Boring Belgium?

Kim spent the 2017/18 academic year in the Belgian city of Ghent. Here she describes her impressions of the city.

MuseumBelgium. Known for being one of the most underrated countries in Europe, with no thanks to the infamous Mannekin Pis achieving a spot in the Top Ten ‘Most Disappointing Attractions in Europe’. But aside from its rather dismal reputation, the country itself is actually far more exciting and inviting than we give it credit for. In September 2017, I moved to Ghent (or Gent in the local lingo) in East Flanders. The city itself is vibrant, home to both a wide student population as well as many antique attractions that somehow work to bridge any potential gap between the old inhabitants, and their new, enthusiastic counterparts.

In terms of what the city has to offer, I can biasedly say far more than any other beautiful Belgian cities like Leuven, or even Brussels.

As well as many awesome museums – the kind where you can release your inner child and press a plethora of buttons – the traffic in the city centre is restricted, which allows for photography fanatics to stand atop of St. Michael’s bridge and gaze romantically out to the River Leie without much risk of being run over (by a car that is, there are still as many trams, buses and bikes). You can also take a boat trip along the water to see where it meets with the River Scheldt. This is where the city received it name Gent, or Gand in French, meaning confluence of a river.

Ghent City Centre 1Ghent City Centre 2

And if that’s not enough, the city is also famed for its ‘three towers’ (one of which is pictured above): St Michel’s Cathedral, the Belfry (which you can walk to the top of!) and St. Baaf’s Cathedral. In the latter, you will find the Ghent Altarpiece of the Mystic Lamb, painted by Renaissance artist Jan Van Eyck. If you find the right tour guide, you might even be able to hear all about the stolen panel, the mystery of the ‘Just Judges’, and the ransom note…

As an Erasmus Student, I chose Ghent for a number of reasons, most of which are listed above. But the move itself was not without its challenges.

For starters, I didn’t speak a word of Flemish or Dutch and could barely manage French without mangling the language. However, I took language lessons, put lots of effort in, forced my way through sounds and pronouns… and still failed. But there are some things worth learning on the job, and once I started work, I began to grow more comfortable with certain terms. By no means does this mean I’m now fluent, quite the opposite in fact. I can just about struggle through phrases like ‘Enjoy your lunch’ ‘I am a student’ and the most imperative phrase in Belgium; ‘Pint?’ This of course could be replaced by the show of one’s ‘pinkie’ (or little finger), which sounds like ‘pintje’ in Dutch.

Belgian DinnerOther than the language, there were also concerns about getting lost, not knowing the number for the emergency services and how to avoid loneliness. Though I would love to have a set answer, on most of these things you had to learn as you went along. I made friends both by accident, by common interest, by location and by just being friendly. I got lost, I explored the country, I missed trams and took late buses and all of the things that went wrong made my experience more enriching.

In connection with my appetite for travel (and my appetite for Belgian food), I also had the chance to grow and mature as a person. I learnt to be patient, to adapt to new surroundings and new challenges and also became more and more confident…

So, if you can take a hint, consider that I am actively telling you to do things that a) you didn’t think you would ever do and b) that scare you. Moving country, moving to Belgium, was an opportunity I never considered before.  And now I’ve made that step, I can’t wait to challenge myself and move somewhere outside of Europe.

And on the upside, I now have another country to support at the next World Cup Final.

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