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By Bridgeen Rutherford

Bridgeen RutherfordTo say I was excited to be chosen to participate in this three week visit to Leuven, is an understatement. I had already been to Belgium/Leuven approximately two years previously for a short visit which actually turned out to be of somewhat longer duration due to the eruption of the Icelantic Ash Cloud, Eyjafjallajokull, in April 2010. We had stayed in the Irish College at that time and I was delighted to be returning. I was looking forward to retracing my steps taken at that time and exploring new territory. I have to admit, I was never happy reaching the 50 year milestone but realize that I had now come to terms with this to join the Armagh-Leuven-Links project. This was also the first time I had been away from my family for such an extended period.

The Leuven group had put together an extremely detailed programme. At first I felt anxious that I would be unable to cope with the demands of this. The Leuven volunteers made us feel more than welcome and helped up settle in to Leuven life. We were advised on all necessities from hairdressers to the weekly fruit market and antique markets. We also had in on good authority where the best Leuven chocolates could be found. I soon adapted to the countless number of bicycles and the uneven cobbled streets. I was very glad to have brought a good pair of walking shoes with me and a raincoat! Leuven is an extremely interesting town and has a remarkable history. I was amazed at the amount of Archives that are available to the public and the differing records that are available in their various guises. I am only aware of our Public Records Office in Northern Ireland and, as it is situated in Belfast, is not readily accessible to me in the North-West of Northern Ireland. I soon learnt that the principles and processes of archiving are similar in all establishments. It is the content that differs and as such allows research to be accessible and extensive.

One of my interests for this project was to learn the process of digitization. When records are digitized so many researchers can access those records. I found the process daunting as, in my ignorance, I had not realized that this would be quite a claustrophobic experience and I was very uncomfortable with this. I learnt how to prepare the records for digitization and how to conserve these records also.

We studied Palaeography which is the study of old handwriting. We were taught how to transcribe 15th century text. I was amazed by this and found this extremely interesting. I remembered some of the latin I had learned at Grammar School and have used during my career as a medical secretary. I have also studied shorthand and found the short forms of palaeography showed scribing similarities. I now am keen to explore this further.

My presentation took place in the first week and I spent some nights finalizing this. The topic was “The Plantation of Ulster and New Buildings as a Plantation Village”. As this was the first presentation I think the volunteers found this somewhat confusing. I tried to make this straightforward and was happy to have lots of questions and my colleagues were helpful in curbing the volunteer’s curiosities and enthusiasm.

I am an avid novel reader and the opportunity to go on the Bronte Walk in Brussels for me was one of the highlights of the three weeks. I even read Villette by Charlotte Bronte in preparation for this. It was thrilling to be able to trace the steps of this novel and visit the streets that existed at that time and follow in the footsteps of Charlotte Bronte herself. I knew some of the background to the Bronte history from their roots in Northern Ireland to living at Haworth. The Professor that escorted us is a member of the Bronte Society in Brussels.

Having visited Brussels and the European Parliament in 2010 I was keen to see more of the city on this visit so I took the opportunity to take the sightseeing bus and explore further. I thoroughly enjoyed this as I could not have walked around the city in the short time we had there.

We visited many museums and art galleries. My favourite museum was the Musee des instruments de musique. I played the piano, organ and viola in my salad days. We had an opportunity to listen to a chap playing a harpsichord which was enchanting. The sound of this filled the room and was amazing. I must admit that I was very naughty and played a chord on this before we left the room. I really wanted to play some more on this fascinating instrument!

I find no difficulty in spending hours wandering around art galleries and found those in Leuven and Brussels really whet my appetite. My favourites were the M in Leuven and the Magritte in Brussels. I did not know much about Flemish or Dutch Masters before and even managed to bring some samples home with me intact.

I enjoyed the trip to Antwerp and the visit to the FelixArchief. My favourite item on this was the visit to Plantin-Moretus Museum/Print Room. I even brought a globe home with me. I am a typist and found the history of the print house very interesting and even found the same typewriter on which I learned my typewriting skills.

On a free day some of us visited Bruges. I had been there before on a brief visit and was happy to be returning. It was Labour Day and there were a lot of people enjoying the march and celebrations. I had “summer love” and Guinness in an Irish Pub which was very welcome. I spent some time walking around and met up with my colleagues to visit the Shawl of St Brigid (my namesake) in St Saviour’s Cathedral. Thankfully it was a beautiful day and we made the most of it.

My favourite meal was at the “De Koerier van Navarra”. We had a cookery lesson in paella making. I found this intriguing and the outcome was a fantastic meal. I have never been brave enough to eat paella before but really do not think that any other paella would be comparable.

The Norbertine Abbey at Park Abbey, Heverlee has a fascinating history. It is currently being restored and I would love to return when this is complete. The stained glass windows were unbelievable. I hope that the missing ones are returned to their rightful place. We went to mass at the Vriebeek Abbey where one of the Leuven volunteers conducts the choir. The singing was beautiful and the choir is so lucky to have the Abbey as their home.

I could not come back from Leuven not having tasted some beer. I had a Stella Artois in my final week and found it very tasteful indeed. I even had one at the airport while waiting for our flight home.

I really enjoyed the presentations by my colleagues and learned a lot from them. I feel that we all got on extremely well despite not knowing each other before this venture. I found I was able to understand some of the Dutch language but do not think I could become fluent. I feel that we have made some good friends in the Leuven volunteers and co-ordinators and only hope that we can repay their kindness, generosity and pass on some of our knowledge when they visit Northern Ireland in September 2012.

I feel privileged to have been able to participate in this project. Volunteering has a totally different perspective in Belgium than that of Northern Ireland. I feel more recognition is given to volunteering in Belgium and can only hope that this will evolve in Northern Ireland.

May 2012