Today, I’m running the part two 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.
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. We finished Wednesday’s interview with Gerrit as he was on the cusp of leaving for Turkey – read it here.
Today Gerrit talks about falling in love with Turkey, dealing with reverse culture shock on his return to Europe and his advice for new expats.
I imagine you noticed a lot of huge differences between Ireland and Turkey – what really jumped out at you when you first arrived?
Istanbul has, if you include temporary residents and students, 18 million people. That’s like twice the size of New York or London. Ireland has less than half of that spread across the whole island. Istanbul was HUGE. Every district was like a city of its own. The maze of small alleys, the labyrinth of streets, … You could just get lost in a second and every district was so big it would take you weeks to get to know just that tiny portion of the town.
I remember how big everything was, and then the Muslim dress I saw everywhere, the beautiful mosques, the call to prayer coming out of the minarets… It was like entering a different world, but a very fascinating one. Each conversation with a person opened a new world to me because each time I learnt a bit more about the cultural differences. It was so exciting.
The longer I was in Istanbul, the more I also saw common things between Turkey and western Europe. I mean, they have a different religion, some different customs, but in the end we’re all people. They just cared for their family and spent time with their kids and partners just like in Europe, when it was sunny people would come out and socialise. Istanbul, due to its influences from the west, was a nice mix between Middle Eastern and European. The differences seemed bigger at first glimpse than they really were. But then that was part of the reason why I came to Turkey: to discover myself how different it really was, and immerse myself in the culture of the people.
In the end my conclusion is that Turks are much nicer folks than the average European. My pride in being European was gone. Turks pay a high attention to politeness, helping out strangers, making them feel welcome, and solidarity. Social activities are central: whenever they can, they go out to the public square and socialise. Tolerance and solidarity are very important in Turkish culture. Back in Europe now, I cannot say how much I miss that. I felt safer there than anywhere in Europe, I felt more at home there than ever before. And now here I am in Spain, loving it here too, but still missing Turkey and the Turkish people. A lot.
Tell us why you moved back to Europe – and how was the reverse culture shock on the way back?
Working permit issues left me little other choice than going back or working illegally. I opted to go back to Europe with the intention to leave back to Turkey with a fully legal work permit as soon as I could. Then the crisis came and I never managed to do that. I tried, but working permits became harder to get by then. I already missed Turkey before I had really left.
Back in Europe, it was very strange. I felt in familiar environment again, but at the same time didn’t really want that. I was lucky to be in Berlin then and find a job there. I lived in a district of town with a large Turkish expat population. I felt like a bit of Istanbul was present there, and that was nice. Furthermore Berlin is a city with an incredible artistic and cultural scene. It is a city where everything goes. Punks, goths, metalheads, hiphop… all were very present in the streets. There were expats from all over the world. It is one of those places where the whole world comes together and where everything goes. That made adaption a bit easier.
Tell us about the other places you’ve lived in Europe – how do they compare to each other, and where do you feel most at home?
I really loved Belfast and Berlin for the reasons mentioned already. Berlin is also dirt cheap. Electricity and water included, you can rent a nice enough flat for less than 300 euro a month. It is the cheapest capital of Europe I believe, although maybe the likes of Minsk and other ex Soviet states would be remotely cheaper. A great place to be really. Sadly enough, a huge depression forced me to leave, I needed a place where I could make a fresh start.
Barcelona, where I live now, is a great city too. It is very lovely in terms of architecture. Each district has a totally different feeling. The inner city is a maze of countless little alleys with very old houses, the authentic Barcelona. It is a very multicultural place too, with a lot of Pakistanis, Indians, Arabs, Northern Africans, Latin Americans… The houses are old and the alleys are a labyrinth, but that is the authentic Barcelona for you. Then the outskirts look very modern and have more of a big big city feeling. The cultural offer is huge too, with plenty of concerts, artistic options and other gatherings. Nightlife is very diverse too I heard, but I can’t speak for myself since I dislike clubbing. Also, this is a big city but also a seaside city. There is a large district with a large shore. In summer, the beach is populated day and night, people all gather by the seaside. The mountains are never far away neither. Architecture is amazing.
