Archive for the 'Belgium' Category

An appendix

One of the things that makes Austria great is that Pierce Brosnan features in adverts for luxury supermarket food there.

Since my year abroad is officially over – as of 4 days ago – it is time to retire this blog. A lot of my friends are still out in Europe. I’d have liked to do that, but I can’t really justify hanging about away from home doing nothing. I think it was a good time to move on, even though I dearly miss Linz and the people there. It’s not an altogether pleasant feeling, but I’m trying to adjust to life at home again as well as I can.

So, I’d like to reflect on a few things…

Did the year abroad live up to my expectations? Yes and no. I knew it wasn’t going to always be a picnic. I indeed found that far from a drawn-out holiday, living abroad could be expensive, exhausting and emotional.

I remember very well the night before I got the Eurostar to Liège, lying in bed, so nervous. I hadn’t spoken French in months, and I was so worried I’d fail at even buying a bus ticket. I’d heard the first few weeks were hard; and yes, the first few weeks there were quite unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Even the simplest tasks were like moving a mountain – I remember it was quite a while before I had my own cutlery and crockery and stuff, just because I had no idea where to obtain it from. I also had no money when I got there – the ERASMUS grant didn’t come in until much later – so I couldn’t really explore and have fun, and I think that definitely affected how I interacted with my peers (i.e. badly).

It was tough. I already had some personal issues, and on top of that came the unfortunate environmental factors. It just added up and I felt like I couldn’t take it, I couldn’t go on. They were some of the lowest times in my life, actually. I remember counting down the weeks til I could go home. And my semester in Austria – which I was already sure would be better – seemed like a century away.

I realised later that Liège was the location for a rather dark film we watched for a class last year, La Promesse. When I mentioned this to friends who’d also seen it, they understood!

I had an awesome time in Linz and it was the place I enjoyed the most – no question – but I have come to realise some things about the differences between my experiences in Belgium and Austria.

I think it is actually much harder for a foreigner to assimilate into Austria. At first I found people to be a little too “direct” for my liking. Subtlety and politeness don’t really have a place there. But over time I made the best out of this – when in Rome, as it were. I began to have no problem with pushing in front of people in non-existent queues, and I stopped prefacing all my opinions with “I’m sorry, but…”, because I realised that speaking my mind was hardly going to ruin somebody’s day. (In fact, even in the few days since coming back to England I’ve had to alter my manners a bit – some people have looked a bit shocked when I say something a bit too bluntly. And I’ve totally forgotten how to queue.)

But I never did get used to the way people stared. On public transport, in the street. People of all ages and genders. In England, we are taught from childhood that staring is the height of rudeness. On the bus, you keep your eyes out of the window or on the ground. I felt like I was constantly being visually criticised and evaluated, even though deep down I knew it wasn’t personal. Not great when you’re in a bad mood and just want to feel invisible.

However, I do think the one thing that was consistently blocking me out was the dialect. Don’t get me wrong, I super loved being in a place with a different form of German, that was why I was interested in coming to Austria.  Overall, my German definitely improved by default of immersion, but the local dialect made it slightly more difficult to understand people, which meant I had to concentrate harder on listening – which was exhausting. I found I kept saying “Bitte?” like a stuck record. But also, I feel that the fact I wasn’t in on what was almost a secret language put a strain on my relationships with others at home, work and generally in public. On my account my housemates would have to speak Standard German, and one of them eventually admitted it was easier to speak English with me because he felt so weird and overly formal trying to speak SG, as if presenting the news. (A friend of mine even tutored someone who needed to practise his SG as he was going to do a presentation.)
At times I felt as terrible as I would if I marched into a shop in another country and immediately demanded they speak my language without even asking if they could. So there was not only that issue, but the fact that this meant in public situations I could be construed as a German. And that leads us to the fact that the Austrians have a mixed relationship with the Germans (a topic within itself).

