On the day of my departure I boarded the Eurostar, sat at my window seat and waited for the train to leave St Pancras. Instead of admiring the French countryside speeding past my window as I waited to arrive in Brussels, my primary thought had been “Did I remember to pack my toothbrush?” (I didn’t.)
The journey was an interesting one: I only finished packing 15 minutes before I had to leave to catch my train, the journey to St Pancras was spent reassuring my mother that yes, at the age of 20 years old I am able to travel by myself and only a few minutes before departure did I manage to lug my suitcases onto the correct platform. It was slightly chaotic, thought notably without any major mishaps. These seemed to begin during orientation week.
I am particularly prone to making mistakes, so the initial week of my year abroad has been no different. Speaking from personal experience, here is a list of five things not to do prior to starting your year abroad in Belgium:
1. Don’t leave packing ’til the last minute.
If it seems like an overwhelming task to pack everything up to be shipped off for a year abroad, thats probably because it is. It might seem blindingly obvious that you should not pack all of your belongings needed for a whole year in Europe the night before, but alas I never learn. At 2am on the morning I was travelling, I found myself frantically googling “Will I need my food processor?”, something you would find only a totally underprepared exchange student doing. Help yourselves out – avoid the unnecessary stress and pack your bags at least a week or two in advance!
2. Keep track of essentials!
Don’t lose your phone! Obvious? Yes. Highly unlikely to occur if you are not a total scatterbrain? Also yes. Did this happen to me? Unfortunately.
Being in a foreign city without google maps has shown me how dependant I am on the internet for everything: navigation, registering for my courses, knowing the orientation day timetable, communicating with those back home as well as everyone I’ve met here. After we had a pizza to commiserate my loss, I walked home and was off the grid for 24 hours (until I very luckily had my phone returned to me!) Travelling might be frazzling, but keep track of your essentials such as your passport and phone.
3. Do not believe the myth that because you are only across the Channel, you won’t struggle with the cultural differences as much.
I was aware that the language would be different, and the food and the people. I just thought that as a European way of life I would understand it fairly easily and adapt to it. I was very much mistaken.
Belgians go home from university every weekend to visit their families. The university has ‘kotnet’ which is not as simple to sign up for as eduroam in England – it’s taken me five days to register, activate my number for internet, get my head around it, install a router, and I still do not have wifi in my room. Everyone rides bikes. You’ll get almost run over at least five times during your first week. The shops are closed on a Sunday, and close at 5pm everyday. Sometimes I feel like I’m in the twilight zone.
Overall, just be aware that you will encounter a very different culture on your year abroad no matter where you go, and you’ll be confused at first but ultimately end up loving it – after all how could anyone not when the Belgians are famous for their waffles, fries and beer!
4. Read your housing contract.
Please. Don’t turn up and realise that your room doesn’t come with a mattress. Just read it – you’ll make your orientation week go a whole lot smoother if you turn up with everything you need.
5. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.
Everyone will tell you that a year abroad is a difficult experience. I was told multiple times before going how lonely and stressed I would be, how difficult it was to make friends and how alienated they felt living in another country. I haven’t experienced any of these problems so far, but maybe it’s just because I’m on a freshers week high, because we had an orientation week to help settle us in or because the number of international students in KU Leuven is extremely high. Regardless of the reasons, I am really happy that I took a chance and applied to Erasmus on a whim.