Brussels, Belgium Report of what it's like to live there - 07/21/11

Personal Experiences from Brussels, Belgium

Brussels, Belgium 07/21/11

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Have lived in Canada, England, Italy, Denmark, Korea, Hong Kong, China, and Turkey for almost 20 years of experience outside the US.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

My home base is Washington DC. Flights from Brussels to DC are around 9 hours. There are not many direct connections from what I understand (I have never flown to DC from here), but from London, or Paris, or Amsterdam that is a different story. And those cities are easily accessible from Brussels by high speed Thalys or Eurostar trains.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Almost 2 years. From Sept 2009-July 2011

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Trailing spouse of a US Foreign Service Officer working at NATO.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

All sorts. Apartments and row houses downtown and in the inner suburbs, many of which are small towns. And detached homes further out. Stokkel is a popular location to live in as there is an establish town there as well as a Metro. Closer in, around Montgomery Circle is an ideal place to live with huge apartments and large row houses near a Metro. 15 minute tops by Metro downtown. People who work downtown can get there in 5 minutes on public transit, and people who work at NATO can either catch the NATO shuttle at Montgomery or take the 5-10 minute drive. The Place Chatelain area is probably the BEST place to live, but without a Metro it can be isolating for some.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

If you shop at the local markets you can save a bundle on produce. Supermarket chains here are Delhaize and GB/Carefour. Delhaize in belgian and can be higher end. GB/Carefour is French is and is more mid range. Meat can be expensive. If you are with the US embassy you have access to Chievre air base about 45 minutes away with a full commissary and PX which can save you money, but limits your local exposure. The markets are fun to shop at, especially Gare Midi or Watermael-Boisfort on Sunday, Stokkel or Flagey on Saturday. And Place Chatelain on Wednesday night. Every day there is a market somewhere in the city ... except Thursday I think. Which is when everyone seems to go to Place Luxembourg and Par-Tay!!!

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

You can buy most things you need on the local economy, but they are expensive. But embassy folks always have the PX at the base. I guess my answer would be nothing really. You can get almost everything you want on the local economy. And more.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Going out for food is expensive here. But there are places, generally immigrant run swarma, pita, pizza, places that will not break the bank. As low as 5 euro a person. There's also Pizza Hut, Mcdonalds and other chains. But why even go there? Restaurants abound. But many can cost upwards of 30 euro a person without drinks.

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5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?

There are a number of different stores. Google them. And there is a food delivery service direct from local, organic farms to you. Forgot the name. People love it. Something like Glad to B Organic. Feel bad I do not remember.

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6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

None

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

APO for embassy folks. Regular mail for the rest. Regular mail can be expensive.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

We pay 10 euro an hour. Which seems to be about the going rate. Do not know about bringing in a nanny. But know people who have had difficulty if they are not diplomats.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

The embassy has a very small gym. USAG-Brussels to which embassy folks can get a badge has an excellent gym. Otherwise there are tons of different gyms all over the city.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

I use mine everywhere. No worries at all.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

All sorts. Know there are many different demoninations. Not sure where. And do know there is an active English speaking synagogue. Remember, this is an expat city.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

There are a number of English language periodicals. Before you do anything subscribe to receive the pdf version of the Flanders Today delivered to your inbox. A great weekly news source that is more than just about Flanders. The Brussels Unlimited and The Bulletin just merged into a bo-weekly affair. You have to pay for those, but they were good in their previous incarnations. If you work for the US missions to Belgium, NATO, and EU and are a member of the US military stationed in Belgium contact BrusselsWeekly@state.gov to be put on the mailing list to receive the US embassy news weekly. If you work at other embassies in Brussels (UK, Canada, etc), at one of the Int'l schools, International organizations, contact the editor. Many exceptions are made for officials from other countries. And the Brussels Weekly is an amazing source of local information. If I do say so myself.=) Oh and local cable companies usually have BBC and other English language channels.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

if you live outside Brussels Flemish (a derivative of Dutch) is spoken. In Brussels both Flemish and French are spoken though French takes preceedence. But in general, as a rule, everyone speaks a little English. If you do not want to learn either Flemish or French you will not have to. But it would be polite if you picked up the basic greeting rituals.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

There would definitely be some concern. They would not be able to do everything. Sidewalks are generally not set up to accommodate PD folks. Neither is public transit except for the metro. It is difficult to put myself in that situation so do not want to categorically come down on one side or the other.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

