Happy to have this guest post by Christina on Living in Belgium. Please visit my Duty station guest post page for posts on other locations or more information about how you can write a guest post about where you have been stationed.
Learning to LOVE Belgium
It’s no secret that any PCS can be an adjustment. I mean you pick up your whole life every couple of years and head off to somewhere new. New friends, new job, new house…basically a whole new life. I was pretty prepared for military life since as a teenager I moved MANY times and then I joined the military before I even graduated high school. At least I thought I was prepared for this life.
I wasn’t prepared for our PCS to Belgium, no matter how much I tried to ensure that I was. I did not have a love at first sight relationship with our new home. I mean, how can I have a love at first sight feeling when the closest Starbucks is an hour away! It took me about a year to get to the point where I felt comfortable here and started to really enjoy our life here. Once I got to the point that I accepted and adapted to the Belgian customs and lifestyle I started to love it here. It was no longer about “I can’t believe they don’t have rest areas with bathrooms” or “why do I have to insert a coin to use a shopping cart”. Instead, I allowed things that aren’t typically the “American way” to become my new normal. I accepted and started to enjoy the new way of life.
So a little more about the base. Where we are being a GSU base (geographically separated unit), it’s a small community of Air Force members and their dependents. There is no base housing which means we are given BHA (Basic Housing Allowance) and are able to select a house from the approved list. When we arrived, we were taken around by the Belgian Liaison Officer to see about 11 homes. Once we decided which house we wanted to live in, the Belgian Liaison Officer did the paperwork and we moved in a couple of weeks later. There are quite a few villages surrounding the base so we are integrated into them. This allows us to not only experience the true Belgian way of life but also make friends with locals as opposed to only being surrounded by Americans. One of my dearest friends is the Belgian daycare provider that my youngest daughter went to for a few months before starting school. While we are all spread throughout the different villages, the base does a great job in ensuring we don’t isolate ourselves too. There are monthly lady’s night dinners along with monthly reoccurring events on base. One of my favorites is wings day! The small community can be a great thing or a bad thing. It all depends on your mindset. I try to attend at least 1-2 events with people from base. Plus, we are only a few hours from bigger bases like Ramstein so we try to visit there once a quarter to ensure we get a little taste of “home”. I mean it is pretty much little America. Honestly, it’s great to be at a smaller base and having the community of support that we get.
Of course, one of the main benefits of living in Europe is the travel opportunities. I can be in multiple countries within an hour from my house. At one point, we were driving home from a trip and within 30 minutes we had been in 3 different countries. Shockingly, the Belgians do not like to drive places and often do not travel. When we talk about taking a day trip to a place that is a couple of hours away they give us this crazy look. While we often choose to drive (we have two kids under 5 years old), you can definitely catch a train to endless amounts of places.
Here are a few of the travel perks of living in Belgium:
Day Trips We Have Taken
This place is pretty amazing. You get to experience 19 windmills from the 18th Century. Since majority of Holland is under sea level, the windmills are vital at keeping the area from flooding. You are able to bike the area, walk or even catch the boat. It was a fun trip for the whole family.
Tongeren Antique Market
This is an outdoor (mostly) antique market where you can find anything and everything you could imagine. It’s open every Sunday from early morning until just after noon. They are there rain or shine and you can find some great pieces to add to your home. We of course went when it was cold and rainy but still enjoyed it!
This place is beyond amazing. It’s a bucket list must and if you are living in Belgium then you will be the odd one out if you don’t check it out.
Amazing Christmas Markets
If you have never heard about the Christmas Markets in Europe, then you are missing out! Starting just after Thanksgiving, the markets run through the end of December. Each one has its own appeal and if you can brave the cold then visiting each one is a great way to celebrate the season. One of my favorite Christmas Markets is Valkenburg, Holland. Not only is the Christmas Market in a cave but they also have the Magic Sand display. This display is beyond words and is done out of sand. Each year they change the theme too so you get to see new and just as impressive sculptures each year. It’s unlike anything I have ever seen!
