Αρχείο κατηγορίας personal

These are personal stories, something like a diary

Switching from a «special» to an ordinary Belgian ID card

After having a «carte d’identité speciale» for 2.5 years here in Belgium, I decided to switch to the ordinary (electronic) national ID card, for the following reasons:

  • the CIS is rather large and does not fit well into most wallets (the ordinary one is the size of a credit card)
  • the CIS does not offer any benefits compared to the ordinary one, once the 1-year period for VAT-free purchases has expired*
  • the ordinary ID card can be electronic, i.e. include a smart card, which (combined with a smart-card reader which you can buy for 8-10 euros, and some software that you can download from the federal government website), you can access all the e-government services here in Belgium (for tax declaration, obtaining certificates from your commune, etc)

* I confirmed this both with the relevant office here in the EP, as well as with my commune.

So, the procedure for switching from a «special» to a regular ID card is a little cumbersome, as follows:

  1. First you have to go to the office in your EU institution which gave you the CIS, and give it back. They will send it back to the Belgian Foreign Affairs Ministry, which will then send them a certificate proving that you have returned the card, called «attestation de restitution de la carte speciale». This takes approx. 2 weeks
  2. With the above mentioned certificate you can now go to your commune and ask for a normal ID card. You must bring: your national ID card or passport, your rental contract, your work contract (in our case, a certificate that you work for the institutions), and 5 photos
  3. Once you have applied for the ID card, the police need to come to your house and check that you actually live there. They had already done that 2.5 years ago for the CIS, but apparently they need to do it again. Of course they don’t tell you when they’ll come. After exactly 1 month, and as I was starting to become restless, my commune sent me an email telling me I could now go and complete the application for the ID card. The police never came to my house
  4. When you go to the commune again, you can ask for an old-fashioned or for an electronic ID card. The electronic one costs €19.2 (in 2014). Having done that, you are told to wait another 2 weeks. The PIN for the ID card is sent to you by regular post, and the ID card arrives at the commune. I am not sure why this step couldn’t have been done together with step 2 above, and save us all a little time?
  5. With the PIN code in hand, you can go and pick up (and activate) your new ID card

Belgian license plates

Here’s a description of the procedure to obtain Belgian license plates for a car already registered elsewhere in Europe, after I went through it. I hope this helps others thinking of doing the same.

There are 7 steps in this procedure:

  1. Collect the necessary documents (certificate of conformity, current vehicle registration). You can obtain a CoC online, it will most likely be much cheaper than asking your car dealer. I got it from here: http://cocexpress.fr/ Please note that the CoC is not asked until the 5th step, so feel free to go through steps 2-4 while waiting for the CoC to arrive
  2. Go to customs (Douane, 11 Rue de L’Entrepôt, 1020 Brussels, 08.30-11:00 + 13:00-15:30), fill form, obtain the «pink paper» which shows that you’ve started the procedure of changing license plates. Here they only ask for the current vehicle registration form. In the field «when did you bring the car into Belgium for the first time», the customs officer told me to simply write the current date. You will be asked to pay the symbolic price of 1€ here
  3. Go through inspection (controle technique, http://www.autocontrole.be/). For vehicles less than 4 years old (as in my case), they will not actually check the vehicle, just put a stamp on the «pink paper» from step 2. No money is necessary in this case. Otherwise, you need to take an appointment and go through an actual technical control of your car.
  4. Buy insurance. You can do this even if you don’t know your new license plate yet. I went with Ethias. They will ask you for some proof from your current car insurance about your bonus-malus level
  5. go to DIV, register your car ( http://www.mobilit.belgium.be/fr/ )
    (60 rue du Progrès, 1210 Brussels, 08:30-14:30). Be ready to spend 1-2 hours waiting here. The actual procedure takes 5 minutes. They will ask for all the documents from the previous steps (current vehicle registration, CoC, the «pink paper» from customs, the insurance document). They will keep your current vehicle registration, so you might want to make a copy beforehand. The rear license plate and new vehicle registration will be delivered to your home on the next working day by Bpost. You will have to pay 30€ to the postman.
  6. Make copy of the rear license plate for the front of your car (cost me €20). Note that the front plate is now the same size as the rear one, not smaller like in the past or as in some other Member states
  7. Register at your Comune in order to get a parking permit (carte d’habitant). This is valid for a calendar year and allows you to park for free in specific parts of your comune. For Woluwe Saint Lambert his costs 10€. They will ask you for the vehicle registration and identity card ( http://www.woluwe1200.be/fr/cadre-de-vie/deplacement/stationnement/test )