Despite those difficulties, I’m glad I got to experience a new German-speaking country. But given half a chance, I’d definitely have picked another destination for the French side, like France – perhaps even in the Mediterranean or Pyrenees regions (to counterbalance the morale-draining winter). But lately I’ve been thinking about whether I would take Liège on with a completely different attitude if I went there now, with what I’ve learnt from being in Austria. I wonder if I’d be more motivated to hunt down lecturers and ask what the deal is with randomly cancelled lessons, if I’d be more outgoing and open to meeting people (even if it meant putting up with doing stuff I hated). I know there is no point dwelling on the past and whatiffing, but I honestly think that my experience in Linz has been so beneficial that I’m actually now able to see where I went wrong before. On the other hand, if I’d been thrown into my assistantship for the first semester, would I have been able to cope with all the responsibility? Maybe in some ways my time in Liège was a useful little segue into the “real thing”. It’s interesting to think about, but I guess I just need to accept everything for what it is, what it has been, and do what I can now in the present.

I’m publishing this in a bit of a rush because I want to get it out of the way while it’s all still fresh in my mind. I am leaving for Montreal in a week, and I have lots to prepare – not least that it’s time to brush up on my French again! I have been wanting to visit there for years, so I am extremely excited that I finally have enough money. And more importantly, I’ve realised that the year abroad has actually filled me with the confidence to actually just go ahead and buy that ticket. I think that this time last year, even though I certainly wanted to go, I don’t think I’d actually have had enough courage to do it. There’d be too much “what if”. But these days, having experienced so much wonderful stuff and becoming less naive by also experiencing some bad stuff, I see absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t. I feel I owe it to myself, even. I look at how far I’ve come (on a personal level) and it’s a wonderful boost.

Overall, I hope that this blog has been useful and/or inspirational to anybody who’s thinking about studying or working abroad, even if it isn’t in Belgium or Austria. Couple more tips:

  1. Wherever you end up going, make sure you bring plenty of paracetomol (or whatever your painkiller of choice is) with you. Gone are the days of getting them for 60p from the supermarket. Welcome to making a special trip to the pharmacy and paying 6 € for them.
  2. You’ll probably hear/read a lot of people saying the year abroad is the best year of your life. Take that with a pinch of salt. I put myself down a lot in the first semester because I definitely wasn’t having a good time, and I think that impacted everything else. Just take it as it comes, but don’t put pressure on yourself to make it amazing. I would advise that you try to establish a good friendship group (i.e. support network) early on, even if you don’t always feel like socialising. It means you won’t feel alone when challenges do arise.
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What I’ve learnt from my time in Belgium

I was just in Belgium for a couple of days to pick up the last of my possessions from when I left early, and to get my departure forms signed. I must confess, I was a bit teary-eyed when I caught my last glimpses of Brussels as the train was pulling out. I grew to like that city a lot.

So I suppose I’ve officially finished. But hang on! I still need to do my work. I’m still in the process of organising all that stuff with my professors at home, but we’ve basically agreed I’ll write a few essays. I find that much, much more preferable to the oral exams that I would have done had I stayed in Liège.

It’s been a different experience, to say the least – and to be perfectly honest, it’s been mostly negative. It’s difficult to put this across when people (such as family friends) ask me how it’s all going, and I have to lie through my teeth for the sake of politeness. However, even at my lowest points during my semester in Liège, I’ve constantly thought, “These things are meant to try us”. I am making an effort to take each thing that went wrong and learn from it.

  • Get all the necessary admin (ERASMUS forms, etc) sorted out as soon as possible. Even if your host institution is unreliable and difficult to navigate, it’s the least you can do, and it means that your home university most likely won’t get on your back about mistakes that were out of your hands.
  • Try to interact with others as much as you can. This is really what made it all go wrong for me, I think. When I’m not in the company of people I already know and feel comfortable with, I can find this difficult. Add the factor of a foreign language or awkward situation and it makes it dozens of times worse. I wish I had persisted, though. It’s not that I didn’t try at all – that’s what made me so frustrated, I think. It’s just that sometimes shyness got the better of me and I missed opportunities to have what could have been great conversations. I think this could actually be more down to the French language, though, and the fact there’s the smallest part of me that still feels a bit self-conscious speaking it (I’ve never really had problems talking to people out of the blue in Germany, curiously).
  • Don’t think about people from your “old life” too much. Of course you’ll miss them, and it’s not to say you should cut all ties with them, or anything as drastic as that. It’s just that maybe don’t worry about immediately updating them on your every move. Keep long emails and Skype dates to a minimum, and you’ll appreciate them all the more. Try your best to live in the present.
  • Don’t get too anxious about the academic side of things. I spent most of the semester under the impression that my work done in Liège would count for 30% of my entire degree, and since I wasn’t really happy with my performance in second year, I wanted to study hard. It wasn’t until only a few weeks ago that I found out it was only 10% (not as small as it sounds, complicated system – but still). Obviously, don’t completely slack off, try and enjoy lessons, but it’s nothing to get amazingly stressed over. Unless you’re doing presentations in front of the class. That’s scary.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. The biggest error I made was probably having all these big hopes about it all, thinking it was going to be perfect and amazing. And I think that for this reason, I very much took it to heart when something went wrong. But you must accept that bad stuff will happen, by your own doing or not. Everything won’t be great just because you’re abroad. As my friend Sarah said, “It’s just like life… but it happens to be in another country”.

