Marco is a researcher and lecturer in the field of tourism management with a special focus on tourism's impacts, cultural heritage and accessibility within the industry. He's an avid gardener and foodie (the type who cooks and not only eats) and enjoys a 'pintje' (beer) or wine with friends. He is extremely curious about everything pertaining to everyday life.
For more on expat life, see our Expat Arrivals essential guide to Moving to Belgium.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I am from Potchefstroom, South Africa.
Q: Where are you currently living?
A: I live in a village called Bonheiden which is adjacent to Mechelen City (located in the middle between Brussels and Antwerp) in Belgium.
Q: When did you move here?
A: I moved to Belgium on 8 March 2020, three days before the COVID-19 lockdown. I first lived in a town called Burcht, close to Antwerp, because it was closer to my fiancé's workplace. We moved to Bonheiden in January 2021.
Q: Is this your first expat experience?
A: I've done previous projects with universities in the Netherlands and Italy, where I stayed in the countries for a few months at a time, but Belgium is my first official expat experience in terms of emigrating from South Africa on a permanent basis.
Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved here with my fiancé. My brother lives an hour's flight south (in France). The rest of the family is still in South Africa.
Q: Reason for moving?
A: There are many reasons. The crime rate in South Africa (and personal encounters with crime), the crumbling economy, job insecurity, load-shedding, etc., made a strong contribution.
The main reason for why and when it happened when it did, was because my fiancé already moved to Belgium a year prior. I applied for a job at a university here in Belgium and got it. As a result, I moved.
Living in Belgium
Q: What do you enjoy most about Bonheiden and Belgium in general?
A: It is difficult to say what I enjoy most. There are a few things. You always feel safe and can keep the doors unlocked when leaving the home for short periods. There are no burglar bars on windows and no security systems. Also, the sense of community and strong sense of place. Just a week ago, we had the annual street BBQ, where our street is cordoned off by the 'gemeente' (local municipality) with the objective of getting locals to know and trust one another.
Also, the ease of travelling anywhere, whether it is with a bicycle, a 'step' (electric scooter), or public transport makes life so easy that a car-lover like myself isn't even bothered to purchase a car. You feel more connected to nature, and you contribute to the reduction of the climate problem, even in small ways.
Lastly, the manner in which everything just works. Our electricity and water have never been shut down, the internet is fast, and government services are always available and really efficient.
Q: Have you had any low points? What do you miss most about home?
A: In the beginning, perhaps. Especially when you cannot yet speak the language (Dutch). Some work meetings were in Dutch, and most public services are only available in Dutch, French and German. However, they provided a course called 'inburgering' (integration), where you learn about everything regarding Belgium in English. Aspects such as healthcare, taxes, banking services, citizen rights, etc., are covered. They also provide free Dutch courses. Being able to speak to everyone and knowing where to go to get things done was what I missed most about home. However, at this stage, I feel bad and proud to say that I don't miss home because I am home. Yes, I miss friends and family, but there are always flights. One thing that cannot be replaced is South Africa's nature, but now I can also view South Africa as a tourist destination.
Oh no, wait, the lowest point was arriving at the very start of the pandemic and not being able to see family for two years and not being allowed even to travel or physically meet my new colleagues in person for almost a year.
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience culture shock at all?
A: The biggest adjustment was learning a new language. Even though it is similar to Afrikaans (my home language), it is still a completely different language. They love to speak in metaphors, most of which do not exist in Afrikaans. So yes, the language was the first culture shock. Other forms of culture shocks were mostly in their approach to daily life and cultural events. I've been to funerals of people I don't know.
If you want to organise a braai (or BBQ here), you need to notify people almost a month in advance. You cannot organise a 'bring-and-braai' because the host has to cover the total cost while those who come are expected to bring thoughtful gifts. There is also a whole process regarding people who find out that they are pregnant or the events that take place around St Niklaas and Zwarte Piet (rather Google this).
Q: What are your favourite things to do on the weekend? Any particular places or experiences you'd recommend to fellow expats?
A: We have varied types of weekends. One weekend we would sit in front of the TV catching up on a series, another, we would do work in and around the house (I love gardening). Sometimes we meet with South African or Belgian friends and have drinks together, or we might travel to a different town or country to go explore.
The best way to explore Belgium is to pick a destination on a map and then take the train and start walking. Don't be scared to go into local shops to try new things. There are also various Facebook groups with South African expats (some with more than 30,000 people) who also organise special events such as braai days.
Q: What's the cost of living compared to home? Is there anything especially expensive or cheap in Belgium?
