Tips for living in Belgium: American expat Sarah shares her experiences

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Sarah Steegar

-Where were you born?
North Carolina, The US of A

-In which country and city are you living now?

Brussels, Belgium

-Are you living alone or with your family?

With my (English) boyfriend

-How long have you been living in Belgium?
Four years in Belgium, one year of which is with him.

-What is your age?
31

-When did you come up with the idea of living in Belgium?
I wanted to move back to Europe, after spending a year in France in university. I decided to pursue a Master’s here. Belgium was not my first choice, but it worked out to be the best for various practical reasons (spoken languages, academic programs offered, location, cost of living).

-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?
Belgian bureaucracy is as bad as it comes. That means it’s often difficult to do things the right way. It also means there are a lot of people who are able to work around the laws (employers and employees alike.) Thus, be careful what you agree to.) I know many people who work without the proper papers, and Belgium doesn’t seem to care. But they also don’t have the protection of the Belgian laws over the conditions of their “contracts”.

My student visa was a real pain in the butt to get, but it’s just a matter of jumping through the hoops. Seriously, I cannot tell you how malfunctioning the rules are. Everyone tells you something different, much of it ridiculous. You just have to keep jumping the rings of fire.

Since graduating, I haven’t had a visa or work permit (for the past two years) but my situation is a little unique. As an international flight attendant, I commute to my work in America (2 weeks max/month). I have been trying to renew my residence for the past year, with no result as of yet. The wait is at least 18 months and counting. I have even had trouble finding an immigration lawyer to help. I’m quite sure my file is sitting somewhere gathering dust, but since no one answers the phone (and the bureaucrats are behind protective glass! :) what can ya do but wait?

-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?

No. Medical care and insurance are great here. It was easily obtained as a student, and now the health insurance is covering me for treatments, even though I haven’t gotten residence back yet. That’s one area they’ve been very understanding.

-How do you make your living in Belgium? Do you have any type of income generated?
As mentioned above, I just kept my American job and I commute home when needed.

My original intent was to leave my US job and obtain a “normal” job in Belgium. However, between the lower salaries and higher taxes, even with the terrible exchange rate, I would have been making an average of 33% less to work twice as much. So I decided to keep my old job.

I have occasionally performed contract jobs that I received via contacts that I made in school and during my internship. I could probably obtain more contracts if I solicited to appropriate organizations. These contracts are arranged legally by considering me a “consultant” that is based out of America.

Unsolicited applications are very useful in Belgium. That is often how hirings are done. Also, a good job site is Eurobrussels.com.

-Do you speak the local language and do you think it's important to speak the local language?
The first thing to remember is that Belgium is broken up into different language groups: French, Dutch (Flemish) and German. Particularly between the Dutch and French speakers, there is a lot of tension. Making your way around Belgium with as little offense as possible means not speaking the wrong language to the wrong people. (Although the worst that will happen is a dirty look, which you might get anyway!) English is a neutral language for everyone, so is useful and widely accepted.

I do speak French fluently, as well as quite a bit of Dutch. To be honest, I don’t use either as much as I’d like to. There are so many internationals in Brussels that French is rarely a real necessity. It helps to be able to say what you need in a pinch, but that doesn’t happen everyday. Basic French will get you far. If you live in the Flemish part, you don’t need anything but English for day to day living. Don’t forget though, speaking French in the Dutch part will not earn you a warm reception (and vice-versa, although the Dutch speakers will at least be able to speak to you in French. The French speakers will not even understand Dutch, or likely anything else except maybe English.)

The local languages will often be necessary for work however. In the French-speaking part (other than Brussels) French is definitely necessary. They are much less likely to speak English there. In Brussels, however, there are quite a few jobs that require only English in the international sector. At least French is always a plus though.

No matter where you are in the country, even if you don’t “need” the language, you will never really make a permanent life here with local citizens if you don’t at least attempt to learn and speak a minimum. Belgians are a tight group. Most of them have had the same friends their whole life. Many of them don’t feel like they “need” any new friends, so will not bend over backwards to bring a newcomer that doesn’t speak their language into the fold.

-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
I’ve been here long enough that even though I love it, the “honeymoon” stage has worn off. There are as many things that annoy me about Belgian life as there are about American life. I only miss some things about America now that I’ve been here for four years. No place is perfect. I have no real pull to move back, but doing so would be fine as well.

