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Practical questions on Belgium, from a recent arrival

I'm a long-term American expat. Belgium is the 6th foreign country where I've lived and worked.

A few practical questions, since I'm a bit baffled by my experience here so far:

1.) Why does everything close so early? How does anyone shop when little is open past 6 p.m. and so many places are shut on the weekends? A lot of the banks shut by 4 p.m. and are closed during the lunch hour, which makes them virtually unusable. These are problems that haven't existed in the US since my grandparents' era. Am I missing something? I work in a white-collar IT job, typically 9 a.m.-7 p.m., and I'm finding it exceptionally inconvenient here. I've resorted to ordering a lot of things online, but then the post office isn't open late enough for me to pick up my deliveries, so I'm giving up my lunch hour to pick up boxes (which frequently aren't even at the location stated on the delivery slip). I also can't go swimming after work (as I've grown accustomed to doing everywhere else I've lived) because the pools are shut by 7 p.m. or so. I feel like I'm living in a straightjacket. Does anyone have advice on how to cope with this?

2.) What are my taxes paying for? I'm sacrificing 50% of my pay to the government, yet the local public services barely operate - e.g., the Schaerbeek town hall is only open 9:00-13:00, every visit just leads to more confusion, and every person I speak with gives me conflicting information. The regulations are incredibly complex, but it doesn't seem like anyone understands the regulations they're supposed to enforce. The bureaucracy and paperwork seems excessive and IMHO, mostly pointless. The govt. here is extremely well-funded, so it ought to be the Bugatti Veyron of public services, yet my experience has been the complete opposite. I realize the federal retirement pensions are pretty good and that costs a lot, but other countries operate similar schemes more efficiently. Unlike some Americans, I don't mind paying high taxes, but I expect them to be used effectively, and it strikes me that there's a ton of inefficiency here. Do others feel the same? Are the locals aware of how their money is being used? My French coworkers complain a lot, but the local Belgians seem to shrug it off. What gives? Is there any push to reform the government and improve the efficiency of public services?

3.) How long have others had to wait for their paperwork to get processed? I've been here for over 3 months, yet still don't have my residence permit, parking permit, driver's license, etc. In the UK and New Zealand, it took less than two weeks to process everything and I never had to think about it again. Even South Africa was easier than this. Yet here I feel like I'm running in circles with no end in sight. I have a coworker from Bangalore who's been here for 6 months and is still waiting for some of his documents. Is this a typical / "normal" experience?

4.) Is there any way to get reimbursed for medical expenses before you have your national ID number? I was told I have to register for a mutuelle, but I can't do that till I have my registration documents. Can I get anything back from the government in the meantime? Is it worth the hassle?

5.) Aside from the beautiful architecture, beer, and chocolate, how is everyone else finding it here? Although I fell in love with the place when I visited, I'm starting to doubt my decision to move here.

cbthomas2006 :

I'm a long-term American expat. Belgium is the 6th foreign country where I've lived and worked.

A few practical questions, since I'm a bit baffled by my experience here so far:

1.) Why does everything close so early? How does anyone shop when little is open past 6 p.m. and so many places are shut on the weekends? A lot of the banks shut by 4 p.m. and are closed during the lunch hour, which makes them virtually unusable. These are problems that haven't existed in the US since my grandparents' era. Am I missing something? I work in a white-collar IT job, typically 9 a.m.-7 p.m., and I'm finding it exceptionally inconvenient here. I've resorted to ordering a lot of things online, but then the post office isn't open late enough for me to pick up my deliveries, so I'm giving up my lunch hour to pick up boxes (which frequently aren't even at the location stated on the delivery slip). I also can't go swimming after work (as I've grown accustomed to doing everywhere else I've lived) because the pools are shut by 7 p.m. or so. I feel like I'm living in a straightjacket. Does anyone have advice on how to cope with this?

2.) What are my taxes paying for? I'm sacrificing 50% of my pay to the government, yet the local public services barely operate - e.g., the Schaerbeek town hall is only open 9:00-13:00, every visit just leads to more confusion, and every person I speak with gives me conflicting information. The regulations are incredibly complex, but it doesn't seem like anyone understands the regulations they're supposed to enforce. The bureaucracy and paperwork seems excessive and IMHO, mostly pointless. The govt. here is extremely well-funded, so it ought to be the Bugatti Veyron of public services, yet my experience has been the complete opposite. I realize the federal retirement pensions are pretty good and that costs a lot, but other countries operate similar schemes more efficiently. Unlike some Americans, I don't mind paying high taxes, but I expect them to be used effectively, and it strikes me that there's a ton of inefficiency here. Do others feel the same? Are the locals aware of how their money is being used? My French coworkers complain a lot, but the local Belgians seem to shrug it off. What gives? Is there any push to reform the government and improve the efficiency of public services?

