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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Belgium EVS: Jan & Feb 2018

So here we are, a long overdue update about the first few months of 2018 in Belgium. I indulged in a prolonged Christmas break which meant that I didn’t get back to Belgium until mid-January, so I didn’t feel like I had enough to write about at the end of last month to publish a post. Now I’m trying to remember everything that’s happened during the last couple of months and struggling to know where to start. Typical!

Logically I guess I should start with January 1st 2018. I saw in the new year watching the fireworks display over the Space Needle in Seattle, USA. Myself and boyfriend got on a plane a couple of days after Christmas and headed off to the emerald city to spend a week with friends. It was a great trip; not my first time in America, but my first time there since I was nine so it’s fair to say a bit different. Our friends were great hosts taking us to visit the Museum of Pop Culture and the Space Needle of course. I’m afraid we displayed an inappropriate amount of Britishness on a couple of occasions; exclaiming about portion sizes and worrying about tipping etiquette and so on. A highlight was a walking tour of Hike Place Market when a local tour guide took us to five different bars/restaurants in down town Seattle to sample some delegacies. I’d definitely recommend walking tours to blind or VI travellers when visiting somewhere new. They are a great way to get to know wherever your visiting, with the added bonus of being shown around by a local so you know they know their stuff. We contacted the guide beforehand to let him know that our group included four VI people and he couldn’t have been nicer and more helpful.

I spent another week at home after Seattle before travelling back to Belgium, but not before going to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Palace Theatre, London. I’ve talked about my love of live theatre before in this post and how companies like VocalEyes provide live audio description and touch tours of performances. This was also included in this performance of The Cursed Child and I can honestly say that I’ve never been to a performance with more people there for the audio description than this one. The play itself was amazing and overall it was a very nostalgic day for a long-term Potter-head like myself.

And now we finally get back to Belgium. My first week back included the second session of training for all the EVS volunteers, organised by the national association. This was a great opportunity to get together with the other volunteers again and to reflect on our progress and our expectations of our EVS projects. I found it a little hard coming back to Belgium after spending so much time at home with family and friends over Christmas, but I had a good time with other EVS volunteers and exploring Brussels a little more.

After the training it was back to work at the office. I feel more comfortable and confident in my job in the office now; I feel like I know what I’m doing and what is expected of me. I’ve been doing more of the same, helping organise local events and international projects, managing the social media and helping out with other various tasks here and there. I’ve also continued my French classes, but all be it in a new school which I much prefer. The lessons I attend now are much better suited to my current level of French and I feel more comfortable with my teacher and classmates. It just goes to show that if something doesn’t work, it won’t get better unless you do something about it.

Otherwise, I’ve managed to get a bit more active by joining a walking group and a Torball club, and I’ve even given blind football a go. For those who don’t know, Torball is somewhat similar to Goalball which is far more prevalent in the UK, but with a few minor changes to the rules. I’m enjoying playing but also enjoying the social side of training as well.

I’ve also done a little more travelling this side of the new year. I spent a weekend in Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago and am heading off for a couple of days in Paris tomorrow. I’m joined on both these trips by my boyfriend, but I am hoping to get in some solo trips to visit different friends in various places very soon. Germany is on my bucket list, as well as Bruges and Ghent in Belgium. My discounted Belgian travel card arrived in January which makes travel much easier (cheaper) and the assistance system works much the same as in the UK; you book your travel assistance online or over the phone and all being well you should have no problems.

The obligatory Jazzy update is very positive. She very much enjoyed her holiday at my mum’s house while I was in America, but she was happy enough to get back into the harness on my return. She seems very settled and comfortable here in Belgium now, even if she is still bemused whenever we get into a car on the wrong side. I’m pretty sure she finds our excursions to new places very exciting if the increased speed and wagging tail is anything to go by. With the combination of my selection of navigation apps and her intuition, we manage to get around pretty successfully most of the time, so I don’t worry about heading off and exploring new cities. Plus, the puppy-dog-eyes come in very useful if we’re trying to get someone’s attention to give us a hand 😉

It’s a bit of a strange time right now because even though I’m only half way through my project I have to start thinking and planning for afterwards by applying for graduate schemes and internships and so on. In other news I’m still trying to get used to people greeting me with kisses instead of a handshake; I think I’ve gotten better at not cringing away when someone lunges at me with pursed lips, but I can’t say it’s something I’ve yet mastered. I also think I’ve stumbled on a really innovative way of making friends; a few times now I’ve been wandering around looking a bit confused when I’ve momentarily lost my Barings, when someone lovely has offered to help, and we’ve ended up swapping contact details and keeping in touch. Maybe not the most conventional way of meeting people but so far, it’s worked.

And I suppose that’s it for this instalment of the EVS diaries. It’s a fairly busy month ahead in work, my birthday is coming up and I have a trip back to the UK planned for mid-March, so stay tuned for further updates.

Belgium EVS December 2017

At the time of writing this I’m sitting on my bed with my giant suitcase at my feet, empty and waiting to be packed for my journey back to Wales for Christmas. Anyone who knows me will immediately recognise this blog post for what it is, blatant procrastination, but never the less it seems like as good a time as ever to sum up my last few weeks in Belgium.

