware of this notion. “We’re promoting Arabic writers that came here from Iraq and Syria for example. We enable them to do their work, but if they really want to settle here, they’ll have to be given the opportunity to learn Dutch as soon as possible. An asylum seekers’ centre is the worst possible place if you want to integrate and gain wider recognition.”

Van Leeuwen illustrates with a personal memory. “I remember the Bosnian family that came ‘on holiday’ with me and my husband and son. They fled Bosnia because of the war and stayed in a camp. They hardly ever went out. Their four-year-old daughter lit up during her time with us because she could play, learn, interact. We told them ‘You’re not going back to that camp’. So they stayed with us until they could make a life of their own.”

Joke van Leeuwen’s ‘Belgium for Dummies’ tip follows quite naturally: “Listen, watch, don’t judge a book by its cover and don’t put all Belgians in the same category. Of course that applies to everything. More specifically? Don’t call Flemish a funny or even charming dialect – it’s degrading.”


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Steering my bicycle through familiar lanes and unfamiliar alleyways felt like being madly in love. We had no jobs, few friends and lots of ‘goesting’ to try everything the city had to offer. More specifically we were looking for a new balance where work and play would produce the perfect breeding ground for all those artworks, articles and books that were slumbering in the back of our minds.  Writing is my business and observing my second nature – surely those ingredients would make a fine cocktail from which to capitalise on my experiences.

When you first arrive somewhere new it feels like an extended holiday. Knowing you’re not returning home any time soon makes all the difference – there’s no need to go looking for bread and cheese during a Thai holiday because you’re perfectly content to have rice every day.  But a trip around the world is nothing compared to dealing with insurance companies, Flemish landlords, looking for work, trying to make friends to explore foam art coffee places with instead of staring out of the home-office window at a lonely weed trying to prosper in a crack between the bricks of the house opposite.

Once the excitement of the new started wearing off, gloomy days and mornings thick like cold mush settled in its place instead. My previous experience with Antwerp and the Flemish only helped so much – it was very different living there with a Dutch partner instead of a local. While he was away (and he was half the time) I was trying to make sense of the seeming lack of logic in supermarket layout (we’d never start with the wine), a leaking roof and a hysterical landlord, a debit card that only worked in half of the shops I frequented. And those were merely some of the practical issues.

Though utterly scared of failure, I started to gather evidence to help me write about why my attempts to make sense of my new surroundings – and my place in them – made me feel like a wind-up toy in hot quicksand. Crossing just one border had turned me into a migrant and that status changed everything. Where in Amsterdam I had found myself doing silent battle with my computer, stressed by lack of inspiration and full of regret for not grabbing the opportunities for internships I was offered, in Antwerp I suspected depression from information overload lurking around every corner.

During my research I learned that there’s a word for this kind of stress, an entire research area even: ‘Acculturation Psychology’. Batja Mesquita, Professor of Psychology at the KU Leuven and ‘hands-on’ expert: “The range of changes one encounters when switching cultures is very wide: from emotions to how you perceive the world. Stress, the ability of handling all the novelties or not, are also part of that,” Mesquita explains. “An international move doesn’t only mean a material change, it also means losing one’s social network. Acculturation can make you tired because everything, even the appearance of a milk bottle, is different from what you’re used to. In very severe cases acculturation can cause exhaustion, anxiety or depression.” Mesquita confirms that this also applies to a seemingly not-very-drastic move from The Netherlands to Belgium.

So there it was, a label for my condition. While attempting to find certainties in Belgium, I discovered a profound Dutchness within myself. Apparently my desire for order and planning weren’t merely a question of character: I could’ve given that example of the milk bottle myself. Something seemingly trivial like how the isles of a supermarket are arranged proved to be essential to my wellbeing. So when late last winter the supermarket around the corner sprang from its makeover as a blue and white Albert Heijn, I found myself grinning from ear to ear amidst the isles of familiar products glistening in the tube light.

I can’t say which effect Albert Heijn has on my writing so far, but I do know I’m feeling more at home.

When I first got here I swore to never visit the Dutch grocery giant, but I reached the point where wellbeing prevailed over principles. Apart from the fact that they were the nearest grocer, they were also cheaper and open until eight PM.

I’m over the moon to have my favourite peanut butter again, to be able to find the fresh milk with my eyes closed and vinegar and oil together on one shelf. I have to confess to choosing the soothing comfort of being surrounded by ‘vla’, ‘drop’ and ‘stroopwafels’, even though I never eat them, over the thrill of a foreign supermarket – for daily business at least.

I can’t say which effect Albert Heijn has on my writing so far, but I do know I’m feeling more at home. And yes, I found a job, I found that coffee place I can hang out with new and old friends and a proper chunk of Dutch cheese only a brief walk away. Maybe it’s finally time to start writing that book.

by Lise Lotte ten Voorde – www.cultuurcocktail.eu

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Soprano Nicola Mills (1976, Lancashire, GB) knows all about facing the big unknown. Besides singing in the chorus of the Vlaamse Opera, Nicola’s also known as The Down to Earth Diva. We meet at a wine bistro just around the corner from where she lives in the Antwerp Zuid area. It’s a lovely December day; pale blue sky outside, the warm guitar sounds of Django Reinhardt on the loudspeakers indoors.

