Top 20 Signs You’ve Been an Expat in Brussels Too Long

By - June 1, 2010 (Updated: December 1, 2014)

Manneken Pis, Brussels, BelgiumBelgium is a quirky little country. After five years of living here I’ve come to love, or at least accept, its eccentricities.

Lately I’ve noticed I now take for granted many things I found strange when I first landed here.  Maybe you’ve had a few of these experiences too. The following is a list of signs that you may be ‘going native’ in Belgium.

Top 20 signs you’ve been an expat in Brussels too long.

  1. You forget words in your native language and use French or Flemish words at random.
  2. You consider grey a colour and consider it a flashy alternative to your entirely black wardrobe.
  3. You’ve just spent over an hour in line at the commune to have one document added to your residency card file. You consider that a successful trip and anticipate you’ll only need  five more visits this month to get your paperwork.
  4. You’ve finally located a grocery shop near your home that’s open on Sundays.
  5. You’ve stopped ordering water in restaurants because it’s too expensive. Now you order beer or wine.
  6. You can walk to the Night Shop at the end of your street without watching every step and still avoid stepping in dog poo.
  7. You think 10am is an acceptable time to drink beer.
  8. You know the French and Flemish names for the major roads and cities and use them interchangeably.
  9. You haven’t eaten in the same restaurant in two years but you still haven’t made a dent in your “Places I Must Eat in Belgium” list.
  10. You don’t think it’s odd to see horse meat for sale at the butcher.
  11. You know that filet Américain is raw beef (although you still can’t fathom why it’s called filet Américain).
  12. You’re not surprised when the shop you are in starts turning off lights 15 minutes before closing time and the shop attendants are standing by the door waiting for you to leave.
  13. You’ve become highly suspicious of people who smile at you on the street.
  14. You can no longer drink coffee without a cookie or piece of chocolate on the side and can’t imagine life without Speculoos.
  15. You get your bread from a vending machine outside the bakery after hours.
  16. You know the difference between a Brussels waffle and a Liège waffle.
  17. You know exactly where to go to get the best: Polish Vodka, Mexican chilies, British cheese, Indian curries and Lebanese Falafel and they are all within walking distance from your house.
  18. You’ve given up looking for a ‘legal’ parking spot and simply abandon your car at night. Acceptable places are: side-walks, cross-walks and loading zones.
  19. You’ve taken every member of your family to see Manneken Pis and the Atomium (and all of your friends from back home to the Delerium Bar).
  20. You’ve added your own sign you’ve been an expat in Brussels to long to the comments section below.

Looking for more resources for living in Belgium? Check out our Expat Resources page.

If you like this, you might like:

Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel photographer and the founder of She is the author of The Foodie Guide to Brussels: Local Tips for Restaurants, Shops, Hotels, and Activities. Alison landed in Belgium in 2005 and, over the years, has become passionate about slow and sustainable travel, in Europe and beyond. She loves to discover hidden gems - be they museums, shops, restaurants, castles, gardens or landscapes, and share them through her words and photos. She has visited 45 countries and is currently slow travelling through North America in an RV, with her husband, Andrew, and two well-travelled cats. You can also follow her work on Google+
- 1 day ago


  1. Comment by Sion @ paris (im)perfect

    Sion @ paris (im)perfect June 1, 2010 at 15:02

    Great list, Alison! Amazing how many similarities there are between Brussels and Paris, actually. 1-5, 12-14, for example (minus the Flemish). Though, gosh, I am really jealous of #17. Amazing ethnic treats are *not* in walking distance for me. Sigh.

    While I’ve gotten used to the no smiling and black wardrobe, I’ve decided to jazz it up a little this year and throw some color back in plus smile whenever I darn well please. The results have been surprising (much better than when I first arrived and looked like a fish out of water. Now I’m *consciously* going against the rules 🙂

    Will be interested to see what other comments people add to the list!

  2. Comment by Alison

    Alison June 1, 2010 at 15:39

    Thanks Sion! I admit, #17 is partly because of where we live in Brussels although I think within Brussels city limits it is pretty multi-cultural in general. Now where we used to live in Flanders, just outside of Brussels… that was a whole different story.

    As for clothing with colour, I tried to fit in at first but I like colours too much so I usually stand out in a crowd (even though I hate standing out anywhere) 😛 I think I do need to go back to smiling at strangers… If nothing else it makes them think you’re up to something 🙂

  3. Comment by Unexpected Traveller

    Unexpected Traveller June 1, 2010 at 17:16

    21 – You feel that a shrug is an appropriate answer to most questions. Even when you’re asking the questions.

