Belgian bureaucracy? Completed it mate!

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At the 10 week mark, with 3 weeks left until I’m home for Christmas, I finally mastered Belgian bureaucracy. Belgium is notorious for its excessively complicated administrative procedures, something I was unaware of until arriving here in September. You might be wondering why I chose to write a whole article on this?

Firstly, I truly think I need to vent about my battle with the paperwork. Second, it might actually be useful. Thirdly, I have far too many anecdotes about my personal struggle with administration to pass up the opportunity to poke fun at my incompetency.

There is a very specific order to the registration procedures, so without the previous step you can’t ‘level up’. It’s absolute murder and trying to complete them all in the exact order needed has been a headache from start to finish. Here are all the things you need to do upon arrival in Belgium, which I have only just managed to complete:

A compulsory enrolment session which left me traumatised

At Durham University, registration is online and relatively simple. There is the opportunity to take a photo and order your campus card to be ready upon arrival. In Belgium they like to do things a little differently… We attended a lecture which ended with half of the lecture hall  queuing to use a single printer to photocopy their documentation, while the other half queued to hand in their documents and have a photo taken for their campus card. I stood there for about two hours as one of the lucky bunch who had brought a photocopy of their ID and admission letter with them.

The printer broke. Anarchy ensued. I was still waiting for a photo to be taken. The printer was fixed. More queuing. I finally reached the front. In a second the whole traumatic experience was over. A sigh of relief.

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Then I was told I would have to wait a week to collect my campus card and bus pass from the university hall in the centre of town, and I decided I needed a cup of tea and a nap to recover.

Picking up your student packet

This is pretty self-explanatory. It contains your campus card and other documents which have vital information needed for your registration at the town hall, which will affect your ability to open a Belgian bank account…

Pick it up a week or so after the registration procedure. Apply for modules, complete your learning agreement, set up your own timetable and choose exam slots for the whole year. It’s a lot of trial and error, and going back and forth between your home university and KU Leuven. Proceed to next steps.

Running across town to register at Leuven City Hall

For this you need to have accommodation and proof of a rental contract, documents of registration, a passport photo, a letter of admission, etc. Prior to this, I made many failed attempts at opening a bank account, which I will elaborate on in the next saga. For now, just know that you need an appointment and you must be there within 15 minutes of the beginning of the appointment.

I accidentally went to the wrong City Hall. Leuven has two – and despite being warned multiple times not to go to the Old City Hall in the city centre… I went to the Old City Hall in the city centre. Needless to say, I was not amused when I found out my appointment was in the new City Hall of Leuven, which was now a 20 minute walk away.

I had an appointment to open a bank account the next day and was all too aware that I needed to have a specific form from the registration procedure at City Hall, so I power walked to my appointment, arrived there with a few seconds to spare and collapsed in a chair in the waiting room. The lady who greeted me there was lovely, and stopped me from falling into complete and utter despair at the whole ordeal. I was finally registered as a resident of Leuven, and just had to wait for a Belgian police officer to check that I lived at my address. (Yes, it really is as weird as it sounds.)

Belgian banking: a three-part saga

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A bank account can only be opened after your arrival in Belgium. This means that the appointments for setting up bank accounts are in high demand during the first months at KU, and once I’d managed to get round to it I was the last in line and there were only appointments for a month’s time available in the branches in Leuven. Not wanting to wait around, and thinking I was being very clever, I booked an appointment in Brussels and headed there one morning during orientation week, having been far too optimistic about when I was going to be an awake and functioning human-being after going to a Law Faculty social. I arrived at the bank and was told I was only able to open a bank account in the town or city where I studied. I returned to Leuven and tried again…

My second attempt at opening a bank account was more than a month after my first attempt. I had booked an appointment and patiently waited for it to come around. I brought every possible piece of documentation I thought I might need, but alas… it was not enough. I was told that I need proof of residence (apparently not the same as a tenancy agreement) which was only provided by the above registration procedure at City Hall. Needless to say, the appointment was not successful and I returned home to despair a little more.

Finally, after (running to) and registering at City Hall I managed to book an appointment at a bank in Leuven. You need all of your documents, even your National Insurance number… It was a short process and I was just very relieved that I wasn’t told I needed another mythical document to open the account. I had finally found my way out of the Belgian bureaucratic maze.

In conclusion, start everything as soon as you get there and plan your appointments in advance. Do it in the right order and don’t try to get creative with opening a bank account. I’m finally settled in here, an official resident of Leuven and student of the Law Faculty. If I can do it, anyone can!

7 best things about my month in belgium

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They always say the first month is the hardest. Granted, they are usually talking about newborns, but the phrase still applies here. I’m five weeks or so into my year abroad and to be completely honest, adjusting to life here has been harder than I expected. I arrived here in September, started lectures two weeks later, and only now can I finally navigate my way home from a night out without having to use google maps.

23032730_10210557223147917_5279125630169934095_nDespite the slightly comic anecdotes I have about the struggles of shopping in a foreign language, my near death experience in a laundrette or greeting friends with two kisses on the cheek, I think I’ve finally (sort of) got the hang of things here.

It’s flown by and I’ve been so distracted by Belgium that I’ve only just come to the shock realisation that it’s called a year of studying abroad for a reason. With this came the knowledge that I need to slow down a little if I want to pass the year, so I thought I should take the time to reminisce on the freedom of the first month here by saying my seven favourite things I’ve done and seen in Belgium so far!

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1 . A walking tour of Leuven.

Meeting at the city hall, our guide showed us around the historical squares in Leuven, the library, the cultural centre and most importantly, the pubs and bars (her words, not mine).

2 . Eaten (a lot of ) Belgian food.

Fries and mayo is the Belgian food of choice. This combination confused me at first, but now it is a way of life. Belgian waffles (and occasionally pancakes) have become another staple of my diet.

3 . A boat ride in Ghent.

We might have been very cold and the weather might have been very miserable, but a boat tour where the driver told us that the last time the castle had been stormed was by drunk students who occupied it for a couple of days before the beer ran out was pretty entertaining.

4 . Going to the Erasmus Student Network’s events.

Some of the themed parties have been a little quirky, but they have been good for meeting a number of other international students. Most of the friends I’ve made have been through ESN student events and parties – so, as weird as it might have been having to introduce yourself to strangers on a pub crawl, run around the city completing group challenges and attend traffic light partys, I’ve really enjoyed it so far.

5 . Visiting Antwerp.

6 . Attending lectures.

The courses I’m taking are a little wacky, and a bit out there. But the fact I’m expanding my studies beyond law has really made this year interesting. I’m studying religion, philosophy, French and literature alongside law – the extra year has made it possible, and even made me enthusiastic enough to attend my 9am lectures.

7 . Experiencing the Belgian beer culture.

It’s only been 5 weeks but now I don’t even think before ordering myself a Stella. We’re trying to tick every beer we can find off the list by the end of the year – if it sounds impossible that’s because it is. But we’re still trying…

 

 

 

how to (barely) survive orientation week

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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I have probably almost collided with every one of these bikes on my walk to lectures.

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.

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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.