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What do I need to know to be an effective and prepared expat American in Belgium?
April 23, 2012 7:18 PM   Subscribe

What are the quirks to living in Europe that will surprise me as an American and what do I need to know to be an effective and prepared expat American in Belgium?

I'm going to Belgium this summer as a PhD student in the biological sciences in most awesome lab ever at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Leuven, Belgium. I visited the town and the lab once, and fell in love with it, but I've realized that I have very little idea of how to go about the business of actually living there.

I'm looking for:

  • Practical advice I'm likely to need as an American planning to live in Belgium,
  • Challenges and bonuses I'm unlikely to be expecting,
  • Useful anecdotes,
  • Expectations I will need to get used to,
  • How living in Belgium, and Europe more generally, different from living in the US,
  • Non-obvious things I might want to be careful to make sure to bring with me,
  • Things that will be weird
  • and other things I haven't thought of that I might find useful or interesting.


  • Also answers to some stupid questions,

  • What is the best way to move my stuff? I have 8 shelves of books, which I can store if moving them would be cost prohibitive. I also have a reasonably nice bike, a desktop, and a nice big monitor that I love but has a Massive box. Which of these things make sense to take with me? How should I do that?
  • For money, I can just get my bank (USBank) to print up a check in Euros and make a new account with a Belgian bank using that right?
  • How do I go about looking for a house/apartment/roommate situation? Particularly while still in the States.
  • I've heard people don't use checks even for large exchanges of money like paying for rent, does it really happen in cash? I at least get a receipt or something right?


    I am already reasonably familiar with Belgian history, politics, language issues and geography and so do not need a primer. I also already know some usable French and am learning Dutch.
  • posted by Blasdelb to Society & Culture (50 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
     
    I'd also like to thank everyone who provided so many helpful answers to my previous related question
    posted by Blasdelb at 7:24 PM on April 23, 2012


    There was a thread about suprising quirks that people who moved to the US thought about the US. You can maybe find that thread and reverse it.

    For example, I remember a few as being 1) intersections are larger 2) portions at restuaunts are huge. So, you might conclude that if they are from Europe the opposite is more common.
    posted by eq21 at 7:30 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


    Shops in Belgium and in Europe generally tend to have more restrictive opening hours than in the US (unless you're from some place like Paramus!), particularly on Sundays. I believe stores in Belgium can trade on certain Sunday afternoons, but they tend to close earlier in the evenings than in the US.
    posted by andrewesque at 7:33 PM on April 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


    How living in Belgium, and Europe more generally, different from living in the US,

    Conversely.
    posted by John Cohen at 7:37 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


    I don't know about Belgium specifically, but few proprietors/landlords/anyone in Europe accepts checks anymore. You can pay with cash (and in many places credit/debit card), or the landlord will give you their bank transfer details and you can do it electronically or at your branch. You get a receipt (or ask for one! but anyone non-sketchy will give you a receipt). The paper trail ends up being as robust as if you were using checks.

    Opening bank accounts abroad can sometimes be more time-consuming than you'd expect, so make sure you have photocopies of all your documents (birth certificate etc). Be prepared to pay for things with your US account (with associated fees) for a couple of weeks maybe until the bank is satisfied of your credentials.
    posted by pickingupsticks at 7:39 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


    To be honest, none of the stuff you want to move is worth paying to ship. Things generally cost more in Europe, but you can sell and replace the cost of all but the most expensive purchases for much less than the cost of shipping them. E.g. sell the monitor and buy a new one. Sell the desktop (and replace it with a laptop!). The only time shipping makes sense is if you're moving a family home, in which case you have enough to justify renting a shipping container. You will probably not read the books, so they are basically going to be home decoration, and shipping books by air freight as a form of home decoration is going to get expensive fast. If your airline will not allow you to take the bike in your luggage as sports equipment then it is only worth shipping if it's really nice (we're talking several thousand $/€ nice here).

    The main thing I hear American grad students getting caught out by is shop opening times. 24 hour opening is basically unknown outside of major UK cities, in parts of Western Europe pretty much everything except bars/restaurants closes on Sundays, some shops close on Saturday afternoons, and weeknight opening is sometimes no later than 8-9pm. This includes drug stores.

    People don't really use cheques any more in Germany or the UK. I saw one once. It was during the 90s, I think. I suspect it's the same in Belgium. Everything is done by bank transfer, including rent payments. Your bank in Belgium will be able to put money in your account more quickly if your US account wires them the money than if you give them a paper cheque they have to clear with a bank on another continent.
    posted by caek at 7:41 PM on April 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


    First of all, your question really is about Belgium, as there is very little "European" culture. Europe is 50 countries, the EU 27. Ireland doesn't have a massive amount in common with, say, Slovakia besides the Euro. As a general thing, though, Europe does have more holidays, longer paid vacations, higher minimum wages, and social safety nets so you are unlikely to see the kind of poverty you see in the US. For that, we pay higher taxes.

    You do not want to move 8 shelves of books. You are not going to be in Belgium long enough to make transporting them in the financially feasible way possible. Take your hard drive or better yet, a backup. Lease a laptop for three months and restore your data to it.

    For money, no. You take euros or your first pay cheque and go to a bank, probably with your visa and a lease and a letter from your employer, and open a bank account. You do not want to bring a US check in Euros as it will take 6 weeks to clear. If you want cash from your US account, use your ATM card or do an electronic funds or wire transfer to your new account in Belgium. Check with your US bank to find out how you would do this, before you go.

    Nobody in Europe uses cheques. We pay bills, including rent, with cash or electronic payments. Your bank will have online banking facilities that let you setup your landlord as a payee or as a direct debit. You do not get a receipt; you get a transaction. You can however, pay in cash and get a reciept. We did, for months, while we were getting banks and paycheques sorted out in a new country.

