Grad school opened the doors of Europe for me as my PhD program was a “co-tutelle” between Bordeaux, France, and Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, which meant that every few months, I had to move between the two cities and work in two different labs. If it weren’t for my choice to come do grad school in Europe, I would probably only ever be in France as a tourist and never as a resident, integrating into and loving the culture of a country that I’ve always wanted to visit. As for Belgium, who knew how many surprises it could hide? (Read Part I, Part II, and Part III of the series.)
Bordeaux – Le Port de la Lune
I was fortunate enough to live in Bordeaux for almost 2.5 years during my PhD studies, and what a blessing that was! The very first time I set foot in Bordeaux, a city known as the “Port of the Moon”, I only needed to use the word “elegant” to describe it. Till the moment I left three years later, it was still as elegant as ever and I would use no other word to describe this French beauty. The smell of the sweetest red wine in every corner of the city, the sound of the gliding trams on the tracks, the sight of the glamour that is the Grand Théâtre and Place de la Bourse, the taste of succulent magret de canard and irresistible canéle (duck breast and rum-based pastry, both specialties of Southwestern France), and the touch of the gentle breeze as you stroll along the Garonne on a late summer morning…Bordeaux is an experience that conquers your every sense, making you fall in love with it with every breath.
Roofs of Bordeaux
Tram at Quinconces
Place de la Bourse at night
Magret de canard
Tram tracks at night
Fountain at Place de la Bourse
Many feelings are intertwined when I think about Bordeaux because of my life experiences. The mid-20s was for me a time when the search for identity formed an invisible mission, and Bordeaux became part of that search. My studies, my interactions with the people whom I met in Bordeaux, whether locals or overseas students, and my plans for the future all contributed toward the search and consequently are a part of who I am today. To me, Bordeaux is not just a beautiful city, but also a name that resonates with me just by its utterance. My heart still yearns to go back one of these days, this time as a visitor and perhaps never as a resident again. But thank you for what you’ve given me, Bordeaux, that gift of the memories that only you could ever bestow.
Louvain-la-Neuve – Learning to appreciate
And finally, we come to Louvain-la-Neuve (LLN), a university-city-that-isn’t-really-a-city that once made me feel trapped and miserable. I was there during different periods of my PhD studies, for up to three months each time I went. Compared to Bordeaux, LLN was small and boring and definitely NOT elegant. I had learned to cope with not being happy in LLN, until autumn came. And magic happened. Autumn in LLN truly transformed the place. Maybe my eyes just decided to open one day as I noticed the golden orange colours of the autumn foliages, and LLN was never the same again. Gradually I began to appreciate the little details of LLN and discover its hidden faces – the little shops with such delicate gifts (Zig Zag is my favourite), the murals that are some of the best I’ve ever seen (in addition to the ones I would discover later in Glasgow), the enjoyable walks around the lake and through the Bois de Lauzelle, the various small neighbourhoods, the cats that are everywhere, the crazy 24-H Velo events, the delicious sandwiches at Mie d’Oli, and the Brussels waffle. YES, LLN has the best Brussels waffles I’ve ever eaten – take that, Brussels!
Sculpture in Louvain-la-Neuve
Autumn in Louvain-la-Neuve
Mural in Louvain-la-Neuve
Les quatre saisons by Alfred Blondel
Geometrically shaped architecture
Belgium itself is a wonder and before I went to LLN, I couldn’t even point it out on a map. I didn’t know that the country has three official languages (French, Flemish, and German) and that LLN split from the University of Leuven as a result of language differences. Most importantly, little did I know that its capital, Brussels, would become one of my favourite European cities, if not my all-time favourite. Just like that, my studies brought Belgium and LLN into my life and this place, which I still hesitate to call a “city”, has stolen a part of my heart. To quote myself from a post that I wrote almost four years ago: “…travelling has taught me that it is only with an open heart and mind that you can learn to appreciate your surroundings…if I’m going to be living in a city for a relatively long period of time, rather than complaining about how it sucks, why not look for things that make a city unique and beautiful, and enjoy it to the fullest?”
This post concludes the “Places I Called Home” series and more than three years after its conception, I’ve finally managed to write it! And what a journey down memory lane that was! Be sure to check out Part I (Guangzhou and Toronto), Part II (Waterloo and Glasgow), and Part III (Hsinchu and South Bend) for the entire story. Until next time, my friends!