Five months in: the pros and cons

I’ve only been here for just over five months, so my views are a bit limited, but here are my pros and cons so far:

Pro – Ghent is family-friendly. People always seem willing to lend a hand with a stroller, there are tons of parks, playgrounds, and walking/bike paths around, and the city is just bursting at the seams with young families.

Con – With all of the young families around, kid stuff can get a bit insane. I think back to January of this year when our friends reminded us that Darwin, having been born in 2012 (just barely), would need to be registered for pre-school in a few weeks’ time. The pre-school system in Ghent is oddly competitive. My impression is that it’s not as bad as it used to be, once they rolled out an online registration system that essentially takes your top five school choices and spits out an invitation to one based on where you live, but overall, space is tight enough at schools that it’s possible the only open spot will be across town. Luckily, I got Darwin’s schooling all sorted out now (first choice, woo!) so that he’s set to start in September 2015. Let that sink in a bit. Isn’t it crazy? I’ve been told that other cities (ones not experiencing a baby explosion) don’t have competitive school systems.

Pro – Ghent is immigrant-friendly. The vast majority of people I meet speak some English, and most of those people speak it very well. I’ve heard that once I get my residency approved, I’m entitled to free integration courses that include introductory Dutch lessons. There are also organizations around the city meant to help immigrant families get settled by helping with residency paperwork, finding daycare, getting up-to-date with vaccinations, etc.

Con – Like any bureaucratic process, it seems that the full range of services are not clearly laid out anywhere, so I find out about helpful organizations usually only after going to the wrong office, trying to complete the wrong process, and generally going in the wrong direction for several weeks/months.

Pro – Rent here in Ghent is cheaper than big cities in the US. I’ll go into more detail about our house and our expenses in another post, but we pay 760 euros per month for a 3-bedroom/1-bathroom house. For comparison, we paid $600/month for our 1-bedroom/1-bathroom ground-floor apartment in Bishkek (the crazy one!) and $1425/month for a 1-bedroom/1-bathroom ground-floor apartment in DC (four years ago).

Con – Ghent is actually more expensive to live in than Brussels, the capital of Belgium (and the entire European Union). Being a big student town and popular for so many hip, young couples and families has driven up the cost of living, and the housing market gets fierce.
(Caveat – Babies are the trump card when looking for a rental. I can’t say for sure, but I think Darwin was the key to being chosen by our landlords over two couples who they kinda sorta promised it to before us.)

Pro – Public transportation and bike-friendly streets make it easy to get around without a car!

Con – Bike riding can be scary, especially where the paths (or lack thereof, there aren’t bike lanes on every street) intersect or run parallel to tram tracks. Public transportation can add up, it’s about 1.30 per ride, plus it’s not 100% convenient 100% of the time. Now we’re considering buying a car anyway (as foreigners? I can already imagine the bureaucratic headache) so I can commute to my new job (!!!).

Pro – Ghent is dynamic and energetic. There’s a fashion scene, movie scene, and attempts to make this the next big place for startups and tech companies.

Con – A friend, comparing Ghent to Bishkek, said Ghent was old and stuck in its ways, while in Bishkek everything is ever-changing. Could be true, but there are pros and cons to that viewpoint as well.

Con – It rains a lot. Maybe it’s just the winter doldrums, but it seems pretty silly to have so many sand-covered playgrounds in a city where it rains so often.
(Caveat – I’ve been told this winter has been especially rainy, so maybe it’s not always like this.)

Pro – Ample excuses to stay inside and eat frites. This might only be a pro for introverts like myself.

Another pro – It’s not always so rainy. Sometimes it’s beautiful and warm and the whole city goes to Graslei and sits along the canal, lounging in a way that only Europeans can.

Con – European ideas of business hours. In Belgium (and other parts of Europe), kids go to school for only a half-day on Wednesday. Do parents work a half-day on Wednesday? It doesn’t seem like it. A lot of stores take lunch breaks, so one store or office may be closed from 11-12, 11:30-12:30, 12:00-2:00, or 1:00-2:00. Some stores take a half-day on Monday, Tuesday, or Thursday. Some have extended hours on Wednesday. Some are open in the morning on Tuesday, but only in the afternoon on Thursday. And Belgian law puts a cap on how long a business can be open, so there are “day shops” and “night shops”. From my perspective, having wasted countless teenage hours drinking coffee in 24-hour diners, always being able to rely on convenience stores being opened whenever I needed something (convenient, eh?), and ordering pizza in the middle of the night in college, this whole aspect of Belgian/European life is a bit strange to me.

Pro – Ghent is freaking gorgeous and oozes charm. I can’t help it, I’m in love with this city.

Question for you! What is your absolute most favorite thing about where you live? Doesn’t matter if you’ve lived there for a few weeks or your whole life, tell me what you love about it.

