Ellen Walker
2006-07 Outbound to Belgium

Hometown: Gainesville, FL
School: Buchholz High School
Sponsor: Gainesville Rotary Club
Host: Plombières-Welkenraedt Rotary Club
District 1630, Belgium

September 5 Journal and Pictures
 I don’t know where to begin, really. I arrived in Belgium the 20th of August and every day presents a new experience for me – from the hundreds of pâtisseries to choose from, to the AZERTY computer keyboard and the German Microsoft Word I’m using to type this journal entry. The flight over was amazing...ly long, but from Washington, D.C. to Bruxelles, it wasn’t just myself and Katie. There was a good 20 other American exchange students, all bursting with the same mix of nervousness, excitement, fear; no one knowing quite what to expect.
After picking up my luggage (all of it, thankfully!), I rolled the trolley anxiously through a winding maze of high yellow walls, and was spit out into an empty semi-circle. The outer realms being swarmed with host-families, I felt much like an animal brought up before a market; “Which of these families,” I wondered, “will be taking me home?”

I moved towards the exit, having not seen my name on any of the posters waving in the air, and just as I passed through the better half of the crowd, a very small woman with a very large bouquet of flowers planted herself resolutely at my side... and smiled. “Marie-Ange?” I asked, not knowing what sort of facial expression I was returning. “Ouiiii” came the song-like reply. And so it began: my new life, my new family, my new me.

After a 6 hour “nap” in my new bed, I was served a “traditional Belgian dinner” of steak, frites, and salad. I ate fries with a fork – and mayonnaise! I drank fizzy water in a very tiny glass and talked to a cat in French ! Like a classic British sketch comedy, my whole world had taken a violent turn into something completely different.

I don’t know about other countries, but here I have something called an “Oldie”; that being Chloe, the girl hosted by my same club who is from New Zealand and arrived back in January. She therefore has the experience I lack at the moment with “quoi que ça soit” (whatever it may be): culture, transportation, etc. My 3rd day in Belgium, Chloe took me and the other two “newies” - Viviana from Colombia and Ivette from Mexico – on a day-trip to Brugge, an incredibly beautiful city on the west coast. It was the first time any of us had met and my first train-ride!

The city was amazing, and being a) a tourist attraction and b) in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium, most everyone spoke English. With all of our luck, however, when we got lost looking for the river, the two construction workers we asked for directions happened to not speak any English... or French... or German... The fiasco that followed, with Chloe’s confidence and my minimal German (which has a gross similarity to Flemish apparently), had us trekking single-file down a narrow passageway, but ultimately in the right direction of the river. On the train ride home, Chloe and I taught Vivi and Ivette the French words for anything we could see: train, field, horse, knee, nail-polish, etc., and when a family with 4 youngster came aboard, they were enthralled to join in the game and teach us everything they could think of as well.

This day stands out in my mind because as great as it was, I came home and felt an overwhelming sadness. Perhaps because it was the first time I had heard any English since my arrival; perhaps I was just tired. Upon reflection though, I know at least this much is true: I knew that the “fun” I had with these three girls was not at all the same “fun” I have with my best friend back home, and it was strange for me to feel so close to anyone so quickly. I know nothing is going to be like it is “back home”, and since this day I have never felt sad about these differences.

Last Thursday was another exceptional day : All 3 Rotary districts in Belgium gathered in Bruxelles, where we had the grand opportunity to visit the Royal Palace (no photos allowed) and the Senate. A hoard of well-dressed teens in matching blazers marching down the streets of the capital made quite a scene. Rotary banners were presented, speeches were given, and hands were shaken; but the cherry on top of this long day – the moment that made it all worth it – was when I met the American ambassador to Belgium. Nearly every student had the same luck, and I’m sure they knew what a once-in-a-lifetime sort of opportunity it was.

Yesterday was my first day at school – Institut Saint Joseph in Welkenraedt. I take the train from Eupen to get there, which to me is extra-super-cool! We (myself and the other 3 Rotary students) haven’t got actual schedules yet – for the moment we’re just following around the 6th-years (seniors) to get to know the school and make friends with those closest to our age-group. The students are all happy to help us and invite us to go get a sandwich around town during the lunch hour. Maybe it was just for the first day but they all seem to dress REALLY nicely for school – despite not having any dress code at all. And I’m not exaggerating when I say: ALL !

