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Thinking about possible move from Paris to Brussels - any thoughts / advice?

(15 Posts)
averagemum Mon 31-Dec-12 12:57:01

Hello there - I know there are loads of Brussels threads already, and I'm planning to read them all (promise!) but just wondered if anyone had moved from Paris, and how they found it? We're thinking of moving because DH has the possibility of working in Ixelles, so we think we'd live there, and we really like the idea of possibly renting a house + garden as we're in a flat now, plus being close to Paris and London for my work (I travel occasionally). We have 2 boys, aged 4 and 9 months. The eldest is in moyenne section and although we're English we all speak French so were thinking of the local French schools. I guess I just have a few questions if anyone has any thoughts:

- what's Ixelles like as an area to live in? is it easy to meet people and settle in? we've been in Paris for 10+ years, so it would be quite a new start / big change (for me especially - I'm the one with the most ties here!)
- re schools, would we have to start contacting them now, if we were thinking of a move in say, 18 months (for when the eldest starts primaire?)?
- I've just done the briefest google of "living in Brussels" and crime / burglary rates keep coming up as a problem. What's your experience of that? I know Paris is a big city, but I suppose with a gardien etc. it's just never occurred to me to feel unsafe. Do you feel less secure in a house, or in Brussels generally?

Thank you for any advice Brussels-based mums!

natation Mon 31-Dec-12 14:34:19

Ixelles is a long commune, also divided into 2 parts with Bruxelles Ville cutting the commune into 2. It is very built up in the north, townhouses which are often converted into apartments, not much green space and limited playgrounds - Parc Renier Chalon, Parc Tenbosch, Etangs d'Ixelles and that's about it. The commune becomes more suburban in the south, more family style housing. Overall though on a m2=€ price, it's one of the most expensive places to live in Brussels region. You can get the same type of housing for much less by going west or east or south. It would still be cheaper than most of Paris. The chance of a garden in Ixelles bigger than 50m2 is very small in the north, more likely in the south of the commune.

Schools are very polarised in Ixelles commune. Your chances of 2 places in one of the more favoured schools is perhaps under 5%, especially since enrolments for many of the more favoured schools were completed last autumn for September 2013 entry. You are far far better off looking east, south and west of Ixelles for schools and housing. And if you want a decent secondary place, then you really need to go for the 1st or 2nd nearest primaire school of type and 1st or 2nd nearest secondaire of type. The 4 types are 1) religious (all Catholic except for 3 Jewish, 2 Muslim and 1 protestant in Brussels region), 2) communal 3) directly French community controlled and 4) non religious (only 9 of them in Brussels region and fee paying between 1k and 4k per year). All are free, except the latter. The extras such as garderie and school lunches are nearly always more expensive in the religious and non religious type school, but not a huge difference eg garderie in a communal school would be 80 cent and hour, in a Catholic school would be 1 euro and hour.

Take a look at exactly where work in Ixelles would be. Look at the public transport map. Consider whether you want to be in a built-up area or in suburbia. Look at the communes of Watermael-Boitsfort, Auderghem, Uccle, Etterbeek, Woluwe-St-Lambert, Woluwe-St-Pierre and Schaerbeek (south of Parc Josaphat).

Crime in Brussels? Yes they keep quoting stats and my bet is perhaps based on Bruxelles Ville and not on the other 18 communes of Brussels region. It's pretty calm out east. If I know someone who has been burgled, they've never told me! I feel very secure were we live.

natation Mon 31-Dec-12 14:48:25

Here is a typical "maison de maitre" which is still a 4 bed 215m2 house and it will be in central or north Ixelles. Note the garden is what you'd expect for that area.

Here is a typical modern townhouse 250m2 and 4 beds that you find all over Watermael-Boitsfort, WSL, WSP, Auderghem etc. It's about 500m from the border with Ixelles, near a choice of good local schools within walking distance where you'll get places without too much work as the school place : child ratios are not so bad there, it's on a bus route through to Ixelles, it's a short walk to the sports centre, not far from the metro either. Note the massive difference in price!

averagemum Tue 01-Jan-13 07:44:54

wow, thanks for this fantastic info natation! It's really, really helpful. I think instinctively we'd like to live somewhere that feels more city than suburbs, so even a small garden would suit us (part of the appeal is that it's possible to have some kind of a garden in what still seems like the city!), but I totally take your point about schools, and if other areas are less oversubscribed then that's definitely worth looking at. And the difference is price is amazing! Maybe the best thing to do is visit and wander around to get a feel of the different districts. But it's very useful to know that you need to be about a year in advance for school places - that forces us to think a bit more concretely. What about meeting people? Most of my mum friends in Paris I made through my eldest, when he was very little at playgroups etc. I think if I were trying to make new friends at the school gates now it would be trickier, as everyone is pretty rushed. One final thing: is it possible to choose the school your kids go to? In Paris you're told where to go according to sectorisation, and if it doesn't suit for any reason you have to do a derogation, which rarely works... Can you live in one commune and have a school place in another in Brussels?

