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Things you might like to know about Belgium

I've lived in Belgium's capital, Brussels, for just over four years. I don't know much about the country outside of Brussels, and my view is skewed because I speak French better than Dutch. Below is some hopefully-useful info from what I do know. I also have a similar page of info about Ireland.

  1. Where's nice
  2. Annual events
  3. World's best beers
  4. Writers and singers
  5. Eating
  6. Sundays and over-regulated retail
  7. Bookshops (for various languages)
  8. Philippine community
  9. Cheap living
  10. Language learning in Brussels (tutors, French, Dutch, Japanese, tests)
  11. Third-level education
  12. News online
  13. Beyond Brussels: Flanders and Wallonia
  14. Irish books in French and Dutch
  15. Miscellaneous links

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Where's nice

You can do most of the sight-seeing in two or three days. The usual sight seeing involves:

There's also a beer museum about two kilometres outside the city centre, but I've never met anyone who's managed to visit it.


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Annual events

Someone from Wallonia (the French-speaking southern part) told me that there are great local festivals there. Parades, costumes, folklore, and lots of drinking. Many of them are in February, just before the christian period of Lent. The Carnival of Binche is one example, and the 24 hour bike ride of Louvain-la-Neuve, in October, is another.


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World's best beers

Belgium has hundreds of beers. It has the world's largest selection. A lot of them are very nice, and the variety is fantastic. Please don't come to Belgium, find a beer you like, and then continue drinking that beer. What a waste! This drives me crazy. For beer, Belgium's strong point is variety.

My recommendation is, if you're here for a week or less, never drink the same beer twice. Always try a new beer, and if you're in a bar that doesn't have any beers you haven't tried, leave and find a better bar.

Belgian bars

Irish bars

There must be at least 30 Irish bars in Brussels and they also serve as expat bars, sports bars, etc. The selection of beer is usually not very good, but some of them are good craic.


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Writers and singers

I've been searching for Belgian culture since 2004 - of course, this includes the problem of defining what types of culture are "Belgian culture". If a Belgian dances Salsa or sings international pop music, is that Belgian culture? That's culture by Belgians, and they'll claim there've added a Belgian twist to it, but that's usually just marketing talk. However, a Belgian mentality does exist. It's hard to nail down, but it's something to do with auto-derision, mockery of their own country, and a non-pretentious form of surrealism.

I've had more time to find things in French, since I learned that language first, but I've been trying to redress the balance since 2008 by focussing on things in Dutch. Anyway, here are some things I've liked that display what I think is a genuine particularly-Belgian twist:

Of course, there are Belgians who hate all of these people, but then again, most people from Ireland don't read Pat Ingoldsby, but he's clearly still Irish culture. One thing that's for sure is that Belgians don't want to talk about Jean-Claude Van Damme.


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Eating

If you're looking for a nice Belgian restaurant in Brussels city centre, there's one at the high end of Grand Place called " 't Kelder". I recommend the Flemmish Carbonade. There is another restaurant beside it, called "Cave du Roy", with the same style and the menu looks the same, but 't Kelder is always full and Cave du Roy is always empty. Go figure.

Another option is to head to Rue des Bouchers. That's a street with nothing but restaurants, and a few of the ajoining streets are also filled with restaurants. Monday to Thursday, many of the restaurants offer a nice (albeit minimal) three-course meal for €12, or sometimes even a little less, and if you haggle lightly they sometimes give you a free beer too.

I ate in a really nice restaurant, near Place Flagey, maybe Chaussée de Vleurgat, I think it was called La graine de sel. The price was about €27 for three courses and wine. There's also a restaurant that opened in late 2011, De Keukentoren, which looks nice. It's on the 13th floor of a high-tech cooking school in Anderlecht. Reservation required, set menus for €20 - €25, but I can't find a website or any other contact details.

If you're looking for an expensive restaurant, try the top ball of The Atomium. Not mad expensive, but €25 - €40 per person, I think.


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Sundays and over-regulated retail

Almost all shops and services are closed in Brussels on Sundays, and during the week only very basic shops are open after 6 or 7pm. For someone who works full-time and studies five nights a week plus Saturday mornings, this is very annoying. The workers' unions seem to be the main cause of this problem. I was very pro-union before I came to Belgium, and I do see the good things they do for workers here, but some of their campaigns really reduce the quality of services available to residents in Belgium.