I love my host family – my host mom loves to talk, which is cool because I’m not the talkative type and I love when other people just take the gun and run. On the other hand my host brother Grégory doesn’t talk at all... he just watches car races and looks up car-parts on eBay and builds his car in the garage hehe. His dad owns a business fixing cars out of the garage so he is often around for breakfast and throughout the afternoon, but he doesn’t live at the house, so I don’t really consider him my host dad. I’ve been meeting the rest of the family little by little – my host mom’s brother Fifi and his wife and children know French fairly well but prefer German so they only speak to me in German, though everyone at my house speaks French to me. Bonne-Maman (Grandma) is a super fly old lady, she and I joke around a lot and I love the way she pronounces out every syllable of every word (not for my benefit, just because that’s how she talks), but it makes it really easy to understand her. My host mom’s boyfriend Josef is also lots of fun – he’s a bass guitar player in 3 bands and Marie-Ange and I went to one of his concerts in Visé, where I danced with the locals and sang to a Queen cover. So far I’ve been to the Eupen dam, the main church of Eupen, built in 1729, and Limbourg, and a beautiful little village at the top of a hill that dates back to 1632.

One last thing before I go: to prove my host family is absolutely too generous... they knew that I play the piano, and would be missing it terribly since they didn’t have one at the house... Apparently my host mom had cleared out a room and was hoping to have found a piano and had it moved into the room by the time I arrived as a surprise, but she didn’t have the time with her daughter leaving for Mexico – but I digress; my host family found a piano just for me and is having it moved into the house sometime this week! When I heard, I commenced to crying tears of joy, and I still can’t believe they’re doing this for me !

I guess it’s time to end this, and until next time.

September 11 Journal
 Today is September 11th. It’s an exceptional experience to pass this day as an American in another country. In the states it was just another day where you knew everyone was walking or driving past with the same solemnity at heart. For myself I always had half my mind on the day and another half on my birthday that would be coming in three days time. But today I am not in America, and there are no Americans beside me. Today I do not know what the people around me are feeling. I can’t even be sure they know what today is – at least in the same aspect of being anything other than a Monday. I want to stand up and yell to them, “Today is 9/11! Tell me how that makes you feel!”
Because I want everyone to know how I feel.

When we sit safely in the worlds we’ve grown up knowing, in our home-communities, in our home-towns, we don’t need others to acknowledge and justify our feelings, because there is an unspoken unity that exists between all Americans, between all Belgians, between any two people from the same country. You may never realize this unity exists, as I didn’t, until you’ve stepped out of that box where everything is comfortable and familiar. I woke up this morning and asked myself “Where are the all-day TV specials? Where are the radio broadcast discussions? Why has my principal not come on and asked us all to take a moment of silence??”

This is the reason I went on exchange. I don’t want only Americans to take a moment of silence for the tragedy that happened on 9/11. It wasn’t the American Trade Center than came down, it was the World Trade Center. I don’t want that unspoken unity to exist only between countrymen, but between all men. We all exist in this world, and there is never only one person or one country that is affected by a tragedy. The Rotary Club is absolutely right in believing that if every high-schooler went on exchange, in 20 years time there would be no war, no racism... just peace and understanding. Naïvety is nothing compared to the intense feeling of new comprehension you acquire for the rest of the world when you make an exchange.

I may not be able to talk every boy and girl at my school into going on exchange for a year. They may be frightened; they may not be interested at all; but I can at least give them all an opportunity to hear how I feel in this situation. Sure, I may tell them that it frightens me, I may tell them that I miss my family, and those sort of things aren’t going to make them want to leave, but I also have the opportunity to at least expose them to things they will probably never know unless they leave behind everything they think they know here.

I left America not considering myself very patriotic, but now I know it is impossible to be anything but that. Life is beautiful because it does not last, and every time I see the sun set behind the rolling hills, I know it is always the most beautiful thing I have seen that day, because it is the last thing I will see before turning in to bed.

La vie, elle existe toujours, malgré la morte et jusqu’à la morte; Vivez, donc, pour savoir vivre en réjouissant et pour être prêt à mourir à n’importe instant. [Life continues to exist, despite death, and until death; Live, therefore, to know how to live in rejoice, and to be ready to die at any moment.]

November 21 Journal and Pictures
Wow... that’s all I really know to say... WOW!!
3 months gone... Gone like... the wind ? Perhaps. The first months seemed to fly by, the second one took forever, so I suppose it all evened out in the end – 3 months seems to be about right. I’ve gotten into a groove, with my host family, with my school, my friends, just my life in general. I know where to go, what to do, how to get there, and most importantly: how to handle it when nothing goes as planned.

So much has happened, I’ve seen so many places, I don’t know where to begin. My birthday was amazing – I don’t know how to thank everyone who made me feel so happy on the day I feared I would be the most sad. All of the seniors yelled out « Happy Birthday ! » (in English, mind you) the moment I walked into the Locale that morning, my 3 Rotarian girls gave me little presents and hand-made cards, and my host family threw me a big dinner party in the evening.

