March 31, 2014

LINK-UP: THE EXPAT EXPERIENCE

THE PROCESS OF MOVING ABROAD


I realize I haven't elaborated on the whole visa process that happened before my move or the actual moving itself. As a European who had never left Europe before I was definitely unprepared for the stacks of paperwork and I had well... never thought I'd have to go through all of that just to be with the person I love. Maybe the whole thing left me traumatized or I've wanted to put it all behind me, but for some reason it never ended up on here. And then I stumbled upon this cool link-up hosted by Molly from The Move to America and it got me thinking. The whole process of moving here was long and tiring, but I absolutely don't want to forget about it or pretend it was easy. So here it goes and I can't promise this will be a short story...


The Move to America

We applied for a K-1 fiancee visa, which basically means you are granted permission to enter the US to get married and move there. It is different from a spousal visa in that once you get married you still have to apply for a permanent resident card. One thing is for sure: we were very naive... we thought the whole visa process would take 4 to 5 months and we'd be able to get married by December (and have a wonderful Christmas wedding). That obviously didn't happen. 

The Visa Process
I know it's highly subjective so say this, especially since there are always people who have to wait even longer, but our visa application took a long time. A K-1 visa supposedly has a faster processing time than a spousal visa since part of the paperwork is done after your move (or so we had read). We applied in September 2012 and got our confirmation but Christmas came and went and we still hadn't heard anything back (three months and counting). Nick had moved back to the US before Christmas to find a job already and I was trying to stay busy sane by doing temporary jobs since that's basically all I could do. When we applied the approval rate had been around 4.5 months and by January it had gone up to 5 and then to 7. We were right in assuming a wedding around Easter wouldn't be possible. It was basically nerve-wrecking.

Our NOA2 (approval) came by the end of April, exactly seven months after we had applied and after that I had more control over the process again. I was able to send the package with additional information to the embassy by the end of May and my interview was scheduled on the 25th of June. I can't believe it's been less than a year since I took a train to Brussels and waited outside the embassy in the rain for my interview. So much has happened.

The Move

Even though they tell you not to make any travel plans before you have your visa in hand I really couldn't wait any longer. I hadn't seen Nick in three months and the only time my parents and sister would be able to fly over for the wedding was in August which gave us a very small window. Add the planning and settling in... I needed to be there at least a month ahead of that time. Thank god I had my dress already!

So I left a week after my visa came and packed up my whole life in two weeks. I didn't have the money to ship all my belongings to the US and I probably didn't have enough stuff to make it worth it so I crammed everything I thought I needed into two suitcases and one carry-on and cleaned up my room at home by putting everything in boxes. I don't think my family was prepared for this part of the process and actually I wasn't either. It seemed very abrupt and definitive even though I had been waiting for that document a whole year. I had been so focused on it that I hadn't even thought about what it would feel like to leave my parents and sister behind at the airport. It was heartbreaking and honestly at that point a part of me just wanted to turn around and not get on that plane (considering what a hell of a flight it would turn out to be that might have been a good idea in hind sight). It was the scariest thing I've ever had to do in my life.



Mulan, my parents' incredibly cute but stubborn puppy 
The New Life
The last 10 (say what?) months have been nothing short of an emotional roller coaster. I've had to plan a wedding in under a month, leave my family and friends behind (not to mention our incredibly cute puppy) and start from scratch again in the sun. I was really homesick in the beginning, afraid of everything but we were together at last and I was grateful for that. And settling in? It's an ongoing process, but I'm getting better at it. I'm trying to meet more people more, got really lucky and landed a great job and right now we're looking for our own apartment. Life is good!

Thinking of moving abroad?

Accept that you'll never be (emotionally) prepared
You should definitely do your research about the new place your moving to, but know that becoming an expat is a very emotionally unpredictable process. I never struggled with homesickness before, but expat life is intense. You start missing people you thought you'd never miss, start liking things about your home country that annoyed you in everyday life and it's a tricky thing. Worst part? You just don't know what to expect until you do it.

Research the paperwork
We were both naive and new to this whole process and definitely didn't do enough research up front to have a realistic view on how long the process would take or what would be our best option. Maybe it's normal to learn along the way, but it can never hurt to make sure you know what to expect!


Savor your last moments
Depending on how far your moving... home probably won't be just a train stop away. And visiting friends and family might become quite expensive. So enjoy those last moments at home to the fullest: have a goodbye party, take a video tour around your hometown or have silly pictures taken with your friends. At least you'll have some great memories to put on the wall of your brand new home in your brand new country!

How did you experience moving abroad? Any tips? 


PS: sorry for that wall of text... guess I had to get some things off my chest!

March 26, 2014

LIFE LATELY: BOOK CLUBS AND CONCERTS

I have no idea how this week turned out to be so busy, it almost feels like I have a social life again. Monday I had my French courses as usual (next week is actually the last class, time flies) and today I'm going to my first book club meeting! I'm a little excited and very nervous, but I can't wait to meet some more PEOPLE. I feel like I haven't been able to do that at all and I miss having friends. Fingers crossed they're not going to hate me for not finishing the book (isn't that rule number one of a book club?). Jep, I'm going to be that girl who did not finish the book, but at least I won't be the one who cancelled at the last minute. I think that's important. Anyway, we are reading were supposed to read The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood and I really do like the book. I just haven't been able to spend much time on reading it. 


