Brussels, Belgium Report of what it's like to live there - 05/16/12

Personal Experiences from Brussels, Belgium

Brussels, Belgium 05/16/12

Background:

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

A fourth expat experience, after New York, Sydney and Cologne.

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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?

London, two hours by Eurostar!

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3. How long have you lived here?

Two years, 2007-2009.

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

Government.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

A great selection of old-style apartments in the city centre and Ixelles. Those with families often go for houses on the periphery- Tervuren is very popular with British expats.

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

Everything available, cost is normal.

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

You can buy it all here, more or less.

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

Everything from McDonald's to Michelin-starred restaurants, with prices for every budget. Maybe a shortage of places which do takeout or deliver to your place... you have to wait a while for your Chinese/Indian/Pizza.

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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?

Great selection.

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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?

Belgian postal service works fine.

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

Easy to get, cheap compared with Britain.

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

Yes, loads of gyms. Sad lack of an outdoor swimming pool, but there are lots of reasonably-priced indoor pools.

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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?

No problem.

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

Yes, Catholic, Protestant at least.

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

Yes, English-language newspapers available at Waterstones in the city centre. You can get BBC and English-language news stations with your standard TV package.

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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?

People can live fine doing everything in English. Generally if you call up a service provider and choose the 'Dutch' option, the person will speak English. The Flemish community runs subsidized, super-cheap Dutch classes... take a few of those and you'll probably be able to converse in Dutch on a par with snotty shop assistants and commune officials.

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

Some. There are a lot of cobblestones and small streets which could present difficulties for wheelchair users. Venues can be less wheelchair friendly than in N. America or Britain.

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Transportation:

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

Trains, buses, metro, trams are all safe, cheap, reliable with easily -- there are route planners and timetables online. Taxis are a bit expensive, actually, and bring your A-Z as they often don't know where they are going (no "The Knowledge" test here).

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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?

Driving in Brussels is hard; parking is harder. Something small and nippy would be good -- but you don't need a car at all!

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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?

Yes.

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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?

Nope.

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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?

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

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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?

Totally. Lots of international organisations, business, NGOs, lobby groups, thinktanks if you have skills. If you are unskilled, pretty hard,as for retail/clerical jobs you'll often need French and Dutch, if not also English.

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

Standard, western. Female friends of mine from the US/Britain found they got hassles/taunts in the city centre from (mostly immigrant) men if they dressed up at night in the same way they would at home (short skirts, tank tops etc). So prepare to wear jeans and a scarf on your Saturday night out...

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Health & Safety:

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

Some pickpocketing, muggings, smash and grabs. Caution needed in areas like Molenbeek and St Josse after dark.

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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?

No health concerns, I found the quality of care excellent. Going to Casualty was a dream compared with the experience in Britain. I bought Belgian health insurance and found it very affordable.

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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?

Moderate, I think.

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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?

Weather is a bit grim. Lots of rain, overcast a lot. Summers can be muggy, winters grey.

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Schools & Children:

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

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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?

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

Yup.

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Expat Life:

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

Massive!

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2. Morale among expats:

Ok. Lots of younger people complain that it is boring. Folks with kids appreciate the quality of life and ease of living.

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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?

Lots of great restaurants and cozy little bars and cafés. No closing time, but the selection of nightclubs aren't great.

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

Good for all, I'd say. Perhaps a little dull for singles in their early 20s.

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

While a very tolerant country, the gay scene in Brussels isn't very big (or good), and the lesbian scene almost negligible. While native Belgians are generally not homophobic, there have been a number of attacks on gay men/venues by immigrant youths.

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

No. The big prejudices are Flemish vs. Francophone...

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

Amazing food, cycling across Flanders beside canals and windmills, some great nights out in Antwerp and Ghent. Brussels is so compact and public transport so good that extensive planning is not necessary and it is easy to meet up with friends on the spur of the moment for dinner or drinks.

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

Beautiful cycling trips through Flanders, weekends in the Ardennes hills, shopping in Antwerp.

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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, beer, amazing patisserie.

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

The cost of housing is so much lower than in most capitals in Western Europe. You can get amazing art-deco apartments in the centre, or houses further out. You are so close to so many great cities/regions... Cologne, Amsterdam, Paris, London, Normandy are all within a few hours. Lots of great, cheap (subsidized) culture (theater, art, opera, dance).

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11. Can you save money?

Yes, it is so much cheaper than London, I saved a packet.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

No. It is a very comfortable and affordable place to be, but a little dull if you are single and in your 20s. The lack of customer service can be frustrating also.

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

Sunscreen.

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3. But don't forget your:

Umbrella, raincoat, and a good book to pass the time during all those queues at the local commune, the supermarket etc.

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

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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6. Do you have any other comments?

What people complain most about here is the customer service. I think it is getting better, but service from utility companies, shops and restaurants can be dreadful, if not plain rude at times. Nightclubs, bars and restaurants can sometimes be very frustrating places as staff work slowly and/or with inefficient systems, chat with their friends, or simply ignore you. A particularly annoying system is that at some venues one must queue twice -- once to buy a drink voucher, and then to exchange that voucher for a drink.

Landlords also gouge international tenants and it pays to bring a Belgian with you when inspecting a flat/entering into a rental contract. There is a lot of (seemingly) unnecessary and unhelpful bureaucracy, which coupled with unhelpful and surly commune officials, can make for a frustrating time. Officials will insist on only communicating in Dutch or French (the official languages). When registering or doing something at the commune, it often pays to bring a French or a Dutch speaker with you -- you'll be spared the Francophone officials' sighs and eyerolls at the standard of your French!

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