The Last Post (A review of my year in Belgium)

So today is my last day at BSB and also in Belgium. Hard to believe that I have been here for almost a year. Lots of mixed emotions today, and I have to believe that I made the right decision to return to Liverpool. There is no doubt that the decision last June to move to Brussels has affected me in ways I couldn’t have predicted.

My past experience of travelling abroad in the last 40 or so years has been 2 city breaks to Paris and Ireland and a holiday to Toronto and New York. With that in mind, this made my decision extremely tough as I have always been insecure about travelling, especially around Europe as my language skills are not the best! But with the support of friends and family I accepted the job and started planning the move. In July last year I visited Brussels to find somewhere to live and this was the first time I had travelled abroad on my own. It was a great experience and although I didn’t find accommodation at the time it was a very worthwhile trip.

Last august I said aurevoir to my belongings as they made the trip a couple of weeks before me and I started arranging nights out to say my goodbyes. The week before I left the UK, I went on holiday with my family to a large house we had rented in Lincolnshire and we had a fantastic time. The last day was tough as I realised it was going to be a while until I got to see them again face to face.

This is when my journey began, physically and metaphorically. With not finding somewhere to live, HR pointed me in the direction of a staff member that sometimes offered rooms to new arrivals until they could find somewhere themselves. Fortunately for me it turned out that they were 2 of the most amazing people you could hope to meet. Friendly, funny, good cooks and with working at the school, they were able to provide advice and insight to me as I found my way around the local area.

Living in Tervuren has been amazing. It’s a beautiful town that sits in between the hustle and bustle of Brussels and the laid back university city of Leuven. There are a lot of expats, as well as some of the friendliest people you could ever meet. Coming from Liverpool which is also a very friendly place, it felt like a home from home. There are some great restaurants, pubs, bars and local bakeries.

With the decision not to bring my car, the issue of travelling around was a bit of an problem at times. I suffer from osteoarthritis in my hip which needs replacing and I was also hugely overweight. In the run up to Christmas last year I was able to get a lift to work or at least half way and walk the rest. So many staff at BSB offered me lifts to functions or just on their way home I started to rely on them too much, especially with the huge roadworks outside school it meant them going out of their way. Travelling to Brussels meant a 20 min walk to the tram stop and coming home it’s all up hill!

The Christmas holidays arrived and I returned to Liverpool to catch up with family and friends and also to see my 3 cats who I was really missing. Unfortunately a couple of days before Christmas my wife left me and I returned to Belgium in the new year dazed, depressed and in a very dark place. With support from school, friends and family in Belgium and back in Liverpool, I did my best to stay positive and I made a conscious decision to embrace the country and the culture and I put myself out there more.

The biggest decision I made, was to try and lose the weight that was affecting my health so much. I had started with some success the year before but this was the time to up my game. Making the most of the beautiful park and forest on my doorstep, I started walking to work and back everyday and even heading off into the forest of a weekend to clear my mind and get some fresh air. At work, I changed my diet and cut back on all the treats that would come in to the staffroom. As I write this post I can proudly say that I have hit my target weight loss of 5 stone (32kg). Over the years I have tried and tried and not got anywhere with dieting but since everything changed at Christmas I have managed to stay focused even with the lure of trying new beers! AIthough I have reached my target, I am setting another one for when I get back to the UK. One of the benefits of this is having the opportunity to go shopping and buy myself a new wardrobe!

Coming to terms with all the changes in my life this year has been difficult but I have found that surrounding yourself with positive people has helped ease the pain. It can help you make clearer decisions and change your whole mood when you can’t see the wood for the trees. The walks to work of a morning have been a blessing and a curse. As I started the journey, I found myself flooded with emotions and what if’s, how things could have been different if only I… but by the time I had got to work I would recover and focus on the positives, the people I had met, the beautiful scenery, newly found confidence, the experiences of working abroad.

Making the decision to come over to Belgium last year was difficult but making the decision to return to Liverpool was even harder. Lots of people say you shouldn’t go back but I miss my friends and family and I know I will have to deal with lots of issues which can only be done by being in Liverpool. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time over here and made some fantastic friends. The job, although challenging, has increased my science knowledge, developed my management skills and improved my confidence. Working in a school that provides such superb facilities has been a steep learning curve as I had never done so much Biology!. It has helped working in a very knowledgeable and understanding department with some very talented teachers and technicians.

