Belgium EVS: May 2018

May 2018 will forever be known as manic May.

It was due to be a busy month as the future EVS volunteers would be visiting the city for their advanced planning visit (APV. This is a visit that each visually impaired EVS volunteer is entitled to make before the start of their project in order to get a feel for where they’ll be living and to meet some of the people who will be involved in their project. I also had an APV, but circumstances meant that mine took place one just one week before the start of my project. This wasn’t ideal, and I’m glad the volunteers who will be arriving in October had the advantage of making this trip a good few months in advance of their arrival because I really believe it is advantageous to have this time to prepare and plan.

Anyway, two volunteers were scheduled to visit in the first week of May, with the third doing her APV at the end of the month. I was excited but nervous about these visits. I was happy to be able to meet the future volunteers and offer any advice that I could, but I was also anxious to give them a positive yet realistic overview of the EVS experience. I was given responsibilities during both APV’s such as collecting volunteers from the train station and transporting them to different meetings, which on the whole I managed fine.

A tricky situation arose with one of my neighbours, unfortunately just as I was supposed to be showing one of the future vols around the EVS apartment. It was a challenging situation that tested me in a lot of ways. Thankfully my manager from VIEWS was there at the time and supported me to handle things, but it left me frazzled and a little shaken.

Afterwards, I realised that I could really be quite proud of how I managed the situation and I’ve since come to realise that it was a bit of a turning point. I’ve struggled a lot with self-confidence throughout this experience; something that doesn’t come easy to me at the best of times but has been particularly challenging during my Belgium experience. However, I think that being able to be proud of how I reacted in this situation with my neighbour gave me a bit of a boost and has since increased my self-belief in a way that I think is quite noticeable.

Shortly after this eventful week, I was due to go back to the UK for a few days for a couple of job interviews. I completed one assessment centre day for a graduate scheme that I really didn’t feel very confident about but had another interview for a job that I was quite hopeful for. Fortunately, it went better than I expected, and I was offered the job!

When I return from Belgium for the final time at the end of June, I will start working as Events officer for Look UK. I’m so thrilled to have gotten this opportunity because Look have been my sending association for my EVS project, so I know them well and love their mentality and ethos. I’m really glad to be able to hit the ground running with a new adventure after EVS is over and can’t wait to start working for Look. They have a lot of really exciting projects for visually impaired young people and their families, so please check them out if you can!

During the last two weeks of May we hosted the final APV for the third future volunteer. There were no sticky situations with neighbours this time, but this was sadly the time when Liege was hit by a tragic incident; a man attacked police officers and a school, sadly leaving two officers and one innocent bystander dead. This was devastating and quite unnerving as the attack happened on a street that I regularly take, and it was scary to have something so heart breaking happen so close to home. I realised that day how much I have grown to love Liege and feel part of the city. It was a revelation for me as a few months ago I really felt like an outsider and never thought I would feel part of the community. I’m just sorry that this realisation was provoked by such a tragic event.

Another city was checked off my list in May as I visited Ghent with my manager from VIEWS and fellow EVS volunteer. It was a lovely relaxed day including a boat trip on the river and leisurely strolling around the city centre. I’ve since been to Ghent a second time and would recommend it for shopping and a bit of medieval history. I also spent even more time in Flanders, spending a weekend with friends in the small city of Lier, just outside Antwerp.

I know enough Wallonia and Flemish people now to notice the difference in their mannerisms and mentalities, aside from the obvious difference in language. I can’t say that I have a preference for either; the Flemish are a bit more reserved and are closer to British in terms of social custom, but the Wallonia French speakers are more relaxed and easy-going by nature (just from my observations).

I know that I say this in every post, but it doesn’t seem real that I’m leaving in a matter of weeks. What I already know is that I’ve learned far more about myself during EVS than about anything else.

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…

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.