Tag Archives: immigration

The story of a Belgian in America: Company Blog Post

We’ve published 4 blog posts about my expat experience the past weeks. Please follow the following links to read the 4 posts.

I’ve had generally very good feedback on these, and many LinkedIn requests. However, I’ve also had some remarks that I’m not very positive about the USA in my writing. I’m sorry to say, but the people who understood that from the blog post, completely missed the point. The blog was not meant as a glorification of America. It is about the experience, the transformation, of a person moving abroad and integrating/assimilating into the “foreign” society. It is not meant to be about America, it is meant to be about the expat, the person. Things you experience, things that are different, roadblocks, etc. Immigrants are a different breed. It is something people that never lived abroad for an extended period of time will never understand. I’m not asking for understanding or (dis)approval. My intention is to give people who are willing to take the jump, an idea what to expect. Do not give up while waiting for your visa, do not stop your life while waiting. Pay attention on remuneration, comparing is difficult, it is OK to miss things, but don’t get homesick. Understand you will change as a person in every way possible and understand the people around you will most likely not understand. Just like Steve Jobs was nervous every time he had to go on stage to show the latest Apple product, so does the expat feel nervous every time he/she ends up in a new situation. And just like Jobs, the expat will come out of the situation stronger and a step closer to perfection. But, and this is a big but, it is not for everyone. You need to be the type of person who wants to be nervous about things, who wants to be put out of your comfort zone. THAT is the point of this 4-series blog post.


1) How it all started
2) The paperwork struggle
3) Discover the people, discover yourself
4) Atlanta is Home


Big Bend National Park

This Memorial Day weekend we took the trip from Dallas, TX to the far South of the state; to the Big Bend National Park. An 10 hour drive, including some gas & food stops, through the heart of Texas oil country and through largest Texas wind farm. 380 miles straight on highway I-20. Its the type of road trip I really like.

The Big Bend National Park is an amazing place. Desert land, mountains, cliffs, valleys, some rivers (including the Rio Grande, the boarder with Mexico), sand, rocks,… On top of that, plants and wildlife are amazing. Cactus in the wild. It is still something amazing for me. But the cherry on the cake is without doubt the wild snakes we saw (and a crazy Texan pulling the Rattlesnake out of a hole, and his teenage son playing with it using a stick (WTF?!), the wild Black Bear passing by our car (I lack webspace to load the really cool video I made) and the Vultures, eating the roadkill rabbits in the morning. Certainly worth a visit!

Tip for immigrants: Having just your US drivers license/ID with you is apparently not sufficient. Going to Big Bend national park, chances are nearly 100% for you to be stopped by the US boarder patrol on your way out. You will need your official ID’s (passports, I-94,…) to show them. I speak from experience, they did not like the fact I only had my Texas drivers license with me. “This shows me you are allowed to drive in Texas, but it does not prove you are allowed to be here”, the officer told me.

I was taken apart and had to read a paragraph of the law that basically said that the officer in charge could fine me up to 100 USD, put me in jail for up to 30 days and even deport me if he wanted to. Thankfully I got off with a warning, and have now printed my I-94 and take it with me at all times. Just so you all know…


Thanksgiving marks the start of the holiday season in the USA.
The great American holiday celebrating the first harvest in the New World; is probably the holiday of the year. It is the most important family day in the USA and it is the busiest day for traffic (air, train and road).
Turkey is the national dish that marks this holiday, pretty much like Christmas back in Europe. Americans love traditions, much more than the average European, so almost everyone in the entire country is having Turkey.

Being here for the first time, my mother (back in Belgium) was kind of worried about me spending the holidays alone. I have to admit, this was a concern to me too before I moved. Would America and the American people accept me in their lives? Living here now, I know Americans are very friendly and open people. Several people have invited me to their homes to celebrate all the major holidays; including Thanksgiving.

So I went to the parents home of some friends I made here in the past months. All the people (family and friends) were really nice and friendly. The food was… amazing. The common perception back in Belgium that Americans never cook and cannot cook food, is just plain wrong. The picture below, was the best turkey I ever had, and without doubt one of the better meals I’ve had since moving to the USA.


It was a really good experience and I want to thank my hosts for the invite! Another great American tradition I can tick off my to-do list.
Thank you!

Week 1 & 2, in the USA

My colleague and team lead always said that “a hotel is the worst place to be sick”… but I trumped that during my first week in the US of A.

It all started fine on monday morning, slept well, got up at 5.30am (CET), my dad took me to the train station in Lille and I took the TGV to CDG airport for my ‘moving flight’ to the USA.