3.) How long have others had to wait for their paperwork to get processed? I've been here for over 3 months, yet still don't have my residence permit, parking permit, driver's license, etc. In the UK and New Zealand, it took less than two weeks to process everything and I never had to think about it again. Even South Africa was easier than this. Yet here I feel like I'm running in circles with no end in sight. I have a coworker from Bangalore who's been here for 6 months and is still waiting for some of his documents. Is this a typical / "normal" experience?

4.) Is there any way to get reimbursed for medical expenses before you have your national ID number? I was told I have to register for a mutuelle, but I can't do that till I have my registration documents. Can I get anything back from the government in the meantime? Is it worth the hassle?

5.) Aside from the beautiful architecture, beer, and chocolate, how is everyone else finding it here? Although I fell in love with the place when I visited, I'm starting to doubt my decision to move here.

Hello fellow American...
Ok  I'm going to cut and paste from your post to answer as many as I can or have experience with so I'm sorry if this is abrupt but here ya go:

1.) "Why does everything close so early?"
Easy answer people care about family time so they go home to be with the kids or S.O.

2) "How does anyone shop when little is open past 6 p.m. and so many places are shut on the weekends?" 
Same as #1.As for the shopping the weekends are good for that. If not then see if a neighbor will accept your packages for you. If not then have them shipped to work. I'm relatively sure if you drop by the mailroom and explain yourself they will understand, if not then get them on the W.E. from the post office after you shop and go to the bank.

3) "A lot of the banks shut by 4 p.m. and are closed during the lunch hour, which makes them virtually unusable."
You are an IT guy and you don't internet bank? Banks are open limited hours on Saturday...

4) "These are problems that haven't existed in the US since my grandparents' era. Am I missing something?"
Yep sorry but you still think like an American. They care about a person and it is a civic protection. And a job that keeps you for 10 hours is virtually unheard of here they don't do that here.

5) " I also can't go swimming after work (as I've grown accustomed to doing everywhere else I've lived) because the pools are shut by 7 p.m. or so." Take some liberty and ask your employer for time or find a place close and swim at lunch... or a pool on the W.E.

6)" I feel like I'm living in a straightjacket. Does anyone have advice on how to cope with this?"
This one is really very easy.... RELAX go to a museum, have a beer (they are really good at beer here), RELAX, Experience some of the culture, RELAX, Do a Brocante on Sundays during the spring summer fall, oh and try to relax a little. This is a culture of easygoing people. They are difficult to get friendly but if you show an initiative and try and learn one of the principle languages(Dutch in the Northern, Either Dutch and or French in Brussels, and French in Walloon they will come around. Even if  you completely massacre the trial... They will see the effort and respond.

7)"What are my taxes paying for? I'm sacrificing 50% of my pay to the government, yet the local public services barely operate."
The Belgian way of life, The healthcare system, The fact that healthcare here costs almost nothing and once part of a mutual you will be reimbursed 60-80 percent of your copay and for me my mutual payment is 40€ every 3 months. The communes are a force unto themselves... Some are worse than others... Can't really help you there. Mine is the same and I work for another Commune which isn't much better than mine...As for complaining IMHO just don't do it it will only make it worse... Comparing here to there is apples to oranges... Not a good idea it will only piss you off or stress you out. There are 250ish Senators and Representatives here there are 1500. Government is SLOW here.

8)How long have others had to wait for their paperwork to get processed?
I waited 9 months to get my residency paperwork approved as a cohabitant. Others will vary to your specifics and Commune... I waited 8 months to get my F+ id card approved just this last time(I changed form F to F+)meaning more than 5 years a resident .

9) I have a coworker from Bangalore who's been here for 6 months and is still waiting for some of his documents. Is this a typical / "normal" experience?
Yep nothing new to see here. Have I given you the advice to relax and have a beer yet?...

10) Is there any way to get reimbursed for medical expenses before you have your national ID number? I was told I have to register for a mutuelle, but I can't do that till I have my registration documents. Can I get anything back from the government in the meantime? Is it worth the hassle?
Have you saved the green or white doctors receipts? If so then after everything processes send them to your Mutuelle and you will get usually around 60-80 percent back.

11) Aside from the beautiful architecture, beer, and chocolate, how is everyone else finding it here?
Me I love it. It will be different for everyone but you will get out what you put in.

Not to be a complete a-hole but you sound like the typical American who thinks this place will change to make YOU happy and it is the other way around... YOU will need to change what is needed in yourself to get happy... or you will leave. These are proud and for the most part wonderful people. Treat them as such and stop complaining. Go have a beer and if you need someone to talk to I'm there just drop me an email or send a friend request (FB). I shouldn't be too hard to find (hpbourguignon) but like most of the people here Family is first for me. I lived the rat-race life for 30years and had nothing to show for it. Now I live here with a woman I adore and in a laid back relaxed atmosphere I truly appreciate.