Reference: http://www.blbe.be/en/importing-and-registering-car

PS I will update this post once I’ve completed the 2nd part of this process, i.e. getting rid of your old license plates

Traveling to Sardegna (and back)

This summer we went for 12 days to Capo Coda Cavalo in Sardegna and stayed at the apartment of a friend. The flights, booked online at brusselsairlines.com, (but as we soon found out, operated by Lufthansa) were with a stopover in Munich.

The problems started even before the day of departure: we tried checking in online in order to print the boarding passes, but the website wouldn’t let us do that, without any indication on the source of the problem. We didn’t think this was a big deal, as we had to drop off a luggage anyway. Upon reaching the check-in counter and explaining that we didn’t have our boarding passes yet, they sent us off to check-in ourselves at the automated Lufthansa check-in counters available at Brussels airport. There we had the same problem as at home. We went back to the counter and explained our troubles. After investigating briefly, the nice lady found out what the problem was: the tickets of Beatrice and myself were not registered in the system as «e-tickets» but as «paper tickets». That was why we couldn’t check-in online. After 30 seconds the problems was solved, we took our boarding passes and went to the gate.

Flying with Lufthansa was a great experience: very polite and professional personnel, unlimited refreshments (even wine) onboard, they offered us pillows & blankets, they even gave Beatrice a small toy. Munich airport was an equally fulfilling experience: free wifi for 30′, free (unlimited) coffee, free newspapers, big interactive airport map with directions to chosen shops. They have even placed a chair next to each available electrical socket, so you can sit comfortably while charging your phone and tweeting about how awesome Munich Airport is 🙂

The trip back was much more of an adventure: again unable to check-in beforehand, but this time they were unable to fix the problem at Olbia airport. They managed to give us the 1st set of boarding passes, and to send our luggage directly to Brussels, but not the 2nd set of boarding passes, even after numerous attempts, phone calls, etc. Instead, we were told to check into the 2nd flight once in Munich, where we had a razor-thin margin of 55 minutes between the 2 flights!

Soon afterwards we found out that a private jet’s brakes failed while landing and was stuck in the middle of Olbia airport’s only runway. No flights landing or taking off for 4 hours (until they finally managed to move the aircraft out of the runway). In the meantime all incoming flights had been diverted to nearby airports, which meant that the plane that would take us to Munich still had to come to Olbia.

Eventually we left with a 6-hour delay, obviously missing our connecting flight as well as any other flights from Munich to Brussels during that same day. Once in Munich, the Germans once again proved worthy of their fame: a guide was expecting us at the gate in an empty Munich airport (we landed at 22:30), who took the approx. 40-50 of us who had missed their connecting flights to a set of 10-12 open counters who knew exactly our situation and who promptly booked us into the gorgeous Kempinski next door and into a connecting flight of our choice to our destination for the next day.

The rest of the trip was uneventful, but it was a good thing I didn’t have to work the next day…

Racism against Greeks

A Greek person I know recently came to Brussels for a traineeship at the European Parliament, and described to me the following experience they had while apartment-searching:

They had an appointment with a real estate agency to see an apartment, but the agent never showed. They called several times but the phone calls were never answered. No apology was issued later, either! So a few days later they wrote an email to the agency informing them that in the meantime they had chosen another apartment, but that the agency had not behaved professionally in their regard. Dumbfounded they received an answer telling them «how dare you criticise us, when your country is responsible for the European crisis»!

Apparently, according to this agency professionalism is not something you apply systematically, but only according to your (potential) client’s nationality. Also, in typical racist mentality there is no distinction between the individual and the nation (I wouldn’t be surprised if the agency considered the criticism against them as criticism against all Belgians!).

My suggestion to my Greek friend was to describe their experience in one of our internal newsletters or forums, and then to print and send that to the said agency, with the following cover letter:

«Dear X, thank you for the precise and constructive counter-criticism. I agree with you that every single Greek person is fully responsible for the current European crisis and should therefore be treated accordingly.

