Di Mackey is a professional photographer from New Zealand. She lives in Belgium, travelling where the work takes her – Italy, Germany, throughout Belgium, Egypt and Turkey to date. You can read more about her and see her work at www.dimackey.com.
Read more about Belgium in the Expat Arrivals Belgium country guide or read more expat experiences in Belgium.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: New Zealand.
Q: Where are you living now?
Q: How long have you lived in Antwerp?
A: Just over five years.
Q: Did you move with a spouse/children?
A: I moved in with my Belgian partner.
Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: I was living and working in Istanbul, teaching English and taking photos. I met the Belgian, and he had children he couldn't leave, so I came to him and started again... an interesting experience. Now I'm a professional photographer working throughout Europe.
Q: What do you enjoy most about Antwerp? How's the quality of life?
A: It's central to everywhere... especially after living in New Zealand. It's one or two hours to Berlin, Rome, Paris and Amsterdam. That still stuns me. New Zealand is 23 hours in flight time away.
It has been good for my monolingual self. I now recognise all kinds of other languages and can understand more than a few, but I speak them so very badly.
Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
A: Clean air; I miss clean air and nature. New Zealand is abundant in nature... beaches, mountains, rivers, lakes and space. I miss all that.
Q: Is the city safe?
A: Antwerp is surprisingly safe. Initially, after the noise and densely packed population of Istanbul, I was a little scared of the empty evening streets here, but it's not too bad. There are places you shouldn't go, but that's the same anywhere in the world.
About living in Antwerp
Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in Antwerp as an expat?
A: My first thought is central city. The ancient heart of Antwerp is narrow cobblestone streets and beautiful architecture – it gives your everyday life this beautiful European texture. But we recently moved to a rented house in a suburb, and I love living near a big old park, with a friendly baker and butcher close by. Finally, I have found a sense of neighbourhood – very lacking in our previous abode, an apartment-lined street that somehow lacked a soul.
As an expat, I would recommend checking out a neighbourhood where the shopkeepers are friendly, where there are places you can find a sense of 'home'.
Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation in Antwerp?
A: Well... landlords here have to do very little in terms of maintenance. I think it will take us a year to make our house right. We had to paint and repair when we moved in, but we have a pocket-sized garden and three levels, so it was a trade-off. I find the houses narrow, but the population of Belgium is around 12 million on a tiny area of land. New Zealanders get very spoilt about having their own space, and our accommodation is quite different.
Q: What's the cost of living compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: Expensive, but we live the Belgian life completely, so I don't suffer unless I do the euro to New Zealand dollars thing, then the price of Mcdonald's (for example) hits home. New Zealand seems cheaper in food, but then again, healthcare is accessible to all, and in NZ it's way out of reach unless you have private insurance... or that's how I remember it.
Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?
A: The locals, well, they're not going to love you immediately. Belgians are circumspect and don't have too much need for outsiders. I believe the Spanish Inquisition and invasions by the Austrians, the Dutch, the French and the Germans made them a bit cautious. However, once they decide you're okay, they're lovely.
I mix with whoever will allow me to mix with them – expat or Belgian– but I am beginning to count more and more Belgians as friends... or perhaps I should say, more and more Belgians are allowing me to enjoy a friendship with them.
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends in Belgium?
A: No. Gosh, no, and because the expat community in Belgium is mainly Brussels-based and constantly on the move, I have lost a lot of friends over the years here. Lost them, as in they've gone 'home'. My husband is involved in politics, so I know some good people there, and then as a photographer, I talk to people. I'm a curious person who enjoys travelling, so... it's not too bad, although the early days were tough.
About working in Antwerp
Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit?
A: It took me nine months to get a residency visa. That was painful. In the meantime, my Belgian and I were in love enough to marry... or perhaps, our love had survived the hardships and complications of my moving from Turkey to Belgium. Once married, things really went well.
Still in love, I applied for citizenship in November 2009, and it all came through January 11 2010, so... I have almost forgotten the difficulties of getting permission to work here. I did end up setting up my own business to ease the complications of working here though.
Q: What's the economic climate like in Antwerp? Is there plenty of work?
A: Economically... well, the Opel factory just closed here. There is work in Brussels if you are multilingual, but there's high unemployment in Wallonia – where they tend to stick to speaking just French. Flanders is quite go-ahead, and Antwerp is Flemish. Ideally, you need to speak Dutch, French and English.
Q: How does the work culture differ from home?
A: They seemed lazy at first. I thought my husband would be fired for taking so many holidays, but New Zealanders are quite driven and have four weeks of holiday per year, on average. Here, a civil servant gets quite a few more weeks. This is partially about the fact that there was a time when the city was out of money and the civil servants agreed to forego a wage rise in return for fewer hours worked per week.
Apparently, though, the Belgian workforce is very high achieving. I have to confess I'm also bemused by the number of religious holidays they take here.
Family and children in Antwerp
Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home?
A: Hmmm, so I would look at this question as 'Did my partner have problems adjusting to having a Kiwi in his home?' I'm pleased to say his colonisation has gone well, and we now refer to the house as property of New Zealand... We met in English, actually, and so I was quite surprised to discover his mother tongue was Dutch. I am terrible at Dutch. He is a patient man with perfect English, so it's fine.
Q: Did your children settle in easily?
A: My daughter and her daughter moved in with us a couple of years ago, and yes, they have settled. It was simpler for my granddaughter, as she attends kindergarten five days a week and speaks Dutch easily. For my daughter, the move was more difficult... friends, language and study. I think she's beginning to find her feet now.
Q: What are the schools like? Any particular suggestions?
A: The schools are generally good. The language teaching is superb. Obviously, you look at the neighbourhood and you visit the school. It's also a good idea to take advice from locals.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare?
A: Excellent, stunning.
Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Be gentle, learn the language if you have time, and just let the locals get used to you... it all comes together in the end.
– Interviewed January 2010