Adjust and stop the comparisons between countries.  Zipper gave great advice.  I've been here for almost 8 years and quickly learned complaining and comparing doesn't help matters.  Adapt and embrace as quickly as possible.  You can always send me a PM and vent to me if you like.  I don't recommend venting to the locals here.  It could or probably will be viewed as an insult.  If they ask you how you like it here tell them it is marvelous....splendid; don't tell them what you've jut told us.  Good luck.

Thanks for the input, Zipper. This confirmed some of my suspicions, and that I hadn't missed some secret the locals know about getting things done outside of work.

"As for the shopping the weekends are good for that. If not then see if a neighbor will accept your packages for you. If not then have them shipped to work. I'm relatively sure if you drop by the mailroom and explain yourself they will understand,"

I travel a lot on the weekends, hence Saturday isn't always the most convenient time to shop. (And have you been to Ikea on a Saturday? It's like Black Friday, every week.) Sunday closures I can get around by shopping in bulk. The office mail room is a very good idea since the postal service isn't very consistent.

"You are an IT guy and you don't internet bank? Banks are open limited hours on Saturday..."

I do for most things, but some, like foreign wire transfers, aren't allowed, hence I need to schedule a vit. Again, Saturdays IMHO should be for things besides errands, which aren't relaxing for me.

"that job that keeps you for 10 hours is virtually unheard of here they don't do that here."

Well, now you've heard of it! ;) Good to know, though, and kind of what I expected to hear - the society isn't geared up for this type of profession. For what it's worth, the work culture at my current client is pretty much the same as everywhere else I've worked, from the US to New Zealand to Japan to South Africa. Projects operate on high budgets and short timelines, so long(ish) hours are unavoidable, period.

"Take some liberty and ask your employer for time or find a place close and swim at lunch... or a pool on the W.E."

That's a liberty I don't have, unfortunately - I'm lucky if I can spare a 20-minute lunch break to shovel down a sandwich from the cafeteria. Saturday is OK for shopping, but many places are mobbed (I suppose because we all face the same work-week constraints, at least to an extent). Sunday shopping would be welcome but seems hard to come by, although thankfully the nearby Polish and Portuguese grocers are open.

"Try to relax a little. This is a culture of easygoing people."

Happy for you. Not at my job, unfortunately. They're as intense and cut-throat here as on any American IT team (and they're almost entirely Belgian & French). Also, relaxing can include more than just having a beer, although I can't really argue that point as the beer is top-notch. ;)

"They are difficult to get friendly but if you show an initiative and try and learn one of the principle languages(Dutch in the Northern, Either Dutch and or French in Brussels, and French in Walloon they will come around."

My French is coming along well, thanks to being immersed in all-day meetings where they refused to speak English on account of my not being important enough yet to justify switching. Glad I studied before arriving. Still, it's sink or swim - je n'ai q'un choix. It's actually a really good opportunity. My Dutch is lagging but also improving.

"once part of a mutual you will be reimbursed 60-80 percent of your copay."

That's actually not that great, considering the Belgian tax rates. My last US PPO covered 90% after a $100 deductible, and I was never forced to pay for anything up front. And the taxes are dramatically lower, and my monthly payment was about like yours. In the UK (where taxes are also much lower than Belgium) a visit to the GP costs £0 (seriously), and there's no paperwork to submit for reimbursement. Just walk in, walk out, done. Reimbursements are a concern for me in Belgium, as I had a recent shoulder surgery and it may need more work. Do all medical costs, including things like MRIs, have to be paid up front?

"Government is SLOW here."

Good to know. I'm glad it's not because I botched something horribly.

"I waited 9 months to get my residency paperwork approved as a cohabitant."

Wow. So that's 9 months without any opportunity for medical reimbursements? Great if you have a perfect bill of health, or else a lot of spare cash saved up for more costly procedures. How long does it take to get a reimbursement, provided your residence permit has been issued and you have a mutuelle?

"Have you saved the green or white doctors receipts? If so then after everything processes send them to your Mutuelle and you will get usually around 60-80 percent."

Yup, all saved. Thanks for confirming that I can submit them retroactively.

"Not to be a complete a-hole but you sound like the typical American who thinks this place will change to make YOU happy and it is the other way around... YOU will need to change what is needed in yourself to get happy... or you will leave."

