It has been a month since I moved to Belgium, and Cambridge might as well be a lifetime ago. There’s no value judgement intended there. I don’t think of it as a step forward, nor a step backward – more like a step into an alternate universe, where everything is just different. That’s it. Not better, not worse – just different.

While you all barrel headfirst into another year (or maybe your first) at Cambridge, I’m doing the same thing – only in Brussels. Inhabiting, as I now do, a world without supervisions, lectures and essay all-nighters, it seems strange to think that I am still a student. But I am. Because, somewhere in that transition from gown to new-and-foreign town, I became a third-year.

For one year only, my language degree is offering me a snapshot of life beyond Cambridge. I will spend the coming months straddling two worlds: that of a student – with a dissertation to do, and a supervisor to stay in contact with (theoretically) – and that of an employee – nine-to-five job, salad at my desk, money in my account. If this Year Abroad is C. S. Lewis’s wardrobe, half of me is nice and cosy, swathed in coats and fur, while the other half is shivering in the Narnia winter. Which is which is anybody’s guess.

Just as arriving in Cambridge two years ago meant getting used to cobbled streets, ancient buildings and cyclists. Bloody. Everywhere. Moving to Brussels now has brought lots that’s new with it, too. Daily commuter trains, full of warm commuter breath and stale commuter farts. PIN machines that won’t accept Visa, and a bank that won’t give me a card. (It’s been a frugal few weeks...) And a city with a Brit-dar so perceptive, I have barely spoken a word of French since I got here: I am pipped to the post with a “Hello, can I help?” every time.

I have never seen so much barbed wire in my life, nor so many police officers. In the few weeks that I’ve been here, farmers have used the streets as a tractor park, taxi drivers have held protests, and world leaders have had meetings. In every instance, the po-faced Belgian police have been out in force, checking passes, sealing roads with barbed wire, and closing metro stations. They are the kind of officers – in their little sailor-boy blue hats – that, when I asked one how I might get to the office (given that all the roads seemed to be closed, even to pedestrians) I felt justified in worrying I might be bundled without hesitation into one of the ten police vans apparently parked on every street.

And coming from the UK, a country where being able to speak just one language is often thought impressive enough on its own, I note with disappointment that my multilingualism is absolutely no big deal here. In fact, it is the norm. Because almost all information in Brussels is given in at least three languages – French, Flemish and English – often four, with the addition of German. A woman asked me for directions the other day (I know: so retro), and my immediate response was, “Which language?” But then, which language do you ask the question in? It’s all very baffling – in a different way to how Cambridge is baffling.

Because Cambridge definitely is baffling, too. When I left home, fresh out of school, to start first year, that world seemed big and scary and sometimes overwhelming, just as this new one does to me now. I was a nervous, shy 18-year-old, a bundle of anxiety, full to bursting with fears about whether I was old enough, good enough, clever enough to deal with all I was about to face.

Now, my circumstances seem wildly different, but my worries have changed very little. Will my French hold up? Am I capable enough? When will my boss work out he picked the wrong person?

So far, so good on that front. Four weeks into the job, I still have a desk, and I now have the money in my account to prove it. (Without a Belgian bank card, I still can’t access that money, but one step at a time, right?) And the two years at Cambridge I have under my belt must have done their job (in part, at least), because, even though all those familiar niggles are still swirling around my head, they do seem quieter now, somehow. All of which gives me confidence. Because maybe it means this half-and-half year – part student, part worker – will manage to turn them down to almost-silence in time for life after Cambridge.

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