Brussels, Belgium Report of what it's like to live there - 03/20/20
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?
Third post with State, other locations lived as an expat include Melbourne, Santo Domingo (DR), Berlin, and Munich
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?
Sacramento, CA. Non-stop flights from BRU to IAD take about 8 hours, then another 5-6 hours across the U.S. to get to my hometown. However, for those on the east coast of the U.S., there are many non-stop flights.
3. How long have you lived here?
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 live in a USG-owned apartment complex in Auderghem. We love our housing and the location, close to the International School of Brussels and near the forest and several parks. We are a short walk to the Metro and have an easy commute to the downtown embassy compound. Other expats live in Uccle, Woluwe St Pierre, Woluwe St Lambert, Etterbeek, Ixelles, and several of the border Flemish communes like Kraainem, Tervueren, and Wezembeek-Oppem. Commute times range from 15 minutes to 45 minutes. Almost everyone takes public transit to get into work.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
You can find anything here, and if there is something special you need, you can order it online. The cost is similar to that in the U.S. Many people shop at the U.S. Army commissary in Chievres, about an hour away. We have been a couple times but I don't find that the drive is worth it. Groceries are cheaper there but my time on the weekend is limited and I don't want to spend it in a US-style supermarket that has loads of unhealthy and processed foods. There is also a gourmet grocery store with a lot of specialty items (Rob the Gourmet Market). It is expensive but not a place to do your everyday shopping. There are two main grocery store chains with branches everywhere: Carrefour and Delhaize. There are also the German low-cost chains like Aldi and Lidl. Belgian stores like Cora and Colruyt offer more of a discount experience. We buy all of our household items like toilet paper and cleaning supplies at the supermarket.
3. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Brussels is a very international city so you can find any kind of cuisine imaginable. Food delivery services are very popular. For nicer restaurants, reservations are recommended. We like going to neighborhood places that are more casual. There are a lot of great Italian places where you can get a big margherita pizza for 8-10 euros. They have Pizza Hut and Dominos here but I have no idea why anyone would go there when you can get real, wood-fired Italian pizza all over the place. Lots of restaurants don't open for dinner until 7:00 pm. Dinner can take a couple of hours. Most places close by 10:00 pm.
4. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Not that I know of. Most places don't have window screens so I'm sure bugs and gnats are an issue in the warmer months. We are fortunate to have screens on our windows.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO at Embassy but Belgian Post is fine.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
There is a process to go through to buy pre-paid "checks" for household help. This is to ensure that the people you hire are properly documented and their taxes are taken care of, etc. I believe the going rate is 9 euros/hour. We pay babysitters 8 euros/hour to take care our our child. This is probably higher than the going rate. Many people have a housekeeper who comes in once a week or twice a month but no one has a full time housekeeper. Some people have nannies but not live in, and I think they pay around 100 euros/day. It's not cheap at all.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Basic Fit is a chain with branches everywhere and it is cheap, around 20 or 25 euros/month. More expensive clubs include Aspria and David Lloyd, upward of 200 euro/month.
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 and yes. For some things you need a Belgian bank card. You typically need to open a local account because most bills are paid electronically via bank transfer (medical bills, after school activities for kids, mobile phone bills, internet, etc.)
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There is a Catholic church with services in English that some people attend.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
In Brussels it is very easy to get by in English. Most of the people who live in Brussels proper are French-speaking. If you venture into Wallonia, the southern French region, you'll need some basic French. In Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region to the north, just use English. Knowing a few words and phrases in Dutch/Flemish will be appreciated, though. Language classes are widely available but I'm not sure of the cost.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
To some extent yes, just like in any old European city, there are cobblestones and a lack of elevators and ramps.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Yes, the embassy community uses all of these forms of transportation regularly. I have an annual pass for the Metro that costs 500 euros and it's good for unlimited trips via Metro, tram, and bus. A good deal in my opinion.
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?
We have the typical Foreign Service car, a Honda CRV. I wouldn't bring anything larger because most parking spots are small, streets are narrow, and garages are narrow too.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, and if you are with the embassy, it's already set up in your residence before you arrive. Your bill is sent to you at the embassy and you pay via bank transfer. We pay 72 euros/month for internet and home phone (mandatory). You can add TV service if you want. The landline comes with 1,000 minutes a month to the U.S.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
The Embassy's Tri-Mission Association has a partnership with Orange. We signed up for SIM cards with them right when we arrived, it was very convenient. Not sure of the cost but I don't think it's more than 40-50 euros a month. You can use the service throughout the EU when traveling. I have an iPhone for work but prefer to have a personal phone as well.
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 don't have pets but many do, and I think the answer to the first question is "yes" and animals don't need to be quarantined. Belgians love their dogs but they do not do a good job of cleaning up after them!
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?
Most spouses who want jobs at the embassy can find one. It's hard to find a local job because typically you need to be fluent in French and Dutch. We do have a bilateral work agreement, but it's probably very difficult to find a job here. Local salaries are high but so are taxes. Some spouses telecommute to jobs back in the U.S.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
With churches, food banks, etc. Might be challenging if you don't speak French.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business attire at work, otherwise people dress pretty casually.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
It's very safe here. You can walk around outside at night and really not worry at all. Lots of petty crime like pickpocketing, especially at the train stations and metro stations, but the rate of violent crime is extremely low. Some Embassy staff members' homes or apartments have been broken into. Use your alarm.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Good quality medical care and inexpensive medications. Doctors' office visits are not expensive compared to the U.S. Our son had to go to the ER and we were shocked to get the bill - only 37 euros. Lots of people opt to have surgeries or have their babies delivered here. Little need for medevac.
