This was an interview I was thrilled to be invited to do. I made a business trip to Bogota in 2004, slightly concerned about security issues on departure my fears were quickly assuaged on arrival. We were welcomed as family by my father-in-laws long standing business contacts, and found people in general to be relaxed and very friendly. Ever since flying out I have wanted to return to discover more about this beautiful, warm and vibrant country.
So, I wondered, would Veerle a Belgium Agronomist feel the same way about the country and the people?
What attracted Veerle and her family to Cali?
Veerle came to live in Cali, Colombia seven years ago. They were drawn to Colombia and Cali in particular by an attractive career move for her husband. However they had arrived with doubts, the security issues uppermost in their minds. Veerle admitted that they arrived with pretty low expectations.
So what has been your experience so far?
To their surprise and delight their experience of life in Colombia has been “very positive”. Cali is Colombia’s third largest city and the surrounding valley is the centre for the sugar cane industries. For a time it was the centre for drug traffickers and the ‘Cali drug cartel’, but now it is better known as the capital of Salsa!
What have been the positive aspects of life in Cali?
The climate is one of the first that Veerle mentions, not a surprise to me as a fellow Northern European, but a surprise to Veerle it seems as she was not expecting the positive impact an average 23° degree temperature could have on their lifestyle. They are used to eating all meals outside on the terrace and the children are able to swim and play outdoors all year round.
Perhaps the weather has an impact on the temperament of the people as Veerle describes the locals as warm, open minded and talkative. She says it would be difficult to feel alone in Cali as the locals are not afraid of foreigners and do not treat you as though you are an outsider.
Veerle and her husband arrived from Belgium seven years ago. Prior expatriate experience included nine months in Sri Lanka and four years in Ecuador. Arriving in Ecuador without speaking any Spanish was challenging and Veerle recognised the advantage that her language skills gave her when they first arrived in Colombia.
Veerle recommends that people learn some Spanish before heading to Colombia as certainly in Cali few foreign languages are spoken; don’t expect to be able to fall back on English she warns.
How easy was it to adapt to life in Colombia?
Because of their language skills, adaptation to life in Cali was generally “quite easy”. The couple’s two children were very little when they arrived, only nine months and two years old and so they had very few adaptation problems. Being able to speak Spanish was a great asset in the initial settling in phase, helping greatly with the house and nursery hunting.
A bigger problem initially was the adaptation of their families back home to life without them. The distance from Belgium and the added security concerns meant that this was not a popular move from the extended families perspective. But annual visits back to Belgium over the summer and visits to Colombia helped the grandparents in particular to become more “tranquil” about her families new home.
Veerle describes the security issues as manageable, they live in a compound and that helps a lot. She advises a common sense approach to personal security; suggesting that you take care if you are walking in the streets, don’t wear your best jewellery or carry money and don’t walk around late at night. There are still Guerrilla’s around in some areas of Colombia and as a result there are certain places that you simply avoid. Follow these straight-forward guidelines and you are likely to be safe she feels.
So life for Veerle and her family in Cali has been positive and enjoyable. I wonder, as an accompanying partner, whether she feels she has lost out from a career perspective? Veerle explains that both she and her husband are Agronomists. When they lived in Ecuador they were both able to work, which she recognised as being a big benefit.
On arrival in Colombia it looked as though she wouldn’t be able to work and for a while she was happy with that, becoming a ‘stay at home mum’, doing some charity work in a local orphanage, playing tennis and meeting up with other Mums.
Veerle says that she enjoyed these three years, but realised that she wasn’t ready to ‘retire’ completely. At the three year mark her husband needed to renew his contract and this precipitated a re-think about her career. Veerle’ husband was keen to stay but she was concerned this would mean that she couldn’t continue to pursue her career.
Fortunately for them, her husband’ company found Veerle a part time job. Currently Veerle works as a Consultant and is able to combine her career with her family responsibilities. Because she is able to employ a full-time maid she recognises that “life is definitely less stressful than it would be in Belgium”.
What have been the challenges?
So it all sounds so good! I wonder whether there have been any challenges or difficulties? Veerle had touched upon the subject of being the accompanying partner and choosing to take a career break when they first arrived in Colombia. This she found a challenge as it forced them as a couple to re-distribute the family responsibilities. Suddenly as the non-working partner she was expected to do the household, family and home administration tasks. This when linked to having newly arrived, with two very young children seemed a big responsibility in a strange country.
Another issue for Veerle is communication. Despite speaking pretty fluent Spanish she said she finds it difficult to complain or discuss problems satisfactorily with the locals. It is due to the indirect way of communicating and she feels that this is more related to cultural differences than problems in vocabulary.
At work she says it is clear that the Colombians are not so direct, more flexible and perhaps a little less demanding of their colleagues and staff when compared to Northern Europeans. However this is not a cultural clash as such and it was not difficult for Veerle and her husband to adapt to the habits of the working office and the staff. They both appreciate the open- mindedness of their colleagues. The biggest issue for her husband is summed up by this direct quote:
“He loves South-America, but salsa dancing is not and will never be his cup of tea!”
Agreeing prices for manual work such as gardening, household repairs is also an area where Veerle recognises cultural differences. Rarely do prices stay constant and there always seems to be an increase backed by explanations such as:
- “due to the rains there were a lot of weeds”
- “I needed to do more coats of paint than I thought”
- “you said it was urgent and it is not as easy a job as the one you asked me to do”
Gradually, Veerle feels that they are beginning to learn that people are a lot more open to price negotiation than in Northern Europe, even down to the kindergarten fees.
The schools are also a concern for her. Her children go to an international school where only 5% of the children are expatriates. The school system and approach is very different from the Belgium way of educating. She describes the Belgians as being much more demanding of their children. Colombia has a much more relaxed approach which she found attractive until her eldest child became seven. Now, she feels it is time to start to challenge them. Veerle also worries that her children may not be best prepared for a return to the Belgium system when they eventually return home.
Currently one of the biggest issues they face is what to do next. Their contract comes to an end next year and so they are trying to decide whether to continue to another country or return to Belgium. On the one hand I sense that Veerle loves the adventure and experience of living abroad. However she also mentions that the insecurity of not ever really knowing what and where next can seem a little wearing, especially when she compares that aspect of their lives to that of friends back home who have stable, secure jobs. As they approach their forties she is wondering, one more overseas experience or should they return home?
Whatever their eventual decision, we would like to thanks Veerle for sharing her experiences of life in Colombia with us and wish them all the very best for their future.
Author: Louise Wiles. Louise is an Expatriate Coach providing products and coaching support for people who are either working through a relocation decision, planning and preparing to move abroad or adapting to a their new life abroad. If you would like to contact Louise you can email her Louise@SuccessAbroadCoaching.com or visit her website www.SuccessAbroadCoaching.com.