The Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) is located near Mons, Belgium (about 30 minutes south of Brussels) and is the military headquarters for NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Because it is a posting that you don’t hear about very often, it can be difficult to find information about life at SHAPE. We (Sarah and Jen) met during our time at SHAPE, and we have collaborated on this post to share some of our favorite things about being stationed here and why SHAPE is “the place to BE!”
One of the great things about being stationed overseas is how connected and involved the community can be, and SHAPE is no exception. There are wonderful programs and events throughout the year that draw everyone together and foster a wonderful sense of community – everything including cultural festivals, big rocking parties, international lunches, Christmas markets, performances from the SHAPE band, sporting events, and the list goes on! There also are a number of groups and clubs to join based on your own personal interests (travel, golf, Bible study, etc.), or you can take classes in photography, ceramics, or even learn French! You can be involved in as little or as much as you want.
For newcomers, the online community and SHAPE Families Facebook page is very helpful and supportive when you feel lost in the sea of cultural differences here in Belgium. We have both loved living off-base, which allowed us to immerse ourselves in the local life and culture, but it has also been wonderful to take part in the many events and perks the base has to offer. Hands down, though, the best part of this assignment is meeting so many amazing people from the 29 different NATO countries
One of the most stressful aspects of moving is choosing the right school for our children. In the U.S., this means buying or renting a home in a neighborhood that has good public schools or is in close proximity to a good private or parochial school. Where you live dictates where the kids go to school, and where you want the kids to go to school dictates where you live. Therefore, you might think that an overseas move would limit your options for school, but this is not the case at SHAPE. The SHAPE International School is comprised of 10 sections (Canadian, Greek, Norwegian, Turkish, German Italian, Polish, U.K. as well as an American DoDEA school), plus the Belgian Kindergarten (what we could call preschool in the U.S.). You can enroll your child in any of these sections provided there is room, however, you always get priority with your home country. Or, if you want your child to have a full French immersion experience, you can enroll him or her in the local Belgian school in the village where you live or with the Belgian school on SHAPE. There are so many options (perhaps too many!) that it can be an overwhelming decision. If you want to learn more about language immersion, read about Jen’s experience here.
The Parent Experience
This is an all-encompassing category because there are so many great events, activities and people that can be included here (it could actually be a post all by itself!).
The parent experience includes everything under the umbrella of parent support classes – birth preparation classes, infant massage, breastfeeding and new mom support, and the dedicated midwife who helps all new moms in the SHAPE community. It also includes tons of activities for parents to do with their littles: infant lap sit and toddler reading times at the library, Facebook parent support groups with active and participative members, Montessori playgroups, regular weekly playgroups. And of course, there’s the fellow moms (and dads!) you will meet at any of these activities who form their own weekly and school break outings.
You can even add the pregnancy and delivery system in Belgium to this category. Yes, it’s a bit nerve-wracking having a baby in a foreign country but the healthcare and attention you will receive is amazing. Most of the doctors speak fluent or very good English, and the midwives go out of their way to communicate with you. Sarah had her second son while in Belgium and considers it to have been a perfect birth experience.
One of Europe’s most popular zoos is located just 20 kilometers from SHAPE in the small village of Brugelette. Built on the site of a former Cistercian abbey, Pairi Daiza attracts nearly 2 million visitors per year. Trust us, you have NEVER been to a zoo quite like this one! It is a zoo, botanical garden, aquarium, and playground all rolled into one.
As a resident of Belgium, you can obtain a season pass (64€ for adults and 54€ for kids) and go as often as you want between April and November. It is the perfect place to take the kids and meet up with friends on a beautiful sunny day. You may have a hard time getting the kiddos beyond the massive playground, but so much awaits you including the new baby panda born in 2016, the snow leopards, the petting zoo and even the pedicure fish! Heck, go there without the kids and enjoy a peaceful stroll around the grounds by yourself when they are in school!
There is no shortage of historical sites to visit in Belgium – you can experience everything from Napoleonic era history at Waterloo to more recent WWI and WWII era sites and museums. Not only is it an incredible learning experience for the kids, but it also provides an opportunity to see places that you’ve likely only read about in history books. Even if you’re not a history buff, it is impossible not to be moved by the sheer scale of destruction and loss of life that Europe has endured over the years.