As for the positive things: One thing I can say is that my French skills have improved very much. I can breeze through the average novel (even if I don’t recognise every single word), whereas before I would take a while taking in what was on the page. To expand on what I was saying before, French pronunciation is notoriously difficult for an English tongue, and the inconsistent grammar can be a nightmare. But on the whole, the feeling I get when I make myself understood – and not just understood, but appreciated for my efforts – is incredible. I’ve found that it’s all about little victories. I just enjoy the language a lot more now, I think.

Right now I just need to concentrate on the work I have to catch up on, and also on my preparations for Austria. Updates on that will follow soon.

Liège 13/12/11

I have a couple of drafts about my travels waiting to be completed and subsequently published – I’ll do that soon, now that I have holidays. And I’m going to fix the dates so they are published in chronological order, so you may need to scroll down. But for now, one week later, I must write about this.

As you may have heard by now, there was a grenade attack followed by a shooting, carried out by the same man, at midday. I was at the scene. Needless to say it was terrifying, but I got away safely, without really knowing what on earth was going on – I was just out wasting some time on my lunch break, why would this be happening in Liège? I only realised how close I had been to getting seriously hurt or worse when I got home and read that 2 people had already been killed (a number that rose to 7 eventually, I believe; along with over 125 injured).

This is to remember those who were not as lucky as me.

My time in Liège has come to a premature end, as I and my home university felt I was not in a fit state to carry on studying there and sit my exams. So I am now going to meet with my department today to discuss that. I’m nervous about it, as I actually need to appeal to the university, but I am hoping for the best. Nobody could have ever predicted that something like this would happen.

Dimanche à la Montagne de Bueren, Liège

Oh look, it's me.

At the bottom of the 374 steps. Look at the beautiful colours on the right.

On the way up, I spotted a sign in a window written in Walloons (local dialect). Not entirely sure what it says, though - although the fact it's written in what has become a relatively obscure tongue may mean they only want those who still speak it to understand.

Concerts, Couchsurfing and Belgian Politics

As a contrast to all that negativity I described in that last post, I thought I would write about something good and exciting, just to reassure you that not everything is hopeless.

Going to shows of bands and artists I like is something I do pretty often. Maybe that’s why I’d been feeling so down – I need a good concert once in a while to reassure me that there is meaning in life. Just as I found out that I’d be in Belgium this semester, I started to look for things to go to. Bon Iver had announced a show in Brussels, and tickets were going to go on sale in a few days. I woke up to order them specially – noting that 10am in Belgium would be 9am in the UK – and I was very lucky, because within five minutes they were all sold out.

I’d kind of forgotten about it all until about a week before. I realised that I needed to find somewhere to stay the night, because it wasn’t certain there’d be trains going back to Liège after the show finished. All the hostels I checked out were expensive – if not too far away from the venue to contemplate walking alone to at night. I then remembered a website I’d heard about, called Couchsurfing. In a nutshell, it’s a network of travellers all around the world who are willing to open their homes to accommodate people for a night or two, who are visiting the city. It is completely safe, as members can vouch for other members and give references when they’ve met them. All it costs is company and conversation – I mean, I sure wouldn’t want to invite someone into my home without feeling like I could at least learn a little something about their lives.

I arrived in Brussels in the evening. Getting to my host’s house from the train station was not at all complicated, as I had feared. However, she was not there when I arrived, but had helpfully left a note outside the building saying that the key was with her neighbour.

The concert itself was fantastic, all that I would have hoped for from seeing Bon Iver. The audience seemed to consist almost exclusively of Flemish people – in fact, once I entered the venue, I don’t think I heard a word of French.