I think the best way to summarise the last few weeks is as a month of milestones. Honestly, this time two weeks ago I felt very tired, frustrated, homesick and generally just wanted to hide under my duvet for the foreseeable. Living abroad is hard. I think it’s important for me to write those words not only for myself but for other people too. When you get the opportunity to do something as amazing as travelling there’s this strange sort of pressure to be having a brilliant time, all the time. Whereas in reality, it’s not going to be brilliant all the time, because life isn’t brilliant all the time. And you’re doing something challenging and different and out of your comfort zone, so your allowed to have crappy days now and again. Or at least, that’s what I’m telling myself.

So, let’s break down what lead to my feeling crabby and stressed and generally very anti-Belgium.

1. The Wi-Fi in my apartment stopped working for six weeks. I can imagine people reading that last sentence with a shudder and let me just assure you that yes, it really was that bad. Any millennial would struggle in those kinds of conditions I think, but throw that millennial into a foreign country, and, I think I can be forgiven for going a little stir crazy. I think this was one of the main things that triggered the second issue…

2. I experienced real homesickness for the first time. So, I’ve lived away from home and missed the place where I grew up before, but I really don’t think I’ve ever dealt with homesickness like this. I love my family and my North Wales routes of course, but I also don’t idealise it; a place where public transport is terrible and anonymity non-existent is not my idea of heaven. So, genuine pangs of longing for home striking me without warning was a bit of a shock. My family visited me here in Belgium during the second week of December which was wonderful and exactly what I needed, but also left me even more homesick once they were heading back home. I also feel like the language barrier played a big part in this as well. The couple of days I spent in London at the end of November made me so happy for silly reasons like the fact that I could talk to strangers without feeling like I was trying to solve an impossibly difficult riddle the whole time.

3. My progress in French has now reached a very strange point which is amazing and frustrating at the same time. I can follow and participate in maybe 60% of conversation, but there are still big gaps in my vocabulary that get in the way of fluid conversation. It’s annoying because I’ll find myself talking to someone fine one minute and then completely lost the next, or I’ll get stuck trying to articulate myself because I’m just missing a couple of words. Part of this is just the normal process of learning a new language, but also because I’ve now reached a middle ground that means I don’t fit comfortably into neither the beginner’s classes or the advanced lessons. Hopefully this will improve in the new year when I give a different class a go and carry on practicing with various podcasts and online resources.

Other than those blips that got me into a funk, a couple of cool things happened too that felt like real accomplishments and pretty notable milestones. The one of these I’m most proud of is the fact that I managed to use assistance in a supermarket, in French, successfully for the first time. It might not sound like much, but when you can’t see even the simplest things like popping to the shops are not so easy when you don’t speak the language because of course you probably need help to navigate said shop. Just the fact that I got in and out without any major hiccups was great, and the fact that I came out with the thing I wanted was a bonus! (I cannot tell you how many times I’ve gone into a shop, asked for something, and come out with something completely different but been too British and embarrassed to admit the mistake). Besides, it’s all part of the fun and they usually end up being experiences that I learn from so it’s all good.

The second thing that happened is that I missed my stop on the bus… and survived! Okay, so it kind of was my fault for being too cocky and not paying attention properly, but considering that before I came to Belgium I used the bus only as a last resort and generally behaved as though a gun were stuck to my head if ever I had to board one, it’s something of a development that I now use busses daily without worry. I’ve always avoided busses because of the very real possibility of getting off at the wrong stop and being lost. However, I thank the wonderful Belgian weather for helping me get over this fear because even though I swore when I arrived that I’d always choose walking over taking the bus, the 40-minute journey on foot to work in the pouring rain soon changed my mind. I use an app called BlindSquare to track my location on the bus so I know when to get off. This system was working so well that I eventually stopped using the app every time as I grew more familiar with the route. And that’s how I ended up missing my stop one day and ending up in a location unknown. Thankfully common sense and broken French got me on a bus going back in the direction I’d come from and, using the app this time, I made it back home with no further problems. I’d definitely recommend BlindSquare to my visually impaired readers looking for a GPS app because it’s pretty accurate and works in tandem with other apps like Google maps and Apple Maps.

Those were the biggest milestones I think I achieved this month. In terms of work, we held two dinners in the dark where I got to test out my waitressing skills for the first time while also meeting some new people too. We hosted 25 guests both nights, all eating in complete darkness and needing help with everything from poring their drinks to finding their cutlery. They were intense but enjoyable evenings and I’m looking forward to the second lot of dinners in the dark in March. I also made some progress at my other volunteering placement in the youth centre; I’ve previously mentioned that I’ve struggled a little because many of the young people who attend are very afraid of Jazzy. However, I managed to hold a small awareness session for the younger kids (who don’t seem to be as afraid of the dog) just before Christmas where I explained a bit about myself and about Jazzy as a working dog. I think it went well, at least they all seemed to enjoy trying out the accessible board games I’d brought with me so that was good fun.

Those are pretty much the highlights of my last few weeks. By now my Wi-Fi is up and running again, I feel a little better about my French and I’m not as anti-Belgium as I felt a couple of weeks ago, but I am definitely looking forward to going home for Christmas. So, for now I will wish my readers happy holidays and get packing. See you in 2018!

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!

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!