Brussels, Belgium Report of what it's like to live there - 09/15/20
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?
No, this is our third overseas tour. We have also lived in Tokyo and Brasilia.
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?
Boston, MA, USA. Usually about 10 hours including connections, either via other cities in Europe or through Washington. Relatively easy to travel, but no direct flights.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Diplomatic mission/ Tri Mission Brussels.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
We live in a house outside of the main city in what is called "near suburbs". We have a decently-sized house and yard with driveway and garage and very easy walking distance to public transportation and shops including grocery stores. Embassy housing varies from apartments in the city near the Embassy, to large condos in more suburban parts of the city, to houses in suburbs. Commutes vary from 10-30 minutes on average, depending where you live and which mission where you work (within the TriMission Community).
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
You can find almost anything here, if not at the local grocery stores, usually at one of the gourmet food shops, or if you have access, the Commissary at Chievres AFB. There are several major grocery stores, with variations in price and product selection. Cost is typically slightly more than US.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
None. Anything you can't find here or is more expensive here, you can order online, especially if you have APO/DPO access. There are European online outlets for those without US mail privileges.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
You can find most kinds of restaurants here, but I think the ethnic options are lacking. Uber Eats and Deliveroo operate widely, and you can get many things delivered to your home. Good pizza can be expensive and hard to find compared to US, but other options are comparable.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Not that I know of.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We use the Embassy DPO for US mail, but BPost, the Belgian postal service works well for any local mail or packages.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
There is a theoretically required public system called "titres services" that allows you to hire household help with a voucher system that is only 9 euros per hour. Some people pay locally on the market and I am not sure of that cost. It is only good for housecleaning and ironing. Most people use the local daycare system for childcare as private nannies are supposedly quite expensive.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Embassy personnel have access to the USAG gym which is free and offers exercise classes as well. There are local gyms as well but tend to be expensive. Sports clubs for team sports are available for all ages and are not especially expensive.
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. Contactless payments has become very common.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Widely available, but i do not know exactly what.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You can get by without either French or Dutch reasonable well in the Brussels area. Some shops can be more limited than others, and if you go further outside the city, it can be harder. Dutch speakers tend to speak English very well, and many French speakers do as well- many speak all three languages fluently. Even if you want to speak French, many will automatically switch to English once they realize you are not a native French speaker. The Embassy offers a decent language program, and there are many opportunities to take classes through the communes, at a local language school, university, or with private tutors.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
I think it would be hard. Trams and buses would be challenging, I think, but most metro stops have elevators, but not all.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
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?
Smaller cars are much easier to manage the narrow streets and small parking spaces. You can find almost any make of car here, so I am guessing you can get most worked on relatively easily. Bigger cars (large SUVs and bigger) can be useful for family car trips, etc, but can be challenging for parking, etc.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, though not always as good as would hope. Relatively quickly.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We use local providers and have good service. It is much cheaper here than in US. We ported a US number to use with Google Voice here 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?
Yes, good veterinary care is available.
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?
EFM jobs at embassy are easiest jobs, a few people work at schools. Local work permits are complicated and the US telework situation is potentially complicated as well.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Europeans tend to dress more stylishly than Americans, but no true dress code. Adults tend not to wear shorts, even in hot weather.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Some parts of the city are known not to be great and we are warned to stay away at night. Petty thefts like pickpocketing can be high in touristy areas and trains. General vigilance is recommended, but it feels quite safe.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Good medical care is available.
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?
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Some people have more issues with allergies here than other places, but not all.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Yes, the long, dark winter days can be an issue here, and compounded with cold, damp weather, many people struggle with winters here. "Happy Lamps" are recommended!
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Brussels has the reputation for "raining all of the time". Many people complain about the weather here, but I don't find it that bad. Winters tend to be cold and rainy, for sure. From April to October, the weather is nicer than you expect, and honestly, you appreciate the sunny days more than you would elsewhere. Summers have been hot recently and most houses do not have air conditioning.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Good availability of international schools. Most embassy kids go to the International School of Brussels, but there are kids as several other schools including the Britsh School, Brussels American School, and St Johns International School, among others. Our kids were at ISB for grades 6-8 and 9-12. We were more happy with our High School than Middle school experience. The school has excellent learning support and extracurricular activities, and generally good support for most families. The High School offers the IB Diploma for those students interested in that.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Excellent Special Education accomodations.
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?
Most people use local preschools and daycare and are quite happy with them. No personal experience but we have heard good things.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, though most are in French or Dutch. There are some in English, but harder to find.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Very large expat community, between the Trimission, military and corporate families. Many people love it here, but I feel that the spread out community makes it hard to feel connected, which can make it hard for some people. I think people expect life to be "easy" here because we are in Europe, but there can still be real challenges of daily life.
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?
The Embassy offers social opportunities through CLO, like in most posts. The international schools have their own social opportunities as well. Local groups exist, but you have to seek them out.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I think it can be great for anyone, depending on how willing you are to go out and be social. It can isolating for those who aren't naturally social. Families may or may not live close-by, but people certainly have get togethers.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
It think there are decent opportunities but am not sure. I know the ISB community has a significant LGBT community.
5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
I think it is harder to meet locals here than in others posts.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Yes, as there are everywhere.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
The ease of travel around Europe was a big draw, and didn't disappoint. If you can be relatively flexible, you can often find cheap flights to major European cities, and you can drive easily to England, France, the Netherlands, Germany and Luxembourg, and even Austria, Switzerland and Italy. Belgian beer, chocolate, waffles and frites did not disappoint as well! There are castles, quaint ancient towns and amazing history everywhere if you are interested in finding it...
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
People love day trips to Bruges and Ghent, Amsterdam, Paris and London are just a few hours away. Christmas markets in Belgium and Germany. Brewery tours, cheese tours, tulips in the spring. Hiking.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Yes, but I am not sure what.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Centrality in Europe.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
The long, dark winter days. I had been told it was rainy, but did not realise how dark it would be. In December, we only get 8 hours of daylight, and the sun doesn't rise until 8:45am! Luckily that means we have 16 hours of daylight in June, but it makes for really dark days in winter. I also wish I had been told how hard it would be to work locally here. Belgian labor laws are very difficult.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
I think so.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
American chocolate and beer; also camping gear, as we found camping not easy to find here.
4. But don't forget your:
Happy lamp and sense of adventure.