Brussels, Belgium Report of what it's like to live there - 08/18/14
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. Athens, Greece; Colombia (various cities); Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; and Frankfurt, Germany
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?
Mesa, Arizona - ranges from 17 - 22 hours depending on connections. Brussels to Heathrow is shortest but government fare requires we fly US Code so we connect in New York, Chicago etc.
3. How long have you lived here?
6 years - from August 2008 until September 2014.
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?
We live in an apartment building owned by the U.S. government with underground parking, located on a metro line. Other expats live in houses outside of Brussels and drive into town. My husband's commute on the metro to the Embassy is about 25 minutes. When he was assigned to U.S. NATO it took him between 45 and 60 minutes each way via metro, train, and/or bus.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
You can find anything you want if you are not particular about a specific brand. Meat is quite expensive but seasonal fruits and vegetables are fresh, plentiful, and reasonably priced. I do most of my shopping at the commissary (an hour away) and supplement my fresh foods on the economy. Great yogurt, cheese, chocolate etc.
3. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Yes. Very expensive to eat out.
4. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
No insect problems other than flies and some mosquitoes since we have no screens or A/C and must leave windows open in the summer.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO and pouch.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Very available but costly.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are some available. I only use the one at the military garrison - which is free and quite well developed.
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?
We have a local account and use that bank card to pay. It is a debit type card - not a credit card. We have a U.S. credit card for travel and U.S. military installation shopping.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has two congregations that are bi-lingual English/French. There are English Catholic services and a non-denominational protestant church available in English as well. I know there is Seventh Day Adventist group but I think it might be bi-lingual as well. There are Jewish synagogues but I do not know if they have services in English. There are many mosques but I doubt those provide English services.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
In Brussels, we use French every day. Some of the communes that are Flemish have more English speakers.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
There are some accommodations made but the cobblestones and traffic make it hard to navigate on foot for those with visual or physical challenges.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
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 best because parking and driving is the single most stressful part of living here. However, a small car with some undercarriage clearance would be best because the roads are generally in atrocious condition - lots of potholes etc. Very hard on the shocks.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes. We pay the equivalent of about US$60 per month.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We use the embassy cell phone plan and it is dirt cheap.
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?
Some but it requires a ream of paperwork.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Volunteerism is not very common among locals because they have a government cradle to grave system in place. However, there is an organization run by expats called "Serve the City" that organizes service projects once per month for the whole community. There are also some soup kitchens etc that welcome help. I have done most of my volunteering at the school, my church, and in Boy Scouts.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
I am not employed but my husband wears a tie to work each day. In public, just about anything goes.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Crime has gone up during our six years here due to the economic challenges Europe, East Europe, and Africa are experiencing. People come here from all over the world looking for work and there is none so they turn to crime to get by. Beggars on the streets and metros have also increased. However, in most neighborhoods, I feel very safe to walk alone.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Quality medical care is readily available but hospital/nursing care is less than stellar.
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 air quality.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Lots of gray and rainy days but when the sun shines, it is brilliant (and very appreciated). Winters have some snow but seldom interferes with daily life. Some icy and foggy days as well.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Several great international schools. Our sons attended the International School of Brussels for middle school and high school. We loved it and they received a top notch education. They also had the opportunity to participate in different sports, theater, choir, scouts, International Award etc. It provides options of IB or AP.
Other schools include St. John's in Waterloo, British School in Tervuren, and Brussels American School in Sterrebeek (primarily used by military families).
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
International School of Brussels has one of the best programs for special needs kids in Europe. It has programs for kids on both ends of the spectrum.
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Lots through the international schools and through the English speaking Brussels Sports Association.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Very large and morale seems to be high for most of the people with whom we associate. There are some who complain about everything but I think they bring their own baggage with them.
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?
Sightseeing, movies, theaters, cultural events, restaurant hopping, involvement in the local schools etc.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
4. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
There is a growing animosity toward immigrants, and particularly toward Moroccan and other Islamic immigrants.
5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Sightseeing around Brussels and Europe.
6. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Too many to count - museums, beach, historical sites (like Waterloo, Brugges, etc.) forests, river rafting with in reasonable distance, etc etc etc.
7. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Chocolate, tapestries, handmade lace, waffles.
8. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Great launching place for exploring Europe. Lots of local culture and green spaces (a forest just a ten minute walk from our house) etc.
9. Can you save money?
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
In a heart beat! That is why we have done two back to back tours here (with one SMA while husband was in Iraq in between).
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Idea that living here is like living in the U.S. Very different world view and standards for behavior.
3. But don't forget your:
Curiosity and willingness to explore and learn from your new neighbors.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
5. Do you have any other comments?
Like I said before, driving here is challenging with narrow streets, an insane law about always yielding to the right even when you are on a major road, no parking, potholes, confusing intersections etc. Other than that, it is great!