So while I miss the Middle East, it is nice living here. There is a downside though: it is incredibly expensive. For 700 € minimum you still only have a small flat. For a comfortable apartment you need to count 1000 € a month easily. Other costs of life are high as well, such as food, internet connection… Only healthcare is very cheap: visiting a doctor is free, and medication is incredibly cheap. But all the rest is very expensive. Also, even in a big touristic city like this, people speak English only poorly. You can of course cut expenses by living in a suburbian town, but those are extremely boring. It is recommended really to live in the city here, and that comes with a high price tag.
Then there’s two places left. Dublin and Prague.
I don’t want to be rude but I disliked these places a lot. Dublin is like one big nightlife place. I can imagine it is heaven for those whose spare time consists of clubbing, drinking with friends, and going out. For me, it was boring. Extremely boring. There was hardly ever anything culturally to do. Concerts were the only exceptions. But poetry nights? Artistic spots? Incredibly hard to find. It was also very decadent. People being so drunk they fall asleep on the street in their own vomit, women dressed so revealingly that you feel sorry for them, men and women alike urinating in the middle of the streets… In the suburbs, violence and alcoholism are a problem. And still Dublin ranks amongst the most expensive cities in Europe. When I was there it shared a spot with New York as 13th most expensive city on earth. And what do you get in return? Pubs, clubs, discos and that’s it.
Prague is more or less the same with the sole exception that there you at least have nice architecture. The city center is very compact but some streets have like 10 or 15 beautiful monuments and mansions, some residential houses are so nicely decorated they look like opera houses. I recommend people to visit for sure, but don’t spend more than a week or so there. Don’t let yourself be fooled to live there, because that architectural beautify hides emptiness. Below the surface, there is nothing cultural going on and the exceptions are often unaccessible to foreigners because of the language barrier. People’s spare time is often centered around the pub and beer. I saw a lot of brothels and casinos, all catering to the western investors of multinationals who earned a huge salary. Meanwhile locals were exploited and earned too little to even live decently on their own. It was sad to see. I also felt bored all the time really, there was hardly anything cultural going on. Mass tourism was taking over the place. I went there for the Eastern European feeling, the last part of Europe I had not discovered yet. Retrospectively, maybe Belarus or Ukraine or Poland would have been better options. I feel Prague westernised so rapidly that you hardly noticed anymore that it was a former East Bloc country. Probably great for the locals, but not what I was looking for.
How has living in so many places – 6 countries in 7 years! – shaped you as a person?.
It first of all showed me that there is a lot of beautiful things out there to see, and that leaving Belgium was the right choice. I learnt so many things and opened up to so many new experiences… I wouldn’t have want to miss out on that.
I feel I haven’t seen that much of the world yet. I want to leave Europe if my health allows me, and immerse myself in a totally different culture and way of life. Asia and the Middle East are large attraction poles.
Artistically I started writing in Belfast and started performing in Spain. My project, Illusion of Purity, was formed here, although some of the poems go way back in time.
Politically, I’ve always been very left wing really. In Belgium, the odd thing is most of my family vote Christian-Democrats or Liberals. I felt much more leftist, the family’s political background was not passed on to me. While I was already left-wing way before I saw the Czech Republic, seeing the exploitation, the harms of mass tourism, the alcoholism, the way multinationals were organised, pushed me further to the left. I realise a lot of people from the former East Bloc are happy with the fall of communism and having access to goods never available before. But the exploitation of low cost countries is a fact. Also, the capitalist bubble is bursting more and more too. I will agree that communism was never applied well in the former East Bloc, but I personally disagree that the current situation is a bright picture.
I began to develop a very strong interest in politics along the way and started reading up more and more about it. In the end, I shifted from just left wing to far-left because in my opinion regular socialism is not going far enough in caring for a fair society where people are not equal but have equal chances. I very strongly disagree that people should just make sure they survive by themselves and in my opinion the State has the duty to make sure everyone at least has access to the basics: good healthcare, education, housing. Those should not be priviliges in my opinion, but basic rights.
