Brussels, Belgium Report of what it's like to live there - 10/07/21
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?
This was our first overseas posting.
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?
We live in the DC metro area. There are direct flights between Dulles and Brussels that take about 8 hours. We are from NY originally, and have also flown direct between Newark, JFK, and Brussels. It is easy to travel back and forth from the east coast.
3. What years did you live here?
4. How long have you lived here?
5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Diplomatic mission - US Embassy.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing varies a lot. The pool of housing never seems adequate to the number of people, and it seems lots of people experience very long temporary housing situations (sometimes indefinite). There is an Embassy-owned building downtown, and the rest of the housing is spread out throughout the city and even into surrounding suburbs. Some people arrive from other posts and expect to be put up in a gated mansion, and that's just not possible in a city like this. We had a great apartment in Woluwe Saint Pierre. Very residential, walkable, and safe. If you are on the metro line, commuting to the Embassy is very easy. There is no parking at the Embassy and street parking is limited.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Grocery cost is comparable and availability is good, but not great. Things are definitely more seasonal (although this usually means fresher) and there are some items that are difficult or impossible to find. I found that people were unwilling to go beyond their neighborhood store, and so would claim that some item or another was not available. This was definitely not true. I found almost every ingredient I ever needed by doing a little Googling and driving to a further store. Rob's Gourmet market has tons of international foods, Fresh Med has lots of produce, and Albert Heijn always has jalapenos. It's the only place we ever found them. If you are willing to put in a little work, you can find what you need.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
There is a US commissary about an hour from Brussels, so there was no real need to ship a lot. We continued to buy American peanut butter and beef. Belgian beef is not good, in my opinion.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Uber Eats and Deliveroo both operate in Brussels. You can get almost anything you want. Lots of sushi, Greek, Lebanese, Chinese, and of course French & Belgian options.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Nothing unusual. There are no window screens, so we did end up with a lot of mosquitoes and spiders in our place in the warmer months.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We used DPO with no issues. Takes about a week from the time the packages reach the Chicago distribution center.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
People employ housekeepers and nannies. It is relatively inexpensive. You can go through the "titre" service, which is the official service, or get someone by word of mouth and pay in cash.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are a few local gyms. The most popular one is Basic Fit. There are also lots of yoga studios. Radiant Light yoga is a studio with classes in English owned by an American; I used throughout my time there. However, the best option for members of the diplomatic community is the free gym at USAG. Get your ID and you have access to an awesome facility. It was not very well known about people in the community, but it's where I went throughout my three years there. It's a large and well stocked facility that also offers free classes when someone in the community can teach them. No need to spend money on a gym membership.
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?
Credit cards are more widely accepted now due to the pandemic, but you will still run into places that are cash only. We had to start carrying cash when we moved to Brussels after one too many experiences like this. ATMs are common and usually safe to use. Use the same discretion as in the US (better to use an inside ATM than an outside one, etc.).
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
People told us that we did not need to learn the language to go to Brussels, and we found this to be entirely untrue. I would say learning at least basic French is definitely necessary. Downtown you will find a lot of English, but as you move into the other communes you simply need to have the language. We found that almost no one in our local stores spoke English. A lot of people are unwilling to speak English. The Embassy offered language classes which I took for basic language skills.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. There is a lot of cobblestone, small twisting stairs, and the like.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Yes and yes. Great metro, tram, and bus system. Uber operates in the city. Taxis are not on the street for hailing; you need to call one.
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 brought our US spec Hyundai Elantra and were fine. I wouldn't bring a huge car because streets are narrow, parking is tight, and some garages are very hard to navigate (steep, tight, etc). Our Elantra felt very wide on the narrow Belgian streets at times.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Our internet was already in our home upon arrival.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We used a local provider. I recommend going through the TMA family plan with Orange as it is a flexible contract that requires no dealing with the local stores and comes with a dedicated English-speaking representative. We used their plan all three years.
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?
Our cats arrived in cabin with us and there is no quarantine. We had great veterinary service throughout our time in Brussels, and I know others did as well. We were able to find English speaking vets, both for regular visits and for one emergency. I recommend CosyVet in Stockel for regular veterinary services.