I came home and finally met my host – a middle-aged lady dedicated to green issues and socialism. I was very tired so went to bed. The cat kept coming into my room even when I shut the door – he would push it open with his paws! He wasn’t supposed to come in, as he wasn’t toilet trained. I must admit, I’d never thought my year abroad would come to standing up in my sleeping bag and whispering to a cat in French to get out…

The next day, my host and I had coffee, and she was able to teach me some things about Belgian politics. I did already know that the Wallonia (French) region was much poorer and had more unemployment problems than Flanders (Flemish). In the 19th century when Belgium was founded, the bourgeoisie were all French speakers, and the Flemish had little to no voting rights. Wallonia boomed industrially, while the more agriculturally-inclined Flanders lagged behind. However, during the Second World War, it was mainly Wallonia which was destroyed, leaving the economy in ruins – and despite many efforts, it still hasn’t really recovered over sixty years later.

However, I did not know that the situation was similar to the way Germany is bailing out Greece right now. Wallonians are keen to learn Dutch so that they can get jobs in a part of the country where they will earn more, but of course, the case is not vice versa; thus the two regions of Belgium are severely imbalanced. Not to mention that of course, there are a variety of parties in each language region, causing problems with efficient voting, and disputes about who should get which seat. This means that building up a government is very hard – I don’t know if I mentioned it before, but at the time I write this, this country has technically been in anarchy for 450 days.

It’s a very complicated issue, and I hope to learn more about it first-hand in my time here. But that’s the basics.

Coincidentally, in a newsagent later that morning, I found a French-language parody newspaper, similar to the British Private Eye, I guess. It made for a very interesting complement to the conversation we had; it was interesting that they could make fun of their identity crisis and political crisis.

One more thing. When I was waiting for the train to leave in Brussels, it said we’d be stopping in a place called Borgworm. We never did. By chance, I just found out now that a place we did stop in, signposted as Waremme, is called Borgworm in Dutch. I still can’t get over how drastically different some of the place names are. Here are a few more examples:

French: Mons
Dutch: Bergen

French: Lille (France)
Dutch: Rijsel

French: Jodoigne
Dutch: Geldenaken

So, before you come to Belgium make sure you look up the varying town names in the area, whether you’re driving, or using public transport!

Le moisiversaire c’est super!

Tomorrow marks one month of my being in Liège, so I thought I would make a post while I’m in the mood!

The time that has passed since I last posted here has been quite a rough ride. Firstly, I contracted some sort of extreme cold (in its midst I thought it was flu) that had me stuck in bed for the best part of a week. Obviously this had large repercussions on my general morale and enthusiasm for being in a foreign country, and all I wanted was to go back home. Secondly, I was having a few financial difficulties that worried me very much. For example, I was running out of money despite living very modestly – I was literally living off a few coins in my purse and couldn’t really eat. But now, my loan has finally arrived, and so I think I can live quite comfortably now, especially since my ERASMUS bursary will also be arriving in due course. Another thing relating to money: I’m still in two minds about whether I should actually open a bank account here. From what I have heard from others, it is easier said than done; apparently involving all sorts of complicated documents I’m not entirely sure I have. I suppose if I did it I would feel a huge sense of achievement regarding using French in a “formal” situation.

Lastly, my courses. This has caused me so much grief. But I said that I would give details about it, and I know you’ve been on the edge of your seat. Well, even after three weeks here, I’m still not 100% certain which ones I am actually doing. This is because the process of organising it has been much, much more complicated that I could have ever imagined.

The past two weeks have been a stressful flurry of the following:

  • Waiting half an hour in a classroom with other international students, only for the tutor never to show up, because apparently we were meant to telepathically know that this particular course commenced three weeks into the term.
  • Intending to go to a foreign language class at beginners’ level, only to stumble upon a group of masters students, and to be told the class for me was two hours earlier, despite what the website told me.
  • Frantically rushing around the campus trying to find a room whose name is totally illogical to its location.
  • Getting onto the university website when I got home each day after these blunders, and revising my choice of courses – now that they were at unexpected times, there was now no way I could attend some of them.
  • Tutors not replying to emails.

