Belgium EVS November 2017

It’s definitely on its way to feeling like Christmas here. As well as the weather turning bitter, (I actually think it might rain more in Belgium than it does in Wales), the city is gearing up to the holidays in a big way. Jazzy and I have come to accept that the landscape of the city centre changes pretty much daily in the run up to Christmas, with new obstacles in the form of stalls and chalets appearing every day. The market will eventually span three market squares, more than living up to its reputation as the biggest Christmas market in Europe.

Apart from the Christmas market, Liege also holds a weekly market every Sunday on the river. You can find everything from fresh produce, to hand made clothes, to pets at La Bat. There’s a great atmosphere, even if it’s drizzling, and there’s a long-held tradition of grabbing a beer after doing your shopping, so what’s not to love?

What I also found out recently is the differences between Christmas traditions here compared with back home. Even though Santa still brings gifts for children on Christmas eve, much more importance is placed on Saint Nicholas. He also brings presents to children who have been good throughout the year on the night of the 5th of December and Saint Nicholas’s feast is celebrated on the 6th. In the run, up to Saint Nicholas’s eve, children leave their shoes by the door where they might find small gifts or sweets left inside during the night, and on the night of the 5th they generally leave some food out for Saint Nicholas and a carrot for his horse, However, any children who haven’t behaved during the last year could expect a visit from Saint Nicholas’s alter-ego, who only leaves Cole for naughty children and is sometimes called Whip father.

While the city is busy preparing for the festive season I’ve been settling into something of a routine at work. I mentioned in my previous blog that my main project for EVS is working for an international association for visually impaired people managing their communication. I’ve been able to sink my teeth into this in the last few weeks, writing content for their newsletter and social media about our recent events. I’ve also been pushed out of my comfort zone a little when I’ve been asked to take very active roles in events. For example, I was put in charge of ice-breakers for an intercultural, intergenerational training course we ran last week. It was much harder than I initially expected, finding activities suitable for the groups diverse needs, but I gave it a go and it wasn’t entirely awful.

I’ve also somewhat started my second project, which is working at a youth centre for refugees once a week. This has proved a little tricky initially because so many of the kids and young people are genuinely terrified of Jazzy. The multicultural nature of the youth clubs means that not everyone is aware of guide dogs and have very different views about dogs in general. Because of this, my first few weeks volunteering at the youth clubs have been mainly focused on getting them used to me and Jazzy and letting them get more comfortable with being around us. It’s challenging, but really rewarding when someone manages to overcome their fear.

I feel like my progress in French has stalled a little recently; I’ve missed some of my regular lessons because of work commitments and if I’m honest my enthusiasm has lessened as the lessons have gotten harder. Never the less it’s an essential part of living here so I soldier on and try not to cringe too much at my appalling conjugation.

I grew increasingly worried about Jazzy at the beginning of the month when she seemed to be more and more distracted and generally ineffective when working. I reached out to the local guide dogs school, who were amazing in meeting me and giving me lots of helpful pointers about Jaz. It’s easy for me to forget how sensitive she is sometimes because she’s generally so relaxed, especially when it comes to her sensitivity to my behaviour. The experience only reminded me again how important it is for me to be aware of my own feelings and behaviours, if for nothing else so that I can be mindful of how my state an affect Jazzy. I’m really glad to say that with a bit of reassurance and a lot of encouragement, she is back to her usual cheeky self-swaggering around town like top dog.

Unfortunately, my Italian housemate decided to leave the programme at the beginning of November; she was struggling to adjust to living away from home and wasn’t happy in the situation. It was a shame but not a surprise if I’m honest. Since then, myself and my remaining French flatmate have continued living together in companionable harmony. We aren’t close, but we live together very comfortably which I’m really grateful for.

Overall the last month has been a little more challenging as the honey-moon phase of excitement wares off. My boyfriend visited for a long weekend which was wonderful, but did make me feel a bit moor homesick afterwards. I’m also still really keen to improve my social network as much as I can. It’s a little tricky because of the language barrier, but I’m hopeful that as my French improves so will my social life.

I have also invested some time into finding some way to be active regularly. I visited a local horse-riding school which seemed promising at first, but unfortunately it seemed that the sight of me standing there with my white cane made the ‘blind’ word all too real and they didn’t want the responsibility of me riding at their school. It’s not like this kind of thing is exclusive to Belgium, but didn’t make it any more fun to experience. Thankfully I have a lead on another school that seem much more promising and that I’ll hopefully visit in the next couple of weeks, so keeping fingers crossed for now.

Later this week I’ll be returning to the UK for the first time since I moved to Belgium. I’m going home to attend the final development day of the Change100 programme I completed during the summer. I have to admit that I’m looking forward to being back in London again and specially to reuniting with my fellow Change100 interns and colleagues. I’m sure trying to get through Kings Cross at rush hour will soon burst my romanticised bubble though, no doubt of that. Other than heading home for a few days the next last few weeks of the year are set to be pretty busy as we hold two dinners in the dark, awareness raising events that involve diners trying to eat a three-course meal in complete darkness, and I’m also attending the European Day of Persons with Disabilities conference in Brussels. By far the most terrifying prospect of the next few weeks though is the fact that I somehow volunteered to make mince pies for my French class as part of our multicultural end of term Christmas dinner. Here’s hoping I don’t give everyone food poisoning in the process!

