The Cycle of Life: Returning to Belgium 15 years later.


When someone asks you where you are from, I am guessing it’s not the type of question that makes you stop and think. Lucky you. For me, unfortunately, it’s not so simple. Maybe “unfortunately” is the wrong word, but I digress. It’s always been a question of where do I start? Do you mean “where were you born?” “Where did you grow up?” “Where are your parents from?” Do I give them the quick version or do I give them the full run through? A prime example of Third Culture Kid “problems”…

 

I was born in Belgium to a Belgian Father (don’t worry it gets more complicated) and a Cuban-American Mother (told you.) My mom is 100% Cuban but her family immigrated, legally of course and not on floating debris, to the United States when she was 14, and thus provided my brother and I with American citizenship. With American Citizenship comes an American Passport, and that
combined with my Belgian passport is like my master key to the world. Traveling is a breeze, especially when your dad works in aviation,  and I am very lucky to have travelled all over the world, but I digress, yet again.

So, I am Belgian-American on paper, and Belgian-Cuban by blood. Good, it’s settled. Now
we can move on to the next part of the story: where I grew up.

 

I lived in Zaventem, Brussels for the first 10 years of my life. You might know it as the village where Brussels International Airport is.  In December 2000, my father, was hired as CEO of Luxair, and so we moved to Luxembourg and the adventure began.  There, I attended the International School of Luxembourg from 4th to the half of 10th grade.

In January of 2007, my mother, my brother, and I joined my father in Tirana,Albania, where he had been working as CEO of Albanian Airlines for over half a year, and I continued my studies at Tirana International School. The school was tiny. We were 5 in my class, of which I was the only non-Albanian.  Needless to say, as a 16 year old it’s quite a big lifestyle change when you go from living in a country with one of the highest GDPs per capita in the world, to the poorest country in Europe. I know it’s incredibly cliché to say but it really opened my eyes as I saw first-hand how fortunate I am and how good I have it. Seeing young kids roam the streets selling cigarettes out of a shoebox, or how homeless FAMILIES slept on the street in cardboard boxes by the trash containers outside our apartment and would have to burn trash to keep warm at night. You know how every household has a unique scent? Well In Albania, our house always smelled of burned plastic. That and the daily 8 hour power cuts were some of the less pleasant parts of my year in Shqipëri, but that being said, I enjoyed living in Albania and had some unforgettable times there.

Living in Albania made me grow on a cultural, social, and personal level and most importantly, prepared me for a future of living abroad. I learned to quickly adapt to different cultural settings and how to interact effectively with all kinds of individuals, regardless of religion or nationality. I am convinced that these cultural experiences I had in Luxembourg and Albania are what sparked my love for mixing and mingling with people of all types, and are influenced my decision to study hotel management. It fueled my desire to
continue travelling and living around the world and for this, the hospitality industry is absolutely ideal. Even though 10 year old me was absolutely FURIOUS that we had to leave Belgium and my friends behind, in hindsight it’s the absolute best thing that’s ever happened to me, and in my opinion it completely changed the course of my life for the better. Thanks dad.

 

Unfortunately, due to internal corruption and political games, my dad resigned at the end of the
year and we returned to Luxembourg where I continued my studies at the International School. I graduated with an International Baccalaureate in the summer of 2010, and then had a gap year of sorts in Luxembourg before moving to Maastricht in the summer of 2011 to start my studies at the Hotel School.  Benelux? Been there, done that. Next!


My next adventure took me to Zanzibar, a small island belonging to Tanzania on the east coast of
Africa. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have found such a unique placement for my operational internship, and even more fortunate that my internship was much more management oriented. I was Assistant F&B Manager at Sea Cliff Resort and Spa, a breath-taking 120 room resort. The cultural experiences I had in Zanzibar topped that off Luxembourg and Albania, and in
fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that these two were my preparation for living and working in Zanzibar. To be honest, I had no real issues ingratiating myself in, and adapting to, the Zanzibari culture and I got along with the locals VERY well. At this point in my life I had become accustomed to this “culture-hopping” lifestyle and constantly jumping from one cultural setting to the next became normal for me, and thus posed no major challenge. The friendliness and hospitality of the locals made this an even easier feat. Although this was the first time I was living abroad alone, far removed from my friends and family, I really did not experience a major struggle in settling in. The fact that many of the local staff were convinced I was South African because I seemed so at
ease and adjusted to life in Africa confirms that I adapted seamlessly to my new home.


I consider the 5 months I spent in Zanzibar the best 5 months of my life. Even though I was
working evening shifts 6 days a week and rarely left the property, it was still an absolutely incredible experience, and one that I miss every day.

 

Fast forward two years later to the present day, I am currently halfway through my Managerial
Internship and can you guess where I am this time? Australia? The Bahamas? Nope, I wish.


I am doing a Branding internship at the Rezidor Hotel Group’s Corporate Support Office
(Radisson Blu and Park Inn) which just so happens to be in Brussels. Not only that, but I am actually living in Zaventem, AGAIN, no further than 500 meters from the house I grew up in. Quite honestly, I did not want to come back to Brussels. I have this itch to travel and work abroad that working in Brussels simply can’t scratch, however, I was given an incredible opportunity I just
couldn’t refuse and so here I am; very happy, but longing for a change of cultural scenery.


I don’t know if it’s funny or sad but NOTHING here has changed. It was very odd to come back
and see that the same shops, the same hairdresser, the same snack bar and restaurants, the same newspaper shop, the same bakery, even the same funeral home are all still here and all run by the very same people. The only thing that’s changed is me. I’ve changed a lot. I left Belgium 15 years ago and have since lived, studied, travelled, and worked all over the world, and now as my
professional career and adult life are set to begin, I find myself back where it all began in good ol’ Zaventem. Oh the irony…

 

Now that you know my story, hopefully you understand what I mean when I say that answering the “where are you from?” question honestly, is not as easy for me as it is for others. I could just say “Belgium” and move on to the next topic, but not only does that feel like a bit of a lie to me, I don’t really feel Belgian enough to consider myself to be just Belgian. All my experiences abroad have moulded me into the person I am today, and to present myself as simply Belgian would not
do justice to the amazing journey I have had thus far.


So if you were in my shoes, and were asked “where are you from?”, what would you say?



A. Hoefnagels | 13-06-15 | 20:44 | Permanent Link