I half expect her to show up wearing the polka dot dress she features on her website, but today I get the ‘real’ Nicola. “Putting on that dress helps me switch to my singing mode and being a singer. A colleague gave it to me about a year ago. I had to go to rehearsal, so I couldn’t try it on right away, but all I could think was ‘I hope it fits!’ It’s funny,” she says, “because that’s how it all sort of started.”

A Different World
Nicola has been venturing out as a solo artist for years, singing for charities, events and, more recently, with a group of singing waitresses in a surprise flashmob act. However when she’s not at the opera, you will often find her singing arias on the streets of Antwerp. Why would someone with a day job risk a cold? Out of love for singing and wanting to bring opera to people who don’t normally visit the theatre is the more superficial answer. The underlying reason though, is of a more personal nature. “My anxiety was stopping me from enjoying my solo career and I was getting more and more frightened to do it. I couldn’t perform anymore; I was scared to face an audience, scared that no one would want to listen. It was time to face my fears, so when I saw someone in Brussels do it, I thought ‘I can do that too’.”

It wasn’t the first challenge on Nicola’s path to becoming an opera singer. “I come from a working class background,” Nicola tells me over a bowl of soup. “We didn’t have a lot of money and I was the only one with any musical talent. Luckily there was a great musical centre that I could go to. I was seven when I started playing the trombone, but after a while it became clear that I really wanted to sing. Even then I was battling shyness, but at some point I decided to join the choir and I absolutely loved it. One of the teachers, Barbi Hankinson-Parr, thought I had talent and she offered to give me free lessons. I was fifteen by then.”

Hankinson-Parr was crucial to Nicola, because she encouraged and helped her enter competitions, exams and, ultimately helped her to get a place at The Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama in Glasgow. “I didn’t even know it existed! It was such a completely different world and I threw myself into it. I knew then that I was going to be a singer.”

After graduating her fears started to come back however, and Nicola decided to play it safe: she went back to the North of England to get married and become a singing teacher. “I did keep singing, but never fulltime. There were too many battles going on in my head and I was just too scared to really go for it. I was afraid of failure.” It was a week of concerts for elderly people in homes that made her realise she had to give up teaching: “My heart needed to sing,” Nicola emphasises. “I left my husband because I realised I could never live the life I really wanted to live if I stayed.” She was thirty by then.

“I trust life will take us where we need to go”

Dramatic High
An audition landed her at Glyndebourne Festival Opera, ‘one of the most renowned opera houses in the world’. “I moved to London and finally started living the life I’d always wanted.”

After London came Amsterdam. She felt that it would be good to move to a different country and experience a different language, so she secured a place at the Opera Studio in Amsterdam. “I wanted to live somewhere else and my gut told me to ‘do it now or it will never happen.’ The course itself was disappointing, but I had a small salary, the opportunity to work abroad and to experience a new culture.  The move led to work all around The Netherlands, starting with Dutch National Opera and then a debut at Het Concertgebouw.  I enjoyed so many good experiences whilst living there. I was always worried that I had left it too late to really make it work as a singer, but since leaving my husband I’ve never been out of work as a singer. I’ve been a full time singer now for 10 years. My worries were for nothing.”

Nicola’s life reached a dramatic high when her Dutch partner left her. “It broke my heart.” She joins her hands in front of her heart, while rolling a pair of dark brown eyes to the ceiling. “I didn’t know what to do but I always trust life to take us where we need to go.” Her answer came in the form of a contract with the Vlaamse Opera in Antwerp. The permanent job finally gave Nicola the solid base she needed. “I really didn’t want to start over once again, but moving here has turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done. I could hide in the choir on the one hand and build a life, healing myself and finding a better balance on the other. After Amsterdam and London, Antwerp was such a relief. Life is slower here. It’s the perfect place to turn from a caterpillar into a butterfly.”

Christmas Carols
Nicola was preparing for her first solo concert as The Down to Earth Diva, around the time she decided to make her debut on the Antwerp Meir.  The show became a story of her life with recordings she remembers from her childhood that have helped shape her as the singer she is today. The theatre needed some pictures “and that’s where the dress came in. It fit my body and my goal perfectly. Somehow everything started to piece together: someone wanted to help me with a website, I was advised to make a flyer and cards, and bought an amplifier and microphone. Everything pointed in one direction: go out there and sing.”

“Antwerp is the perfect place to turn from a caterpillar into a butterfly”

With her solo performance, Nicola found a way to unite her inner diva with her more humble, grounded alter ego, appealing to both opera lovers and passersby that would never set foot in an opera house. “I still have my anxieties but I enjoy singing solo again. I really love giving to people, making them happy by singing and healing myself all at once. I feel that’s my role; my way of contributing to a better world.”

Before Nicola rushes of to sing Christmas carols on the Meir, she admits to missing friends and family. “I love it here, but I will try to create more opportunities to sing in England so I can be with them more often. If I can sing on the streets here, I can do it anywhere! If there’s one thing I learned it’s this: face your fears, you never know what might happen if you do.”


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