How is it to live in Brussels? You are asking someone who has been here for a decade now. In the first part of this Brussels scoreboard blog I zoomed in on working in the city. Now it is time for the more entertaining / hilarious / bitchy review of the self-declared capital of Europe (I already wrote a mid-term review in 2019). Life in Brussels: the good, the bad and the ugly!
BXL – the good
I am extremely tempted to start with the ugly part of Brussels, because that is where most attention goes to whenever people talk about the city: dirty, chaotic, segregated…. But let’s not take that route. Let’s focus on the good bits first.
And there a plenty of good bits. So many, that I have decided to stay here. In alphabetical order why:
Cosmopolitan –> Brussels is extremely international. Only a quarter of the residents are of Belgian origin. Since the Belgian identity is weak, it is relatively easy for newcomers to integrate – there is not so much to integrate, in any case, with so many different nationalities in a city of 1.2 million souls. That is at least what pops up in international surveys amongst expats and immigrants. They like Brussels more than cities like Paris, for instance.
Nobody knows how many people work in the international (EU+NATO) bubble, maybe it is 70,000, probably more. But in case you are a cosmpolite looking for an extremely diverse working environment, Brussels is the place to go. I have always found myself surrounded by dozens of different nationalities; at work, at parties and by walking the dog. My dog is a Belgian princess by the way, adopted in a shelter in Flanders.
Edgy –> with so many contrasts, Brussels is anything but a boring city. When I go back to my hometown Amsterdam, it is all so clean and perfect, like a postcard. Not here. Here, life is edgy. Things are unpredictable and the unexpected is around the corner. Poor and rich people live side by side (though not necessarily interacting). You can have a chique Maison de maître in hip Ixelles and your Volvo XC40 is charging at the front porch, but if you go to Flagey for a drink you will pass by dodgy bars full of Portuguese first generation immigrants who watch trashy soap series on a tv which is mounted above a pinball game and a slotting machine. Next door is an organic takeaway store where the Vietnamese owners prepare delicious Thai food. Then you pass some bordered-up graffiti sprayed house, and tram 81 passes you which is loaded with rich expats, drunkards, school going Moroccan boys and girls and Dansaert Flemish who are reading Flaubert while listening to a psy-punk playist on Spotify. The Flagey square itself boasts a pop-up bar with beach loungers, while at the nearby ponds, a couple of refugees are camping in a tent. Nobody seems to care about all this diversity.
Grandeur –> The Netherlands is a bigger and richer country than Belgium. But when you’re in Brussels, you wouldn’t think so. The city boasts a lot of grandeur: big buildings, large alleys, impressive statues.
This is mainly thanks to the ambition of the 19th century King Leopold II to advance his country’s reputation and interests. Using the blood money from his personal colony of Congo, Leopold drastically changed the face of Brussels: notably by building the national palace, commissioning the triumphal arch in Jubilee Park that renders the Brandenburger Tor arch in Berlin to a miniature toy version, and ordering the construction of the Avenue Louise all the way to the Chamber Forest. Designed to impress, that was a bit the strategy. It elevated Brussels from a medieval town to a self-proclaimed glorious centre of new Belgian state (Belgium didn’t exist until it declared independence in 1830).
Just compare the Dutch and the Belgian work palaces. On the left, the one in The Hague that you’ll pass by bike in about 10 seconds (if you’re a Dutch biker: 5 seconds). The building is crammed into a small one-way street in the centre. You could miss it in case you don’t pay attention. On the right, slightly bigger, the national palace – only for work! – in the Brussels city centre. The bus will drive past it in one minute.
What’s my point here? Well, I like grandeur. It is pompous and absurd, but also makes you feel part of something bigger. Literally.
Green –> several times, Brussels has won prizes for being a very green city. This is absurd if you live in the centre, as I do, with hardly any parks available. But it’s true. Especially the eastern and southern sides of the city are full of parks and even forests. My favourite areas are the Red Cloister, the Abbaye de la Cambre and the Sonian Forest. All of which you can reach directly by bus or other means of public transport. Try that in Amsterdam, I would say: the closest ‘forest’ is het Amsterdamse Bos which was non-existent until a century ago and as it is near to the international airport, it is not very quiet.
Point of critique: still too many cars and too few trees on the streets. It’s also impossible to get 100% renewable electricity contracts here (thank you, socialists).
Improving –> Slowly but surely, Brussels is improving. It has now one of the largest pedestrian zones in the centre, compared to other European cities. Local politicians decided in 2015 to close down the main artery semi-highway (the Boulevard Anspach), from one day to the next and give it back to people on foot and bikes. Dozens of kilometers of bike lanes have been constructed since I moved here a decade ago. It is still outright dangerous to bike in the city, but the amount of cyclists has multiplied. You are no longer a loonie from the north if you jump on a bike – that definitely was the case in the past.
Crime has dropped significantly in Brussels, with a third less thefts since 2012. More and more streets are being renovated, house prices have gone up, parks are upgraded and in most of those parks there are now very nice bars and DJs in the spring and summer months. In the public transport, you can check in with your bank card. Oh and the price of a ticket has barely changed despite the inflation. Since many years, I pay 499 euro a year for my annual unlimited public transport card.
Did I already mention rental prices? I think not. Very affordable housing here, especially compared with other big cities. With my partner we rent a giant 200 m2 industrial loft in a nice part of the centre, furnished and with a parking garage, for the price of a 50 m2 apartment in some shitty zone in Amsterdam.
