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.

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Parisian weekend

For the first weekend in March I took the train and met my boyfriend in Paris for a long weekend. Neither of us had ever been before so it was going to be interesting whatever happened, but the main reason for the trip was for a First Aid Kit gig that was happening on the Monday night. They are one of maybe four bands that we both like, so it was an opportunity not to be missed.

We booked a hotel specifically for its proximity to Gare du Nord, the station where we’d both be entering Paris. The staff in the hotel were very helpful and were more than willing to accommodate us with any questions or requests. I was even pleasantly surprised when, just as the station staff member assisting me was expressing his doubts that I could get a taxi with the dog, a driver immediately corrected him saying that of course I could get a taxi because it was illegal to refuse assistance dogs. I was very excited about this!

Taxis are not always the most cost-effective way of getting around though, so as an alternative I am a big fan of the hop-on hop-off guided bus tours that you will find in most cities. I can’t recommend them enough for blind or disabled people discovering a city for the first time. Sure, you might not be able to appreciate the views from the window, but I still find it interesting listening to the audio guide and it’s a huge plus that you can use the busses to get to all the main attractions without having to faff with public transport or fork out for a taxi.

I’d already purchased the hop-on bus tickets online and had them saved on my mobile so the main challenge on Saturday morning was finding the right bus stop. We managed it though and were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves as we headed off to test out the “accessible audio tour” at the Louvre Museum.

Now, I hate to be negative, but it has to be said that the “accessible audio tour” is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s a clever system where you choose the audio track to go with an exhibit using a little Nintendo DS, but this isn’t so useful if you can’t use that Nintendo in the first place. I imagine it’s a great feature if you’re going around with a sighted person who can change the tracks for you, but as there wasn’t any speech output that enabled us to use the devices independently and the Museum weren’t prepared to send someone around with us, it was a bit of a disappointment. We ended up giggling in the tactile exhibit for a while and then spending waaaaaaay too long trying to find our way out. If you’ve never been to the Louvre, trust me when I say it is a labyrinth. We asked for help from fellow tourists a few times, but literally everyone we asked were just as confused and lost as we were. We only made it out in the end because a security guard came running when we accidently skipped the queue to see the Mona Lisa. Definitely an experience!

After refuelling in a small Italian restaurant, we hopped back onto the bus and got off at the Champs Elysées, the largest and most expensive avenue in Paris. We had a few hours to hang out there until we could hop on the bus again for the night tour. We wanted to take the night bus in case either of us might be able to make out the lights of the buildings better in the dark. I didn’t buy anything from the Champs Elysées, but we had a lot of fun people watching (AKA eavesdropping) and marvelling at how many American’s seemed to be wandering around Paris. The night tour was good too; not quite as illuminating as we’d hoped, but still interesting.

We hopped on the bus again the next day to get to the Eifel Tower and enjoyed a Seine river cruse (with audio commentary) before making our way to the tower itself. There was something a little different about this audio commentary though; it had been scripted as a kind of conversation between the characters of “the spirit of Paris” and “the River Seine”. It was bizarre and hilarious. Interesting, but hilarious. I really hope we didn’t disturb people too much with our sniggering.

After the river cruise it was time for the grand event, the Eifel Tower. I can’t praise the Tower staff enough in terms of accessibility. I had been worried after hearing about other disabled people’s negative experiences, but we honestly had no problems. Staff were extremely helpful in directing us to different levels, and of course taking the obligatory photos. Jazzy was pretty nonplussed by the whole affair. I was a little concerned because she wasn’t too keen when I took her to the top of the Shard in London, but the Tower didn’t seem to faze her at all. She just sat patiently and posed for pictures as if she goes up the Eiffel Tower every day.

We’d booked to have dinner in the Eifel Tower restaurant that evening, and that was amazing too. The food was delicious, the highlight definitely being the chocolate brownie eyeful tower we both had for desert. The only criticism I’d have is that we never received the photo we had taken by a photographer in the restaurant, that would supposedly be sent to us by email. We even managed a cheeky trip back to the top of the tower after dinner, so we could (try) to see Paris by night. We only noticed that the whole Tower had lit up behind us 30 seconds before it turned off, but it was still magical.

We’d booked a walking tour of Montmartre for Monday morning and as our bus tickets had expired we’d planned to get a taxi to the meeting location. This turned out to be a little tricky because of the annoying but inevitable taxi refusals due to drivers not wanting to accept the dog, but thankfully we made it to the meeting point just in time and enjoyed a truly fantastic walking tour of the artist’s neighbourhood for two hours. Our guide was so attentive and descriptive, it was one of my highlights of the weekend. She obliged us by taking lots of photos and left us to have lunch near the Sacré-Coeur Basilica at the end of the tour. It was a beautiful day, so we sat and had our lunch outside in the sunshine. I would also recommend walking tours to anyone and everyone; you’re not going to get much better than being shown around an area by a local.

After making it back to our hotel there was just enough time to change and get ready before heading out again for the gig, which was superb too. Staff at the venue weren’t happy to watch Jazzy for me during the performance so she stayed with me for the duration of the concert, but they did swap our standing tickets for seated ones to accommodate us having Jazzy with us. The band were amazing and were definitely the cherry on top of an amazing weekend.

So, there you have it, a summary of my trip to Paris. I think that each time we try to do something like this, namely swanning off to a completely new place with just guide dog and GPS in hand, it will get easier. I definitely feel that this venture was noticeably less stressful and tiring than the trip to Amsterdam, so I guess that like everything we will get better at doing this with practice. I do think that we could have had a much harder time of it if neither of us spoke French on this trip though; we both got the impression that locals were much more obliging to help and answer questions if I started out with my garbled French first.

I look forward to recounting my next trip, undecided as yet, and will leave you for now with this song that played on a loop on the tour buses audio guide and ended up being our soundtrack to the weekend. Enjoy!