Brussels, Belgium Report of what it's like to live there - 08/22/11
Personal Experiences from Brussels, Belgium
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
I've also served in Nairobi, Bonn, Paris, Ankara.
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?
It's about a 8 hour flight from Washington, DC.
3. How long have you lived here?
I've been here 2 years.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
I'm affiliated with the US Embassy.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
If you're unfortunate enough to be part of the US Government's tri-mission housing pool, housing is a serious morale issue here. It varies greatly, there are some very nice places, but there are some real dumps also and the housing office seems to have little or no interest in accommodating people's personal needs or preferences. If housing is important to you be prepared to fight a long hard battle to get what you want. On the other hand, my friends who are expats not associated with the US Government, all found very nice places quickly and easily. There is a ton of great housing available - houses in the suburbs if that's what you prefer or very nice townhouses and apartments in the city.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Many people shop regularly at the commissary in Chievres, which is about 45 minutes from Brussels. But you can also find anything and everything on the local market. Prices in the grocery stores and some of the local markets are higher than the US, but if you look around you can find good deals in some of the outdoor markets and less expensive stores.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Nothing - you can get anything you want here.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
If you like to dine out, Brussels is a great city for that as there are tons and tons of excellent restaurants. Be prepared to pay more than you'd pay in Washington, however. But the quality makes it worth it.
5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?
It's easy to find organic foods here as at least in our neighborhood there seems to be an organic store on every other corner.
6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We get most of our mail by DPO. Some of my expat friends have reported problems getting packages via the local post office.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
We hire maids through a local system that is government supported to help people find jobs. The cost is 7.50 euros per hour.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The embassy has a workout facility. There are also numerous gyms throughout the Brussels area, though I'm told they can be expensive.
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 have had no problems using either credit cards or ATMs here at all. The Belgian banking system is much more advanced than the US and many vendors expect to be paid by either credit card or electronic funds transfer.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
It's no problem to find whatever type of religious service you want.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
There are several english language newspapers available, the IHT, WSJ, all the British papers.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Language is a very interesting issue here as just about every political and social issue comes down to the divide between the French speakers and Dutch speakers. In fact, you are much better off speaking English to a Belgian than speaking the "wrong" local language.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Like many european cities, getting around Brussels would be difficult for people with disabilities.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
You can get just about anywhere by public transportation at very reasonable prices. You can also venture further out by train to just about anywhere in Europe.
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?
You'll see just about every type of vehicle here, though I would hesitate to bring a big SUV, or other large vehicle just because it's so difficult to find a place to park.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Belgium is behind some of its neighbors in offering low cost alternatives for cable TV, internet and phone, but it's slowly catching up. We have a package of internet, phone, and cable TV through the local phone company and pay about 90 euros a month. We could find cheaper now, but to change would take a few weeks, most likely longer, and we dont' want to be without in the interim.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Everybody has cell phones here.
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?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
The vets here are excellent.
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?
Yes, if you speak French and Dutch.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
At work, it's basically like DC.In public, people aren't quite as casual as they are in the states.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Brussels is a typical big city. There is a great deal of petty crime - pickpocketing, etc. But in general I feel very safe walking around the city.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care is excellent. Both my wife and I have been unfortunate enough to experience lots of it, and we've been very impressed. Our doctors here are much better than most of the doctors we saw in the US.And they charge much less. Medicine is also cheaper here. For one of the meds I take regularly, the total cost in Brussels is less than my copay in the States.
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?
The air quality is fine.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Be prepared for rain, lots of rain.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
We don't have kids, but my colleagues who do seem very pleased with the schools here.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
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?
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Huge, too big. I sometimes think there are more expats than Belgians in Brussels.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Given the size how dispersed the US Government community is here, there isn't the cohesion you find in smaller places. Everybody pretty much does there own thing. There are lots of international organization to join and it's very easy to meet other expats.
3. Morale among expats:
In general, it's not bad. I think people like living here OK, but working here is another story...
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It's a very good city for families with children. Singles and couples will find it less so, unless they get out of the city.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I believe so.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
I've seen very little prejudice expressed by Belgians - except for the French/Flemish divide of course. On the other hand, the Americans in the USG tri-missions demonstrate real and significant prejudice against foreign born spouses. If you have a foreign born spouse, especially if he/she wants to work in the tri-missions, I would consider very carefully if you really want to come to Brussels.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
In two years here, I've only spent perhaps 30 percent of the weekends in Brussels. There is just so little to do here, and so many interesting places close by. We've spent numerous weekends in France, Germany, The Netherlands, etc.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
As mentioned above, the best thing to do in Brussels is to go somewhere else.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Belgian lace, antiques, beer.....
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
If you're coming from West Africa or a war zone, Brussels will seem great by comparison. But if you've ever lived in a major Western European capital such as London, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Madrid, etc., you'll find that Brussels has very little of the charm or the cultural opportunities that those cities have. In fact, Brussels itself is BORING, BORING, BORING.After a few months you'll have seen everything there is to see. But the big advantage of living here is that you easily travel to more interesting places. Paris is one hour and twenty minutes away by train. Amsterdam is about 2 hours by train or car. There is the Eurostar high speed train to London. If you crave sunshine, and after a couple of months here you will, Brussels Airlines and Easy Jet both offer several flights per day to Nice and other sunny spots at very good prices.
11. Can you save money?
No, but why would you come to Europe to save money?Go out and see what there is to see and when you're in Brussels, get out of your house live like a European. It's a great lifestyle.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Not sure. If nothing else in Western Europe were available, maybe.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Sun tan lotion, warm weather clothes.
3. But don't forget your:
Umbrellas and rain coats. And your credit cards - life here is expensive.