Bruss-hell: the bad
In this cosmopolitan, edgy, grand, green and improving city, not all is good. There is in fact, a lot of ugliness that makes me sometimes refer Brussels as ‘Bruss-hell’, the capital of ‘Hell-gium’. (My Belgian friends always get upset when I write this, but my expat friends fully agree)
Governance –> Brussels is divided in 19 municipalities and has over 1,000 elected officials including 19 mayors. They are kingdoms on their own and behave as such. Also there are several police zones and other weird divisions of public services. For the annual mandatory car check I can go to three different organisations in Brussels. One waste company has different rules than the other. If you move within Brussels to another commune (municipality), you will have to re-register and also probably change the company that deals with parking permits. It makes living here sometimes cumbersome and frustrating.
Lousy infrastructure –> The roads are generally in a bad shape in Belgium. Brussels is bad, but visit one of the other cities or towns in this country and you’ll be surprised. Parts of Antwerp look in a worse shape than the streets of Bucharest or Sofia (I’ve been to these places, I am not making this up). Belgians just don’t seem to care about the state of public infrastructure. They just use it to the last bare thread and then replace it. Maintenance? What is that?
The best example of course is the Palace of Justice in Brussels. A gigantic, monstrous building which is falling apart and leaking like crazy. Since the 1980s (!) there has been scaffolding around it. That scaffolding is now rusting so much that the building management put another structure around to prevent the scaffolding from falling… But in the next decade or so, the Justice Palace should be a Palace again, the plans to finish the renovation have kind of been approved.
Taxes –> I already complained about the insanely high tax pressure in Belgium in my 2019 blog and it hasn’t improved since. One of the reasons why I am hesitant to become independent again, is the fact that my income will for two-thirds go to the state coffers. The Belgian government will hardly give me any services in return (see below) apart from the very cheap and high-quality healthcare.
The traffic –> it is one of the worst in Europe and even in the world. Bad urban planning, low maintenance and an addiction of Belgians to their company car (which is heavily subsidised by the government to increase mobility) are just a few of the reasons why Brussels seems to be permanently gridlocked. There are 600,000 commuters that go in and outside of the city on a daily basis, exhausting the infrastructure that is already decaying. Plus of course the horrendous governance of Belgium with their four federal provinces, Brussels being one of them. Doesn’t help when you want to ensure a smooth flow of traffic as there are always conflicting interests that delay decisions or result in disastrous ones. For instance, 14 million euros was invested in a park and ride facility near the city which is not used most of the time.
Trash, dirt and pollution –> Unsurprisingly with so much traffic, this is a dirty city with bad air quality. You can lose years of your life if your house is situated near a street with lots of traffic, partly because there are so many diesel cars driving around in Brussels. Even if you manage to escape the dirty air, you will still be confronted with trash everywhere. The Belgians have an ingenious system to separate their waste in four, sometimes even five different bags. They are all collected on different days so there is a continuous presence of mainly white, blue and yellow bags on the road. These bags are then picked open by birds and rodents, and if they are not put on the street on the right day, the trash will just lie there for a week. Another irritation is that Brussel denizens like to dump their bigger waste on the road: mattresses, fridges, broken bikes, construction waste – anything will land on the pavements.
The ugly face of Brussels
Finally, the ugly (and sometimes funny) face of Brussels.
Architecture and urban drab –> I live in a beautifully renovated former printing office of the Belgian postal services. But around me are many ugly cheap buildings that come often in the place of historic houses that have been demolished just to make some profit. Architects have a name for this phenomenon: Brusselisation. It is, quoting Wikipedia here: “the indiscriminate and careless introduction of modern high-rise buildings into gentrified neighbourhoods” and has become a byword for “haphazard urban development and redevelopment.”
The most infamous example of Brusselisation is the demolition of Victor Horta’s Maison du Peuple in the chique Sablon area in the city centre. It was replaced by a characterless skyscraper. But you’ll see ugly architecture everywhere in Brussels (as well as in the rest of Belgium), right next to the most fantastic art nouveau and art déco buildings. It hurts my eyes.
What also annoys me is the urban drab, in the most literal sense: mud. The streets and parks are poorly maintained as I stated before. This is where I walk my dog every day, because there is almost no green space in the centre:
See the background? It could be like Paris here. But it looks more like a training field for the military.
Expensive supermarkets –> Don’t buy your groceries here. Or medication. Or cleaning products. Everything here is f***ing expensive, while just across the border – notably in the Netherlands and in Germany – prices for everyday stuff are much lower. Paracetamol costs 1 euro in my home country, here 5 euro. Fresh milk? Almost the same story. (1,35 euro in Albert Heijn, 3,50 euro in Carrefour). Deodorant, shampoo, soap: wait until you’re in Germany and then bring a big bag. That’s how my friends do it.
Lack of cohesion –> Very ugly part of Brussels. The city still has outrageously high unemployment rates especially amongst the young. A few hundred meters from where I live, Afghan soldiers sleep in tents on a brdige, next to the asylum seeking centre. Brussels is strongly divided in haves and have-nots and this situation continues to be explosive.
Road signs –> Let’s end with a smile! I have a fetish for the road signs in this town. They grow everywhere here and the government recently announced they would remove hundreds, as the overload of signs just confuses people. But I like them. Even if they are old, overused and contradictory, this ugly part of Brussels should always stay here.
I include a few of my favourites below, for more inspiration on Belgian ugliness you can follow Belgian Solutions, Ugly Belgian Houses and Weird things in Brussels.