I started working in Belgium in 2006 but commuted weekly back to the UK where my family were based; this was stressful, time consuming & costly so when my company offered me and my family to become expatriates (expat) we decided it was the sensible thing to do. I would like to share some tips & advice on making this move as there will be anxieties, worries & traumas especially if you have young children. I will list my top five tips although there are many more.
- Housing - it is likely that your company will give you a housing allowance with a value based on the size of your family & it is highly likely that you will rent a property. There are many websites that show properties for rent but of course many of them will be written in French or Dutch so if you do not have mastery of these languages it will be a challenge. Selecting a property will of course be based on your own preferences but like buying a place location, location & location is the most important aspect. Choose a property that is convenient to your office, the School & shops & facilities but also checkout the neighbourhood. As it was my company that were relocating the family I had to check it out although my wife did all the research and found the place she liked. When you visit the property take a communications device that will let you send pictures & videos back to the family quickly. Beware, in Belgium the law tends to favour the landlord & most landlords have many properties & know all the tricks. Even if you cannot speak the language that the contract is written in, I would advise you to engage a lawyer who can translate it for you so you are fully aware of your obligations & commitments. Be prepared! When we arrived in our new property there were no light fittings, curtains, kitchen units etc. as the landlord is not obliged to supply these and it will cause panic.
- Schooling - Unless your children are pre-school age it will be very difficult for them to go to a local School as they will not be able to speak the local language. When a company turns you into an expat they will normally cover the costs for your children's education at an English-speaking international School. We selected the British School of Brussels which has generally served the children well although it is important to check what direction your children are leaning towards academically as some subject areas perform better than others. The parents of other children at the School are most probably best placed to give you all the advice about living in your new country as they will all have experienced similar problems before.
- Languages - The official languages of Belgium are French & Dutch depending on where you live although there is a small German-speaking community as well. However as the European commission & NATO are based in Brussels most Belgians can speak English. However depending on your commune (area that you reside in) most of your correspondence will be in either French or Dutch and you should try & learn some of the lingo. Quite often the School will provide language lessons for the parents or you can hire your own personal tutor. Even if you do not intend to master a language it is nice to be able to say a few basic things in French or Dutch however it is really difficult to know when you meet somebody what their native language is.
- Utilities & Services - When we first arrived in Belgium information about service providers was not easily discoverable & there was very little information on the internet, this has improved now. Both Mobistar & Telenet offer packages for telephone, internet & television at reasonable prices - beware though customer service is not good in Belgium and whilst some call centres offer English as a language selection you are still likely to be routed to a non-English speaking agent. Most of the major Belgium banks offer Expat packages and seem to be very good, I certainly have had no complaints with ING. If you want to stay in contact with family & friends in your home country I would certainly recommend Skype to keep the phone costs down.
- General advice - Shops do not open on a Sunday in Belgium apart from small convenience stores, this can be a shock & take getting used to if you have come from a 24x7 service orientated country. You cannot cut your grass or make loud noise on Sundays & public holidays which also requires careful planning. You will need to register at your local commune to get a resident's card; I would advise you to take a friend/colleague who can speak the language of the commune as this is one area that the workers have to communicate in the local language.
Becoming an expat can be exciting & let you discover new cultures & make new friends. However it can cause a lot of emotional feelings leaving behind friends & families. I hope the above tips will help you if you are ever asked to go and live in a new country.