Goodbye, Ghent: Friends, Self Exploration and New Cultures

10:16



 “We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.”  
                                                                                      ― Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon

I like to believe you discover places, or people for a reason. Each new discovery is a lesson in itself. 2016 was a year of exploring, both new countries or continents for that matter and exploring myself. I found myself living in Ghent, Belgium.

Belgium is a country that was completely alien to me before I arrived and that’s what was so amazing about it. There’s something so tantalising about something unknown is there not? The language was a mystery, its people were so European, more so than what I was used to. It is a country full of beautiful buildings with an old world quality to them. Very easily I can imagine what it must have been like centuries ago. I swear, though I walked the same path into Ghent city centre every single time, it never looked any less beautiful. Street art everywhere you look, intricate buildings with arches and slanted roofs.

Ghent was a gate way to other countries. In less than three months, my friends and I were in France, The Netherlands and Germany. I travelled to the top of The Netherlands, four trains in all to see my friend and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I know now that I want to see as much as I can while I’m young. Absorbing these new cultures has changed me as a person. I have loved seeing myself buying clothes I would never usually wear. I want to learn more languages and broaden my horizons. Every single person I have met in Belgium is multilingual and it amazes me how they can switch languages so easily.




My Erasmus was full of moments that I won’t forget: cycling to raves in the middle of the night with rain streaming down us, getting lost on a seemingly never ending path while on a night out in Amsterdam, going to France on a train, dancing in an Irish pub, going to a reggae night in a city at the top of The Netherlands, visiting a Holocaust memorial in Berlin. I have experienced so many different things that I never imagined I would. All because I decided to take the plunge and study in Belgium. As well as learning a lot while studying there I learned more about myself.

I really believe Belgium was the country that I finally realized my own self-worth and that I deserved to be happy. I decided to be happy and made a conscious decision to find that happiness, in whatever way I could. Through people, through places and most importantly, myself. I think if 2016 had not been the year I travelled from Ireland to America, from America to Belgium and beyond I would not be in the position I am now. Excited for what’s to come with a healthy bit of caution.

As a student, Ghent has everything I could want. A multitude of bars and clubs to choose from on a night out, some of them are five minutes from where I used to live, in Overpoort. It’s a real student city, with little cafes dotted all over the place. Even places that are strictly gluten free, which I think is fantastic. Gent Sint Pieters, the train station is a mere 15-minute walk from the main student accommodation for Ghent University. The city centre has all the clothes shops you could want, from Primark, H&M, Zara, Berska and many more. If you really didn’t want to, you wouldn’t have to leave the city as it has all your basic requirements.





A few days before I left I went down to my favourite part of Ghent, perhaps it’s my favourite part of Belgium, and sat down by the water. Graslei, right down beside the river where tourists can get boat tours from €6.50. It was absolutely freezing, I won’t lie haha, but the sun was shining and I felt really peaceful. It never mattered whether I was in the city by myself or with friends, it was almost a rite of passage to go and sit beside the water. I always feel at peace by the water, despite not living by the sea. So, when I went to sit there on the 17th of January it struck me how fast time was moving. Not only had my Erasmus flown, but also my life was moving along really fast. 2017 is my 22nd year of life and while I know that is still incredibly young, I have so much that I really want to achieve. I’m excited for 2017 and it has been a long time since I’ve been excited for my own future.

Part of that is down to all the travel I’ve been doing from America to Belgium. Europe really made me happier, seeing all these beautiful places that I never knew existed. That was I needed and a quote from the film “American Beauty” kind of solidified what it means to go through a dark period, but also realize that there is SO much good out there. I remind myself all the time.




“I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me, but it’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much; my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst. And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold onto it. And then it flows through me like rain, and I can’t feel anything but gratitude—for every single moment of my stupid, little life. You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure; but don’t worry .. you will someday.”

Those words really resonate with me. I am a literature student after all, words have such an impact on me anyway, but I feel certain pieces of writing change my perspective on myself, my life and other aspects. I met a lot of people who changed my perspective, and it wouldn't be right not to write about Tine. We met through a buddy programme between the University of Limerick and we have decided to just call ourselves friends - we're more than just "buddies". She truly understand the way I am as a person and also has a mutual love for literature quotes. Tine helped me see a new perspective in my life and I really think I may have been still be stuck if she hadn't shown me firstly; how to survive, and then, to be happy. So Tine, if you read this, thank you so so much. I always express myself better through words. So much love and gratitude towards you. I spent my days in Belgium exploring Ghent, going for drinks and chats with Tine in Rock Circus. We went for the atmosphere, the music and especially Melle. Melle always greeted me with a smile and if you ever go there, just ask for him. He's the funniest, loveliest guy, and he's a Dutch native.





I am no good at saying goodbyes, whether I know it's coming or not. Maybe a goodbye you know is coming is worse than a shock goodbye, at least you aren't thinking of the days ticking down. I am so so sad this Erasmus experience is over, but Tine put this goodbye into an understandable way.


"It's not a goodbye-I'll-never-talk-to-you-again-goodbye. It's a goodbye-you-just-live-a-little-further-away-goodbye". 

When it's put like that, it almost makes me feel better. I'm trying not to cry while I'm writing this, but I also know they're happy tears because I have so many great memories branded into my memory and I am forever grateful for it. I have way too many photos of Ghent, I wish I could show them all, but there simply would not be enough room.

Thank you so much to everyone who helped make these few months in Belgium among the best few months of my life. You've no idea how much it's meant to me.

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