We left the USA for Brussels, Belgium in 1995 to run the Europe/MiddleEast/Africa division of a Silicon Valley company; my husband as Managing Director, and me as Director of Field Operations. We had been to Europe before and were excited about the possibilities both professionally and personally. However, after the long overnight flight, I remember landing in this French speaking part of the country thinking, “What on earth am I doing here?” My French was mediocre at best, and neither of us had done any international business before. And even though we read a number of books on the subject, as well as books on Belgium, it was very different being there. We were greeted by one of the office admin with flowers at the airport and taken to our readied apartment. She had done a bit of shopping, and there was breakfast food in the fridge. After she left, I thought, “This might not be so bad after all!” After a good night’s sleep, things looked more promising in the morning.
Our office had Belgian employees, but being an American company, they all spoke English, which made it a lot easier to dive into our work. But I must say, our biggest adjustments were the language outside of work and the cultural differences both at the office and out. Our first trip to the grocery store demonstrates that well. It was there that l I realized that the first words concerning food that I needed to remember are the things that I didn’t want to eat, like horse meat, for example. And as we were standing at the register, happily watching the cashier ring up our food, we heard her scolding us in French to “get bagging!” “What?”, we said. In America, no one ever personally bags their groceries, it’s done for them. Well, that is not the case in most of Europe.
Cultural differences took some time and education as well. That year happened to be one of those rare really hot summers in Europe. Our office had a wall of windows that let in the afternoon sun, so it warmed up significantly in the afternoon. As sizzling weather is rare, there were few air conditioned offices at the time. One day at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, everyone got up and started to leave the office. OK, we were puzzled. When we asked where they were all going, we were informed, that according to Belgian law, when the temperature reached a certain level, they did not have to work, and they were all going home. We also learned that work strikes, especially in public transportation like trains and planes, could happen at the drop of a hat (often around holidays or important sports matches!), and play havoc with your business plans. Needless to say, we learned how to not sweat the things we could not control. We also learned that holidays come more often than at home, and we needed to check them out well in advance if we wanted to get any work done.
As our settling in process continued, we had a bit more time to explore our surroundings. Our first weekend out, we found ourselves having coffee outside in the Grand Place, while listening to the Brussels Jazz Festival. Taking in the historic setting with beautiful architecture, lovely music and the smells of wonderful restaurants around us, confirmed to us, that we had made the right decision to come to Brussels. We looked forward to our weekends, as Brussels was a great place to venture out from to other parts of Europe. We had a blast exploring France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg by car. And the rest of Europe with short plane rides. The cultural experience was unsurpassable.
And professionally, the international experience was priceless. You learn how to speak more slowly when speaking to people whose second language is English. You learn the courtesy words in each country and attempt to speak them, if you can, to show your interest in their country. As money makes the world go round, you get savvy with exchange rates, and learn how to price your products to sell. And as every distributor said to us the first time we met them, doing business in their country was different than in others. In some countries, the people were very efficient and all business, other countries required more social experiences like long dinners and lunches before business began. Sometimes you were told what you wanted to hear and found out later, what you didn’t want to hear is what really happened. All these little challenges presented the very best international education, one not duplicatable in books.
This experience took us out of our comfort zone like no other. It taught us that only in taking a leap can you hope to experience the rewards. We absolutely would do it again. And we did, in another country, the UK.