Brussels, Belgium Report of what it's like to live there - 01/18/18
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?
First time living abroad.
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 is the western US. Brussels has flights to all the big East Coast airports, plus it's easy to connect through Amsterdam (or Paris) to get back to the US. For US government employees, United once again has the contract to DC with a non-stop.
3. How long have you lived here?
Almost a year.
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?
I live in a row house about 6 miles from downtown. It takes me 20 minutes to get to work by foot and metro. A lot of other embassy people without families live closer and have smaller places, but I have over 1000 square feet and a garage. Commuting by metro, tram and bus is easy and cheap (â‚¬1.40 per ride with 10-ride tickets or â‚¬499 unlimited for the year). The embassy is centrally located, so most commuting-related problems seem to involve the schools, which are not in the center.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
A lot of people complain that groceries are expensive here. If you don't have a car and shop at the neighborhood shops and markets in Ixelles/Elsene or the Woluwes, groceries can be painfully expensive (and don't get me started on the prices at Rob). If you shop at the hypermarkets (Hyper Carrefour, Cora) or discounters (Colruyt, Aldi, Lidl), groceries aren't that much more expensive than in the DC area. Same goes for the street markets--a kilo of the exact same olives costs over twice as much at the Stokkel market (an expensive area) as at the market in Anderlecht (a working-class area with a large North African population).
The one thing that's consistently more expensive is meat, especially beef, but you can buy American beef at American prices at ChiÃ¨vres.
Availability is generally pretty good--you can get 98% of the same sorts of things here. Brussels has a couple large Asian grocery stores, and if you really get in a bind you can shop at the commissary at ChiÃ¨vres.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Nothing. It might've been easier to have shipped a huge stash of Mexican groceries and peanut butter, but I can get whatever I need here.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
The usual range of restaurants is available here--local food, French, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Italian, burgers, etc etc. There aren't a lot of "fast casual" restaurants here, so there's not a lot between a kebab shop or "frituur" and a regular sit-down restaurant. Prices are similar enough to the US when you remember that tax is included and service is generally included here (and when it's not, it's usually 12% and it's clearly mentioned on the menu).
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Nope. Most windows don't have screens and most people still don't get eaten by mosquitoes.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO for mail and packages from the US. It takes about an extra week vs. getting mail to a 'real' US address. The local postal service isn't perfect, but it's perfectly adequate (no worse than USPS). Packages don't get left on your doorstep, no matter how safe it looks--some delivery companies will try to deliver to the neighbors. The postal service leaves a note in the letterbox and you pick it up at the post office.
Both Amazon.de and Amazon.fr deliver free to Belgium if you buy over â‚¬29 worth of stuff.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
There's a local program called dienstencheques/titres-services where you can hire household help on an hourly basis at a pretty good rate. Live-in help is virtually unheard of, both because few people have the extra space and because wages are quite high here.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The embassy has a small gym and the Army garrison has a bigger gym, both of which are free to use. Not sure about price of local gyms.
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 do take credit cards, though some smaller shops are cash only and a few shops including the Colruyt discount grocery chain only take the local Bancontact debit cards. American cards without PINs work in 99% of places where you're interacting with a human, but they don't work in most unattended kiosks (train tickets, parking meters, etc). ATMs are everywhere and don't charge fees. Local cards are almost all contactless, which means that Android Pay and Apple Pay are widely accepted. I tend to use my American cards whenever possible because I want my airline miles.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You can get by with literally zero. Brussels is full of people from the British Isles and Eastern Europeans whose second language is English. A lot of local companies' websites are in Dutch, French, and English. That said, your life is significantly easier if you can speak some basic French (in Brussels) or Dutch (in the Flemish outer suburbs like Tervuren).
When travelling around the country, you can get by with English nearly anywhere; you have to get pretty far off the usual tourist path in Wallonia to find somewhere that no one speaks English. In Flanders I'm not sure it's possible at all.
Local language classes are offered by the government in addition to private organizations. Through the government, French classes cost around â‚¬150 per semester and Dutch classes are free. It's also easy to take Spanish and German classes if you're so inclined.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Like any old city in Europe, there are lots of stairs and uneven pavements. Buses are wheelchair accessible, but many trams are not and only some metro stations have elevators.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Public transit is safe, reliable, and cheap. Taxis are safe but they're very expensive.
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 spaces and garages tend to be small, so skip the Suburban. Some people have American minivans with no trouble, though. The entire Brussels region is now a low-emission zone, but gas-powered cars from 1997 or later won't be affected until 2025 at the earliest. If you have (or plan to buy) a diesel-powered car more than a few years old, check first.