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 air quality.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
People with seasonal allergies will suffer in the spring. Seems to be a lot of options for people who are gluten free. Groceries are well-labeled, so I think people with allergies do fine here.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
A lot of people complain about the rainy and gray winters. It rains a lot all year round but I think if you have that expectation going in, it's really not that bad.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It's fairly mild. Definitely four season, with summer and fall being most pleasant. Winter is not that cold; this year it didn't even snow and was rarely at or below freezing. Summer is mild with an average day being 70F, but last year there was a weeklong heat wave with temps over 100F. Very rare. There's no air conditioning so you will have to suffer through with fans. Some people buy portable A/C units but I don't suggest it, you'll only use them for a few days each year, they are expensive, and use a lot of electricity. As I mentioned earlier, it rains a lot - normally a light rain. Take an umbrella with you wherever you go. Summer days are long, with sunset at 10 pm and darkness after 11:00 pm. Enjoy those long days of sunshine before the gray winter sets in!
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Many great options. The International School of Brussels (ISB) is very highly-ranked. Our son is in first grade there and we are very pleased with the school. Others include a British school, German school, and Dept of Defense school. There is another highly-regarded international school, called St. John's, but it is in Waterloo, a bit outside (south) of the city. I think a lot of people come here for the great schools.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Lots! They have pull-aside sessions for the kids in elementary school and offer special classes to help them with social communication and dealing with emotions. They have on-site occupational therapists, too.
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 and yes, not sure of exact cost but I believe full-time daycare for babies is around 1000 euros/month. Much less than in DC. Schools provide after school care that costs extra.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, any type of sports or activity you can think of is available but most will be French only. The international schools offer a full complement of after school activities that you pay extra for. Almost every commune has its own sports center with pool, tennis courts, sports fields, etc. and they offer a variety of classes and activities for adults and kids (again - in French).
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
It's huge. Brussels probably has the largest diplomatic community in the world. There are also lots of expats working in the private sector, many for pharmaceutical companies that have large campuses nearby. Most people I've met are very happy here.
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?
Anything you can think of, from dinners or play dates at friends' homes, to meeting up in local parks, to going out to bars, clubs, and restaurants, to sporting clubs and other activities.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Yes, there is something for everyone here.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
I would say no. It seems like most people keep to themselves but that's just the culture. It's easy to make friends with other expats.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Yes. There seem to be prejudices against the large Moroccan population in Belgium, and against the refugees that are here temporarily trying to get to the UK.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
The travel opportunities! Belgium itself is full of wonderful places to explore: from the well-known like Bruges to other beautiful medieval cities like Ghent and Antwerp, to lesser-known places in Wallonia like Dinant and Namur. It's super easy to get around via train or car. You can get to Paris in 1.5 hours on the Thalys, and to Amsterdam in about 2.5 hours. London via the Eurostar is a mere two hours away. It's so easy to make the most of being in the heart of Europe. We have traveled all over the place taking advantage of low cost fares to Madrid, Prague, Budapest, Berlin, and more.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Visit the beautiful city of Dinant, about an hour from Brussels. Take the chocolate making workshop at Laurent Gerbaud in Brussels. Visit the new Wolf Food Hall in downtown, a fun upscale food court. Get the book "Hidden Brussels" for all sorts of recommendations. For great coffee, visit OR Coffee at Place Jourdan. Check out the awesome weekend markets at Place Dumon in Stockel, and at Place Wiener in Watermael-Boitfort.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Belgium is known for its tapestries and lace but these are not things I'm into. Most people buy chocolate and of course you must do so when you're here. My favorite is Pierre Marcolini but the others are also very good. Don't miss the speculoos...delicious spice cookies, especially at Maison Dandoy. Get fresh, warm waffles from waffle trucks. And don't forget about Belgian beer and frites (french fries)!
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The beautiful green spaces. Brussels has tons of big, gorgeous parks and best of all, the Sonian Forest - a huge, ancient forest within the city limits. Get out on your bike and explore the many paved and dirt paths in the forest. Go to the Red Cloister, a lovely park and former medieval cloister that now has farm animals, ponds, playgrounds, a cafe, and artists' workshops. If you are into art and culture, you'll be in heaven here. Get the Museum Pass for 59 euros, which provides free admission to 50+ museums in Belgium for a year. If you have kids, go to Walibi, Belgium's biggest theme park, only 15 minutes outside the city (there is an indoor water park there, too). Explore the stunning castles that dot the Belgian landscape. If you are into WWI and WWII history, visit Flanders fields and Bastogne to learn about the sacrifices made by the U.S. and Allied troops. There is so much to see and do here, you won't have time to do it all.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I had lived in Germany before so I pretty much knew what to expect.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes! I would live here longer if I could.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Expectations of quick and courteous government service. Expectations of quick and courteous customer service.
4. But don't forget your:
Wallet, because you'll spend all your money on the wonderful travel opportunities that await you! Raincoat and umbrella.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
It's on my list, but the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium recommends "War and Turpentine".