The local trains are relatively inexpensive. Not cheap. But definitely affordable. And worth it. I mentioned the Eurostar/high speed trains earlier. AMAZING. Do not ever think of driving to Paris, London or Amsterdam. Just hop on the train. But it will cost. At it will be worth it for the reduced hassle. All of this is totally safe. Buses, trams and metro in the city are totally safe. Though, at night around in the Gare Midi it supposedly gets dodgy. That's where the immigrant neighborhoods start. Public transit is afforable as well. At least compared to London.1 euro 20 cents per trip when you buy a 10 voyage ticket. 1 euro 80 cents for individual tickets. Monthly passes are also available.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Small streets, small parking spots. Leave your wide bodied SUVs at home. But if you have a family bring something you can use to drive all over the place. When you are not taking the train of course.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

A number of different companies. each has their own territory. Organized competition. We have Belgacom. It is more than fast enough. Streaming video soccer games and movies no problem. Cost is steep. About 100 euro a month. But worth it

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

I would recommend just buying a pay as you go plan. Add money as you need it.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

No but they do need a European chip and passport.

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

Vets are everywhere and they are excellent. Just go to the one closest to you. Am almost sure they speak English. Most professionals do. Have heard of 2-3 kennels that people are happy with. If you are US embassy, the CLO has all that info about kennels. Or should.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Unless you are multi-lingual or incredibly experienced, Brussels is stuffed with high-educated, very international, multi-lingual folks. However, there are Volunteer opportunities with Relay for Life, Girl Scouts, at the Int'l Schools, at refugee centers, with Serve the City and many other NGOs abound. But paying work is hard to come by as it is VERY competitive.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

They are rather formal here. You need to dress well even for a casual dinner invitation. Folks do wear shorts in public, but it seems to be frowned on. But it all depends you age. In general though, Americans need to be conscious of how much they tend to dress down. Walking around in shorts and a t-shirt is not going to cut it here if you want to be accepted as anything other than a clueless country bumpkin.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

The city is incredibly safe. Violent crime is negligible. Petty crime, such as pick pockets do exist, but you can protect against that. No city is 100% safe, and there are certain immigrant neighborhoods across the canal where you would not want to go at night, but as with most European cities, the threat of violent crime is incredibly low in comparison to cities in the US.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

The quality of the health care here is amazing. And inexpensive. Had three friends give birth. One a premie. All raved about their care. I had minor surgery on my toe, which would have cost close to $1,000 in the US. It cost less than $100 here. Dental care can be expensive though if you do not have local insurance.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Air quality is good. Pollen can be a problem for allergy sufferers during the season, but other than than not much pollution. Part of the reason for that is the excellent public transit and the extensive bike paths. Make sure you live near a Metro though as the traffic can get clogged. And visit ProVelo on Rue Londre when you arrive to pick up an essential bike map of the city.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Summer is only really hot, in the 90s, maybe three weeks. Winter is only really cold maybe the same amount of time. It is rather mild here. The winters can be rather gray. And there is seemingly a constant threat of drizzle, but everyone learns to live with it. The sun comes out more than the city's reputation claims. Unless you are a serious SAD sufferer, you will have no problems with Belgian weather.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

I do not have school aged children, but working in the CLO office I have heard that ISB is an excellent school. Their academics, after school activities, and sports make for a well rounded eduation. And their campus, in Watermael-Boisfort) is amazing. St Johns has a reputation as being better academically but it is also further out of the city. The American School of Brussels is probably equivalent to an American public school, while the other two are definitely private school material.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

No experience, but I have friends who have young children and they find the day care/preschool services in the local communes to be excellent. And inexpensive.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Sports programs for kids galore at the schools, at USAG, and with each commune. If you mean organized sports for high school aged kids, then ISB is the route to go. They even have a US football team.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

GI-NORMOUS. Absolutely immense. Larger even, it seems, than Hong Kong. With the Eu Parliament here, all the ancillary agencies and NGOs, the embassies to the EU, and the embassies to Belgium and NATO you are awash in expats.

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2. Morale among expats:

The overall expat community has a high morale, people love it here. There are lots of clubs and activities. Some members of the US embassy, however, miss being in a tight knit smaller post. There really is no need for the US embassy bubble here, but folks who have become dependent on it, without even realizing they have, miss it while here. You have to make your own community in brussels. It will not be sitting there for you on a platter. But making your own community is EASY. Find something you like doing and do it and you will tons of people to do it with. And it will generally be more than an embassy community. Gave a going away party for a friend, whose husband is with the US embassy, but we were the only embassy folk at the party. There was a German, a Kiwi, someone from Ireland and an American from the general expat community. Brussels is a truly international city. An amazing place to live. Expat heaven.

