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.