Took a taxi from DFW to the rental car office downtown (If you rent long term, it makes sense not to rent from the airport rental, since it is a lot less expensive; also it is cheaper to rent a car with a Belgian Drivers lisence, than it is using a US drivers license… A difference of 300$ for 25 days, weird). Anyhow, I cannot remember whether I paid the taxi using my Belgian credit card or cash, (see below why this matters). I got in the rental car office, used my Belgian credit card (the only one with enough credit limit -or so I thought-) and drove the car to my new apartment. Got the keys, checked the room, liked what I saw, tried to picture the size of everything and drove off to Best Buy a bit down the road to buy a GPS. Then got to the Hotel to check in (I took a hotel room for a day, because my apartment is empty at this point and I do not feel like sleeping on the ground/carpet). I have spend 60 days in this hotel in 2012, so the people at the reception recognized me and welcomed be back. I asked the receptionist if the ‘Full Breakfast coupon’ from last year was still valid, and she confirmed. I was happy, already thinking of the good food that awaited me the next day.

I took the day off the first day planning to get furniture, a mattress and other necessary stuff. I had a good breakfast and took off to the closest Target to buy basic stuff like toilet paper and forks, knifes,…
Got back to the apartment and suddenly started to feel sick… really sick… To cut a long story short, I spend the first 3-4 hours in my new home no further than 3 feet from my toilet. Then I fell asleep on the carpet (remember, I still have NOTHING whatsoever, except for -thankfully- toilet paper and some basic stuff like a glass to drink some water. I feel like shit and all I really want at this point is the comfort of a bed or sofa, a blanket and a pillow. I have none of that. My colleague and team lead always said that “a hotel is the worst place to be sick”… but I trumped that during my first week in the US of A. Being sick in an empty apartment, trumps everything and I do not wish it to anyone. After laying on the carpet for a few hours, I get a call from the rental office. Apparently there was a problem with my credit card and they needed me to get that fixed asap. I get up, walk around a bit, feel slightly better and decide to just go to the rental car office and get things over with.
We try several cards, none work (or better; none have sufficient credit limit). We decide to make the renting period shorter, and now it works. I promise to get back to them one of the following days once I have the credit resolved. It is now about 5pm, Needless to say that my objectives for buying furniture were not met. I do not want to go back to the hotel, and decide to go back to Target and buy a (camping) air mattress, pillow and some blankets to get trough the first days. I am going back to work tomorrow.

On Friday, I called my bank to raise the limit on my debit card (yes, there are limits on debit cards!?), and plan to go to the rental office in the weekend. Also, I got myself a contract with AT&T. I was expecting a huge discussion, but I just went into the shop at NorthPark, explained the situation (just moved here, already have an Iphone, want minutes, messages and 3gb of data on a monthly contract). In half an hour everything was fixed, including the transfer of my prepaid card to a monthly contract. I pay slightly below 100$/month. It is still crazy expensive compared to europe, but taking into account the regular contract is 240$/month I’m fairly happy with the monthly rate. Basically every half year I ‘save’ a new Iphone by using a monthly contract on an unlocked phone. I still wonder why so little Americans take this option. It is not that hard!
On a funny note, while I was walking to the shop, my Belgian service suddenly stopped. Perfect timing is what that is called! ( And again, many will wonder why I would take a contract with AT&T, well yes they are expensive but they are also to only one that allow you to surf and talk at the same time, and they have an extensive and reliable network).

Weekend! I get up early to go shopping, spend hours at several stores (Ashley’s, Rooms to Go, Ikea, Mattress Firm) On Saturday I actually left my apartment at 9: I go back to the rental office to extend my rental again to the original request. Weirdest thing, I have to pay a 10$ extension fee, but for some weird reason the total is suddenly less than the original request. I check everything, seems all OK so I just walk out again, happy this is resolved, and ask my GPS where the closest furniture store is. A nice salesman shows me around the store, explaining me all kinds of things, helping me choose the mattress I need. But, I cannot buy here just yet. That would be wrong, I need to check more stores. He understands, gives me his card and tells me that if I decide to buy there, I can get discounts up to 20%. Sounds good, but I forget to make notes of prices of the furniture; a rookie mistake I will not repeat. I check out several stores, all of them have huge sales. Basically everything is a reason for sales in the USA: Valentine sales, birthday sales, presidents day sales, Christmas sales, summer sales, special sales… you name it.
I left my apartment at 9am, and only got back at 10pm. I was in shops all day trying out, getting info, trying to get discounts (What? 0% financing, but no discount if I pay cash!? Are you trying to rip me off? -salesman looks weird, repeats: “no discounts for cash”, and I decide to leave the store-). Another funny comment a salesman gave me was: “look how strong this is! This is real wood, directly from the Indonesian rain Forrest! Cheap and strong, not like the European stuff!”; There is no way a comment like that would ever sell anything in Belgium, and I didn’t know if I should be amused, or ashamed for even considering that furniture.
I checked out 2 different Ashley stores, their prices were the same, but the type of discounts you could get was very different and made things hard to compare. At one shop I got free delivery and 10% discount, the other gave me 25% discount. My advice: Really do check several stores, even from the same brands; they might be operated very differently.
When I got back to my apartment, there was a huge storm, I have not seen many storms like that and it was pretty scary to drive. When it rains in Texas it rains like there is no tomorrow. Even a week later, some lower-grounds are still full of water.

