10 Things I’ve Learned Living in Brussels, Belgium

By - May 24, 2013 (Updated: December 1, 2016)

10 things I've learned living in Brussels Belgium Belgium is a quirky place. Those of us, who have been expats here for a while, forget just how strange it can seem to newcomers. Today, our guest contributor, Laura, shares her observations, after a year of living in Brussels.

After a year of being Brussels-based, I thought it was time to reflect (light-heartedly) on life in this Low Country…

1. The weather is mental. I stepped off the Eurostar in August 2012 and walked slap-bang into the midst of the most extreme (and perhaps only) heat-wave Belgium has ever seen. It was so hot I nearly wept – oh, OK, who am I kidding? – I did weep, silently, in a toilet cubicle in Cafe Belga, with my face pressed against the relative coolness of the PVC-coated chipboard.

But then fast-forward to the weeks of snow; I didn’t see pavements for a month. And the rain – God, the rain. I’ve seen it all, in its many, many forms and, from experience, deceptively-potent drizzle is my least favourite. Today, as I write, we’re preparing for a barbecue. Temperatures are practically tepid. Tomorrow, the forecast predicts a fat-dropped downpour. When will this madness end?

2. Belgians LOVE their paperwork. It’s no secret Belgians are a bureaucratic breed, with a special place in their hearts reserved for important bits of paper, signatures, police-checks and official stamps. But I didn’t truly get it. Then I had a conversation with Admin Assistant X (I preserve her identity only because I’m frightened she might track me down and finish me off), in the joyless basement of Etterbeek Commune, which I can only liken to being savaged by something small and nasty like, say, a stoat.

Belgians love their paperwork

Belgians love their paperwork

Lesson learnt: forget any important document you’ve accumulated at any point – since the dawn of time – passport, rental agreement, Tesco clubcard, swimming certificates – at your DOOM.

3. Belgian beer and bar snacks are a triumph of simplicity over fussiness. But after a dispiriting onslaught of civil administration there’s always the beer, the bar snacks and the realisation that a 5% half-pint and a plate of cubed cheese, celery salt and mustard is an entirely appropriate evening meal. Highs and lows.

4. The eye-watering expense of groceries/mid-week essentials in the European Quarter.  Have you ever bought a pepper in the Carrefour Express near Place Lux? I don’t advise it. It will cost you approximately €47.

5. Mannkein Pis is perhaps the strangest tourist site in northern Europe. A test: try to explain it to someone who’s never been to Brussels.

Just try to explain this guy to your friends...

Just try to explain this guy to your friends…

You: And then there’s Mannekin Pis. It’s one of Brussels’ most famous landmarks.

Friend: Oh, sounds wonderful. What is it? A natural phenomenon? An architectural feat?

You: It’s a statue.

Friend: Neo-classical, is it? Or something in the art nouveau style, perhaps?

You: Well no, not really. It’s a micturating child.

Friend: A what?

You: A child. A boy. Peeing.

Friend: What?

You: It sums up the rebellious and convivial spirit of the Belgian people. And sometimes he’s dressed up.

Friend: As what?

You: Oh, you know. Elvis. St Nicholas. Once he was decked in the garb of an African farmer and urinated milk.

It makes you sound like a raving lunatic.

6. That nothing strikes fear in me quite like the sight of STIB inspectors getting onto the Metro. Even when I know – I know – my ticket has been validated. Is it just me?

7. Street Parades. Marching Bands. Incredible moustaches. Everywhere. All the time. From April to September, walk down any central Brussels street and chances are you’ll come across one of these. If you’re lucky, you might just find yourself presented with all three.

8. Bizarre Shop Window Displays. Public holiday, pagan festival, whatever: Belgian shopkeepers seem to take great pride in creating incongruous window displays to commemorate the occasion. Easter eggs and spectacle frames. Hair extensions and fluffy yellow chicks. Sun-faded crossword books and Santa hats. A particularly endearing Belgian peculiarity.

9. Graffiti Pencils. They’re everywhere. The Brussels Runners even did a Brussels Marathon Pencil tour of the 70-odd graffiti pencils all over the city. Some are raunchy, some are sweet and some are…well, odd. Look out, look up and peer over bridges to try to spot the hidden ones.

