Brussels, Belgium Report of what it's like to live there - 02/05/23
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?
Previously lived in Quito, Manila, Bangkok, and Sarajevo.
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?
Washington, DC area. 8 1/2 hour flight. Direct flights daily, Brussels to Washington.
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.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing is generally good. Those without kids can love in city center apartments. With kids, you can choose an inner suburb option (apartments, townhouses), or outer suburbs (single family house). Most people commute by public transport. Fair amount of people take bicycle using the city's great bike infrastructure. And some drive, but rush hour traffic can be bad, and parking downtown daily would not be cheap.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Availability and cost about the same.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Peanut butter. Americans are uniquely good at making delicious, unhealthy peanut butter (Peter Pan, Jiffy), but overall, everything is available here.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Everything is here. Belgian, Italian, French cuisine probably most common.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO and Pouch available. Local mail seems fine, mailed things within Belgium and to France and Netherlands with no problem. When I refinanced a house in US, used FedEx to send time-sensitive papers, which worked well. For things to further parts of Europe, mail can be expensive. When I tried to mail something from Brussels to Italy (not cheap postage), te the package never made it, not sure if Belgian or Italian post service lost it.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Nannies and babysitters are expensive. Diplomats cannot sponsor nannies or any domestic household help. Brussels does subsidize household cleaners if you go through the official government program, which is nice, but you need to do a fair amount of paperwork to set it up initially.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There is one popular chain (Basic Fit) that people say is fine and not too expensive. There are also private tennis/pool clubs that some people use and I think the prices range from moderate to super expensive. Diplomatic missions likely have small, cramped gyms, as well.
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 used mostly everywhere, but Belgian prefers debit payment vs. credit cards. You will need to register for a local checking account, because some things just can't be done by credit card or cash, will need to transfer money through your local checking account.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Everything, I think.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You don't need to speak the local language really, but basic French pleasantries and a few sentences will help with simple transactions, e.g., buying food at the local butcher, who may not speak English.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
The sidewalks are fairly uneven, cobblestones are popular in sidewalks and roads and that would be tricky.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Yes, safe and affordable and go everywhere.
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?
Any car is fine, but roads are fairly narrow and people drive fairly aggressively. A small car with good fuel efficiency (gas is not cheap), but fast acceleration to speed through intersections as cars barrel towards you (this would be the ideal).
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, it was ready when we moved into our house.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
There are a couple big players: Orange, Proximus, and Base. You can also go with a smaller player, like Mobile Viking, which we preferred.
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?
Vets are good and inexpensive. No quarantine needed, some dogs will need rabies titer test before entry. Dog sitting widely available but somewhat expensive
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 is a way to get approved to work on the local economy, which some people do; the embassy will help you with the process. Takes a couple months.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
I think there are several options.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Mostly business casual. It seems like Europeans are almost always dressed well in business casual attire vs. Americans who like to either wear a suit or skip over to tacky shorts.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care generally good and not expensive.
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?
Spring time is an issue for some allergy sufferers. Gluten-free options are becoming more popular.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
It's quite gray and rainy most of the year. We bought a sun lamp, and use Vitamin D supplements in the winter.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Wet and gray usually. We get all 4 seasons, not dissimilar to Washington, DC weather and seasons, but generally a bit colder than DC.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Lots of great international schools. Many more options than most Posts. In addition to 7 or so well-regarded international schools, you can also send your kids to the free local schools in French or Dutch.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
There is some support, in different forms, from both St. Johns and ISB, and probably other schools as well. Many people find support, it's just a question of which school's approach best matches your child's needs and personality.
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?
Full-day preschools available and pretty cheap, but will be in local preschools that will be 100% in French (or Dutch depending on your neighborhood). Nannies are not a thing here.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes. If you want English, need to go through your kids' school. If you are willing to do them in French or Dutch, then you can tap into the local options, which are government subsidized and therefore cheap.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Huge European expat community. This is where all 27 EU countries meet to negotiate, so all EU nationalities represented here. Also, other expats, including Americans and the former-EU Brits are here. And many countries have three separate missions here, one to the EIU, one to NATO,a nd one to Belgium, so there are a lot of diplomats here. Morale seems quite good; this is a great place to be an expat.
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?
Expats everywhere, join a club, there are expat groups on facebook, missions have community events. It's easy to meet people here.
Next level socializing: if you can do it, learn French or Dutch so you (and/or your kids) can join dance, music, sports, workout groups through your local commune, which are super cheap and will get you into the local scene (beyond your own nationality's circle and/or English-speaking expat groups).
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Very good for families, and probably couples, as well. Not sure about singles as the core of the city are technocrats from Europe who "made it" to the big-time of the EU capital in Brussels. It seems there are lots of intermarriages among Europeans who move here and hope to never leave Brussels, not sure how much Europeans in the "Brussels bubble" are tempted by dating someone like an American, who falls outside this bubble.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I would guess so.
5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
If you can do it, learn French or Dutch so you (and/or your kids) can join dance, music, sports, workout groups through your local commune, which are super cheap and will get you into the local scene - beyond your own nationality's circle and/or english-speaking expat groups.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
I think so e.g. prejudice against Arabs, but i don't have personal experience.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Traveling though all of Belgium during Covid was a great experience to really delve into this country. Once Covid restrictions lifted, we traveled a fair amount . Sometimes we took driving trips to France and Netherlands and within Belgium but also plan trips to Greece, Portugal, Czech Republic. It's all great.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Buy Derek Blythe's various books e.g. Hidden Belgium, Hidden Brussels, Hidden Flanders, etc. Lots of hidden gems in Belgium, and closer parts of Germany and Netherlands, which are so close they feel like "local trips."
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
If you like European fashion, it's cheaper here. Time to stock up on those Louis Vutton bags:)
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Overall, it's a great place to live. Full of smart European technocrats, great bakeries, nice parks...what's not to love?
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
That consuming nonstop cheese, dried sausage, Belgian beer, frites, and mayonnaise would add 25 pounds to my belly.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
4. But don't forget your:
Rain boots (and buy some rain pants here, they're great).
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
I mentioned Derek Blythe books above as there are not too may Belgium focused books. One (a bit dated) is A Throne in Brussels. Also, if you will be assigned to the EU or NATO - consider books on the wider European region, "Europe: A History" by Norman Davies will dust off the cobwebs from your high school European history class.