Friday, May 31, 2013

Epic battle: Living Abroad X The Scales

Before I went to the USA many people advised me to be careful and watch my weight. It’s like there was something in the air that made people bloat in record time. Exchange students would put on 15 kilos in 6 months, Au Pairs would gain 20 kilos on their first year. I thought, “Whatever, I’m not getting fat that fast”. At that time, in my early twenties, I could eat whatever I wanted and keep my skinny figure (average of 60kg). I even thought that if I gained a few kilos I would look better.

Even though my eating habits weren’t very healthy – lots of frozen meals, fast food and snacks, I did manage to keep fit for the first year, going on regular walks, doing some yoga and joining the gym later on. 

 June 2009

However, the last few months there were crazy. We went out for drinks more often. We enjoyed every opportunity to hang out (read: diner, Taco Bell, TGIF, Starbucks or Subway) and I started “comfort eating”. I was very nervous about my return and I ate like a glutton. Why can’t we crave a nice bowl of fruit salad or a carrot? Like many women, I craved sugar and the fridge and pantry were fully stocked with ice creams, cookies and treats. Oh, did I mention I cancelled my gym membership?

I started picking up weight and thought, “Ok, once I’m home I’ll eat better and healthier food and I’ll exercise everyday”. Ha, wasn’t I wrong… Coming home I wanted to eat everything I missed and haven’t had in more than a year. My dad would always ask me what I felt like eating and prepare it especially for me. So there was a period of “Oh, dear soul food, I’ve missed you so much!”

I am not sure, but I think I was around 8kg sexier by then. People noticed and people commented. Now, here is something I truly believe in and don’t understand why many people fail to do: if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything. Why do people have to go and state the obvious (of course I know I gained weight, you don’t have to tell me!). Some people were straight up rude and instead of greeting me cheerfully after not seeing me for 18 months, “You’ve gained weight!” was the first thing out of their mouths. That brought me back to my teens, when I suffered with a flat chest and a bad case of acne. My self-esteem faced some challenges! I would smile, mumble something about “American food”, change subject and resent it later. I was so tired of it I thought I could punch the next person who made that remark. Instead, I learned to ignore.

To be fair, not all American families eat the same way. I hate judging by stereotypes and I’m not here to create one. There are different people everywhere in the world. Some like junk food and frozen meals, some eat healthy, some are vegetarian, some are kosher, etc. My eating habits and weight gain are strictly related to my personal experience. Some of the girls I met went back home as slim as when they left.

So, where was I? Ah, after that I came to Belgium and managed to lead a pretty balanced life. Fresh food, lots of vegetables, brown bread and whole grain goods. Frequent walk/jog at a beautiful park. I didn’t lose any weight, though.

Fast forward: back to Brazil, gym, walk to work, watch what I eat, no results.

Brasil, 2012

Again in Belgium, eating healthy, fresh food, exercising in a random frequency (sometimes walking, running, biking, playing tennis, dancing) and still frustrated with the scales and the clothes that don’t fit well anymore (I had a crying fit when a dress I wore for NYE wouldn’t zip when I tried it on in July). Oh, and the pictures. When I see myself in pictures, it really downs on me.

I realize I am fighting my genetic heritage. Women in my family tend to gain weight after their mid-twenties. It will be hard (God, I LOVE FOOD), but I know I can win.

Today I am about 15kg more awesome than when I left home four years ago. That’s not such a bad average. So many changes, learning, adventures and fun memories required more space, teehee! Self-indulgement, pleasant moments with friends and exploring every new kind of flavors had its price. I understand and accept that.

I have been learning to love myself and to believe in my beauty. I have been learning that exercising in order to be healthy and strong is more important than checking my weight every week. Most importantly, I have been learning to respect my body and to honor it with nutritious food.

I don’t want to be the skinny girl who is miserable because of her restrictive diet. I don’t want to be the one saying “Oh my god, do you know how many calories are in this piece of cake?”. I believe in balance. I want to live a healthy, happy life. I want to be active because it’s fun and not because I have to. I want to enjoy life, eat cake and drink wine. If I lose a couple of kilos on the way, great. If not, I’m still me, I’m beautiful and smart and I love myself.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Random facts that made my day

    1.       Amazing free live music at Brussels Jazz Marathon: Tribute to Etta James at the Grand Place. It was colder than winter, but I’m grateful it didn’t rain!

     2.       There was a guy wearing a red bandana, big moustache and a quilt and he totally rocked, dancing non-stop. At some point he even took his shirt off (!) and found a moustache buddy to dance with.     

    3.       An old couple hugging and swaying to the sound of jazz. I totally want to be like that when I’m grey-haired!

     4.       There was a girl standing in front of us during the show. She was alone the whole time. When the band wrapped up and she started walking to the back, a boy held her arm and asked: “Excuse me, would you like to have a coffee?”. It was right in front of me and I couldn’t help listening. It was so out-of-the-blue! She said: “Mmm, maybe… where?” and they walked away. I was left trying to picture how it was, if they had a nice time and if that would lead to something.

