International Welcome Day, Vlerick Business School 2014

Brussels, Belgium

Church bells…. horse hooves on cobblestone.

Day three post arrival had zero responsibilities, as I was still in the hotel awaiting my move-in date, and terribly exhausted from the previous deux jours. I napped intermittently, took afternoon tea in the square by Sint Bafs, and caught up on emails and administrative documents.

The next morning I packed up and checked out, leaving my bags with the porter, and navigated my way by tram to Sint Pieters Station. I met a few other internationals at the platform, all of us on our way to the International Welcome Day in Brussels hosted by our school. Gerard, from Spain, Ivan, Moscow, and Cristina, Romania. We chatted lively as the high speed train wound through the Belgian countryside.

The Brussels Vlerick campus is brand new, in a high rise in downtown, and has been furnished to resemble google in that colorful, lots of V shapes way. The MFM (Masters in Finance) program would be headquartered here. We made our way into the auditorium, introducing ourselves to the many other students encountered along the way, and sat for the introductions of staff and faculty and presentations on important expat things like where to get a bicycle and which doctor to call if you’re sick or injured. We were all scribbling notes on our pads like mad hatters. 

Big surprise to find out I am the only American in the Masters program. My accent when speaking english is of course a dead give away, and faculty and students alike seemed bridged between disbelief and entertainment. (But it’s not as if I don’t enjoy being the only one of something and the conversations that go along with that.)

After the presentations, we were taken on a walking tour through Brussels, and learned some fun facts from medieval times. Our tummies growled at the maisons du chocolat, and several students stopped for ice cream cones. The city hall was my favorite part, placed in a gorgeous square of gothic style guilds, dating back hundreds of years, gleaming with gold that has lasted the ages and architecture wrought with extreme detail. I breathed deeply to take it all in. Soaking in the city and bonding with new people was a rush.

Post-tour we arrived back at the Vlerick building where Belgian beer and wine was served, and we chatted excitedly about the year ahead. Around 7pm I made a beeline for the train station, and made my way back to Gent to collect my bags, grab a sushi dinner to go, and move into my new flat on Castle Lane!

….to housed in 24 hours!

I slept 11 hours. Thank God for a noon check out and blackout curtains!

I dropped my bags at the concierge and headed out to find lunch before my flat visit. Manu suggested a bistro at Korenmarkt, which is the most picturesque canal area with lots of shops and food. Now that my phone is on a belgian sim I can text and GPS at will, woo! I picked a place called Brooderie, which was quaint and wooden and cozy. The server spoke english, french, and dutch to the surrounding tables, and brought me a delicious homemade spinach soup and a cappuccino. The weather was fitful outside, misting then full on raining then stopping….blowing wind and sun coming out and all the things you could probably think of. I was layered in a trench and jeans and boots, stopping to get my umbrella or shed a layer every 5 minutes. Luckily it was only about a 20 min walk to the flat, but by the time I got there I was pink in the cheeks and very warm.

Meeting the landlord, I expected an old man. Mais non, mais non mais non. Young and handsome and groomed to european perfection. Sigh! He brought me 3 flights up to the landing, and opened the door. Rennovated, modern, wood floors, leather sofa, loft bed, fireplace… !! I was delighted. “There are 2 other girls living on this floor as well, and one from Vlerick on the top floor, my girlfriend also goes to Vlerick,” he said, “We live downstairs.” I asked all the due questions, checking the place out, and envisioning myself living happily there. I think I hi-5 ed him on the way out. Haha! Then we went downstairs to talk contracts and particulars. 

The joy washed over me as I left. No longer homeless and living out of a hotel I could move in Monday evening. I texted my friends and they laughed at me. “You were stressing so hard yesterday, and look!”

Mine, mine, all mine. :)

Finding a flat: Zero

At 5pm the day I arrived I had a housing visit with one of last year’s Vlerick students, at a big 3 story house with 4 bedrooms, assumed all business school students. I saw photos, I checked the neighborhood, I was really excited to see the place and meet the landlords. I was sure it would be the one.

Au contraire, mes amis. Though the house was very european, in a very old, very antique way, I got the distinct feeling I’d be living in someone elses family home. There were baby playpens, rooms of personal effects, and the grandparent landlords actually live there, year round. There is also an elderly aunt, a pair of visiting chinese parents, and an iranian girl staying. It was not a match for me. More a boarding house than a student house, and although it is technically equipped with all the amenities one could hope for in a family home (dishwasher, washer/dryer, full kitchen, etc) I couldn’t shake the feeling of mismatch, and of being a guest. I need a place to declare my independence, not worry about having friends over or singing along to music, loudly. I am modern, this place is… antique. And not in a marie antoinette kind of way, guys. 

Anyway, when I came back to the Sandton Grand I had a big cry at the sink.That was my only plan! how could I have been so shortsighted. At noon the next day I’d be homeless with my big luggage.

Functioning on 2 hours of sleep and not a bite to eat since breakfast, I was in a thunderstorm. I cried to codi and mel and they did their best to solve my problems, suggesting hotels and air bnb for the time I wouldn’t be housed, suggesting calling the school, calling anyone I knew here for help.