Going to the Kings of Leon concert might have something to do with that. It got me in that whole I want to listen to all of their songs again mood (and I kind of did). See my face in that picture? Super excited, Nick didn't really have a choice but to come with me. Although I'm not a big fan of their new work I just can't say no to seeing them live again and especially since this was the first time I saw them outside a festival. They were great, but my 17-year-old self would have preferred their early performances. I tend to ignore her, because everyone evolves and I can't blame them for that! 


This is a video from the first time I saw them the first time and one of my favourite songs. Mind that divine Belgian weather.

By the way, why oh why is Justin Bieber barechested on my first issue of Rolling Stone? Can someone explain that to me?


Two more days and it's Friday! 

March 21, 2014

DAILY ROUTINE: LET'S TALK ABOUT FOOD

MY FAVOURITE FOOD CHAINS

1,2,3,4,5,6
Life in California is a constant battle against temptations. There is food everywhere and you can have it whenever you want. I didn't used to eat out much before I moved here, but it's a very American thing to do. And the beauty about it all? The rules of supply and demand result in... very fair prices. Yes, making it even more tempting to just pig out every day. Especially for me, because I'm a lazy person by nature and even more so when it comes to cooking. So I gladly went along with the crazy food chain-ride. I have to admit that I have since toned it down a bit, because you know, it doesn't work unless you start working out like a mad man (there are consequences people!). Anyway for the tourists among you or the lucky ones blessed with a goddess-like waistline: here are my favourites so far... 
  • Chipotle

    Mexican style burritos created by the gods. I have never not had a burrito there, but you can also get tacos or a salad bowl. Don't go for the hot salsa unless you're prepared and for a 1.5 extra you can get yummy guacamole. I cannot resist the full combo of grated cheese, sour cream and guacamole. It's a bit more expensive than your average fast food chain, but it's also a bit healthier than greasy burgers.
    PS: there's one in London too and Paris I heard!
  • The Broken Yolk

    My absolute favourite breakfast place. It has one of the best (in my opinion) breakfast burritos in town and I usually have to pick between that or the Nutella crepes (it's one of the only place I've seen so far that have them on the menu). I admit I haven't tried anything else on the menu, except for the mimosa of course. Fun fact: for those who want eternal fame by eating a ton of food in an hour there's the Iron Man/ Women Challenge. Why? Because it America!
  • Chick-Fil-A

    I guess I'm one of those people who just have one go to item in every restaurant... you're on your own if you want to try something else. So yes, I always order the chicken nuggets at Chick-Fil-A. Because they're somehow so much better than any other chicken nuggets I've had and the place has great mayonnaise to go with it (I'm crazy about mayonnaise ok). I haven't tried their breakfast burrito yet, but the hash browns are delicious. Oh, it's about the only food place in the whole US that's closed on Sunday. 
  • Panera

    The perfect (and only?) place in the area where I can indulge in my love for BREAD. They have pretty decent soups on the menu and delicious salads, but I usually go for the grilled cheese. You can mix and match to your hearts delight and I recommend the bread bowl, which is the greatest food invention of modern times. Soup in... a bread bowl? Yes, please. 
  • Jamba Juice

    As counterweight for all of that fatty food I sometimes just have a smoothie for lunch and Jamba Juice is a good place to go for that. They use frozen fruits which makes it REALLY cold, but it tastes amazing. If you want to be cool you can go for items that are no longer on the list (Nick told me about that). So now I'm ordering an old school  Orangeberry Blitz like a local. PS: be strong and stay away from the pretzels. 
  • In-N-Out

    Well, this is a no brainer. In-N-Out is the best burger place ever. I love how simple their menu is, having to make choices all the time can be exhausting. Although the not-so-secret menu offers a bit more for those who like to customize. Of course I love their grilled cheese with grilled onions, milkshakes and PINK LEMONADE. Confession: I did not like the fries when I first tried them, but I've grown to love them (the special sauce might have helped). 
Anything you want to add to the list or that I should definitely try?
God, I'm really hungry now.  

Have a great weekend, I'm going to be singing along to Kings of Leon tomorrow evening for my first concert in what feels like forever!

March 13, 2014

OUT AND ABOUT: LAKE POWAY

Lake Poway on during the day, at sunset and when it was raining
Lake Poway might not sound very exciting, but it's one of those hidden gems you get to go to regularly when you live in the area. It's a big part of my memories of the first time I visited the US (Nick thought it a great idea to bike up the hill the day after I arrived: the jet lag didn't agree) and nowadays it's omnipresent in my every day life. Ain't I a lucky girl? I started running again last month so I've spent a lot of time there. For anyone who doesn't enjoy running on a road, this is perfect: there are many different trails and you always have a beautiful view. I met my first American mountain in Poway. Mount Woodson and I might still not be best friends, but it's pretty famous for the potato chip rock at the top. It can get really crowded on the weekends because of that. 