     5.       We stumbled upon a bagel place! We’ve been talking about bagels for a while and how unusual it is here in Belgium. We were looking for a place to eat and trying not to end up at a kebab/fries joint and Rachel bagels magically appeared. We had chicken, bacon, cheese filled bagels with salad and fried potatoes on the side. I almost couldn’t finish my plate, the ingredients were so fresh and delicious and the menu was super fun (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Chicken Run, Speedy Gonzales, Nicole Guacamole, etc).

It's simple to find joy :)

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Waiting Game

Home is where your heart is - Part 2

So what have I been doing with all the free time?

At first I thought I would focus on learning Dutch and exercising. I couldn’t apply for a job just yet and I would use these months to learn as much as possible. Everyone leaves for work in the morning and I spend my days alone. I’m ok with that, I even enjoy it.

I used to look for workout videos, move around the living room, take a shower and start studying. I found a book called “Curso básico de Neerlandês”, which is a self-study book for Portuguese speakers and it helped a lot with the basics; I watched tv in Dutch, especially cartoons and cooking shows; I listened to some music in Dutch and I read comic books like Suske en Wiske and Kuifje (Tintin). Sometimes I feel tired and frustrated and I give up, thinking that I will never be able to speak this language. Then I realize how much more I understand now and I’m sure speaking will naturally come. Eventually. 

Even though I have to wait for the Visa to be allowed to work, I have been searching for jobs. I want to know what opportunities are out there and what my chances are. I made a list of places I am interested in and I keep following their news online – language schools, study abroad organizations, Brazilian government organizations. I really hope I can find something good according to my skills and experience, but it’s frustrating that I am not a native English speaker (as most schools require) and that I am not fluent in French and Dutch yet.

During this search I found an association for English teachers in Belgium and became a member and volunteer. It keeps me informed about any TEFL event and it hosts webinars and workshops. It’s great to meet people and network. I have attended a couple of events and even wrote a review for their blog.

Speaking of networking, I started volunteering for a Brazilian association that teaches language and culture to children. Some of them were born here and others came from Brazil with their families. They offer workshops every Wednesday and Saturday and on school vacations. It’s great to be part of the Brazilian community here in Belgium and see that the kids stay in contact with our language and culture (holidays, festivals, music, arts and crafts, food, etc). It felt so good to get out of the house, be busy and contribute!

One more thing I’ve been doing during the week: reading blogs (about traveling, living abroad, teaching English, online business and other things that interest me), contacting people (email, Facebook, Twitter), asking around and learning. Although things are a bit uncertain now and I can’t really make plans and set dates to them, I have been thinking, writing and preparing for when it’s time to take action. I’m sure I will get a clear picture of what I have to do in my new life as an expat.

Leave a comment or question if you like and share this with a friend who might relate. Cheers! :)

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Home is where your heart is – about my return to Belgium

Part I

     Deciding whether or not to come back to Belgium wasn’t hard - as the months passed we realized that we really wanted to be together. We hadn’t made any plans or promises when I went back home, we always said “Let’s see what happens”. And what happened was that 3 months later he was visiting Brazil and it became obvious that I would return to Belgium. How? When? We had no clue.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
     At first I thought I would just visit, keep the long distance relationship going, take things slowly in order to be really, really sure before taking such a step. Who was I kidding? I knew, my family knew, all our friends knew that I would stay here. Voor altijd. I got those familiar conflicting feelings of being afraid nothing would work and being certain we would figure things out. However, the biggest conflict I had to sort out in my heart was: I am abandoning my family. I felt like I had already been so absent and missed so much of their lives and that I absolutely had to be there with them. I thought about it all the time (and still do) and I understood that 1. I didn’t have to be physically present to be part of their lives; 2. If I lived in another city or state in Brazil, for example, I would see them a few times a year or less; 3. I wouldn’t be happy if I stayed. They started talking about my leaving even before I did. They gave us their absolute support and that made things a lot easier.
     I got a job and started saving as much as I could and researching any possible way of living legally in Belgium. My first idea was to find a job as an English teacher and apply for a work visa. I believed it would work - there are dozens of language schools in Brussels and other major cities and I trusted my skills and experience. I wrote ALL the schools I found but only a few of them replied saying that (my words) they wouldn’t hire a non-native speaker (I could rant about it on another post) and that they wouldn’t go through the trouble of applying for a work permit and bringing an instructor from abroad. I was frustrated, but I understood.
     I considered applying for a student visa but I wasn’t sure what to study and I would much rather work, since I intended to build a life here. There was always the “easy way” – getting married, but I didn’t want to base that decision on visa issues. Boy, sometimes I wish I had European ascendants so that I could get a passport!
     Finally, after a lot of research and considering the requirements, we decided to apply for a cohabitation visa (I’ll write all about it when the process is over. One thing you have to know: it takes TIME!). We found a lot of incomplete and conflicting information; we wrote the municipal administration, the Belgian Consulate in Brazil, the Immigration office and friends who had gone through the same and we are still learning on the go.
     I finished the semester at the English school I was working, packed my bags and flew off on Christmas night (you know, cheaper tickets). We drove home under heavy rain (so cliché, Belgium!) and had an amazing Christmas dinner with gift exchange. Sometimes I looked around and couldn’t believe I was here again but on the other hand it felt like I had never left. I saw my friends again, went to my favorite bars, met new people, met his whole family and started getting used to living with his parents and brother. It’s been fun and full of love and support.
     I visited my host family, hugged and kissed and squeeeezed the kids. My host mom said: “It’s like you were here yesterday” and we had an epic moment when the past, current and future (Brazilian) Au Pairs had dinner with the family.
     We spent New Year’s Eve in Vienna. It was great to have some time alone and catch up and it was fun because neither of us had ever been there.

Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna, Austria

   When we returned we immediately started putting our file together and visiting the town hall. Many declarations, translations and a couple of fees later, we signed the application and started the waiting game (it can take up to six months for them to give us a response). It really IS a waiting game for me, because while he works I stay home trying to keep sane and trying – once again – to figure out what to do with my precious life. 


Useful official links: 

Belgian Immigration Office: 

Leave a comment or question if you like and share this with a friend who might relate. Cheers! :)

Friday, May 10, 2013

Living abroad: a new you is born

Change is the law of life. Unlike many people I know, I was never afraid of it. In fact, I sought it.

     2009 was the year that changed my life. It was when I left home and went abroad for the first time. After doing everything “by the book” – school, University, work – I decided to quit my job and be an Au Pair in the USA.I lived with a family in NJ for 18 months and travelled to some of the most famous American destinations: NYC, Disneyland, Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, the Grand Canyon, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Washington DC, etc.

     During that year, there were a lot of firsts: flying, seeing snow, listening to many different languages, travelling by train, staying at hostels, travelling solo, going on road trips with people we just met at a hostel, trying new foods, having a memorable hangover. Sometimes even opening a door or using home appliances or shower was a new challenge. It was ridiculous. And awesome. I laughed a lot with myself and learned with every task I had to do. Oh, I also cried a lot. It felt absurdly overwhelming at times and I had thoughts of giving up and going back to the comfort of my home. Even though you make many friends, in the end you are alone. The feelings and lessons you have to work out - you work them out alone. The big life decisions - you make them alone. Often times I felt lonely and sad, but mostly I felt sure that it was the best thing I had ever done in my life, this living abroad thing.
     When you go off by yourself and face the new every single day, you have no choice but evolving. You become more independent, more mature, more understanding, more flexible. You can reinvent yourself, you can be free. You don’t have to fulfill anybody’s expectations on what you should do and how you should behave. Nobody knows you and that’s an opportunity to open up, connect and have loads of fun!
     Choose your new friends, hang out with people who make you feel good and who can relate with your beliefs and dreams. I made friends in church, Au Pair cluster meetings, parties, hostels, Couchsurfing and more. They include travelers from everywhere, locals, and Brazilian expats. I learned so much about relationships and culture and they were my support team. On the other hand, the sad fact is: most of them will follow their paths and you’ll eventually lose contact. But as I tell myself, “C’est la vie”. Thanks to the internet I still keep regular contact with some of the friends I met abroad and I’m sure we’ll meet someday somewhere.
     My time abroad was so amazing that I couldn’t sit still at home for even a year. After having a taste of what’s out there, out of my bubble, I wanted more! I came to Belgium to be an Au Pair again (I know, crazy) and lived next to a real castle (!) for a year. I visited all the countries I had in mind: Portugal, Spain, France, England, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Holland. I visited friends I had met in the US (went for yet another road trip with the stranger from the hostel, now my fellow gummy bear eater); friends from Brazil; surfed someone’s couch for the first time and had long philosophical and spiritual conversations; and stayed in the best hostel ever.

Gent, Belgium 

     My year in Europe was truly beautiful. Although sometimes I got a feeling that “this is just a city like any other” I learned to be more open to what the places have to offer, what’s special about them and their people. Now my list of places I want to visit has expanded and I want to experience really different cultures, like Asian and Middle-Eastern.
     I grew more and more passionate about living abroad. Many people ask me for advice about it or tell me about their fears, lack of money or other things holding them back. My answer is always: GO! Put your plan on paper, prepare, be brave and go! If you have that itch, it’ll never go away until you do it. The experience of being abroad is so enriching, it’s more valuable than any material stuff you would choose to spend your money on instead. I used to tell my friends back home: “I returned home poor, but I LIVED!”.
    That tearful, scared girl who left her hometown in 2009 never came back. Of course she cries and gets scared sometimes, but it’s different now. Living abroad has changed my path like I would have never imagined. It changed the way I see the world and its people; it changed my decisions; it changed some of my interests, opinions and behavior.
     Yes, this post is mostly showing how AWESOME it is to live abroad and how it affected me in a positive way. Downsides and whining another time + reflections on more specific topics!

*I recently talked to Cate from Small Planet Studio about my return home. You can read the interview here. 

Leave a comment or question if you like and share this with a friend who might relate. Cheers! :)