I did not fall for the sales, I did the calculations and ended up buying at Ashley (bedroom, mattress and living room). I got a 25% discount from my salesman Scott (if you are in the Dallas area and want furniture, let me know I will give you his contact details, refer to me and you might get a discount like that too!). I paid cash in 100 dollar bills, which made people look funny at me. I had to explain to them that it is extremely difficult to get a decent limit on your debit/credit cards as a new immigrant in the USA. They thought it was pretty funny when I said: “It is more difficult to spend your own money here, than it is to spend money you do not have.” Funny, but also true.
The delivery of mattress was done a few days later. The other stuff is going to be delivered by the end of the month.
The next week my colleagues (they seem the closest to family I have around here) were so nice to drive to Ikea and help me buy a dining table, chairs, desk chair and some lamps. Too much stuff for me to carry on my own, and too much for my rental car to carry. It took me 4 days to build all the stuff and I am now really happy I did not buy everything at Ikea (they did not seem very cheap anyway compared to the other furniture stores).

I had to buy a TV, vacuum cleaner, iron, washing machine and dryer. I am still not convinced I actually need a dryer, but there is no possibility of a decent conversation on the topic, talking to Americans (I mean that in a very nice way), so I just bought one and got it over with. I bought all this stuff at Fry’s, their in-store service is -to american norms- horrible; I think I used an entire tree on papers to fill in between the departments. They also refuse to ship everything once you pay for shipping, they actually wanted me to pay twice because I had to many items! After threatening to just leave some of the items in the store if they did not deliver it, they proposed to get everything nice and save into my car. That was fine with me. (Dryer and washer were still delivered). Mediocre service, but comparing the prices of the stuff I bought on the internet and other shops, they were always cheaper. Sometimes small savings, sometimes huge. Still worth the trouble of filling in a zillion papers in the store.

To end my 2100-word post of the week (yes, you have been reading a lot if you got here!), I want to end with something typically american: My (Belgian) credit card got hacked and was used for all kinds of internet purchases. 1400 EUR (1800 USD) of sales I have nothing to do with. As I said in the beginning, I do not know if I paid the cab driver with this card. If so, he did it. If not, it was the rental car service. I have not had any issues for almost a year and I thought the chip would help, but as I found out just yesterday, you can actually purchase stuff on the internet with just your credit card number. Pretty scary. I hope I will get that money back, it is a lot of money… and I’m still wondering if I should go to the police office and file a complaint. It MUST be either one of these purchases, and the more I think about it, the renting office makes more sense given the dates and the ‘problems’ I had there.
Fraud happened between March 7th and March 13th. on the 13th my card was automatically blocked, a new card and code was sent to my Belgian address, but I only found it there was a fraud problem on March 19th. Why would the credit card company block my card, send a new one, but not inform me about what happened??? FAIL to BCC corporate, you should at least send me an e-mail and let me know. Calling Belgian card stop 070 344 344 was an awesome experience with a phone contract that does not allow you to call foreign numbers. I still need to fix that (and thank you again to my colleague who helped me out in the time of need!).

Many experiences… many more to come. Next big thing is getting a drivers license.
Oh, and last weekend was Saint Patrick’s day. The day religious Irish people celibate the extinction of snakes on the Irish Ile, and Americans celibate Irish culture with huge amounts of green beer. I will try and post something about this phenomenon some time later.

Telecom in the USA

I was thinking about buying an Iphone5, so checked out some stuff about this and what I came up with was bad… really bad.

I’m used to having an Iphone with Belgiums largest provider Proximus. Now, to begin with, Phones in Belgium are -as far as I know- never locked. You buy a phone and choose a provider. Although you mostly buy them together, they are in no way connected to each other.