    Rentals, I don't know, but you probably want a flat share. Brussels is very expensive for housing.
    posted by DarlingBri at 7:43 PM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


    On the upside: expect continental travel to be vastly easier/cheaper/less sketchy than in the US. I'm sure you'll be swamped at your awesome new placement, but grab any free weekends and see Europe :)
    posted by pickingupsticks at 7:43 PM on April 23, 2012


    Agreed that the 'quirks' thread works well in reverse here.

    What is the best way to move my stuff?

    Shipping company. Box it, stick the boxes on a pallet, the pallet will go into a shipping container and sail across the ocean, and by the time it reaches you, you should be settled into somewhere to live and have the lay of the land. I'd store or dispose of the non-sentimental/rare books, in honesty, because you're not going to read them all during your time there, and if you want to read any of them again, you can buy replacements.

    If the computer kit's 240V adaptable (i.e. only needs a cord, not a transformer, because transformers are a pain) take it (consumer electronics are pricier, plus VAT) but check to see how generous the customs allowance is. Bike? Yes, if you want to keep it for weekend leisure/pleasure rides, but get a clunky Dutch bike as your day-to-day commute.

    Accommodation? The Housing Service is there specifically to help you and other international students on arrival. They know their stuff. Take their advice.

    General? The state apparatus feels a wee bit closer to you, but not necessarily in an oppressive way. Your sense of space and place will feel out of whack, because you're two hours from Amsterdam and three hours from Paris, but that's a long way. Differences manifest themselves over shorter distances, but you are still going to be lumped in with all Americans. "Why can't I get...?" You will be overwhelmed with new things, then get homesick for silly things. You'll face the pull of "international student" stuff which can feel insular, and "local student" stuff that can feel daunting. Ideally, you find a happy medium between the two. And so on.
    posted by holgate at 7:47 PM on April 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


    You are not going to be in Belgium long enough--

    I'm assuming, based on the previously, that the OP is not just spending the summer in Leuven, but moving there over the summer to do a full PhD, i.e. years, not months. But having that explicitly clarified would be useful.
    posted by holgate at 7:52 PM on April 23, 2012


    Seconding andrewesque. It will seem like nothing is ever open compared to the states if you're in Leuven (which I can only imagine is like the rest of non-urban Flanders).

    Bank transfer is much more common for everything.

    Belgian governance is byzantine. A common joke is that the Belgian Surrealists were inspired by dealing with the existential horror of the bureaucracy.

    Some Flemish (dutch-speaking) people will be more than a little annoyed if you assume they speak French. Fewer French-speakers know some dutch thatn the converse. Ask anyone about it.

    Flemish people see themselves as very much culturally distinct from the Dutch. The feeling is mutual.

    Bike use is not the domain of a small subculture. Everyone rides bicycles, and there are paths everywhere. If you don't ride a bike now, you would be remiss to not at least try while there. People come from all over the world just to ride around the low countries. It's exceedingly flat.

    Belgium gets a lot of rain. About on par with the English midlands.

    Electronic dance music is a Big Deal for high school and college-aged kids in Belgium.
    posted by phrontist at 7:53 PM on April 23, 2012


    Unless you are going to be gone for multiple years, do not bother shipping any of the things you are considering shipping.
    posted by elizardbits at 7:55 PM on April 23, 2012


    holgate: "I'm assuming, based on the previously, that the OP is not just spending the summer in Leuven, but moving there over the summer to do a full PhD, i.e. years, not months. But having that explicitly clarified would be useful."

    My plans are for a 3-4 year PhD from a Masters. So yes, I'm leaving this summer, not staying for just a summer.
    posted by Blasdelb at 7:57 PM on April 23, 2012


    I haven't been to Belgium, but one thing that really struck/strikes me in Europe was our concept of the superstore was pretty much nonexistent.

    For example, if I needed, I dunno, a bottle of Tylenol, a towel for the bathroom, some snacks for the weekend, and a small electronic device of some kind, I'd go to Target/Wal-Mart/etc. and take care of it all at once. In Europe, I found I had to go to the pharmacy for the Tylenol, a linen shop for the towel, a grocery store for the snacks, and an electronics store for the gizmo. And not a damn one of them were open on Sunday. When we were looking around our soon-to-be apartment, they made a big deal about being near a shop that was open on Sunday. We didn't get it until the first Sunday we needed something.

    I moved a bunch of books (not worth it in the end). Actually, my exact process was "I CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT MY BOOKS", then taking a big box to the post office and seeing what it was going to cost to ship, then I suddenly could live without most of my books and I still moved more than I should have. Take what you'd spend to ship all that over and buy a nice laptop, sock the rest in storage. Or sell them and buy eBook versions. Books are heavy and cost a ton to ship.

    I ordered a fistful of foreign currency to get me through my first couple weeks (your bank can probably help you if it's a big chain), which turned out to be wise as my debit card didn't work and my credit cards wouldn't authorize a cash advance no matter how many times I called them.
    posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:04 PM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


    Nothing (except the bike if you can bring it on the plane) is worth shipping. Buy a laptop. Look into the pricing, it will hurt and shock you.
    posted by saradarlin at 8:07 PM on April 23, 2012


    Oh, sorry, i did not understand that you are mobing for three years from your question; it sounded like a summer thing.

