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Tiana-portrait

Where were you born and what country have you lived in?

I was born and raised in Burlington, NJ, lived in Morrisville, PA and Ewing, NJ for a few years before moving to Brussels, Belgium. I have lived in the United States all of my life.

Describe your first trip abroad:

Moving to Brussels, Belgium has been my first time abroad. I was awarded a fellowship through my graduate program at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. Throughout my fellowship, I am working with a major multinational corporation that is based in Diegem. I left for Brussels in August 2011 and I will say that boarding an airplane to live in a new country for a long period of time is quite scary, fun and unnerving!

When did you realize that you wanted to live abroad?

I realized that I wanted to live abroad while an undergraduate student at Montclair State University. I have always wanted to live abroad, but I never had a chance to do just that. So once I started graduate work at Rutgers University I made a promise to myself that if I had the opportunity to live in a new country that I would go for it.

What has been your most enlightening experience while living abroad?

My most enlightening experience while living abroad was back in September. I was sitting at a conference for work and as I looked around the room, there were people from Tanzania, Rome, Dubai, London, Scotland, Ireland, Belgium, a few Americans, South Africa, everywhere! One, I could not believe that I was sitting in a room with so many people from so many parts of the world, and two, I was actually blessed to have been exposed to so many cultures at one time.

What has been your most disheartening experience while living abroad?

There are actually two: The first is the fact that I’m American so that is an experience of its own. Depending on the person, Americans have a really bad reputation. We’re considered self-centered, narrow minded, and fools with a lot of money, haha. With some folks, it is hard to get around that reputation but with others they see me for me and find out that I’m not ‘your typical’ American. I don’t think that I’m above every else and I’m open to learning about other cultures.

The second experience I’ve had is dealing with the language barrier. In Belgium, French and Flemish (Dutch) are the two official languages, German is third and English is slowly catching up. Unfortunately, I only speak American English … and a bit of basic French. In this particular instance, I had an issue with my residency here (In Belgium, you are required to apply for residency) and I had to go to the local police station. The female police officer (who only spoke French) was very unfriendly and as I tried to get information from her, she refused to help me and said that I shouldn’t be living in Belgium if I don’t speak French. Nonetheless, I turned around and walked out of the police station.

What customs have you adopted in your new country?

Eating with two utensils! In Europe, it is custom to eat with a fork and knife. I’ve gotten so used to this custom that I now do it all the time. I went to visit family in the US last month and as we sat at the dinner table I had my fork and knife. My sister thought it was the funniest thing in the world, but I’m used to eating like that now.

Did you move with your family?

No, I moved to Belgium alone.

Which customs from home do you miss the most?

I miss my family outings. I am very close with my family so we do a lot of things together. On Sundays, we have dinner at my parent’s house: my brother brings his family, my sister and I come by – we watch movies, cook, laugh, and spend quality time together. Even though I have a good amount of friends in Belgium, it’s really not the same as spending time with my family.

Also, my sister and I have a habit of watching Jersey Shore (it’s my guilty pleasure!) on MTV every week – although Jersey Shore is pretty well known in Europe, I still can’t watch it since there isn’t an English version of MTV. So I’ve been missing out on that.  In a similar vein, I miss watching American football and basketball – Belgium doesn’t have these sports so while everyone is posting Facebook stats and highlights of the game, I have no clue what they are talking about. Super Bowl was pretty big for me; last year was probably the first year that I missed out.

Holidays are another thing. Fortunately, my family came to visit for Christmas and we had our usual Christmas with unwrapping presents and a large dinner, and spent Christmas in Paris…not too many people can say that! Also, Thanksgiving was a biggie. I’m used to large, typical American Thanksgiving Dinners. However, it wasn’t so bad – my coworkers wished me a Happy Thanksgiving so I felt pretty good about it. Also, there is an American expat group that holds an annual Thanksgiving dinner here, but a friend and I opted to celebrate turkey day at a restaurant which was pretty cool.

How important is it to know the local language and have you gained proficiency in the local language?

