From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, no more than 157 nationalities live in our region. People with different cultures, habits and languages enrich our ecosystem with expertise and specific knowhow. But who are they, what are their stories and why do they love our region enough to call it their home? For the next few months, Leuven MindGate offers a unique view of their impressions, struggles, experiences and why they decided to live in Leuven.
First up is Elise Vadnais, Product Manager at CommScope and American from Minnesota whose first encounter with Leuven was love at first sight.
Elise, it’s a pleasure to meet you. How did you first hear about Leuven?
Elise: “After an internship at TE Connectivity, which would later on become CommScope, I started working there full-time. About a year later, they sent me on an assignment to their offices in Spain, the UK and Belgium, which was in Leuven. Otherwise I don’t think I would’ve known Leuven existed.”
You’re still here, so we can assume your experience has been great so far?
Elise: (Immediately) “Absolutely. In the five weeks I had spent here, I started liking Leuven so much that I asked to be relocated since there was an opening in the team here; and in January 2017, I joined CommScope Belgium.“
What were the determining factors that made you decide to stay?
Elise: “As it goes for every American, the deep and rich history makes a big impression and it is very appealing to have everything so close by. You could go shopping and literally minutes later sit outside a café enjoying a drink in a beautiful place, surrounded by rich history,, that’s almost impossible where I am from. Leuven has everything, really! I especially like the concert hall (Het Depot, picture below) in the centre which shows that Leuven has quite a big music scene. Next to students, Leuven draws people from all over the world which gives the place a certain energy. This allowed me to not only make friends with other internationals but also with the locals.”
Great to hear because internationals often struggle to make friends with people from Belgium, did you have a similar experience at first?
Elise: “It’s understandable that keeping close ties with the friends you made when you were younger will limit your openness, and that’s what I think is the case for some locals. However, I haven’t noticed that my Flemish friends aren’t open to me. They’ve been great from the start and have no problem speaking English with me. But then again, as an international, it’s always easier to connect with people who are in the same situation as you are which might explain why they kind of stick together as well.
You’ve been very positive about Leuven so far. Did it grow on you or was it love at first sight?
Elise: “It was love at first sight. On one of my first walks around the city I fell in love with all of the things that were going on, such as people eating outside, having a beer together, looking at the amazing architecture.”
What surprised you the most about the city and its inhabitants since you arrived?
Elise: “I find that we don’t really differ that much from each other. Humans are humans and the spirit is the same everywhere.”
If you could change one of the habits we have, which would it be?
Elise: (Hesitant) “This doesn’t necessarily apply only to Belgians, but speaking from a personal point of view, I wish more people would go live abroad for the experience. When you throw yourself into a situation that’s unknown, you start to change the idea that people are different, and you break down the prejudices and wrong ideas. So stepping out of the comfort zone would be my best advice.”
Is there anyone like that who helped you during your integration process?
Elise: “In the first place my colleagues and my friends outside of work. I also joined a church in Leuven and really had a lot of help from that community as well.”
Did you have trouble finding them?
Elise: “I Googled! (laughs) Apart from church, I haven’t met a lot of other internationals in Leuven yet. A platform called Meetup allowed me to meet some internationals who live in Brussels, but in Leuven it hasn’t really taken off yet.”
Carry on, is there anything else that could be improved for international workers in Leuven?
Elise: “I could’ve used some resources in the process of getting my residence card. Also I’m not always aware about events that are going on in Leuven unless I stumble upon them by coincidence. For instance, last week I was on my way home and noticed that a beach setting was made on the Bondgenotenlaan (for Leuven by Night, picture above). Then I found out it was for a special shopping night and later on I took my family there. A broad platform or central location for internationals with all information ranging from taking your first steps in Leuven to an event calendar in English would be a great asset.”
You said your family came to visit recently. If you had to summarise Leuven in one sentence for them before they arrived, what would it be?
Elise: “Leuven is pleasantly surprising in that it is small but at the same time world renowned, loaded with history, culture and a special kind of energy making it bigger than you think and the perfect place to live a beautiful life.”
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. Last question: knowing what you know now, would you still have made the same move?
Elise: “I would have made my decision more quickly to come to Leuven since I was looking to stay in Brussels. That has also been the biggest challenge for my life in Leuven since it’s harder to find the expat community over here. This would be a reason for me to move to Brussels but I just love Leuven so much. Plus it’s close to the office and even closer to the airport than Brussels itself. All things weighed out, I’d still call Leuven home if I knew what I know now, that’s for sure.”
The expats in Leuven will be aware of your presence by now and we’re happy to have you here! Thanks for your time, Elise.
Special thanks to Leuven MindGate member CommScope.