The Golden Cage of Brussels

Six years ago I wrote an article about my mixed feelings about living in Brussels for so long. The Guardian published it but it is no longer on their website. As several people have asked what happened to it I’m posting it again.

Living in Brussels is like living in a golden cage – you feel trapped and you dream of escaping almost every day. But you never do because you know life will be more difficult, more complicated and more expensive on the outside.

I should know. In 1993 I came to the Belgian capital to do a five-month traineeship at the European commission. Fourteen years later and I’m still here, complaining about the squally weather, lousy service and infuriating officialdom, making plans to move to Britain, the United States or the south of France but secretly suspecting that the most likely way I’ll leave Brussels is in a coffin.

I am not alone. Virtually any expat you speak to has a similar story to tell about outstaying his or her welcome. In fact, playwright Alecky Blythe fashioned a whole drama around the everyday twittering of Brussels’ expats in 2005. Unsurprisingly, the title was ‘I Only Came Here for Six Months’.

When you tell new arrivals you have been in Brussels for 14 years, as I have, they nod sympathetically – as if you told them your pet cat has died. Their brows furrow and they ask: ‘How did that happen?’

‘By accident’, is my usual reply. Few people fantasise about living in Brussels, as they do about living in Prague, Paris, Rome or Barcelona. If an expat moves to the self-styled capital of Europe it is probably because he has got a job in Nato or one of the EU institutions, has a diplomatic posting here, has been sent by his company or, less commonly, has found the love of his life here. It is probably not because he has been pining to live in Brussels all his life and finds the city romantic, the Belgian people welcoming and the countryside that surrounds the city stunning.

Most foreigners arrive with low expectations and some are not disappointed. American travel writer Bill Bryson once described the city as a ‘seriously ugly place, full of wet litter, boulevards like freeways and muddy building sites’, and many people still associate the Belgian capital with rain, sprouts, bloated bureaucracy and barmy laws. This is, after all, a city whose two most iconic monuments are of a sackload of suspended balls and a small boy peeing.

Expats who have been in Brussels a long time often feel embarrassed about how long they have been in town – especially when talking to plucky newcomers. For a while I even started lying about how long I’d been here to avoid people thinking I was a loser who had nowhere better to go.

So if the tax rates are stratospheric, the customer service shoddy and the city unspectacular, why do over-educated, multilingual high-flyers invariably end up staying longer in Brussels than they planned to?

The first reason is that there is a huge difference between visiting a city and living there. I like going to Paris or London for the weekend – both less than 2.5 hours away from Brussels – but I wouldn’t want to live in either city with two young kids and a moderate salary.

For a start I couldn’t afford to. The average rent for a one bedroom, 60 square metre flat in a smart district of Brussels is about €900, according to Mercer Human Resources Consulting. That is half the average price in Paris and less than a third the cost of renting in London or New York. Brussels is also one of the cheapest capitals to buy property in the EU. According to ERA Real Estate’s 2006 market survey of European house prices, the average 100 square metre dwelling in Brussels was €217,462, compared to €297,462 in Paris and €360,427 in London.

Faced with the choice of trading in their four storey turn-of-the-century townhouses with gardens for a two bedroom flat in the suburbs of Paris or London, is it any wonder many Brussels’ expats decide to stay put?

Then there is transport. To travel one stop on the tube in London costs £4 (about €6.) In Brussels, you can go anywhere in the city by tram, train, bus or metro for a quarter of the cost – and a fraction of the time. The rest of the country is cheap and easy to visit too. Belgian railways charge you less for travelling on weekends and public holidays than on weekdays – the polar opposite of Britain. There are also huge reductions for families, students, pensioners and youngsters.

A creeping intoxication

Time and time again, quality of life is the reason expats, especially those with families, give for staying in Brussels. The hospitals are so efficient – waiting lists are almost unheard of here – that thousands of Brits and Dutch drop in each year to have operations they would have to wait years for at home. A Brussels friend broke his collarbone playing rugby in Kent and, when told he would have to wait five to six hours to have it seen to, jumped on the Eurostar at Ashford and two hours later was being treated by a doctor. The schools are also excellent, with almost all kids in Brussels brought up bi- or tri-lingual.

Belgians take their food very seriously and this is reflected in the quality. Per head, the country has more Michelin stars than any other, but that doesn’t mean you have to take out a second mortgage to eat well. Around the corner from my house, a relatively upscale restaurant serves a three-course set lunch for €15. Each dish is a masterpiece.

Finally, there is the beer. Between 400 and 600 ales are brewed in Belgium – Stella Artois, Leffe and Chimay are the best known internationally – and an average cafe will have at least 20 on the menu. In contrast to some neighbouring countries, there are no restrictions on opening hours and drunken brawls are rare.

Visitors who come to Brussels for a few days are often disappointed. The magnificent Grand Place aside, there are few must-see sights. Instead the city’s real charms – surrealist cafes, Moroccan markets, giant beech forests, comic-strip murals, Congolese eateries and cinemas showing only silent films — are either tucked away down side streets or marooned in the sprawling suburbs.

It’s easy to fall in love with cities like Sydney, San Francisco or Rio de Janeiro. Their attractions are obvious: they ooze seduction and self-confidence. Brussels is more of a slow-burner. It is a city that makes little effort to entice or ensnare you, but when it gets you in its grip it is hard to break free.

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