Letters to Home: Leuven, Belgium
An insight into life as a student in Belgium from Cormac Begley, a third year Psychology undergraduate
“Hi, what’s your name? Where are you from? What do you study? Do you know…” Taking the plunge and venturing off on Erasmus for the year is a lot like being a Fresher again, except you’re in a foreign country and it’s a lot more difficult to go home on the weekends. That being said, I’ve been living in Leuven, Belgium for a month now and I haven’t felt any desire to return home just yet. I’ve found that Belgium isn’t drastically different from Ireland culturally speaking. The currency is the same, most people speak English, and it rains a lot. It’s actually raining right now. Having said that, for all of their meteorological similarities, there are a lot of differences between Ireland and Belgium too. A whole new world has been revealed to me from afloat the EU-funded magic carpet that is Erasmus.
“Firstly, people go out far later here. I’m talking about midnight or so. Sure, that’s a lot of pre-drinking, but it also means that people stay out much later as well, often not heading home until close to sunrise.”
There are a lot of small differences that don’t amount to much by themselves, but are much more daunting when put together. Speak Dutch, not French. Shops are closed on Sundays. Motorists almost always stop to let you cross the road. You better make sure to separate your plastics from your papers from your non-recyclables, or you’ll be fined. And remember what day to take each out on! You get the idea.
One of the more significant differences from Ireland that I’ve encountered is the nightlife. Firstly, people go out far later here. I’m talking about midnight or so. Sure, that’s a lot of pre-drinking, but it also means that people stay out much later as well, often not heading home until close to sunrise. Secondly, get used to beer. Belgians love their beer. There’s a bar in Brussels that holds the Guinness World Record for selling the largest variety of beer (nearly 3000 and counting), and in Leuven you can take a tour of the Stella Artois brewery.
If, like me, you’re not a big fan of beer then you can always get the sweeter fruit beers. Kriek (cherry) beer is a personal favourite. Thirdly, the drinking culture here is a lot more reserved than in Ireland, students being the exception. Most people prefer a glass of wine with dinner rather than an entire bottle at pre-drinks, and in my experience you’re more likely to find yourself in a bar than a club. This might be because Leuven is a relatively small town so in the spirit of scientific inquiry I’ll be spending the coming weekend in Brussels, testing whether this is, in fact, a generalisable observation. For science.
“[Cantuses] could be described as an elaborate drinking gaming involving lots of singing and a lot of rules. Break a rule and you shall be punished, e.g. drink your beer from your friend’s shoe.”
Then there’s the cantus. Cantuses (canti?) are a Belgian tradition. They could be described as an elaborate drinking gaming involving lots of singing and a lot of rules. Break a rule and you shall be punished, e.g. drink your beer from your friend’s shoe. I haven’t had the pleasure of attending one yet but the psychologische kring (KU Leuven’s version of PsychSoc) is hosting a pyjama cantus next week. When in Rome…
While the vie nocturne is somewhat exotic, university life is a bit different too. As a psychology student I’m used to attending all of my lectures within the confines of Trinity’s Arts Block, never having to travel too far for my next class. Here in Leuven, classes are scattered across the town. This isn’t so bad since Leuven isn’t very big and is certainly prettier than the Arts Block. In addition, classes tend to start earlier and end later. While, thankfully, all of my classes fall within a 9am to 6pm bracket, some of my friends haven’t been so lucky. Statistics at 8am? I’ll pass.
Of course there’s more to Erasmus than just parties and classes. I think that travel is fundamental (after all the ‘M’ stands for mobility). In my time here, I’ve already been to Brussels and Antwerp, with Bruges next on the agenda. In time I hope to venture further afield into France or Germany. Living so close to the de facto capital of Europe makes it a lot easier to get around the continent. It’s not cheap but the Erasmus grant helps ease the burden. Complementary to travelling is meeting people from other walks of life. When I first began studying in Trinity, Dublin seemed so cosmopolitan to me. Living in Belgium has given me a real taste of just how interconnected the world is. I’ve made great friends from all across Europe and I know I’m going to miss them when I return home for my final year in Trinity.
When I took a tour during orientation week I was told that the town wouldn’t be on the map if it wasn’t for the university, KU Leuven. Given the small size of Leuven and the international reputation of its university, around two-thirds of the population is made up of students (or so I’m told). As you can probably imagine, this is reflected in the local culture. Oude Markt, a square within stumbling distance of my apartment, has around forty different bars and cafés. In addition, it’s common for native Belgian students to return home for the weekend, resulting in a weekly exodus of wheelie bags. This means that it’s relatively quiet during the weekend, especially on Sunday when stores and businesses are closed (which can be nice at times, but beyond frustrating if you happen to have run out of milk).
Leuven, like Dublin, also has a lot of old buildings – the university was established in 1425. The architecture of the town truly is something to behold and words cannot describe the feeling of strolling down one of Leuven’s cobbled streets whilst listening to a chorus of church bells ring out the hour. Despite its size and picturesque beauty, you can also find graffiti Leuven. It has a distinctly political flavour with a lot of anarchist and anti-fascists slogans… I’ve been told that Belgium has an underground anti-establishment culture. Radical.
While I’ve certainly enjoyed exploring what Belgium has to offer, you can’t beat the comforts of home. On Standonckstraat you’ll find Stapletons, Leuven’s only Irish pub. They serve all the traditional Irish drinks of course and, at the risk of sounding like an advertisement, they have a proper Sunday lunch to boot. They even showed the All-Ireland Championship re-match, traumatic as it was. It’s a good spot to grab a pint and meet the Irish diaspora. At any rate, it’s cheaper than Temple Bar.
One written piece just doesn’t do justice to the Erasmus experience. It has to be lived. I would strongly recommend anyone starting out in college to give it consideration. Living abroad has certainly pushed me out of my comfort zone but I’m all the better for it. It’s a great opportunity to learn another language, experience another culture and meet people from around the world. Although I’ll only be in Belgium for a year, I’m confident it’s one I won’t ever forget.