Moving to Brussels(37 Posts)
DH has an interview next month for a two-to-three year assignment in Brussels. If he gets it (which seems likely), he'll certainly take it. I work PT in the UK and could not do my job in Brussels - language being the main barrier. Financially I don't need to work when out there but would (potentially) want to do something. The alternative is if I get pregnant, in which case I suspect I'll be busy enough!
I would look to join him in September-October time, after my current job finishes. We have a DD who will stay with me until we move, when she will have just turned three. She attends nursery three days a week and adores it.
I visited Brussels once for two days several years ago - I really liked it and I'm excited about the idea of moving there, but at the same time I'm just a bit scared! I have a lot to look into and learn about the areas of the city, where to live, what life is like, learning language(s), do I take the car, do I have a baby there (I'm a complex obstetric patient) - where do I start?!
Any advice, pointers etc. will be gratefully received!
I have a relative who did similar. So she stopped working for the few years they were there, but did manage to pick up a little work later on (nothing to write home about, but better than nothing). They were careful to live in the French speaking part, as wanted their DCs to learn French. The younger one went to a French kindergarten within a school, the older one went to international, English speaking school. The children didn't end up learning all that much French, and personally I'd have sent them both to French speaking school.
It's a lovely city and they had a lovely few years there. They had a car, but the public transport was good (underground system).
For the pregnancy, definitely don't worry. Belgium has an excellent medical system and Brussels has some excellent hospitals. You are followed by the same gynaecologist throughout pregnancy, so are very well looked after (I also have tough pregnancies). You can choose your gynaecologist and you deliver at the hospital where he/she is accredited.
Most kids here go to school from age 2.5, so your DD could go straight into 1ere maternelle, where she could easily pick up French quite quickly. If she/you came out for the start of the school year (1 September) she could start with all the other kids. It's probably about the same level as UK nursery - very focussed on learning through play. Finding a school place in brussels might be a bit tricky, but there are some people on here who will be able to help if/when you get that far.
Brussels is a very international city with lots going on. It's also a very varied city - lots of different areas to choose between depending on what you want out of where you live. You can also easily live outside the city and commute in by train, although that might be a bit isolating for you? Public transport in the city is good on the whole. Don't feel you have to live near the metro though, as there are plenty of good bus and tram routes too.
All in all, it's a really easy place to have a good quality of life when you work and have small kids. Oh, and did I mention how good the chips, beer and chocolate are?
Thanks for the replies. It's reassuring to know that school, hospital shouldn't be too difficult to organise. I'd probably want to live near people as far as possible - I'm reasonably shy in new situations and that's the bit causing me most anxiety. I only stayed sane during my last lot of mat leave because I had such good friends who were also not working.
I remember the chips, beer and chocolate from our holiday, very excited about rekindling that old flame!
Brussels is something like 40% non Belgian and on the east and south sides of Brussels, that translates into typically well-off foreigners. Some choose to live in their bubbles surrounding international schools, some choose a more localised lifestyle. It's quite easy for children even as old as 10 years old to slip into local schooling in French here, even when parents have no French, so long as you hit on a school which is used to other children in this position. Having said that, some parents don't want local schools and prefer the international ones, fine if you have a spare 20-30k per child per year or if your fees are paid.
We live to the East of Brussels and so far we've loved the country. Buts its not all been easy sailing. The language has been difficult. I speak passable French but no dutch and it can be a nightmare trying to determine if the part that you happen to be in is a Dutch or a French area. The driving is atrocious. You need to have eyes in the back of your head, and don't ever ever switch off, because that's exactly when you'll come across the 'priorite a droit' where someone from a minor road has priority on entering a major road, will take it and not even think about slowing down or checking that things are all clear. But don't be put off as you will get used to the driving and become just as rude and aggressive as those around you.
I think that just about everything is more expensive (food, clothes, internet, telephone, mobile etc) than the UK - I say I think, because I've noticed that the UK has raised its prices and lowered the quantities - sneaky...And to top off the high costs beware going to garages, electricians, plumbers, satellite dish fitters etc who recognise that you're not Belgian and are therefore obviously made of money and charge you accordingly. Oh and even though you're paying for a service, don't expect a smile or 'customer service' as we would know it!
