Belgium, Brussels – Jonathan McHugh – 2005-2006

“Erasmus in Retrospect – an Academic and Cultural Experience”

Studying on the Masters in International Business course at Vlekho, Brussels as part of my Erasmus year abroad was highly important to my development both academically, culturally and as a person in general. Through facing new challenges in a foreign country and overcoming them through the assistance of new friends from various cultures I have acquired new perspectives on life and a new found strength.

Nervous about my understanding of French I studied in Belgium because of its English courses, offering me a safety net of learning as I feared not being able to follow courses in French effectively enough. This had unforeseen consequences, as I was obliged to study over half of my courses at masters level. On top of that, seeing as I normally study Economics and Politics at Exeter University the majority of these courses at this Belgian business school were fresh to me. I had a great opportunity to learn courses taking ins Accounting, Finance and Law.

In Exeter, England my courses would be more complex, with time given to wrestle academically in order to reach a more complete view of the world. Vlekho was different, as the demanding number of courses forced me to learn the essential pieces of information quickly, understand and then explain to others. As a result I now have a broader base and am able to act more pragmatically. Crucially, the emulation of the working environment at Vlekho has resulted in me having a greater understanding of what is expected of me when I graduate and I have managed to iron out some of my flaws in a safe learning environment, rather than during my first job after graduation.

One of my greatest challenges at Vlekho was cultural. English education is very individualist compared to my Belgian experience, as in England students work alongside each other, whereas in my Belgian business school they worked together. Previously I had been used to working with groups in societies but there position or rank would engineer a hierarchical framework with which I could effectively work. In Vlekho’s more collective climate my honest intentions to work hard and get the best results produced unexpected responses which often affected my relationships with colleagues. For example, in my first group my desire to raise the collective group grade made me unpopular, as my attitude alienated my team members. As a result even though the group had managed to scrape a reasonable grade as a consequence of me dragging it kicking and screaming I failed as my peer evaluation was negative. I had to examine myself after that incident and although not perfect I feel that I have developed considerably through the advice of teaching staff, friends and personal meditation.

Despite these troubles I had a very enjoyable period studying there. Having been the only English student at the business school for a number of years there was a deal of interest in me, especially as England appears to be one of the countries that the Belgians like the most. The interest and hospitality shown to me makes it very unfortunate that Belgium is ignored by people from Britain when considering where to go or visit.. I’m convinced that next years group of six English students will not get as strong an impression of the country or other cultures compared to me, as I was the only person that most people from Brussels knew from England. As a result, I was their sole point of contact for cultural discussions regarding Britain and people seemed highly interested to talk to me, if only to improve their English from a native speaker!

Although not unique for their appetite the Belgian’s enthusiasm for learning languages and cultures was humbling. Their attitude that everybody should speak over two languages and converse in the other person’s language, if possible was incredible to witness. I think the strongest example of the attitude was witnessing a beggar outside an expensive shopping arcade would listen out for the language and then beg to them in their tongue. I managed to him speak at least four languages to the passers by in just a couple of minutes.

Despite struggling to learn French throughout my life I was determined to learn as much of the language as possible. Consequentially I tried always trying to start in French. However, I would constantly get replies in English as a result of my poor language skills, friendliness or the desire to practice their English with a native speaker. I judged my language development by the increasing frequency and complexity of French development. I predominantly learnt my language from an Italian friend who couldn’t speak any English and no desire to learn it and the fact I was living in a Moroccan and Turkish ghetto (Scaerbeck), where English was not usually understood so well.

People usually had negative opinions towards my area, citing the poverty, high crime levels and intolerance of the Arabs residing there. I didn’t see that, especially as coming from London I had experienced worse. I had also fallen in love with the cultural contrast, as I felt like I was stepping into a completely new city when I made my way home from the centre of town. It was interesting to see the limits of people’s tolerance, as despite being a very international city there had not been enough development in my opinion to accommodate, respect and live alongside people beyond European borders, who I had grown to admire more and more despite the poor economic and social advantages that they are currently experiencing.

I was the first non Belgian or Dutch person to work in my student bar, a Flemish outpost in the ghetto which I was living in. It was an honour to be able to spend so much time with them rather than work in some O’Reiley’s in town serving pints to English tourists. As a result, I improved my understanding of the Flemish culture and language significantly, being able to serve customers speaking in their tongue. Although not being able to converse I feel confident enough to learn Flemish, Dutch or German relatively well in the future, as the many hours of hearing the customers has enabled me to differentiate words and pronounce relatively well, despite not necessarily knowing what was being said.

It was interesting observe cultural traits firsthand. One of then was the seeming confidence of the Flemish as a people, with the northern, Flemish part of the country developing economically and socially successful. On the other hand they felt increasingly disenfranchised with their city (Brussels) becoming increasingly Wallon (the French speaking, south Belgian region), as slower economic growth in the south encouraged migration to the capital city, as well as the majority of immigrants being Francophone, rather than Flemish speaking. I felt that Flemish people didn’t feel like Brussels was their city any longer and more a place that they would commute to from Antwerp or Ghent in order to work. As a result there was the feeling of entrenchment and that they needed to keep bars like theirs Flemish.

A couple of the older regulars held strong opinions on the Moroccans and Turks who ventured in from time to time to drink at our bar. These were often people who merely wanted one or two drinks but who were instantly marked out by some customers or barmen as being suspicious. I ignored such misgivings as their communities had enamoured myself to them. The response from trusting and being courteous to people who others would ignored was positive for me, with these people sharing insights and views of what prejudices they experience and what they like about their home culture. I also made friends with Moroccan neighbours in my building, who would show me all the best places to eat out in Scaerbeck. As a result of not just restricting my cultural exchanges to fellow students or Belgians I have gained tremendously compared to people who erect barriers to discussion. This is a belief that I hope to maintain and I will be able to use personal experiences to shoot down peoples prejudices in the future.

Before I spent my year living in Belgium my viewpoint was restricted to what I had experienced in London and Exeter and from visiting my Irish relatives. I don’t consider my Belgian experience to have ended but ongoing. Being offered a unique opportunity to develop in a new cultural and academic environment has shown me new viewpoints and enable me to develop a better perspective of the world. Academically I had the unique opportunity to work with groups from all around the world on courses I never assumed I would be taking in life. I’m convinced that this experience has done me only good and as given me the confidence to live in Belgium or anywhere in the world that I choose.

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