    22 – Your first assumption is that people talking on the tram are talking on their phones or to themselves.

    23 – You consider any place that does not do croissants for breakfast as unsavoury. (No pun intended)

    24 – You accept that you may wake up in a different country tomorrow morning for reasons not entirely clear to you.


    • Comment by Alison

      Alison June 1, 2010 at 18:04

      Oh well done. I totally forgot the shrug. It often comes with a ‘phft’ like noise and is the answer to any question.

      • Comment by Jen

        Jen February 20, 2011 at 13:32

        I’ve gotten the “Shrug”! Been here less than a week! ach!!!

        • Comment by Alison

          Alison February 20, 2011 at 15:20

          Haha, you’ll get so used to it you’ll start doing it soon too 🙂

  4. Comment by Nomadic Chick

    Nomadic Chick June 1, 2010 at 19:35

    Haha! What a charming, quirky list. I pictured every single one.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison June 1, 2010 at 20:09

      Quirky is the perfect word to describe this country… But hey, it’s a pretty good description of me too for that matter!

  5. Comment by Laura

    Laura June 1, 2010 at 20:41

    So true! I was thinking about this the other day. I’ve also started shrugging a lot whether speaking English or French; when I go back to the UK people look so confused.

    25. You’ve stopped being surprised by the strange outfits people have chosen to put together; red trousers on men of a certain age seem very normal to you now.

    26. Your automatic reaction to most situations is ‘bof!’

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison June 1, 2010 at 21:22

      Haha YES… doesn’t it feel like we live in a Tintin cartoon some days?

  6. Comment by Andrew

    Andrew June 1, 2010 at 22:21

    Great list! I love #18 🙂 A couple I thought of you could add:

    27. You no longer worry about whether or not there is a government.

    28. You have accepted and embraced priority to the right and other differences in road etiquette.

    29. Frites are a meal. Full stop.

    – Andrew

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison June 2, 2010 at 09:27

      With so many layers of government you’d think they could get one to work… And yes, I didn’t even bother getting into the driving. I must be going native 🙂

    • Comment by Joris

      Joris September 1, 2010 at 20:42

      Actually, as a Brussels resident and native Belgian, I find it’s often priority-to-the-person-who’s-least-afraid-of-crashing-their-car in Brussels… Am I alone in this?

      • Comment by Alison

        Alison September 5, 2010 at 16:22

        In reality that is definitely the way it plays out 🙂 Good point!

        • Comment by François

          François February 11, 2011 at 03:02

          You should check the movie ‘Les Barons'(Brussels movie, Molenbeeks in fact) in which you get a good example of ‘prendre une priorité de droite’ as they call it.

          • Comment by Alison

            Alison February 11, 2011 at 11:22

            Thanks for the tip! I’ll definitely check that out.

  7. Comment by Doris

    Doris June 2, 2010 at 00:50

    This is is a great list. I’ve only been to Belgium once but I’ve been an expat in four countries (USA, Mexico, Costa Rica & now, China). I’ve put together similar lists – sometimes in my head, at others in my blogs – but always as I was about to leave the country. Sounds like you’re in Belgium to stay.

    My favorite is that “grey is a color” — a flashy one at that. Sounds like Northern Ontario where I grew up.

    Doris, The Traveling Boomer

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison June 2, 2010 at 09:34

      Thanks Doris! I love living in Brussels but I’m also starting to get itchy feet so I don’t think we’re here to stay forever. It certainly makes a great base to explore Europe from though! As for grey as a flashy colour, it’s funny because that only really applies to Brussels. Antwerp for example seems to have a lot of colour in the style of dress and it’s only half an hour away!

  8. Comment by Karen van der Zee

    Karen van der Zee June 2, 2010 at 04:29

    Hailing from Holland, and a serial expat, I enjoyed your list! Made me remember that as a child my parents went on a trip to Brussels and brought back as a present a tiny silver Manneke Pis bangle for my bangle necklace! I still have it. It also has a tiny Eiffel Tower, a gondola, and a windmill. No wonder I love to travel!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison June 2, 2010 at 09:30

      Hi Karen! When I was little I had a silver charm bracelet that I collected charms for when we travelled. However as we travelled in an RV it was always North American destinations so I had a Hershey’s Kiss and an Amish buggy among others 🙂 I think it’s great when parents instil that joy of travel in their children though. I definitely thank mine for my travel bug!

