It’s that time again…the military is moving us again after two years….this time to SHAPE (near Mons), Belgium. My first impressions are that this is certainly not Germany…..In fact, coming from Germany, you expect everything to be just like Germany! If Flanders and Wallonia (the French speaking Southern part) were to split into two separate countries, Wallonia would be the second poorest European country just ahead of Albania! But with that being said and after meeting some of the friendliest people I’ve EVER met in Europe, here are some tips to make your move more successful.
This was one of the rarest moves for us, moving from one overseas location to another with a vehicle rather than flying. We made the mistake of piling up things throughout our home, here….and there…and saying, “oh, it’ll fit in the van”. In the end, it did not all fit in the van, necessitating another trip down to Germany to pick up the rest of our junk at a later date. It didn’t help that we also had an extra large dogcrate for our behemoth of a canine. Be sure to set aside ALL your items that will go in your car in one place, and make sure it all fits in your vehicle BEFORE the movers leave.
If you are coming from Germany, add a small fire extinguisher to your vehicle. It is required by Belgium law in addition to your first aid kit, warning triangle and the orange safety vest. Make sure you bring a vehicle in good working order, as the roads are just…bad…here…and rough…many, the size of goatpaths with tons of potholes and black ice in the winter rather than loads of snow. Keep this in mind when thinking about bringing a super-nice vehicle! Come prepared! Also, vehicles must have rear fog lights and all vehicles under 5 years old must have an official yearly inspection that is no joke! It is very thorough, so let me recommend you get it pre-inspected before going to the official inspection station. The autoshop on SHAPE can do that for you and that along with a foglight installation will set you back just over 100 euros.
Be sure to get your vehicle inspected at the official CT inspection station in Braine-le-Comte, about 20 minutes from SHAPE. This is my own recommendation….there are many other inspection stations as well, but I found this one was not as heavily frequented. Go right after lunch, midweek, and you’ll have a much shorter wait than at the one in Mons. We were in and out of there in 30 minutes. You’ll also find some of their technicians speaking English and the experience costs just over 50 euros. After speaking to the technician, he said most Americans who fail the inspection fail because of misaligned headlights and improperly installed foglights.
Av. Du Marouset 103
You can also make an appointment at this particular station, and here are the other stations in Belgium in case you decide to check out another one.
Other quick tips that come to mind:
- If you are staying at the lodge on Chievres Air Base, try to get a suite, which will have a kitchenette with a microwave, refrigerator, dishwasher and hotplates. Don’t bother bringing a toaster or crockpot, as they are not allowed. There are toasters down in the lobby in the breakfast area for your use.
- If you want to stay off post, you can only do that if you get a statement of non-availability from the lodge, meaning they have no more rooms left. There are other hotels closer to SHAPE (Chievres is a 30 minute drive away by car or you can use the shuttle). If you are coming in the summertime, in 2010, we had a HUGE heatwave and you won’t find AC in off-post hotels.
- If you have a pet, make a reservation as EARLY as you can at the lodge, as they only have seven pet rooms and only a few are designated for long-term stays. There is a kennel on Chievres a few hundred meters from the lodge, but availability is limited, so make reservations EARLY. Also be mindful of your arrival time and opening/closing hours of the kennel or you could be stuck with closed doors and no place for your pet.
- Breakfast is included in your room charge at the lodge. It is a simple breakfast of various cereals, yogurts, fruitcups, hardboiled eggs, bagels with jellies and cream cheese, orange and apple juice and a coffee machine that puts out a variety of different cups of coffees and hot chocolates. One of the local churches was also nice enough to have a barbecue once a month for hotel guests during the summer.
- Near the lodge and all within walking distance, you’ll find the PX with a food court, the PXtra (like a large shopette), a library, commissary and a gym. The PX and commissary are closed on Mondays, so you do have to prepare ahead of time for your food options that day.
- There are car rental agencies outside SHAPE and one on Chievres. Some people do take the shuttle from Brussels Airport to Chievres Lodge. Do remember that the military does not reimburse you for care rental charges, so ship your car EARLY and rent a vehicle in the States, where it is much cheaper. We saw some folks who had their cars three and four days after arrival due to shipping vehicles early.
- Expect to be in the lodge or hotel from one to three months. The housing shuffle here is more stressful than anywhere I have been so far. Most people are not authorized on post housing or the waits are long, so you will be competing for housing off post. I will write more about the housing dance, which reminded me of the NBA draft, at a later date. I will leave you with this thought, if you can rent the home of your predecessor who works here and is PCSing out, that is ideal and much less stressful. Many offices and sections keep homes out of the housing roulette game and into the hands of their incoming personnel by doing this. It is allowed, and you are not required to only rent houses that are advertised by either the American or International SHAPE housing offices.
- If you are so inclined and you can trust your hubby to pick a nice house for you (he can always email you pics), I would stay in the States rather than dragging kids out of school and pets along to spend months in a hotel in a foreign country….just my opinion!
- If you are bringing children and plan to register them in school on SHAPE, you can print out all the forms online. Be sure to also have an updated shot record for your child, sealed records from their previous school and a current school physical. I made sure we did brand new physicals before leaving Germany, so we didn’t have to stress out about waiting on appointments or the designated physical exam days at the clinic here. Bring another copy if you want to register your kids at Youth Services. Almost all sports programs are run through them (rather than the schools) and your local Belgian communes where you live also have programs. Some parents enroll their children in local Belgian schools or one of the other SHAPE schools, such as with the Canadians, Germans or British to name a few. I believe there is a school for each NATO country here on SHAPE, all located together around a central shared area. Here, eighth graders are part of the high school rather than the elementary school for administrative ease.
We are looking forward to this assignment and have already visited some of the beautiful chateaus, parks and museums in our local area! The Mons area used to be one of the richest areas of Belgium due to its coal mining industry that no longer exists. The beautiful rolling hills and mounds full of trees and greenery were once piled up black “trash” from the coal mines. You would never know it now…just beautiful! This area also has a rich Italian history with all the Italian immigrants and their descendants who emigrated here during the coal boom. I’ve found some awesome stone oven baked pizzas already! If you speak Italian, you’ll also be that much ahead as many in this area do speak the language! How great is that? All in all, we are centrally located to visit all over Europe and quick access to Belgium’s awesome train transit network. By car it’s also only about two hours to Paris and many Shapians, as they are called, travel to Paris for the day…hey, the schools even take field trips to the Louvre and the Cathedral in Cologne! If you have any tips to share on moving to Belgium, please post them below!