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Interview with Nina – a British expat in Antwerp

Updated 16 Aug 2017

Nina has been an expat in many different countries and is currently living in her home town of Yorkshire, England while waiting for her next adventure to begin. With a background in public relations, she blogs about the places she's lived, giving expats tips and advice on living in countries all over the world on The Expater.

About Nina

Nina - A Brit in AntwerpQ: Where are you originally from?
A: North Yorkshire, UK

Q: Where are you living now?
A: I am currently in Yorkshire in the UK, but not for long.

Last year my husband got a great opportunity in Lagos, Nigeria, but as I was pregnant at the time we decided it would be best for me to move to the UK (we were living in Antwerp, Belgium at the time) instead of giving birth in a new place. I was gutted to leave Antwerp as I loved the city and had so many friends there. 

Q: How long did you live in Antwerp?
A: I lived in Antwerp from 2011–2013.

Q: Did you move to Antwerp alone or with family?
A: I moved with my family – my husband and, at the time, my one child (we now have two kids, one aged three years and the other aged one).

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: We moved to Antwerp for my husband's job. He was tasked with overseeing the finances of an FMCG company for the Benelux region. I moved to Antwerp from Switzerland, where I had just given birth to my first child. We drove from Lausanne all the way to Antwerp with a six-week-old baby. At the time, I was caring for my little boy, but as he grew stronger and needed me less I decided to get back into freelance journalism and especially travel writing. As friends kept coming to me to ask questions about different expat destinations, I decided to put my thoughts into a blog.

Living abroad in Antwerp

Q: What did you enjoy most about Antwerp? How would you rate the quality of life compared to other places where you've lived?
A: I love Antwerp's energy. It's hard to describe it, and if you visit for a weekend, you might not feel the vibe, but stay for a while and it will get under your skin. Avant-garde fashion, street food, modernist design stores and concept pop-ups, all on a smaller (and easier to navigate) scale than in London. I also made lots of local friends as well as expat friends and really felt part of the community. As a mother, I appreciate good healthcare, low crime levels and decent education, but as a woman, I love to go out, dine in great restaurants and meet new people from all walks of life. It's rare that I had a café serving matcha latte, the best sushi this side of Tokyo, a sculpture park, and so many friends all within cycling distance. Oh, and did I mention Tomorrowland (the best electro-music festival in the world)?

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
A: Coming from a rainy country, I can hardly say I missed the good weather, but sometimes the rain in Antwerp could get annoying, especially as Belgium instilled a love of cycling everywhere into me.

Q: What were the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Antwerp? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: Because I've lived in several places, I don't experience the culture shock like before. Antwerp is also not so different from the UK; in fact, I'd say it was closer to Scandinavia in terms of lifestyle than the rest of Belgium. Antwerp people get British sarcasm (Brussels people do not, FYI).

My husband is Spanish but is very open to other cultures. He managed to get away with a lot just through a bit of Latino swagger. I had to pay his speeding fines though!

People dress up more in Antwerp on a daily basis but are much more casual for weddings. And Belgians always take their shoes off when coming inside a home, and now so do I. I still argue with my (British) dad that he needs to take his shoes off at home!

Q: What's the cost of living compared to the UK? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: Some friends would grumble about the prices in Antwerp, but we were nicely surprised. Our rent was around the 2–3k per month mark, and that was at the upper end. There is no way we would get the same sort of house in London on that scale. My wardrobe was bigger than the entire apartment where we once stayed in Tokyo!

The city is so cycle-friendly that we didn't spend much on petrol. Supermarkets were average in terms of price, but I preferred my local market. 10 euros for a whole house worth of peonies!

Perhaps one downside would be lunches out. The healthy food takeaways that you get in London don't really exist yet in Antwerp. It's either a cornet of fries (fritjes) for a few euros or a proper sit-down lunch.

And my biggest bugbear? No good beauty centres or city spas. I tried various places, and the level of training, especially for manicures, is really poor. And they're expensive. It's strange as local Antwerp folk take so much pride in their appearance, and there are some great hairdressers, but I never found a good beauty place in all my time in Antwerp.

Q: How would you rate the public transport in Antwerp? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car?
A: The metro which connected to the tram lines was cheap and convenient and would get you to most places within the city. I soon did like the locals and got on my bike. Antwerp is small, and with its narrow streets in the centre, it really makes more sense to cycle. It's pretty safe for kids too – there are designated cycle lanes everywhere, and like most local families, we invested in a bike trailer for our kids. They love it!

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Antwerp? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: In general, the healthcare in Antwerp is excellent. We had one bad experience in a local hospital, but it seems we were just very unlucky. Other mothers who had taken their sons to the same hospital for more complex surgery had glowing reports about the level of care.

There are a range of options and healthcare styles, and it does take time to find your feet. It took me six months and a recommendation from a friend before I found a wonderful doctor (GP) whom I really trusted.

Equally, my dentists were excellent – very clean premises, good facilities, expertly trained staff, and they didn't try to charge for unnecessary procedures.

I hear that giving birth in Antwerp is very good, and many friends praise the ZNA St Vincentius especially.

