Brussels, Belgium Report of what it's like to live there - 07/17/14
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?
No it's our 6th. Haiti, Oman, Mongolia, Zambia, New Zealand were our previous postings.
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?
Home base for us is Oklahoma. But to get to DC from here it's only about 8 hours (which beats the heck out of the 18 hour flights to China and the 24+ hours it takes to get home from NZ.
3. How long have you lived here?
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?
There is a whole range of housing from apartments to stand-alone houses. And they are spread out to all 19 communes of Brussels and some surrounding suburbs. Do your homework and be very specific on your housing survey. We live in a townhouse in a commune on the edge of the city limits, at the end of the metro line and it's perfect for us. 15 to 20 minute commute via the metro to the Embassy complex, about 45-minute bus ride in the morning to the International School (ISB). Access to buses and trams as well, so if you don't want to drive someplace, you don't have to.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Just about everything you could possibly want can be found here between the well-stocked local supermarkets and specialty stores and the commissary at the base. Prices on the local economy can be pretty pricey, so try to keep an eye on the sale ads and buy when things are on sale. I stock up on meat, canned goods, sodas and baking supplies at the base. Veggies, fruit, milk and eggs I buy on the local economy.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
McDonalds - value meal is around 7 euros give or take a few. Pizza Hut - with coupons, 3 pizzas cost about 18 euros. There is also Quick - the European fast food chain. We like it, but we've lived in countries where the fast food is pretty nasty. Just don't eat the churros - they apparently have no idea what churros are supposed to taste like. There is Subway here too. There is a Burger King at the base. KFC can be found in the Netherlands and just about every country surrounding us. In fact they have a lot more fast food restaurants in the all the other countries than are found here in Belgium. It's weird.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
There seems to be a incredible number of spiders here. But the mosquitos aren't too bad. I am very grateful for this, as there are no screens on the windows in housing here.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO and pouch. I did order a prom dress from the UK, but paid customs fees on it.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Those who use domestic help pay around 10 euros an hour. There is some sort of service you can sign up for in your commune where you can hire someone for around 7 or so euros and hour.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are a ton of gyms here, but I do find the membership fees to be pretty expensive. The Army Garrison located in one of the eastern communes has a gym, however, that is free to use for those who have access (most Tri-mission personnel and their families). I go there for yoga and my daughter uses the cardio machines. There are other classes as well, and just about every sort of gym equipment you would want to use.
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?
Most places take credit cards and ATMs are everywhere. Just check to make sure a restaurant takes cards, as there are some that don't even take the local bank cards - just cash.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There are a lot of options for English speakers for just about every denomination.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
My husband and I have some French already, but he rarely uses his. It's useful for reading menus and labels, but not totally necessary. Farther north, they speak mainly Dutch and I have no Dutch whatsoever. But we make a game out of trying to read menus - kind of like Russian roulette with food, lol. Sooo many people speak English, it's actually difficult to practice your French or Dutch.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
There are lots of accommodations made for those with physical disabilities in Brussels.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Tons of options available. Very safe. Taxis might be on the expensive side and trains can be if travelling last minute (book 3 months or more in advance to get the better rates)
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?
Larger SUVs are hard to park here. Not all garages are big enough for them. And some houses don't have garages or parking places (be sure to specify if these things are important to you). Little, compact cars are easiest to drive on the narrow streets here and way easier if you need to parallel park (and those parking garages are tight!). We have a big Volvo car that is not so little, but has been handy for hauling visiting family members around.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes! Again, lots of options. We got a package deal - phone/unlimited internet/cable for about 74 euros a month. Turns out our previous occupants had the free British TV, so we mainly watch that and have given up Belgian cable.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Lots of different companies and plans available. The Tri-Mission association has a deal with one of the companies and a lot of us use them.
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 quarantine. Lots of great vets and kennels. Belgians love their animals and dogs can often be seen in restaurants and stores.
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?