Europe is flood with castles! I can never put into words these massive and beautiful architecture. Of course the girls always have to be princesses if visiting one because you know they live in one (yeah right! LOL).
Many people do not realize the American History that was made over here in Europe. Between the beaches of D-Day to the World War II American Cemetery in Margraten. Not many people get an opportunity to experience these things and the fact that you can do this all while LIVING here is pretty amazing.
Traveling Home to the U.S.
Since Ramstein isn’t a far drive, we can catch Space A flights back to the States. Depending on the season, it can be really busy. However, when my grandmother passed and we were not prepared (meaning we hadn’t saved for a trip home) we were able to save THOUSANDS of dollars by catching a Space A flight. It took us two days to get onto a flight and we had a drive once we landed in the States but it’s totally worth the money saved if you are able to have some flexibility in your travel dates. I’m pretty sure my kids think that flying in the back of a military cargo plane is totally normal.
Traveling is great and all but the area where you live is what’s most important to me. Especially when you have children…you base all of your decisions on what school the kids attend, is there room for their toys, the bedrooms good enough, is there a park nearby, etc. Belgium does not disappoint in this area at all. There are weekly markets in each village where you can get fresh produce right from the farm, fresh flowers and even clothing. While the area we live speaks mostly Dutch & Flemish, as long as you approach the situation correctly then they have no problems speaking what English they do know to you. My rule of thumb is to initially apologize and tell them I do not speak Dutch. Once they see that I am apologetic they will speak English if they know it. Fuel is a little outrageous but we do get gas rations at a cheaper price. Our rations are low but the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) dictates that and won’t be changing any time soon. We take trips and have two vehicles yet we only pay the European fuel price a few times in two years. Another thing to consider is that as a spouse, you are not allowed to work under the SOFA. There are a few civilian jobs available on the base but with so many spouses and minimal positions, it’s unlikely you will have a job while here.
However, there are some great benefits to living in Belgium…
Daycare costs are much lower than in the United States. We put our youngest daughter into an at home daycare twice a week with a Dutch provider and she not only was amazing but the hourly rate was much lower than the States. It’s based off of pay but the provider is supplemented by the government for the remaining amount. No worries though, because you only pay daycare (if you use it) up until your kid starts school at age 2 ½! Let me just say, the Dutch school that my kids attend is AMAZING! Our kids speak fluent Dutch and have learned so much along with achieved great social skills.
You will see animals and farms EVERYWHERE! There is not a day that goes by that I am not stuck behind a tractor when taking my kids to school or just running to the store.
Which leads me to the best part….THE FOOD IS DELICIOUS! I have seriously gained ten pounds living here because I can’t refuse the bakery, seafood and THE FRIES! (By the way, Belgians are very proud about their fries and will inform you that fries are NOT French! LOL) They use mayo for their fries here which was already a thing for me so I was golden. Mussels are a Belgian must and of course the waffles with Nutella are heaven.
Ultimately, each duty station is what you make of it. That has always been my belief but I noticed that when we first got here I wasn’t trying to make the best of it. It’s important to understand that living OCONUS is an adventure. Your three or four-year tour will pass quicker than you think and the year that I spent adapting is a year of missing out on some great stuff. It will take time to adjust because you are in a different country where they speak a different language and do things differently. However, if you keep an open mind and understand this adjustment and are willing to adapt then you will be comfortable a lot quicker. Live in the moment and cherish the amazing memories you are making while you are here. You will be PCS’ing before you know it!
Christina is currently living in Belgium with her husband and two children, ages 2 and 4. She has always loved writing and has found a home for it on her blog Heart & Stripes. She loves being a stay at home mom, volunteering on base, spending time with her family and upcycling furniture. She was raised in Florida so she heads to the beach and Disney as often as she can.