Hi All -- I was stationed at Chievres from 94 to 97 and loved it. Married a wonderful women from Stambrugges ... NorthEast of Mons. Anyway Corinne (my wife) went back on vacation last year and of course wanted to take advantage of commissary privelidges. To her surprise gate security wouldn't let her on the installation with just an ID card. ??? Now she's going again for 3 weeks and I don't understand.
Can she get a temp Shape Card...or is there any way for us to get access to AAFES/DECA facilities?
Thanks so much. It's real tough getting info from here.
Kent and Corinne Comstock
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…..more like Kosovo without the bullet holes, as a coworker of my husband’s pointed out. 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 met in Europe, here are some tips to make your move 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 bad, bad and very bad here…and rough…many, the size of goatpaths with tons of potholes and black ice in the winter rather than loads of snow. I would not come with a very 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. 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.
* Best Pizza in Town: Best pizza…on the main drag in Ghlin before you get to the canal…awesome stuff!
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. 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!
What to expect when you get to the CHIEVRE LODGE:
Things you’ll find at the lodge that may be more useful to you and your family:
* A nice Continental breakfast is included in your stay.
* I believe those PCSing in and out have priority.
* There are some grills out back, along with a new playground with rubberized surfaces.
* The only benches around the whole grounds are those at the playground….strange.
* There are three free computers connected to the internet for your use in the business center. There is also a printer attached.
* You’ll also find a DSN phone in the business center (really a small room).
* Did you know you can get a dial tone in the US from calling any DSN phone to dial 1-800 numbers or to use your calling cards? Call 809-463-3376 and then dial your toll free number.
* There is a binder in the lobby listing items for sale that people have posted.
* There is a shuttle bus stop right out front that will take you to SHAPE and Brussels Airport. I think you have to make reservations though to get to the airport.
* The lodge has storage rooms that can be used for free on a case available basis. Just keep asking at the front desk.
* The front desk is very helpful in giving you ideas on what to do in your spare time.
* If you are looking for a neat Belgian grocery store close by and the back gate is open, try the Champions store there. It even has limited hours on Sunday.
* Don’t forget that most eating choices are closed on Monday, although the Patriot Club next to the gym does serve lunch on Mondays.
* Yes, the longterm rooms and suites do have kitchen facilities, but they are meager at best. There are two burners with no exhaust fan, plus a small microwave that I believe you can use in a convection/browning way too confusing for me to figure out. The dishwasher is also half the size of a regular one.
* If you are looking for something to read, the thrift shop, Grandma’s Attic maintains a bookcase on the third floor of the lodge with free hardcover and softcover books for you to borrow, including childrens’ books.
* Speaking of Grandma’s Attic, it is worth a visit and right next to the commissary.
* Washers and dryers are in a laundry room on each floor. Access it with your roomkey. Doing laundry is FREE and many times there is extra detergent to use as well. Only use half of your American washing liquid as the washers can overflow if you use too much.
* The wailing and scary bird noises you hear behind the parking lot are not peacocks….but pheasants! Look for them in the bushes, and watch them fly out right in front of you.
Insight on life as a new Belgian resident.
I say resident, because any day now, I should have a policeman going by our house (hope it’s after we move in), to check that I exist, and then I’m on my way of becoming a Belgian resident with Belgian resident perks. My husband, who is US military stationed here, cannot be a Belgian resident…that’s why all the bills will come in my name. Huh? Anyway, after being here a month, I think I am an expert in my opinion and can offer the following observations.
In no particular order:
* Even though everyone says that it is dreary, rainy and cold here (even the Belgians say this), I have found this summer superhot, mostly in the 80s and 90s with only four days of some rain.
* At least with the French (which is 20 minutes away), never say “Gesundheit” or “Bless You”. Apparently, you don’t say that after someone sneezes….still waiting to hear a Belgian sneeze so I can test this out.
* If you plan on bringing your pet with you on this assignment (at least in the SHAPE/Chievres area), and you are staying on post at the lodge…AND…you are coming in on the weekend, make note that the kennel closes at 1500.
* I would not bring a super nice car here as the roads are bad to worse and winters put a real toll on it too. This is probably why the Belgian government does yearly inspections of cars older than four years old (at about 50 euro a pop). If your vehicle does not have a rear foglight, then get one before coming here. I’ll post more later on the inspection and registration process and what steps you have to complete in getting a foglight installed as well as a pre-inspection.
* Remember that as a SHAPIAN as you are called, you are allowed only ONE vehicle tax-free. Make sure this is your vehicle with the BIGGEST engine. If you buy a second car, like a little roadrunner with a small engine, you’ll end up paying a yearly roadtax (think it’s yearly) on the bigger one you have being shipped over if you buy and register your little car first. For a big minivan, expect to pay around 1000 euro down to 250 euro for a small vehicle.
* You REALLY have to follow the priority from the right rule. This means if you come to an intersection that does not show that you have priority (start learning the signs now), you must yield to vehicles coming from the right, even if it is a goatpath! Pay close attention here!
* In a restaurant, do not signal the waiter by yelling “Garcon” (which means BOY). It is rude.
* If you are going to a restaurant outside of the “big city” and not on the strip between Chievres Air Base and SHAPE, don’t expect lunch (unless it specifically says so) and don’t expect dinner service until 1830 in the evening. We went through three country restaurants before we figured this out.
* If you like fleamarketing and antique hunting, you will be in heaven here! I will post about this on a later date too.
* Shopping in France is much cheaper. Drive South of Mons for 20 minutes and there you are.
* Veggies and fruits are fresher and cheaper on the economy. Take advantage of all the farmers’ markets.
