Brussels, Belgium Report of what it's like to live there - 05/22/18
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?
Five posts on three other continents.
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?
The United States. It's about an 8-hour direct flight from D.C.
3. How long have you lived here?
About one year.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Fair, but surprisingly far from the best in my career. A leased property that hasn't been kept up as well as it should have been and some basic infrastructure issues causes repeated problems (satellite/cable wiring problems, electrical issues, limited Internet options, etc.). And weird local laws, like quiet hours; yes, your neighbors WILL complain if you dare mow your lawn on a public holiday.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
While arguably comparable to D.C. prices, in general, groceries are much more expensive than many other parts of the world (including other parts of Europe), but you can pretty much get anything you want. There is also the commissary at ChiÃ¨vres AFB, which is notably cheaper than the local economy, and only 45 minutes away.
Do be ready for nearly everything to be closed on Sundays, and by 7-8pm other days. If you work late, Saturday shopping might be your only option!
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Nothing. With access to the commissary at ChiÃ¨vres (45 minutes away), there's a "U.S. store" nearby.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Pretty much any type you want, but nothing is fast (don't go out to eat if you want to be in and out in an hour), or cheap (30 euros/$40 for three people at McDonald's is easily a low-ball estimate; easily $100 for a family of three at a local "pub"). Also, for the most part, "customer service" isn't really a thing here.
Oh, and ALWAYS make a reservation! It's hard to just walk in and get a table, so a last-minute "Let's eat out!" idea won't always work. Even if a place looks empty, they'll ask if you have a reservation.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Window screens are basically non-existent (same with A/C), so be ready for bugs in the house if you want fresh air or cool air during the warmer days. Really, though, there aren't too many bugs, as this isn't Africa! :)
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO is pretty fast (one week?) back and forth to the U.S.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Not cheap, but doable for a one-day/week type of cleaning (usually about 10 Euro/hour).
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Small gym at the Embassy and access to USAG facilities. Lots of local gyms around, too, varying from less expensive YMCA-type local clubs to proper "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?
Yes, though occasionally the U.S. cards don't work here. Most people need a local account for paying local items (like phone bills, school bills, etc.) via bank transfer and that local account card comes in very handy for the times the U.S. debit/credit card won't work.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
A few options due to the large expat community.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
English will get you by in most situations, though some basic French definitely comes in handy.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Like any European city, probably. Cobblestones, few ramps, etc.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Yes. An extensive public transportation network. Taxis and Uber are generally available, too.
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?
Some garages (houses, not public garages) are too small for mini-vans and SUVs, though such cars are generally fine most places (and pretty much all public parking garages).
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
It's usually already active upon moving in, and either bundled with phone or separate. Roughly 70 euros/month. Be prepared for weird housing infrastructure limiting router placement to one location option in the house, and cement constructing meaning you can't get a wifi signal in most of the house without signal boosters everywhere.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Local provider, swapping the chip. About 30-40 USD per phone per month for a decent data plan.
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?
Lots of vets around, and quite a few boarding/pet sitting options. Vet prices are generally a bit cheaper than the U.S.; boarding, etc. is comparably priced.
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?
They require local permits to work, so very few jobs for spouses outside of the embassy.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Many to be found for those who want to volunteer.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Generally business formal, though certain offices will lean toward business casual depending on the work and level of outside interaction.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Like any big city in the 21st century. There have been well-publicized terrorist issues in the past, but normal, everyday life is primarily about being smart re: pick-pockets and smash-and-grab car thefts. The latter happens frequently to those who leave tempting things in plain site.
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 first world. Winters are long and gray, so watch out for SAD. Lots of pollen in spring.
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. Again, lots of pollen in spring.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Pollen in spring.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Yes, SAD can be an issues. The sun might not break through the clouds for weeks in the winter. And the daylight hours are fairly short. Commuting both ways in the dark is normal in December/January.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Cool and drizzly, but not particularly cold.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
A few school options exist. ISB is one of the better international schools you will find anywhere!
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes. All sorts.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The expat community is huge (especially with the E.U. and NATO here, as well). Morale? It's fine. Not great, but OK. I think that often expectations of Brussels are too high. There really are some frustrating elements of living in Belgium that people don't expect. It's surprising how many people say "Oh, my God! You too?" when you complain about living here (poor customer service everywhere, less-than-driven local colleagues, laziness and entitlement, etc.). There isn't much to hate, but it's hard to love even if you really want to.
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?
Weekend trips to other places including in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Belgians go outside in nice weather to the parks, "the forest," etc.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Big enough that there's something for everyone, I think.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I think so.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Locals will complain about "immigrants" in general, sometimes, but not too bad compared to other places.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Many short drives (by American standards; 1-2 hours) to see many places. A great place to catch up with friends passing through because it's so central, too.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
If you like antiques/flea markets, there are "brocantes" all over the place! And they're a good excuse to explore the area. If you're into WWI and WWII history, there are loads of museums, battlefields, etc.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Not so much. Many of the best "Belgian" things are consumable e.g., beer, chocolate, and fries!
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Easy to get around. Centrally located.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
Mostly, the frustrations noted earlier.
Not the best housing/poor infrastructure (e.g. Internet).
Bad customer service, in general. Not "rude" like stereotypical French, but generally seems apathetic.
Everything is closed on Sundays.
Generally seem to have a poor work ethic. Belgians have a 38-hour work week and generally go home early one day/week and seem to use that as an excuse to say 'no' to things.
How expensive it can be. Eating out and just grabbing in the store without checking prices first can empty your wallet pretty quickly.
Those things can eat at you, especially if you didn't expect them coming in. But, realistically... First World Problems!
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Probably, but with more realistic expectations of the annoying things.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Expectations of customer service, sun screen, and your air conditioner.
4. But don't forget your:
Patience, sweater, umbrella, and workout gear (to work off the beer, chocolate and fries!).