When I first arrived in Belgium I was handed a small paper map of Brussels. That night in my homestay I sat down and thoroughly read this map. It was made by a company comprised of youth locals who shared their favourite spots and tips for exploring the city of Brussels; it was the perfect guide for someone who was new to the city and it was in English. I got to talking with my program advisor about some of the attractions and she mentioned how much she loved the company that made this map. Additionally she mentioned that they made maps for cities all over Europe. From that point on whenever I planned a trip I made sure to go to the offices of this little travel boutique and check to see if they a map. The first time I went in I talked to the woman at the counter for over an hour, not just about Brussels but about where I was from, what I was studying, what I hoped to do with my life, literally everything. She mentioned to me that she was a volunteer and immediately I asked if I could help out for a day.
This was an unusual way to fulfill my community service quota for studying abroad but I’m so glad that this is the organization I chose to do it with. I’ve always had an interest in tourism and I love helping people so this didn’t even seem like it was something I had to do for a journal entry. I genuinely enjoyed hanging out there all day and into the night. I had an early class on that Wednesday and after it finished I hopped on the tram to go volunteer. It was really slow and not very many people came it for maps or just to hang out but this gave me a chance to talk to the other employees. They were all so interesting and had different backgrounds. I heard both French and Flemmish being spoken, which was interesting to me because the French speakers rule Brussels. I learned about the other volunteers and full time employees who were graphic artists hard at work on the next version of the maps or aspiring bankers in-between jobs.
Volunteering for this organization shattered the Belgian bureaucrat image I previously held. Chuck Thompson once said, “no place is as bad as they tell you it’s going to be,” and luckily I found the truth in this statement during my time volunteering. I had a very rough start in Belgium but the warmness of these people put me at ease. All the full time employees were local Belgians and I think that my experience with this travel boutique was the time where I met the most local Belgians in one place. But more than that they were real people who were helping tourists explore the best that Brussels had to offer. They weren’t the robotic Belgians that I encountered at my local city hall. Belgium itself is characterized as a boring country but these locals were doing their best to give a warm welcome to people interested in the city of Brussels. They helped to promote the exchange of information and perspectives, therefore contributing to the creation of a global community.
Unfortunately I did not get a picture of my time volunteering with the organization but I have attached the link to the company website. If you are ever traveling through Europe again I highly recommend you check and see if there is a map for the city! How else would I have known to look for the world’s largest toilet paper roll in Ghent?