ReLocate spoke with professor Greg Clark, urbanist and Senior Fellow at the Urban Land Institute Europe, to find out more. He is a widely published author on city development and investment issues and advises a wide array of international organisations. In May 2016 he presented a new report analysing the competitiveness of Brussels and Antwerp. Where most analyses of a city’s competitiveness rely on economic performance, The Urban Land Institute report looks at a much wider range of issues. Ranging from liveability to geopolitical risk and sustainability, these are the things that influence a city’s attractiveness to residents and companies alike.
Brussels and Antwerp are very different in nature: how did you approach the comparison?
“We put together two benchmarking groups, ran workshops, visited the cities and conducted a ton of interviews before running this comparative analysis in which we measured Brussels and Antwerp against groups of peer cities to arrive at an assessment of their competitiveness,” explains Greg Clark. “We didn’t just look at economic performance, but at other issues that impact a city’s attractiveness to residents too. Matters such as liveability, governance, geopolitical risk and sustainability are just as important in urban life. Brussels was tested against well established capitals such as London and Paris, cities that provide tough competition. Antwerp on the other hand was held up against peer cities that are reinventing themselves – some of them port cities – like Hamburg and Amsterdam, and other (former) industry greats such as Manchester and Liverpool.”
Antwerp has a huge opportunity to build a central role for itself as part of a regional system of cities.
What are their main selling points?
“Both cities have very good fundamentals, and their own, unique attractions. Antwerp is compelling for its extraordinary DNA. It has always been one of the world’s greatest trading cities and has invented many ideas about the connection between trade, innovation and discovery. Antwerp knows how to build a city around a port. Located within a north-western European economy of roughly 100 million people with a huge GDP, it’s well connected with Belgian, Dutch, Northern French and German cities on all sides. Antwerp has a huge opportunity to build a central role for itself as part of a regional system of cities.”
“The Antwerp port is embracing innovation in terms of how goods are managed, how energy is used and what technology is applied. They’re building an innovative port and energy complex, with a big focus on the circular economy, which is important and fascinating. Of course, the city of Antwerp is synonymous with the craft and design of high-quality goods. From the diamond industry to its fashion sector, Antwerpians know how to make items of high value work in the market place. This mercantilist attitude means it is truly open for business.”
“Boasting a young and vibrant population that is committed to taking the city forward, Antwerp is further boosted by a government with big ambitions. From building a canopy over the ring road to creating more public spaces and developing the left bank, the city is redesigning its urban fabric to make a future-proof city. Smart citizen initiatives activate people to act as the eyes and ears of the city, giving feedback on the quality of bicycle lanes or roads and public facilities that might need maintenance. These distinctive edges of Antwerp amount to things that are quite exciting considering its small size. Thinking about the business opportunities that arise from disruption runs deep within the Antwerp DNA.”
Brussels’ youthful population and great cosmopolitan mixity give rise to a highly scientific, entrepreneurial labour force that is willing to work in all sorts of industries.
“Brussels on the other hand is distinctive in a completely different way,” Greg continues. “It is a major capital city, and as home to the various European institutions and NATO it has an influential presence on the global stage, although it is yet to leverage it to its full potential. It’s interesting when you compare Brussels with cities like Washington DC or Singapore, which play an influential role by hosting global institutions, international summits and other gatherings that really work for the city.”
“It has a youthful population and great cosmopolitan mixity giving rise to a highly scientific, entrepreneurial labour force that is willing to work in all sorts of industries. The high calibre of educational institutes in Brussels is somewhat obscured by the presence of international institutions such as the EU and NATO, but the educational cluster has enormous potential thanks to leadership in fields such as IT, life sciences, or medicine. Most obviously it has enormous potential to be a global school of government, public policy and management.”
“When you look at productivity progress in Brussels a lot of it is to do with the dynamism of the labour market and its liquidity. People want to spend time in Brussels, partly because of its influence, but then find they want to stay and do other things too. It’s important to remember that government institutions feed and support a huge cluster of other kinds of decision making and communication activities. There are very big, positive spill-overs and multipliers that you can leverage into other industries. If you thought a government town can only ever be a government town, you’d be wrong.”
All attractive qualities indeed, surely there must be some drawbacks?
“They also both suffer from a number of challenges,” agrees Greg. “Part of this is that they are located in Belgium, and, great as Belgium may be, it is not a country that enjoys a clear institutional framework. Both Brussels and Antwerp struggle to build their identity and present themselves in a way that cities in less confusing countries do not. Brussels has far greater assets than say Vienna or Zurich, yet these cities have fewer difficulties presenting and promoting themselves on an international stage. Similarly, whilst Antwerp has greater or equivalent assets to Liverpool, Lyon, Genoa, and Turin, it has difficulty articulating what it is, where it is, and why.”
