Belgium EVS: May 2018

May 2018 will forever be known as manic May.

It was due to be a busy month as the future EVS volunteers would be visiting the city for their advanced planning visit (APV. This is a visit that each visually impaired EVS volunteer is entitled to make before the start of their project in order to get a feel for where they’ll be living and to meet some of the people who will be involved in their project. I also had an APV, but circumstances meant that mine took place one just one week before the start of my project. This wasn’t ideal, and I’m glad the volunteers who will be arriving in October had the advantage of making this trip a good few months in advance of their arrival because I really believe it is advantageous to have this time to prepare and plan.

Anyway, two volunteers were scheduled to visit in the first week of May, with the third doing her APV at the end of the month. I was excited but nervous about these visits. I was happy to be able to meet the future volunteers and offer any advice that I could, but I was also anxious to give them a positive yet realistic overview of the EVS experience. I was given responsibilities during both APV’s such as collecting volunteers from the train station and transporting them to different meetings, which on the whole I managed fine.

A tricky situation arose with one of my neighbours, unfortunately just as I was supposed to be showing one of the future vols around the EVS apartment. It was a challenging situation that tested me in a lot of ways. Thankfully my manager from VIEWS was there at the time and supported me to handle things, but it left me frazzled and a little shaken.

Afterwards, I realised that I could really be quite proud of how I managed the situation and I’ve since come to realise that it was a bit of a turning point. I’ve struggled a lot with self-confidence throughout this experience; something that doesn’t come easy to me at the best of times but has been particularly challenging during my Belgium experience. However, I think that being able to be proud of how I reacted in this situation with my neighbour gave me a bit of a boost and has since increased my self-belief in a way that I think is quite noticeable.

Shortly after this eventful week, I was due to go back to the UK for a few days for a couple of job interviews. I completed one assessment centre day for a graduate scheme that I really didn’t feel very confident about but had another interview for a job that I was quite hopeful for. Fortunately, it went better than I expected, and I was offered the job!

When I return from Belgium for the final time at the end of June, I will start working as Events officer for Look UK. I’m so thrilled to have gotten this opportunity because Look have been my sending association for my EVS project, so I know them well and love their mentality and ethos. I’m really glad to be able to hit the ground running with a new adventure after EVS is over and can’t wait to start working for Look. They have a lot of really exciting projects for visually impaired young people and their families, so please check them out if you can!

During the last two weeks of May we hosted the final APV for the third future volunteer. There were no sticky situations with neighbours this time, but this was sadly the time when Liege was hit by a tragic incident; a man attacked police officers and a school, sadly leaving two officers and one innocent bystander dead. This was devastating and quite unnerving as the attack happened on a street that I regularly take, and it was scary to have something so heart breaking happen so close to home. I realised that day how much I have grown to love Liege and feel part of the city. It was a revelation for me as a few months ago I really felt like an outsider and never thought I would feel part of the community. I’m just sorry that this realisation was provoked by such a tragic event.

Another city was checked off my list in May as I visited Ghent with my manager from VIEWS and fellow EVS volunteer. It was a lovely relaxed day including a boat trip on the river and leisurely strolling around the city centre. I’ve since been to Ghent a second time and would recommend it for shopping and a bit of medieval history. I also spent even more time in Flanders, spending a weekend with friends in the small city of Lier, just outside Antwerp.

I know enough Wallonia and Flemish people now to notice the difference in their mannerisms and mentalities, aside from the obvious difference in language. I can’t say that I have a preference for either; the Flemish are a bit more reserved and are closer to British in terms of social custom, but the Wallonia French speakers are more relaxed and easy-going by nature (just from my observations).

I know that I say this in every post, but it doesn’t seem real that I’m leaving in a matter of weeks. What I already know is that I’ve learned far more about myself during EVS than about anything else.