10. The absence of any kind of ‘Health and Safety’. My dad – a man who has been engaged for his whole life in the kind of hard, physical work that makes me ashamed of my soft hands – visited Brussels last September. Surveying the scene as workmen dug up our road, he shook his head, mystified. ‘Not a single helmet, no goggles, no ear protection,’ he mused. Next time he comes, I’m going to take him to Schuman station for an extra-special treat.

Hard hats in Brussels... unlikely.

Hard hats in Brussels… unlikely.

Do any of these ring true? What other eccentricities have you noticed? What intrigued/frustrated/delighted  in your early days of Brussels living? I’d love to know…

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

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10 Things I've learned as an expat living in Brussels, Belgium

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Laura is a teacher and freelance writer who left the North of England for Brussels in the summer of 2012. Currently, she's working on her first novel and writes bits and pieces here and there to keep up her stamina. Her favourite things include Desert Island Discs, maudlin Irish folk songs and imitating people's accents. You can read more from Laura at Parliament of Owls.


  1. Comment by Sebastian


    Sebastian May 24, 2013 at 14:04

    Yeah, very funny….
    You forgot
    – the multi-layered Administration and the strong labour unions which bring down regularly with their ridiculous strikes the entire City.
    – the dog sh!t and the great amount of rubbish you can find on one sqm pavement (did you ever ask yourself for which reason you pay taxes? See above!)
    – the incapability of any Administration to get in control the traffic….and dont get me started about the great (!) Services of the stib….
    – safety….hmmmm….it seems you Need to stay a bit longer in Brussels that you can include in your list your first mugging experience….cf incompetent Police cf taxes above!

    for the weather this Country is innocent – for the rest NOT!

  2. Comment by Mireille Laguerre


    Mireille Laguerre May 24, 2013 at 14:27

    Nothing was said about “les bonnes frites”George

  3. Comment by MissRubyBxl


    MissRubyBxl May 24, 2013 at 16:13

    For me 2 things worth mentioning:
    – the ankle breaking cobbled street – ok it looks nice but what about my 100 pair of high heels bought in London that I definitely cannot wear over here?
    – the non existent customer service when calling a company: try to complain about something, the person at the other end clearly doesn’t give a … damn?! 😉 and when threatening to go to the competition, the answer is roughly: ah ok, fine…!

  4. Comment by lievemc


    lievemc May 24, 2013 at 16:21

    1. As a Belgian ex-pat living in the States (and having also lived in the North of England previously), I must say you’ve got it spot on. I”m surprised you forgot about the statue of the peeing girl!

    2. Also, it helps if you have a ‘friend’ in administration – all of a sudden you are first in line!

    3. And Sebastian, funny (well not funny at all!) I got mugged in Brussels – the police (in French – I am Flemish) were less than sympathetic because I reported it the next day, not on the same evening – well, I was too SCARED to go out again and didn’t have a phone (not installed because of the 6 month waiting list in 1982 – but see number 2 above, I got one pretty quickly after that. Yes, youngsters, this was before everyone had a cell phone).

    Looking forward to more of your musings, Laura!

  5. Comment by Laura


    Laura May 24, 2013 at 16:26

    Oh, the dog fouling. Indeed. It was too…well, foul to write about.

  6. Comment by Dieter Quartier


    Dieter Quartier May 24, 2013 at 16:53

    Interesting to read how Belgium is perceived by a foreigner. Puts a smile of recognition on my face… However, this perception is essentially based on life in Brussels, and Brussels does not equal Belgium, just as London does not equal the UK and Paris does not equal France. My advice: get out of the City once in a while and be amazed at how other Belgian cities (Ghent, Antwerp, Namur,…) are totally different. Less chaotic. Less corrupted. More authentic. More charming.

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison May 25, 2013 at 12:16

      Very true Dieter. That’s why the title states Brussels and not just Belgium. One of our missions at CheeseWeb is to encourage expats (and locals too!) to get out and explore the rest of this amazing little country. Glad you agree with us!

  7. Comment by Valia


    Valia May 24, 2013 at 19:07

    Impeccable post! Laughed so hard!

  8. Comment by Brusselsproust


    Brusselsproust May 24, 2013 at 21:19

    I do not comprehend. I zink all zeze tings are normal. If you have no paper how can you verk. Ze little boy he represents our rebel side. Ve like to dress up ourselves and our shops, it eez funny. If you don’t wear a helmet and goggles you are more carfull and not have ze accident. It eez good sense.

