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Life Lessons of a Military Wife (overseas in Europe!): Discoveries My First Month in Belgium

Life Lessons of a Military Wife (overseas in Europe!)

My goal here is to make your life easier, especially those who are in the unique situation of being a military spouse. Yes...I've been around...but in a good way...and hopefully can share those tips, tricks and shortcuts with you too. I've been on this military bus for over 40 years now. My goals in life are to have a well-run home, few money worries, well adjusted children, money socked away and whatever happiness I can scoop out of life.

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Location: United States

After life as an Army brat, being in the Army myself and marrying a soldier, I can honestly say I have a bucket full of life lessons I can share to help you make your everyday life easier and enlightening. Don't waste your time making unnecessary mistakes and benefit from others who have come before you on your journey through life.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Discoveries My First Month in Belgium

Now that I've been here a month, I think I can offer some insight on life as a new Belgian resident.  I say resident, because any day now, I should have a policeman going by our house (hope it's after we move in), to check that I exist, and then I'm on my way of becoming a Belgian resident with Belgian resident perks.  My husband, who is US military stationed here, cannot be a Belgian resident...that's why all the bills will come in my name.  Huh?  Anyway, after being here a month, I think I am an expert in my opinion and can offer the following observations.

In no particular order:

  • Even though everyone says that it is dreary, rainy and cold here (even the Belgians say this), I have found this summer superhot, mostly in the 80s and 90s with only four days of some rain.
  • At least with the French (which is 20 minutes away), never say "Gesundheit" or "Bless You".  Apparently, you don't say that after someone sneezes....still waiting to hear a Belgian sneeze so I can test this out.
  • If you plan on bringing your pet with you on this assignment (at least in the SHAPE/Chievres area), and you are staying on post at the are coming in on the weekend, make note that the kennel closes at 1500.
  • I would not bring a super nice car here as the roads are bad to worse and winters put a real toll on it too.  This is probably why the Belgian government does yearly inspections of cars older than four years old (at about 50 euro a pop).  If your vehicle does not have a rear foglight, then get one before coming here.  I'll post more later on the inspection and registration process and what steps you have to complete in getting a foglight installed as well as a pre-inspection.
  • Remember that as a SHAPIAN as you are called, you are allowed only ONE vehicle tax-free.  Make sure this is your vehicle with the BIGGEST engine.  If you buy a second car, like a little roadrunner with a small engine, you'll end up paying a yearly roadtax (think it's yearly) on the bigger one you have being shipped over if you buy and register your little car first.  For a big minivan, expect to pay around 1000 euro down to 250 euro for a small vehicle.
  • You REALLY have to follow the priority from the right rule.  This means if you come to an intersection that does not show that you have priority (start learning the signs now), you must yield to vehicles coming from the right, even if it is a goatpath!  Pay close attention here!
  • In a restaurant, do not signal the waiter by yelling "Garcon" (which means BOY).  It is rude.
  • If you are going to a restaurant outside of the "big city" and not on the strip between Chievres Air Base and SHAPE, don't expect lunch (unless it specifically says so) and don't expect dinner service until 1830 in the evening.  We went through three country restaurants before we figured this out.
  • If you like fleamarketing and antique hunting, you will be in heaven here!  I will post about this on a later date too.
  • Shopping in France is much cheaper.  Drive South of Mons for 20 minutes and there you are.
  • Veggies and fruits are fresher and cheaper on the economy.  Take advantage of all the farmers' markets.
  • I was thrilled to find quite a few stores such as supermarkets and bakeries open on Sunday (even if it is for limited hours).
  • Train travel is cheap compared to Germany and you can be in Paris in two hours, Brussels in 45 minutes and London in 4-1/2.
  • Paris is only 2-1/2 hours away by car.  Many people drive there, park outside the city and take public transportation in.
  • We have discovered some amazing beaches on the North Sea with wide sandy beaches, sand dunes, boardwalks, amusement parks and trails galore.  It is only 1-1/2 hours away.  I'll have to write more about this wonderful area around De Panne.
  • We are in the middle of farmland, so you will see tractors and farm equipment on the roads, and I have heard during sugarbeet season, you will be amazed at what rolls off the trucks.
  • Speaking of trucks, you will have more windshield cracks and dings here than anywhere else.
  • Since USAA has to go through another company here, their insurance quotes are expensive.  Check Geico outside the frontgate and others.
  • For car rentals, check out the clunker agency across from the flags outside the gate at SHAPE HQ.  You'll pay half of what you would typically pay to the big car rental agencies.
  • If you come in the summer, none of the off post hotels have AC.  Stick with Chievres Lodge which is new, modern and has AC.
  • Don't bring your basic appliances.  In the Spring, Summer and Fall, you will find large fleamarkets on SHAPE, as well as the thrift shop on Chievres (and not to mention civilian fleamarkets).  If you use your 110 volt appliances from the US, you can buy transformers (which also can be found at these sales) to step down the 220 volt European voltage.  Your US alarm clocks and other appliances that cycle will not work accurately.  If you have an expensive standmixer, leave it in the US as the motor can easily get burned out and ruin your machine.
  • Bring a fuel efficient vehicle, as you are limited by what you get fuel-wise (more so than in Germany and dependent on engine size).
  • Brush up on your French.  They speak French here and no, not a lot of people speak English away from post (except maybe in Brussels and larger cities).
  • Be sure to read my housing article.
  • Realize that utilities bills are much, much higher than in the US.  Start watching your water usage and turn off lights when not in use.  After you arrive and move in, be sure to unplug your transformers completely, as they can still draw power when turned off.
  • As part of your housing contract you can negotiate with your landlord (with assistance from the housing office), do the following.  If your home doesn't have one, get a day/night electric meter installed which gives you huge discounts on electricity after 10 pm at night and on the weekends.
Do you have any tips to share?  I'll add more as I think of them!



