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.

Come fly with me!

This summer has been a summer of firsts in many ways, including the first time I’ve flown without sighted assistance. When I say without sighted assistance, I mean without having someone with full vision in the group to be the eyes of the operation. What I did instead was book special assistance to get me headed in the right direction for my holiday. And this is what happened…
My boyfriend and I were looking forward to a relaxing week by the pool staying at his relative’s villa in Catral, Valencia. We were flying from London Luton to Murcia and doing the same to return in 7 days’ time. Both of us have about as much sight as a blindfolded bat between us, so I wasn’t expecting it to be any easy task to get ourselves on the right track to say the least. Fortunately, like most things these days, there are ways around things like not being able to see further than the end of your nose in a crowded airport.
When booking our tickets with Ryan Air, we also booked special assistance on both outward and return journeys at Luton and at Murcia airports. We were instructed to get ourselves to the special assistance desks at least two hours prior to our departure time, so that is what we did. Upon our arrival we were met by a member of staff who helped us check in our luggage and get through customs. On the other side of security another member of staff got us to the special assistance departure lounge where she left us to wait for our flight to be called. So good, so far!
Before we knew it our flight was being called and yet another member of staff was leading us out onto the runway to what I assumed was the plane. After curtly instructing us to “wait” our member of staff seemed to disappear. This is when I experienced the beginnings of a mild panic attack, when I realised that he’d failed to give us back our passports and boarding passes before his vanishing act. As we were both performing the classic airport patdown of our pockets, our documents were waved in front of my face along with an impatient shout of “passports!” I interpreted this to mean that they were safe in the hands of another official and tried to get my breathing back to normal.
My attempt to regulate my pulse wasn’t helped however when the earth beneath my feet started moving! I soon realised that we were in fact standing on some sort of lift that, I again assumed, was lifting us to the entrance of the plane. We had been asked if we could use the stairs and we had answered very confidently and adamantly that we could, but obviously someone somewhere had deemed us incapable of bending our knees so up we zoomed in the weird lift.
Upon reaching the grand height of two feet above the ground, the demanding voice who’d claimed our passports barked “forward” and directed me into what I was still assuming was the plane. It was only when I stumbled ungracefully into a seat that I realised that we weren’t in the plane, we were on a bus. I concluded that this must be the Minnie bus that would take us across the runway to the plane.
A distinct atmosphere of trepidation enveloped us as we rode in silence along with around ten other passengers (who’d been allowed to climb the two steps into the minibus by the way) until we came to a shuddering halt. About fifteen minutes followed, during which our passports were given back to us and taken away I think three times without explanation, until we were finally herded onto the aircraft.
Once we were settled in our seats the flight itself was fairly uneventful. A stewardess introduced herself to us before we took off and showed us how to find the call button if we needed anything and we listened to the safety instructions with mild interest. The same stewardess led us off the plane when we landed in Murcia and onto another strange lift, which deposited us in another bus. We were met off the bus by a member of Murcia airport staff; a lovely tiny Spanish woman who took both our hands and made polite attempts at pleasantries whilst guiding us through the maze of people.
She listened intently to our description of our suitcase and seemed very pleased with herself when she managed to bring us the right one on the first try (I was impressed too if I’m honest). Then she sat us down on a bench and asked us to rate her service.
At this point we still needed her help to find our welcoming party, so it was quite a strange position to be in; on the one hand, if the service had been awful and you wanted to be honest, how awkward would it be to say this to her expectant face and expect her to help us to the exit afterwards? On the other, she had delivered a very good service and I was happy to tell her so, but it did feel somewhat false and forced, because am I really going to say that she was terrible when I’m still depending on her? Never the less she wrote down our sparkling review and happily took our hands again, leading us to the exit and straight to my boyfriend’s relatives.
After a wonderfully relaxing week of sunbathing and eating far too much ice-cream, we once again found ourselves at Murcia airport preparing to head back to the grey and gloomy UK. Our return journey was somewhat less bizarre than our outward adventure, following much the same pattern as before. A member of staff checked in our luggage and escorted us through customs, left us to wait for our flight and came to collect us when it was called.
He led us into the queue of people waiting outside to be admitted into the plane. He left us to attend to something else, but never returned. This might have been disconcerting in certain situations, but the fact that we were in the middle of a queue of people who were easy enough to follow meant that we didn’t worry too much. When the queue moved, we just followed the people in front. There were staff milling around so I’m sure if we’d looked lost someone would’ve come to our aid, but we were able to make our way to the stairs up to the plane easily and made our way to our seats with no problems.
A stewardess again introduced herself to us and showed us the call buttons, but in addition this time she gave us a one-to-one demonstration of how to use the life jacket and oxygen mask which was reassuring I have to admit. Other than that the flight passed without much to report. When we landed in Luton, again we waited for everyone to get off before making our way to the exit.
The only thing to note when we landed was that our special assistant was vastly overstretched. She was solely supposed to help two blind people, three wheelchair users, a person using a walking frame and an assortment of others through customs and to collect their luggage. It was obvious that more than one member of staff was needed for this operation, but never the less she managed really well and even went so far as to escort us to the disabled parking pick-up point to meet our friends who were giving us a lift home.
So all in all a successful experience of airport special assistance. I’ve heard horror stories of airport assistance being shockingly lacking in awareness training, so I was thankful that at least nobody tried to plonk me in a wheelchair. Ultimately I think the lack of communication on the outward journey was the most frustrating thing, and I’m still not really sure why we were the only ones made to use the strange lift after specifically confirming that we were happy to use the stairs. The process was definitely more relaxed on the Spanish side of the journey and the poor woman in charge of all of us when we landed in Luton deserved a medal for herding us all through without a fault.
I hope you’ve enjoyed your journey with me today and thank you for flying with See My Way 😉