I don't have pictures of the hiking trail and I never want to queue for the silly rock (I figure since we live so close I'll do it another time) but I took these pictures a few weeks ago before that big rainfall and I think the sunset was just gorgeous so I had to share them. 





So it's definitely a recommendation for anyone who's in the area and likes hiking, running, fishing or just having a BBQ with friends. 

In the meantime we've switched to Summer Time here already (three weeks ahead of you Europe!) and it's been nice to see the days getting longer. Except for that first Monday when I was completely confused with the time zones so I woke up at 5 because I thought I had to start at 6. Turns out the time difference with Europe is now 8 hours instead of 9 so I can start and hour later until the end of March. But that first Monday sucked big time.

Other than that I've been living in a parallel universe the last few days (hence my absence) since I finished all three the Divergent books in a couple of days. I am experiencing major withdrawal symptoms and am forever traumatised by that unexpected finale. I would like to recover from all that info for a few days, but unfortunately I signed up for a book club so I have to finish another book by next week. But I'm excited at the same time. Wish me luck!

What sort of hidden gems do you cherish in your neighbourhood?

March 2, 2014

EXPAT LIFE: CALIFORNIA FUN FACTS


It's been raining for three days straight now so San Diego suddenly feels a lot more like Belgium! My surroundings look a bit greener, the streets are wet and that pale blue sky you always see here? It has been shifting between grey and more grey. Yesterday we went for a walk in the rain (literally no one was out) and today everyone Hollywood is hoping it will stop right in time for the big ceremony tonight... Fingers crossed!

But to stick to the overall topic: I realize it's been a while since the first 'expat comparison' and I wouldn't like to call it a comparison, because it's just a little list of things I notice in my new country. Three months ago I posted my first impression and today I think I'm ready for another round. March marks my ninth month here (can you believe that??) and with all the holidays, paperwork and a new season upon us I think I've made some discoveries... 


  • DEODORANT
    To start off with an awkward topic: let's talk about deodorant. I can only speak for Belgium here (and maybe the UK) but I have the impression that most of Western Europe at least uses deodorant sprays. Of course there are some brands that offer roll-ons (not so much the sticks) but no one I know buys them. Until I moved here I had never actually used them. In the US it seems to be the other way around. Go to any grocery store and you'll find a huge selection of deodorant sticks and roll-ons and basically no sprays (although I did see a few for men). I'm a bit puzzled as to why that is... is it really healthier? And if it is, why are the sprays still being used in Europe? On another note: what about convenience? How do you put it on during the day?

  • THE BELGIAN SANDWICH
    This has been a traditional discussion between me and Nick for a long time. American sandwiches are usually big; less bread, more ingredients. While in Belgium we tend to stick to one choice of ingredient you put on your 'boterhammen' unless you get a 'smoske': a french baguette with different ingredients on it (usually Gouda cheese, lettuce, tomato, eggs and mayonnaise).

    So one time I made the mistake of ordering what we started calling a 'Belgian sandwich'. I chose what type of bread I wanted at the local place. They asked me what type of cheese I wanted, I said Cheddar. They said I could pick up to three different types (three?? so many choices!), I said that just Cheddar would be fine and then they I asked me how many layers of Cheddar I wanted. Hmm, one? The look on their faces was one of horror. Surely I must be kidding? So the lady checked if she'd heard correctly and I assured her she had. Eventually she believed me, but when her boss came by he pointed at the miserable layer of cheese on the bread as if to demand answers and I could hear her explain that I asked for that... I felt really out of place that day. Does that really never happen?

  • ALMONDS
    I don't know if this is an American thing or if I just have never noticed it in Belgium, but California seems to be obsessed with almonds. I have never seen so many products with almonds before and it seems like anything is possible: cereal with almonds, chocolate with almonds, cookies with almonds, almond butter, ... I used to love milk chocolate with bits of walnut but I haven't found those here yet, guess I'll have to try the almonds! 
1,2,3,4
  • AUTOMATED VOICE MENUS
    There is one thing that is driving me crazy here and I'm sure it isn't just me. I feel like Americans have perfected the efficiency of the automated menu, but that it's been brutalized in everyday usage. There have been so many times I had to call a company with a specific question or problem (or the same company over and over again) and they made me go through what felt like a thousand options first. I would understand it if by the time you get to talk to a real person you don't have to worry about that information anymore, but usually you just provide your basic information again. What's even worse is when there's no button for what I want (that's most of the time) or when the machine doesn't understand me... It's like Gandalf in Lord of the Rings: 'You shall not pass!'

    But you know what's funny? The automated voice menu of the Belgian consulate is probably the most annoying. It let's you go through the whole menu and if you don't pick your number fast enough it just hangs up! There's no option for repeating the menu and you'll just have to call back and start from scratch. Yes, I know this from experience.
Hope you had a nice weekend and welcome to March!
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