A musing: 2020 Belgium Erasmus Exchange

group of erasmus students“Expect the unexpected”

A mantra that has become synonymous with me for the last 6 years. It latched to my wondering teenage mind during one of my biggest ‘nerd-outs’ ever.

To give you some context, for those of you who don’t know me, I’m one of those people who become overwhelmed with awe at the sight of natural phenomena. I become ecstatic at the sound of owls hooking at night, amazed by the growth of fruit on trees and tear up at the sight of pair of garden snails mating. Okay, maybe not the last one but you get the idea.

In the summer of 2016, I was volunteering on a small gusty island off the North Devon coast called Lundy. I was doing ecological seabird observing or, more simply, looking for pufflings (the name given to young Puffins).

When I wasn’t sat on a crag with binoculars in my hands for five hours day scanning a cliff face for the appearance of pufflings – or tending to a numb ass! – you could find me strolling around the island. It was on one of these leisurely walks, or rather what happened, that shifted my general outlook on life.

One of my wishes whilst living on the island that summer was to see to the Usain Bolt of the avian kingdom – the Peregrine Falcon. To catch a mere glimpse of its dark silhouette in the sky would have been enough to bring me joy. But days went by and those days turned into weeks and still nothing; I thought I would be boarding MS Oldenburg with an unfulfilled dream.

The day before I was due to set sail for the mainland I went out for one last walk. It was on that final walk when I was feeling low on energy after being battered by coastal winds day after day, that my dream came true.

The creature came hurtling through the air, screaming out a territorial call that reverberated off the rugged cliffs and into my ears. I was utterly consumed by the raw magnificence of it all; I can hear it now as I type. The bird sliced the air with relentless power and continued to let out chilling vocals as I sat and on a grassy slope, watching with intensity.

After a few minutes, I realised that it was defending its chicks that were hidden in a nest on a nearby rocky outcrop. The moment was so raw that I found myself tearing up and my soul being illuminated with the zest of life. This might be a bit “woo woo”, but the point is that I had ruled out the possibility that I would get the chance to see this bird. See it being a true badass in its natural habitat. But it happened.

What does this have anything to do with living in Belgium? Well, like the COVID-19 lockdown, seeing a Peregrine Falcon defending its chicks was unexpected; almost unimaginable at the time. The mantra “expect the unexpected” means, in my mind, owning the fact that we do not always sit in the driver’s seat in life but we are entirely responsible for how we feel and act on what happens.

When I arrived in Belgium, before the onslaught of the coronavirus, I was asked by my new friends and classmates “why did you come to Belgium?” and “what were your expectations?” To this, I would answer something like “I came because I want to expand what I perceive to be reality and I have no expectations, only that I want to embrace experiences and take some wisdom home with me”.

Lockdown shattered the original image that I had in my mind when I thought of having shared experiences this summer – as it did yours, I’m sure – but the time I have spent here has been unforgettable nonetheless.

My social isolation in Belgium has been like my first romance. One day I’m in fifth gear and productive as hell. Then, three weeks down the line, I’m moping about not knowing what to do so decide to eat an entire loaf of bread whilst bedroom-sunbathing (i.e. things get ‘complicated’). That’s Corona madness, right there, folks!

sara-jane in lockdownLockdown has indeed been an opportunity to see myself as my own ‘ride and die’ and cultivating a relationship with myself like I have with the people I love most in this world. But it’s been damn tough at times and that’s okay. I no longer want to find the silver lining in every moment right away. I want to get comfortable with feeling my emotions and understand on a deeply personal level why I feel a certain way.

My time as an exchange student in Belgium has certainly been unexpected. But from getting closer to my discomfort and not resisting the unforeseen, like finding the Peregrine Falcon, I’m at peace with the fact that events are suddenly sprung on us at any given moment.

Delightful or testing, it’s how you deal with these situations that gives us the chance to create harmony within ourselves. I guess what I’m trying to say is, bring on the apocalypse, because I’m ready!

Are you?

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