16 replies on “Five months in: the pros and cons”

  1. I’m an American expat in Ireland (and before that I was an ‘expat’ in Canada for 7 years!). Ireland is also several years into a baby boom and the registering-your-kids-for-school-early thing is also true here. People register their newborns for ‘junior infants’ (like kindergarten) and find they are already 23rd on the waiting list for starting school in five years time. Crazy! We just moved here in September and picking a school for our son was so stressful. My favorite thing about living here is that we can live in the country and rent a house with a garden for about the same price we’d rent a basement apartment in suburban hell back in Canada! That being said, Ireland isn’t necessarily affordable… 🙂 But it is very scenic and charming and so historic.

    1. wow, school registration sounds so much crazier than it was for me here! oh and a house in the countryside just sounds absolutely lovely!

    1. ugh, the wind must be so rough right near the water! It’s not so bad here in Ghent, but trying to ride a bike through any wind suuuucks

  2. I live in Ghent and for me it’s the most beautiful city in Belgium. Obviously. I hope the bureaucratic madness quickly comes to an end so you can fully enjoy the city 🙂 (And yes, it rains a lot. Though I find the over all greyness that so often looms over Belgium much worse. Thankfully, it’s also been especially sunny these past couple of weeks!)

    1. haha I love it, OBVIOUSLY Ghent is the best. The weather has been amaaaaaazing, I hope it lasts! (or picks up again, it’s been pretty grey today so far)

  3. Cool idea! And I can’t believe the outrageous competition for schools over there – how crazy!

    I loved the madness of Moscow and how there was something to do 24/7. Sometimes it could be overwhelming, but overall I loved it.

    1. Now that I’m hearing stories from other cities, like Martha’s comment OMG, it doesn’t seem so bad, especially because it was all automated, but it’s still weird to hear that other cities in Belgium don’t have the same issue. And Moscow really does seem overwhelming, maybe I’m too Bishkek-biased, but Moscow seems terrifying to me, like NYC to someone who was raised in a small midwestern town or something. How will you survive in a calm tropical paradise?! Well, I guess there are plenty of crazy cities in South America too.

  4. uhhh..I just exclaimed to justin across the flat how much you pay for THREE bedrooms! we live in ixelles, which is apparently the most expensive commune in the country. oh, to have at least ONE other bedroom! lucky gal 😉 wait. and who told you it doesn’t rain? we’re under this gray cloud constantly..at least in the winter months, but it makes for amaaaazing summer months!!

    1. I know two words that will make you SO jealous: craft room. Well, it’s a guest bedroom/storage room for Farrell’s music equipment/craft room, but still. You should come see it next time you wanna swing by Ghent! We can sit on my terrace too!

  5. So glad I stumbled across your blog (that Montgomery Fest always has good suggestions)! Your photos of Ghent are gorgeous and I am glad you are enjoying your time in Belgium. I lived in Brussels for the last ten years before moving to London and Belgium is indeed a special place. I never got used to the “open” hours of shops in the country – I’d say that is more unique to Belgian big cities than most other countries where you are more likely to run into that in the countryside. I can’t believe the rent you mention in Ghent though! Its cheap in Brussels but that sounds like a real find!! Looking forward to reading more.

    1. Thank you for the kind words! The weird thing about the hours is that now I find myself anticipating that every store is going to potentially be closed from 11-2, which makes planning to go run errands difficult, but then I’m pleasantly surprised when a shop is open straight through from 10-6!

  6. I think one of the things I love most about living in Melbourne is the opportunities we have. We can see live sports, comedy, musicals, go to the zoo, or the aquarium, etc, etc. I think I went to the zoo back home twice growing up and we usually go 6+ times a year here.
    Melbourne isn’t usually the place people think about when they think Australia and I often think about what it would be like living somewhere warmer/closer to a nice beach (ie: living the stereo-typical Aussie beach dream), but I can’t imagine actually moving away because there is a lot of stuff we’d miss (our favourite band is from here, Glen is into local sports, etc).
    It’s certainly a change from a small Arctic town with a population of 3500!

    1. It’s kinda nice to have the experience of living somewhere that’s not as developed or expansive as where we are now, I’m always thinking about how my time in Bishkek makes me appreciate all of the opportunities I have here in Ghent and I’m sure it’s similar for you with the Arctic town vs. Melbourne!

  7. Several of these things surprised me, such as Ghent having higher rent than Brussels. Also, the way the shops suddenly shut down for an hour in the middle of the day sounds much like Spain! It’s way worse in small towns, but even in the capital a cafe or even chain store can open late, and most shops are closed for lunch. What really drives me crazy about this easy-going schedule is that most banks close after 2:30!

    I think it is awesome that Belgium offers so many resources to expats. Free language learning courses? Heck yes! Will you be able to take advantage of these?

    1. I’ll try to! I was about to sign up for intensive Dutch courses that I would’ve gotten a steep discount on, but then I got a job offer so I won’t be able to. And the free courses as well, I technically won’t be eligible for them until I get my official residency card, and by then I’ll be working full-time and don’t know if I can take advantage of those anymore 🙁 but it’s a nice idea!

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