Source: Ben Ockrim

A year studying abroad: a month in Brussels

This academic year, the Boar’s Travel Editor, Ben Ockrim, is studying at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) on an international exchange program through Warwick’s Politics Department. These are his updates:

I have settled into Brussels’ student life since my last article a month ago.  VUB’s Freshers’ Week has come and gone, classes have started, and my first assignment is due in next week. On the social side, I have visited the bar with the world record for the most variations of beer (and ordered the cheapest one), clubbed at a massive student festival, and travelled to the Belgian towns of Ghent and Dinant with fellow Erasmus students. I have also attended a talk hosted by the President of the European Parliament and found a job at an Irish bar.  

And yet, I have not always been busy. Early on, when I knew no-one and before I had finalised my timetable, I spent a lot of days hanging about in my room, watching YouTube while I waited for whatever social event was planned in the evening. There were some days where I did not talk to anyone at all.  

The European Parliament buildings

I have not been lonely though. I love Brussels, which despite being a major capital, feels like a student city. On numerous occasions, I have met someone at a lecture or university event, and then bumped into them again on public transport or in a bar. My favourite night out is Thursday, when hundreds of students go for a drink at Place du Luxembourg, a square right next to the European Parliament. I felt a long way from Warwick as I sipped my pint while gazing up at the buildings where some of the most consequential political decisions are made.

I love Brussels, which despite being a major capital, feels like a student city

I’m also enjoying my course, particularly the module Challenges to Democracy. The lecturer, who ranks the state of democracy in countries across the globe in his spare time, paces across the stage and waves his arms about when he gets excited, such as when discussing the transparency of government in Oman. I also find The Economics of European Integration interesting even though the lecturer glares at me whenever someone mentions Brexit. I’m the only Brit in the class. 

Me in Ghent

It is interesting and sad that there are so few British students in Brussels, especially compared to the high numbers from similarly populated European countries Germany, France and Spain. I don’t know why this is the case, but if I had to guess based on my own experience, I would suggest that the difficulties of getting a European student visa and lack of Erasmus funding post-Brexit are key barriers to studying here.  

It is interesting and sad that there are so few British students in Brussels

In the last week, things have really begun to heat-up especially as I have started shifts in the Irish pub. It is my first time working at a bar, and it’s fun, but tough. I have learnt how to properly pour a Guinness, though last shift during the Rugby World Cup quarter finals, I spent the whole-time washing glasses. One of the customers, probably upset after Ireland’s loss, accused me of daydreaming. Don’t tell my boss.

There is no let-up in my schedule for the foreseeable future. This weekend, I’m going clubbing in a museum, and attending a Tax Symposium at the European Parliament. My assignment is due the week after, and then my parents and younger brother are coming to visit me. I’m looking forward to seeing my Mum and Dad, but they’ll definitely ask if I’m missing home. I miss the cats.


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