It's certainly not my intent to tell Belgians how to run their country, nor to expect the society to adapt to me. It's more of a wake-up call on all the conveniences I've come to rely on and take for granted. In this line of work, it's virtually impossible to do anything other than work during business hours, hence having access to shopping, post offices,, swimming pools and other services in the evening is essential. It caught me by surprise that things don't operate on that model here, but I realise I made an assumption. I can appreciate wanting to escape the rat race, but if I quit my job, I lose my right to stay here. (Maybe if I marry a local gal things will change, but that's a very big "what if"). As for your last point... I'd hate to bail on Belgium, as I want to give it a chance and I've never left a country before the end of an assignment. Still, the thought of leaving lingers in the back of my mind... time will tell.

Cheers,
Clayton

Thanks for the response, Liebelle.

"Adapt and embrace as quickly as possible."
Good general advice, but do you have any specific suggestions? The difficulty for me is the practical constraints set by my job. I have zero free time from the moment I arrive at the office to when I leave, 10+ hours later. By the time I go home, it might be 8 p.m. I like to swim after work as it's the only fitness I can get with my wonky knee. In the UK - both London and Manchester - the swimming pools were open till 10 p.m., and the grocers were open till 11 p.m., with larger mega-marts being open 24/7, so I had little trouble doing what I needed to, even when I worked late. It's easy to say "plan ahead", but my work schedule leaves me scrambling to run even one errand before everything shuts.

"I don't recommend venting to the locals here.  It could or probably will be viewed as an insult."
I'll bear that in mind, as I've already fumed about the local govt offices wasting so much of my time, sending me in circles, etc. I'll try to keep it to myself next time. Then again, there's a fine line - I do think the Belgian government is in serious need of reform, given the inefficiencies, so part of me wants to shout it from the rooftops if it can lead to something productive. After all, the bureaucratic deficiencies don't benefit Belgians any more than they benefit me, and when half my salary is disappearing out of every paycheck, I want to see it used well. When it goes to paper-pushers who don't even understand their own regulations, it irks me and I want to say something to those who have the power to change it (i.e. the locals). But I guess it's all in how it's spun in presentation...

Just to let you know I'm available on occasion to grab a beer or two if you need someone to vent to. I don't know if it is possible as I work in Waterloo(1410) and live in Chastre(1450), and rarely get to Brussels. I think in the 8 years I've lived here I've been maybe 7 times including the entry by the train station...

Also it was not meant in a hostile manner when I made the responses. Just what I read into with the words and manner you used to communicate your distress... This really is a very beautiful country. If you ever get the time to visit some of the Castles and Abbeys(especially the brewing Abbeys) it is well worth it. Your schedule permitting of course. They in my opinion are a "not to be missed" event.

" (Maybe if I marry a local gal things will change, but that's a very big "what if")."
Can't help you there I've known my fiancé for 32 years and only recently(8yrs) became involved after a 25 yr hiatus.  Also wasn't suggesting you quit your job but maybe passively browse for something a little more relaxed, emphasis on passive due to your schedule and work environment.


"That's actually not that great, considering the Belgian tax rates. My last US PPO covered 90% after a $100 deductible, and I was never forced to pay for anything up front. And the taxes are dramatically lower, and my monthly payment was about like yours."
What is your average monthly insurance payment if I may ask? When I was in the US mine was $700 a month. Here mine is 35€ every 3 months for the mutuelle, plus the copay at the doctor that gets 60-80 percent refunded by the government through the mutuelle.. That is also one of the things your taxes are paying for...

Reasonably sure it would have the opposite effect if you shouted for reform...LOL Might also have the effect of instant transfer by your company so they are not seen as harboring a troublemaker...lol And last but not least would blatantly mark you for the "bottom of the pile for infinity" treatment... That would however get you noticed, but not in the best light...lol

Regards,
Howard

You've obviously chosen the wrong place to live in Brussels. Move to WSL, WSP or Etterbeek where the commune offcials are efficient. The swimming pools are open long hours too.

Go to a mutuelle and register, demand your national number which will already exist. As you are on a high salary (my tax burden is half yours as you earn more than me), just pay your medical bills and get a refund once registration is done.

Hey Howard, no doubt Belgium is a beautiful place. I fell in love with it when I first visited, a year or so ago... which is why I jumped at the opportunity to move here.

Regarding the health insurance, I checked my paychecks and my last deductible while in the US (on an Aetna plan) was $23.49/mo for medical and $1.90/mo for dental. In the UK, I had a supplemental private plan which cost me about £12/mo. I take it you are/were self-employed? US premiums are horrible if you have to pay the full amount yourself.

Hey Clayton,
8 years ago I'm sure things were different. I left before the Obamacare came into effect. I worked for the State and we paid $700 a month for the health care. I paid an additional $600 for my daughter, on a salary of $3000 gross so it stung a little. When I moved here the premiums were a refreshing surprise...

Well, I've decided to call it quits on Belgium. I'm moving to England in July - can't wait to go. Thanks to everyone for your input, anyway. It was worth a try.

No shame in that.  Good luck in England.

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