Brussels, Belgium Report of what it's like to live there - 01/19/14
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?
Nope. I've lived in several European, Middle East and African cities.
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?
Multiple direct choices per day to major cities along the East Coast of the U.S.
3. How long have you lived here?
Two and a half years.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. Mission to NATO.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Most State Department housing is located in the Central or Eastern parts of the cities or the suburbs. Singles are in apartments. Families are in some of the nicest, sizable homes I've seen in developed world posts. The U.S. Embassy and Mission to the EU are easily reached via public transport. I would advise a car for anyone working at NATO. Brussels drivers are the worst I've seen in Western Europe. Morning traffic is awful if you leave after 8:00am. Commutes from downtown to NATO at this hour might be 30-45 minutes.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Costs are high as in other Western European cities. U.S. government employees can access a commissary at an airbase one hour south of Brussels. It's just like shopping at a U.S. grocery store with dollar prices equivalent to those you'd find in the U.S. suburbs. This is a great savings for those with families.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Maybe boutique liquors and food items from back home. Everything is available and almost anything can be shipped via APO.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Quick is the Belgian version of McDonalds. Lots of frites shops as well as Turkish snack shops. Brussels is an international city and almost every cuisine imaginable is available. I think restaurant costs are rather high compared to neighboring countries.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
None really. Some mosquitos during warmer months.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
APO and DPO is available. Bringing in items with lithium batteries has been a problem.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Costs average 10 euro/hour. You can lower your costs by using a "titre de service" agency. About 20% of the cost is subsidized by the government to encourage use of this option which keeps workers in the official market.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Local gyms are available but I've never used them. NATO employees have access to good facilities at the Staff Centre. U.S. government employees can access a great gym at the local Army facility. There are a range of good, low-cost indoor pools throughout the city.
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?
ATMs are everywhere. Be cautious. Attempts to steal PINs and then nick cards are high. Reporting theft means going to a local police station to file a report before the bank will begin an investigation.
Local banks offer a Maestro "bank contact" card that is widely accepted throughout Belgium. I find myself needing to rely on my U.S. Visa card when visiting other countries.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Available, but I'm unsure of the specifics.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
English is widely spoken but knowledge of a local language will help you navigate Belgium's horrendous bureaucracy and lack of a customer service culture. French is the local lingua franca but Dutch is spoken in Brussels and the Flanders region.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Most older buildings and areas of the city are not easily accessible to those with physical disabilities.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Local public transport is largely cheap and safe. Taxis are expensive and the drivers often navigate traffic like maniacs at high speeds.
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 cars are recommended but many expats survive with small SUVs. Diplomats are eligible for tax-free gas, which is quite a savings. Parts for European and Japanese cars are readily available. All cars must be outfitted with fog lights.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
We have a landline, cable and high-speed Internet with unlimited downloads through Belgacom that costs about 100 euro/month.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
U.S. Tri-Mission employees can obtain SIMs for phones and tables from the Tri-Mission Association store. This is a great help as they often will act as the middle-man with the phone company, which means avoiding poor Belgian customer service.
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?
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?
Both French and Dutch are often needed to obtain work on the local market, but U.S. government family members have lots of options at the Tri-Missions.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Typical business wear at work. Casual in pubic.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Some on the Western side of the city but most expats live in the Central or Eastern communes.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
High quality medical care is available but either French or Dutch is helpful to navigate effectively.
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. Some smoggy days but my allergy problems have not been bad compared to past expat experiences.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Cool most of the year with lots of intermittent light rainfall. Very occasional, very short periods of hot weather and snowfall.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
No experience with schools, but the International School of Brussels is supposed to be one of the best in Europe. Many FSOs try to get jobs here for that reason alone. Most U.S. Department of Defense families are required to send their children to Brussels American School.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Lots of special accommodations available though I'm unsure of specifics.
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?
Good paid daycare options for babies. At age two and a half, all children are eligible to attend local public French or Flemish pre-schools free of charge as long as they are potty-trained.
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?
Very large and and very international. Most people are pretty happy to be here, but the cloudy winters can get you down.
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?
We work long hours at NATO so most people are ready to go home at the end of the day. Many delegations host events (e.g. national days) during business hours in the NATO cafeteria.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Great for everyone.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Some local prejudice against newer communities of Turkish and Moroccan descent.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Good food, great chocolate, unique beer locally. Interesting cities to visit include Bruges, Antwerp, Leuven, Lieges. Exploring the Ardennes and learning about Belgium's experience in the two World Wars.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Sampling the various types of chocolate, beer and gin throughout the country. Hikes in the Ardennes. Looking for interesting antiques.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Chocolate, beer, lace, antiques, artwork.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Easy connections to other parts of Europe. You can get to London, Paris or Frankfurt quickly by air or high speed rail. Direct air connections to other parts of Europe are abound.
10. Can you save money?
Sure, if you buy all your food at the commissary, don't eat out and go home every night, but who wants to do that?
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
The incredible lack of a customer service culture. Even Paris is better.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Of course. Brussels may not be the most exciting city in the world but you're at the heart of Western Europe.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
4. But don't forget your:
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
6. Do you have any other comments?
Belgians can be grumpy on the surface. (Who wouldn't be if you had to live through the local weather?) But, they can be incredibly kind and welcoming if you take the time to get to know them.