“They’re also rather late to the urbanisation agenda compared to other European cities. Citizens in Brussels and Antwerp are highly dependent on their cars and prefer the suburbs to the city centre. The Belgians tend to sub optimise the use of land and real estate, which translates into low levels of densification and very few mixed-use development projects. It also means there has been very little focus on transport and connectivity as a way of embracing and spurring on urbanism. The third thing that seems to be true for both of them – although each city has a slightly different version of this – is that they have had some difficulty creating the right geographical and institutional space through which to apply leadership to the city.”
“Brussels Capital Region struggles due to the way it is defined; geographically it’s too small for the – much larger – Brussels metropolitan area and then of course there is the fragmentation of having 19 separate municipalities, which rather effectively prevents an integrated governance model. You need a leadership platform for the whole area, otherwise you end up with different policies being pursued in different parts of the region, which is not particularly helpful. For Antwerp it was more of a question of leadership appetite in the past, although I think this is now being addressed. The current leadership has the appetite to succeed and a vision for moving the city forward. It’s just been slow getting there.”
“The public sector almost has a monopoly on leadership control in Belgium. Other sectors, such as business, cultural and higher education, have not played active civic leadership roles like they do in other cities of comparable sizes. There’s been too much waiting around for city government to put things right, rather than civic leadership working hand in hand with city governments to create forward momentum. I suppose you could say both cities have become somewhat institutionalised. This is now being addressed in Antwerp where civil and trade movements are working together with the city towards creating a more sustainable future for the city.”
Both cities need to build a strong brand and identity. Getting together with organisations that will back the city and help create a new global story will help put them on the map.
How can Brussels and Antwerp improve on their competitiveness?
“We focused on three main areas for our recommendations on addressing these weaknesses,” Greg tells us. “First, Brussels and Antwerp need to start embracing urbanisation. This means being proactive in extending and developing public transport as a way of reducing car dependence. By strengthening the urban mix, you create excitement and vibrancy. Creating exciting city centres and sub centres, together with a more active transport mix, helps attract and retain corporate investment and the dynamic workforce needed by these companies.”
“Secondly, the institutional frameworks have to be right. This creates room for city leadership that is continuously thinking about their city as somewhere people will want to live and work, rather than getting stuck in Belgian politics. Thinking about public and private partnerships on a city level is a big part of this, just look at how Antwerp is involving its citizens in the maintenance of its city.”
“This in turn leads into our third point: the promotion of Brussels and Antwerp. Both cities need to build a strong brand and identity. Getting together an alliance of organisations that will back the city and help create a new global story will help put them on the map. This is certainly happening in Antwerp, and I believe efforts are underfoot in Brussels now too.”
“Finally, both cities have really creative industries which are part of the impact of the cosmopolitan diversity of the city. You should be able to really use that cosmopolitan diversity as a driver of creative endeavour. The idea isthat diversity creates competitive advantage through interaction. To realise that, you’ve got to address the challenges of social exclusion and segregation. Brussels has two cosmopolitan populations: one is the elite that services the global institutions, the other is the population of migrants who have come from a poorer set of countries in search of a better life. Somehow, you’ve got to make those two kinds of populations work together.”
To read the full report, visit the Urban Land Institute website:
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.
So what exactly is burnout? Stress. Plain and simple. Stress in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing: after all it’s one of our oldest survival instincts. It is important however that the goal is clear and attainable and the person feels supported. Stress only turns to burnout when a variety of factors build up over a long period of time, creating an imbalance between capacity and load, with no end in sight.
A match burns bright before it burns out, and similarly a person with burnout will have put a lot of passion and energy into his or her work. That’s the upside. It also means there’s a lot of ‘self’ involved, with emotional exhaustion, cynicism and a feeling of failure in the end when that ‘self’ isn’t rewarded every now and then.
Causes and Effects
For a long time burnout was ascribed to personality only. It’s true that certain characteristics make a person more susceptible to suffering from burnout. Interestingly enough the majority of these characteristics are what makes the candidate stand out for the job in the first place. Character traits such as a strong sense of responsibility, perfectionism, idealism, not wanting to disappoint, needing to feel useful and easily offering help, are all highly attractive to an employer. Balance these out however with the characteristics that are less easily spotted, such as trouble asking for help, introversion and an inclination to depression, and the need to safeguard a careful balance between a healthy amount of stress and unmanageable pressure becomes more obvious.