    In that case, ship your books, for sure. I'd remove your HD and hand carry it, either checking your desktop or buying a new rig on arrival. However, if you're going to be going back and forth, would a laptop not make more sense? I hate hauling my laptop trans-atlantic but I'm going back to the US for three weeks and am damn happy for the work flexibility it provides. Buy your laptop in the US before you go and the problem is solved as cheaply as possible. You can ship your monitor with your books if it's really important to you and get the best of both worlds.
    posted by DarlingBri at 8:10 PM on April 23, 2012


    Another point about shipping computer kit instead of selling and buying new: it's a pain in the arse to deal with localised OSes and keyboards. The Dutch use the US keyboard layout, but the Belgian standard is AZERTY (which pisses off this Flemish blogger). Perhaps sell the desktop and buy a laptop, because space is going to be at a premium, but I wouldn't buy kit over there.

    I'll reiterate the "international student" thing. There's going to be a small tight community of people who've just arrived from Foreign, including the US, who are getting to grips with the culture together. That's a useful support group, but it can become very easy to spend all your time with them, and that leads to a constrained social life. However, that applies more to humanities/soc-sci grads, whose research is often more self-led; you'll have lab colleagues that represent a pre-mixed alternative social circle. Make the most of them.
    posted by holgate at 8:13 PM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


    I was about to recommend USPS international book rate shipping for your books, but after trying to look it up online I found that it's been discontinued. Currently it costs about $11 per book to mail a book to Europe. Holgate's shipping suggestion may be worthwhile, but when I looked into that a while ago it was still quite expensive. If it were me, I would sell the computer, bike, and maybe some of the books, use the money from the sale and the savings from not shipping stuff to buy a nice laptop, and take just a few books in luggage on the plane. Given the bike culture in European cities, you will find it very easy to find a good sturdy bike that will hold up to commuting in the rain. You may want to ignore this advice about selling your bike if you are a super-obsessive cyclist with a really fancy bike that you could not live without. If you mainly use your bike for commuting, honestly the ones you can get in Belgium will be better.

    A general cultural expectation suggestion: scientists tend not to work such long hours in Europe compared to the US, but also tend to be more focused and productive during their work hours. This can be great training in how to get a lot done in an 8-9 hour day. The first time European friends explained to me that people who work all the time must have something wrong with them, they obviously must not have families or friends, I began to realize how different the expectations around work are.
    posted by medusa at 8:16 PM on April 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


    I haven't been to Belgium, but one thing that really struck/strikes me in Europe was our concept of the superstore was pretty much nonexistent.

    This is certainly not true of France; a French hypermarché will carry the same range of goods as a Wal-Mart or Target will in the U.S. I can't speak from personal experience of Belgium, but Carrefour (one of the big French chains) has stores there.
    posted by asterix at 8:17 PM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


    which turned out to be wise as my debit card didn't work and my credit cards wouldn't authorize a cash advance no matter how many times I called them.

    Oh, yeah: you're heading to Chip+PIN land; assume that none of your foreign plastic will work.
    posted by holgate at 8:17 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


    This can be great training in how to get a lot done in an 8-9 hour day.

    They might not switch the lights off on you, but there's as much social pressure applied to leave at the appointed time as there is in certain American workplaces to work over.

    On the books: it really depends. I wouldn't ship boxes of paperback fiction, but for academic material where there's no electronic version, where you'd probably have to have replacements sent over from the US anyway, selling and re-buying vs shipping is going to be a wash.
    posted by holgate at 8:25 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


    I'm not sure if this applies to other European countries, but if you're ever in Germany, be aware that the tipping culture is wildly different. Apparently, if I owe 8 euro on a bill and pay the bartender/waiter 10 euro, the'll just take the remainder as a tip. In the U.S., this would require an exchange of 2 euro back to me, then I'd give the 2 euro back to the bartender – same result, but with a funny little dance in the middle. The Germans, always efficient, cut out that intermediate step. Unfortunately, as an unknowing American, I ended up standing at a bar waiting for my change, which prompted the surly bartender to throw said change at me and shout, "NO TIP?!"
    posted by deathpanels at 8:26 PM on April 23, 2012


    I can't speak for Belgium, but I've lived in both Italy and the UK.

    DO NOT SHIP THE BOOKS. Shipping books and extra things to the states cost me something like four hundred quid all told. Pick a couple that are very useful; see if your current university has a scanner/copier for making copies of other essential chapters. Honestly the storage costs of all of that don't sound very high, and unless you are a serious bike rider, it will be probably be substantially easier and cheaper to pick up a decent bike and kit once you're there. I brought a printer but I wish I had just bought one once I was there during the sales and made sure my folks could easily buy the right cartridges at Costco. Hmm, okay, years. I would stick with picking a few important ones, and seeing what you really need at the end of the summer, or after a month of so-- you'll go home at some point, or perhaps a friend/family member can pack up a couple of USPS flat-fee boxes. The monitor is probably something you'll have to judge for yourself, and in terms of what taking it means for leaving other things behind or for covering the replacement cost. Do you have a laptop as well? The shipping or baggage money might be better spent on a decent external hard drive and laptop upgrade. Those I would buy in the States.

    Sort of miscellaneous bits: if you have toiletries you like especially, you may wish to pack enough for a while until you can find matches for your tastes (or for just the summer). Similarly, I brought in enough allergy medication and ibuprofen and cortisone and high-quality bandaids etc. for a very long time, because shopping for those is often frustrating for me if I'm in pain and/or bleeding. I have never found a European peanut butter that was edible (sorry!) I considered the multiple things of TJ's peanut butter a security blanket of cheap, delicious, goodness. Baking ingredients are different. Spices were often better and cheaper, though I still kept a travel thing of Old Bay around. I also packed US measuring cups, because all my recipes were American. Quite a lot of this depends on what you consider essential to keeping an even keel, so keep tabs on what it is you do every day, what you miss/always do on vacation, and so forth.

