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!

Advertisements

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!