There are three bookshops open on Sundays. When I want a book, I usually wait until Sunday and buy it in one of these shops:

When the government proposed allowing shops to open on Sundays, the unions marched through the streets with the slogan "Don't touch my weekend!" I think this was misguided. The union members are mostly native Belgians, over 25 years old. They wouldn't have to work on Sundays. The Sunday work would be done by young people and immigrants. Maybe this is a factor in Belgium's high unemployment among young people and immigrants. Unemployment among immigrants is not only costly for the state but also surely fuels racism directly, and it fuels racism indirectly by making social integration more difficult.

Opening hours are also highly regulated (all my comparisons are with Ireland). Finding a chemist open after 6pm is either impossible or almost impossible. What we call a newsagent in Ireland (a smallish shop with milk, bread, newpapers, lottery tickets, chocolate, etc.) is not allowed sell newspapers or magazines in Belgium. Instead, you have to find a press shop, and they're all closed by 6pm and closed on Sundays (except for one in Gare du Midi, one in Galerie Royale, and you can buy newspapers in Filigranes bookshop near Arts-Loi).

Further, these local food shops are only allowed to be open for a certain number of hours per day, so they have to choose to either be a "day shop" or a "night shop". This usually leads to a day shop being right beside a night shop, and neither will sell fresh products (such as fresh milk) because the stock turnover of each is half what it should be and they can't sell fresh products quick enough.


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Bookshops (for various languages)

Sections: Foreign languages, For language learning, English, Dutch, French.

Foreign languages

Here's the expatsinbrussels.be list of foreign language bookshops.

For language learning

English

Dutch

Another option is the Boeken Festijn, a travelling bookshop that stops for a few days at a time in cities in North Belgium and the Netherlands.

French

I'll only list the most useful few. Open even on Sundays:

Useful, but closed on Sundays:

The prices of books are almost the same in all shops, so I prefer to choose a shop based on which one I would like to see grow. I avoid Fnac because it is closed on Sundays, they don't answer their phone, and the last time they reorganised their shop, they replaced a book section with electronics goods.


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Philippine community

In La Bascule, in Uccle, there's a Filipino restaurant and shop on either side of the smaller of the two shopping galleries. The bigger gallery has Inno and Carrefour. The smaller one is in this photo: LaBascule.jpg. In that photo, the Filipino shop is down the street to the left of the gallery, and the restaurant is down the street to the right which isn't in the photo.

As of August 2012:


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Cheap living

Brussels can be a cheap place to live, but you have to shop around. There are a lot of politicians, executives, and diplomats here, so a lot of shopping districts are geared towards attracting these expense-account people. Once you dig a little further, you discover the places where the normal Belgians and the large immigrant community do their shopping.

Food and household items

There is an outdoor market at Gare du Midi every Sunday from 6am until 2pm. Fruit, vegetables, clothes, kitchenware, spices, basic electronics, and household items are cheap here.

Brussels has good second hand shops. On Boulevard Maurice Lemonier, you'll find second hand shops for books, DVDs, and computers. As well as helping you to live cheaply, buying second hand goods also reduces waste.

There's also Cash Converters, which is a chain of second hand shops.

Another cheap place to shop is Rue de Brabant, near Gare du Nord, parallel to the red light district. The shops there are open on Sunday too, which is rare in Brussels. There you'll mostly find clothes, shoes, and household items.

Drinking

In Brussels you can drink on the streets and even when walking around in shops. One nice way to enjoy a few beers is to buy cans in the shop or supermarket and stroll around the city or sit in Grand Place.

The next cheapest option is to drink in Celtica, The Old Oak, Michael Collins', or de Valera's, where pints are €2 until midnight, 10pm, 8pm, and <I-don't-know>, respectively.

Another good option is to buy French wine in the supermarkets. It's quite cheap for good quality stuff. A €4 or €5 bottle of red from the Rhone Valley is usually quite good.

One thing to avoid in Brussels is spirits. There's a big tax on these in the bars, so it's better to buy nice Irish whiskey and drink it at home.


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Language learning courses in Brussels

Learning languages is a hobby of mine. I also have a Learning Languages page with general info. In Brussels, there is one bookshop dedicated to languages: Maison des Langues Vivants, but you have to go early because they usually close at 5:30pm or earlier (even if the sign in the window says they open til 6).