Every town, even the smallest villages and hamlets in Belgium and France, have monuments to honor those who died in WWI and WWII. Drive through Bastogne or Flanders in Belgium, or the Somme and Normandy regions of France (all a short drive away), and you will pass countless cemeteries and monuments, both American and European, where some of the most critical battles of both wars took place.
Naturally, one of the biggest and most obvious draws about being stationed in Europe is the opportunity to travel. Belgium is centrally located and many must-see places like Paris and Amsterdam are either within driving distance or a short train ride. Even so, beyond the obvious choices of Brussels and Bruges, there are countless places to see in and around Belgium. Travel is a popular topic among the “Shapians” (the nickname for those fortunate enough to be stationed here), so you’ll never run out of trip ideas or lack for travel advice and planning assistance. In addition, there are two travel groups on base that organize everything from day trips around Belgium, France, Germany, Holland and the U.K. to week-long excursions to destinations in Europe and beyond. It is a great way to explore the area without having to do a lot of planning, and a wonderful way to make friends and have a lot of fun.
Say it with us … Champagne trips!
Whether you go as part of a group or on your own, the travel opportunities are limitless!
Food (and Beer!)
OK, this is an obvious one! First, the world-famous Belgian beer. This tiny country has more than 200 breweries that collectively make about 3,000 different delicious beers, and they only export roughly 60 percent of their beer production.
Belgium has an incredible brewing heritage and most beer fans will appreciate the famous Westvleteran Trappist beer, brewed by the monks of St. Sixtus Abbey and rated two years running as the best beer in the world.
Yes, we know America has had an explosion of craft breweries, but, the flavor and strength don’t hold a candle to the Belgian brews. Plus, the cost of purchasing Belgian beer in the states is just ridiculous, so if you’re able to stock up and take some back with you, we highly recommend doing so. Whether you go for a regional specialty beer or a classic like Chimay, you can’t go wrong.
And what’s better to partner your beer than with some piping hot frites. Forget the “french fries” – believe it or not, but Belgium actually invented the fried potato! During WWII, GIs discovered frites while in Belgium, but since everyone spoke French, they simply called them “French Fries”! Fritteries are found all over, and they serve enormous portions of seasoned, hot frites with lots of sauce options. Mayonnaise is the local choice, and it’s delicious.
If sweets are more your style, then Belgium has you covered, because Belgian chocolate is another world-famous specialty. You will find dozens of national and independent chocolatiers that offer up rich, creamy, truffles or delectable bites of dark chocolate. Belgians take their chocolate seriously and rightfully so. Chocolate shops are happy to offer samples, and there are usually several chocolate festivals around the country, so there are no excuses to not try some. Waffles are another sweet treat – try a fresh Liege Waffle with its caramelized sugary crust and soft, fluffy inside, or a regular waffle served up with fresh Chantilly cream, strawberries, chocolate sauce, caramel or all of the above. Try one and thank us later!
Another great thing about the food here in Belgium is the quality and freshness of everything. Most villages and towns will have a market every week where you can find beautiful fresh fish, meats, vegetables, breads, and even a few live chickens or geese! Most Belgians don’t even have a freezer in their house, and it’s not hard to see why. Why eat frozen when quality fresh food is so readily available?
SHAPE is located in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium. While base housing is available, it is somewhat limited so most Americans live out in town on the economy. This means that you will truly experience Belgian life and culture more fully, but you may also encounter a bit of a language barrier (unless you’ve got some high school or college French under your belt). You also will have to get used to grocery stores and other shops being closed on Sunday (and sometimes Monday). Luckily there’s a commissary nearby if you need those last minute items, but once you adjust to life without the 24/7 conveniences of the U.S., you will appreciate the slower pace of life and enjoy your weekends traveling, visiting historical sites and enjoying the local cuisine and Belgian beers! So learn a few key phrases (please, thank you, I would like, how do I …”), let go of any expectations or preconceived ideas, and embrace the experience!
Belgium is a cool, exciting, fun and delicious place to live. If SHAPE is a potential assignment option for you in the future, we hope this list helps you out.
Have you been stationed at SHAPE? What were your favorite parts?
Headed to SHAPE in the near future? Hit us up in the comments with your questions!
Sarah Loicano contributed to this post. Find her past posts and bio here.