In terms of the normal shopping routine the hierarchy is:
Delhaize - like Waitrose
Carrefour - like Sainsburys or Tesco
Colroyt - like Coop
Aldi and Lidl - like Aldi and Lidl
I've seen lots of locals handing across vouchers in place of money at supermarkets - not sure what these are for, or how to get them. Anyone know?
That said, there's nothing to be scared about - you will adapt and overcome. The transport is cheap and regular so coming without a car will not pose any unsurmountable problems. The beer & wine is cheaper still and huge variety. The center of Brussels is picturesque with some lovely architecture. But there's also lots of green spaces. And the countryside, and general pride of the people in the locale where they live is superb. Streets are kept clean. Workmen start really early and clean up after themselves!! And of course the travel links if you need to get back to the UK for family, or boarding school etc are fantastic. Take your pick of ferry, Eurostar,or air from either Zaventum or Charleroi. Getting to other countries - France, Holland, Germany is dead easy. I've found the weather better than UK, and at the moment the winter (and I know I'm tempting fate here.....) has been really mild - just rain, but no snow.
In terms of 'familiar' schooling there is the International School of Brussels, as well as the British School of Brussels. Both charge exorbitant fees, which are nowhere near justified by the teaching - but of course what you will get is kids that are then able to slot straight back into the UK system, but with better exposure to languages and from my experience greater confidence.
Most people I know live the eastern side of Brussels - Woluwe St Pierre/St Lambert, Audeghem, Wezembeek Oppem etc Lots of expats, lots of parks etc. I would find a school place before signing up for somewhere to live - enrolments are already happening/happned for September. Bonus of course is that Maternelle is free! I beleive some schools will let you do half days at the start, but I think most prefer that the child attends every day. There are lots of reasonably priced language courses available so that might be something to get you out of the house initially. Will PM you.
With a child aged 3, it would be an excellent opportunity to expand ones brain power with the addition of another language or 2 and would be a pity not to take advantage you have not 1 but 2 languages in Brussels officially, even if English is actually spoken more widely and by more of the population than Dutch. Not only does it add to brain power, it might actually be useful to your stay here to avoid the international schools here, in terms of integration and also in terms of your bank balance. Even if you get fees paid for (that's 95% of children at the biggies like BSB and ISB), you might find it hard to keep up with the Little Gym prices and other things that attract the children at international schools.
As for slotting back into the UK system, at age 3 years, I wouldn't even think about it being a problem, because if you went back to the UK with your child aged 6 or 7, you might find them a bit bored for a while, as once primaire starts here, they learn at a far quicker speed than the English national curriculum, so a local school is more likely to pose problems with being ahead rather than behind.
The food vouchers, mainly these are being replaced by electronic cards now. Only Belgian tax regime employees get them, EU and NATO officials don't pay taxes here, they just earn much more on average those who are localised. It's a tax "perk", as Belgian income tax is so high, nearly all Belgian employers pay part of salary tax free with these vouchers, typically a voucher worth 7 euro for each working day. They can be used only against food, in supermarkets and restaurants.
I am leaving Brussels shortly after 8 years so done lots of reflecting on what I like and don't like recently. I would definitely say you will have a great time for 2 or 3 years if you buy into the positives.
I like my DS's international school. I like the parks. I like the restaurants. I like the amount of stuff provided for kids. I liked having babies here ... Good medical care. I love the gym. I love my good friends who I will be sad to leave. I love titres services and getting the ironing done. I love how close we are to other countries. Love the BCT and as an expat the good reason you have for going your phone number to random people you meet at the park.
I dislike the rudeness. The driving. The bureaucracy. The crippling expensiveness of everything. And I am not keen on the supermarkets. And actually sometimes the rudeness and the driving leave me practically in tears. After 8 years and speaking very fluent French.
Speaking personally if you are only coming for 2 or 3 years don't write off all international schools. I have had one son in Belgian school and the other in an international school and I prefer the latter. I have friends, the head is so helpful, I go in to read and help out, I was in the pantomime. It's just lovely. And the staff to pupil ratio allows the teachers to be very nurturing. It's a wonderful school for which I have nothing but praise. And my 5 year old speaks very good French. Not totally fluent but he's fine if we put him into French speaking activities and can chat away.
