Should I move to Belgium?
March 24, 2008 6:27 PM   Subscribe

What should I know about moving from Boston to Brussels, Belgium?

I recently got a job offer in Brussels, Belgium (posting anonymously because it will cause problems for me if my prospective employer finds out I am uncertain about making the move). My wife and I are both around 30, living in Boston. We've traveled plenty, but never lived outside the country and have never been to Belgium. Neither of us speaks French or Dutch.

So the question is, what do we need to know about moving from the US to Belgium? We've read all about visas and national health insurance and such. We're really wondering more about what life is like. Will we feel isolated, being only English speakers? What are good neighborhoods for a couple of expats to live in? How likely is it that my wife could find a job if we move there before she is able to arrange something? How expensive is it; how much money do two relatively young people need to make in order to live comfortably in or around Brussels? If you are someone who has moved from the US to Belgium, what did nobody tell you that you wish you had known? We will probably visit for a few days before making the decisions about whether to make the move or not. What should we do while we're there in order to help make the decision?

We're really just looking for any information at all about what it's like to live in Brussels, since we have never been there and don't know anybody there. If you have questions, you can send them to

Bonus points if anybody can tell me what an American (USCF Cat. 2) would have to do to be eligible to race road and cyclocross in Belgium. Do you need an international license from USA cycling or a license from the Belgian Cycling Federation?
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
As far as being the only English speakers, I don't think that you will find that. Brussels is the capital of the European Union. In addition to French and Dutch, many Belgians speak English.
posted by soy_renfield at 7:35 PM on March 24, 2008

IAABBA (I Am A Belgian Born Abroad). My mother used to work for the Belgian embassy here in DC. I've not lived in Brussels, but I've spent a fair bit of time there an know many people from the region.

Will we feel isolated, being only English speakers?

Brussels is very cosmopolitan - it's obviously the capital of Belgium, but also that of the EU and many international organizations. There should be a significant community of native english speakers, and virtually all Belgians take english in school to a reasonable degree of fluency. English pop culture has made most youth at least basically comfortable with it.

The weather is very rainy. It's a stereotype, but it's quite true. Brussels and the surrounding areas are French speaking, and very few Walloons (French-speaking Belgians) speak dutch. Most Flemish (dutch speaking Belgians) speak French very well. This is one example of something that causes mild animosity between the linguistic factions (the 2007 formation was arduous, to say the least). To be in everyone's good graces, I'd advise learning common greetings and expressions in both languages. In Brussels itself French will be more useful (I don't speak French very well and I'm way better off with English than dutch in the capital).

Brussels has excellent rail access to the rest of Europe. You can (and should!) take little trips to other western European nations.

Belgians do not like being compared to the Dutch or French, generally speaking. They are overwhelmingly catholic. The waffles are not a big deal. The chocolate and beer are (for good reason). Manneke Pis is not to be laughed at. Go see atomium.
posted by phrontist at 7:41 PM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding soy_renfield on not worrying about speaking only English. My friend is an expat living in Liege (which is mostly French speakers) and she gets along fine. In Brussels, my experience is that most people speak at least some English. Anecdote: I was on a train platform in Brussels once, and two ladies who did not speak English attempted to mime a question to some Belgian gentlemen. One of them said, "Spreekt u Nederlands?", "Parlez-vous Francais?", then "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?", and "Do you speak English?" in quick succession. I suspect that he would have gone on further had he not figured out that they only spoke Hebrew.

My expat friend has found it rather easy to live there, but she is married to a Belgian, so her experience is different. From what I understand, there are plenty of expats in Brussels, and you may have some luck speaking with the U.S. Embassy there to find out if they know which neighborhoods the expats live in. When I have visited Brussels, I found it to be easy to navigate and find things and many signs are posted in English. Trains are quite easy too. I find Belgium in general very nice to visit and the people are very friendly.