  9. Comment by Dallas

    Dallas June 3, 2010 at 13:36

    Your list is great and love the additions in the comments. I’d have to add:

    You don’t look in the refrigerated section of the grocery store for eggs and milk.

    You know that just because you saw something in the grocery store one week, it’s not necessarily going to be there the next.

    You plan an entire day to have a single load of laundry finish in the eco-friendly washer-dryer combo.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison June 4, 2010 at 09:12

      Oh yes! I forgot how much the eggs and milk thing freaked me out at first. For that matter I still don’t buy the UHT milk… And yes, if you see something in the store you may need in the future – BUY IT.

      I’m pretty happy with my washer and dryer here but it does take all day to get through all of our laundry. At our old house it took forever! Plus, the laundry room was in this weird room where you actually had to go OUTSIDE the house to get to. So strange.

  10. Comment by Lee

    Lee June 4, 2010 at 00:26

    re #3: only an hour in line – and then only 5 more trips needed in the month at the commune for some paperwork? What an *incredibly* successful trip – yes, you’re definitely becoming a native. 🙂

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison June 4, 2010 at 09:05

      Very true. Now don’t even ask me about going to the commune in Flanders when we first moved here… I felt like I was in a Kafka novel. 😛

  11. Comment by sherry Ott

    sherry Ott June 6, 2010 at 15:54

    Alison – I can’t WAIT to get there and experience some of this myself…especially the choc. with coffee…and I have to admit – I’m intrigued by the horse meat. I love this idea for a post – I may have to do this for Vietnam!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison June 7, 2010 at 11:19

      The coffee here is so good! As long as you like it strong… But you can always opt for a latte or a lait russe. I haven’t been able to bring myself to eat horse meat but Andrew has and said it basically tastes like steak. I have eaten many meats here that I never would have been open to at home though. I can’t wait to show you a bit of our neighbourhood!

  12. Comment by Mirka

    Mirka June 9, 2010 at 18:34

    Huh, AliTon if you start eating horse meat, don´t tell me about it, or we are no longer friends! There are limits to becoming native to Belgium, ok? :))
    I enjoyed the list immensely, and I am very happy as I found out I am not native here yet, hurray!

    Though, indeed, I have stopped to wonder, why latte is here called lait russe, why the local bread is so thin that you can see through it and that people here drive like mad. It has just become a fact.

    Time for a shrug now, lol.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison June 9, 2010 at 19:30

      Don’t worry. I’ll try many things but I have drawn a line there. I have no idea about the lait russe… I doubt Russians drink coffee that way. And I never get my bread cut here. I just get the bakery not to cut it. Driving…. *sigh*

  13. Comment by Maaike

    Maaike June 16, 2010 at 15:58

    Dear Alison,

    As a native Belgian and a recent resident of Brussels, I really enjoyed reading your list. It made me chuckle many times.

    My boyfriend is a Turkish expat and he also get’s immensely irritated by the bureaucracy and slow-pace of the service sector (if you can call it ‘service’). He recently exchanged his driving license and was told it would take 8 weeks(!) to get the Belgian license. He comically asked the clergy if maybe he was going to Turkey in person to check the legitimacy of his license. The clergy was not amused…

    Other than that, he is hooked on speculoos and chocolate, does not understand why men should have to wear tight colored jeans and tight t-shirts and thinks that, since we bought a car, all Belgians (especially motorists and cyclists) should have their heads examined.

    He is also amazed that shops can afford to close this early in the evening and that they are not open on Sundays. It has happened to us many times that we did the last bit of our shopping in the dark while being carefully watched by disgruntled employees.

    It takes some time to get used to these things, but, you know, *shrug*, that’s Belgium 🙂

    Enjoy the rest of your stay here!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison June 16, 2010 at 16:09

      Thank you so much for your comment Maaike! It’s always fun to get a Belgian perspective. I often wonder how the shops here can make any money on the limited hours they are open but I guess it must be working if they continue to do so. At least when we get frustrated we always have the chocolate to console us 🙂

    • Comment by Jen

      Jen February 20, 2011 at 13:37

      I’ve been here a week and have not yet tried the chocolate… I am SO afraid I am going to love it… as soon as I start I won’t be able to control it…! LOL :-))) I too am awaiting my Belgian ID card and such… ho hum…!

      • Comment by Alison

        Alison February 20, 2011 at 15:21

        Oh the chocolate is the reward for being patient about everything else like the commune 🙂

  14. Comment by MD

    MD June 21, 2010 at 15:33

    You know what “witloof” is and you actually like it.
    You are disgusted at any establishment that neglects to serve beer in the appropriate brewery glasses.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison June 21, 2010 at 15:54

      Oh yes! And you think asparagus should be white and only eaten in May.