    Banks: the electronic transfer thing is SO USEFUL. I paid rent in cash, but I paid conference fees a couple of times and some other small things with electronic transfers, and I can't believe the US hasn't hopped on that. Your credit cards may work, but the fees will be insane. I don't know if it's worth it to you to set up a Belgian bank account, but you may want to look at creating an account with an institution like HSBC or Citibank, which have a number of international branches. See if you can get a chip and pin debit card, as it will make life substantially easier, especially for dinners out and train tickets and whatnot. I've kept my British HSBC account open, but I've also been back to Europe a few times and the card's come in handy. It requires slightly more work at tax time and honestly we'll probably shut it at some point soon, but it was essential while living in England. You will need a bank account; this may require paperwork from your university. Having an HSBC account made it much easier to transfer funds manually. You will also want a European debit card for Amazon and other online services; I don't think American credit cards are set up for doing Verified by Visa and I've had difficulty using American Visa debit cards in British systems. Make sure you have several American debit card/credit card options in case one ever gets frozen for suspicious charges i.e. buying things in Europe.

    Phone: probably easiest to just pick a nice one and do pay-as-you-go. If your friends in the States use google voice and skype, they can send texts and calls just as they would a normal phone, with maybe a few additional charges. I don't think, even for a few years, a proper plan would be necessary, but those details do change frequently, so.

    The comment above about opening times and the lack of a Target/24 hour CVS are dead on, at least in smaller towns without access to a car. I ended up limping for two hours on a busted knee trying to find any kind of decent athletic knee brace, because in Italy, you usually go to the doctor/emergency room asap, even though I knew it was just runner's knee. In England there were more kind of all-in-one stores but it still took a long time to get used to when things were open and more importantly what I could actually buy there, though that was a small town as well. Paris had lots of options, some of them open later than others. A lot of this is really personal, honestly, to who you are and how structured your life is.

    Keep electronic color copies of your passport, all necessary paperwork for the visas, the visas themselves, etc. You may find that having extra transcripts is useful, both sealed copies and electronic scans. Having some spare passport-sized photos is helpful if you need to give your school additional copies at any point (this varies so widely it may never come up.) Your parents or contact in the States may also be given copies of your passport, etc., just in case something happens. If you wear glasses, have prescriptions, have vaccination records, etc, scan those too. If you have any medical issues or concerns, you may want to see what your personal GP recommends telling your new primary doctor.

    It sounds fantastic, so good luck! Take time to explore and enjoy the food and learn the languages. I don't regret being State-side again but I do miss it.
    posted by jetlagaddict at 8:30 PM on April 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


    Dittoing the shipping if you're going to be there that long, but you might want to get on this stat. I moved to Europe on my own several years ago and shipped about the same amount of stuff you're shipping. I found, when doing so, that there are two basic sizes for international shipments: FedEx Box and shipping container. Anything in-between is a tremendous pain in the ass.

    When I looked, I found that while there were a number of services dealing with corporate relocation --- e.g., a whole family and their houseful of stuff, enough to basically fill a tractor trailer --- services for people with significantly less than that were rarer, and sometimes your stuff will stay in your port of departure for several weeks until they can put it together with enough stuff to fill such a container. As best I remember, I moved the last week of June and got my stuff the last week of October, and I was shipping from New York City, which has more options than most cities. However, IIRC, the price was pretty reasonable --- maybe $400 or so for about 20 boxes of books and oddments.

    I was glad I did it in the end, but if you do this you'll want to be sure not to ship anything you're really going to need those first couple of months you're over there.
    posted by Diablevert at 8:45 PM on April 23, 2012


    jetlagaddict's fantastic response reminds me of something else:

    If you cook at all, be aware that Americans tend to measure solid foods by volume (e.g. "1 cup of flour" or "1/2 cup sugar") whereas Europeans and their cookbooks will measure foods by weight (e.g. "500 g flour" or "400 g sugar"). Liquids are of course measured by volume in both.

    Combined with the metric vs. US customary measure problem, this can make transatlantic cooking a little bit challenging.
    posted by andrewesque at 8:58 PM on April 23, 2012


    The main train station's shops will be open Sundays.
    posted by brujita at 8:59 PM on April 23, 2012


    In my experience in Europe (very limited): no dryers, but washing machines in the bathroom-you will get used to air drying. I found cash was the norm, and though I had an international no fee card hardly any stores took it. A few touristy restaurants and larger stores. N-thing the no superstores thing. Also for electronics remember to get the right voltage adapters before you leave.
    posted by manicure12 at 9:45 PM on April 23, 2012


    Ovens. Almost no one owns a proper oven. If you are lucky, you'll get a microwave that also has a convection heating element. Under NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you attempt to use this machine for anything more involved than, say, chocolate chip cookies.

    No one will expect you to learn any Dutch/Flemish at all. As an American, it is your sacred civic duty to learn as much as you possibly can, to use it at every available opportunity, and to let people know that you're an American.

    Craigslist kinda-sorta works for cities outside of Brussels - the situation is similar for Amsterdam covering all of the Netherlands. Start looking now, or post a housing wanted ad, and then be prepared to filter out a million fake responses from Ghana. Other than that, you might be better off finding a crash pad through a vacation rentals web site so you can scope places out in person once you get there. The university might - might! - be able to help you out here as well.

    There are electric dryers available in some places, which is really nice when the entire country is damp 70% of the time. But electricity is very expensive, and even if you get an apartment with utilities included (good luck!) there will be a section of the contract specifying that you're still responsible for usage over a certain amount. Running an AC, electric clothes dryer, electric oven, or taking lots and lots of hot showers can totally put you over that limit.

