BY SHEILA PHAM. I arrived in Belgium four months ago and somehow it’s almost time to go already. Before coming here I had few expectations and certainly no idea that I’d end up being so enamoured with a country that didn’t seem too exciting compared to the other two in my Erasmus Mundus Master of Bioethics program (ie. The Netherlands and Italy). But I embrace every chance I get to travel so I set myself a few goals for Belgium: to know Brussels better and visit the French-speaking half which I’d never been to before, despite having visited Belgium on numerous occasions. Ticking those things off the list was a piece of cake…but of course, the best kind of travel is more than a list-ticking exercise.
The more I’ve gotten to know Belgium and its people, the more I’ve liked it. I mean really liked it. Belgians are a little reticent but as a whole are a down-to-Earth and pragmatic people with a nice sense of humour. I’ve had a great time making friends with locals who have received me very warmly. There have been some things that have bothered me but on the whole, my time here was like an unexpectedly great date that I’ve wished could last much longer.
I say this even though the past few weeks has mainly involved me intensively studying for my exams, after a fantastic two week trip through Ireland and the UK (more on that later). This month has been a mentally exhausting period but also reassuring that my brain still works and hasn’t been completely dulled by working. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of ethics and what’s great is that I’m not just learning to pass exams; what I’ve been learning has actually changed the way I think about my own life. And life in general.
It’s been easy to be inspired when the teaching standard is so high for my bioethics and philosophy courses. I’ve been particularly impressed with the overall level of English. One or two of my professors have near native proficiency in English and the ones who don’t have a charming “Euro English” way of speaking. One of my philosophy professors said to me that he thought his English was “awful”, but it isn’t by a long stretch – I actually find the way he expresses himself very endearing. Because of the way he speaks and what he speaks about, he comes across as a terribly nice family-centred man who’s spent a lot of time thinking deeply and knows that he’s a bit conservative in his habits. In any case, I think it’s great that people are so inventive with the English language in ways that’s difficult to be as a native speaker. Getting to know bits of Dutch has helped me understand why their sentences in English can sound a bit funny at times – but honestly, it doesn’t matter about being perfectly grammatical when you speak. What matters is that you can express yourself and that people understand you. Besides which it’s impressive to teach subjects as complex as philosophy in your second (or third, or even fourth) language.
I’m always torn in lots of different directions because there are so many things I find interesting, but at the moment bioethics is inspiring me and feels like a good direction. Following one’s curiosity seems like a good way to live so my latest plan is to go onto a PhD back home in August…assuming I can develop a good topic in time to submit an application. I’ve been feeling a bit homesick and longing to come home again so that’s another reason I want to go back to Sydney. Knowing there’s an end date will make the rest of my time abroad much sweeter. I’m going to really make the most of the next six months which may be the last time I’ll be so carefree.
Before starting this degree I was most worried about things which have turned out to be far easier than I expected. I thought oral exams would be harder than papers and written exams, but I’ve realised they’re far easier (though way more subjective at the marking stage). I was also worried about the thesis because I’ve never written one before, but it’s turned out to be the bit I’m most looking forward to completing and is less gruelling than coursework. The coursework is giving me excellent grounding in the field, but the thesis is the most intellectually liberating part where I get to explore my own ideas and write. I’ve chosen a topic which combines my loves of narrative and public health: a thesis on graphic novels about infectious diseases. So it’s going to be fun, especially because I’ve connected with a supervisor in The Netherlands who’s been a great mentor so far. I’m looking forward to meeting him in person soon. It’s been interesting to undertake this degree in Europe which has quite a different way of conceptualising a masters degree.
So here I am with less than two weeks to go before the next stop of Nijmegen in The Netherlands. I would’ve been happy to stay another semester here in lovely Leuven but as it is, I feel like I did a pretty good job squeezing as much out of the experience as possible. One of the best experiences I had during my course was a visit to a centre called sTimul, which is a care-ethics lab that stimulates empathy and ethical reflection in nurses. It was part of a course on Nursing Ethics which ended up being one of my favourites. Thinking about it now, my whole semester studying at KU Leuven was an exercise in empathy, opening my eyes to other ways of looking at the world. Thanks Belguim for all the good times – time for the goodnight kiss. Tot ziens!