In the USA, phones are rarely sold without contract. In fact, the Iphone5 is usually sold with a 2 year contract (!!!).
You have the “choice” between AT&T, Sprint and Verizon. And the non-difference between the 3 options is astonishing. They all basically force you to buy a contract including minutes, text messages and data. AT&T and Sprint actually force you to pay for Tethering (a standard feature of the Iphone!!!) and the only reason Verizon does not make you pay for that is because they had a federal case against them which caused them to include it in their data plan.
The difference between the 3 are in the details… Please note, that what follows does not come from my personal experience, but from what I have learned visiting and reading internet (including the provider their sites).
First of all, there is Sprint, they are the cheapest of the three. But the price is still FAR above what you would pay in Europe. But their service is apparently not so good. They have a lot of drop calls (for those not living in America, drop calls are calls that just “drop”. A significant percentage of calls actually get dropped around here) and do not have very good coverage. Now to be honest, I’m not sure if the coverage would be an actual problem for those basically never leaving a big city like Dallas, but I wanted to share all info I have (if I’m wrong, feel free to comment).
Then there is Verizon. They are supposed to have the best and most extensive 4G network in the USA and do not charge you extra for tethering. They are also the most expensive.
At finally there is AT&T. One of the top 10 “most hated” companies in the USA. (Fun fact: I’m a customer/user of numbers 1, 2 AND 3. HA!) AT&T actually has a faster 3G network then any other company, their customer service is terrible (as the article above explains) and… they are the only actual choice you have. Seriously! AT&T is the ONLY of the three alternatives that gives you the possibility to surf the internet while you call. WTF? Indeed. This feature is so basic in Europe, that nobody even thinks about it. Here in the USA, only AT&T gives you the possibility to do that. What is the use of a smart phone if you cannot even update your calendar while a customer is calling you?
My advice: check, check and check again before buying something in a country you do not know. Many Americans will not give you this information because they do not even know it exists! And when you sign up for a contract like this, you pay a 350 USD cancellation fine.

Oh, and did I mention you actually have to request being able to call foreign numbers? :-)

Almost there?

Step by step, we are getting there.

Last Friday I went to the Social Security Office to apply for my social security card. I had my SS-5 form ready, so armed with and all my papers (passport, I-94, employment contract proposal and my tablet) I went to the SSO. I expected this to be a pain, because that is what people told me it would be. I walked into a room with a lot of people speaking all kinds of languages, took a number, and sat there waiting for my number to be called. I started my tablet, to learn for my Texas drivers license while I was waiting and was ready for a few hours of waiting-game.
However, only 27 minutes later, my number was called. I gave the nice lady my papers, she typed everything over into her computer program (which is why I recommend filling in the PDF form before you print it, just like I did! It saves on spelling errors) and I was gone in 3 minutes.
I’m supposed to get my papers within 7-14 days. I just wish everything was as smooth as this process. *touch wood*

The past days, I also received my bank debit card, a nice letter asking me for my social security number in order to complete my credit card application (which I not have at the moment) and a weird letter about Debit Card Overdraft Service explaining to me that my debit card actually allows me to spend more then I have on my account and using this “service” will cost me money if I do not make a covering deposit the same day. Well duh.
The banking system in Europe and the USA are very different, yet both seem to have a weird need to send as many separate envelopes as possible. I guess it is a hidden subsidy to the national postal services.

The above reminds me of the letter a Belgian bank sent me last year to get their 43 eurocent of interest. The funny thing was that a postal stamp costs 56 cents and the account I was supposed to pay the 43 cent for was blocked and in debt due to their own miscalculation of value dates. They fixed it (for free), but I thought it was pretty funny they paid a 56 cents postal stamp to get 43 cents of income (and I’m not even calculating the cost of manpower, paper and ink).

Anyhow. The really weird thing -for me as a foreigner- I received from Wells Fargo is that my debit card comes with a “POS limit” (POS = Point of Sales) of 1500 USD. Basically this means I can only spend 1500/day with my debit card on sales. (Any European will find this extremely weird, as far as I know my Belgian debit cards limit is the amount of money on my checking account, I certainly have never had a blocked debit card). So , I send my personal contact person at the bank a nice e-mail asking him how they expect me to pay for furniture, electronics or a car with a 1500 USD limit debit card and no credit card at all (remember, the US uses credit history, which I do not have yet since I have no US history at all). He came back to me that I can simply let him know I’m planning to spend “a lot” of money and they will make sure it is OK. I understand why. If you steal my debit card in Belgium, you really cannot do anything with it without my pin-code. However, in the USA while you actually do have a pin-code (used to get money from ATM’s), you never need your pin when buying things at a random shop. Consequently, you loosing your debit card is a big deal. It’s funny and weird, but OK. If this is how it works, I’ll join this game and let the bank know when I go out shopping.

For your information (especially if you are also an immigrant like me), when you call Wells Fargo to active your debit card, at some point they ask you for your social security number (which you might not have at this point): Simply press start (*) and the voice message will just continue and not care that you didn’t enter it. I do not know whether this is a bug or a feature, I just pushed anything I could think of and it worked. :-)

Totally unrelated note while writing this post: Why on earth is Geico changing their cool green salamander (or whatever that thing is) into a pig???

On Edit 01/31/2013: Social Security Card is in!!! Next: Drivers License. I also found out that paying by Debit Card generates a direct update from your checking account here in the US. In Belgium you need to wait till the next day to see the changes, since the store payment terminals are updated “in batch”, in the USA it seems to be real-time. Kinda cool.