A little inside knowledge goes a long way for newly-arrived expat parents in Brussels settling into their cosmopolitan surroundings.
If there’s an archetypal European and international city, Brussels is probably it. Boasting grand baroque and gothic architecture and some of the world’s best chocolate and beer, the continent’s de facto ‘capital’ is a multicultural, multilingual melting pot where about one third of the population is foreign.
Marcia De Wolf, Community Engagement Director at St. John’s International School, a private English school on the outskirts of the Belgian capital, says as one of the most desirable places to live in Europe, ‘Brussels has a thriving expat community and support network for parents.’
St. John’s International School
St. John's International School is a proud member of Inspired, a leading global premium schools group operating in Europe, Asia-Pacific, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America educating over 31,000 students across a global network of more than 42 schools.
Here are some of her insider tips for expat parents in Brussels:
International social clubs
Facebook and Instagram posts tell of your adventures in Brussels, but being recently-arrived in a new city – even one as expat-friendly as Belgium’s capital – can be a lonely gig.
“Brussels is a vibrant city with plenty going on, but by joining one of the many clubs and community associations in the city you’ll really be ‘in the know’,” says De Wolf.
“There are many groups that cater to expats, with excursions and regular activities to network socially. There are many excellent language schools available as well for those who wish to learn French or Dutch,” she notes.
“Check out for example the American Club of Brussels in the heart of the city, which offers networking opportunities and regular events and activities, including its famous Brussels Super Bowl Party in early February every year,” she says.
Other community-focused clubs include: the Expats Club Brussels, which has a stated aim of ‘helping expats feel at home quickly by connecting them online and through a variety of local events and trips in Belgium and surrounding countries’; the American Women’s Club (located out of town and open to women and men of any nationality) where members can access hands-on information on living, working, studying or travelling in Brussels; the British and Commonwealth Women’s Club of Brussels, which offers activities and advice for women recently arrived in the city; the Women’s International Club of Brussels, which offers cultural and recreational activities with the aim of ‘welcoming and assisting newcomers to Belgium’; and the Canadian Club of Belgium and the Australian Society.
For fun runners, the Brussels Hash House Harriers hold regular get togethers.
If members’ clubs are not your thing, strike out and join one of the regular meetups organised across the city catering to like-minded people. How about a meetup for international mums and dads in the city? It’s a fantastic way for expat parents in Brussels, and their kids, to make new friends.
“Most international schools also have extensive after school and weekend activities that the whole family can participate in,” De Wolf adds.
“There’s an array of online resources catering to expats in Brussels. Check out Brussels Expats and Expats in Brussels for information, advice or even to buy and sell stuff, or for listing of companies offering Brussels expat services,” says De Wolf.
Who you gonna call? Facebook Mamas
A great resource for expat parents is the Brussels Area School Parents Facebook group – and all the other local Facebook parenting groups which you can easily search for in your new home town. These ‘Mama’groups, found in many cities all over the world, are especially geared towards expats who have children. They often find themselves the most precious treasure trove of resources.
Members are all expat-parents, and many have already vanquished the same hurdles you may be facing now. They will helpfully dispense advice on everything from childcare to navigating the bureaucratic maze.
These communities are also a sure-fire way to make friends or find playmates for your little ones, as they often organise social events, play-dates or even themed-parties.
Business and pleasure
The lines between work and leisure can be blurred in the life of an expat, for whom networking is an essential skill. There are several English language, business-focused associations in Brussels catering to entrepreneurs, freelancers and careerists. Need inspiration to turn that business idea into reality? Find people to share your thoughts with!
The Beta Group is one of the largest tech start-up ecosystems in Belgium. Get feedback on your idea from peers, or even find business partners and investors. Full Circle, meanwhile, describes itself as ‘a unique club for creative and forward-thinking professionals’.
A long-established networking club is Rotary Club Brussels Cantersteen, the only Dutch/English speaking Rotary Club serving Brussels’ international community and perfect for business people looking to expand their circle.
Get your fix of home comforts
No matter how scrumptious, there’s only so many dishes of moules frites a person can take before the home cravings kick in. When even mussels in Brussels won’t satisfy the pangs, there’s a smorgasbord of international grocery stores to get your homely fix.
“British expatriates might make a beeline to Stonemanor, which has outlets at Sint Genesius Rode and Everberg,” says De Wolf. Among the range of goodies on offer at Stonemanor are Heinz Baked Beans, Suffolk sausage rolls, Marmite, Oxo cubes and Bisto gravy.
“Another popular option is Gourmet International Food & Gifts, with branches in Schuman and Waterloo, which specialises in Scandinavian food as well as Irish, British and American items. The city also has Italian grocery stores, Chinese supermarkets and an Asian cash and carry, plus a number of markets which sell ethic foods.”
Embrace the diversity
Belgium’s capital is also Europe’s capital city with a truly international flavour and a large community of primary and secondary school students from around the world. New families arriving in Brussels should feel right at home quickly.
“Students in Brussels are representative of the city’s diverse international community and St. John’s International School is one of several schools that welcomes students from around the world,” says De Wolf.
“Belgium and Brussels are wonderfully diverse, green and culturally-rich,” she continues. “It is a stress-free environment, where children can grow up to be open-minded, culturally aware and safe,” she concludes.