A lot of people--especially those without kids--don't have cars. Public transit is pretty good, and although the intercity trains occasionally live up to their reputation for being late, they will get you where you're going. There are car-sharing services (Zipcar, etc) that some people use for the occasional IKEA run.
It's Europe, so there are more European and fewer American and Asian cars here. The only parts issue is that there are some Japanese-brand cars that are completely different vehicles in the US and Europe (Honda Accord, for example), so you might have to order some parts from the US or buy them via the Exchange at ChiÃ¨vres. Same for American cars that aren't sold here.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
The embassy leaves the internet access in housing pool houses active between occupants, so it's ready on move-in. High-speed internet, cable TV, and phone cost about â‚¬70/month.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Local providers are cheaper. The best deal varies based on your needs, but I pay â‚¬15/mo for 4gb data with Mobile Vikings.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
The usual suspects of big-city volunteer work with the homeless, refugees, language learners, animal shelters, etc. It helps a lot to speak Dutch and/or French.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Not that different from DC--lots of suits, some 'business casual', more black and other dark colors here. I've never needed anything more formal than a business suit.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Violent crime is relatively rare here, but property crime is sadly not. Lock your house, don't leave stuff visible in your car, take the usual anti-pickpocket precautions.
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 good and English-speaking medical staff aren't difficult to find.
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?
Decent. It's a big city, so it has its dirty air days, especially in the summer, but nothing like some of the cities in the developing world. It rains pretty regularly and the land is flat, so pollution washes or blows away pretty quickly most of the time.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
It's damp here. Constantly. Allergies to mold and mildew could be an issue.
Food allergens are always called out on packaging and there aren't too many surprise ingredients at restaurants--one exception is that fried food is sometimes fried in tallow... but on the flipside, it's rarely fried in peanut oil.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Not only is Brussels at 50Â°N with short winter days, it's also cloudy. Last month, I think we got somewhere around 20 hours of sunshine. In a whole month. A lot of people have sun lamps in the office, and a plane ticket to Spain, Portugal, or Italy can often be had for less than â‚¬100.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
The climate is somewhat similar to the coastal parts of the Pacific Northwest. It's rarely over 30Â°C and rarely more than a couple degrees below freezing. Snow happens but not that often and it doesn't stick around. It rains often, especially in the winter. Summers are beautiful--sure, it rains sometimes but it's really hard to argue with 25Â°C and 18 hours of daylight. Winters are not beautiful (see "mental health" section).
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Brussels is full of expats thanks to the EU. Morale varies a lot--some people love it here and some can't wait to leave.
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?
Meetup groups, volunteering, groups based on hobbies, etc.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I think there's something for everyone here. Single people and couples have plenty of "adult" activities (and for single people, a lot of other single English-speaking people who don't work with you), and there's also no shortage of kid-friendly activities. Exploring the country and the rest of Europe are fun no matter what your family looks like.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Definitely. While there's still some prejudice here and there, the vast majority of the population is accepting of LGBT people--probably more so than the US. Discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Brussels has a large underemployed immigrant population, mostly of North African and Turkish origin and concentrated in a few neighborhoods on the west side of the city. There is definitely some tension between that community and the city at large, but it rarely leads to violence and it's not something that would affect expats.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
The other cities and small towns of Belgium are fun to explore, and the cheap flights to the rest of Europe are great.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Not many gems stay hidden in the internet age. Visiting other cities in the area, eating food, drinking beer, etc. are all great things to do.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Not really... most of the goods on offer in European stores aren't all that different from those in North American stores. The chocolate lives up to its reputation, though!
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Safe, never too hot or too cold (but often too rainy!), easy to get around and easy to get out of when you want to explore Europe.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
It's not for no reason that there was a Politico article last year entitled "Belgium is a failed state". While that may be putting it a bit harshly, the bureaucracy goes way above and beyond what one would expect from Northern Europe, and the wheels of government turn very slowly and may not ever reach the intended destination. The number of different levels of government with different responsibilities is surprising even to Americans that are used to the federal/state divide. The "language war" has done a great job of fracturing the government institutions :(
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes. Not that I had a choice. ;)
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Air conditioner and hot weather clothes.
4. But don't forget your:
Umbrella, reading material for train delays, exercise program to work off all that extra chocolate and beer
5. Do you have any other comments?
Brussels and Belgium are good places in their own right, but one of the things that makes Brussels a particularly interesting place to be is that it's full of people from all over the place. It's rare that a day goes by where I don't hear at least 5 different languages I recognize and a couple that I don't. It also makes it an interesting place to work--while you may be thinking of doing something a particular "Belgian" way instead of doing it like you'd do in the US, your counterpart might turn out to be Portuguese or Estonian.