All that said, I'd definitely suggest a visit before you make the decision to move there.
posted by bedhead at 7:55 PM on March 24, 2008

On preview, thirding on the English thing. Phrontist also makes excellent points about taking little trips to other European countries, and also about the chocolate and the beer. Take a train up to Bruges and wander the streets and buy chocolate at little shops. It's very romantic.
posted by bedhead at 7:59 PM on March 24, 2008

I lived there for 7 months and got around very well with knowing a tiny amount of French (knowing a fair amount of Spanish vocabulary did help in reading signs and what not). People in Brussels are remarkably multi-lingual. The Greek woman who ran a restaurant across my flat spoke conversational English, Greek, Italian, French and Dutch. Absolutely crazy. Situations like this were not unusual.

I had similar experiences with the weather. I was there in winter and spring and it did rain quite a bit which was especially annoying in January and February. I lived in the city and it would routinely get down around 1 or 2 degrees C and just rain. Out in the suburbs where I worked, it was usually a bit cooler and thus much chances for snow.

I lived near the Place Louise which had lots of expats around as well as restaurants and shopping. There is also a Metro stop there that made it very easy to get into the center core of the city or the airport or the main train station. Definitely take advantage of that to get easy and relatively cheap passage to London/Paris/Amsterdam/Rome/etc.
posted by mmascolino at 9:16 PM on March 24, 2008

If you'll be working in an expats environment, I don't think languages will be a problem.

Brussels is basically divided in two towns: the rich part (the south: quartier Louise, Woluwe Saint Pierre and Woluwe Saint Etienne, Vorst, Sint-Gillis, Uccle, Audergem) and the poor part (the north: Sint-Joost-Ten-Node, Molenbeek, Koekelberg, Anderlecht).

The centre has a bit of both worlds. The Sablon/Zavel is where the big chocolatiers are (you'll love Marcolini), and it's close to quartier Louise. So that would count as rich. The Dansaert/B├ęguinage/quai district (near the Flemish Theatre) is more arty, it has more street hookers and it's therefore edgier and more urban. And hip.

Brussels was recently voted the most boring town by European business travellers, so that's something to look forward to. It also has great restaurants, like the rest of Belgium. You can always send me a MeFi-mail if you have questions. I can probably think of a few things to do, see and eat while you're here.
posted by NekulturnY at 1:37 AM on March 25, 2008

As an English-speaker (with a bare understanding of school-level French), I felt far more comfortable in Belgium than I did in France, in terms of communication. So I doubt you'd have any problems.
posted by macdara at 6:00 AM on March 25, 2008

From a friend who is a Cat. 1 and has raced UCI 'cross in Belgium:

"Well, to race UCI races you need a UCI license. (So, big road races and elite cross races.) I doubt that you need a UCI license to race races that are not sanctioned by the UCI, just as if someone from another country wanted to race a local race here. You probably need a Belgian Federation license. Also, to race in another country as a USAC licensed rider, you need a foreign permission letter (especially for road - maybe just UCI races, not sure). You can easily request this letter from the USA Cycling website in the section where you can renew your license online. Wish I could be of more definitive help... since I've never road raced there (well, not YET anyway!) I'm not sure about licensure for road. I am sure he could contact USACycling for some answers."
posted by mingshan at 12:39 PM on March 25, 2008

You may find The Hints Book helpful. It's targeted at American expats in Belgium and answers a lot of the questions you may have about living there.
posted by komilnefopa at 5:32 PM on March 25, 2008

The taxes are amongst the highest in the world. But this is mitigated in part by the best beer in the world.

Belgium is chaotic, and floats in a sea of red tape. The people are pleasant, so that helps (can't speak of the bureaucrats). You will not find the Germanic order or the Dutch efficiencies there. For this reason, perhaps, many Dutch choose to live on the Belgian side of the border.

I know very little of Brussels itself. My partner (Flemish) dislikes the place for no particular reason (except maybe traffic). Make sure you try the sugar waffles, hot and fresh.

Expect relocation assistance from your prospective employer. They are a huge help in dealing with local customs and laws when seeking an apartment to rent.
posted by Goofyy at 11:18 AM on March 26, 2008

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