The case has been similar for most international students I’ve talked to here (ones from the Anglophone world, admittedly), as well as all of my friends on their year abroad in France. The only possible reason I can think of for the faculty’s lack of involvement and, well, total insouciance, is how poorly funded universities are in this part of Europe. The French are well-known for their strikes, especially in the education sector. I know that this is Belgium, not France; but being a neighbouring country, and having the same language and therefore having absorbed some of the same traditions, this could well be an explanation. I don’t know. At any rate, I definitely won’t be complaining about anything admin-related when I come back to Leicester for final year.

Anyway, it is definitely the biggest hurdle I’ve encountered so far, but hopefully I have got the worst of it out of the way. I have to send off a form back to my home university confirming my class choices, and they have to “approve” it. Basically we have to choose courses on a few conditions:

  • They have to all add up to 30 credits, even though we are only going to be assessed on 15 credits (it’s pretty confusing and I hope I won’t have to be the one to sort this out because I am not known for my mathematical brain).
  • They have to be taught in French.
  • We have to do at least one that focuses on the French language – such as linguistics or grammar – and one content module focusing on a French-speaking part of the world.
  • They have to be running only for the premier quadrimestre, so that we can actually take the exam in January (don’t really fancy coming back in June to do it). It was so frustrating each time I found an interesting-looking class, only to be confronted by the dreaded words toute l’année.

So, after some painstaking changes, the ones I’ve actually settled on so far – i.e. the ones I’ve actually been able to attend – are language and literature of Quebec, French linguistics, and Hebrew / history of Israel. This isn’t enough and so I know I’m going to have to begrudgingly pick a few more that I’ll hate. I wouldn’t wish this messy system on my worst enemy. I know this sounds ridiculous since it’s now October and I’ve been here a month, but this is just how it’s turned out. I did go to an Art History lecture for a couple of weeks, but since it was for people who have been studying that for three years already, it was really difficult. Plus the lecturer talked really quietly in a big theatre and so I had to concentrate not only on what I was being “taught” but also whether I could actually hear and understand what he was saying. For these upcoming classes, I am a little bit scared – I’ve heard things like there are no notes available if you missed the class. And that if you’re late, you’re actually denied entry to the lecture…

On a non-academic note, last weekend was the Nuit des Coteaux. This happens on the first Saturday of each October, I think, and the hills around Liège are lit up with candles, and the streets, too. It was really nice, since it happened in a part of the city I hadn’t been to yet – the “old” part, which has some buildings that must look really lovely in the daylight. There was a very strange atmosphere… at one point we went up an alleyway into a sort of garden courtyard where people lived in expensive but arty houses that reminded me of England for some reason, it was just like a summer night. In the street there were stalls selling waffles and interestingly-flavoured shots, and also street entertainment. For some reason we thought it would be a good idea to follow a flood of people up a foresty mountain, Montagne de Bueren, which was totally dark except for being lit by candles. It was extremely dangerous… there were people with dogs and with children in pushchairs and I felt nervous, especially since I hadn’t anticipated doing this and so was wearing unsuitable shoes. It felt like it took about three hours to get up there. The atmosphere was just extremely bizarre and dreamlike – it was like some sort of cult and when we got to the top we would all be killed or something. We finally reached the top, but there was nothing there. So then we had to trudge down with the crowds of people, which possibly took even longer than the way up. When we got down and watched the fireworks, it turned out the whole of vieux Liège was the “citadel”. Here are a couple of photos – I know they’re poor quality, but still.

The view of the city when we finally reached the top of that mountain...


I have decided I am also going to do a top five French words of the day in each post from now on. So, to start off:

le moisiversaire = month anniversary

époustouflant = mind-blowing

être aux aguets = to be on the lookout

une aubaine = a godsend

avoir tort = to be in the wrong

Liège

Well, I’ve been talking about this city and I haven’t really introduced it to give you some context.

Its population is 194,000 – that is, about 100,000 less than that of Leicester. Liège is the largest city in Wallonia (the name of the French-speaking half of Belgium). However, it is not the capital – that’s Namur. And the most populous Wallonian city is Charleroi.

One of the reasons I chose to go here was that it’s very near the border of other countries – for example it costs only 5 euro, return, to get the train to Maastricht, in the Netherlands. Germany’s also pretty close, which makes me happy. Luxembourg is still quite a way away, but for some reason in travel guides it’s always lumped together with Belgium so there you go.

There are also lots of pertinent historical aspects to Liège, I believe, but I won’t try and write about them yet as I don’t know much about them. Here are some photos from around where I live.