I remembered my sister’s good friend, who lives in central Gent, and with trembling fingers dialed her number. “Ohhh,” she soothed, “Don’t worry, I will help you. Everything will be fine and in a month you will laugh about this, I promise.” She offered to let me stay with her if things hadn’t sorted in a few days. “I lived in Central America for 3 months one time,” she said, “I know how it feels. You’re not alone.” 

After hanging up, I took a deep breath and recalled a landlord named Hans with whom I spoke with about a flat on Immoweb about a month ago. While that apartment was gone, he had mentioned a few others in the building. I shot him an urgent email, to which he replied that I could come for a visit at 2 the next day. Hope yet?

Belgium <3 

Belgium <3 

2 Planes, 2 Trains, 2 Automobiles.

My long haul from Seattle > London > Brussels was as you would expect. Big plane. Lots of people. Sub-par movies…Danny Bonaduce was on my flight though, with his wife, that was funny :)
Note to self I will never accept an aisle seat on a 9 hour again. The ladies next to me literally had to pee every 5 minutes, and always when the food had arrived so I had to juggle everything to let them climb all over the seat. Sigh. Props to the lone mother at the bulkhead with twin 1-yearold girls and a young boy. One or both of the babies wailed the entire flight. But it probably could’ve been worse.

 I made my connection at LHR on 2 hours of sleep and feeling grumpy indeed. Of course several wide bodies landed at the same time so there was a 40 minute delay to the tarmac, shrinking my connection to one hour. And then they put the connection not in the international terminal, no, but across the bloody airport so that we had to pile into trams and go up a million escalators, back through passport control and security, and then to the gate. At least there was a starbucks and some South African rugby players to chat with :) 

Arriving at Brussels airport was a piece of cake, actually a croissant bacon sandwich which they fed us on the 45 min flight :) yum yum. Once we landed, I had a feeling of home coming…but to a place that was foreign to me. Crazy right? It was joy.

Once at the airport I collected my bags and went to the lowest level which is the train station. I only noticed automated ticket machines, which can be put into any of 4 languages, but the card machine didn’t like my mastercard and said something in dutch which I couldn’t translate. I noticed a guy in an orange vest and asked him for help, he smiled and directed me to the ticket desk with a person who could do it for me. The man behind the desk was kind indeed, filling the ticket out for me (10 anytime train tickets for 50 euro if you’re under 26!) and sent me down to Quai 2 for Gent-Sint-Pieters.

Hoisting my enormous blue suitcase and carry ons onto the train, a girl sitting across the aisle who looked my my age asked if I needed help. We then got to chatting and she mentioned that it saves time to connect to a faster train at Brussels-Noord, and that she and her brother were on their way to Gent as well. She’s originally from Nepal, and has been living in Belgium since she was young. We all got out at Brussels-Noord and made the connection, and she showed me how to read the timetable to get the most efficient route. Once at Gent-Sint-Pieters I found an ATM, my new friend told the taxi driver in dutch where I wanted to go, and we hugged goodbye. I got her facebook to take her out for a thank you drink, because her help made my journey a lot less stressful. She said she would hope that someone would do the same for her, if she was in my position.

I didn’t make my 1:30 international arrival meeting at Vlerick, instead clunking my suitcases down the terraced steps at nearly 2…and made it to the receptionist, who was very kind and called up Kimberly, who was understanding of my tardiness (probably given my red cheeks and huge luggage). Kimberly took me through the next steps…finding a place to live, getting a phone number, setting up a bank account, health insurance, residency card, etc etc etc, and laid out a map of Gent with some key locations. I nodded, repeating back when necessary to make sure my tired mind had grasped the essentials. A guy in my program from Spain arrived on the tail end, who seemed really nice. At the end of the meeting the receptionist called a taxi for me, and handed me a post. My sim card! I had ordered it just a day or two prior and there it was. 

Taxi took me to the Sandton Grand Reylof, a gorgeous hotel in central Gent. I thumbed one of the decorative green apples and asked if it was real. The woman said yes, have one, and I gladly did. I flopped on the bed, by now nearly 3:30pm, and willed myself not to pass out. I turned on my laptop and checked in with my parents and best friends. “You made it!” they congratulated me.

Next step? Appointment at the house I planned to live in for the school year! It was scheduled for 5:30 that day, so I had a couple of hours to rest and get showered and into a change of clothes. Stay tuned.

Breeeeaaattthhhee….Ok get moving

two more sleeps until the cliff jump!

I know you guys are probably thinking this isn’t exciting because I’ve done it all before with the move to Paris, and 4 years younger.

The difference there is that AUP is an american style international school, ready to catch you at the airport, hold your hand through orientation, feed you, house you, and answer every last question. And I had a french boyfriend who navigated rocky waters for me. (and then created them, ha!!)

This time, it’s a purely Belgian business school, as supportive as AUP in terms of question answering and support structure….but I’m really on my own in terms of captaining the ship. No one’s got me by the hand this time.

Alright alright. buck up, blondie. It’s not the first time I’ve landed, alone, in a foreign country. It’s exciting!!

The plan is playing on repeat in my mind…times, flight numbers, layover, train time, cab fare, hotel address, meeting times…Like a dimly lit obstacle course.

But this is what it is…the greater the risk the greater the reward.