    Coffee culture is different. Brewed coffee is less prevalent than espresso. If you're into drip or French press coffee and grind your own beans, be prepared to bring your own equipment. Also probably your own beans. You'll find what you need there eventually, but it'll take a while to get oriented.

    There is no Amazon in Benelux, BUT Amazon.de ships to the Low Countries for free. Score!

    Shopkeepers go home from their jobs when you go home from yours, which makes buying stuff difficult. I don't know about Leuven specifically, but there will be at least one day a week when the shops are open late. Find out what that day is and plan accordingly.
    posted by 1adam12 at 10:56 PM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


    Before you take any physical book with you check for two things:
    1) is it available in e-book format?
    2) will your university either have it in its library or access to it through some kind of ILL?
    Even if the answer is no to both of these I'd still think long and hard about taking any book (as a previous poster mentioned, spending the time to scan relevant chapters, may be more worthwhile then lugging a book you may or may not use).

    As far as shipping stuff is concerned, I think your best bet would be to fill up the suitcases you'll be taking with you. An extra suitcase will cost you somewhere around $100.00, in which you can take 50 pounds worth of stuff. I doubt there is any other form of transporting your stuff that will have as good of a value proposition. As a science grad-student you should be able to get away with one suitcase being filled with clothes and one or two suitcases filled with stuff you want to take. If friends/family come to visit you they can bring some stuff with them as well. Shipping stuff beyond this seems like something to avoid.

    Also, if you're an American-sized person you may wish to take as many clothes as you can. People tend to be skinnier just about everywhere else (especially in non-English speaking countries), so clothing selection could be limited.
    posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:34 PM on April 23, 2012


    I would suggest focusing on Belgium-specific advice in agreeing with other posters who advise against looking for info on European culture. I mean, I found dryers in abundance in the uk and European Istanbul...but I wouldn't assume that for Belgium based on that experience. Surely the US- one state- would vary hugely in many respects. Europe, being a continent....
    posted by jojobobo at 11:45 PM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


    What are the quirks to living in Europe that will surprise me as an American and what do I need to know to be an effective and prepared expat American in Belgium?

    Perhaps it will be surprising that there are great differences between different European counties. From a U.S. perspective it may seem that Spain and Poland and Belgium are all similarly "European", but the inner-European differences -- linguistic, political, cultural -- are vast - maybe as big or bigger than, for instance, the difference between the U.S. and Britain. My advice would be to expect a specifically Belgian experience rather than a European one. Be wary of generalizations about Europeans -- often what they have in common is little more than not being American.
    posted by faustdick at 11:53 PM on April 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


    Now I see that jojobobo beat me to it!
    posted by faustdick at 11:54 PM on April 23, 2012


    Get copies of your official transcripts and get them notarized. Carry them with you.

    Check every single piece of equipment you intend to take for voltage compatibility.

    Purchase power adapters as the US pins are not used in the EU at all. You may be able to simply replace the cable, for laptops and stuff.

    Yes, seconding the invest in a nice laptop and take that with you. EU keyboards are a pain if you're accustomed to the US layout, particularly if you're a touch typist.

    Cosmetics and toiletries - do pack some preferred items with you as there is no guarantee that your brand will be available. For eg, Oil of Olay does not exist in Finland wtf

    You may wish to carry a bank draft with you for the fastest creation of a local bank account (with access to the chip/PIN card) - in the US I believe its called a banker's cheque. You have paid the cash already to get this document made so it does not require processing times and may cost less than wire transfer fees - which require a bank account at the other end which you won't have until you open it, if you see what I mean.

    Everything will be much more expensive - the price of groceries is one of the biggest shocks between the US and the EU.
    posted by infini at 12:35 AM on April 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


    On credit cards and banking. I think the chip/pin issue is overblown, I've spent significant time recently in Europe and *rarely* have had problems. And if it's a problem it's more of a convenience issue (eg have to buy train tickets from the person at the window cause the automatic machine requires a chip).

    If you go with CapitalOne here for your credit card, for most of their cards they cover the Visa/MasterCard currency exchange fees and don't charge any additional currency fees themselves.

    Even if you can't get anything together before you leave, we're just talking 2-3% fees. Banking is definitely one thing to not stress about.
    posted by sanderman at 12:51 AM on April 24, 2012


    Take the bike with you on the plane in a bike box. It'll only cost $75-100 and consumer goods are a lot more in Europe. Also bring your camping gear and sports gear for anything you want to do, its twice as much to buy it there. Bike lights etc.

    If you are tall or have big feet buy pants and shoes before you go. Much easier to find in the US.
    posted by fshgrl at 12:56 AM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


    Oh and intra-Europe travel is awesome and easy. Lots of interesting cities and different places in close proximity. Trains are obvious in Europe but don't forget about flying (cheap and tolerable on the low cost carriers, especially booked in advance) and busses (can be lifesaver cost-wise for last minute booking).
    posted by sanderman at 1:05 AM on April 24, 2012


    I'd actually recommend against adapters honestly. You shouldn't bother bringing cheap electronics over, just buy them in Europe unless your budget is very tight. This is because even with voltage adapters and plug adapters, you may still run into problems. For example, don't bother bringing an alarm clock with you unless it's made to be internationally compatible. The one I brought with me used the current or voltage or something to tell time, and as a result was slow/fast by a ridiculous degree. Just buy a low-budget alarm clock when you get there.

    Most high-priced electronics are made to charge internationally, so instead of getting the adapters just buy cables for them when you arrive. Most cellphones charge off of a USB cable, for example. I believe the EU just passed a law mandating Micro-USB as a standard for mobile phones.