I think it is very important to learn the local language. Not only is it respectful, but you’re able to get to know the locals best. At first, I didn’t want to learn French because I thought it was too hard, but now I’m interested in learning it. I have a few Belgian friends so I make sure that I pick up on what they are saying. Another friend of mine has taught me how to speak French, and in return, I’ll teach basic English. It’s hilarious – we sit around with a French dictionary all day, translating English to French and French to English. Oh, and I also signed up for a French program online. There are weekly lessons to complete and once you finish, you can download the French lessons to your iPod which works for me.

How have you gone about making friends?

A few people have reached out to me via an expat site. I met a few others by going out to bars and clubs, and others have been through work. It’s a given to gravitate toward the Americans – since we have the most in common, but I’ve been making an extra effort to meet the locals.

Have you connected with the expat community where you live?

I have connected with the expat community and we go out from time to time, but I have been making an effort to meet the locals.

How do you keep in touch with family and friends from home?

I keep in touch with family and friends via Skype, Facebook and email. Also, a lot of family and friends have sent cards to my Belgian address, so I usually reply with a postcard from Brussels. It’s pretty cool because it’s cheap to send a postcard internationally and since most of the postcards have pictures of the attractions, they get to see what Brussels looks like. I also send a postcard of every country I have visited to my parents – you should see their refrigerator, it’s pretty full of postcards from all over Europe and the UK.

Are you working? Is it difficult to find a job?

I am working due to my fellowship. However, I have learned that it is somewhat difficult to get a job here in Brussels. Perhaps it is difficult for locals to land a decent job … most of the residents here come from different countries, so with the right credentials, it might be a bit easier to find a job. Nonetheless, having difficulty with finding a job is surprising to me since there are so many stores, offices, restaurants, major multinational corporations here.

How hard is it to find a good place to live?

For expats, finding a place to live can be daunting. Yes, there are so many housing agencies that reach out to expats, but if you don’t know what area of Brussels to live in that can be rather stressful. Fortunately, I found a flat that is a few streets over from two of my co-workers, so that has helped me settle in quite well.

What are your favorite attractions or places of interest in Brussels?

Brussels has a variety of attractions. Personally, my favorite attractions are the European Commission building, Cintaquinaire Park, and the Atomium. I live about a 5 minute walk from the EU building and the Park. The Atomium is about 15 minutes away on the metro (subway).

brussels-montage

Left: The Atomium, center: Cintaquinaire Park and right: European Commission quarter.

What goals have you achieved while living abroad?

My goal was to live abroad and finish my master’s degree before I turn 30. I didn’t think I would be doing both at the same time, but I’ve been blessed to do so. By the way, I turned 30 in July so it’s safe to say that I’ve accomplished my goal!

What has living abroad taught you about yourself?

Living abroad has taught me how to keep an open mind about myself, to enjoy life and to also laugh at myself a bit more.

What would you say to a friend or relative who is considering moving abroad?

Keep an open mind about yourself and about others.

Which type of expat do you consider yourself?

I consider myself a temporary expat. Even though I love living in another country, I wouldn’t consider doing this permanently. There is so much at home that I’m used to and I would not want to give that up.

How has your expatriate life changed who you are?

My life as an expat has definitely changed who I am. For example, I am a very introverted and reserved person. Here, I’ve learned how to open up to people easier because in Brussels, you are kind of forced to…there is such a métisse (mix) of people, your only option is to go out and meet as many of them as you can. I’ve also learned how to appreciate public transportation. I’ve had a car my entire life so I was kind of spoiled in that aspect. Here, you walk EVERYWHERE you go…there is a tram, metro, bus, taxi, domestic trains, international trains, and airplanes. That is how you get around. The upside is that it promotes a healthier lifestyle and has also taught me that when I get back home I don’t need to take my car everywhere, I can walk instead.

In your view do Blacks (or foreigners in general) have any problems with adjustment or discrimination?

That answer depends on your background. A friend of mine, who is from East Africa, has said that a black person in Brussels is not respected. As a Black American I have a different experience: as soon as someone finds out that I’m American (they can tell by my look and the way that I speak) I am treated with a large amount of respect. However, I’ve always been one who does not allow my skin color to dictate how I am treated. Not to say that racism and discrimination does not exist, I don’t allow myself to fall into it. On another note, I do feel that there is a noticeable difference between full blood Africans and Black Americans. I have gotten a number of confused stares from Africans if they notice me or walk past me. I also had an African woman tell me that she knew that I wasn’t from here (or fully African) just because my ‘look’ was different. But all this contributes to who we are. As a Black American I am an extension of my African ancestors… but created in the huge melting pot we call America. Not to go on a tangent here but there is such beauty in our diversity!

