Friday, November 23, 2012

Relocation to Belgium?

The good thing about this blog is the fact that very few people know about it. I barely mentioned it to a few friends. If someone is really keen on finding it, they can and I don't mind. I just don't want to think about what so and so would be thinking if I post these or that. I purposely avoid talking about friends, family or kids and don't share much personal information. From what I see from the stats, it's mostly visited by people I don't know. Which is why I can actually talk about this subject.
Belgium that is.
The situation is as follows. Right in this moment there are two offers on the table and they are both very good. The question is which one would hubs (we) take. One is to stay in Cyprus/Moscow for another 1,5 year. The other is to move to Brussels for at least 3 years. It should be decided in the next few days, and frankly, I am eating my nails figuratively speaking.
Place de Bruckere, Brussels. View from the hotel
Since the Belgium offer came we went there to see how life there would be at a so-called orientation trip. In a week time we toured 7 schools, visited 10 rental homes all over the country, met the future boss and colleagues and over all did the "homework". Good visit, that's why the choice is so tough. Of course Belgium has a big advantage for reuniting us again, as if we stay in the current set up I am alone with the kids at least 4 days a week with hubs working in Moscow. Decisions, Decisions...
Since the country isn't and hubs job would be somewhere in the middle we could live pretty much anywhere.
First step schools.
With regards to private schools, our only choice since the kids education needs to be in English, it was quite an entertaining and rather useful experience.
School number one, St John's, is a typical well run American type of private school. Great facilities, state of the art technologies, big campus, yet nice and cosy atmosphere. One of our final choices, also for the fact that they have a dual language program English and French as of 3, something the other schools shy away from. Pleasant tour with the school rep, the only that asked a lot of questions about the kids and even took notes. Draw back one, location in the midst of the worse traffic jams. Draw back two, since they had a winter bazaar organized by the American Women's Club, we wanted to get acquainted and ended up in cafeteria. Food choice was as follows: fries, burgers, fatty turkey sandwich, even fattier con carne, what is this? Promotion of obesity. Not all things coming from America are good..
Next, International School of Brussels, ISB, promptly renamed the International Bullshit School. In the first two minutes of being given the introduction I already knew there is no chance we would get the kids in there. Without asking a single question, a female school rep gave is the standard lecture in a slightly patronizing manner, mentioning how they start in September but the first day the kids are there for an hour, then two hours and then slowly  in about a week they go to the "full time" which is until 15.30 and only until 12.30 on Wednesday, some Belgium oddity. Full time not for the working mothers, that's for sure. 
But the biggest thing was "easing them for a week". Easing who? The teachers. Children are not strawberries, there is no need to treat them like they will become marmalade, really. In fact it was more than clear that that lady didn't give a s.... about our kids or if you ask me, anyone else's, or if she does, she certainly hides it tremendously well. But pass the fact the "sales agent" was inadequate. We were given "the tour"by a pleasant young man, recent graduate. Very pleasant indeed, but obviously incapable of answering any pre-school related questions. The campus is great, but the facilities for the younger kids dark, unfriendly, cheaply looking. For what they charge you would expect a whole different level of service. Overall, a definite no go.
Next, another one we liked, was St Paul's British primary, the smaller, British version on St John's but without the French. One thing I have to say about the British though, they know how to keep track of progress. Each child had their place on a large board and there were notes taken in 7 areas of development. As we entered the first room there were 5 cute young boys, washing dishes and decorating cakes in a peaceful harmony. It's a whole new world built in right there. Draw back, small, darker rooms, small and not particularly inspiring sport facilities.
Saw few more schools that worth mentioning.

European school in Mol being one, which is part of the Europea school group which was created for the children of the people working for the European Union. Big drawbag is the fact that campus is in the middle of nowhere. But what a campus! It's set in a big old forest and the playground looked like a fairytale on a sunny autumn day. The girls class would pretty much be a mini EU, children from everywhere. Tuition is by far the cheapest, but would have meant us living in the Belgium countryside to fastest way to make the assignment not work.
Cafetaria in the European school in Mol, Belgium
Next, Da Vinci in Antwerp. The British know good share about evaluating, giving information on regular basis, keeping a diary about what the children learned each and every day! I thought that was brilliant. As we entered the room, the kids were having boxed lunch. Why would you not arrange warm lunch in a private school is beyond me, but that's a different story. So there was a japanese girl eating sushi, an african eating couscous salad, a Russian bland macaroni, Italian eating pasta with meatballs, American eating a ham and cheese sandwich etc... Draw back, it's a city school and the campus has only a small yard. Also, we had to live in Antwerp, and that's not my cup of tea really. It's  bit of a deja vu with Amsterdam, only not quite as cosmopolitan and fun.
Antwerp International School (AIS)was pretty much the same as the ISB experience. Same lousy rep, same attitude about not giving a damn about the children from her part. She even dared to tell us that we should not live in Brussels because it's "too much". Excuse me, how many places have you lived in? Only one, only here. Oh, I thought so. Most useless tour ever.
Another hilarious episode in that school. We met a teacher and I asked how do they keep track of what the children are learning. Her immediate answer was "No scoring. They are too young." Uhh, ok, nevermind. Quite a surprise also that she was not a native English speaker, in a self-proclaimed English curriculum school.
Other two, World International School and BEPS Brussels were a no go to. First one seemed a bit too much Middle Eastern-s favorite. BEPS visit was rushed for various reason, but even if I tried to see trough that fact, no chance my kids will spend a year studying in a basement without natural light.
Next thing, housing. Houses in Belgium are cheaper and generally bigger than in the rest of Europe. But space doesn't come together with quality. For some reason people pay little to no attention to some obvious things such as the importance of a good kitchen, or built in closets, or the fact that you need light in pretty much any space.
In front of one of the houses. Belgium looks great on a sunny day:)
For a city person, there is pain in the realization that there isn't much sense in living downtown. The parks, the beautiful houses with views and the schools, even the cafes and restaurants are all outside of the center which is congested, cold and not particularly pretty with the exception of couple of streets. In that sense Brussels very much reminded me of moving to Portland or to pretty much any big city in the states. But finding a good house did not seem too much of a concern.
One thing that's a definite plus about life in Belgium is the food. They know how to eat over there, no doubt about it. Even in the simplest smallest provincial cafe you would get beautifully presented, decent quality, faintly resembling French cuisine food. Belgium beer, even for a non-beer drinker like me, is another level of quality, and wines are naturally French, so no complaints there.
Tax system is more favorable that it is in the Netherlands which is another definite benefit. It also makes car driving far cheaper, which is great as it's very needed.
Traffic congestion around Brussels seemed comparable to a Moscow rush hour, a real shame for the unofficial capital of the EU.
Relocation to Belgium?
All in all, useful visit. Life in Belgium can definitely be good. But so is life in Cyprus.
We were sitting outside of the airport in Larnaca before departure and I got sunburned. On the other hand I opened the car door in front of the hotel in Brussels and I got a refreshing splash of wind, cold and rain in my face. Just like being back in the Netherlands, or Portland, OR, or even Moscow just double the cold.
Damn, I finally live in a place where the sun is shining, do I really need to run away already?
Btw, the local private school In Cyprus called the American Academy is really solid.
Let's see which direction will the wind blow

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