I’m frequently asked this question. My short answer is “I moved to Belgium to work for a communications agency in Brussels.”
I have a long answer too. Recently when I told it to someone, he considered it so amazing that he said I must share it on my blog. So here it is. After all, it does deal with how I “discovered Belgium”.
And it’s probably a good a time to do so, because 2017 is the 30th year that Liz and I have lived in Belgium. It’s the 5th anniversary of my blog. And I’ve just passed 500 followers. Three good reasons to break from blogging about hiking & cycling and write something personal.
But where to begin?
We moved to Belgium in 1987 from the Netherlands. But the story starts before that, in …
The year is 1982. October 15th. I arrived late in the evening outside a rental house in Stockport with my old Ford Escort bulging with all my belongings and with a desk strapped precariously to its roof-rack.
The plan had been to share the house with Tim, my friend from university. We were both unemployed and had decided that being miserable together while the job rejections built up was likely to be more fun than being alone and miserable. In the event, between signing the contract and moving in a week later, Tim changed his mind and decided to carry on enjoying the comfort of his parental home and his mother’s cooking.
So I moved in by myself. On my 24th birthday.
The house was old, small, unheated and barely furnished. But for me, it was a home and a base. And there I lived for a whole year.
In that time, I applied for numerous jobs, and got the same number of rejections. These were the early 80s; the UK was in recession and jobs for graduate biochemists were as rare as Trump supporters today.
But … I had a dream
I had always enjoyed writing, and as a biochemistry degree wasn’t getting me interviews, far less a job, I began to dream of being a writer. Maybe a journalist. The problem was that I knew it was no use applying for a job as a journalist as I had only a limited portfolio of published articles. One, to be precise. (Some of you will have read the sad story of my first published article elsewhere; maybe I’ll share it on this blog too).
So I set myself to getting a portfolio of published articles
I pursued this goal with great focus. I purchased a second-hand typewriter and wrote and submitted a stream of articles to newspapers and magazines on all sorts of topics. Nature, the environment, walking and cycling were my main topics as I had the background knowledge. But I also wrote about local history and sport; I even wrote a radio play for the BBC.
It was incredibly hard work. The small house I was renting had no central heating; just a tiny portable heater. As autumn turned into a very long, cold winter, sometimes I would be sitting at my desk behind my typewriter wearing a coat, hat and scarf. It even got so cold that I typed with an old pair of woollen gloves with the tops of the fingers cut off.
Until the end of August the following year – over ten months later – I was totally unsuccessful. I did not have a single word published.
And then everything changed!
One of my submissions was to New Scientist magazine. It wasn’t directly about science. It concerned the employment situation for science graduates and was (in my opinion) a humorous account of my job search. The concept was that for all the help my science degree was giving me in the job market, I would be better off selling it.
Entitled “For sale: One science degree”, it started with a small ad: “Biochemistry degree. Class 2(ii) Hons (Wales) BSc. One owner. Hardly used. Only 16 months old. Will consider exchanging for a job.”
Amazingly, they accepted the article – and paid me for it too. The mind-boggling sum of ₤60.
But that wasn’t the end of it!
One morning a week after the article had been published, and I was still glowing from the knowledge that I had instantaneously doubled my portfolio, I heard the letterbox clang. I picked up an envelope from the mat. It was not a letter, but a telegram.
“PLEASE SEND MORE SAMPLES OF WORK OTHER THAN NS ARTICLE IF INTERESTED IN POST OF TRAINEE COPYWRITER”
I read it again. And again. I found it very difficult to believe that someone was interested in me for a job.
The telegram had come from a company in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. That made it even more surreal.
That same day I packaged up my only other published article, along with half a dozen of what I considered my “best rejections”, and posted them off to Eindhoven.
Four days later …
… another telegram dropped through my letterbox (you’ve probably realised by now that there was no telephone in the house).
“THANKS COPY INTERVIEW EINDHOVEN SOONEST SUGGESTED ITINERARY FLY MANCHESTER AMSTERDAM EINDHOVEN DAY ONE OVERNIGHT EINDHOVEN RETURN DAY TWO GATWICK MANCHESTER”
As with the first telegram, I read and reread it before the implications set in.
I was being offered an interview. In the Netherlands. To be a writer. A copywriter, whatever that was.
After a brief telephone conversation to confirm dates, times and expenses, there followed a hectic but thrilling couple of days, at the end of which ….
I was offered a job!
So I ended up in Eindhoven, initially being trained as a copywriter before being let loose on clients of my own.
“What’s this got to do with Belgium?”
After four years in Eindhoven, the company I was working for didn’t have enough copywriting work for me so I looked elsewhere and took a job in Brussels with a company that promised me a heavier workload.
Imagine my disappointment when I realised that this new company actually had less work for me than the company I had just left. So two months later I decided to set up in Belgium as a freelancer and find my own clients, which I have doing ever since.
And that, as they say, is that
Writing it out like this makes me realise again what an amazing story it is, the like of which I have never experienced since.
Three lessons learned
1) Small actions can have big consequences
A person is sitting in the canteen of an office in the Netherlands. It’s his lunch-break. He idly picks up a magazine and flicks through the pages while eating his sandwiches. He reads my article and makes a decision. He returns to his office, picks up the phone and asks the publisher for my address.
It was a small action which was to change the course of my life. Not only did it result in me getting a job, but it was a job I never knew existed, in a sector that I knew nothing about, had not even considered applying to, and for which I didn’t have any qualification.
If I didn’t already believe in divine guidance, I would have started believing.
It obviously had implications for my personal life too. Just prior to the New Scientist article being published I met Liz. She encouraged me to take the job; we married seven months later; our eldest child was born in the Netherlands; our other three children in Belgium. They have grown up with Belgium as their home and educated in the Flemish system.
2) Follow your intuition: It may benefit someone
What if he had simply closed the magazine and thought:
- “The publisher will never release this guy’s address”
- “He probably isn’t interested in leaving the UK”
- “It’s easier just to ask Human Resources to place an advertisement”
But he didn’t. He followed his intuition and picked up the phone.
3) Persevere: You never know what’s just around the corner
I sometimes think back to that cold winter in Stockport, watching the woodlice crawl up the kitchen wall, shivering as the wind whistled through the cracks in the window frames, hoping the Tippex wouldn’t freeze or the typewriter seize up in the cold, and wondering if it was all worth it and if I should just give up.
I’m so glad I persevered.