A: In general, everything is more expensive when compared to SA. However, you receive a much better salary which allows for enough disposable income to also enjoy life. The single thing that is significantly more expensive is real estate. When buying a home, they could ask for up to a 30 percent deposit before buying, meaning that purchasing a house is impossible for most if they did not inherit it.
Q: What's public transport like in Bonheiden and across the country?
A: Public transport is a breeze. Our closest bus stop is 200m away and connects us to the city within 15 minutes. Most cities are connected by trains and buses that run on a regular basis. Within the cities, you can use the bus, trams and metros or hire a bicycle, an electric scooter or even a car.
Q: What do you think about the healthcare available in Belgium? What should expats expect of local doctors and hospitals?
A: The healthcare in Belgium is wonderful. Healthcare comes from our tax money, and we just need to pay an admin fee every three or four months. I can, for instance, go to the doctor at any point in time, and it will always cost EUR 1. I injured my arm a while ago, went to the doctor and then to the hospital to get scans done. Collectively I paid EUR 10 (ZAR 168 roughly).
Childbirth and the first two years of care are free (for those who are interested). Doctor's rooms and hospitals have apps where you can make appointments. Prescriptions written by doctors are registered on your ID card, so you can go to any pharmacy at any point and just scan your card and get your prescription (always EUR 1 when picking up any medication).
Q: What's the standard of housing like in Bonheiden? What different options are available?
A: The village has a really good standard of housing. There are all types, from flats, to 'rijhuizen' (homes built and connected in a line), or stand-alone homes, some with huge properties.
Q: Any areas or suburbs you'd recommend for expats to live in?
A: If expats are worried about finding people who speak English, then it is better to stay in any city. The city has more activities and larger shops. These can be places like Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Mechelen, Hasselt and Brussels, for instance. I personally prefer smaller towns or villages. The smaller places are quieter but still have quite a few events and all the same services as larger cities.
Meeting people and making friends
Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: To meet Belgian people can be a bit difficult. Most Belgian people and friends I know are people I met through work. Some of my work colleagues have become really great friends. The majority of our friends in Belgium, at this stage, are other South African expats we met here.
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 with the locals?
A: It is a mix of the two. My advice is to always go to events if you are invited. Always attend local events or try to be part of community projects. The people at your workplace can become really great friends if approached in a kind manner.
Working in Belgium
Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: From the Belgian side, the work permit and visa were straightforward. However, to get the required documents from the South African government took almost six months. After providing the documents to the Belgian government, I was awarded my visa and work permit within four days. I did it all by myself, but with some help from the people in the South African expat group here in Belgium.
Q: What is the economic climate in the city like?
A: All I can say is that it is stable. I cannot see any real problems. The municipality always delivers services on time, and they provide economic initiatives to support local businesses or start-ups. It is actually quite wonderful to see.
Q: How does the work culture differ from home?
A: In many ways, it is similar. Some main differences include punctuality and the degree to which you need to be organised (I always have my Outlook calendar open). You don't simply call someone; you schedule a time. Each person's time is important, and it should be respected. Also, holidays and weekends are holy. If you contact someone regarding work on a weekend, it better be a real emergency – even then, they might simply not answer. I just had a five-week holiday and didn't receive any work-related emails. Ironically, the only emails I received were from South African work (I am still active with some students and staff from my previous university). In South Africa, a holiday means that you get to work remotely.
Family and children in Belgium
Q: How has your partner adjusted to your new home?
A: Together, we adjusted very well. I can almost not think that we felt like expats two years ago. We feel totally at home.
Q: Did your children settle in easily? What were the biggest challenges for them during the move?
A: Not applicable – unless you are referring to our little dog Cooper. He probably doesn't even know that he is in a different country, but he can go on many more walks now and enjoys super cheap and great vet services. He also received his EU passport already upon arrival, three years before I am eligible.
Q: What are your favourite family attractions and activities in the city?
A: Just the nice restaurants, a stroll next to the canals, pop-up markets and sights.
Q: What are the schools like? Any particular suggestions?
A: I can only comment on what I hear in the news. The schools are really full, so parents need to start applying pretty much right after the child is born. I understand that school is free to attend unless you go to a private school. Textbooks, school lunches, transport, laptops, etc., are all provided for by the government.
Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Belgium?
A: Join expat groups on Facebook and just read through all the posts and feel free to ask. People are extremely helpful. You can also look up your city's local inburgering council, who will help you with any questions related to the country and everyday life.
►Interviewed August 2022