Finding private tutors

Is it good value?
If you search all the websites, you can find tutors that don't cost too much. If you have the time and availability, then cheap courses at the VUB are a better option, but if your schedule is very restricted, then the flexibility of a private tutor can be great. For example, if there's a group course that costs €7.50 per hour, and if you know you'll miss some of the classes, then the real price per hour for the hours you'll actually be there goes up, and then add in the time-cost of travelling to and from the course. Then compare this total cost with a tutor that asks for €12 or €10 per hour and comes to your house. The prices start to look very similar. Your choice is then based on your schedule, and whether you need individual help (great if you need to improve your pronunciation of if you want to choose the vocabulary topics) or if you need the help of a formally trained teacher such as you'd get in group lessons (great if you want to be taught grammar or if you want the teacher to prepare the lessons).

If you're just looking for conversation in the target language, another option is to contact babysitters and ask them if they're also available for that.

When looking for the cheapest options, remember to make it as easy as possible for the other person. The best way to learn a language is to use it every day, so an hour a day is better than seven hours once a week, but that's also the least attractive schedule for a tutor. Overall, I think it's better to ask someone to help for three or five hours or add €10 for transport.

The best site for Belgium is:

There are also some smaller sites. Sometimes they're ok, sometimes they're annoying to navigate, and sometimes they disappear, but they're worth checking to find a reasonable price:

French

You might also be interested in my Learning French page.

Very cheap

Mid-price

Dutch

In general, Dutch courses are quite expensive and there is not much to choose from. A lot of schools have elaborate schedules on their websites, but when you phone them, they say most are cancelled due to lack of interest.

Very cheap

See also: http://www.dorifor.be/ - somewhere on that site there is a listing of cheap Dutch courses. I know because someone printed the list for me, but I don't know where they found the list on that site.

Mid-range

Mid-priced courses don't exist. I think this is because of a policy of the Flemish government that backfired. The Flemish goverment subsidises Dutch courses for French-speaking residents (or maybe just job seekers) of Belgium. I suspect that this motivated the Dutch schools to double their prices because people looking for Dutch courses are spending government money and are less fussy about finding a fair price.

Expensive

Japanese

When learning Japanese, after a lot of searching and asking people, I found the below list of places. Another good option is to get a private tutor.

Institut Libre Marie Haps

This is cheap, but you either do a September-June evening course or there are Saturday morning courses from September-January and from February-June.

HEB asbl

This is cheap but they only have September to May courses, nothing shorter or more flexible. It can be hard to find information on their website, so here are direct links to the pages that contain related info:

Languages Unlimited

Just off the roundabout at Montgomery metro stop. They do one-to-one lessons at the school for €30 per hour. Maybe there are other options too. Here's their website with phone number:

Gltt

Here's a school that I don't know anything about, but they have Japanese courses in (or maybe just outside) Brussels.

Other

And here are schools that I know nothing about, but they have some Japanese courses:

Tests

The Selor tests are the official language tests of the Belgian government for French and Dutch. They're held three times a year. The dates for the tests in 2009 where March 13th, June 15th, and November 9th.

For French there are internationally recognised tests organised by the Alliance Française in Brussels.

For Dutch there is the "Certificaat Nederlands als Vreemde Taal" (CNaVT). The test takes place just once a year on the first Wednesday of May, and you have to register in February. Places where you can do the exam include:

There is also a list of exam centres, but the list doesn't include KUL (which is Belgium's main CNaVT centre), and the number of centres in the Netherlands is strangely small. I'm not sure I'd trust that list.

Other languages

Here are some language institutes where you can do official exams. I found this information with help from the EUNIC site.


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Third-level education

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Access for foreigners to third-level education

If you want to start a third-level studies in Belgium - college ("hogeschool"/"Haute école") or university - you'll need to prove that you have sufficient education (secondary school - whatever certificate your country gives you at age 16-18), and you'll have to pass a language test for whichever language you want to do a course in.

The French-speaking community of Belgium has a unified system that serves as proof that you can speak French sufficiently well and that your current education is sufficient. If you pass, you get the "diplôme d'aptitude à l'enseignement supérieur" (DAES) and you can attend any French speaking college or university in Belgium. In a university where I enrolled, I also had to sit their own French language test, but it was simple compared to the DAES. It was just a formality really.

The Dutch-speaking community of Belgium seems much less organised on this matter. Each university sets their own criteria and their own exams, so finding info requires searching each university's website and phoning or visiting them to confirm that their webpages are accurate and to ask for clarifications.

There is a certificate called the CNaVT PTHO which is designed to show that the holder has sufficient Dutch to follow higher level studies. The university webpages are unclear, but most mention this certificate in some way, so it's probably a good thing to have. It's level B2 in the European framework.

