Belgium EVS: April 2018

April started off with a visit to Wales to see the family. I hadn’t seen them since Christmas, so this was a welcome break. I’ve not really experienced homesickness before like I have during my time in Belgium, even though I haven’t really lived at home since I was 16. It was a bit jarring initially because I’d always thought of myself as someone who just doesn’t really get homesick. Not because I’m not close to my family, but more because of the fact that wherever I’ve been before I’ve known they were only a phone call away. That’s no different in Belgium, but it takes a fair bit more time, effort and money for us to get to each other when there’s a big body of water between us; something that’s been painfully obvious at certain points, so a week with the fam was much appreciated and enjoyed.

When I got back to Belgium, my manager was away for a work trip, so it was just me and the new member of staff in the office. This felt a bit daunting because all of a sudden, I was the most experienced person in the office. Never the less we muddled through and made it until the boss got back without any major catastrophes… I call that a win!

April was also one of those months where I seemed to do a lot of admin. The organisation’s website was finally back up and running so I had a whole load of updating and uploading to do. It sounds boring even to me as I’m typing it, but I actually quite enjoyed it. I’m far from a computer nerd (I don’t even really know what coding means) but I like playing around with things online that aren’t too out of my grasp and I found the process of updating things and getting the website looking better really satisfying. I did other things too, I attended another EU conference and wrote a guide for future EVS volunteers, but my prevailing impression of April work wise is all about the website.

The best thing about April was my travels. A friend from the UK has recently moved to Antwerp so I had the perfect excuse to visit. There wasn’t much to do in the way of visiting notable landmarks or discovering much history, but I spent one afternoon enjoying the sunshine and some beers in the park, and another evening with good friends in a quirky bar. Antwerp is somewhere I’d go again for a good time.

I also spent a weekend in a small rural village called Thuin with some other EVS volunteers and their friends. This was another lovely weekend but a bit more relaxed than Antwerp. Jazzy definitely preferred our long walks through the countryside and forest. We used Air B&B and stayed in a gorgeous typical Belgian house; very tall, with three stories and basement, looking over a fantastic view of the hanging gardens. It was a beautiful, very tranquil place and I’d recommend The Frites Club, a small friterie right opposite the train station, for really good typical Belgian chips.

That’s about it for April. The weather gradually got warmer, but my raincoat was never far away because of typical April showers. I didn’t get around to writing an April post until now because May has been manic from the get -go, but that’s a story for another post.

Until next time…

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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!

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!