A Pandemic Year Abroad

Rachel Elphick

“Une année à l’étranger” is, in my opinion, a staple of the MFL degree. I hadn’t realised until I got out to Belgium this year how absolutely essential it is for students to be dunked headfirst into a scenario that forces them to converse with others in their studied language. Of all of the moments in the 21st century to attempt going on a year abroad, however, this one may not have been the wisest.

I am currently six months into my eight-month British Council Assistantship, Belgium is bracing for the third wave of the pandemic and I have an awful feeling that these last two weeks of holiday and six weeks of work are going to dissolve into a panicked scramble.

A scramble of sorting out Erasmus departure forms, Eurostar tickets and COVID tests, whilst trying to pack all of my worldly possessions into one backpack, one handbag, and a very hefty suitcase.

I have really just had to sink or swim

I left the UK in mid-September of 2020, a snap decision based on the assumption that the re-surfacing public health crisis in Europe was going to get significantly worse before it got better.

I quarantined alone in a flat in Brussels for two weeks as I attempted to organise myself some permanent accommodation for the year, something I only succeeded in two days before my Brussels lease was up.

In terms of best case scenarios for an English Assistant, I hit the jackpot. Fortunately, the schools I’m working with have a girls-only boarding house attached to them, who offered to put me up in a tiny little room in the roof for the year.

With the help of some heavy-duty earplugs, this was overall a net win (though I have picked up a colourful range of French swear words from my late-teenage neighbours next door).

The other joy of living in the boarding house is that nobody really speaks any English.

One of the secretaries in the office is learning it in his free time, but other than that, I have really just had to sink or swim. For a while, it was notably the former, as I find everyone’s masks make it ten times harder for me to even begin to pick out what they’re saying.

These eight months will be the longest stretch of time I have ever spent abroad, and away from family

I always knew that bureaucracy was going to be bothersome while I was out here, but the new COVID rule of ‘one person per town hall appointment’ meant that me and my difficulty understanding masked Belgians had to struggle through it all alone.

I was lucky enough to have help organising myself from the secretaries at the boarding house once I left the meetings, but I was often left wondering whether or not I’d misunderstood anything important in the moment.

I had to go to a fair few of these too as, due to my own lack of forethought and a smattering of Brexit, I went through the process to register as a Belgian resident in October.

Then, after said British-sovereignty-reclaiming incident, had to do it all again, in a hope I’d end up with the right paperwork to make a quick trip home for Easter, without then getting barred from re-entering Belgium.

Sadly, as proven by my writing this article from Belgium on Easter Monday, COVID scuppered that plan, too, and these eight months will be the longest stretch of time I have ever spent abroad, and away from family.

In late 2020, I worked out I was coming into contact with about 100 children a week… who all go home to their respective families every weekend

Belgium has been under pretty strict regulations since we were the COVID capital of Europe in late October.

I’ve been fortunate that, since a lot of my work has been with primary schoolers (whose lessons remained in person up until a week ago), I haven’t spent as much time sitting in front of my laptop doing online lessons, unlike the majority of my assistant friends also placed in Belgium.

It has been, at times, incredibly worrisome. In late 2020, I worked out I was coming into contact with about 100 children a week, not including the ones aged 5-18 who live in the boarding house with me, and who all go home to their respective families every weekend.

It has also been a little lonely, though I think not as lonely as some. While I’ve had far too many people around me to talk to, most of them have either been ten years my senior or children, which is peculiar coming from the incredibly student-heavy environment that is university.

In an attempt not to jinx myself for the next eight weeks, I nevertheless feel like I’ve been incredibly lucky to have the experience that I’ve had, both in the ability to improve my language and also in not catching COVID.

When this is over, and I’m sure it will be, all too quickly, it will certainly have transformed me for the better, as a linguist and as a person.

Rachel Elphick 

Featured image courtesy of Stephanie LeBlanc via Unsplash . Image license found hereNo changes were made to this image.

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