Here's some info I found once:

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Evening third-level education courses

Universities don't like the term "evening course", I guess it sounds like a lesser education, so instead of the obvious French and Dutch terms ("cours du soir" and "avondcursus / avondonderwijs/ voor avondstudenten / avondprogramma") you'll find info about evening courses under unintuitive headings such as "shifted timetable courses (horaire décalé)" or "working and studying accompaniment program (werken en studeren begeleidingsprogramma)". I haven't researched this much, but here are some pages I found:

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Combinable courses

I asked a friend how he managed to do two third-level courses at the same time: "Oh, you just focus on one for the June exams and the other for the repeats in August". That simple, for some.

Here're some pages I found when I was looking at my options for studying law and translation, one by day, one by night, in Dutch or in French in Brussels.

Interesting combinations:


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News online

Watching news online is also a good way to learn the languages. Below are some the sites and notes about them. There are Belgian channels in Dutch and in French, and each of the ten provinces has it's own local channel. For Brussels there's two channels, one in each language..

I usually download the videos, and for most sites that takes a little poking around to find the URL/address of the video so I can download it. I've tried two Flash players, Gnash and swfdec. They both have similar ability to play videos but swfdec has a useful feature of showing the URL of each element. If you right click on the video area and go to Properties, there should be a list of things downloading or downloaded.

AVS Oost-Vlaamse Televisie

Website: AVS Oost-Vlaamse Televisie. Here's the code to download all the news for the past week:

for i in maandag dinsdag woensdag donderdag vrijdag zondag; do mplayer -dumpstream -dumpfile avs-`date +%Y%m%d`-${i}.wmv mms://clusterstreamhobo.telenet-ops.be/AVS/NIEUWS/nieuws${i}.wmv; done

TV Brussel

Website: Brussel Vandaag. The video URL each day is like this: http://tvbrussel.irisnet.be/video/tvbrussel/3250.flv

The numbers aren't in order, so you'll have to go to the website, click on the date and then look at the name of the file which starts downloading.

ATV Antwerpse televisie

I haven't been able to find the video url for this site yet.

Limburg news

You can access the page for each date by looking at the URL like this: http://www.tvl.be/nl/nieuws/2009-12-11/

Unfortunately, they don't seem to provide whole videos, only a series of ten chunks, so you have to look at the page source code, grab the ten URLs, and download them.

Halle-Vilvoorde (Vlaams Brabant West)

Website: ringtv.be. They don't seem to have any video news online.

ROB TV (Vlaams Brabant East)

They have URLs like this: wget http://dl1.streaming.telenetmedia.be/corelio/robtv/nieuws_31-12-2009.flv

RTV

News from the Mechelen (the South of Antwerp) and Turnhout (the North of Antwerp). There are two news streams per day, by the same reader but with different content. The URLs are like this:

I don't know how to access video from previous days.


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Beyond Brussels: Flanders and Wallonia

Flanders is the Dutch-speaking northern region of Belgium, and Wallonia is the smaller, French-speaking southern region. Brussels is a mostly French-speaking region surrounded by Flanders, but near the border of Flanders and Wallonia.

The divisions within Belgium are very irregular, so it's difficult to characterise the cities of Belgium by statistics. For example, Brussels is clearly Belgium's biggest city, but the commune of Antwerp has three times as many residents as Brussels City. This is because Brussels is divided into nineteen communes, while Antwerp is unified in a single commune. Another example is Charleroi. By population, it's the biggest city in Wallonia, but that's because it was formed by putting a border around several medium-sized cities. If you're looking for a large city centre in Wallonia, Liege is the biggest.

Flanders

Antwerp

This is the largest Dutch-speaking city in Belgium. Here are some bars that a beer-lover recommended to me:

Gent

Has two city centres. One centre is the student area with some bars open until morning.

Wallonia

Liege

This is the biggest city in Wallonia. Nice city. If you arrive at Liege-Guillemins train station, the buses numbers 1 and 4 will take you to the city centre, which is the stop St. Lambert.

There is a Sunday morning market along the river, like the one at Gare du Midi in Brussels. Anyone will be able to tell you where it is.

Namur

Not so big. Has a nice castle on a hill that is worth walking to the top of. At the top of the hill there's nothing but an expensive restaurant, so you might want to bring your own snack/drink.


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Irish books in French and Dutch

Not many people will find this useful, but here's a list of books by Irish authors which are available in both French and Dutch.

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Miscellaneous links

Here's where I'll dump useful links I find.


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