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Belgium EVS: April 2018

April started off with a visit to Wales to see the family. I hadn’t seen them since Christmas, so this was a welcome break. I’ve not really experienced homesickness before like I have during my time in Belgium, even though I haven’t really lived at home since I was 16. It was a bit jarring initially because I’d always thought of myself as someone who just doesn’t really get homesick. Not because I’m not close to my family, but more because of the fact that wherever I’ve been before I’ve known they were only a phone call away. That’s no different in Belgium, but it takes a fair bit more time, effort and money for us to get to each other when there’s a big body of water between us; something that’s been painfully obvious at certain points, so a week with the fam was much appreciated and enjoyed.

When I got back to Belgium, my manager was away for a work trip, so it was just me and the new member of staff in the office. This felt a bit daunting because all of a sudden, I was the most experienced person in the office. Never the less we muddled through and made it until the boss got back without any major catastrophes… I call that a win!

April was also one of those months where I seemed to do a lot of admin. The organisation’s website was finally back up and running so I had a whole load of updating and uploading to do. It sounds boring even to me as I’m typing it, but I actually quite enjoyed it. I’m far from a computer nerd (I don’t even really know what coding means) but I like playing around with things online that aren’t too out of my grasp and I found the process of updating things and getting the website looking better really satisfying. I did other things too, I attended another EU conference and wrote a guide for future EVS volunteers, but my prevailing impression of April work wise is all about the website.

The best thing about April was my travels. A friend from the UK has recently moved to Antwerp so I had the perfect excuse to visit. There wasn’t much to do in the way of visiting notable landmarks or discovering much history, but I spent one afternoon enjoying the sunshine and some beers in the park, and another evening with good friends in a quirky bar. Antwerp is somewhere I’d go again for a good time.

I also spent a weekend in a small rural village called Thuin with some other EVS volunteers and their friends. This was another lovely weekend but a bit more relaxed than Antwerp. Jazzy definitely preferred our long walks through the countryside and forest. We used Air B&B and stayed in a gorgeous typical Belgian house; very tall, with three stories and basement, looking over a fantastic view of the hanging gardens. It was a beautiful, very tranquil place and I’d recommend The Frites Club, a small friterie right opposite the train station, for really good typical Belgian chips.

That’s about it for April. The weather gradually got warmer, but my raincoat was never far away because of typical April showers. I didn’t get around to writing an April post until now because May has been manic from the get -go, but that’s a story for another post.

Until next time…

Belgium EVS: March 2018

I ended the last installment of the EVS diaries mentioning a couple of upcoming “dinner in the dark” events we were due to hold at the end of February. These are evenings where folks willingly give up their hard-earned cash to try eating in total darkness and are also served their drinks and food by blind or partially sighted people. It gives people an opportunity to do something a little different and maybe even learn a bit about visual impairment at the same time! I was glad that I found these evenings a little less stressful and chaotic than last time. I knew what to expect which was helpful, but I also had more input with the organisational side of things, so I was pretty clued up on who was doing what. I gave being barmaid a go and I can only apologise to those people who got full-fat coke instead of diet all night. It wasn’t even a blindness blunder either, just an Elin mistake. Oops!

March started off very, very cold here in Liege. I was getting texts from friends and family exclaiming about snow days and extreme weather warnings as the UK went into total shutdown mode, but Belgium was still plodding on as if nothing was happening. The only acknowledgment Belgium gave to the wintery weather was to organise a very opportune bus strike just as the temperatures were hitting -10. Jazzy had a great time, choosing to view the falling snow as a free snack, but I was less amused. Unless you’ve ever tried trekking to work through deep snow with a guide dog that is prancing like a reindeer, you cannot know what it’s like. I was really worried that the beast from the East would ruin my planned weekend in Paris, but thankfully the snow cleared up just in time. You can read all about that trip here.

The weekend in Paris made me really glad to have been learning French for the last few months, because I’m certain that people were friendlier and more helpful than they might have been otherwise. Personally, I have no idea where I’m at with French at the moment. My teacher says I’m doing really well but, in the office, I struggle a lot, so it’s difficult to really gauge what level I’m at. The novelty has worn off a little and I’ve hit that wall where it’s feels more exhausting than exciting, but I’ve started going to a French and English exchange evening at a local bar every couple of weeks which is a good way of making it fun again and a nice way of meeting people at the same time. I’m quite sure that I want to find a way of keeping it up once I’ve gone home as well, otherwise it would feel silly to have put in so much effort only to forget it all when I’m no longer using it every day.

