Today, I’m running the eighteenth interview in my Adjusting to Expat Life series. If you’re interested in being interviewed about your current or past expat experiences, please get in touch via the Contact page.
My latest expat interview is with Gerrit de Feyter. Gerrit left Belgium at the age of 22 and over the last seven years has lived in Ireland, Northern Island, Turkey, Germany, Czech Republic and Spain. In this interview, Gerrit talks about his ongoing battle with mental illness, and how this has driven and shaped his expat experience. His poetry project, Illusion of Purity, seeks to break down the taboos around metal illness.
This interview is a little lengthy, so I’m publishing in two parts. Today Gerrit talks about leaving Belgium, life in Ireland and how he ended up in Turkey. Check back on Friday for Gerrit’s time in Turkey and the reverse culture shock on return to Europe.
Tell me a little about yourself, and your current artistic projects. Where did the urge to write poetry come from?
I was born in 1981 in Ghent, a very beautiful city in Belgium. Ghent is a city which looks like time stood still and is very modern at the same time. It has preserved its medieval architecture, but due to the cosmopolitan vibe, expat population and big university, the city combines a modern vibe and cultural life within that medieval scenery.
I unfortunately grew up outside the city in the suburbs. Countryside life in Belgium was hell. I had a very bad youth. I have a form of autism, Asperger Syndrome. It basically means you have a normal or high intelligence but you have only a limited number of interests you’re very passionate about, socialising is difficult due to not reading body language and not interpretating sarcasm and irony correctly, you are prone to sensory overload… on top of that I have clinical depression and have been visiting psychiatrists and psychologists since very early childhood. I was always a loner, I never liked socialising with other children. During my youth, I absolutely hated school, and whenever I came home I locked myself up in my room to study maps and read travel guides. That was my big passion: geography, other cultures, far away countries. I could stare at the maps for hours, at very isolated little islands, very remote villages, small dots on the map, wondering what they would be like.
Belgium society is too conservative for my being. Family life, especially in the countryside, plays a very strong role. Like if I look at my family, all of them seemed to marry someone from the same area, have kids and a job and settle down within the 20 km radius of their childhood home. Everyone was following that same cycle of life. Imagine what it is like when you totally don’t fit in and your interests are very different. It was a very suffocating experience. It was almost as if being ambitious and doing something different was forbidden territory. My desire to leave Belgium and never come back, combined with my autistic background, made it increasingly hard for me growing up in that environment.
During my teenage years I developed anxiety disorder and OCD. I basically skipped my youth really, since at age 16 I was suddenly focusing on visiting psychologists, surviving in the battle with OCD that dominated my life. All other guys I saw were worried about dating, going out… I was suddenly into much more drastic problems and worry-free days were extremely rare. I guess it says a lot about my background that of all, someone with my problems was the one to leave for far off destinations rather than settling down.
All experiences of growing up with autism and OCD basically caused the urge to write poetry. I grew up in an environment where you had to conform or you were the black sheep, being different was not done. It was advised to be “as normal as you possibly can” and to hide your diagnosis. The stigma and taboo were huge.
At some point I thought “f… it, I am who I am, and my autism is part of what shaped me. I am not ashamed of myself and I am not going to hide my true self.” Since then I have been speaking very openly about my life with psychological disorders. Poetry was an outlet for my emotions but I kept them safely in a locked box for nobody to read, just writing them down to have the emotions on paper, and that was it. It wasn’t until I realised the impact music had on me that I felt like maybe my poetry could be more than just an outing of my emotions. If others’ lyrics and writings could reach for my emotions, maybe my poetry could do the same with others. The taboo and stigma have to be broken, we need people to stand on the barricade. I felt like starting to perform with my poetry was my way to contribute to the battle in raising awareness about psychological disorders, and telling other sufferers to be proud of who they are rather than to suffer in silence.
Do you think it’s a coincidence that you started writing when you first left Belgium and were living in Belfast? How are your expat and artistic lives related?
It was no coincidence that I wrote my first serious poems in Belfast. Belfast is a very artistic city. When I lived there for nearly two years, almost all of my friends were into arts. Either they were playing in a band, they were writing, … But I went to my first poetry readings in Belfast, open microphone nights, I saw all my friends being in a band… It was very inspiring.