Possibly. For the more professional types probably. For those who are multilingual, most definitely. For regular joes like me with no professional leanings and no desire to work at the embassy, not really.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Lots - just have to look and decide where you want to put your energy.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business attire mostly at work. Whatever you want in public.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Pickpockets seem to be the worst problem. Don't put your bags on the ground while out and about or eating at restaurants. And there have been a couple of reports of car windows getting smashed so that they can steal bags left on the seats (sometimes while at a traffic light even!).
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. Great medical care.
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?
It's fine. The Belgians will try to tell you that the air quality is poor and that Brussels is polluted, but apparently they haven't lived where I've lived.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Every one will tell you that it always rains in Brussels and that the weather is horrible. So far, for us, this hasn't been the case. It has rained a bit, but a whole lot less than Seattle and TONS less than Wellington, NZ (on average it rains 16 inches more per year in Wellington than in Brussels) and it's a whole lot less windy here than in Wellington. I always have a rain coat with me of some kind though, just in case it decides to sprinkle. Our winter this year was very mild, but I know that they had quite a bit of snow the year before, so we'll have to wait and see what this next winter brings us.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are several options. We use ISB and our daughter LOVES it there. Of course it's the biggest school she's attended and offers more activities than our other schools have in the past. They offer both the IB and AP classes and it's as challenging academically as you want it to be. There is also St. John's international school in Waterloo that some mission kids attend. They seem to be happy with it as well. There is also the DOD school that is a good option for those that are used to the US style curriculum (Brussels American School).
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
ISB has a great program for special needs kids. I don't know about the other schools.
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
All the schools have great sports programs and there are lots of clubs on the local economy that our kids can join as well.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The expat community is HUGE. I think morale varies a great deal. For those who need more support, it's hard to find, as everyone is kind of doing their own thing. You have to really go out and be proactive if you want to meet people. But there are quite a few different American clubs and other English speaking clubs if you are inclined to do so.
2. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It's a good city for everyone.
3. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
It is a wonderful city for LGTB expats. We just attended the biggest Pride celebration I have ever been to (well, I'm not from NY or LA, so I can't compare it to those places) and there is a lot of support and opportunity for the community.
4. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
People seem to blame everything on the Moroccans, but I've not seem anything too blatant regarding prejudices.
5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
6. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
See my entry above on "advantages of living here" - Bouillon, Ghent, Dinant, Maasmechlen, Bruges, Abbaye d'Villers, Oostende, Namur, Liege, Tongeren - the list just goes on...
7. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Chocolate, beer, lace, tapestries, pastries - trips to seriously cool places.
8. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
There are so many it's difficult to remember all of them. First of all, location. Belgium is centrally located, so it's easy to travel to so many countries throughout western and eastern Europe. And there are always cheap airfares to countries farther afield, so travel opportunities out of the region abound. BUT Belgium itself is full of historical sites as well as hiking/boating/biking opportunities. You could easily spend all your weekends exploring Belgian cities (at least I could) with it's cathedrals, castles, museums and old ruins. I just found out that there are TONS of music festivals held all over the country with top artists playing (very much wish I'd found out about that before my college student got here). Then there are festivals, cultural events, art exhibits, concerts, ballets, plays, operas, tours, clubs of all kinds, sporting events - you name it. The food is excellent, especially the chocolate, the pastries, the beer, and the waffles. For those of us who are part of the Tri-mission there is also the US military base with a PX and a full commissary (just like a US grocery store but cheaper!) about an hour's drive away (I've spent more time in traffic in half the countries I've lived in). This totally helps with the cost of food on the local economy.
9. Can you save money?
Not really. But if you shop at the base for groceries you can mitigate the sting of the cost of living.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
YES! I'm trying to figure out how to stay here without sending the officer away to a war zone!
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Diets - it's a lost cause here. And preconceived notions of how things are supposed to work in developed countries.
3. But don't forget your:
sense of adventure.
4. Do you have any other comments?
The only big knock I have on Belgium is that the shopping in general kind of sucks and stuff is a lot more expensive than in the surrounding countries. I suggest going to Koln, Germany or Lille, France for bigger and better selections of clothing, as well as much better prices. Even hopping across to the UK is better for clothing purchases.