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Belgium EVS: October 2017

So, I moved to Belgium…

I still can’t really believe it. This morning I experienced a surreal moment when walking to work, chatting to a local I met on the bus, when I just wanted to laugh so much at how bizarre this all is! I’ve been here a month already and it still hasn’t sunk in yet.
I’m here for nine months taking part in the European Voluntary Service programme. It means that I get my accommodation for free and some pocket money for food and living costs, in exchange for volunteering for a set number of hours per week. In particular, I’m taking part in the EVS programme that is specifically adapted for visually impaired people, which basically involves having mobility and accessible French lessons included in my programme. In other words, it’s a dream come true!
I had a lot of questions before coming here that included everything from whether there was a convenient place to toilet Jazzy near my apartment, to whether my mental health would be able to cope with moving to a different country on my own where they speak a different language. The answer to both those questions is yes; I thankfully don’t have to walk a mile in the rain before she can have a wee, and so far, I’m feeling better than I expected.
It’s been an adjustment for sure. My one-to-one French lessons were initially incredibly difficult because neither I or my teacher were clear on the most effective and most accessible way of teaching me. Seeing as I managed a very impressive D in my French GCSE, I definitely needed a lot of teaching. Thankfully I think we’ve now found the perfect combination of recording vocabulary and using online exercises to practice grammar which means that my French is coming along slowly but surely. I’ve also started attending adult learning classes twice a week for French, which helps reinforce what I’m learning and is also a great way to meet people. My grasp of the language has now progressed enough that I can ask someone what number bus is approaching and ask the driver to let me know when we get to my stop; two very important questions!
I’m quietly confident in my mobility skills and Jazzy’s ability to pick up routes, so that at least wasn’t a huge concern before I got here. I needn’t have worried either because we’re picking it up really well, helped I think by the fact that we both seem to enjoy finding our way around new places. Jazzy is prone to making a few more blips than usual, but it’s not something I’m concerned about at the moment. I’m also hoping to make contact with the local guide dog centre soon which will hopefully be good for advice about Jazzy but also meeting new people.

In terms of my living situation, I’m sharing an apartment with two others adapted EVS volunteers, one from France and the other from Sicily. There is something of an age gap between us, both of them being twenty-nine, but I’m glad to say that we get on well and we live in pretty companionable harmony. It’s nice to have other people who are completely new to Belgium as well and it’s a real asset for me to have a native French speaker correcting my pronunciation. I still giggle when I think about our first night in the apartment; we were investigating what goodies the previous occupants had left behind, including ridiculous quantities of rice and pasta, when we found something like a year’s supply of sanitary towels and tampons. Exchanging the English, French and Italian names for feminine hygiene products was definitely a novel way of breaking the ice!

 

I’ve started one of two volunteering projects so far. I’m managing the communication for a charity that supports visually impaired people both locally and internationally. My tasks include writing content for their website, social media and newsletters, as well as supporting them with any awareness raising sessions or events. During my second week of work I was asked to observe an awareness raising session where my colleagues would explain a little about visual impairment, different mobility aids and sighted guiding. I wanted to contribute so I decided to prepare some information in French about owning a guide dog. Thankfully I presented the information clearly enough that everyone understood my meaning. It was definitely a good achievement!
One of my neighbours approached me soon after I arrived to ask if I’d be interested in holding English conversation sessions every week. I agreed, if somewhat nervously, because I’ll give anything a go once but I really have no teaching experience and have even gone so far as to promise that teaching is the one thing I’d never do in the past. Never the less I turned up last week after watching some ‘teaching English conversation’ YouTube tutorials hoping for the best, and proceeded to spend the hour explaining Frank Sinatra’s song ‘My Way’. It was surreal, bizarre and brilliant. It turns out that one member of the group really enjoys singing in English but often has no idea what he’s singing about, so for the first few sessions it seems we’ll be translating some of his favourite tunes.
Other highlights of my first month have included meeting other EVS volunteers placed all over Belgium during a national EVS training event, attending the annual lights festival in Liege that saw the city centre come to life with candles, lanterns and fairy lights, and of course sampling (too much) local beer, chocolate and cheese. It seems to be a vibrant place with events happening every week; last week I went with a neighbour to an autumn celebration at a local cultural centre. The city hall type building was decorated with an array of autumnal decorations and hosted activities including Tango dancing, aromatherapy and mindfulness that you could pick and choose as you wished. There is also a large fair happening in the town in the moment which is present until the end of November, when the largest Christmas market in Europe will take over.
My overall impression is that locals are extremely friendly and helpful, very happy to go out of their way to help if they can. I think this is reflected best by the fact that everyone around me available to support me are doing so as volunteers, including my French and mobility instructors who have practically seen more of me than their own families during the last few weeks. My neighbours are also extremely welcoming, as well as my colleagues and fellow students at the French lessons.
I’ve found that the times when I feel the most homesick or unhappy are when I’m cooped up in my room, bored. Admittedly this hasn’t happened much during this first busy month, but I’m making a conscious effort to push myself out of my comfort zone as much as possible to meet new people and get involved with lots of different things. I would like to find something active to do locally, whether that be going to the gym or joining a local group, and I would also like to do all the touristy stuff in my city. I’m also hoping to do some travelling while I’m here, making the most of the connections to neighbouring countries like France, Germany and the Netherlands, but it’s probably best I get to grips with where I live now first!
On the whole, this first month has been exciting, challenging and very rewarding. By the end of November, I hope to have progressed in French, I hope to have integrated into the local community a bit more by expanding my social network, and I hope to be more physically active. Oh, and visiting the local chocolate factory is top on the list too!