Can you describe the general composition of expat population?

Most of the expat population is made up of students, like myself, who are sent here through a fellowship or internship. There’s also a population of people here working on temporary or long-term assignment.

Bruxelles_Manneken_PisLiving & Spending in Brussels, Belgium 

Monthly rent:

Monthly rent is 1100 €.

Cost for meals:

Lunch – 5 €. Dinner 11-20 €. Breakfast- less than 3 €.

Transportation costs:

46,50 € for monthly Metro Pass. Cost for train ticket: 5-13 €. Domestic Plane ticket 50-150 €. Plane ticket to US $500-700 or 300-500 €.

Compared to your home country are most things cheap/same/expensive?

The cost of travel is by far cheaper. I would say food is about the same as home.

Recommended monthly living budget:

Anywhere from 800 to 1500 €.

How modern are basic amenities and infrastructure?

The amenities are very basic. For example I had to get used to the heating system in my apartment. These are your old school hot water radiators. When it’s pretty cold outside, these heaters are not that great. Compared to US, it is not that modern.

Any legal hurdles all foreigners have to face to live there?

Living in Brussels: I can only speak for Americans, but the system is very bureaucratic. I had to fill out form after form just to obtain a residency card. That process can be long and stressful. However, once you receive your resident card you’re an official Brussels resident for one year. You are given the same rights as a Belgian. After that, you have to reapply for a 5 year resident card. I’m not too sure of how that process works.

Working in Brussels: It is very hard for Americans to work in the country. I spoke with my boss about hiring fellows (interns) that would best fit the department. Even though they would love to hire as many fellows as possible, it is quite hard to do so. There’s a strict policy with students and work permits. Also, if an American chooses to work for the European Commission or any branch of government, you must give up your American citizenship. Which is understandable, but I don’t think I’ll be doing that anytime soon.

Brussels_waffleThree things you would recommend someone to bring when they come to Brussels:

Enough euros for chocolate and waffles, an umbrella and rain boots.

Your top 3 things you would recommend for someone visiting or living here to do:

Go out and see the Euro zone, get to know the locals, eat the waffles.

Photo credits: Portrait – from Tiana Chantel Conner, all other images sourced from Wikipedia’s Brussels page.

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2 Responses to “Interview: Tiana Chantel Conner”

  1. Ruby says:

    metisse is only used for mixed race. melange is the word for mix or mixture of objects or people.

    i am from east africa and america and somewhat disagree with your east africa friends point of view….africans are treated differently by the different groups within the country itself and to a point yes it can get disrespectful. This is due to the internal conflict within the country itself biggest being the French speakers vs the Flemish(dutch) speakers.

    My treatment as an african has been awesome by all groups but am one of the lucky few. As an american a sarcastic form of respect is given,where on receives flattery and made to believe that being american is awesome, more to see if they can get to the states some easy way.After which disrespectful words are muttered in their mother tongue.

    I have a piece of advice to any and all foreigners reading this, please please stay away from the Expat rental agents or you may end up paying a whole lot of money for ”shit” as Tiana did. You are much better off looking for a place close to where you want to work or study yourself,there are many apartments for single’s that start from 600 Euros depending on your needs.

    There are also places that offer rent-able well equipped places that can be paid per week that way you can look for a place yourself while within the country.

    I have the 5 year residency card and it makes it easier to travel in and out of the country cause i don’t need to do the horrible paperwork all over again. I like living in europe although i miss hearing the english language during face to face contacts with locals. I do however speak french and understand Flemish lol so i guess i shouldn’t complain.

    either way have loads of fun when you travel,respect everyone, and look for those that speak your language and have actually lived there quite a bit….they can show you places and things you never would have seen alone. 🙂

  2. Reggie says:

    Interesting comments and advice. Thanks for the contribution!

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