    If you do buy and bring a laptop, you may not need to get an international plug for it, either. Instead, just go to a local electronics/hardware shop when you arrive and get either an appliance plug or a three-prong plug (depending on the type of charger you have). These plug right into the charger. And yes, this includes the Apple charger. Just remove the plug piece and a standard appliance cord will fit right in.

    If Belgium is anything like other countries in Europe you will be buying your food and everyday supplies from a combination of both supermarkets *and* outdoor markets. Prices for things can be way out of whack compared to the US. For example, in the UK, most prepared foods were very expensive, but breads, pasta, sauces, and cookies were far cheaper. Some kinds of meat were more expensive, but a some was far more reasonable. It's going to be a while before you figure out what places are cheap, what places are expensive, and what foods are "bargain" in the place you're living in (for example, in the UK, canned baked beans on toast is almost equivalent to ramen in the US in terms of a cheap, filling dinner). If you have close easy access to markets, I'd favor them over stores for food; they're likely to be cheaper. Just a warning though that if the fruit is especially cheap, eat it quickly!

    The whole cooking by weight thing, although I totally understand (though disagree with) the rationale, is extremely annoying. However, you can often get measured cups that actually have measurements for grams of sugar and flour (which, I have to say, just proves the usefulness of volume as a unit of measurement more than anything)! Nearly all non-liquid products will be measured in grams, so simple math can give you an idea of how much of a product to use.
    posted by Deathalicious at 1:14 AM on April 24, 2012


    If you like to cook, bring a set of nested measuring cups with you. After 15 years, I still cook with mine in preference to my scale 85% of the time. They were very, very hard to find; I went without for a very long time.
    posted by DarlingBri at 1:52 AM on April 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


    Honestly, I would take as little with you as possible. I moved to Japan and then Switzerland, and having less stuff to ship is really for the best. To Japan I shipped about 3 boxes worth of stuff and took two suitcases with me on the airplane over. From Japan I shipped a few more boxes because I found a relatively cheap shipping service, but it took a couple months for the things to arrive and I had to go pick them up at the airport.

    But if you plan to ever come back to the US, I wouldn't bother shipping the books. I personally wouldn't even bother storing most of them, unless they are not replaceable. It will likely be cheaper to re-buy every book than to ship them all, unless you want to risk sea shipping and mold.
    posted by that girl at 3:40 AM on April 24, 2012


    lots of weird things being said in this thread.

    there are laundromats in belgium, with.. *gasp* dryers.

    you can get non-azerty keyboards. US ones might be a bit difficult but you can definitely get UK keyboards which are qwerty and just have a couple of keys transposed.

    you can order from amazon.fr, uk, de or wherever.

    people have stoves.

    definitely ask the university to help you out with lodgings. the process in belgium can be a bit confusing/daunting. if you want to see what rents are like you can check out immoweb.be.

    generally rent is paid via bank transfer however you could be asked to pay 1 month up front on signature of the lease. always get a receipt. that's just common sense.

    checks aren't used. cash, debit card, credit cards or bank transfer. debit cards are just too easy to use and also support an 'electronic' purse functionality where you can preload some cash for micropayments at stores (instead of change).

    markets are not necessarily cheaper. depends on the neighborhood.

    your credit cards should work, belgium isn't on the moon.
    posted by canned polar bear at 3:44 AM on April 24, 2012 [10 favorites]


    Unfortunately, as an unknowing American, I ended up standing at a bar waiting for my change, which prompted the surly bartender to throw said change at me and shout, "NO TIP?!"

    You encountered a jerk bartender who ripped you off (sorry!). German tipping culture is that they give you the whole amount of change back unless you tell them the exact number to keep (the base number plus the tip, i.e. you say "nine please" on a base bill of eight and they know to keep a euro). I've never encountered anyone here in over a decade who gave themselves a tip, and 20% would be considered a bogglingly large tip since 10% is what you give for the best service. Usually the expectation is that you'll round up.

    Things which I have found culturally different about Central Europe from the US. Most of my time has been spent in Germany so take with a large grain of YMMV (but I think there are a lot of similarities).

    People are not defaulting to optimism and the response to hearing that you're taking some sort of interesting risk (say a business of some kind) is much more likely to be doomsaying or questioning the sense in it than what an American would see as a supportive or interested response. This is funny because the downsides of failing are less here.

    The government is more into your business as far as things like registering your place of residence or requiring that you always carry ID. However, life is free from a number of things that can make life in the US demoralizing on a daily basis -- the cops are often professionals who are actually there to serve and protect, the government sees protecting your privacy as one of its obligations, the streets aren't full of homeless mentally ill people who everyone pretends are invisible, what is considered a mainstream right-wing political party will usually be a pro-business party that supports the social safety net and wouldn't dare to run on rolling back women's or gay rights (although if the people have the tendency, they will be anti-immigrant).

    You will hear racism (including, occasionally, anti-semitism or its weird cousin stereotype-laden philo-semitism) that will completely shock you but no one can hear criticism from an American on anything society-related so get used to being shocked and moving on.

    The contrary does not apply: people will be happy to share with you the problems with America/Americans, and the objections will often be ignorant and/or contradictory. You have the right to see this kind of idle venting as the rudeness and provincialism it represents rather than curling into a ball and pretending to be Canadian (my policy is to own up to the real problems with the US but to draw the line where people are just working themselves into a froth dumping their generalized anger on you or have the facts wrong).

    Yes the shops close a lot, but you'll have access to better and more seasonal food pretty much anywhere and you don't need to go somewhere like Whole Paycheck to get it. Obviously the beer and chocolate specifically will be exceptional. The trains are awesome although I have never met a more vile creature than what occupies the info desk at the Brussels train station.