And Happy New Year!

Superspudable Tue 01-Jan-13 08:57:28

I have done the move the other way round, from Brussels to Paris so can compare them quite well. We lived on Auderghem/Watermael-Boitsfort border and now live in the 15th.

Brussels is VERY green, with big parks and forests and it is easy to have an outdoor lifestyle with young children. It is easy to feel suburban and out of town within the city which has its pros and cons - I would be bored moving back to Brussels now! Local markets are very good. Access to London and Paris is excellent.

No sectorisation with regard to schools - so you are free to choose any school, as long as they have a place. It really depends on the area as natation says, Ixelles does have a reputation for having pressure on school places. We were offered places in two (out of two we looked at) in March for the September six months after so it's not all bad, but it depends where you live which makes it a bit chicken and egg. You need to sign up to popular schools the autumn before the school year you want, but it wasn't possible or necessary for us.

The public transport network is not as extensive or regular, but there are good tram connections in Ixelles and they link well to W-B and Auderghem. Traffic is congested - reportedly the worst in Europe. Cycling is also popular.

The BCT is an "equivalent" organisation to Message for expat families (without the forum) - they organise groups by area for coffee mornings, playdates, nights out etc. Really good way of meeting people! I made a lot of friends at the school gates too. Where 1/3 of the population is expat, lots of people move on and you have to get used to that!

Brussels does not have the "nounou" culture of Paris - as kids start school earlier (2.5 if potty trained) and generally go to creche before then. Lots of grandparents pick up at school and there is good before and afterschool provision for working parents.

I have to say I feel safer in Paris I'm afraid. Burglary IS a problem, especially during holiday times but you can get the local police to get them to check your property daily while you're away which is good and works well - they knocked on our door to check everything was ok when we returned early once. Cars used to get broken into outside my husband's office almost every day. Usual pickpocketing/nuisance on the bus/metro.

The biggest thing I recommend when looking at a potential package in Brussels is tax. Unless you are tax exempt or subject to another country's tax regime, tax is tough in Belgium. Where in France only household income is taxed, ALL benefits paid by the employer are taxable in Belgium - including business travel (bonkers!), relocation costs, healthcare, rent, utilities (if paid by the employer). You have been warned! Make sure you have good tax advice included in your package as well as tax equalisation if you can!

Happy to discuss details or specific points by PM/phone!

natation Tue 01-Jan-13 09:32:49

The other thing I forgot to mention about Ixelles, would apply to other communes nearer to the centre, is that parking can be a problem and will get worse. Even if you get a garage (which you'll pay more for), it might only fit a tiny car, you might run into problems with people parking in front of the garage too. There is a policy of removing parking spaces in the centre areas and replacing capacity with the bike hire called VILLO and car hire called CAMBIO, in an attempt to reduce congestion.

If you prefer the early 1900s maisons de maitre to the 1960s onwards style you get in the suburbs, I'd look east possibly to Etterbeek, parts of WSL, WSP and Schaerbeek.

The area around Montgomery / Mérode is good, it's over those 4 communes just mentioned. It is also likely to be cheaper than Ixelles but with similar maisons de maitre with small gardens, on 4 floors. There are excellent secondaires and primaires there, but I can't emphasize enough you should choose the 1st or 2nd nearest primaire and secondaire of type if you are after a particular secondaire. I'd say with a year to choose, I'd get the school places, then work out the addresses where the primaire is 1st or 2nd nearest of type and the preferred secondaire too. In Belgium, you choose your own schools, limited only by finding places. Dérogation system does not exist. 40% of primaire children in Brussels go to Catholic schools, 70% of secondaire children are in the Catholic system. There is a definite bias to Catholic schools, with some exceptions, at secondaire level the following non Catholic schools are also popular in the area you are likely to be looking at : Athénée Communal Robert Catteau, Athénée Royal Jean Absil, Lycée Emile Jacqmain, Athénée Communal Charles Janssens. Robert Catteau and Emile Jacqmain are arguably the most sought after non Catholic French schools in Belgium (would be like going for places at Ecole Alsacienne in Paris), they are also highly academic ones, so you these schools really would have to be nearest school of type and your child be going to the nearest primaire of type to guarantee a place at the secondaire.