We sent our second son to Belgian school to try it out. Well I would stick with it in the long term but it's not easy. Firstly it's massive and the facilities aren't great. The teachers are wonderful and do great things with the kids. But my 3 year old is utterly bemused by it because he doesn't speak the language. And there are 2 ferrel kids in his class who chuck stuff about and have even punched me. And this is in a really sought after Brussels school. But because lots of Belgian parents work it's been super hard to try to make friends with other parents. Half of them actively avoid eye contact. Some are defrosting slightly. But it's a struggle. Unlike going straight into coffee and croissants in the library at the international school. As I say, if I had a long stretch here I would persevere as I do see the advantages. But 2 years when yours child is 3? He'll be fine in local school, probably won't retain much French after you leave, but in terms of a social experience for you an international school would probably offer you yourself more. And I speak, as I say, as a long term French speaking resident who had their kids here.
It's a lovely place to spend a few years.
If you're going local, a good idea is to make sure you choose a school with a good mix of nationalities. This can have 2 positive effects on your experience of the local system, might not be so relevant to a long-termer here but for someone here 2-4 years, might make the difference between making the most out of integrating into local school and not.
1) as Belgian parents mainly both work, few are at the school gate for very long. Furthermore, it's an extremely family focused society where weekends are very often taken up with "family", plus friendships are formed often in early childhood - concept of friends from work is not so common here. So it does mean breaking into Belgian circles is not so easy. Foreign parents are, at least in east Brussels, less likely to both work, many trailing spouses. So if you're in a school with a fair few foreigners just like you, you may be able to form a little bubble just like you find around international schools. It can also mean a more open attitude from Belgian parents towards the foreigners in their school. There are plenty of Belgian parents who I say bonjour to each morning, a school where 40% of the children are non Belgian, whereas my nearest school has 10% non Belgian children at the most, at least in primaire, where I know one British parent who admits very few Belgians talk to her (just like Rachel describes above). In our school, the Parents' Association has a high number of non Belgians, and on DIY day each year, the foreign parents, not stuck with their "family" routine on the weekends, are far more numerous than the Belgians - usually about 50 parents turn up, you hear more English, Polish and Spanish than French and the buffet reflects it too, yummy yummy to have those Spaniards!
2) schools with a certain percentage of non francophones get more funding for teachers whose job is to support the integration into class of the newly arrived non French speaking non Belgians. In our school of 19 classes, we currently have 4 "extra" teachers, 1 covers the 7 maternelle classes, the other 3 cover the 12 primaire classes, taking children out of their classes and giving them individual or small group French tuition. The teachers and head are hopefully more used to us foreign parents who might more readily challenge some of the less positive aspects of Belgian schooling.
If you are going for international schooling, do not however think you're going to get a lower pupil-teacher ratio - classes over 25 can be found in the international schools too.
In fairness there seem to be quite a lot of non Belgians at DS2s school. Lots of Spanish and Italian. Met a Bulgarian guy I knew from work the first day. It's just big, and not very friendly. I went to offer "felicitations" to a mum in our class on her very new born baby, as you would, she looked at me as though I had stung her. The place where I have had the best chats with other parents is in the toilet. I am serious. Compare that to DS1 school where I know practically everyone, it's frankly crap. And a lot of hard work. As I say, if I were staying I would stick with it, but if I were coming over for a short period like OP, and if I had a choice, I would pick the international one every time. For myself as much as anything.
But to be reassuring, OP, if you don't have that choice, the Belgian school my DS goes to educationally seems brilliant to me. They do so much with the kids esp since they have so many (there are 34 under 3s in DS class). It's just not friendly.
Some more tips:
Phone and Internet - expect to pay upwards of 45E per month for phone and internet in the house. Cable TV is on top of that. All charge a hefty connection charge (50e plus). The main providers are:
Belgacom - they've largely cornered the market and are everywhere. They let others use their cabling to the house and then charge accordingly.
Check out Telenet, Snow, and VOO. If you're lucky enough to have these in your area then they will work out cheaper. Google their websites for more info and tariffs. You can type in your postcode and it will tell you if they have coverage or not.