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

See above. Lots to see and do. Make your own community. From all over the expat world.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

This is a great city for EVERYONE. There is always something to do for families, what with cultural festivals, music festivals, the beach nearby, amusements parks around, etc. The list would be voluminous. For singles ... ooh la la ... there is a cornucopia of available expat young professionals in Brussels what with the EU here, all the lobbying groups for the EU, the NGOs, all the embassies to Belgium, all the embassies to the EU, all the embassies to NATO. Brussels is expat central. If you cannot meet someone interesting here ...For couples, there are tons of activities such as restaurants, bars, clubs, other expats, festivals, events, traveling to London, Paris, Amsterdam, and all over Belgium and the rest of Europe, etc etc.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

As I said earlier, this is a GREAT city for gays. I say this even though I am not gay. But having lived in Dupont Circle in DC for 20 some years, I can say that Brussels has an equally well developed gay neighborhood down just off the Grand Place (gays always seem to pick the best neighborhoods), and the Gay Pride Parade is a blast. There was a recent incident of a gay tourist and his lover getting attacked. Maybe because the lunkheads who did it saw them offering each other a little too much PDA. But that is the exception. The rule is Brussels is a great place to be, gay or straight.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Nothing to speak of. Belgium just passed their Burqa law so maybe there will be some repercussions with that. But otherwise, everyone seems to get along here. Though as I said, I would not venture into some immigrant (read Muslim) neighborhoods at night.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Highlights include the amazing variety of super high quality chocolate for everyday prices; street festivals almost year round; music festivals the same (rock, pop, and TONS of classical); high quality museum exhibits; an incredible array of children's and family activities all over the country. This city and country and GREAT places to live. Quirky whimsical, fun, just a little odd at times, and ever so interesting.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Way too many to enumerate. Seriously. There is something happening at least every weekend in Brussels and Beyond. You will NEVER be bored here. Ever.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Chocolate. Waffles. Beer. Frittes. Antiques (Waterloo Market Sundays, Tongeron Market Sundays)Lace (all over), Pottery (Delft), Bande Dessine (Graphic novels - Tintin, Asterix, Lucky Luke)

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

You will LOVE living in Brussels. There is so much to see and do. There are festivals galore in the city and all around Belgium that every weekend there is something culturally interesting to do. But one amazing advantage to living in Brussels is that it is only 1hr 15min to Paris by TGV, 2hrs to London, and 2hrs 15min to Amsterdam. Then there is Bruge, Ghent, Amsterdam, and Namur to visit in Belgium. You will never be bored here. Ever. And then there is the food. Belgium is known for its chocolate, frittes (fries), waffles, and beer as well as other culinary delights. In Brussels alone there are over 1,000 artisan chocolate stores. In every supermarket is an entire aisle filled with all sorts of different chocolate. And In Belgium there are over 300 different beers. You will eat and drink very well while here. As the editor of the Brussels Weekly, the embassy news weekly, I can say without any reservations that if you come to Brussels you will LOVE it. Families will love all the great activities. Singletons will love that this is the expat center of Europe filled with tens of thousands of young expats. Gays will love it as the community here is well developed with an amazingly fun gay pride day (and I'm not gay). There is literally something for everyone here. AND MORE.

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11. Can you save money?

Probably not unless you lived like a hermit. But why would you? You are in the heart of Europe, just begging you to explore. Come here for the experience of a lifetime. Forget about saving money.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Not only would I still go, but I could easily settle here. This city is made for expats.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Hershey bars. You will become a chocolate connoisseur while here.

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3. But don't forget your:

Sense of adventure, and appreciation of the whimsical and wacky.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

A Throne in Brussels - to help you understand how this wacky country was formed. Secret Brussels - All those places off the beaten path101 Things to Do in Brussels & Beyond (The expats guide to having fun while living in Belgium) - am in the midst of writing it. Be on the lookout starting in the summer of 2012. Needs a catchier title I know.

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

In Bruge - disturbing, non-politically correct, but it definitely gives you a flavor for how odd this place can be at times.

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6. Do you have any other comments?

If I have not made it clear ... YOU ARE GOING TO LOVE IT IN BRUSSELS.And I almost forgot ... ART NOUVEAU. This art and architecture form started here courtesy of Victor Horta. You will seem many buildings with this influence. They are beautiful. But then there is the Horta Museum, his old residence. Without a doubt the most amazing private home I have ever encountered. Everything in it is a work of art. Take walking tours of Art Nouveau here. Another fun thing to do. Hmmm ... must remember to put that in my book.=)

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