Brussels, Belgium Report of what it's like to live there - 04/28/14
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?
This is the second. Previously in Moscow.
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?
DC is home base. Easy trip from Brussels to DC at just over 8 hrs; DC to Brussels can be really fast at 6.5 hrs. Direct flight on United.
3. How long have you lived here?
Almost 3 years out of a 4-year tour.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing is typically good and fairly central but spread out all across the city. Commutes can range anywhere from a 10-minute walk (city apartment living) to a 30-40-minute commute on the bus/metro.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
For a family of 4, we easily spend 120-150 Euros per week on groceries.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Everything can be purchased locally or later through Amazon or other online retailers. Kids' toys tend to be on the expensive side so perhaps think ahead if you need something.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
McDonald's, of course. There is also Subway and now we have a few Starbucks in the area. Sandwiches are fairly common for lunch and can range from 3-5 Euros each. Decent restaurants are not cheap and a dinner for two can easily run 100 Euros.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
We seem to be the only people with this problem but because our home has a fairly good size garden, we have tons of mosquitoes. Also, lots of snails around!
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO and pouch. DPO is really fast here - can take as little as 1 week to receive something from Amazon. Pouch can take about 3 weeks.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Domestic help is certainly available but not cheap. Typical cost is 10 Euros per hour but household help needs to be sponsored by the employee. Otherwise, you can use the local "titre-services" system and go through a local agency. Cost for 2014 is 9 Euros per hour but unless you know someone who works with a particular agency already or is willing to sign up, the agency will send you a person you don't know. This is the Belgian government system for making domestic workers legal. You pay 9 Euros per hour but the government subsidizes and the employee makes a lot more than 9 Euros plus they get benefits.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes, lots of options ranging anywhere from 70 Euros per month and up to 150 Euros for a fancy tennis club with pool.
I understand NATO has good facilities but those are not accessible to all USG employees.
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?
Plenty of ATMs and credit cards are widely used. However, some retailers will only take a debit card to a local account. Also, because not all U.S. cards have chips; they may not be accepted.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
It is helpful but you can survive without it. Once in a while you will find someone who speaks no English (like the mechanic for your car!).
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes, not all metros are wheelchair accessible. Not all streets have curb cuts, lots of cobble stones and narrow door entries.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Yes, all safe and relatively affordable. However, a taxi from the airport to town is pricey - over 50 Euros each way.
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?
Any car will do but parking can be tight in some streets so it's probably easier to have a smaller car.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, high-speed available. We pay about 85 Euros per month for internet that includes TV basic cable and telephone.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Cell phones can be obtained through the Tri-Mission association at an affordable cost.
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?
Pet care good, no quarantine.
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?
There are a few people I know who have been able to find work locally but not too many. Most jobs require not only English and French but also Dutch.
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?
Just like being in DC. . .
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Not in particular but there have been a few major demonstrations from local unions, fire service, etc that have turned a bit violent.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Generally good medical care although we know a few people with poor experiences. Belgian doctors have a different way of "doing medicine" and I have the impression that it is more of a wait and see approach.
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?
Good, with a few days during the summer at what is considered "unhealthy" but this is rare.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Not too hot in the summer with the exception of a week or two and not too cold in the winter (last winter didn't really get below 10C). Weather tends to be a bit on the dreary side, lots of drizzle and clouds. But, sometimes we get lucky and have a period of several weeks of sunshine!
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Tons of school options and I think most people are very happy with whatever they selected. ISB has a very good reputation. There is also the French Lycee, British School, a DOD school and many local options.
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?
It is very common for Belgian children to start daycare ("Creche") from 4 months and attend through 2.5yrs. Typical cost ranges from 550 Euros per month all the way up to 950 Euros for a creche that caters to expats.
By age 3, children are in school which is, for the most part, free. Early years are called "maternelle" but parents interested in this option need to put their children on the wait list in advance or face the possibility of not having a spot in school.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, tons of options. When kids have school vacations, there are lots of options for "camps" or "stages" as they are called - anything from rock climbing to theatre to tennis, etc. Prices are typically from 135 Euros - 200 Euros for the week, depending on the camp.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
This is a tri-Mission (NATO, USEU and the bi-lat) so huge government expat community plus plenty of expats working for U.S. companies and others.
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?
Same as anywhere!
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Yes, great for families. Lots of parks and indoor play centers (since it often rains!).
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Not sure but I imagine yes.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Have not heard of any Embassy employees being targeted.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Travel outside of Brussels.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Hard to say - there are lots of fun things to do but while Brussels is a relatively nice place to live; this isn't Paris or London!
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Beer, chocolate, tapestry, lace
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Great food, easy to get around, most people in the city speak English, good travel opportunities within Europe.
10. Can you save money?
Only if you are very frugal.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
While this is Western Europe, there are still plenty of things that surprise me like the absolutely terrible customer service.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Any thoughts you may have about saving money unless you don't plan to do any travelling.
4. But don't forget your:
Weight scale - you will need it to measure all those pounds you are gaining after you start eating the fabulous chocolate, french fries, waffles and drinking all that beer.