In terms of car related info:
If you're going to bring your own UK car over permanently, you will need to MOT and insure it over here. Your UK insurer generally will give you 60 or 90 days driving in Europe but not indefinite. To get car insurance over here you will need to MOT or Controle Technique (CT) it. To CT your UK car, make sure it has continental headlights. Then by law you must have at least third party insurance. But I guess because of the reckless driving, and the number of prangs that people have, car insurance is generally 2 or 3 times what it is in the UK. The one good thing is that you don't have car road tax here...yipee. Petrol is about the same price as in UK - maybe a few pence cheaper.
I've heard lots of horror stories about renting here so do your homework - the properties are generally very nice, but the renting laws tend to be against the tenant i.e normal wear and tear is not considered normal. If the contract states that you need to look after the hedges or trees then the landlord will play on that and it can get very expensive. I was quoted 800euro for mine, which was then reduced to 500e!
The rubbish collection is good!!! ie. different types of rubbish (paper, plastic & tin) need to be placed into different coloured bags which are then collected on specific days. For Green rubbish, you have to buy an annual sticker for your green/garden bin. About 90euro for my area. You used to be able to buy plastic bags in your local supermarket, but I've noticed that they've stopped doing that in my area, and now you need to buy it at the Gemeentehuis (town hall - I guess). The calendar of refuse collection can be got from here as well. Of course once you have to start dealing with the 'council' then that's where the bureaucracy referred to above sets in. In some places (like mine for example), they are not allowed to speak anything other than dutch even tho' they can! and therefore doing even the most simplest things becomes a real chore. And I couldn't agree more with the rudeness referred to above. Sometimes it really makes you want to give them a piece of your mind .
Voo and Telenet are virtually the same price as Belgacom, if you want cheaper, you'll have to go with Scarlet or similar (cut down version owned by Belgacom).
It's simply incorrect to say there is no road tax. All ordinary Belgian residents pay road tax. Only those on special regime do not pay. Road tax is loosely based on size / power of engine, if you drive a Chelsea tractor, you pay for it here!
The information about rubbish is only relevant to that commune. You do not buy any garden rubbish sticker in Brussels region, one place that has this is INTERZA area which is Kraainem, Wezembeek and Zaventem. Rubbish bags are cheaper in Brussels region for ordinary rubbish compared to Vlaams Brabant which surrounds Brussels. The actual recycling system varies from commune to commune.
Wow, thank you all so much! I'm showing my DH this when he returns on Friday (he's meeting and greeting this week) - he has a relocation manager with whom he has to state his preferences with regard to all sorts of aspects of living in Belgium so this is invaluable.
rushingrachel Your comments about Belgian school being "massive" and the facitilies not being great, are hardly applicable to the entire Belgian school system and not exactly helpful to someone about to move here. DS1 is in a lovely school, where there are 2 classes per year, never with more than 20 in a class (he currently has 17 in his class). The facilities are easily as good as in school I know in the UK. International schools have outstanding facilities because they charge outstanding fees, more often than not paid by parents' companies. I know several people wo have their kids in a very well known international school maternelle and I can safely say that the standard of activities and expectations is much better in my son's 1er maternelle class.
My sons Belgian school is massive. 600 kids. And I also said that the they do great things with the kids given the facilities. So was attempting to be balanced. I can of course only speak about the one international school and the one Belgian school I have direct experience of. As can we all.
Also we pay our own fees for the international school because we decided it was best for DS1. We are not wealthy corporate sponsored people. As anyone who knows me would attest.
People rarely come on these boards and say "actually the international schools have great facilities and are nice places where you can develop a good social life". As OP also said she sometimes struggles in social situations I was trying to point out that maybe somewhere all the parents speak her language would be easier if she had the option.
But stuff it, I shall stop trying to be helpful and go back to packing my removal boxes.
And re-reading, where in any of my posts did I make any comments which I expressed to apply to the entire Belgian system, or to any child's or parents experience but my own??!??!!??!!
And herein lies the rub with excellent forums like this. Someone offers advice based on their experiences, and they get shot down for not giving the 'whole' picture. Others wait until someone offers something, and then rubbish the contribution on some 'technicality' - why not front up themselves instead of waiting to rubbish someone else?
The OP has asked for advice to help them in their move.