    • Comment by Laura


      Laura May 25, 2013 at 17:53


  9. Comment by Martin


    Martin May 25, 2013 at 11:46

    Yes, Paris has the Eiffel Tower, London has Big Ben, New York has the Statue of Liberty and we have… a little boy peeing. But having lived in Brussels since I’m born, I would not have it any other way. This surrealism (or quirkiness) in most situations is a key part of Brussels being what it is. Not taking ourselves (nor others) too seriously is… refreshing for me, and I hope makes the city a place where most people can find comfortable – wherever they come from.

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison May 25, 2013 at 12:14

      Agreed Martin! Brussels quirkiness does indeed make it a special place to be. It’s one of the things we love so much about this country!

  10. Comment by ray


    ray May 25, 2013 at 14:36

    Belgium is not a country. They are two groups forced to live side by side and do not like each other much. Most Flemms cannot stay in the same room as a Walloon without arguing about who is lazier! There is and have been movements to split into separate states, and they often cannot form a government.

  11. Comment by Anne


    Anne May 25, 2013 at 18:34

    We lived there for three years a little ways back…don’t forget the amazing World Fair marvel of the Atomium. Bizarre and intriguing and a beautiful backdrop for sky pictures. Have you seen the green parrots that live in the city? Legend has it that they escaped from an exhibit in the 1950s World Fair. There is a great colony of them in a park by Woluwe Shopping. While out by Tomberg metro, go to Cook&Book for some coffee and a chevrechaud salade. Delish! How about the simplicity of SO FEW FASTFOOD joints and thus so few obese people?? Businesses are not clamoring for your money on every street corner, although the gypsies are. And the store hours are so UNaccommodating, a quirk I grew to appreciate! You make do with what you have and enjoy quieter evenings and Sundays. Have you experienced Car Free day? What an amazing day of simplicity and community. Our four year old learned to ride a bike that day in the middle of some of the busiest thoroughfares in the city that were emptied of cars, but filled with people enjoying multiple modes of skating and biking. I love the park mentality, picnics at Cinquaintenaire and Park de Woluwe. Beautiful memories.

  12. Comment by Maureen


    Maureen May 25, 2013 at 22:51

    Oh the safety standards! They are tearing down a 50 year old portion of the building where I work. It is known to have asbestos. No masks nothing. We finally drove the workman so crazy with our concern for their welfare that they agreed to spray water on the demolition area (shockingly enough it did not rain a drop those few days). How did they wet it down? With a garden hose! The Mannekin Pis could have done a better job!

  13. Comment by Preston McGee


    Preston McGee June 10, 2013 at 04:17

    I have never been to Belgium but reading your post makes me wants to go there immediately. I really want to taste their foods as you have mentioned that it is a must for everyone.

  14. Comment by Tif


    Tif July 26, 2013 at 16:47

    You’ve got it pretty much right, although you seem to be giving it a very positive spin. Here’s my experience so far.

    1. No customer service. Get shouted at even when you ask for something politely in the local language.
    2. Rat infested apartment –> Landlord doesn’t care.
    3. Shops have very strange opening hours making it impossible for anyone who works to go shopping.
    4. The city is mostly dead on Sundays and public holidays. Everyone seems to want to get away.
    5.Public transport network is terrible. Only walking on Brussels pavements is even worse! As for the taxis…(back to point 1.)

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison July 28, 2013 at 11:27

      Sorry to hear you seem to be having a bad time of it. Personally I think a lot of it comes down to attitude (although there is always an element of luck). If you are looking for things to be negative, chances are they will be. If you focus on the positive aspects, as Laura has, you’re bound to have a better time of it.

  15. Comment by Petra


    Petra August 30, 2013 at 20:51

    Peeing statutes might by a big deal for American but Europeans don’t even notice, just go to Czech Republic…over there they are everywhere….just little suggestion once there…watch for your wallet-pick-pocketing is a Czech specialty and DON’T take cab rides over there, unless you don’t mind to be waaaay overcharged…..they can smell foreigners from far and will charge you accordingly 🙂

  16. Comment by Mattia


    Mattia October 25, 2013 at 22:16

    I am TERRIFIED of the STIB inspectors… With this “ticket inspector” written on the back.. Oh my god!!

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