"Brussels and Madrid are the same: they don't belong to anyone"

Laura Hagemann-Arellano. The name’s quite a mouthful, as it’s supposed to be in Spain. Laura works at the European Commission in Brussels, managing investment programs for economic growth and social cohesion in Spain. She knows the country and the ways of the people. Born and raised in Madrid, Laura moved to Belgium for love many years ago, but she’s still very much in touch with the motherland. “Although I must say that Spain is not the same as twenty years ago. An extended period of political mismanagement and economic deprivation has left the country somewhat immersed in a crisis of values and identity.”

Andalusian temperatures as I’m waiting for Laura on the pavement terrace of an Italian Bistro at Brussels Merode. I’ve chosen a shadowy spot and ordered a tall glass of icy water, to cool down a bit. Luckily, Laura’s appearance is refreshing as well, she seems unmoved by the exceptionally hot sun (by Belgian standards). Obviously, she’s had worse. With a Prosecco delicately propped between her fingertips, Laura tells me stories about her Madrilenian childhood, and about how she found Belgian love in England.

"Madrid and Brussels are very similar, in the sense that they don’t belong to anybody. You’ll find people from all over the country in both capitals. Everyone’s part of the city, and at the same time no one is really from the city. This distinguishes Madrid and Brussels from the runner-ups, Barcelona and Antwerp. These cities are much more ‘proud of themselves’. If you really want to become a Barcelonan or an Antwerpian, it’ll probably take you a lot of time and effort."

Is that why you chose to come to Brussels in particular?

"No, I ended up here because of a very common reason: an Erasmus love story. I was studying at the Complutense University in Madrid, and I did an exchange semester in London. There, I met a Belgian guy, and I fell in love. You know what they say: “Erasmus Orgasmus”. So of course, back in Spain, I felt blue the entire time, because I wanted to be with him. And so I finally decided to move here. Now we have two children: products of Erasmus!"

Fed up with Madrid

And I guess, with Brussels being so similar to Madrid, the move wasn’t too radical of a change for you?

"Exactly. Plus: by then, I was a little fed up with Madrid anyway. The mind-set of the people had become a bit narrow and restrictive. Suddenly, you had to belong to some group or social stratum. You had to behave and even think in a particular way. I hate to be put into a box like that, I’m a strong believer of freedom and individuality.

So the move to Brussels was sort of liberating. It’s not that Belgians never put people into boxes, it’s that, when they do, they tend to leave me out of it. I only belong to the box of ‘the expat’, and, in there, I can be whatever. As an expat, you become kind of ‘decontextualized’, and I like that. Especially in Brussels, where so many nationalities and cultures coexist, this feeling of individuality is amplified."

So you don’t miss Spain at all?

"I do, I do. It's just that I don’t like to get melancholic. I miss the crowded streets, and the countless possibilities for going out alone or with family. Everything’s just a bit more vibrant in Madrid, and everything stays open until late. And, obviously, there’s the weather…

I also miss the incredible variety of towns and landscapes. If you get 100 kilometres out of Madrid, in any direction, you’ll find yourself in a completely different setting every time. Each small region has its own architecture, cuisine, and etiquette. This sort of diversity kind of diminishes once you get close to central-western Europe. Everything’s a bit more homogenous here."

2010 AP

The directness of the Dutch, without the exaggeration

Are there other things about Belgium that kind of grind your gears?

"Sure. There’s the fact that people are not as outspoken. They tend to hide their thoughts and feelings. And this can get in the way of positive change. After all, how can you evolve if you hide away your frustrations? Also: client service is horrible in Belgium. Not at this particular restaurant, though (holds up her Prosecco).

But the outspokenness remains private, and only rarely goes public. This is especially the case with the Flemish. They have some of the directness of the Dutch, so they're not afraid to vent their opinions to family and friends, but they don't do it all the time and everywhere. They don't exaggerate. Flemings have a straightforward way of talking about societal issues, and they can laugh about politically incorrect stuff as well. But not in all contexts."

What are some other things about Belgium you really like?

"I like the strong values Belgians hold onto. Here’s a country that still takes care of its inhabitants. People don’t put others on a scale, and the fact that they’re more traditional – sometimes even conservative – can be seen as a positive trait. They like to hold onto their values, and their money, not going on crazy spending sprees. This long-term way of thinking and general abiding by the rules is, once again, a kind of contrast between this country and Spain.

In the meantime, the government takes care of private initiatives by citizens. I see a lot of artistic and very local projects here in Brussels, thrown by individuals and small organisations. And the government supports them. I love that."

The world’s best place-to-be for young people

Any habits you gained or lost after coming here?

"You’re probably thinking of the siesta (laughs), but I never really did that to begin with. However, I’m a firm believer in hot summer vacation naps, and in daytime sleeps for the kids! I think it’s good for them. Some of the Spanish might still take daily siestas, because they often get very long breaks. They go to work at 8AM, then work until 1:30PM, go home to eat and sleep, start again at five, and work until eight. But people are starting to realize that it’s an ineffective, out-dated system, so they’re changing their ways.

A habit I gained after coming here is exercise. I learned how to ski, for example. And I started taking my bike everywhere. On the whole, I think I’ve become a more sporty person overall after moving here."

So I guess you’ll be staying here indefinitely?

"Well, I still have a lot of friends and family in Spain, but I see them quite often thanks to work trips. If I wouldn’t be able to go back so regularly, I think the thought of moving back would definitely cross my mind. But, right now, the balance is perfect. I love how my kids are half-Flemish, and, as you might have figured out by now, I love Brussels. It has the perfect size, it has character, and it has all the commodities you need. I might even say that, for a young person, Brussels is the best place to be in the entire world."


Laura and her Prosecco

New Flemings

This interview is the third of a short series about interesting expats, immigrants, and people with different roots and backgrounds. In short: New Flemings! Make sure to check out the other ones too.