Wednesday, 10 March 2010

First week in Brussels

Well I made it to Brussels in one piece, and I’m halfway through my first working week here. The move went very smoothly, and the transition to being here full-time hasn’t been all that jarring considering I lived here for a month last year and have been coming to the office here about once a month over the past year. Still, it should be a very different experience living here than it was just working here.

Given that I moved my whole life in five suitcases via train (with the help of my saint of a boyfriend), it was almost eery how much this seemed like a non-event. I never felt very stressed about it, didn’t spend much time packing and generally didn’t think about the whole thing very much at all. I guess I really do have this moving thing down to a science now.

Out of all my moves, this was definitely one of the most simple. I was moving to a place I had already lived, that was only 90 minutes away by train, to do the exact same job in an office I’ve already been working in occasionally for a year. I’ve also already moved house via the Eurostar twice, back in August of 2008 when I moved from London to Paris and in March 2009 when I moved from Brussels back to London. I also moved house via TGV train from Paris to Zurich and from Zurich to Brussels. Actually my moves by train over the past two years have made a bizarre little diamond haven’t they?

I like my new apartment a lot. It’s an open one bedroom with three levels, right on Place St. Catherine looking out over the square. St. Catherine is a really cool area with lots of great restaurants and bars, complete with a giant dilapidated church at the east end. I’ve been blessed with some sunny (but freezing) days since I arrived, so I was able to show my boyfriend a bit of the city over the weekend as he had never been to Belgium before. I had set the bar pretty low in terms of describing the city (as had every Brit he had talked to about it), so he was pleasantly surprised that Brussels was not in fact the most horrible place on earth.

Yesterday I was getting my permanent press accreditation at the European Commission around noon, so I decided to drop by the midday press briefing even though there was nothing specifically environment-related on the agenda. The representative of the commission was busy exasperatingly trying to give a non-answer to questions over whether the Commission supports calls by German chancellor Angela Merkel for a ‘European Monetary Fund’ in response to the Greek crisis. It reminded me that these are volatile times for the EU, particularly as concerns the Euro. It will be an interesting time to be in Brussels.

I’m also quickly coming to realise that it may be hard to replicate my normal London habits here in Brussels. For one thing there appear to be absolutely no fast food outlets in the EU Quarter to eat lunch in. I’m going to starve! All I’ve got are little fancy shops with very expensive food. I’ve been amused so far to see people using their little meal tickets at the lunch places. What’s a Belgian meal ticket you ask? Well, this may be my favourite example of absurd Belgian bureaucracy so far. Apparently everyone who works here is issued five daily meal tickets by the government per week. The meal tickets can only be spent on food, and are designed for people to use to buy their lunch. So essentially, the Belgian government doesn’t trust people to buy their own food. It’s not “free food” of course, because your tax money is paying for that meal ticket you’re issued. Of course, with a staggered tax system higher income workers are subsidizing the meals of lower income workers, which is good and all, but can the benefit really justify the enormous level of bureaucracy that must be necessary to process all of these things?

I don’t want to turn this blog into yet another litany of rantings by a frustrated Anglo-Saxon on the continent, but surely there will be more of these kinds of anecdotes to come! Of course I will be sure to point out the aspects of Belgian living that I admire as well. As soon as that comes up, I’ll let you know!

I’m not sure what I’ll do with my first weekend here, I may head up to Antwerp to visit a friend who lives there. Or I may stick around Brussels and try to acclimate myself to the fact that I’m really living here now. We shall see. But all in all, not a bad start to my little Belgium adventure.


Bram said...

I have a little remark on the meal ticket thing (maaltijdcheque in Dutch, cheque repas in French). The meal tickets are paid by the employer and the employee. There is no tax money involved. The meal tickets are not an obligation, but an extra. Not everybody receives a meal ticket.

The meal tickets are an interesting way of payment because the employer does not have to pay extra taxes on the amount of money given to his employees. What he pays is what his employee receives. The employee, for his part, does not have to pay income taxes on it.

A meal ticket is issued per working day (not for holidays, weekends, illness, etc). And a small part of the meal ticket is paid by the employee.

Example: a 7 euro meal ticket is for one working day. The employer pays 5,91 euro (not one single euro goes to the State, no extra taxes) and the employee 1,09 euro (the minimum amount he has to pay).

There is a maximum for the amount mentioned on meal tickets (I'm not sure if it's still 7 euro per ticket).

Welcome in Belgium!

Gulf Stream Blues said...

Ah interesting, I was misinformed then! A friend of mine told me they were provided directly by the state (shakes fist at friend). Though certainly there is some element of public money involved, because by not taking in the tax revenue the state is subsidising the food, which requires extra tax money to be taken in from other sources (though not much I would imagine).

Are you sure it's optional? Is it an option for the employer, or the employee? They must be very popular if they're optional for the employee, I see everyone using them!

Paul said...

Moreover you can use them in the supermarket to pay your grocery shopping
Welcome to Brussels. You will discover the beauty of the city little by little