    Consider trying to avoid doing the US expat thing where they sit around trashing the country all the time and only connect with locals and expats of other nations who also sit around trashing the country all the time. This is especially dangerous in academia. Try to meet some people from the country who aren't part of your school and aren't just living a student-like life without school. I sort of feel like if you live in Europe and after a few years you don't know any civil servants or people with careers in the private sector or craftpersons/trade practitioners (I'm in the printer's trade association!) you've been keeping yourself in a bubble, since that's the majority of the people in the country and students/slackers are usually a pretty homogenous crowd, counter-intuitive as that may be.

    BTW, just as a contrary voice, I shipped all my stuff over in a container and I've never regretted it, although it was expensive.
    posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 3:44 AM on April 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


    yes and about the tipping thing. tipping is not expected. a bartender will never automatically keep the change and assume its a tip unless they're trying to rip you off because you're a foreigner.
    posted by canned polar bear at 4:17 AM on April 24, 2012


    If you're going to be there for 3-4 years, I suggest that you treat it as though you're going to be settling there. Yes, you can bring a QWERTY keyboard if you insist, but you should also learn to use AZERTY. It's tough for the first six weeks, and then your fingers will just learn. You'll be using other computers at the lab anyway, so you might as well do as the Belgians do.

    For the cooking, an app called Kitchen Pro is aces for converting between volume and weight. I use it all the time. But do bring a set of liquid and dry measuring cups and spoons, and pick up a metric measuring glass and a small kitchen scale.

    If I were to do it all over again, I'd remember that you are going to acquire a whole lotta stuff that you will want to then bring back. Take only about half of what you think you will want. Clothing, books, etc. can be bought anywhere. Small electronics and small appliances can be bought for cheap there, and left at your lab for the next person that takes over your job. (Actually, the suggestion to see if your university or lab has any services is great! Maybe there's an exiting person whose timing neatly coincides with yours.)

    I'm very excited for you! This is a wonderful opportunity.
    posted by Liesl at 6:56 AM on April 24, 2012


    For example, if I needed, I dunno, a bottle of Tylenol, a towel for the bathroom, some snacks for the weekend, and a small electronic device of some kind, I'd go to Target/Wal-Mart/etc. and take care of it all at once. In Europe, I found I had to go to the pharmacy for the Tylenol, a linen shop for the towel, a grocery store for the snacks, and an electronics store for the gizmo. And not a damn one of them were open on Sunday

    This isn't the case in the UK at all, and France at least has hypermarkets which cover these needs. I've only been to a small Delhaize in Belgium but I know they do have Carrefour over there.

    Cosmetics and toiletries - do pack some preferred items with you as there is no guarantee that your brand will be available. For eg, Oil of Olay does not exist in Finland wtf

    The obvious example for me here is sanitary protection - which may or may not be relevant to you - they don't sell my preferred brand in the US or most of the European countries I've been to. I imagine cosmetics are similar, especially if you have a hard to match skintone or something like that. My friend moved to Italy to study and got an annual supply of her contraceptive pill before she left for similar reasons.


    You will need to get yourself a chip and pin card - swipe cards aren't generally used in Europe now. American Express is very rarely taken, if that's relevant to you. You can get by without much having to carry cash.

    Also, people in urban areas aren't reliant on cars. I found it easy to get around Paris, Stockholm and Amsterdam with public transport, and in London it's actually rare that somebody owns a car at all.
    posted by mippy at 7:05 AM on April 24, 2012


    yes, they have carrefour in belgium (at least in brussels). however i don't understand the focus hypermarkets. either take the time and go to specific stores (you'll get better quality stuff anyways) or order online. not the end of the world.
    posted by canned polar bear at 7:24 AM on April 24, 2012


    As for being an effective expat American, be sure to tell people you're American. Preferably after you've impressed them with your measured and informed take on the topic at hand.

    The proudest moment I ever had was when a French woman looked deeply at me and said "You know, you've changed my perception of Americans."
    posted by Liesl at 7:35 AM on April 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


