Moving abroad had never been an option until a lecturer enthusiastically convinced me that I had run out of reasons to not go. Three years later, I am near the end of an amazing year studying at K.U. Leuven in Belgium. I was particularly fortunate that another UEA law student also moved here because it has been great fun to have a friend from home to share the year abroad experience with. I have found new independence, confidence and interests including taking up photography. A particular favourite I have learnt from Belgium is to have chocolate sprinkles and toast for breakfast. I’m also proud to say I have learnt some Dutch, but sadly to the extent of translating menus, counting to ten and asking “Mag ik een zakje alstublieft?” (Can I have a bag please?)
I have only ever lived in small cities, so settling into Leuven felt like a home away from home. Approximately half an hour from Brussels, Leuven is a vibrant student city full of Erasmus and Belgian students. There is a beautiful mix of both old and new architecture, including the 15th century medieval town hall or the botanical gardens. Whatever time of year, the city is lively and full of entertainment and things to do. In particular, the Christmas Market was lovely!
If you didn’t know it, by the time you leave Belgium you definitely will: the country is in love with waffles, good fries and beer. Leuven is famous for its Stella Artois brewery and the Oude Markt (Old Market) is even rumoured to be the longest bar in the world. Belgium is great for the sweet tooth and those who love beer. Not so great if you suffer from coeliac disease. Thankfully I quickly found out the supermarket near me stocked gluten free waffles and nice wine – problem solved!
I have loved the chance to study new modules here, but it has been a challenge. The university is organised differently and it took a while to understand expectations. The majority of students I have studied with, aside from others on Erasmus, are on a Master’s programme. It was daunting at first but it has been incredibly rewarding and insightful. Another difference is that come Friday, lecture halls are filled with suitcases ready for the Belgian’s to head home for the weekend. International students and tourists are then left to explore the city.
Student events have been something else. My favourite was the ‘Big Lipton Splash’, which is effectively a mini festival and includes a massive water fight competition between the different faculties and societies. A bungee jump, snow tubing, and beach-volleyball were only a handful of other activities that you could experience alongside the water fight. Election week raised the university’s entertainment level even higher. I’m still not entirely sure what people were voting for, but the law building was decorated extensively. This included hammocks, a fountain and what I think was a Greek temple, though my housemate would say it was Roman. The elections also saw us lucky enough to enjoy many different competitions, a chippy van, music and nominees even cooking students breakfast and lunch. UEA Student Union – please take note!
Belgium is a great location for travelling, two of the modules I have taken have even included fascinating trips to legal and judicial institutions in The Hague and Luxembourg. This was great because prior to living in Belgium, I had never visited a courtroom before. The opportunity to see trials at the International Criminal Court and the European Court of Justice were truly inspiring. I also had an intensive trip to Paris with the Leuven branch of the European Law Student Association.
My own travelling has taken me to various cities in Belgium, but also two trips to Germany. The more I have travelled, the more I have caught the travel bug. So much so that I even took a twelve-hour bus ride to tick Switzerland off the bucket list. Lucerne and Zurich were truly beautiful. I even got to see the Rhine Falls, which is the largest natural waterfall in Europe! Amsterdam and Nice are also booked, whilst Croatia and Budapest are in the planning stages. Safe to say, my travels are definitely not ending any time soon!
The year has not been without some challenges though. I have sometimes felt conflicted, loving my time here in Belgium yet feeling very homesick. For example, it is a pretty weird feeling skyping your family so that you feel involved in family events at home! However, I feel a huge sense of achievement when I look back at my year in Leuven. I can finally understand why previous students described their time as unforgettable and the best experience they had. I have furthered my education, met amazing people along the way and travelled. If you have the opportunity to study abroad or take time travelling, then I definitely recommend it!
Helena Wareham – (LAW) Law with European Legal Systems