Where workaholism was worn like a badge of honour back in the 80’s and 90’s, today we are starting to realise it is not the basis for a sustainable lifestyle in the slightest. There are a number of reasons for this particular swing of the pendulum, most notably the fact that we no longer feel in control. We don’t decide to come in first and leave last because we want to hit that sales target, but because cut-backs mean we have to do the job of three others. Add to this an increasing expectation to be “always switched on” and it becomes easy to see how work related stress can spiral out of control.
Researchers agree that changes in society account for a large part of the problem. The flexible job market creates uncertainty; the balance between work and private life, especially when working partners also have to take care of a sick family member; (too) high expectations from both ends of the job; an increase in emotional load and openness about stress on the work floor mean we can easily become overloaded to the point of not being able to function anymore.
Despite recent legislation demanding that employers have a clear policy in place that protects workers from stress and burnout, only 15% of Flemish companies actually have one. Or, in the words of neuro-psychologist Elke Geraerts: “This century holds a lot of challenges: changing work-processes, technology that surpasses our mental capacity, the undermining of social structures. Self-knowledge and self-empowerment are necessary for survival.”
Research by the Flemish Stichting Innovatie en Arbeid shows that in 2016 a paltry 51% of employees on the Flemish job market had a job that earned the quality seal ‘werkbaar werk’ (workable work). This means a job that doesn’t cause undue levels of stress, over-straining or illness, that is interesting and motivating, that offers opportunity to learn and develop, and that leaves enough room for family and private life.
Long-term absenteeism is on the rise, mainly due to psycho-social factors.
One in three employees experienced work related stress the previous year.
Estimated yearly cost: 4 billion euro.
Hitting the Wall
Brussels-based psychologist Ioana Cirstea shares her thoughts on the subject. “I used to work for a bank and I currently treat a lot of people who work for multinationals. I notice more and more people are suffering from burnout. After the financial crisis it got worse. The crisis was used as an excuse for reorganisation. Companies concerns for profits dominated, meaning no new hires, causing the remaining employees to do the work of three others. Employees hit a wall when they don’t feel recognised for their work. They are tired, disillusioned, disappointed, have a sense of injustice and feel helpless because they feel their voice is not heard by management. People need encouragement, acknowledgment or even a raise in salary. The bottom line is: people feel faced with a big mountain and become demotivated when they’re not seen as people.”
Expats, high risk demographic?
The obvious question within the context of ReLocate is: are expats at an increased risk of burning out? After all, the pressure is on when an employer has invested so much in bringing you over. We asked psychologist Ioana Cirstea, who sees a lot of expats in her practice.
“I’m an international myself. I left Romania thirteen years ago to study and live in the Netherlands, Spain, the USA and Belgium. International people in general are a special group and I like working with them, we share similarities. It is helpful for them to see someone who can relate to their problems. Of course it’s not difficult to find international clients in Brussels,” she laughs.
“It’s important to understand that culture shock can happen to anyone, no matter how short the distance moved is perceived to be. Missing your family and friends, the (often extensive) travelling, … International people often lack a local support system, the network of people who can help them (both in and outside the job). They easily feel isolated, especially when there’s a language barrier. Visa and working permits also cause a lot of insecurity when they are temporary. In general the complexity is higher for expats, but anyone can suffer from a pressure overload.”
Yet expats are ambitious people, which makes them both resilient and receptive. “They set high objectives, they want to succeed and are willing to go great lengths to do so. At the same time they are more alone in life. Work becomes so important – it’s what they have here. So yes, maybe they are at higher risk for burnout or other stress related problems as they will probably not stop, even when their body gives them signals, because they have less options than locals. It’s not easy to change jobs unless you also want to change country which is an additional stress factor.”
Nevertheless, Cirstea sees a solution, including for expats: “Talk! Looking for a different job should be your last option. People who are suffering from burnout are more negative, both about themselves and the world around them. For internationals the possibility of having to go home, a failure, adds even more pressure. It would be great if companies would promote job mobility instead of having people stuck at the same position for three years.”
It’s the system, stupid!
Why all parties involved should make an effort
You can overcome your burnout, but if the system doesn’t change around you, there’s a large risk of it happening again, especially if the causes were predominantly context related. So what can we do? How can we start burning with passion instead of burning out? Governments, employers and employees share equal responsibility. The good news is that the taboo surrounding burnout is breaking down now that the problem has, quite frankly, become too big to ignore. Belgium acknowledging this by means of law in 2014 is an important step forward.