Blogger Julie the Army Wife said...

I love reading about what it is like there. Seems like there are some similarities with being stationed in Germany but differences too.

July 25, 2010 at 9:19 PM  
Blogger ****Veteran Military Wife at Life Lessons of a Military Wife**** said...

We unfortunately do not have the generous Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), as the American military has in we do not have some of the same benefits, VAT relief being one of is more complicated and limited here among other things, and I won't even get into road taxes and fuel rations just yet! I guess Europe is Europe, but I see now that the Belgians are very different culturally from the Germans...makes me miss my Germans a bit!

July 25, 2010 at 10:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This information was so interesting! It was my favorite blog so far! Thanks. I am especially grateful for the tips on the VAT and SOFA. Needless to say, I have been doing the "panic buys", since we are PCSing from here.

July 28, 2010 at 5:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your blogs have been a tremendous help! You really have been a guiding light. Thank you.

I do have more questions about the PCS. How hard is it set up an account there, since Community Bank doesn't operate in Belgium? All the information on the SHAPE2Day site about the Italian bank seems confusing. How does one initially set up the account there? Can you use a stateside check to transfer funds? Is the account necessary for the Belgian rent, utilities, etc.?

How do you know which areas are decent to live? I have been searching the sites on your blog, but am trying to get a feel for distances to SHAPE. Are most places within a 20km commute a decent choice? Are there any areas which are not safe? I know that I will have to check with the school bus route, but am uncertain as to which areas or towns are nice to live. Any tips would be appreciated.

August 1, 2010 at 5:21 PM  
Blogger ****Veteran Military Wife at Life Lessons of a Military Wife**** said...

You're welcome! I was surprised myself there wasn't more definitive info online.

To answer your questions. You can use any Belgian bank to set up your accounts...we always keep our American bank account where our paychecks go (that never changes) and then when we move, we always open up a local account. Some people use Andrews FCU, which is here..think they do dollar and euro accounts....think it's more complicated paying bills and such. We chose the Italian bank Monte Paschi, because they got the latest contract with SHAPE (it used to be Fortis for many, many years and many Shapians still use them, just have to use the branches off post). The Italian bank has operated in Belgium since end of WWII, so they are a "local bank" in effect too. We have a euro account there and pay our rent automatically every month and other bills as we get them. That way, I can go to the Army Finance cash cage at any time of month, cash a personal check (up to $3k a week without special permission), and handcarry the money over to our Italian bank and deposit it. Otherwise, you are slave to the calendar, and it is not unusual on paydays to see lines out the door at the cash cage and then people paying their rent either at the Postbank or wherever or their landlord's bank to be there 1st of the month. We learned our lesson and not to deposit an American dollar cashier's check into the Italian bank..that cost us 22 euro! Better to cash checks at the finance cage and then handcarry your money to where it needs to go....a hassle, but at least if you keep min funds in your local account, you can do this at anytime of the month or every other month (you can access your account online to check balances, etc). You set up your account there in person and put cash in there to start it up (again, cash personal checks at the finance cash cage)...sorry for being repetitive.

Decent areas to live....all areas are okay really that I have found. The housing office does check for generally safe areas before they accept a house into the system. I will tell you that there is vandalism in Mons, so if you choose to live in the city, only do so if you have secured parking in a courtyard or away from the street. Also the areas around the train station are not as safe.

I'd say 3/4 of the places are within 20 km. You have to also think of your commute in the wintertime on these horrible roads, which may be beautiful and bucolic in the summer. Many Americans live in the Chievres area (also Brugelette), Jurbis, Masnuy St Jean and Pierre...Mons area, Casteau, Ghlin, in towns along the canal like us in Obourg...the areas closer to both bases. When you come to housing, you can also get the sheet that lists all the towns the school buses service. I'll post more about specifics in later blog articles as well on these subjects. Good luck to you!

August 2, 2010 at 8:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice blog. My husband and I have lived here in Casteau for almost a year now and we absolutely love it! We lived in Germany for several years before this, and I must say that personally, we like living in Belgium better. The people are much more relaxed (which can be a double-edged sword!) and we have really enjoyed the sights and festivals. Learning French is also a bonus. If anyone tells you there's not much to do here, than they don't know what they're talking about!

August 2, 2010 at 9:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

have to decide in the next week whether or not we should move to Belgium or stay put in the US...we've never lived overseas before, may be unable to sell our US home prior to leaving (and may not find a renter to help with monthly mortgage)...husband is an E-6 in the Air Force, I am a stay-at-home mom (aka - no 2nd income), and we have 2 children (6 year old & a 4 year old) with a dog & a cat... any advice??? what would you do if you were in our position and you had a choice to stay in the US or PCS to Belgium? thank you for your help :)

August 5, 2010 at 3:21 AM  
Blogger ****Veteran Military Wife at Life Lessons of a Military Wife**** said...

It sounds like you've already made your decision, but I would check with that govt program that could help you out in such a situation with your house. Also think about how you and the kids will handle being without dad for two years, the average time of an unaccompanied overseas tours (3 years accompanied)...just some things to think about

August 5, 2010 at 12:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous - I am not stationed overseas with the military, but I am living overseas, and I can only say that the experience is well worthwhile and leads to things that your children can see nowhere else. Belgium is lovely, and would be far better than where we are at the moment (in SE Europe). Yes, you need to be brave and have some insurance that you can take care of your house, but I recommend living overseas for a while. It will change your world view!

August 6, 2010 at 10:57 PM  
Blogger Stephanie and Jeff Keenan said...

WOW...great information and so glad that we found your blog. It looks like we'll be heading to Belgium next summer and we're really excited about it.

September 16, 2010 at 4:00 AM  

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