Flemings in the UK: Tom Michiels on his big break


In the first instalment of our new series on Flemish people living and working in the UK, we talk to Tom Michiels, a marketer who made a drastic career change 17 years ago

Just do it

After moving from Flanders to the UK as a teenager in the 1980s, Tom Michiels made another big life change when, 17 years ago, he ditched a career in marketing to train as a paramedic. He’s never looked back.

“I’d been working in marketing for a few years,” recalls Michiels, 45. “I didn’t enjoy it but I’d found myself on a certain path: You study subjects you’re good at, you go to university and, before you know it, you’re 24, and you’ve got a job in something you didn’t really plan on.”

By the end, he says, he found himself dreading going to work each morning. “I was forever turning up late, and it really showed that I wasn’t enjoying it,” he says. “My girlfriend, Heidi, asked me what I wanted to do instead, and I said I quite fancied driving ambulances, without really thinking about it. She told me I should just do it, so I moved in with her while I did my training.”

That was back in 1999, and he never moved out again. The couple are now married and live in Farnborough, a town in Hampshire in southern England.

Eight years ago, Heidi left her own marketing job to work for the British Board of Film Classification. “Movies are one of the things that brought us together,” Michiels says. “We’re very lucky that we both get to do jobs we love. I think back to my old job; how I could still be commuting every day to London, doing work I don’t enjoy. Thankfully, I got out of it and now do something I love.” 

17-year atonement

His new life as a paramedic is never dull, he says. Every day is different, every callout is different; even one chest pain is different to another chest pain. Michiels (pictured) started when he was 28 and was hooked immediately. “At the end of 12 hours on my first shift, I wanted to go out with the next crew and do it all over again,” he says. “Seventeen years later, I still get that adrenaline rush.”

He’s proud to be one of the 1.7 million people employed by the NHS, the UK’s publicly funded health-care system. “I’m a staunch supporter of the NHS,” he says. “It’s an amazing organisation. There’s a real camaraderie among the staff, a feeling of everyone working towards the same goals.” 

I still remember the difference between grey, cloudy Belgium and the lush green grass and blue sky of the Cotswolds

- Tom Michiels

And it’s a far cry from his previous job, where his last marketing account was for a cigarette company. “My wife told me I would burn in hell for all eternity for that, so this is like a little bit of payback,” he says, laughing. “I hope after 17 years as a paramedic, I’m starting to make up for it.” 

Michiels was born in Leuven, and his father’s career in the Belgian air force meant the family moved around a lot. In 1985, they decamped to England, to officers’ quarters in the Cotswolds, a part of southern England designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty.

It was a change that the 14-year-old Tom welcomed. He’d been moved ahead a grade at school a few years previously and was starting to fall behind his older classmates, so he leapt at the chance of a new start.

“I was very excited to be moving,” he says. “I still remember the difference between grey, cloudy Belgium and the lush green grass and the hedgerows and trees and blue sky of the Cotswolds. I fell in love with England straight away.”

A wave of nostalgia

The family have spread out since then. After his mother died, his father remarried and moved to Yorkshire. One of Michiels’ brothers lives in Warrington, near Manchester; the other has returned to Flanders.

“I love going back to Leuven,” Michiels says. “It’s a bit of a dilemma when you visit your home country because you want to visit all your friends and family, which is great, but I also really look forward to sitting on a terrace and watching the world go by – sipping a nice beer and eating some frites. You can’t really do that in a pub in England.”

He keeps an eye on the Flemish papers and listens to public broadcaster VRT from time to time, to keep up with local news. And recently, he says, patients have begun asking him about terrorism in Brussels when they find out where he comes from. “But I can’t really comment on that,” he says. “I’m not that interested in what’s going on there politically, and I don’t think many Belgians are that politically inclined, to be honest.”

He does, though, admit to wallowing in nostalgia occasionally, watching TV programmes from his childhood or listening to Flemish music. “I’m very proud of my heritage, and I enjoy going home,” he says. “Despite its idiosyncrasies and its problems, I still love it.”  

Photo courtesy Tom Michiels