Some of the highlights of my year include:

– A local streetparty

– Getting to see comedian Mark Thomas live, after years of near misses.

– Zythos Beer Festival (my 1st one)

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– My first proper Xmas market in Germany

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Attending the Duchess of Richmond Ball celebrating the 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.

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– Hee Tervuren festival weekend.

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– The Belgian National Cycling Race went through Tervuren.

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– Going to Brussels drinking and not getting home till 4! (haven’t done that for years)

– A last minute dash to Leuven to see Scala + Kolacny Brothers play a music festival in Leuven.

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If you don’t know who Scala are check out this video.

– Discovering so many amazing beers!!

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So as I fly back tonight, I can look back at the amazing time I have had and I will always have the memories. I have made so many new friends and shared some fantastic experiences with them and I can always look forward to returning for a visit and who knows what might happen in the future.  To the people who moved on whilst I was away, it’s their loss.

As for the future…

“Our future will be shaped by the assumptions we make about who we are and what we can be” R.M Kanter

I have even made a video of some of my highlights. Thanks to everyone who has supported and been there for me on this adventure and for reading my blog!

The Social Side

It hasn’t all been work, work, work though and I have been exploring more. On a recent Bank Holiday (on a Tuesday!) I went for brunch with the technicians of BSB past and present to Stonemanor which is a British shop and Tearooms which serves teacakes, scones and cheese on toast!

The shop itself is amazing. It’s only when you walk round you realise how much “English” food you miss. Salt & Vinegar crisps, Hovis bread, potato cakes, scotch eggs! Not very cheap as they have to import it all via Waitrose…

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After brunch a trip to Leuven was on the cards. Nearly everywhere was closed apart from a pub called Domus which serves their own beer brewed on site. A few beers later and some amazing spicy chicken wings it was off to the cinema to see Interstellar. The film itself was in English but there were French and Dutch subtitles at the bottom of the screen which was distracting at first but after a while I started trying to practice my Dutch reading skills. Great movie by the way and a superb soundtrack as well.

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Last Sunday I was given the opportunity to visit a traditional Xmas Market actually in Germany. We visited a town called Monschau just over the border which was about 90 min away. It was just how I imagined it to be. Extremely quaint and old fashioned set in the base of a valley. Anyone who knows me also knows my nickname is The Grinch around this time of year but dare I say it? I actually felt Christmassy.

Some of the local shops where selling beautiful homemade mustards and pates and there were some fantastic arts and crafts places as well. Handy as I picked up a few Xmas presents as well.

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The food and drink was excellent especially the Gluwein (mulled wine) with Amaretto in (available in Aldi in the UK!). This was a great way of warming up in freezing conditions. Food wise I had some Brockwurst sausage, Mushrooms cooked in garlic butter with bacon lardons, potato cakes with apple sauce and of course Snitzel and Stollen. We went into a couple of pubs with really friendly and welcoming staff which made us feel right at home drinking some German Beer (not as good as Belgian though…).

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At the beginning of December I was honoured to be invited for drinks and to meet up with the Science Council and their partners as they were in Brussels visiting the European Parliament to discuss EU Science Policy. As an RScitech it was great to meet so many people involved in different aspects of Science on a daily basis.

As I went into the city straight from work, I took the opportunity to have a look around the Brussels Xmas Market and to visit Grand Place to see their giant tree. The bar we met up in was called Bonnefooi and I would heartily recommend it. A very shabby chic place with musical instruments mounted on the wall and playing a mixture of Soul, Acid Jazz, Trip Hop and Lounge Music. They even have live music and DJ’s on most nights.

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http://www.bonnefooi.be/

It has also been a difficult few weeks dealing with homesickness as it’s been over 2 months since my last weekend home and I really miss my family. Skype is handy and useful but it can’t replace the real thing.

Anyway this is my last update of 2014 and it’s nearly time for the Xmas holidays which I know a lot of teaching staff look forward to more than the summer ones. I’d just like to say a big thank you to everyone for taking the time to read my posts and I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. See you in 2015!