The beauty of these forum should be that you give your personal experiences and allow the OP to make their own mind up. Just be truthful.
Just to add my experience. I concur with a lot of what Rachel has said. We have been here almost two years and our children attend local french speaking school. It was not an easy transition for us. Standards are very different. There are some positive aspects to the system e.g children are encouraged to be very independent from a young age but there are also negatives in my opinion. The ratio of adults to children is much lower in the maternelle years than in the UK. There is a higher tolerance of rough play in the playground, less supervision and teachers will shout or otherwise negatively discipline children. This is a cultural issue but just to be aware of it. I am by no means a helicopter parent and my children are fairly 'free range' but even I find it hard.
I am now considering whether I can spend another school year here even though my husbands job is great etc. Like Rachel I also really like the parks, facilities for children are great etc. If I could afford to I would have put my children into international school by now. However this is only my experience but I do think it is important to be honest about the reality for some of us!
Good luck with your decision op.
I think it's simply a matter of saying "it's my experience and may not be a reflection of an entire school system".
Bad behaviour in children is NOT exclusive to local schools that's for sure though, it's present in both private and local, same for bullying.
You can get bad and good experiences in both local and private systems, maybe a bit of luck and lots of research will lead you to the best choice for you.
Runningmad, that's what made me mad! I did write "speaking personally" and did highlight that the school DS is in I think educationally excellent. And I did say I might stick with it if we were staying. I did caveat everything I said to make it subjective. And I was genuinely trying to respond to the substance of the OP's post and the fact she would stay for 2-3 years, doesn't speak the language well enough to work here (which I do and have) and is concerned socially she might find it hard. I chose my words very carefully. Always do.
And NadiSel excellent point re bin collections. I love the twice weekly bin collection and the recycling collection.
Good luck OP. Seriously we have had a great time here the last 8 years (DH has been here 10) and so much to love about the city. And so much to do and see.
OP, final word, because we are leaving I am thinking all the time about x playground I must go to because it's right on the metro, y bakery for my favourite baguette, z restaurant my husband has to take me to. It is grey, it's not beautiful and the bureaucracy can be depressing, not to mention the driving. But it's brilliant. Lovely restaurants, lovely delis, lovely facilities. And I so love Antwerp. I allowed myself a coat in Dries Van Noten because we are leaving!
So a final good luck. And should you need any advice about local schools and in particular every way of making the most of the array of activities on offer for kids go to Runningmad. She knows an amazing amount of stuff.
I don't think anyone is meaning bad, just trying to offer caution that there are positives and negatives in all choices and really one person's experience of even an individual school is not the same as another parent's at the same school.
Local schools certainly need lots of research and if I were coming here with limited French and were happy to accept that local schools are not going to bend towards you like international ones might and really really can accept that (if you can't, local schools could be a very very bad idea), then looking for a smaller school, one with a sizable proportion of English speaking parents, a good mix of nationalities, a sizable proportion of the non Belgian parents being non official working, that is going to make settling in far easier for the parent and the child too.
We've been in Brussels for 2 and a half years and are about to move back now.
My almost 3 year old son is at the same French school as Rachel's and I agree with a lot of her points, both positive and negative. I have to say though, after a shaky start, he is very happy there and has really come along in terms of development since starting. The school has also been fine with him only attending in the morning. Friends of mine with children in other local French schools have also had good experiences, as have those with children in the international schools.
I also am not too bothered by the lack of interaction with the other parents as I have made a lot of friends through the BCT who have made up my social circle so I would advise you join up soon after you arrive.
I've given birth in both the UK and Belgium and think, in my experience, the Belgian care, and in particular the aftercare is superior. My pregnancies were not particularly complicated but I would have no worries about that as you can pick your own obstetrician so should be able to find someone with the experience to help you whatever your circumstances.
I found the life of a trailing spouse difficult in terms of feeling very isolated and often frustrated. However, I think this is more down to the fact that I missed working and did not really enjoy being a stay at home mum so I probably would have felt the same in any country. I think Belgium is probably one of the easiest places to be an expat as there are so many of them here.
There are lots of things I'll miss about Belgium, I've found everyone very welcoming and friendly, unless they are behind the wheel of a car or in a customer services role!
Good luck with the move.
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