People wrongly interpretate the far left and maybe even leftist politics alltogether ; they think of totalitarian regimes while those are NOT what it stands for. Communism was not applied correctly in the former East Bloc and it certainly isn’t in North Korea. I wouldn’t want to live in a society where government dictates me how to dress, where to live, how to spend my spare time… So I don’t support totalitarian regimes. Sadly enough people misinterpret left-wing politics too often with that type of regimes.
In terms of religion, as I said I am atheist. However my experiences in Turkey and many contacts with Israelis left me with a very strong fascination for Islam and Judaism. Just because I want to understand the local culture, which is impossible for someone not aware of the religious impact on society.
Finally, emotionally, I think I became a lot more fatalistic. I mean, people sometimes ask me if I’m not worried about not making a long-term career commitment, not building towards a pension anywhere due to relocating often… However, I learnt that the future is unpredictable. All we have for sure is here and now. Who knows what happens in the future? I mean, who knows if I will make it to the age one would worry about a pension? No matter what happens, I want to look back realising I did what I wanted to do in life. And there’s no time to waste in terms of that. You’re better off, in my opinion, to not worry too much about the distant future but make sure you realise your dreams when you have the energy and motivation for it. Whatever I’ve experienced, no one can take away from me anymore. Delaying your dreams for later without even knowing what “later” will be like, is like delaying your life. I’m fatalistic in that and try to make the most of NOW.
How have the language differences gone – have you found communication a problem? Was it easy or difficult to learn enough to get by? Especially as you’ve generally moved around a lot, I’m fascinated to hear about this – so many languages, so little time!
I already spoke English, French and German well before I left Belgium. In Turkey I worked for an international company so communication was not a problem at work, outside of work it was but I tried my best! In Czech Republic, the language was a mystery to me, but since I disliked my time there I never really made an effort to learn Czech.
In Spain, I try to get by with a mixture of English and a basic Spanish and Catalan. I am not intending on learning it via a language course since I want to return to the Middle East if possible. Hebrew and Turkish are thus a more wise investment than learning Spanish, I know the words I need to get things done anyway.
Was there a moment – a country – in which you suddenly realised the extent to which you had integrated? To which you hadn’t?
In Belfast, Berlin and to some extent now here in Spain, I have that feeling. But then we are in culturally familiar soil. As I said, Europe has many regional accents but no huge cultural shocks. I am full of fascination looking forward to leaving that familiar soil and going to a place where I’m out of the western cultural influence. Nothing against that culture – don’t get me wrong – but I want to immerse myself in other cultures too.
I find that writing about my experiences as an expat helps me process the cultural differences. How has your poetry influenced the way you look at your adopted countries?
Not that much really since my poetry is very much focused on life with psychological problems. And those are around everywhere on earth. The poetry is rarely about a specific place, a few poems aside. Some poems are about places I long to go to, expressing the desire for continuous travelling. Some of those with a leftist political undertone have undoubtly been inspired by my growing interest and fascination in politics and my shifting further to the left.
What advice would you have for new expats? What do you wish you had known before moving to your new home?
My advice would be: don’t jump into the unknown without doing some research, but also don’t let yourself be scared of the unknown. A lot of doomsday predictions exist about the unemployment here [in Spain]. “Don’t go, you will end up unemployed”. Well, unemployment IS a huge problem here. But then you need to keep in mind the vast majority of Spanish don’t speak a foreign language. As a multilingual, doors open that are shut for many locals. However, I’d advise against going without assuring a job first here, because life is so bloody expensive. I mean, I’ve seen some ending up in squats because regular renting was too expensive.
In a place like Berlin, where life is cheap, I’d say: if you have a decent saving, you can take the risk of leaving and do your jobhunting there. In an expensive city, that would be not a good idea, although I will add I do admire those who have the guts to do it.