Recreationally, Belgium is much better for traveling. There are numerous places and things to see all possible on a weekend trip. There are also many many cultural activities to partake in, and the locals do so. Belgium is particularly strong in the summer music festival scene. Marktrock, Rock Werchter, PikkelPop, etc. It’s definitely the place to be if you like music.

-Do you have other plans for the future?

Yes, but who knows. My boyfriend’s job here is over soon and he wants to try America. I have some business plans and continental Europe is not nearly as friendly to entrepreneurs as the US or UK. So we will definitely go to the US or England if we decide to do the business.

Travel? Always. We go somewhere practically every weekend. I’ll miss that ease once we’re back in the US, but I am sure we will return to Europe at least once a year, if not move back eventually. It would be hard to leave permanently.

-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
We rent. I was planning to buy when certain personal situations meant I needed the money for something else. However, Belgium is a great value. Brussels is a particularly strong market, though it’s rising fast. The options in my price range have diminished a lot even in the last year or two. A year ago, the average price to buy was 200 euros/sq. meter. Quite good. Property taxes are generally quite low and there are extremely low or, often, no maintenance fees.

We rent in the commune of Ixelles (or Elsene in Dutch), which is the most popular with expats. It’s just south of the old center and generally considered a “posh” area, but there are really a lot of options here. We have a big, beautiful one bedroom for 680 euros/month, which is a little high for an unfurnished place. You could find better deals. Friends of mine had a loft, twice the size of our place, for 900/month.

If you are interested in renting a room in a shared, furnished apartment, anything other than a student place will be tough to find under 400 euros/month. Unfurnished places are generally easy to find and easier to afford as rentals.

-What is the cost of living in Belgium?

Even though the Euro is so strong right now, the cost of living in Brussels is very affordable. As mentioned, we spend 680 on rent. An average, good restaurant will run you an average of 30 euros per person, for starter, main course and a drink or two. We probably spend 500 euros a month on food for two of us. Public transport is good and there is no need for a car. Bus/metro rides can be had for 1.10 euros if you buy in advance. The train system is the most extensive in Europe and is very affordable. It is difficult to find a one way ticket inside the country for more than 15-20 euros.

Last I heard, Brussels was considered the “most affordable Western European capital.”

-What do you think about the Belgians?

It varies a lot around the country. Generally Belgians are very accustomed to foreigners, particularly with the EU capital in Brussels, and don’t mind them. You won’t find any hostility, but you won’t find particular warmth at first either. Belgians are very cold at first. I find strangers on the street and customer service to be very rude (worse than the Paris stereotype). But, once you get past their exterior, they are the truest, most loyal, generous and dependable friends ever.

However, to be honest, I imagine it is a lot easier for me here as a white Anglo. Belgium has been known in recent years for problems with xenophobia when it comes to some others.

-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Belgium?

The negatives are the difficulty of breaking the locals’ outer shell, often extreme rudeness in customer service, horribly defunct bureaucracy. No one, in a professional capacity, answers or returns telephone calls or emails, even when you need something very important. Living here requires some aggressiveness and a lot of patience.

Positively, however, my Belgian friends will be friends forever, I’ve no doubt of that. The linguistic and nearby cultural richness is hard to beat. It is not expensive. Its small size means everything is manageable and it is not unusual to bump into people you know even on the other side of the country. You are sure to have personal connections with some people in Brussels, whether or not you know it now. “All expats’ roads lead to Brussels, at some point”, it seems.

-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Belgium?
Definitely try to learn a little of the languages. Though not a necessity, it will help. Otherwise, just have a lot of patience and you’ll be fine. The expat community is large and friendly and you will have yourself a social group in no time (even though it will be dynamic, as people are always coming and going).

-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Belgium?

steegar.wordpress.com
–My blog about cultural observations of living and traveling in and around Belgium

www.eracareers-belgium.be
-The Belgian portal of a European wide program to improve mobility. Aimed at researchers but useful for everyone. (There is a related site for every country.) This site also has a link for your emails/questions for assistance if you need it. (One of the few places that will ever answer your requests for information in Belgium, so this is very valuable.)

www.xpats.com
-Another xpat site, a little more casual and community-focused than expatica. The marketplace is especially useful to find temporary housing and items being sold by other xpats, many who are selling their households before leaving, so prices are good!

www.expatica.be
-Popular and useful expat website