There is no college/lycée division at secondaire. Children stay a year extra in primaire until the year they turn 12 years old, then from 12-18 years they do 6 years of secondaire, divided into 3 cycles of 2. They cannot normally move within a cycle, so sign up for 1ere secondaire and you're there for 2 years minimum. Doubling is normal here too, over 50% will have doubled a year by the end of secondaire in Brussels. At the end of 2eme secondaire, the curriculum becomes more academic/technical/professional divided, some schools do only academic or technical/professional. If you know your child is not academic, it's a bad idea to send them even in 1ere secondaire to choose a highly academic school, as they'll only end of being thrown out by the end of 2eme secondaire. So if your child is not top 20% ability, don't even think about secondaires like St Michel, Emile Jacqmain, Robert Catteau. You should bear this in mind even when choosing a primaire like don't choose St Michel primaire unless your child is dead brainy and can handle their marks being read out for all the class to hear! Some primaires do exams twice a year, some primaires do only the compulsory national tests in 2e,5e and 6e primaire and less rigorous testing and no reading out of your results in public. You really need to ask plenty of questions about how children are assessed in primaire, as it varies so much from school to school, even though finally they are all taught against the same national French curriculum The 6e primaire exams are ultra important, but don't worry too much pass rate is 90%, fail and you either stay behind in primaire and double the year or go to a specialised secondary class where you'll be with those of lowest ability.

Maybe 40% of secondaires have an attached primaire or one nearby which is affiliated to the secondaire (in Belgese, it's called "adossement"). It used to be the case if you were in primaire X, you got a guaranted place in secondaire Y. This is no longer the case. The current rules state only those enrollend in primaire X on 1st September 2007 get a guaranteed place in secondaire Y, so this year's 6e primaire children who have been at the same school for 6 years will be the last year to benefit from this adossement plus next year anyone who has doubled and been at the same school 7 years I assume! So don't choose a primaire X thinking the adossement system will get a guaranteed place at secondaire Y as your children won't be able to benefit, without a change in rules, which I doubt will happen, as this adossement system is unfair to the majority of children who attend primaires where there is no adossement to a secondaire.

You'll have to bear in mind that most primaires are in fact fondamentales, which is combined maternelle and primaire schools. It means most children will move from 3e maternelle to 1ere primaire in the same school, so it will be just as hard to get a place for your younger child as your older one. Schools might also not be able to confirm school places until around April for you, they'd be able to give and indication at enrolment in say the September of the likelihood, but current children's parents don't generally get asked if they are re-enrolling for the next school year until January-February time. For example, if the 3e maternelle classes are full, they won't know if there is a place in 1ere primaire until all parents have confirmed their intentions for the next school year.

I have found it very hard making friends with Belgian parents. There are many nationalities at our school, even the French parents seem to be more willing to talk to the other foreign parents. Belgians I find pretty unfriendly on a deeper level than "bonjour", very family oriented, friends kept from childhood, see no need to add any extra friends to their lives. You might be more likely to make friends with Belgians through hobbies or your children's hobbies, as parents have more time to stop and speak than in front of school during drop-off. Work is unlikely. Some schools have a strong PTA and that was you could make friends perhaps. As for non Belgian ones, I bet you'll find much easier, inside and outside school. There is the Brussels Childbirth Trust (BCT) with 1200 members. There is a British and Commonwealth Women's Club, American Womens's Club etc etc.

natation Tue 01-Jan-13 10:02:55

PS having read superspudable's post, well 3+ children is probably the biggest way to reduce tax, seriously, 3 children here is very common. 3rd child gets the biggest child benefit! I have 4 children, I get 890 euro a month in child benefit. Your 2 would bring you 273 a month, 58 extra in August for 6-11 year olds to help pay for "la rentrée".

