It’s been eleven days since I arrived in Brussels to start my new life. In some respects the move has felt seamless, natural and entirely without stress: We found an area we loved and wanted to live in almost immediately (Chatelain, where our temporary accommodation is located), established some social connections (my partner’s work colleagues, a friend from Twitter who has also recently moved here and a friend of a friend who has been here since June) and had drinks with them, and spent two sunny weekend days exploring the city on foot and discovering such wonderful delights as the Flagey and Gare du Midi markets and the Bois de la Cambre park. I even found and attended a writing group meet up on Sunday where I met ten delightful people and had a great two hour writing and chatting session, culminating in the agreement to meet at the same time next week for more of the same.
In other respects, however, things have run less smoothly. Take the house search, for example. We were hugely fortunate to have assistance from my partner’s company in negotiating the complicated housing rental system here in Belgium. With one day of agency time allocated, we were careful to hone our search criteria to ensure we only viewed places that we would definitely consider. In practice filling the day was harder than anticipated, since one of our search criteria was a furnished flat, and furnished flats in Brussels are, as we learned, not the norm. In the end we viewed six flats, two of which were my partner’s colleagues’ places that were soon to be vacated – the only downside being they would be left unfurnished. Ordinarily I’d be up for the challenge of furnishing a flat from scratch, but with no income until the end of December on my part we had to consider the initial financial outlay that kitting out a flat (light fittings and all – when they say unfurnished in Belgium, they really mean it) would entail.
In the end we fell head over heels in love with a beautifully decorated flat on Avenue Louise (very close to Chatelain) - an incredible find that fell just (and I mean just) inside the top end of our budget, and if anything could be referred to as ‘hyper-equipped’ where furnishings are concerned (one issue being where my own pieces of furniture will fit, but where there’s a will there is most definitely a way). So far so good, you might think. And so did we. Until we spent three hours in hard negotiations in the estate agent’s office, after it was revealed the initial pricing had been calculated incorrectly on their part, meaning the owners wanted (understandably) to raise the total monthly amount. Already at the top of our budget this was not something we could agree to, and as we sat nervously listening to the heated discussion in French I felt the flat slipping away from us. Fortunately, however, our terrier of a relocation agent managed to convince the owners to fix the rate just slightly higher than originally stated (taking us just over our budget), and all parties signed the contract before leaving the office at 7pm, exhausted.
It’s not just the housing situation that has proved tricky for my Anglicised brain to navigate. A few days into being here I froze in Carrefour Express, the local supermarket, mixing up Euros and Pounds in my mind and convincing myself for a few distressing moments that everything was ludicrously expensive. Then, when I read my new work contract (I start a week next Monday) it dawned on me how much of my initially healthy looking salary would be taken by the tax man (over 50%, I believe, including the social tax we found out about last week) and I felt my heart sink: Just why had we moved to a country where we would be worse off financially than we were in England? But of course, as with everything in Belgium, it’s not as simple as that. Here, the take home pay may be less, but there are numerous benefits to most salary packages including healthcare costs and ’meal vouchers.’ Additionally, here you don’t pay national insurance from your take home pay as it’s covered in the taxes. And let’s face it, the living costs are less than in London (this being particularly evident in the cost of renting property – we would never have been able to afford such a nice flat in London – and the cost of booze – 3 Euros for a glass of nice red wine in a restaurant and 5 Euros for a bottle of Chianti in the supermarket? Yes please). So as my boyfriend says, you can’t directly compare salaries here to salaries at home, it just doesn’t work like that.
One thing I particularly like here is the trams. I know that sounds odd, but I’ve always liked their old school charm and it’s pleasing to see them trundling along the roads with their bells tinkling (I may feel differently about this once we’ve moved into our apartment on the busy Avenue Louise and we’re kept awake by them night after night…). I also love the fact there is so much green space just a stone’s throw away. The Bois de la Cambre park is just 20 minutes’ walk from our temporary accommodation and it has a beautiful lake where you can hire rowing boats. Closer than that is a small park called Tenbosch which has lush gardens and a gorgeous play area for children. I also love the cosmopolitan vibe in Chatelain, where every Wednesday they have a market that goes on until the early evening and brings folk from far and wide, who afterwards sip Aperol at street-side cafes and discuss the day. It’s very civilised and tres, tres chic.
It’s taking me a while to get used to the fact that service is often painfully slow here compared to London. Sometimes you have to ask the waiter two or three times to take your order, which can be frustrating. My GCSE French isn’t up to much so I’m grateful most people speak English, although I feel the need to get up to speed so I can at least converse on a basic level. Frustratingly I’m finding that often when trying to think of French words I’m muddling them up with Italian – last week in Flagey market I switched, mid-sentence, from French to Italian (to be fair I was confused by the label on the ham – ‘prosciutto cotto’ is Italian!), leaving a very bemused looking market trader to work out what I was saying. Speaking of languages, I’m also embarrassed to admit I’m missing English TV and radio, which I realise now have always been comforting crutches to me, though I can hardly blame Belgium for that. It’s going to take time to adjust, but I’d say that on the whole I’m doing pretty damn well.