A new member of the team has started in the office, and I’ve been able to start going to the youth centre for immigrants again every week. There was a lull where I wasn’t able to do my weekly sessions at the centre because of other projects they had going on, but we’re back up and running again now. I’ve done an activity about assistive tech and one about braille, and I’m hoping to do a couple more on adapted sports. These sessions challenge my creative skills because you have to think of activities that are easily adaptable to whatever audience you have because there’s no way of knowing what kind of young people there will be at the centre each day; they might be kids around 9 or 10, they might be people in their twenties.

One observation that I’ve meant to note in a blog before is the difference between people here and people at home in terms of their openness. I think I’ve mentioned previously how people seem much friendlier here and far readier to engage you in conversation or openly offer you help, but there is a flip side to this too because in my experience people’s sense of boundaries are a little bit different too. For example, it is rare for me to get on a bus and not have to explain to someone how much I can see and what causes my visual impairment. That’s not massively different from the UK, but it does happen a lot more. But there have been times when I’ve felt quite uncomfortable by people’s intrusiveness, like that time when a stranger asked me to explain in detail how I wash and dress myself in the morning, or when one of the people listening to my presentation about access technology asked if I wanted children and if I would be sad if my child was blind.

This difference has become quite evident at work as well. I’m aware that I come off as a reserved person even in terms of UK standards, but I didn’t realise how this could come across to people here. A meeting was instigated with my colleagues at work because they felt I was unhappy in my job and was keeping my true feelings from them. In fact, I had just been feeling under the weather with a cold and so was more tired and less talkative than usual. Not only that, but we also had to clarify that something being “fine” means that it is no problem and I agree or that I am happy with it, not that it is just fine and therefore not very good. This incident and my interactions with various people in Belgium have gotten me thinking about cultural differences in people’s behaviour, but it also made me think about how I express myself (or not as the case may be) and why that is.

I know that I can appear closed-off and inapproachable, but I also know why. I am an introvert. I am someone who has to expend energy during social interactions, rather than gaining energy from it. I am someone who values my anonymity and who prefers to blend into the background. These are things that clash with having a disability and having a guide dog every day, but they are also just aspects of my natural personality. Some aspects are things that I can’t change about myself, but I could change how I present myself to others and it’s something I acknowledge that I should work on. In the meantime if anyone knows of a cure for resting bitchface let me know!

One of the ways that my colleagues at work have suggested working on this is to increase my confidence. To this end I am now tasked with organising cultural events and for holding motivational speaking sessions with my fellow EVS volunteer to local young people. The first cultural event I ran was a pub quiz, which I held at a local bar and wrote the questions myself. I did not think about the fact that writing a quiz in a foreign language and for people from a different country might be tricky. Never the less we got there and everyone seemed to have a good time so I am counting it as a win. I’ve got some ideas for other cultural events so I should have a couple more under my belt by this time next month.

The motivational speaking is something that I am dreading but will never the less try my best at. They’ll probably happen towards the end of May or in June, so at least I have plenty of time to prepare. I’m uncomfortable public speaking at the best of times but throw in having to do that speech in a foreign language into the mix and you have an Elin shaped pile of nerves cowering in the corner. But this EVS is all about throwing myself out of my comfort zone and challenging myself, so I might as well give it my best shot.

March also included my birthday which was spent having some drinks with colleagues and friends, more attempts at playing blind football and Torball, and two visits to the UK; once for a gig that ended up getting cancelled, and once to see my family over Easter. As for April I’ve got some specific things lined up at work such as helping another EVS volunteer to run a social inclusion event for international students and attending a conference about youth volunteering programmes on behalf of work. Antwerp has been checked off the bucket list, but Bruges and Ghent are still waiting, as are Luxembourg and Germany so there’ll be some travelling in the mix too.

So that’s about it from Belgium at the moment. If you haven’t already, don’t forget to read about my trip to Paris and check in soon for the next EVS update.