On the same note (of punishing bad behaviours) I have described our correspondence on the European Parliament’s newsletter for all to see. I hope this will allow you to concentrate exclusively on good, Belgian customers.»

I don’t know if my friend will go forward with this, but I would!

PS I personally have witnessed similar behaviours in Brussels and I have heard similar stories from other Greek friends in town. One should note however that this is not the rule, but the exception; most people here are very professional and friendly.

Belgacom

My apartment in Brussels has network plugs in most rooms with the cables leading to a central spot near the door, where a Belgacom BBox2 was already installed. What’s more, my landlord kindly offered to arrange my ADSL connection for me, so 2-3 days after I moved in, I already had internet at home. Two days later I got a Proximus mobile number, and that was it for the next 3-4 months.

Update 24.07.2012 (I had forgotten about this one): When the first bill arrived, there was a 98€ charge for the «early termination of a contract». I went back to the shop where I signed the contract, and they called Belgacom. After 15′ on the phone where we established that I had just signed a contract with them, not terminated one, they agreed to remove the charge from the bill.

When we decided to get a TV subscription, Belgacom TV (TV over IP) was the obvious solution. I made the application online. The earliest available date for the delivery of the decoder was 1 week later, and the subscription would be activated another 3-4 days after that. I waited two weeks, but no decoder arrived. I went to a Belgacom Center, where they told me they couldn’t find my order in the system, even after I showed them the confirmation email with the order reference I had received. They had no explanation for this, but told me not to worry, they would enter a new order and activate it right away. They even offered to combine TV + ADSL + Mobile into a Pack, so I would pay a single bill, cheaper than the sum of the three, and the decoder rental was for free! Leaving with the decoder in hand, they told me I could wire it up right away, as the subscription was already active.

I got home, connected the decoder to the modem and TV and switched it on. It told me «no network available». I waited until the next day, then called customer service. They told me (guess what?) they couldn’t find my order int the system! After I made sure they were not joking with me, they offered to activate the subscription right away and request the merger of the 3 services into the pack. They told me the TV subscription could take up to 24 hours, but 30 minutes later it was working.

The next day I got SMSes on my phone welcoming me to Proximus, so (for a moment) I thought the problems were behind me. How wrong I was! Another day later I got an SMS in the morning informing me that my 3G internet usage was already of 3 hours and I had no data plan! Before the «merger» I had a 250MB/month plan and both at the Belgacom Center and on the phone they had assured me it would be transfered with the merger. I immediately switched off cellular data on the iPhone, but a couple of hours later I got another SMS claiming I had now used 6 hours of data!

I went to a Belgacom Center and they told me it must be a mistake. They re-activated the data plan for me (I got the confirmation SMSes right away) but told me they could only cancel the erroneous per-hour 3G data charges after the issue of the monthly bill. The guy even gave me his name and told me to come directly to him when the bill arrived.

So I waited for the bill. When it arrived a couple of weeks later, two surprises were expecting me: a) a 150 euro charge for 81 hours of 3G traffic! and b) a 150 euro charge for the purchase of the TV decoder, which I was renting at no cost!

I went back to the same Belgacom Center where they told me the guy was on leave for 10 days. So I waited some more, then went back. The guy seemed to have no recollection of me. He took a look at the bill, and told me he couldn’t cancel the charges and that I’d have to dial customer services! I complained (to him and his supervisor) that he’d told me he’d do it, and that I waited for him to come back from his holidays, but to no avail: they told me the sum was too high and they didn’t have authorisation to cancel such high charges. So I called customer service and (all hail!) they cancelled the two charges and told me to pay the remaining amount, which I did.

Update 24.07.2012: I wanted to buy a bigger 3G subscription from them. I tried doing it online (Belgacom e-Services) and discovered that I could no longer find the mobile under my services. Just ADSL and TV. I called customer service on 1909. The first thing they ask you is to choose the language (between NL, FR, EN and DE). I chose English. After waiting for approx. 7-8 minutes, a guy came on the line who spoke French, but not English. I explained the 3G subscription I wanted, and he did it. Then I told him about the problem I have with e-Services. He asked for my username, which I spelled out for him. Then he said «and your password, please?». I told him I never give out my password, let alone on the phone, he said «but I just want to help you». I assured him this was not going to happen, so he opened a ticket for me and said they would call me within 48 hours about this problem.