Child care up to 11.20 per day is also tax deductable. You spend each January collecting the "attestations fiscales" from school for garderie fees before and after school and lunch time supervision (expect to pay 50c to 1euro for lunch time supervision of packed lunch or school lunch), from holiday stages. You can deduct these child care fees for children under 12 years only. I usually make it to around 400 euro per child for each year, so I get a tax refund on those fees. A little plug for holiday stages here, don't know how extensive they are in France, I'll be enrolling our youngest 2 in stages for Carnaval, it will cost me 110 euro for the 2 of them

Basic health insurance is as little as 13 euro a month for 2 adults and 2 children, usually bill on a calendar year from your mutuelle. Many people get extra "hospitalisation" insurance from employers, what would be mutuelle in France! The employee only might benefit from this freebie, or the whole family. You can claim money back from the mutuelles for joining sporting clubs, like 15-25 euro a year per adult / child, for children's stages too. For our 4 children, I claim back over 200 euro a year, yet I only pay 78 euro a year to the mutuelle. The mutuelle basic insurance covers set refunds, eg I go to 2 GPs for our children, one after mutuelle refund I pay 5 euro, the other after refund I pay 12 euro. It covers also things like speech therapy, eg our youngest had 30 minute sessions, I paid after refund 5 euro, price before refund 25 euro. Children's dentistry is free, if you check the dentist charges the minimum "conventionné" fees. Buying the top-up hospitalisation insurance is a calculated risk. As I only pay 10 euro a month extra to cover our children, I take it. If it were 100 euro a month (non employer subsidised price), perhaps I wouldn't.

A company car is also extremely common here, free fuel!!!! It is hardly an incentive to get people out of their cars, as it's not taxed, but hey ho this is Belgium.

After working 12 months here, you'd accrue 13.92 months salary for 99% of jobs on a normal Belgian contract. An extra month is normally paid in December and .92 month paid in May/June.

You can do tax free giving to charity here too, thinking about signing up to this at source, not that I can afford it, but I can afford it more than the person who'd benefit, so my conscience says do it. It's another way to reduce your tax bill I suppose.

You can get excellent tax advice for free from the Tax Office. In 4 years here, I've found their Customer Service exceptional by Belgian standards. I've only used the tax clinics, never tried to contact them by phone, which might be a different level on service!

natation Tue 01-Jan-13 10:09:50

The fondamentales schools map will be very useful.

The secondaires schools map might be useful too.

This secondary schools admission website orders primaires and secondaires from specific addresses. I'd not choose housing without looking up the consequences of school ordering, if you're likely to be here for secondaire level.

natation Tue 01-Jan-13 11:31:19

If you were to concentrate on the Mérode/Montgomery area (use Passage Linthout as a central point), you'd find yourself within 1km of 5 well regarded primaires : SC de Lindthout, du Bonheur, La Vierge Fidele, Emile Jacqmain, St Michel and 5 well regarded secondaires : SC de Lindhout, Dames de Marie (shares campus with du Bonheur), La Vierge Fidele, St Michel and Athénee Communal Fernand Blum. The 81 tram stop would be walking distance, it goes through the middle of Ixelles, otherwise the metro goes to the north of Ixelles, the 7/25 trams go through the south of Ixelles. This area is very suburban, 3-5 floor townhouses with little gardens between 1700-3500 euro, has lots of nice shops and cafes, is next to the large Cinquantenaire park, is walking distance / tram or metro ride to sports facilities. For someone looking for suburban living with work centrally and looking for a good family area, I don't think you can beat it. Here is a sample house, at a guess it is right near Passage Linthout.

natation Tue 01-Jan-13 14:06:12

LOL just noticed your children are 4 year and 9 months and not 4 years and 9 years!!! I guess the secondary school stuff is not so essential then, but still worth bearing in mind. Your 9 month old could start school September 2014, same time as your eldest would go into 1ere primaire and you would plan to move here. It would be worth looking therefore at fondamentales or maternelles/primaires right next to each other. You can actually register an interest for school places at birth, for a few schools, so you could actually contact schools now for the youngest, then make a formal application for enrolment from September 2013 for a start September 2014 (or later in that school year, if you want to wait a little longer).

gastrognome Tue 01-Jan-13 20:54:04

We lived in Paris for a few years before living in Brussels so I can compare the two cities quite well, though admittedly we didn't have children when we lived in France. Of course this is massively subjective, but I think quality of life is better overall in Brussels, with more green spaces, affordable housing, gardens, etc. Commutes are shorter and traffic is not as dense, despite what the local residents might have you think!

