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.

Guest Post: If you don’t speak Castellano you won’t truly understand Spain

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Jessica is a third year Modern Languages student coming to the end of her year abroad in Spain. This guest post considers the Spanish language and its relationship with Spanish national identity and culture…

It’s safe to say that my Spanish has undergone a profound transformation in the last 8 months. From my first day arriving in Madrid when I quite confidently thanked the taxi driver in impeccable Thai, ‘khob Khun kaa’, for taking us to the train station, I knew I had a long road ahead of me. After five weeks in Thailand I had unconsciously memorized a few local phrases, and I wondered how living in Spain would do the same on a much larger scale. Living in a foreign country is vital to truly surround yourself in the language, perfect the pronunciation of words, and obtain a variety of idiomatic expressions and fantastic swear words from first hand sources. But as you start to notice
the subtle nuances a language holds, you notice the hidden linguistic messages through which the Spaniards individually and collectively project their culture and identity. There are some things that just can’t be translated. Continue reading

Ce n’est qu’un au revoir, Paris

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Beautiful background for an ‘au revoir‘.

My time in Paris is coming to an end. The year has passed very quickly and it feels weird to leave this beautiful city now.
In order to have a proper good bye I crammed lots of things I wanted to do but never have into the last few weeks as if this was my once-in-a-lifetime chance to do so. I am certain though, that a return won’t wait for long. Ce n’est qu’un au revoir, Paris [It is only a so long, Paris].

Of course, I came to Paris to study, so towards the end of the semester I had the usual bulk of essays and exams to get through. At least this semester I was a lot better organised and managed to squeeze the presentations into the first few weeks so they were out of the way. Still, it was a lot of work as I had some highly demanding professors this week that didn’t quite realise that exchange students are not that prepared to invest loads into extensive research papers.

However, let me concentrate on the nice things that filled my last month here. Continue reading

Where and how to live on your year abroad

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Hey, finally I’ve managed to get around to posting again. Please excuse my long silence, but there has been a lot of work for me recently and so many other things were going on as well. I also now feel like you know my life in Paris pretty well, so it becomes harder to write about things that are (hopefully) interesting to you. Therefore I have decided to today write about living situations at years abroad. And in order to be of as much use for you as possible I will not only speak of my own experience. Continue reading

Top 5 Moments in Salamanca

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As my time in Salamanca comes to an end, it’s time to look back on the blissful highs and hilariously tragic lows of my first semester abroad in Spain. Exams, losing just a few of my personal belongings, frustration at Spanish bureaucracy, language barriers and homesickness aside, the innumerable highlights by far outweigh the lows. Since there were so many memories to choose from, I decided to pick moments and trips I hadn’t mentioned in previous posts! Continue reading

Have yourself a Feliz Navidad

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The run-up to Christmas has been somewhat different this year. Needless to say there are no mince pies in sight, no Costa Coffee Christmas drinks to fuss over and no Cadbury chocolate advent calendars on sale. Christmas in Spain is, in general, quite different to in the UK as the festivities start a lot later, and the sun is still shining relentlessly…

Continue reading