  15. Comment by Pond Jumpers: Croatia

    Pond Jumpers: Croatia June 22, 2010 at 13:50

    Awesome post. It is funny how quickly humans adjust to their situation. I’m finally used to a lot of Croatia’s quirks and now I will be starting it all over again in Spain.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison June 22, 2010 at 13:59

      Ah but it’s the quirks that make it all worth it right…? 🙂

  16. Comment by Tavus

    Tavus June 22, 2010 at 14:41

    Number #13 is my fave, I have to say! What is a smile? huh?! I’ve been here for almost two years now, and I still can’t fully get used to not-smiling factor. But, it is strangely starting to become comforting… oh oh

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison June 22, 2010 at 15:09

      Welcome to Cheeseweb Tavus! Thanks for stopping by. Yes, the not smiling thing is really odd. I must admit, when I go home now, I find it overwhelming how smiley and friendly people are… Not a good sign 🙂

  17. Comment by Spoon

    Spoon July 8, 2010 at 15:24

    Ha ha brilliant! I must have been here far too long!

    Mine would also include:

    – A trip to the Sunday market at 9am is actually means a glass of wine with friends

    -All your friends from home have had their photo drinking Kwak (after the Manneken Pis obviously!)

    – You know the difference between Belgian and French escargot – and steer clear!

    – You don’t gulp every time the bill comes at the end of the night – spending €50 on quick bite to eat is nothing!

    – Mayonnaise on your chips has become essential

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison July 8, 2010 at 15:55

      Great additions! I have to admit that I still can’t get down with mayonnaise on my fries. Yuck… but Andrew loves it.

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  19. Comment by Bibi

    Bibi August 27, 2010 at 16:46

    When absurdism is no longer a post modern art, but a way of life

  20. Comment by Milena

    Milena September 26, 2010 at 18:55

    Hello to all!
    I am a native Belgian (from Mechelen, Flanders!) but now I live on the American continent. I enjoyed reading your list! But I would like to say that the ‘not smiling thing’ is something you are more likely to experience in the cities. When you go to the regular villages, believe me, people are much more friendly! 🙂
    And I’d also like to add something to your list:

    -You know everything about biking and don’t find it odd to see red biking lanes on most main streets
    -You don’t find it strange to see that Menus at restaurants can have up to 5 pages filled with the different beers available

    Enjoy your stay! (:

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison September 27, 2010 at 08:56

      Hi Milena! Welcome to CheeseWeb! It’s always nice to hear from the Belgian point-of-view here 🙂 Great additions to the list (although I would say as a resident of Brussels, you have to be crazy to bike in the city as it’s like playing Russian Roulette!)

      • Comment by Milena

        Milena September 30, 2010 at 23:56

        Haha yes in Brussels that’s true for sure! 😉
        However in cities like Mechelen and Antwerpen it’s very common to see more people biking than people driving cars!

      • Comment by François

        François February 11, 2011 at 03:08

        as a regular everyday biker in Brussels I can only say : you just have to be as aggresive as those stressed out car drivers to survive

        • Comment by Alison

          Alison February 11, 2011 at 11:22

          I guess that’s my problem here Francois… I’m just not aggressive enough. I’m too Canadian 🙂

  21. Comment by Irene

    Irene January 4, 2011 at 11:01

    Fantastic list! I’m still considering myself new to Brussels, but lately I have had to visit the commune several times, and I am starting to agree with you on number 3 (frightening, though). Today, I wrote a post about just this administrative nightmare that is Brussels/Belgium and I felt that quoting you summed it up perfectly.

  22. Comment by Alison

    Alison January 4, 2011 at 11:16

    Ah the commune 🙂 The bane of every expat in Belgium’s existence. On the upside, it will give you stories to talk about at dinner parties for years to come 🙂 Best of luck!

  23. Comment by Croadie

    Croadie April 18, 2011 at 21:50

    Alison, what a tonic. I’m here 5 months, and fought it for most of them, the list came as a great reward for perserverance beyond the call of duty! I like the shrug thingy most. I also add:

    Being blunt is as acceptable as being generous.
    Love your work. Thanks Richard

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison April 19, 2011 at 09:43

      Richard, the first six months are definitely the hardest! So good news, only one month until you start to feel settled in here 😉 Bluntness is definitely the Belgian way… on the upside, you always know where you stand with people 🙂

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