James currently lives in Chicago but previously spent time living abroad in Antwerp and Madrid.
In this interview, he reflects on his time as an expat.
Tell us about your expat move.
My expat story was a bit of a crazy ride! It all started when I was working on a project with the international innovation team. I started talking with Bart Jordens, who is the Global Head of Innovation at Cigna, and we wanted to explore if there would be an opportunity for me to come to Belgium and bring some of my skills to the team.
As we started talking and discussing the opportunity for me to move abroad, we started to try and figure out what would be the best way of structuring it. We planned it as a nine month assignment, where I would come here and then head back to the U.S. at the end of it. I spent 6 months living in Antwerp and then moved to Madrid, where there is also a Cigna office, so I could easily travel back and forth between both places. I also brought my family with me, which was fantastic!
So in summary, I first moved to Antwerp in September 2018, then moved to Madrid in February 2019, and moved back to Chicago that summer.
Although I’m technically no longer an expat, I still get the fun of travelling. I’m actually in Antwerp right now as we speak (laughs).
How much did you enjoy being an expat in Antwerp and Madrid?
We were really surprised by how quickly we settled into living in Antwerp. At the time when we moved, I had only been in Antwerp for about 4 days in my entire life. Luckily, my wife was able to come with me on a trip to Antwerp beforehand. She did more exploring of Antwerp than I did before we moved here!
At home in Chicago, we live in the suburbs away from the city. It is a very quiet suburban American lifestyle. When we first came to Antwerp, one of the things we were looking forward to was living in a more urban type of environment. I wouldn’t say that Antwerp itself is a very urban place, but we lived there in the city centre right next to the cathedral. It was a very different living experience for us and we loved being there. The people were super nice and the language barrier wasn’t an issue as everybody seemed to speak English. It made things very easy as people were generally very friendly.
Madrid is a very different type of city than Antwerp, it is a lot more active and obviously a lot bigger, with over 6 million people living there. There is always something to do. Luckily, my wife and I had lived in Madrid before for a year and the place had always stayed in our hearts. For us to be able to come back with our kids was quite special for us.
Is there anything in particular that you miss from Antwerp or Madrid?
No matter where you go in the world, family and friends are always something that you are going to miss. Moving from the U.S. to Europe, we were always missing that connection a bit. What’s interesting is to compare when my wife and I lived in Madrid to when we did as a family, how much easier it was to stay connected. For example, my mother-in-law could FaceTime us and stay in touch whenever she wanted, which wouldn’t have been possible twenty years ago.
As we moved from Antwerp to Madrid, we had made some good friends and you get used to seeing them. I would see them on a regular basis and we built very close relationships with a lot of people. I still come back to Antwerp and Madrid and one of the times I came back my family got to come with me, which was really special.
In Madrid, we always tried to go to a local food market as a family on a Saturday afternoon. There was live music there and some great food. Some people at the market started to get to know us and we started to build connections with the people there. It was special and made it so enjoyable. I miss that place a lot.
How was it having your family with you on your expat journey?
Having my family with me really helped. I’ve talked to other parents who have kids that are a bit younger than mine and they sort of come along for the ride. But my kids are old enough that they can experience it for themselves and have their own perspectives on living abroad. My son is almost 14 and my daughter is 10.
I think so often, people are settled on the status quo, but what’s the worst that can happen. The kids are going to be fine and they can grow through an experience of being abroad.
What were some of your highlights from your time abroad?
Travel is definitely one. We did a lot of travel whilst we were in Europe. Part of the advantage of being in Europe is that it’s very easy to get to places. For example, Paris is only a few hours away from Antwerp, it’s also easy to get to Italy and Germany by plane. We saw being abroad as a great opportunity to go out and explore things. We made a real adventure out of it.
Getting to experience the culture was a real bonus. From Antwerp to Brussels, it’s only a half an hour away by train and there are some cultural differences. They speak different languages for example. Being able to expand our horizons and see more of the world, it was great!
For us, we did a lot of weekend trips, perhaps once a month while we were abroad. My kids were home-schooled when we lived abroad and that made a big difference. It gave us a lot of flexibility and freedom. Now that they are back in a traditional school environment in the U.S., it is a little bit harder to go away for a weekend.
A lot of people from the U.S. travel abroad in Europe, I always tell people that it is very different to live there. Being able to settle in to a new culture, understand it and embrace it was just amazingly valuable! We went to lots of museums together as part of my kids schooling. There were educational aspects to a lot of the experiences that we had, whether it was culture or food or travel.
At the same time, it wasn’t all perfect, I don’t want to give that impression. There were times when it was hard and you miss your friends and family back home. But being able to live through it and experience it was amazing.
As part of your role at Cigna, you get to do a lot of travelling. How much do you enjoy that?
Part of it is to do with the role I have as part of the innovation team, what I really like is that my job is very dynamic. I enjoy the flexibility of my role and being part of the international team. I tend to have a lot of calls with European teams in the mornings and then a lot of evening calls with Asia. I like to work for a few hours, take a break and maybe go for a run or get some food, then come back and work some more.
When I travel, it tends to be an intense time working long hours. For example, when I came to Glasgow last year, I came here for a few days to lead a couple of workshops.
In a strange way, travelling really excites me. This sounds terrible but even coming to Antwerp from Chicago, I wanted the trip to be longer. Being on a 6 or 7 hour flight seems so short in comparison with travelling to Asia. At first, the idea of being on a 14 hour plane ride to Asia was crazy to me but now I love it!
The other thing is, I used to do a lot more small trips when I was working for the Cigna domestic business in the U.S. I would go for a night to Connecticut or a couple of nights in Phoenix. This was very short in comparison to the international trips I do now. You can’t really come to Asia for a night because it takes a day and a half to even get there (laughs).
Finally, how would you describe your expat journey in 10 words or less?
Travel, food and drink, adventure, culture, experience, openness.