From Belgium to Ireland: Ireland, Multiple Sclerosis & Me
Born in Flanders, Belgium with a really Dutch first name - Willeke - it always stuck in people’s minds as a little bit odd. From childhood, friends therefore had many nicknames for me. When one day our English teacher said he would call me William, the male name from which my female first name is also derived, it soon became Billie. I am glad to say that I’ve been called Billie (with –IE, to indicate I am female) for many years now, and an identity crisis was averted! In 2002 I moved to Ireland and I still happily live here, and still carry the nickname I grew up with.
1. Why did you move abroad?
Ireland’s history, culture and literature always captivated me when growing up. I read and savoured many travel guides and books on Irish culture, as well as the likes of William Butler Yeats, James Joyce etc. When one day my library employment contract could not be renewed, and after going through a painful break-up, I knew the time had come to move to Ireland to start the life I had been dreaming of for a very long time.
2. How do you make a living?
I was able to secure three job interviews before actually moving over, and in doing so I was able to test the lay of the land as it were (you otherwise might get in trouble financially if you start your search for a job after moving countries). The first interview never happened because of administrative errors but the second one got me a job as an Incident Coordinator in a multinational company. It was totally opposite to what I had been doing professionally, from being a library assistant (loads of paper involved in thousands of books!) to working in a ‘paperless company’ where all communication happened via email and internet. A big change, but one I gladly accepted! I was able to grow within my role in the company and I met many fantastic people. I will always think back with love and a smile on my face over what we got up to at work and in our social lives, because we certainly managed to keep ourselves happy!
Three years after moving to Ireland however, I was diagnosed with a neurological illness but managed to stay at work for another 4 years. I retired at the end of 2009 and looking back now, it was the best decision I could have made on a physical level. Of course I miss my colleagues, my role within the company and social life attached to work, but I am able to keep my mind busy and perhaps, with new research and medication becoming more widely available, I might be able to return to work. I am quite hopeful it might happen someday!
3. How often do you communicate with home and how?
A lot! Because of my illness, my family and I keep in very regular contact, each day in fact! If global events are interesting subjects to keep on talking about, perhaps twice or more! We do so by using Skype and the old landline/mobile phone networks, as well as Facebook, email etc. I definitely learned how to talk in Ireland, where the gift of the gab is a blessed thing!
4. What's your favorite thing about being an expat in Ireland?
Where do I begin? There’s so much I love about being an expat! On a personal level, perhaps the fact that I was able to realize my dream of living in Ireland, and the total freedom I had and still have in doing so. It shows that if you work and dream hard enough, dreams really can come true. Also, seeing how welcoming Irish people were and still are, is such a great feeling. When Irish people hear I’ve been living here for over 11 years, they are surprised at my strength and determination to continue living in Ireland, despite an incurable illness and despite Ireland’s economic woes and recession. Irish people are a class apart, and feeling their friendship, love and warm attitude are what keeps me going.
5. What’s the worst thing about being an expat in Ireland?
I would find it hard finding a negative. I could list having to spell out my name every single time I meet someone because I need to say my name a few times before they (still!) say it all wrong! As mentioned earlier on, this almost lead to an identity crisis! Otherwise? Perhaps lacking the same innate love for alcohol as the Irish seem to be born with; it has even made some people wonder why on earth I moved to Ireland when I don’t like alcohol!
6. What do you miss most?
Obviously my family, first and foremost. Luckily Belgium is only 1h15 away from Ireland, so they visit regularly. Missing out on seeing my niece and nephew grow up and being away from the constant comical behaviour some people in my family portray day in, day out also, but we make up for lost time when we see each other again.
What I also miss are the things I used to be able to do in Ireland before my diagnosis, like hillwalking, rock climbing, going out every weekend and other activities. Sometimes it’s a very cruel feeling as I am still in the country I always wanted to live, but hillwalking is sorely missed now. Thankfully I managed to channel my low energy levels into advocating and lobbying better neurological services, something also very rewarding.
7. What did you do to meet people and integrate in your new home?
I joined college, the gym and used to go out a lot before my illness became a hassle. My integration went really smoothly and I found stepping into Irish society, easy.
8. What custom/ habits do you find most strange about your adopted culture?
The fact that some think only people who drink and love to party should be allowed to move to Ireland! The lack of proper time management on some in Irish society and people asking you “How are you?” and walking on without waiting for your answer. In the beginning it baffled me and thought it quite rude, but the question is a mere “Hi there!” greeting!
9. What is a myth about your adopted country?
That everything in Ireland is quite “quaint”. Some tourists are quite disappointed when they travel to Ireland for the first time. These days, Dublin is just like other European capital, and the real Ireland can only be found when you leave Dublin behind you. Also, not everyone has long, red, curly hair and/or blue eyes. I rather suspect the Irish government makes the world believe these generalities to draw in people looking for the old, romantic Ireland that is long gone.
10. Is the cost of living higher or lower than the last country you lived in and how has that made a difference in your life?
Definitely higher. Again one of those generalities that do not stroke with the old, romantic Ireland where everything was so cheap you could sell your sheep for a fiver. Food prices are a little bit of a shock at first, as are household bills etc. It simply made me refocus my finances on the most important things, especially now when I have to budget on an invalidity pension.
11. What advice would you give other expats?
To think hard before you emigrate, why you want to do so, and if you think you would be the type of person who could easily adapt to a new and different society, job culture, way of life etc. Also, see if you can secure a job before you move because you might end up financially dry if you first move and then look for a job. It’s not always easy finding a job quickly. You might have to look for a while and find that you have to return to your native country if you didn’t calculate in certain circumstances. Especially in countries where recession rules.
12. When and why did you start your blog?
I started blogging two years ago after friends kept on telling me I should write a book about my experiences - some mad or simply too funny to quote – about life in Ireland. Especially since my multiple sclerosis diagnosis and early retirement, I bring a very honest view on health services in Ireland. Also, the idea of wanting to help others with my experiences and thoughts on life in a country where recession rules despite my own optimism, were key to starting a blog. It’s not all drab and negativity, you just have to find that silver lining in every single cloud!
Billie's blog, Ireland, Multiple Sclerosis & Me
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Correction: I managed to stay at work for another 4 years after diagnosis, not 6 years...Billie 16 Jan 2014, 16:04