Brussels, Belgium Report of what it's like to live there - 02/13/19
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. I have spent most of my life 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?
Falls Church. Dulles to Brussels: the city pair flight included a stopover in either Philadelphia or London (Heathrow). We took the former. Don't remember how much time it took, but there are direct flights contracted now.
3. How long have you lived here?
Two and a half 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 have a four-story townhouse on the eastern edge of the city. People live all over the place. Downtown apartments tend to be smaller than places in the suburbs. Our townhouse has a small yard and a garage.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries tend to be a little more expensive than in the Washington, DC, area, but some things are cheaper. If you are on the Diplomatic list, you get a gas card which eliminates the tax surcharge, and gas will be a lot less expensive.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Maybe more Chinese items and some paper goods, especially since we have a lot of storage space. We order things online, so it is mostly liquids you need to make sure you have enough of: shampoo, caffeine-free soda, etc.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
We don't order much food here, but I know you can order pizza, sushi, kebab, etc. There is the full gamut of fast food available here.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
I don't know what experiences others have had, but our townhouse is in Woluwe Park, so we get a lot of mosquitoes, flies, spiders, lacewings, and ladybugs. We have also have had problems with mice. The embassy has tried to help with the mice, but no solution has proved effective. As for the bugs, we have not received assistance. I've purchased screening material locally and tried to craft screening. Unfortunately, our French windows make a permanent screen impossible, and all the windows are non-standard sizes. It gets hot in the summer and since there is no air conditioning, one must leave windows open. Bugs are unavoidable.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We use the DPO and pouch.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
There is a very intricate and bureaucratic process to hire household help. Frankly, we haven't, but many do. I can't say how much it costs, but this IS Western Europe, so it's not inexpensive.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are local gyms. Many people use the facilities at the embassy.
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. You get a Bancontact card at a local bank when you arrive and you can use it to extract money and to pay bills. Credit cards are accepted most everywhere.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
I thought my French would improve here, but actually it's fallen further into disuse. It is not only possible to get by in English it is sometimes necessary. In Dutch-speaking parts of the country people prefer to speak English than French with you.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes and no. The Metro is NOT handicap-friendly. There are also parts of the city that are old: narrow, cobblestone streets, staircases, etc. It is probably navigable for the most part, but one would have to plan ahead.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Local transportation networks are generally efficient and ubiquitous. Brussels is generally safe, with the same sorts of petty crime one finds in any city this size.
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?
Our first car was a Toyota Sienna minivan. It was generally too large for the typically narrow parking spaces here, but we made do. After our car was destroyed in a crash, we bought a Mercedes sedan, which, truth be told, is far more practical. You can bring a larger SUV or minivan, but there are tradeoffs.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
High-speed internet is widely available and, aside from the occasional hiccup, is pretty much problem-free. Installation is almost instantaneous.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We got a local plan with the cell phone we brought with us. There are many plans to choose from. They are not particularly expensive, but may be a little more than similar US plans.
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?
We have no pets.
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 MANY family member positions at the mission. I don't know more than that.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
I don't know.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Shirt and tie for men. Business dress.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
We had a terrible terrorist attack in March 2016. There are unsavory elements here still, so one needs to practice personal security and remain vigilant. Furthermore, I've heard there have been residential break-ins in mission housing and the occasional petty theft.
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 excellent, but there ARE some differences one encounters. When we needed to schedule an MRI, for instance, we learned there are only 13 MRI machines in the entire country. Fortunately, they were able to work us in, but the waiting list was long and we were initially looking at a three or four month wait; this was unacceptable in our opinion.
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?
Air quality is not bad, but it can be a little smoggy, especially in winter. Still, it is not even close to, much less above, the recommended limits.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
We have neither, but I don't think environmental issues are bad enough to rate, and there are increasingly more and more gluten-free options available at supermarkets.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
It can be a long, gloomy winter. People with Seasonal Affective Disorder might have an issue here. Last December we had only 13 hours of sunlight the entire month. That said, people get out of town and fly to the sun.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Belgium's weather is notoriously gray and rainy, but we are experiencing the effects of global climate change just like the rest of the planet, so we have had a remarkable rain-free fall and winter. It has also been warmer and sunnier. Still, we take our umbrellas with us when we go.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are two main schools attended by the official American community: Brussels American School (BAS) and the International School of Brussels (ISB). Most of the military, including NATO, send their kids to the former. Embassy folk tend to send their kids to ISB. We have really liked ISB (our daughter attended 3rd through 5th grade there). Like any school, it has some issues, but the administrators have been terrific, and the teachers are mostly Canadian and American.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
No idea, but I know some of the students have special needs.
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?
Yes, but I have no experience with them so I can shed no light.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes. ISB has myriad after-school activities to choose from. Each commune has its own programs, as well. And, of course, there is a vast private community of resources. For instance, our daughter takes once-weekly tap dance lessons. These are given by a local British woman. We also found a piano teacher locally.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
As you can imagine, the expat community is very large here. Morale is pretty much the same as it is in any large European city. That is, it is what you make it. There is literally no end of things to do, excursions to make, sights to see. Paris is an hour and 20 minutes by high-speed train. Amsterdam and London about two hours. Bonn is a two-and-a-half hour drive. Luxembourg is next door. In Belgium itself there are Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Liege, Dinant, Durbuy, monasteries and abbeys, many of them breweries, castles, etc. Furthermore, Brussels has oodles of events all year long. It is almost impossible to be bored.
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?
We have an active social life, between our neighbors and the school, and the occasional embassy friend. There are as many social opportunities as your imagination permits.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Brussels would be a great town for singles, I think. I think LGBTQ folk would be comfortable here. I am married and I believe it's terrific for families, too. As I said, it's really what you make it.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Yes. See above. I haven't investigated it, but I am sure there is a robust scene here for LGBTQ folk. There is an annual gay pride parade.
5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
Belgians are less reserved than their French cousins, so yes, I would say it's easier to make friends here. I don't believe there are any overt prejudices, but Belgium DOES have a pretty sad colonialist history that they are still trying to come to grips with.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
None that I am aware of.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
So many. Every two years, Brussels hosts a flower carpet in its Grand Place. It is stunning. The bluebells at Hallerbos and the Tulips at Keukenhof, in The Netherlands, are both memorable experiences. The castles in Belgium and Luxembourg are incredible. Walking the canals in Bruges. The Festival of Lights in Antwerp's zoo. Seeing concerts at the Ancienne Belgique. Getting chocolates at the Neuhaus chocolate outlet. The lights of the Grand Place at night. Watching the Kirov Ballet. The Christmas Market in front of St. Katherine's Church. The Belgian waffles at Stockel Market. So many memories.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Not that I'm aware of.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Brussels is a small town compared to, say Paris, or even Antwerp. But you have most of the advantages of those more cosmopolitan places with few of the concomitant headaches. There is bad traffic here, but nothing like Paris' horrendous traffic. Brussels has friendly people, good food, and all the amenities, and it's fairly easy to get around. Housing is good, and you can find what you need on the local economy, for the most part. Its great location means it's possible to see places.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Absolutely. I've come to love Brussels and Belgium.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Stereotypical ideas of Belgians and pickup trucks.
4. But don't forget your:
Sense of adventure and rain boots.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Belgians have a special place in their hearts for Tintin, Asterix and Obelix, and the Smurfs. I personally think King Leopold's Ghost is a must-read, but as with any former colonial power, Belgium's relationship with its own colonialist past is complicated and nuanced.