    De-lurking just to answer this question!
    I grew up in the States with Belgian parents and moved here four years ago, and somehow end up having this discussion every few months.
    First things first:
    Language - English will be enough about 95% of the time. Dutch is a bit of an odd language, I grew up speaking it, and there are certain things I still don't understand. Also, dialects vary widely and within a relatively short distance. It's an hour from Gent to Knokke, but the dialect in Knokke is can be almost incomprehensible to me.
    Living arrangements - when I moved from Antwerp to Gent, I spent about two days looking places up online, then visited about four in one day. The next day I saw one more, and said I'd take it on the spot. Signed a contract, had my keys within half an hour. Depending on when you're moving, and what price range you're looking for, things could go very quickly, especially if you're looking into apartments/studios that students would be interested in, especially in Leuven.
    Telephone - prepaid is much more common here than it is in the states, and for me, came out cheaper. I'm with Base, and pay 15 euros a month for unlimited texting, 100mb of data, and 15 euro of calling credit. It works for me, simply because I don't talk on the phone much. Also, you don't generally pay for incoming calls, only outgoing. It recently became legal to subsidise handsets, so that does happen occasionally, but it's not standard like in the states. If you want a smartphone see if you can buy one unlocked in before you leave, or if you have one, see if you can get it unlocked, that generally ends up being cheaper.
    Bank - Ask KULeuven if they help with arrangements, I know the University of Antwerp does, and Gent as well, but it varies. It will be easier to have a belgian bank account and a card with a chip/pin, especially if you're going to be here for a while. And yes, we do use direct bank transfers much more, I don't even know if I could get checks from my bank.
    Stuff to Bring:
    Books - I managed to limit myself to about ten books when I moved, mainly books those books I liked to read just for comfort. I usually end up bringing some more back from every trip home, but I don't miss my whole collection nearly as much as I thought I would. Of course, if you need certain textbooks, etc. that would be expensive to replace/hard to find, it may make more sense to bring them.
    Clothes - I don't have a hard time finding stuff to fit me here, but I'm a small/extra small in the states, so that depends on you. There are however, only two official sales periods per year, January and July, so if you specifically enjoy sale-shopping you might have to get your fix elsewhere. And american brand names - Levi's, Converse, things like that - tend to be much more expensive here than in the states. 40 dollar Levi's can easily run you 100 euros here, so be prepared for that.
    Medicine/Personal Hygiene/etc. - For things you are especially particular about, bring enough to last until you can find a suitable replacement. For super important stuff like medication, bring about a year supply, just in case. I always bring Advil with me from home, I've yet to find something similar here.
    Nthing the get a laptop, and yes, go for qwerty if that's what you're used to. It will be much cheaper to buy it in the states than here.
    How nice is a reasonably nice bike? The University of Gent has a program that lets students/staff rent a bike for 60 euros a year, and you don't have to worry (as much) about it being stolen, which is always nice. People here bike a lot, and it really is the easiest way to get around the cities.
    If you cook: measuring spoons, and a liquid measuring cup. I can never find baking powder here so I bring that, same for cream of tartar. Buy a scale when you get here, and you should be set.
    Random thoughts:
    Yes, stores are closed much more than we are used to. No, it's not that big of a deal. There are usually night shops with basic groceries open starting around eight,nine-ish. Carrefour does have some larger stores that start approaching WalMart territory, but not usually in the center of the city. I personally prefer Delhaize, I find their store brand to have the best price/quality ratio. I find that stores don't generally do coupons as frequently as in the states.
    A lot of places will give you discounts for being under 26, which I assume you are, so always check. Especially if you're into theater, the discount can sometimes be 50%, making a ticket to the opera cheaper than going to the movies.

    There are a lot of little differences that are hard to put into words. I'd visited Belgium quite a bit growing up, but it still felt vaguely alien when I first moved here. It helps to make friends who are from here, not only to help with learning the language, but also to ask random things to, like "where do I go buy ...".
    Hope you enjoy Leuven, and let me know if you're ever in Gent or Antwerp, we can go grab a beer. ;)
    posted by Karmeliet at 9:03 AM on April 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


    Living arrangements - when I moved from Antwerp to Gent, I spent about two days looking places up online, then visited about four in one day. The next day I saw one more, and said I'd take it on the spot. Signed a contract, had my keys within half an hour. Depending on when you're moving, and what price range you're looking for, things could go very quickly, especially if you're looking into apartments/studios that students would be interested in, especially in Leuven.

    to me it sounds like you rented a studio/student room (kot as they call it in belgium) or the owners were incredibly trusting. generally if the landlord of an apartment/house knows what they're doing you will need to provide a security deposit before they hand over the keys, the state of the apartment is documented, etc.. possibly the best and legal way for a security deposit is a blocked bank account which needs your signature and theirs to be unblocked, if asked for cash i would tell them to get lost.. it really depends on the lease. probably silly to say but don't sign anything without understanding it because there could be financial consequences if you decide you were a bit hasty and want to move. anyways, just a heads-up.
    posted by canned polar bear at 10:36 AM on April 24, 2012


    I'm not in Belgium, but after living in France and Austria I would advise to be ready to bag your own groceries. I get a cart almost every time I shop since it is faster to put the goods back in the cart after they've been scanned by the cashier. There's often a little shelf after the lanes where you can properly bag your things. The cashiers don't bag groceries. Your stuff will pile up and the cashier moves on to the next customer--even if your things aren't put away. After a few squished bananas and a popped yogurt, I decided to treat the experience like a game: can I clear the scanning area before my total is rung up? Let's find out! Then I don't feel so bad taking some moments to give exact change to the cashier if I have it. Bring your own bags, it's a great habit anywhere in the world.

    Also, there are technically "over the counter" medicines, but you have to go to the pharmacy and have the pharmacist hand it to you "over their counter." All medicines must be sold by pharmacists. There is no "drug" section to their "drug stores." There are beauty shops (deodorants, shampoos, toothpaste, paper goods) and pharmacies. The pharmacies keep limited hours but there is always one open somewhere in a town's district. They can be a good for some first-aid too. Scrapes can be tended and other health advice is available. (They may also try to sell you homeopathic medicines. This shocked me.) They're not ER's but a friend of my got a couple stitches and some antibiotics from a pharmacy in Vienna, Austria. I thought that was pretty awesome.
    posted by montaigneisright at 10:46 AM on April 24, 2012


    Just wanted to add something re this:

    you can get non-azerty keyboards. US ones might be a bit difficult but you can definitely get UK keyboards which are qwerty and just have a couple of keys transposed.

    This may be particularly ignorant, but on the several laptops/computers I have worked, I was able to achieve keyboard qwerty/ azerty etc. status just by adding languages to the language bar. For instance, I currently have US English, UK English, German, Romanian and, for no reason, Greek, and changing between these results in completely different keyboard layouts. So, for the top row, that's either:

    qwertyuiop[]
    or
    qwertzuiopü+
    or
    qwertzuiopăî
    or
    ;ςερτυθιοπ[]

    depending on the language I chose from the bar.

    I've no idea if this contributes anything (or whether every computer has this language bar), but maybe it solves your keyboard problems, if you do, indeed, have them.
    posted by miorita at 1:54 AM on April 25, 2012


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