But more is needed, ideally in the form of awareness campaigns, a burnout prevention plan for every company, better access to cheaper psychological help (psychotherapy isn’t recognised as medical help in Belgium, making it very expensive and patients often feel a sense of shame about needing this help), and lots of training for individuals, including learning how to be a better worker.
As individuals we have to make an effort too, which includes asking for help when you need it, but management can help a great deal, starting by taking burnout seriously and installing a prevention plan that might include providing a clear job description for every new task the flexible, multi-available employee gets; providing space and time for tasks that need silence and concentration; team building activities to stimulate a sense of community; no emails over the weekend; respecting breaks; nap-rooms; holding meetings standing up to keep them short and effective; autonomy; challenge; support; feedback; addressing different skills; offering development of talents and skills. “Skills such as mindfulness, presence, active listening, and recognition and acknowledgement of emotions are the very skills that encourage teamwork, connection with colleagues, and recognition of common purpose,” the Institute for Healthcare Excellence website tells us.
The Psychologist’s View
“For me there were times when it was very difficult”, Ioana Cirstea shares her personal experience. “Even though I had nice colleagues and job security, being an employee in big company was not my calling. Fortunately, I found people who understood my difficulties and I was able to change jobs.”
“For Europeans life is easier because they don’t need a visa etcetera. This encourages working abroad and meeting other likeminded people.” To companies she’d like to say: “The intake is very important because the first month is difficult, help is needed with paperwork, registration. On the job itself I suggest coaching, training, whatever is needed for a smooth journey. People shouldn’t be thrown into the job but have a follow-up, a manager who listens to the employees and doesn’t minimize problems, who sees them as persons. Within the company freedom of expression, less competition, doing things together, talking about the challenges of the job, should all be normal.”
She admits it won’t be easy. “One person by himself cannot fix this. The employee can play a role but the problem is related to the way the work is organised, the culture, the management style.”
Does this mean it’s unhealthy to work far from home? “Moving around is becoming more normal. As long as the work is rewarding and the expat enjoys what he or she does it’s fine. To stay in your own country and not like what you do isn’t much of an option either. Instead, working abroad can be glamorous when you start out and ticks those all-important learning and experience boxes. Although once the honeymoon period is over reality can set in with a bump,” Cirstea confesses. “But you find ways to adapt. To answer the question, I don’t think it’s unhealthy to live and work abroad, on the contrary, I think it opens new horizons, you become more tolerant. Living and working abroad is enriching, but not easy.”
Elke Geraerts, ‘Mentaal Kapitaal’, Lannoo, 2015
Elke Geraerts is neuropsychologist with her own practice, author of two best-selling books and CEO of Better Minds at Work, helping companies detecting and preventing burn-out amongst employees. | www.bettermindsatwork.com
Presentation by Provikmo, part of ADMB preventie, a service for companies to help them with durable welfare policy. | www.admb.be/nl/provikmo
Thank you Ioana Cirstea! | www.coach-psychologist.eu
If we feel hard done by, we’re quick to share our displeasure with the world. Today’s media is abound with public relations disasters such as sackings being tweeted live through the company account and disgraced public figures who said one thing and did another altogether, effectively ending their careers.
We have a strong sense of justice and fairness and as a society, we crave a more meaningful life. This means that aligning our personal and professional values is becoming increasingly important to both our success and our happiness.
So how does this translate into the global mobility sector? As a people oriented business the majority of the relocation industry is quick to see the benefit of strong customer relations, but with a continued pressure on cost and speed it is easy to lose sight of the rest of our stakeholders’ interests.
Elisa French, partner and founder of Ceeyana, brought to life how easily and quickly we can integrate our personal philosophy into professional practice. With over 2 decades in Executive Coaching and Strategic Management behind her, Elisa is actively involved with the Relocation Professionals Coaching Program in cooperation with Oxford Brookes University and has transformed lives for a wide range of clients from small businesses to large corporations around the world.
The Conscious Capitalist
“Capitalism has served us well,” posits Elisa, “but is has come at a great cost. We now own more mobile phones than toothbrushes and our world is being disrupted at a greater speed than ever before. As consumers we have more choices, but they don’t necessarily make us happier. We don’t always feel heard or appreciated by our peers. Depression, burn-out, loneliness; they’re all signs of our time and very much on the rise.”
“Businesses need to acknowledge that it is their role to serve society, and as business people we need to see opportunity in this,” she continues. “We all prefer doing business with organisations that have a philosophy we can relate to, but it takes courage and commitment to change for good.”
“Typically organisations sense that they would like to take a more conscious approach to their day-to-day dealings, but it’s not easy turning such a big ship around. Compliance and governance are big hurdles to overcome, but we don’t rea-lise how many easy and small things already set us on track towards creating a more fulfilling life in a better world.” Elisa adds when we catch up after the conference.