Cyprus with Seable and VICTA

I was recently lucky enough to spend the week in Cyprus on a trip organised by VICTA Children and Seable Holidays. Along with nine other visually impaired people and four sighted guides, I spent a week making the most of everything Cyprus has to offer; from sun bathing to pottery making we did it all!

The trip

Though it could appear daunting to go on holiday with a group of people you may never have even met before, I can say from personal experience that VICTA and Seable are so welcoming and friendly that the atmosphere of their trips are great from the get go. The ethos of VICTA trips is to encourage as much independence as possible, so while sighted volunteers are on hand to guide where needed, they also encourage us to help ourselves and each other as much as possible.

Upon arriving in sunny Cyprus after a stress free flight, we made our way to the hotel and spent the rest of that day orienting ourselves around the building, our rooms and most importantly the pool, before having dinner at a local restaurant.

Our first full day in Cyprus was our chance to try some arts and crafts. We visited a local centre where we learned from local artists all about glass making, tapestry, mosaics and much more. We also were able to try our hands at a bit of pottery and magnet making ourselves. Personally, the pottery instructor told me that he’d never met anybody as terrible at pottery as me, so I won’t be taking up that career any time soon but I’m glad to say that others in the group had better luck. We finished off the day with an afternoon on the beach and more wonderful food.

The next day was all about Paphos, as we explored the archaeological park in the morning and roamed the harber in the afternoon. This was personally one of my favourite days of the trip as I was just blown away learning about the history of the ancient ruins and local mythology. The House of Dionysus, one of the ruins we visited, was extremely accessible having braille information and small scale tactile representations of the mosaics. That evening myself and a few others decided to sample the local delicacy of maze, which consists of lots of small dishes being brought out to share among the table. The food was stunning, though I think we were all more than full by the end. I believe we got up to ten courses all in all!

The following morning we waved goodbye to Paphos and made our way to Troodos where we’d spend the rest of the week,not forgetting to stop for a wine tasting on the way. The afternoon was spent hiking on Troodos mountain lead by a local guide. The weather was fantastic and the nature beautiful, the views weren’t half bad either so I’m told 😉

For our last full day in Cyprus we visited a local botanical garden, a sweets factory and rose factory. The botanical gardens were again beautiful, full of all sorts of fantastic wildlife. The sweets shop was a sweet-tooths heaven; jams, marmalades and sweets of all kind, all home made and made from local produce. And of course the rose factory was fascinating. Not only did it smell beautiful, but the owner who came to speak with us about her business was obviously very knowledgable and passionate about her work and was extremely accommodating in letting us feel and sample all of the different products they produce. I just couldn’t resist spending my remaining euros in their gift shop and I got some lovely suvineers.

All in all it was a very relaxed trip, full of fun and laughter. I can definitely say that I’ve come away from the week with great memories and really good friends. I would absolutely recommend VICTA and Seable to anyone for their services, information about which I’ll post below.

Who are VICTA and Seable?

VICTA (Visually Impaired Children Taking Action) are a national charity serving visually impaired children and young adults and their families. They organise residential weekends and international trips throughout the year that are intended to raise the independence and confidence of young VI people. I’ve been attending VICTA events since I was around 15 and have made countless friends and made fantastic memories through the experiences I’ve had with them. They plan activities for a range of age-groups, from family weekends for young children and their families to international trips for 18 to 30 years old like the one I attended to Cyprus. Check out their website for more information: http://www.victa.org.uk

Seable is an award winning social enterprise organising accessible and active holidays for individuals, couples, families and small groups. They can arrange trips to a number of locations including Sicily, Slovenia and Roam and will taylor your holiday to your spesific access needs. They are an invaluable service for those of us who have disabilities but who also want to see the world by going on fun, interactive and relaxed trips where your disability won’t stopd you from doing anything. So far I’ve attended two Seable trips including the recent one to Cyprus, but fully intend to go on many more and would recommend anyone who likes to travel and who has a disability to consider them before booking your next holiday because I promise you won’t regret it. Click on the link below to check out their website: http://www.seable.co.uk