Five months in: the pros and cons

April 4, 2014 · 16 comments

in Belgium, daily life

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.

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