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Expat Club in Brussels: Founder Edgar Hütte on bringing the international community together
A familiar face on the city’s expat scene, Dutchman Edgar Hütte runs exclusive trips and events for foreigners in Belgium. From tours of nuclear plants and car factories, to spring gardens, ski weekends and week-long tours of Europe, Expat Club aims to help foreigners make the most of their downtime while discovering Belgium and beyond.
The club specialises in activities covering a wide range of interests while being inclusive for families and solo members. In addition to the luxury bus tours, Hütte runs a Saturday morning coffee morning and practical courses on first aid.
Hütte’s motivation for setting up the club in 2013 was a result of his own experience of living and studying in countries as varied as Italy, the US and India. This included the difficulties he encountered when settling in Belgium with his Indian wife nine years ago and then adapting to city living with their two young children.
In-between trips abroad, The Bulletin caught up with the multi-lingual Hütte to find out more about the club and its activities.
Why did you set up the Expat Club?
I wanted to bring people together, but in a different way to other groups. Expat events have a reputation for being about drinking and socialising, as well as places for singles to meet. There is nothing wrong with that, but you ignore the majority who for whatever reason are not interested in this. I believe that creating new relationships – in the broadest sense of the word – requires a shared experience. So that is why we travel to places that you would not usually go to on your own.
Imagine the interaction on one of our trips? You wait together for the bus, board it and sit next to someone you don’t know, watch a film, listen to the host, stop for coffee along the way, follow a guided tour, have lunch in a restaurant, visit a museum, enjoy a drink on a pleasant terrace… You get my point, it’s all about having a good time in shared company. The objective is not to force you to make new friends (like in speed-dating) but to create an experience in which you can meet other people and allow friendships to develop in a natural way.
What are the major challenges for expats in Belgium?
I think that loneliness is by far one of the biggest problems, not only individuals, but couples and families. Once you leave university and reach a certain age, professional and possibly family life becomes increasingly busy and it is harder to meet people and build up friendships.
This is especially the case for expats who may have cut some of the roots with their own culture, or are in Belgium for a relatively short period. It’s also about being part of a transitory population. Friendships are a major pillar for feeling at home.
Equally important in missing your family and friends, is coping with long distance relationships. I often hear from expats that they often have to fly home to take care of aging, sick and even dying parents. It places an enormous burden on them: practically, emotionally and financially.
Of course, expats deal with other practical challenges, such as moving in, jumping through all the bureaucratic hoops, and finding jobs and schools. This can be very frustrating, because Belgium is not known as a particularly expat-friendly country. However, they can all be dealt with eventually and there are many service providers that can help.
What are the benefits of joining Expat Club?
Membership is not a requirement to join our events and trips. We’re open to everyone, including Belgians. But as a member you get some discounts and you can more easily connect with other members before or after the events. In the future, membership will be expanded with other benefits and services: more information to follow.
How much research is necessary before launching a new trip?
If we go to Disneyland there is not much to do, but in general, I prepare a lot. Firstly, I do my desk-research, reading articles, guide books, online reviews, and then countless calls and hours of looking up Google maps. Secondly, I nearly always visit the destination before. For our popular Champagne trip I visited quite a few of the houses myself and drove on all of the access roads to ensure a double-decker bus could pass. I want to make sure that everyone gets the best possible experience and that everything runs smoothly. Wasting time is not in my dictionary, whereas I do think critically about the time needed for breaks, lunches, highway stops etc.
I recently travelled to Kraków and visited the site of the Plaszow concentration camp, known from the Spielberg film Schindler’s List, as well as the three main Auschwitz sites. The third one was a slave labour camp that does not exist anymore. However, traces remain, so I walked there to see if I could take a group when we visit in June.
What are your favourite trips?
My favourite is definitely the Rotterdam Harbour Tour as it’s such a fascinating place and off the beaten track. I love taking a group to this massive industrial complex that stretches almost 50km from Rotterdam into the North Sea on the Maasvlakte. Driving by the refineries, container ports and a dry bulk terminal (iron & coal), you can see the largest crane in the world pick up 85 tonnes in one grab. It’s magnificent to see how Holland has managed to become the leading port in the West. In all honesty, the fact that I used to study in Rotterdam and still have family there also adds to my enthusiasm in showing people around!
Of course there are many other amazing trips, including the Champagne region, the Keukenhof, Mont Saint-Michel, the Loire river and skiing. However, it’s especially the trips that have an educational character that I love most, when I guess my academic background shines through. These include the UPS facilities at Cologne-Bonn Airport, the Doel Nuclear Power Plant and the Audi car factory in Brussels.
Still, the ones I find most important, in particular for many EU expats in Brussels whose jobs may not have existed if history in Europe had taken another course, are visiting battlefield sites. Over the years we have visited many, including Ypres and Passchendaele, Arras, Vimy Ridge, and the ‘Capital of the Great War’ Verdun in Northern France. The unimaginable suffering and waste of human lives is something that I believe everyone must see with his or her own eyes. The stories told by the local guides make such visits valuable learning experiences and give rise to some serious moments of reflection.
Our Second World War trips to Bastogne and the beaches of Normandy helps make us understand what happened here all those years ago. We all know the general history, but you have to visit the sites and imagine the horrors that went on when those boats landed or when those brave US soldiers dug themselves into the ground in that dark Ardennes forest. I’m always most grateful if people take a day from their busy schedules to learn more about these important periods.
You are frequently venturing further from Belgium. What new trips would you like to offer in 2019?
Surely all the ones that we offer now will remain on the agenda, but I always say that Antarctica would be my ultimate destination. For 2019 I would like to add places such as South Africa, Alaska, Israel and Egypt. And of course, India should be on this list too. I would love to organise more local events. I guess time is the defining factor in how much I can offer, but the community is definitely growing and with that my ambition to offer increasingly more services to make expat life in Brussels better
How do you balance work and family life?
I’m a lucky father because I can take my children to school virtually every day and pick them up at least three out of five days. Once I get home from work, I spend most of my time with them until they go to bed. It helps that my home and office are just a few minutes apart, and their school is an eight-minute walk away.
As I’m often travelling at the weekend, my work-life balance is not always good, but there are increasingly more people helping out with the events and trips. Sometimes I bring my five-year-old with me on trips. He loves seeing new places and as ‘Mister Chatterbox’ he enjoys interacting with other participants. As Expat Club is purposefully meant as an organisation for everyone, families are more than welcome to join.