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 work through the Embassy because Belgium has weird laws regarding taxes and working on the economy. There are almost no part-time positions available for spouses at the Embassy.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
People dress well almost everywhere. You don't see a lot of athletic gear or sweats, even when shopping at the supermarket. However, even when dressed up sneakers are almost always a go to because of the amount of walking as well as the cobblestone. You'll see women in nicer restaurants in dresses with white sneakers.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Pick-pocketing is big in Brussels (as in any other European city). You have to be aware of your surroundings. I never had anything stolen, but I know people at the Embassy who did. Break-ins are also a concern, both in cars and in homes. Housing comes with security systems, which a lot of people never used. We always set ours when out of the house or at night, and we never had an issue.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Brussels is gray and rainy, and a lot of people experienced mood changes due to the weather. There also seemed to be a lot of people who developed allergies they never had before while in Brussels. Medical care is great and easily accessible. We found we were sent out to the economy for most things. By the end of our tour, we just went to local doctors.
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 good, never had any issues.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Like I said, there seemed to be people who had new environmental allergies develop in Brussels. One of our cats actually developed some kind of seasonal allergy while there. Food allergies are manageable. Stores definitely have sections for gluten-free, nut-free items etc. Some restaurants I would be careful as they don't seem to fully grasp allergies, while others will advertise that they are allergy-friendly.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
SAD is an issue for sure due to the weather and long, rainy, gray winters.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It rains a ton. Basically, you can assume rain on any day in Brussels. The climate is pretty temperate. However, the summers get hot and there is no air conditioning in any of the housing (this was a huge problem for me).
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The community is very large due to the three missions. USEU and the Embassy are on the same compound, while NATO is further away and tends to stick to themselves. Morale is good but because of the ease of life and travel in Brussels, this is not really a community-focused post. If you want to be involved you need to get involved. It is easy to miss out since everyone can do their own thing.
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 Community Liaison Office (CLO) was good about getting people together through events and clubs, but it seems a lot has gone by the wayside with recent changes and the pandemic. There are also local groups if you can find them. Brussels Ladies Meetup is a Facebook group of all English speaking women in Brussels (not related to US or diplomatic missions). Other people joined local running groups, knitting groups, etc.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
We were there as a couple and loved it. I cannot speak to being single there.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
So so. The Belgians aren't the warmest group of people. We made some acquaintances in our neighborhood, but almost all were expats from other places. I could see how you might have an issue here as an African-American. They have a history with the Congo that they don't readily acknowledge, and there is an incredibly racist Christmas "tradition" called black Pete. They will defend it as being not racist in a way that I could never understand and quite frankly found disgusting. We once walked into a supermarket where a bunch of kids were dancing around in black face as this "character."
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Yes. We had great friends who were LGBT and loved their time in Brussels. There is a big LGBT community, pride parade, and bars downtown.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
There is currently a strong prejudice against refugees coming in from Middle Eastern/northern African countries.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Overall, we thoroughly enjoyed Brussels. I am a runner, and I found that I felt safe as a woman running alone almost all the time. There are beautiful parks and trails, especially in the outer communes. Traveling all over Europe was a breeze. We visited Spain, Germany, France, Greece, Denmark, Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, England, and almost all on weekend trips. It is very central and easy to navigate. We loved our apartment and our neighborhood. I sobbed as we drove away on our last day.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
There are a lot of cool hike and bike experiences in Belgium. Biking through water, biking in the trees, and the troll hunt hike are a few of our favorites. Each year in September, Brussels does a car free Sunday where the entire city becomes pedestrian only.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Belgium is known for their lace and tapestry, so some people go for that. We went for Belgian beer and Champagne instead.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
It is easy to live here and it is easy to travel all over from here.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
You need to learn French!! Also, restaurants do not function the same way they do in the States. It is considered rude for waiters to keep checking on your table, so if you need something you have to call them over. This is great as they don't rush you out, but not so great if you are in a rush.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Ideas of American politeness. People will not say excuse me, waiters will not check on you after your food arrives.
4. But don't forget your:
Appetite - especially for beer, mussels, and waffles!!