* I was thrilled to find quite a few stores such as supermarkets and bakeries open on Sunday (even if it is for limited hours).
* Train travel is cheap compared to Germany and you can be in Paris in two hours, Brussels in 45 minutes and London in 4-1/2.
* Paris is only 2-1/2 hours away by car. Many people drive there, park outside the city and take public transportation in.
* We have discovered some amazing beaches on the North Sea with wide sandy beaches, sand dunes, boardwalks, amusement parks and trails galore. It is only 1-1/2 hours away. I’ll have to write more about this wonderful area around De Panne.
* We are in the middle of farmland, so you will see tractors and farm equipment on the roads, and I have heard during sugarbeet season, you will be amazed at what rolls off the trucks.
* Speaking of trucks, you will have more windshield cracks and dings here than anywhere else.
* Since USAA has to go through another company here, their insurance quotes are expensive. Check Geico outside the frontgate and others.
* For car rentals, check out the clunker agency across from the flags outside the gate at SHAPE HQ. You’ll pay half of what you would typically pay to the big car rental agencies.
* If you come in the summer, none of the off post hotels have AC. Stick with Chievres Lodge which is new, modern and has AC.
* Don’t bring your basic appliances. In the Spring, Summer and Fall, you will find large fleamarkets on SHAPE, as well as the thrift shop on Chievres (and not to mention civilian fleamarkets). If you use your 110 volt appliances from the US, you can buy transformers (which also can be found at these sales) to step down the 220 volt European voltage. Your US alarm clocks and other appliances that cycle will not work accurately. If you have an expensive standmixer, leave it in the US as the motor can easily get burned out and ruin your machine.
* Bring a fuel efficient vehicle, as you are limited by what you get fuel-wise (more so than in Germany and dependent on engine size).
* Brush up on your French. They speak French here and no, not a lot of people speak English away from post (except maybe in Brussels and larger cities).
* Be sure to read my housing article.
* Realize that utilities bills are much, much higher than in the US. Start watching your water usage and turn off lights when not in use. After you arrive and move in, be sure to unplug your transformers completely, as they can still draw power when turned off.
* As part of your housing contract you can negotiate with your landlord (with assistance from the housing office), do the following. If your home doesn’t have one, get a day/night electric meter installed which gives you huge discounts on electricity after 10 pm at night and on the weekends.
We unfortunately do not have the generous Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), as the American military has in Germany…so we do not have some of the same benefits, VAT relief being one of them…it is more complicated and limited here among other things, and I won’t even get into road taxes and fuel rations just yet! I guess Europe is Europe, but I see now that the Belgians are very different culturally from the Germans…makes me miss my Germans a bit!
*How hard is it set up an account there, since Community Bank doesn’t operate in Belgium? All the information on the SHAPE2Day site about the Italian bank seems confusing. How does one initially set up the account there? Can you use a stateside check to transfer funds? Is the account necessary for the Belgian rent, utilities, etc.?
-You can use any Belgian bank to set up your accounts…we always keep our American bank account where our paychecks go (that never changes) and then when we move, we always open up a local account. Some people use Andrews FCU, which is here..think they do dollar and euro accounts….think it’s more complicated paying bills and such. We chose the Italian bank Monte Paschi, because they got the latest contract with SHAPE (it used to be Fortis for many, many years and many Shapians still use them, just have to use the branches off post). The Italian bank has operated in Belgium since end of WWII, so they are a “local bank” in effect too. We have a euro account there and pay our rent automatically every month and other bills as we get them. That way, I can go to the Army Finance cash cage at any time of month, cash a personal check (up to $3k a week without special permission), and handcarry the money over to our Italian bank and deposit it. Otherwise, you are slave to the calendar, and it is not unusual on paydays to see lines out the door at the cash cage and then people paying their rent either at the Postbank or wherever or their landlord’s bank to be there 1st of the month. We learned our lesson and not to deposit an American dollar cashier’s check into the Italian bank..that cost us 22 euro! Better to cash checks at the finance cage and then handcarry your money to where it needs to go….a hassle, but at least if you keep min funds in your local account, you can do this at anytime of the month or every other month (you can access your account online to check balances, etc). You set up your account there in person and put cash in there to start it up (again, cash personal checks at the finance cash cage)…sorry for being repetitive.
*How do you know which areas are decent to live? I have been searching the sites on your blog, but am trying to get a feel for distances to SHAPE. Are most places within a 20km commute a decent choice? Are there any areas which are not safe? I know that I will have to check with the school bus route, but am uncertain as to which areas or towns are nice to live.
-Decent areas to live….all areas are okay really that I have found. The housing office does check for generally safe areas before they accept a house into the system. I will tell you that there is vandalism in Mons, so if you choose to live in the city, only do so if you have secured parking in a courtyard or away from the street. Also the areas around the train station are not as safe.
I’d say 3/4 of the places are within 20 km. You have to also think of your commute in the wintertime on these horrible roads, which may be beautiful and bucolic in the summer. Many Americans live in the Chievres area (also Brugelette), Jurbis, Masnuy St Jean and Pierre…Mons area, Casteau, Ghlin, in towns along the canal like us in Obourg…the areas closer to both bases. When you come to housing, you can also get the sheet that lists all the towns the school buses service.
Other blogs to read about SHAPE and/or Belgium life:
* “What Goes on in her Head?” with Edith Mills. The local (and traveling) antics of Edith and her family….funny, funny and informative! She lives in a carriage house of a local chateau and has traveled extensively all over Europe (and the US).
* Somewhere in the Middle. Not a local blog and fairly new but still gives a peek into expat life in Belgium.
* The Shand Family is by an expat family living in Belgium. Nice glimpse into city life and a family with young children.