You have to remember the background of Belfast. It is a war-torn city that is recovering from decades of violence and still trying hard to get rid of its image as “war zone”. In a place like Belfast, especially before the peace was restored during the last 10 – 15 years, art was one of the only ways to openly talk about what was going on. It is no coincidence the punk scene is very big in Belfast. Punk is the music of protest, the society-criticising music. Punk today is still very present both in the streets of Northern Ireland and in the number of punk bands emerging there. In artistic circles, people tended to be very open-minded, it wasn’t important if you were protestant, catholic, atheist… So it was one of the few places where the sectarianism was not present. Art for many people in Northern Ireland was an outlet of their emotions.
What drove the decision to move to Ireland to begin with?
Along with the Nordic countries (Norway, Greenland and Iceland especially) and the Middle East (in Ghent there was a huge Turkish community, so that triggered my interest in the area), Ireland was a place I was very much interested in from childhood onwards. I am not sure why really, but there was some attraction.
I was 22 when I left. I had one year of studying left to go to get my higher education degree, and I was combining this with my first job. I lived on my own in a seaside home that was very idyllic. It felt like life was falling into place.
But that in itself was a sign for me: if I wanted to realise my dream of going abroad, it had to happen NOW before I was so organised in life that the ties would be too hard to break. I was given the opportunity to take a job in Dublin and took that opportunity. It was now or never. I am still strongly convinced of that. I felt in fact that I already waited too long to leave. But when that job offer from Ireland came, I really still feel that it was a now or never case. I followed my dream basically. I took the hard road, but I am glad I did. Retrospectively I am regretting not having left earlier.
What was the adjustment to expat life like? Did you find the adjustment easier or more difficult than you expected?
More difficult, because I think I stayed just a year too long in Belgium, which made the decision to jump into the insecure and leave or not, a harder decision than if I left straight from that countryside “home” that never felt like home in the first place.
I took the leap but it took a while to cut the ties with Belgium entirely. I felt like I left behind some things that were harder to let go than I imagined before, and at the same time I wanted to be abroad so badly that I was really putting pressure on myself to make it work.
My psychological problems played their role too. Especially OCD. With everything I did, I was wondering how things would be doing those same things back in Belgium, and if I’d feel better or not. In a way it was absurd: I always wanted to just live life abroad, and when I was finally there I was obsessing about how things would be back in Belgium. OCD made it hard to adapt.
I was lucky that after moving from Dublin to Belfast, things changed for the better. I had a fantastic psychologist too who really helped me in stopping to look back. From that moment on, I managed to look forward with ambition rather than to look back with fear. Then Turkey came and this was such a nice experience that I realised the grass was greener away from Belgium. I found that better place, and then I was truly convinced I made the right decision.
Why did you leave Ireland, and why Turkey?
At first the plan was to realise the big dream of going to Norway and settle there for a while. The part above the Arctic circle, Tromsø especially, attracted me heavily. However, even though every Norwegian I encountered spoke English fluently, finding a job without speaking Norwegian was very hard and it didn’t work.
My interest in the Middle East stemmed from going to school as a teenager in a school where 1/3rd of the pupils were of Turkish origin. That triggered a strong interest in Turkey and in the culture of the country. In the religion as well. I am atheist, but I have a very deeply rooted fascination for Islam. It is like a mysterious culture that I want to fully understand. I was in Ireland for 3 years almost and it was time for a change of scenery.
At the same time I met some Israeli folks via the internet. That further triggered my interest and fascination for the Middle East and when Norway was clearly not an option yet, I started to look towards the east. Israel proved to be extremely hard to get into though: in a country full of highly skilled people and with immigrants from all over the world assuring languages are all covered, few companies will want to pay a working permit for a non-jew when a person of Jewish background can just get the passport and doesn’t need the working permits.
In Turkey I was more lucky. I went to Istanbul to apply and it was love at first sight… it felt like entering a different, very fascinating world, where every single conversation with a person and every new alley you entered was a new discovery. It was love at first sight and it never left. I still miss Turkey a lot. Anyways, I was lucky with the job application and three weeks later I was off to Istanbul.
Gerrit’s interview will continue on Friday…