With my host family I’ve been to see my host brother race cars at Francorchamps, I’ve been to see a Gérard Dépardieu film at the theater in Verviers, I’ve been to two of my host mom’s friend’s blues-rock concerts, I’ve seen the Brice & Joup brewery, the Schumacher factory where they make famous church organs, the world-famous spa in (you’ll never guess): Spa. I’ve now seen all 4 dams in Wallonie, including the completely dry one in Robertsville, and the one that is home to La Gileppe, an enormous stone lion that weighs 300 tons, with a height of 13.5m (44.3 ft), a length of 16m (52.5 ft), and a width of 5m (16.4 ft). I’ve been apple-picking in Weirde, and on a shopping spree in Maastrict (in the Netherlands), and to a battle-of-the-bands with the other Rotarian girl that lives in my city (but doesn’t go to my school).

With Rotary I’ve been to the world-famous Grottes (caverns) at Remouchamps, the closed coal mine in Blegny, the only farm I think in all of Belgium where the cows walk into a machine of their own volition to be milked. I’ve eaten a hundred different pâtés, wild boar, rabbit, pheasant, blood sausage, some pretty smelly cheese, and tasted the Beau-Jolais wine the day it came out!

I have to admit... my host family is über-kind. I know many people’s host families did something special for them at their arrival... and my family certainly wanted to – but time did not permit, and a week before my birthday my host mom rounded up 6 or 7 grown men, drove off to another town, and picked up a beautiful white upright piano. After nearly a month of not having a piano I had gotten in the habit of just “playing” at the edge of the table from the top of my head... I would sit and look at my sheet music longingly and hear the music in my head. My host family, God bless them, called up an old family member they had fallen out of contact with and asked if they still had this piano that had been in the café they used to own. Luckily: they did. And I was given the best present I could have ever received – the one thing that made me feel more like a part of their family than anything else because it showed me that they appreciate the fact that I appreciate something that much.

Recently I changed bedrooms; quite simply: from the big one to the small one. About a year ago my host family had renovated the attic and turned it into a beautiful second-floor bedroom for their daughter. Everything still had that new-ness to it when I arrived, and it was wonderful... until it got cold! The older, smaller bedroom is where my piano was placed, and when my host mom realized that I couldn’t get the hang of sleeping in a room that is too large to be heated without racking up an outrageous heating bill, she offered to put the single bed and armoire back into the piano room. I quickly accepted! Of course it was great having a room twice the size of my own back in the states, but I never needed that much space anyhow, and I’m such a Florida-girl, I’d much rather be warm than anything else!

For All-Saints, we get the entire week off of school (I like to think of it as Halloween-Holidays, but the Belgians don’t like to celebrate Halloween the way I do – I personally don’t see what’s so much more embarrassing about dressing up for Halloween if they do it for Carnavale). Most of Rotary went to London for 4 days, and Paris for 3... I, on the other hand, went to Marseille for a week and sat in the sun while it snowed for the first time back in Belgium! No regrets :-) Besides, I got to experience the Paris Metro on my way back anyway – my train let off in Paris, and an hour later I had to mount a train at a different station... an hour should have been plenty of time... for someone who didn’t spend 20 minutes standing on the wrong side of the tracks wondering why all the trains coming by were going in the opposite direction! In the end, I ran across to the other side and wildly jumped onto a subway whose doors were closing, and thankfully it was going in the right direction (if I had waited for the next subway I would have missed my train regardless, so I made an executive decision that I might as well get my cou on the one already there, even though I didn’t know it’s destination).

I used to think it was fun to bust out my fabulous french skills whenever a person who just met me would ask if I could speak “a little bit of French” “yet”... but I’ve recently changed strategies. One day at the market in Henri-Chapelle, a colleague of my host mom came up to greet us, and hearing I was her new “host daughter from America”, followed with the predictable “Do you speak a little bit of French yet?” slowly, and clearly. I smiled and responded, slowly, and clearly “Ouiii une tout -uh- petit peuhhh”. My host mom’s eyes went as big as saucers, and once her colleague had left, she busted out laughing... then she told me she was going to start talking to me in German just to teach me a lesson. Good times.

Just this past weekend I met the host family of Viviana, which may well be my next host family come January. I went because they had invited me to see their Harmonic Orchestra perform. Little did I know nearly the whole family was involved – the mother plays the clarinet, the daughter plays the flute, and the 2 sons play the saxophone and baritone. They asked if I played any instruments, and on hearing of my love for the saxophone, they told me that if I am to go to their house next, they’d be more than happy to find a spare saxophone and allow me to practice with the orchestra – maybe even play during Carnavale! It really is amazing the opportunities that arise when you put yourself out there, accept every invitation, and talk to as many Rotarians as possible!

