The end of an academic year usually rolls in next one. With the school year slowly grinding to an end; lectures ended last weekend, sleeves are now being rolled up as preparation for June exams reaches its peaks.
On the other side of life, many prospective international students (who have been granted admission) are making trips to Belgian embassies for student visas. As a follow-up to my previous article (Before you travel to Belgium for Studies: 7 S’ to consider), acquaint yourself with more info from the mind of a (former) international student.
Belgians, like most Europeans love their holidays, in fact vacations are taken religiously. I recall when I was in my final year writing my thesis, my supervisor told me to make sure I submitted everything for correction before the end July. Why so? He had to leave for holidays in August and made it clear he was not going to check his mail during his deserved break. Holidays are meant to be holy (set apart) days of rest for most Belgians, little or no salaried work whatsoever. Oh! Even shops go on holidays! This was so strange to me. Ah! Where I am coming from there was no such thing as holidays for businesses. I can’t forget the frustrations I had making trips to my favourite bakery or hairdresser just to find a note on the door “gesloten voor de jaarlijkse vakantie” (closed for yearly holidays).
Driving up to 2 hours to any destination is considered a long drive for most Belgians. I live in Leuven but worship on Sundays in another city; Gent which is one hour drive away. I often get the question ‘are there no churches in Leuven? Why such a long drive? Common! It is just one hour. I can understand, It is such a small country so distance is viewed in another sense. It’s often said ‘if you drive non-stop up to 3 hrs from any point in Belgium, you will without doubt find yourself in a different country. A little comparison: in US states (like Texas where my beloved friend lives), It takes her 1 hour just to get to the grocery store from home; whereas that same trip costs me just 5mins! I can only but imagine what a nightmare it is for long distance commuters in countries like D.R Congo, Brazil, India, China.
When I arrived Belgium, I noticed kids, youths and the old riding bicycles. Within the first weeks, I determined to learn how to ride a bicycle. This was simply challenging and I learnt to do so when I was about a quarter century old:-). A Belgian friend looked at me with total unbelief when I told her I couldn’t ride a bicycle. She was like ‘here everyone gets to learn as a toddler’…huh I had to learn. So to avoid feeling like me, you may want to learn how to ride a bicycle before coming to Belgium. But then… the road signs and rules for cyclists, we’ll talk about that later.
I understand this is a problem in most major cities around the world. But you simply do not want to drive into Brussels during morning rush hours. I am still thankful my business was around Leuven and if I must go to Brussels, then the train is the best option in order to make it on time. I need not talk about Antwerp, Ghent, Liege.. I think you get the drift!
You will notice in almost every city, there will be constant maintenance of the roads, some of which may go on for several months, adding to the traffic mayhem. Mind you, even with your bikes, you will be affected by this well-intended roadworks!!!
Belgium is no tax haven; we’ve all heard of Panama papers, but you probably will never hear of Belgian papers, lol! As an international student, you are officially allowed to work 20hrs/week (except during summer holidays). That won’t get you much money though; If you crave for more, you can work more. But bear it in mind that the extra cash you make will be whisked out of your hands via taxes. Belgium is known to have one of the highest tax and social security burdens in the world. One could almost say the system penalizes you for working too hard:) So my take is this: if you must work, stick to the 20hrs/week.
If you plan to study in the Flanders region for long, one advice; learn Dutch, I mean just know this difficult language DUTCH (or Nederlands in Flemish). For a better reception, to get a job, or integrate seamlessly, the list goes on and on… learn dutch. For instance; once you get into an office and begin a conversation with “goede morgen…” oh you are on the right footing. That phrase works wonder even if you will continue the rest of the conversation in English. You will be attended and listened to much more than if you start with “good morning”. Well the Flemish love their language (which I admire) and any attempt at speaking the language is appreciated. They manifest a perfect description of what Nelson Mandela said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, it goes to his heart.”
A few words you will hear often (at Zaventem airport, shops, city hall, at the station etc.)
Alstublieft=Please; Dank u wel=Thank you; Halo=Hello; Kan ik u helpen?=Can I help you?
More to follow in my next post…