Brussels, Belgium Report of what it's like to live there - 12/29/16
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 a third tour after Arabia and South Central Asia.
2. How long have you lived here?
3. 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 a townhome leased by the USG. Homes are generously sized and typically finished with "Ikea-style" kitchens. Even though we are quite a way from downtown, there are numerous transportation options that will all get us to the city within 50 minutes. Bus & tram are both walking distance (+/-10 minutes) which will take you to the metro.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
There are 2 grocery stores, 3 bakeries and numerous restaurants within walking distance. We find the cost of groceries on the local economy to be reasonable.There's nothing we need to buy at the U.S. base and have only been there once when our sponsor took us. You can find fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses, specialty meats and fish from the local farmer's market which is held two days per week.
3. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are too many to list! Again, our home is in the suburbs, but even so there are Belgian, Chinese, Thai, and Italian restaurants we can walk to that do a brisk business with both eat-in and carry-out food. I imagine the selection is even more plentiful if you live closer to town. You will not find "fast food" per se and NO drive-through anything.
4. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
No insect problems at ALL!! We leave windows open in the summer all day and night (There is NO A/C in most housing)and have never had any unwanted critters. With as wet as it can be here, I thoroughly expected more mosquitoes and have been pleasantly surprised at their lack.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO & diplomatic pouch. We have used the local post for ordering through Amazon in the UK and Germany on occasion. It is fast and reasonable.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Belgium has severe restrictions and virtually no visas are being approved for domestic/childcare help. It is unlikely that your domestic employee will be granted a visa, so be prepared to find domestic help or childcare locally using Belgian resources.
Belgian resources available for domestic help include Sodexo and its service-checks, also known as "titres-services." You can use them for a variety of services, such as cleaning, cooking and other household tasks (excluding childcare). You pay for services with "checks". The number of checks purchased per calendar year is limited to 500. The first 400 checks cost 9 euro, the next 100 checks cost 10 euro each. One check normally equates to one hour of work. The website provides more information, but unfortunately the information is only provided in the three official languages spoken in Belgium (Dutch, French and German): http://www.titresservices.brussels/.
To register for the service, you will have to provide Sodexo with a completed registration form, copy of your Belgian ID card and an official Belgian document listing the members of your household called a "composition de menage".
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Most communes have their own sports facility or fitness center. They typically include pool, tennis, racquetball and have space for classes such as gymnastics or dance. You can use any facility, but the prices for the one in your OWN commune will be less. You can pay per use or buy cards for multi-use. There are also MANY gyms. The most plentiful one is Basic Fit - www.basic-fit.com. There is also a small (free) gym on the Embassy compound, a large one at NATO and another at USAG.
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 use credit cards almost exclusively and have never had an issue. You WILL need to get a local bank account, however, for some things. Your gas will be debited directly from your LOCAL account only. You will pay for your internet bill, phone bill, local doctors bills online with your LOCAL bank too. You will find a few (very few) stores only accept local bank cards - not Visa or MC.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Catholic, Baptist, Protestant, Jewish, Mormon, Lutheran, Anglican, interdenominational... You can definitely find an English-speaking service to suit you!
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
If you do not want to learn another language, you can get by with English here. That said, if you want to learn and practice French, you have ample opportunity! Tutors are widely available.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
With all of the cobblestones and crazy traffic I imagine it's terrible for those with visual or physical challenges. Heck, it's hard to even wear heels here!
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Absolutely! And with the hellish traffic and strange driving laws, we prefer public transport. It is +/-1.40 Euro for a trip. A trip can include bus, tram and metro as long as you check in to the next transport mode within an hour of the last one. The bus system in Belgium is amazing. You can go to literally anywhere, no matter how small the village, on a bus. Plus you are only 1-2 hours away from Paris, Amsterdam, and Germany by train.
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?
Parking garages and spaces are made for European-sized cars (read: SMALL). Don't bring an enormous SUV or truck!
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
If you work with GSO Housing, they will assist you to pre-register and you can have internet within a day or two after arrival! It is high-speed, reliable and +/-60 Euro per month.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
The local employee association can help you get a SIM card on the local market through a plan called "Orange."
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?
Belgium is a VERY dog-friendly place. Pets are welcomed on public transportation, stores, malls, restaurants... You will see furry friends accompanying their owners everywhere. There are many good vets, kennels, dog-walkers and other animal-care professionals who speak English.
You are allowed to bring up to five pets (dogs, cats, and other small domestic animals) to Belgium. The process for bringing a pet to Belgium can take up to three months depending where the pet was living previously. There are very specific importation rules in Belgium and they change often. The following website is also helpful:
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 +/-50 EFM positions available within the Tri-Missions. Working on the local economy requires a work permit or a professional card for free-lancers. The MFA will not accept a work permit request prior to arrival at post and the process may take up to 2 months. It is permissible to actively seek employment and interview for positions while waiting for the permit but work on the local economy cannot begin without this document.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business attire at work. Suits/ties and dresses/blouses/skirts in professional settings. Otherwise, formal attire is almost never needed. Bring something for the Marine Ball though!
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
There have been terrorist attacks in Belgium and Europe - and the pace and pressure you feel is increasing. The police continue to make arrests of terrorists in certain Brussels neighborhoods. You will become used to seeing armed soldiers in public places, metro stations, etc. Additionally, there are many many beggars on the streets and public places. Some are more desperate than others. You must keep up your situational awareness and avoid crowds.
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 here. Water and air are clean. Medical care is easily accessible and affordable. You can have the "Service de Guarde" send a doctor right to your home if you wish! It's +/-60 Euro for a doctor visit. Doctors here do it ALL. Meaning, set the appointment, treat you and take your money for the bill.
3. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is an issue here. It can be grey and/or drizzly/rainy for weeks at a time. Be prepared - bring your Vitamin D and your S.A.D. lamp. Be sure to have bright lightbulbs in your home. Any time there is a spot of sunlight, Belgians do NOT take it for granted - even if it is cold out they will be out with their faces to the sun.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
When the sun shines, it is brilliant. It makes you understand where all the "Dutch Masters" got the ideas for their beautiful light. That said, there are also lots of gray and rainy days. Winters have a bit of snow now and then, along some icy and foggy days.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Children of Tri-Mission personnel usually attend one of three English-language American-curriculum schools: the Brussels American School, the International School of Brussels and St. John's International School. Most U.S. DOD families send their children to Brussels American School.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Overall, morale seems to be quite high. Some folks at the NATO mission tend to be a bit more stressed, but it is due to the heavy workload and long hours. Brussels is an easy place to live and a good "hub" for traveling around Europe. There are MANY things to do.
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?
Expatclub.org is an EXCELLENT way to get plugged in right away. They offer bus trips to many places within a day's drive. There's also the American Club of Brussels.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Good for ALL. This town has everything to offer!
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Brussels is very LGBT friendly. There is a whole quarter of downtown that caters to the LGBT community.
5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
The castles, parks, WWII history, festivals, museums, beer, chocolate, waffles, bike trails, forests, warm wonderful Belgian people, ease of travel, I could go on and on...
6. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
The big things in Belgium are the tapestries, lace and chocolate.
7. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
2. But don't forget your:
Rain coat and boots, umbrella.
3. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Battle of the Bulge: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWatKEGgS5o This is an awesome documentary with interviews of remaining living soldiers wo fought in this battle. Also watch Wereth 11; War Horse; In Bruges; Waterloo; The Kid With A Bike; L'Enfant; The Broken Circle Breakdown