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!

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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!