Story Published in May 2016 | Interviews conducted in July 2015
Petra and her family welcomed me for a full week in July 2015 to document their lives. Each family member let me shadow them for a couple days to really capture the essence of their Belgian American Life. This story is part of a multi-generational story. Petra’s story features a full length video interview that really hits the spot about being Belgian in the United States.
Petra is a kind and warm hearted lady from Rijkevorsel. She holds a degree in Nursing and worked in Belgium as a Nurse for many years. Petra loves taking care of the people around her and is really great at it.
She moved to the United States (Florida) in 2008 with her ex-husband (Hans) and four children (Simon, Nele, Maarten and Karlien). The family had already lived in the US (Pennsylvania) for one year in 2002. They had an incredible experience. When Hans was offered a permanent position in Jacksonville, FL, the whole family was thrilled!
When the family settled in St Johns, FL the first six months were challenging: the children (13, 12, 11 and 8) did not speak English very well. They brought home notes they did not understand, had no friends and had to learn a different teaching philosophy. The learning curve was steep.
Within a year, the entire family was fluent in English. Simon (the eldest) got straight A’s except in his English class. “The support we got from our school was amazing. They were so excited to see my kids grow and adapt to the United States” Petra remembers.
It was a little harder for Karlien, who was only 8 at the time and had no knowledge base in English. Her teachers recommended Petra to watch Karlien’s favorite movies with her in English. It worked marvelously well. A little too well maybe: “We watched Mulan over and over and over again. As a result, we can now sing or say any line of the movie!” Petra laughs.
Hans’s company also appointed a tutor to help the family with their English and homework. “An A is the equivalent of 75-80% in Belgium. So my kids called me a “mean mum” because I always expected them to get perfect grades.” Petra explains. “By the end of our first year everything was flowing well, so as a Mom, I started to feel comfortable as well.” Petra smiles.
You can hear more about their first year in Petra’s Video Interview.
Bjorn, Karlien, Petra, Maarten and Nele taking the pose for a family picture.
Petra and Nele in Saint Augustine, Florida.
Petra and Maarten taking breakfast.
Petra and Simon, who was in California during my stay where he attends college.
With 4 kids having very heavy schedules, Petra came up over the years with operational systems to keep the familial house and schedule organized. The family has a synchronized agenda on the cloud so Hans and Petra always know what is happening [everyone has a private calendar as well]. Petra also had the idea to assign a color to each kid. Afterwards, she designed a custom locker with 4 sections – each painted in one of the color codes. That is the “put away shelve”.
In order to keep the laundry from pure chaos, Petra used the same color code for clothe hangers and towels. The family also labeled their cabinet to always know where things go and they have a list of tasks tied to a deadline for everyone.
“Sometime my organization systems look extreme from the outside, but with 4 kids you need solid ground rules. It takes some time to get everyone used to being pro-active (and some of the kids never see the benefit - until college), but they make daily life so much easier. I tried to teach my kids: Take the extra minute to take the extra step each time to finish a task, like putting the clothes in the right shelves instead of on your desk; doing one household task a day (we had a schedule). And it helps keeping mama sane for a much longer time” Petra explains. I applied a lot of the good proactive gestures I learned from Petra at my own house and she is right: it does marvels!
The family preparing cheese croquettes.
Maarten making Mayonnaise.
Maarten & Nele messing around in the Kitchen.
Maarten & Nele messing around in the Kitchen. Act 2.
Maarten & Nele messing around in the Kitchen. Act 3.
Petra laughing at the scene.
Petra’s life in the United States has several chapters. In 2012, Petra and Hans separated and got divorced in January 2014. Petra obtained full custody of the kids and Hans moved to Pennsylvania. Thanks to the family’s strong organization skills, the kids were - and are - able to visit their dad often in Pennsylvania and vice versa.
During her vacation to Florida, Petra’s cousin brought a friend of hers, Bjorn. Petra and Bjorn connected almost immediately. Overtime, Petra & Bjorn became closer. After her vacation to Belgium in 2013, Bjorn and Petra found themselves on the skype for hours without talking and really wanting to be together. From this point forward, their stories are intertwined. You can find out more about this chapter of Petra’s life in Bjorn’s featured story. In short: Bjorn moved in with Petra in September 2014 and they started their own business together: Fly, Drive, Rent.
Petra & Bjorn preparing a business presentation for Fly, Drive, Rent
Bjorn cracking a joke at the neighborhood pool
Bjorn and Petra having a walk in Saint Augustine, FL
Petra and Bjorn playing around with my camera to take a selfie
Bjorn helping Petra relax in the water. She really hates water.
Petra taking her revenge after Bjorn splashed her with water.
Around the same time, Petra decided to open her own business: We Do, You Go. “Bjorn encouraged me to do something just for myself. Traveling has always been a passion and I really love Florida, its weather, flow of activities and people. Living in Florida feels like being in a permanent vacation. It made sense to start a traveling service”. Petra loves Saint Augustine, FL. It is one of her favorite city in Florida. She passed the city’s tour guiding exam when I was visiting and was issued a license the following months. She can now give guided tours in both Dutch and English!
Aside from helping people in their travel needs, Petra also loves offering hospitality. Her ultimate dream is to open a small inn in St Augustine. Petra loves having people staying at her house and she enjoys paying attention to small details that make her guests feel at home: offering toiletries, arranging towels in a cute way and putting a hand-written welcome note in the guest room. She even ironed a few of my T-shirts when I was gone on a different leg of SignMyCar!
We Do, You Go's logo.
Petra giving a guided tour in Saint Augustine before her touring exam.
Petra giving a guided tour in Saint Augustine before her touring exam. 2
Petra giving a guided tour in Saint Augustine before her touring exam. 3
Saint Augustine, Florida.
Saint Augustine, Florida hosts the biggest firework in the US for the 4th of July.
Saint Augustine, Florida.
Saint Augustine, Florida.
Saint Augustine, Florida.
Petra is busy lady: she works as a tutor, she has her own side business and she co-manages Fly Drive Rent with Bjorn. She takes the time to enjoy life and savor the present moment. “During our slower time, we enjoy our permanent vacation in Florida. We go to the pool, to a concert, to Orlando. We got ourselves a yearly pass to Disney World. We love to describe our lifestyle as a working vacation” Petra laughs.
You can find out more about Petra by reading the stories of each member of her family, as each story bounce at one another. And don’t forget to watch Petra’s interview!
If you like this story and want to see more mini-documentaries on Belgians in America, please support SignMyCar! on our GoFundMe page!