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Antwerp? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: In general, Antwerp is very safe. I never felt scared here. Like anywhere, I'd avoid the parks after dark. The area around the station can get a bit grimy too. I wouldn't wear my best handbags or jewellery around here just in case of pickpockets.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Antwerp? What different options are available for expats?
A: The level of housing is generally very good. Expect tall, thin houses or apartments though. We had a dog at the time, and it was almost impossible to find somewhere central with a green space to it. There are short-term furnished apartments available, but they are generally very, very small and not always in the best areas.

Leases generally last a period of nine years, which can seem a bit scary. Whenever you are leaving the house, you should normally give three months' notice to the landlord by registered mail. Whenever your departure is foreseen within the first three years of occupancy, a penalty of three, two or one month's rent is due to the landlord. Coming from the UK, where six-month agreements are the norm, it does seem a little heavy!

Q: Any areas/suburbs you'd recommend for expats to live in?
A: We lived in the area around Middelheim within the Wilrijk postcode, which I would definitely recommend for families. It has great hospitals, parks, a few good restaurants and shops (including some of the best places for fine wine and cheeses), and is handy for supermarkets.

For younger professionals, I'd go for the Zuid (which translates as the "south")  – fabulous shops, galleries and bakeries, and very handy for the fashion quarter with all its designer shops.

The dockland area is also really smartening up, and there are some great apartments in this area. Don't be put off by its proximity to the red-light district as I was. It's all very separate and very safe, and there are some superb restaurants in the Docklands area.

Meeting people and making friends in Antwerp

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions or women?
A: In general, Antwerp folk don't have a good reputation with foreigners. I did hear reports of black or darker-skinned people being unfairly treated. A British friend of mine who wears a hijab was often asked where she was from, and locals didn't understand that she grew up in an English city. I would say there is a disparity between the sociable younger or more travelled set and the older, more conservative born and bred Belgians.

There is certainly no bias against women, or no more than in any other country I have ever visited. On the whole, Belgian women work and are expected to work (with grandparents often filling in any childcare gaps).

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends in Antwerp? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: Yes. As I move around countries so much, I research before I go. I made most of my friends through two expat groups – Antwerp Parent and Child (a parenting group for locals and expats) and also the American Women's Club of Antwerp. Both are really well organised. I also met people through friends of friends on social media.

Q: Have you made friends with locals, or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends? Any social/expat groups you can recommend?
A: In terms of groups, as mentioned before, APC and AWCA.

I was lucky to have a range of expat and local friends. It's such a bonus that nearly all Antwerp locals speak perfect English, so language isn't a barrier.

Having said that, my number one piece of advice would be to learn the language. At parties, even if you can start a conversation in Dutch before switching to English, it shows you care. Shopkeepers were so impressed that I had made a little effort and were always giving me freebies. A top-up of Prosecco, why thank you…                      

About working in Antwerp

Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: I did initially look for work, but as I focus on public relations, I soon found out that my level of Dutch (very beginner level!) was nowhere near enough the level I'd need to work in the communications field. I have heard that for many postings, the employee must speak a really high level of Dutch just to get the interview, but for the job itself, English is often enough. For my husband's work, as we were on an expat assignment, this was taken care of through his company.

Q: What's the economic climate like in Antwerp? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job there? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: On the whole, the outlook is pretty rosy, but I understand it can be very difficult for start-ups. There are lots of short-term pop-ups in the city, but the bureaucracy can be too much for anyone looking to set up something more permanent.  

While English is enough on the street, you will need Dutch (or a Dutch-speaking partner) if you want to start a business.

Q: How does the work culture differ from the UK? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Antwerp?
A: While I didn't personally work in an office, I know from my husband and friends that the work-life balance is, on the whole, very good. Large multinationals are the exception and may still expect your soul, however!

Top tips – learn Dutch, listen, act modestly, and don't take things personally.

Family and children in Antwerp

Q: Did you have problems adjusting to your new home in Antwerp? Do you think there are any specific challenges for a trailing spouse?
A: While I felt I fit in from day one, I know others that really struggled. Especially those who hadn't moved countries before or didn't get involved in expat groups. It can be hard for shy or retiring types to put themselves out there and meet new people.

Q: Did your children settle in easily? What were the biggest challenges for your children during the move?
A: My child was very young at this time, and he did find it very hard to adjust to his creche. Thankfully, we found a great creche, and I know they did a great job, but it still was not at the level of the best creches in the UK.

There is not the choice of child-friendly activities like there is in the UK or the US, and most mothers tend to work or take their children to friends' houses, to their grandparents etc. Having said that, for preschool-age children, there was a huge choice of parks and playgrounds available

Q: What are the schools like? Any particular suggestions?
A: My son was too young for school, but I do know a little from friends. School starts early for Belgian kids – a potty-trained three-year-old can expect to go on a daily basis. There is a huge choice in styles too – a school focusing on the medium of music for its classes, Jewish schools (there is a very large Orthodox community), American schools, Steiner schools, Forest schools…

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: If possible, come in the summer. The city blossoms in the warmer months, and it's so much easier to love this city from day one when the sun (and the people) shines!

– Interviewed August 2017

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