Brussels, Belgium Report of what it's like to live there - 02/15/17
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?
Yes, this was my first post and my first time overseas.
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?
We came from Washington, DC. When we arrived to post we were able to take a direct flight. However, upon departure, the rules had changed and we had to stop in London.
3. How long have you lived here?
We lived in Brussels for two years.
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 lived in an apartment near the Montgomery metro stop. We were fortunate and had ample built in storage but our kitchen was rather small with European-sized appliances. Regular cookie sheets would not fit into the oven.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
You can pretty much find anything you need with few exceptions. For example, it is very difficult to find American style peanut butter or things like hot dogs. You can always make periodic trips to the military commissary if you are in need of those items. Otherwise the grocery stores have good selections of meats, cheeses, produce and wonderful french wine. Cost depends on where you shop. Rob the Gourmet is higher end and comparable to Whole Foods. Fresh Med is a gem for produce and is very low cost.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Coconut oil, deodorant/antiperspirant, and Marsala cooking wine. Also, makeup and nail polish cost a fortune so ship what you need in HHE!
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Anything you want you can find from pizza to Thai to sushi...its endless. Most communes have neighborhood restaurants within walking distance. When ordering takeout, we found the website pizza.be to be the most helpful. Don't let the name fool you, it's not just pizza. They even send you email updates when a new restaurant joins their site.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Brussels felt virtually bug free. We left windows wide open and they don't even have screens. It was incredible.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Yes, we used the mail service at the Embassy (DPO) but were also given privileges to use the mailroom at the USAG base in Brussels.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
It can be expensive. Many families have weekly or bi-weekly help with cleaning and make contacts through families that are getting ready to leave. We had someone come three hours a week and her rate was 10 euro per hour plus 5 euro for metro.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There's a broad range. You can join Basic Fit for very low cost, but there are also high end clubs. If you are into CrossFit there are boxes all over 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?
Credit cards are widely accepted but must have a chip. ATMs are available but most can only be accessed during bank hours. We generally took out cash at the Embassy. You do need a local bank account to pay bills and get gas. Diplomats can get a special gas card that links to your local account and waives the VAT.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You really can get by with no French at all. Learning pleasantries is always nice but most locals speak English. The few times I found myself with total language barriers I was lucky enough to have passersby stop to assist.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. Again, very few metro stops have elevators.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Public transportation isn't inexpensive but parking your car downtown is sometimes a nightmare. It can be worth it. Safety depends on where you are, what time it is, and whether or not you are alone. The RSO gives a good briefing when you arrive at post.
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?
Something small! And keep your car empty - don't leave money, bags or your GPS in view.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
We arranged through the Embassy and used Belgacom. It was installed shortly after we arrived and we had very few problems with it.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We used a local provider. The TMA store at the Embassy helped to set up, and then later discontinue, our plans.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
The style in Brussels is generally very casual. There are definitely some restaurants that have dress codes and we always dressed in business casual at the very least when going to the Embassy. You will see a lot of jeans, scarves, and trainers.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Be aware of pick pockets for sure. Don't go through your purse while on the metro platform, and keep your purse on the floor while driving! I was told that in some areas, your window could get smashed if stopped in traffic with your bag on the passenger seat.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care is great! There are many English speaking providers as well. We loved our pediatrician and my OB/GYN was fantastic. I delivered my youngest in Belgium and was very happy with the care. Speaking to pregnancy, toxoplasmosis is an issue. You shouldn't eat anything raw unless you've properly cleaned it yourself. Periodic blood tests are required during pregnancy. The tap water is safe to drink but doesn't taste very good. Culligan home water delivery was a must for us. Our kids also needed to take Vitamin D supplements because of the weather.
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?
Allergies can be pretty nasty but the air is fresh!!
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Make friends with your local pharmacist. Pharmacists here are generally solo business owners but are magical apothecaries and can heal almost anthing that ails you.
5. 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 definitely a concern. There are far more grey and rainy days than there are sunny days. I found it helped to get outside everyday, regardless of the weather. Having fresh flowers and plants indoors was also helpful.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
The overall climate is mild. It does get cold for a bit in the winter and each summer we had a week or two of really hot weather. Aside from that it was fall/spring temps most of the time.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
It's a large expat community and not cohesive at all. There is so much to do that outside of work people more or less do their own thing.
2. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It is a difficult city for families of little ones. Restaurants are not particularly excited to see small children who (gasp) make noise. It was more uncomfortable than it was worth. There are places like cook & book that are less formal but it truly depends on the kids. I had two tiny boys who were not quiet or reserved. In addition, Brussels is completely stroller UN-friendly. Very few metro stops have elevators so you have to use the escalators ... when they are in service. Otherwise you have to carry the strollers up and down stairs.
3. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
The parks were amazing and the city is just beautiful! If you like chocolate you are in for a treat.
4. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Avenue Louise has amazing shopping with everything from Zara to Chanel, Tiffany's and Louis Vuitton.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
It was a good place to live temporarily but I'm in no rush to go back.
2. But don't forget your:
Umbrella, nail polish, and thick skin - the locals aren't the friendliest lot.