London calling

Antwerp-born mum-of-two, Freya Van Onckelen tells us about raising her French-Belgian girls in London.

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Photo by Benjamin Davies on Unsplash

Please tell us a little bit about yourself: Where are you from? When did you leave Belgium and where are you now? How many children do you have, and what ages are they?

My name is Freya I left Belgium ten years ago to join my boyfriend in London. I got married (and divorced) in London, had my two children here and build up a career even though I am about to take a gap year right now.

What felt like the biggest cultural difference between Belgium where you live now?

To start with the obvious one, the attitude towards Europe is different: the British talk about Europe as “they” whereas the Belgians talk about Europe as “us”. This emotional connection explains in my opinion a lot of the current situation we are in.

Apart from this I think Belgians and British people are quite similar, I grew up watching a lot of British television in Belgium, for example Faulty Towers, Blackadder, Chef, etcetera so I have always appreciated the British sense of humour!

How did your kids react to the move? (if relevant) How do you try to ensure your children’s connection with Belgium and feeling Belgian? What language(s) do you speak at home?

My daughters who are 6 and 10 now were both born here and go to a French school so they feel partly French partly British.

I do try to speak with them in Flemish to keep the connection with Belgium and to make sure they can communicate with their cousins.

I also try to make them watch television in Flemish (thank you Netflix) so that they associate the language with fun activities rather than “mama” imposing this language on them that nobody else speaks.

What do you miss most about Belgium?

I miss Antwerp the city I grew up in, I miss being able to speak my mother tongue and I miss not having to spell my last three times before people get it, “Van Onckelen”, it really is not that difficult, or is it?

What opportunities do you have now that you didn’t have when you were living in Belgium?

London is super multi-cultural and it attracts the most driven and interesting people from around the world, so I am very grateful for the people I have met here and the friends I have made.

It has definitely enlarged my view of the world and increased my self awareness as living in a foreign country always does.

Have you made friends with many ‘locals’ where you’re living now, or do you find yourself socialising mainly with other expats? Do you remain close to friends and family in Belgium? How often do you come back?

I have made lots of new friendships here, be it neighbours, parents of other children in my daughters’ school or through a book club I joined.

I do try to keep in touch with my “old” friends as well though, there is something special about having grown up together that you cannot replace with some of the newer friendships.

What about food: do you still crave food from Belgium or have you ‘gone local’? What are some of your favourite Belgian food or drinks?

I do crave Belgian food but you can find most of it here, London has a couple of Belgian restaurants and recently I discovered a Belgian “frituur” in Brighton where they cook the fries the Belgian way and they even got all the equipment from Belgium as well!

Do you feel that living outside your home country has been enriching? If yes, how has it shaped you and your family?

Yes absolutely, it makes you so much more open minded, and even though I think it is important to keep in touch with your roots and be proud of them it also teaches you how relative everything is.

I have started adopting London as home now and I have applied for British citizenship because I genuinely feel part of society here.

What tips would you give to people who may be thinking of moving / planning to move country with a family in tow? How do you give yourself the best chances of a smooth transition?

People make the difference so if you can try to get in touch with as many local people as you can and ask them for advice in terms of housing, schooling, jobs etcetera.

Have an open mind, there will be lots of differences and change but in the end that is usually a good thing!

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