Most of us will already have made a start towards positive change without even being aware of it. Whether you’re recycling your printer cartridges or just making sure that you don’t print out every single email, taking those first steps towards instilling a more conscious approach throughout your organisation isn’t as daunting as you might expect.
“For the vast majority of us money is not our driving force. Whether your company mission is to have fun along the way, to make a personal difference to the families you relocate, or to support a local charity, for most of us work involves wanting to improve life in one way or another.”
It’s finding this higher purpose that helps take your company to the next level Elisa believes. “Every organisation is different and what works for one, may not work for the other, so ask yourself, what does conscious capitalism mean to you? What are your principles, what are your values and what do you really want to stand for? Tell me why should I work with you and not somebody else. Ask yourself how you can integrate this common purpose into your day-to-day processes and relationships, but most importantly: turn up and actually do what you have set out to do.”
Money to be Made
Research supports the claim that defining and working towards this common higher purpose as a person, a team and as an organisation, is the key to creating a sustainable and successful business. A study by Edelman Marketing even suggests that companies committed to conscious capitalism outperform others by a factor of 10, proving there is money to be made in adopting a more conscious approach to business. The 2012 study also showed that when price and quality are equal, 71% of consumers would not just switch brands, but even help a brand promote their product or service if there was a good cause behind them.
“These companies are not settling for the cheapest suppliers or squeezing what they can out of prices, but instead work with selected suppliers to become loyal and mutually respected partners who invest in quality and innovation,” Elisa continues. “By investing in salaries, education, health and wellbeing, staff feel validated and want to come to work. Simply allowing people to speak up, paying them well, acknowledging them and giving fulfilling work builds a committed and loyal team who will carry your message out into the world.”
Being your Best
Your purpose is what anchors your organisation. It’s the magnet that serves to draw in all of your stakeholders and gets them to buy into your ‘story’. From clients and contractors to individual team members, you want everyone to be on board so that you can flourish by aligning with society’s need to lead better, more conscious lives.
It’s the millennials who are driving this desire for a more sustainable future. It can be hard for management – and long-standing team members – to see the need for change. They are often perfectly happy with how things have been running, but when you hire fresh young thinkers they bring new impetus to your company culture. So ask yourself: ‘are your processes bringing out the best in every stakeholder? Does your business allow you to be the best you can be?’ and then go from there.
“Think about it. Only too often do we devote all of our energy to getting the job done, to the detriment of living up to our higher purpose. We may choose to ignore the fact that a team member’s moods affect the entire office as we believe they get the job done. Or perhaps you’re keeping on a client that really you’d rather not have, simply because they pay the bills. If you’re accepting situations that undermine who you are and what you believe in for the sake of saving time and resources, it’s bound to come back and bite you. It has a massive impact your organisation’s culture, and takes away from where you are trying to head. You really need to critically assess what type of a culture you are tolerating: it’s the life force of your organisation. If your company is all about measuring quarterly profits and quick wins, then this is what you’ll get.”
If on the other hand you can not only define your values, but really embed them you start building values such as transparency, trust, integrity, compassion, generosity, autonomy and more into your company culture. Values that have a huge impact on your performance and that create great, energetic places to work. If, for example, you were to look at employee turnover as a key performance indicator, you’re starting to think like a conscious leader.
Creating Structure for Growth
“When you truly start walking the talk everybody gets to play a part in making this higher purpose become a reality and becomes accountable for their individual input and actions,” says Elisa. “When everyone is seen as equal you create a culture where feedback – even the most critical – is welcomed as an opportunity for learning. Defining your values sets boundaries and creates structure for growth as well as offering the opportunity to become who you really want to be.”
Most importantly you have to check in with your values on a regular basis. Whether it’s your operating systems, your business model or your company culture, make sure you don’t stray from your path or allow yourself to become distracted by the one who shouts the loudest.
Be the Change You Want to See
“When we do purposeful work we treat people with trust, care, and respect, and restore the ecosystems around us. We start recognising that all aspects of our lives and the world are interconnected. We go to sleep not feeling as lonely and depleted, but happier and more fulfilled. We feel engaged with the world around us and our work environment gives us the opportunity to lead the most meaningful lives we can. That being said, it’s up to us to step out of our comfort zone as individuals as well. We all want the world to be the best place it can be and we all have a part to play in this. Yes you want your company to be the force for good, but you have to live and breathe what you stand for as a person too,” Elisa concludes.
“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…”
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.”
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
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”
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.”
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.”