NY

Day 0

Arrived @ JFK, took a cab to the apartment in the Meatpacking District (Chelsea) we rented through Roomorama.com. The WiFi password is not what the owner had told us, and we can’t figure out how to get hot water out of the shower (the other faucets are fine). Write to the owner and go to sleep.

1st day (sunny)

Breakfast @ Starbucks (free WiFi), Apple Store on 14th Street (no iPad2’s), taxi to Battery Park. The taxi driver was Pakistani, a big fan of alternative medicine, which (his words, not mine) was invented by the ancient Greeks. Ferry to Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island. The statue is big, but smaller than we expected. The police was kind of rude at some point for no apparent reason. The immigration museum on Ellis Island was by far inferior to Melbourne’s. Lunch @ McDonalds (free WiFi), then Ground 0 (not much to see) and Wall Street. 5th Avenue, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, then taxi back home (early evening) and gone to sleep due to jetlag. The handyman came by at 22:00 and woke us to show us how the shower’s single knob works.

2nd day (rainy)

Breakfast @ Starbucks, then subway to the Met (closed on Mondays), so we went to the nearby Guggenheim museum (the artworks not particularly to our taste, but the building itself is interesting architecturally). Lunch at the museum’s restaurant, great risotto with truffled honey!!! Chatted with Swiss couple on next table, who lived in Athens for 8 years in the 7o’s. The «Cube» Apple Store (very friendly staff, no iPad2’s). Walk along the 5th Avenue’s shops, then into the Grand Central Station and subway back home. Dinner at «The Green Table» (sustainable eating) in the Chelsea Market (not particularly tasty, but interesting idea).

3rd day (sunny)

Breakfast @ Starbucks, subway to the Empire State Building. Visibility 25miles, so great views of Manhattan and beyond. Very windy. Then on to the Flatiron Building and the Times Square. Pizza for lunch (not too bad). Went into a ToysRus store 🙂 Took a subway and went to the northern end of the Central Park and had a walk, stopped to rest at the Harlem Meer. Home to relax a bit, then Brooklyn Bridge (Brooklyn-side) for the compulsory photos of the bridge and the city skyline by night. Japanese for dinner.

4th day (light snow in the morning)

Breakfast @ Starbucks, then Museum of Natural History, which was incredibly interesting: how the brain works, butterflies, marine dinosaurs (IMAX), and the amazing lifecycle of stars in the planitarium. Dinner in Little Italy («Grotta Azzura», very tasty) and Chinatown (derelict, noisy, dirty). Going back home, we had to face some hale!!!

5th day (sunny)

Relaxing at home.

6th day (sunny)

AmTrak train from NY Penn Station to Boston South Station. Duration: 4h30′, cost: $116/person return. Left bags at hotel (room not available yet), then subway to the MIT Museum (well worth a visit). Back to the hotel, relax a bit, then dinner at Lobby Bar & Kitchen (the fries were fried in truffled oil!)

7th day (sunny)

(part of) The Freedom Trail (the Boston massacre was the English shooting 5 Americans), then Harvard Historical Tour. [Funny story from the tour: George Washington’s men were staying at one of the Harvard dormitories at some point; they ran out of bullets, so Washington asked the university if they could make some for him. They said «sure, we’ll help our country». Then, after they won the war of independence, Washington forgot to pay them for the bullets, so they sued him in federal court. So patriotic!] Subway to Prudential, lunch with Anna at the Cheesecake Factory (very good food, one of the best we had during the trip, but the waitress asked us like 7-8 times if everything was ok). Then walk past the Public Library and Trinity Church (Αγία Τριάδα). Then on to the Quincy Market (very crowded). Relax with some hot chocolate at Starbucks, then on to the harbor, acquarium and the Italian district on Hanover Street (huge queues outside most restaurants, despite the extreme cold).

8th day (sunny)

Train back to NY, lunch, then subway to JFK airport (terrible service at Bonfire, Terminal 7). Flight back home.

How to transfer Swiss vignettes between cars

I recently switched cars and wanted to transfer the Swiss highway tax sticker («Vignette») from the old car’s windshield to the new one.

The technique that worked was to carefully and slowly separate it from the wind shield using a blade (such as the one from a box cutter, i.e. «Stanley knife») while at the same time heating the Vignette with a hair dryer.

I hope this will be useful to someone.