Lots of restaurants, cafes and entertainment for all age groups here. Loads going on, particularly in the summer. But shopping is pretty rubbish and a lot of things are more expensive (thank god for Amazon!).

What I love best is the multicultural, inclusive nature of Brussels. I never get bored here. And I find people much nicer and more laid back, which makes living here less stressful.

Although I do notice a lot of car crime in Brussels, I don't feel less safe here than in Paris - perhaps the opposite, if anything. But perhaps that is due to changes in lifestyle (fewer late nights traveling home on the metro alone, etc). My friends and I had far more brushes with crime in Paris (muggings, pickpockets, theft, sexual attacks, and, sadly and probably very exceptionally, murder) than we have had here in Brussels. But so much is a matter of personal perception, neighborhood, etc, it really is hard to compare.

Overall as you can probably tell I far prefer life in Brussels to Paris - which is still a surprise to me as I never expected to like it here!

averagemum Wed 02-Jan-13 07:06:59

Thanks again for all these perspectives and information! Yes, little one is only 9 months, but the longterm view is very useful, because if we do it we'd really like to be able to settle properly, to be in a place where the boys can grow (kind of hard to imagine in our flat at the moment - we're fine for another few years, but cannot see adolescents in here!). Very interesting that some of you have direct experience of both Paris and Brussels. Funnily enough, my little panic about crime comes from our neighbours here having just been broken into. I think you're right gastrognome, so much depends on experience and perspective. Have to go now but will come back and read through all of this attentively this evening! Thanks so much!

averagemum Wed 02-Jan-13 07:31:06

and ps. very sorry to hear about that traumatic experience gastrognome.

natation Wed 02-Jan-13 10:46:28

You can look at crime stats for the 19 Brussels communes here, but you also need to know the populations of each commune, to be able to compare communes. You can see however that recorded crime is down significantly from 2000 to 2007. I can see where we live is not a hotspot for house burglaries - there are about 20,000 households in our commune of WSP and in 2007 there were 292 burglaries.

To compare across countries, you'd have to look here.

rushingrachel Thu 03-Jan-13 17:43:52

I moved from London to Paris to Brussels pre children. Overall as a place I much prefer Paris. It's the culture thing (quality of concerts, ballet, art far better). Also although It may sound pompous I found Paris just uplifting, such a beautiful place. Brussels is grey and ugly by comparison. And this is subjective but I find Brussels struggles to have an identity. It's a subjective view but I find it kind of a provincial town with poor planning laws, with a huge floating expat community superimposed over the top.

It's taken me years to adjust to Brussels and on bad days I still hate the grey and the rudeness and the lack of shops and the dreadful hairdressers and the driving and the lack of customer service. And how expensive everything is. However I feel much more settled now so I will come up with some positives.

I have made lovely friends here from a variety of sources including school, bct, work, the gym ... Even Weightwatchers! It does take a bit of time and I've found it's happened more easily and naturally since I haven't been working.

My son's school (international school admittedly) is wonderful. He's soooo happy and has made great progress. A happy child at the end of every day is a blessing.

Healthcare is broadly good and easily accessible. Reimbursement is normally quick. I've had one nightmare experience but mostly it's been good.

Public transport is well integrated but leading me onto crime I had a nasty incident in the metro when I was pretty sure someone tried to snatch my little one which shook my confidence a bit. Nonetheless nowhere is far from anywhere else. And you can drive everywhere if you want to. Although living in Ixelles is only recommended if you get parking with your place or can reverse park quickly on a postage stamp. I have had my car broken into once here outside my house. Mostly going about my business here I feel safe. However I loved where I lived in Paris although the metro was a bit ... Edgy!

I agree with the fact that the international nature of Brussels can be nice. You get highly educated and mobile friends from all over Europe and its A good perspective. And good for the children to be aware of and respectful of culture from an early age.

There are nice green spaces.

You can drive easily to the NL and DE for a change of scene. We like the Dutch beaches in summer.

There is quite a bit on for kids, ESP if they speak French.

I love our gym, where the facilities for kids are great.

I like that even with me not working we can afford an OK house in an area we are happy in. In Paris I had an employer paid flat which was lovely but didnt really know anyone who lived in a house, and a garden is nice in summer.

A small one this but I banked with Soc Gen in Paris and I find ING much more helpful. And cheaper. Except for car insurance.

So in summary there are advantages here. But if you like and are happy in Paris there's a good possibility you could find the transition hard, at least initially. Not sure if any of that is helpful!

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