To draw this to a close... a bit of wisdom from my little Colombian mama: It doesn’t matter what you can say or what you can’t say, you can always work your way around words and around languages. What matters is that you put yourself out there. You don’t have to be embarrassed of looking silly or sounded childish, because you’ll either never meet these people again, and it won’t make a difference, or the next time you see them they’ll be amazed at the progress you’ve made... what’s embarrassing is to have not progressed at all. We always have to progress, not just in our target-language, but in our lives, our souls, our families, our friends – everything moves forward and you have to either move forward with it, or not go anywhere... and that’s kind of boring!

March 7 Journal and Pictures
 It was a cold January morning. I could tell despite the central heating being on full blast as normal in my new host family. So I reluctantly turned out of bed and began dressing myself… not forgetting the rainbow-striped thick cotton stockings under my thickest pair of jeans, or the second pair of socks under my fur-lined boots, or a tank-top, tee-shirt, sweatshirt, and zip-up hoodie under my large wool winter jacket I bought in the Netherlands.
(nota bene: the Belgians don’t really wear all of this, it’s just me and my fellow exchangers from warmer regions J)

I had been sulking about it for over a month: No snow. Plenty of rain, definitely cold, but just a few degrees shy for snow. To make it worse, all the “oldies” kept talking about how last year there was tons and tons of snow, for 2 whole months! This January morning, I didn’t expect any more. After all, that hoodie does say: "BELGIUM: Where rain is typical."

I stepped out of the house, turned to lock the door, pulling my scarf up higher over my mouth but to no avail – it just slipped right back down. I fumbled around trying to get my mp3 player going with my oversized gloves on and I noticed little specks of water on it. “Chouette, il pleut encore…” (Great, he’s raining again). But as I walked down to the street, towards my bus stop, I kept getting hit in the eye by something, even though I was keeping my face down – was this rain falling up?? I squinted my eyes like a confused child and looked around me. Everywhere I turned there were little flakes bobbing around in the air, some falling down, some falling up, some falling left or right or sideways or backways. My eyes widened with slow comprehension; it was snowing!

All I wanted to do was tell someone. It was the day I started school late so my entire host family had already gone either to school or work, I couldn’t wait to get to school to tell someone, but who to call?? Even as I asked myself, I knew the answer. I punched in my mom’s cell phone number from memory and expected what I got: the voicemail (seeing as it was 4am there and she usually turns her phone off at night) but I left the most over-excited message that has ever existed.

At school, while all the Belgians were huddled around each other, hating the weather, we exchange students were running around scooping up pitiful snowballs and throwing them around, just like the elementary school kids across the street.

The snow didn’t last, but the memories I have will stay with me forever. Since then it’s only snowed one other time, but I made the best of both days.

It’s moments like these that make the exchange so wonderful. You can’t expect everything to be 100% amazing all of the time, it’s just certain moments that photographs will never be able to explain to your family and friends back home. And there has been so much that has happened, I don’t know how to put it into words, not that words would do any of it justice. Christmas was great, I only cried once! And we re-made Thanksgiving dinner for a special family party right after New Years because my host mom wanted everyone else to get to try my dishes as well. My oldie sadly went back to New Zealand and my newie got in from Brazil just in time to run off to Bruxelles for New Years’ Eve with us! As it very sadly happened: I was sick for the entire week of Carnival. What’s worse was my entire host family and all my friends still went out to their parties every day and every night, obviously, so I was stuck in the house by myself looking out at the only sunny days we had had since August. But it’s okay because even though “carnival” is over, there will be 2 or 3 more weekends of parties and parades. At the end of March I will be going to Venice for 2 days with my old host mom and the other inbounds from our club – and I know that is going to be top notch! Especially as far as the weather is concerned!

To draw this to an end (and explain a funny picture I’ll be including):

Just the other day all the inbounds went to Anvers/Antwerpen with Rotary, and that, my friends, is one beautiful city! That night, upon returning, my host family all gathered to go to the home of one of my host mom’s brothers, to “inaugurate” the bar he had built in the basement, but apparently as of late he and his whole family has kept getting sick, so to make fun of him, everyone – all the uncles, aunts, cousins, brothers, sisters, grandma, etc. – put on surgeon masks for the arrival, plus one uncle was dressed up in an exterminator costume, and my host dad was in a priest’s outfit, “purifying” the house with his toilet-bowl scrubber and holy tap-water. I’m not sure where they got this idea but it was one of the funniest things I’ve ever been a part of.

Until the next time, bisous!!