It is hard to construct words which come close to describing what the last 13 days have brought me. It has been almost two weeks since the day I left the United States, and since that day my life has been filled with new people, new places, and most definitely a new language. So let’s start from the beginning, August 13 , 2010.
The morning of my departure was much different than I had imagined. From the moment I received the news I would be leaving on August 13th, I had been picturing what that day would be like. Would I be an emotional wreck? Would I be too excited to be sad? I had not a clue. That morning five of my closet friends were at my house at 9am, and with my family and I, we all piled in the car for the Tampa airport. My check in went smoothly, with both my bags at 50 pounds (after hours of trying and re-trying). My final moments in the U.S were spent eating an early lunch at TGI Fridays with my mom, dad, brother, and five friends. After, it was the moment of truth. I suppose it is different for everyone, each student past and future will have their own story about that goodbye. Mine is simple, a hug for everyone and two for my parents and through security I went. Easy right? Until I turned around one last time and my mom had begun the tears. It was heartbreaking, and in that moment I realized what I was really doing.. that I was leaving for a year overseas. That tram ride / security line held important moments for me. I realized that as hard as that really was, once I had realized the length of my departure.. I figured I had two options. My first option was to be upset and sad, and the other was to be excited for the incredible adventures that lie in my near future. I therefore opted for the second.
My flight from Tampa to Washington DC was quick and smooth. In fact, I met a wonderful lady whom was very interested in the fact I was an exchange student. We spent a solid hour talking about her experiences in Europe and the three years that she lived in Germany. This of course only furthered my excitement and reinforced this new outlook I had taken on.
In DC I found my exchange family. As I rounded the corner to my gate for the international flight, I was greeted with a running hug from Mikayla, an exchange student to Belgium from Colorado I had met on Facebook. With her sat probably 15 other outbounds from the United States to Belgium, all of which I enjoyed spending time with greatly. And then there was the international flight to Brussels. In comparison with other students traveling the world, the flight was not long. However, when you are 6’4’’, I promise you seven and a half hours is long. We left Washington DC in the evening and the flight was therefore an overnight trip. Unfortunately, despite the two sleeping pills I took, I only slept for a grand total of 45 minutes. I watched Shrek 3.. three times.
We landed in Brussels on the morning of the 14th.The whole group of exchange students went through customs together, which was simple, and then proceeded to get our luggage. It was then time for the second big moment.. meeting the host family! As we rounded the corner, I saw three smiling faces right up front. My host mom, sister, and brother. Unfortunately, smiling was probably the only cultural similarity we shared in that moment. It was then that I realized understanding French was going to take time and practice. They speak fast, really fast. It was also then that I learned you give three kisses when meeting someone for the first time. You can imagine it was rather awkward.
After, we headed to the car and drove an hour from Brussels to my new city of Liege. We stopped at the bakery for bread and pastries for breakfast and headed to my new home. After eating my first breakfast in Belgium, which was amazing, I unpacked my things and got settled into my new room. The whole time I had one thing on my mind. It was not my family or my friends. It was not happiness or sadness.. it was sleep. I was so tired.
The first day I slept the afternoon away, recuperating from the jetlag and my lack of sleep on the flight. My host sister, Margaux, was leaving for California the next day for her exchange year. Therefore, my host mom and Margaux were busy trying to pack her bags and say goodbye to everyone. So while they were busy with those stressful last minute details, my host brother who is also named Jordan, took me out. He is incredibly nice, and is 20 with a car which is convenient. We met his best friend for dinner in Liege at a Turkish restaurant, which was a new experience for sure. After dinner we went back to his friends flat which overlooks the Meuse river in the heart of Liege. My first night just happened to be a day on which a festival took place. So after meeting a few new people who came to the flat, we went out into the streets of Liege for this incredible party. There was all kinds of live music and hundreds of people. Despite my host mom’s efforts, I still do not understand what it was for. The next day, there was a parade (a continuation of this festival) that we went to. Unfortunately, the weather in Belgium is not always the greatest, and it was raining and freezing. Given the circumstances, it was still rather interesting.
The next 10 days has brought so much that it would take a novel to give a detailed account, so I will give the short version, or try.
I arrived in Belgium on a Saturday morning and left Belgium on Tuesday morning. Other than the festival activities, the time spent in Liege was mostly focused on logistical details. We (my host mom and I) went to the administration building in Liege to file for my extended visa, which will be good for one year. We also went to the bank and opened an account in my name so I will have a Belgian debit card. Before I knew it, it was time to pack.. again!
On Tuesday morning my host mom and I left Liege for a nine hour drive to her home in Provence, France! The drive was long and the landscape wasn’t too exciting until we were closer to southern France. However, the drive was well worth it. Her house in Provence is absolutely perfect, complete with a swimming pool and everything. It is located in the small village of Noves which is only about 20 minutes from Avignon.
The first morning in Provence was Wednesday morning, market day! The market in Saint-Remy, Provence was truly amazing. It is huge with hundreds of people, both locals and tourists seeking souvenirs, handmade goods, and the most delicious cheeses and meats I think I’ve ever had.
The first three days we spent in Provence were easy going. We spent time by the pool, soaking up the sun that is rarely found in Belgium. We also spent time with my host mom’s friends, who live on the same street as us in Belgium and they just happened to be renting a place in Provence in the same village. We had a traditional French dinner of cheese and bread and salad at their beautiful home in Noves the first night, and the next night we had a barbeque at our home.
After a few fun filled days in Provence, my host mom and I piled everything in the car once again, and headed off to Switzerland! In Belgium, she is the owner of a chimney sweeping company. Each year, the federation of chimney sweepers has a professional congress somewhere in the world. It is a different place each year. This year, it was in the city of Montreaux, Switzerland.
After 7 hours of driving, we arrived in this incredible city, which overlooks a massive lake. The hotel we stayed at sat right at the base of the lake. I was fortunate enough to have my own room, and balcony. From this balcony I could see the lake, and the Alps that lie on the other side.
On the first night in Switzerland, we had a dinner in the hotel which was for all the professionals attending the chimney sweeping congress. During the dinner, we were treated to a showing of traditional Swiss singers. They were dressed in traditional outfits and sang beautiful hymns. With this singing, two men played very long instruments, made of wood, that were painted with the Swiss flag. A fellow next to me explained the significance these sounds. There is a time of year in Switzerland when the cows head up into the Alps because the grass becomes depleted on ground level. When it is time for the cows to return from the mountains, these songs and instruments are played and when the cows hear these sounds, they return. Incredible right?
The next day in Switzerland was perhaps the most amazing day I have had yet in Europe. We began with a trip to the Olympic Museum. It is at this location that the IOC, International Olympic Committee, meets and collaborates to decide the logistics of the Olympics and in which cities they will be held. As a part of the tour, I was given a headset that gives an audio guide of the museum and the different exhibits that exist throughout. And the best part.. I was able to get one in English! In the museum they have the torches for almost every Olympics, including both the first ever torch used in 1936 and the latest torches from Beijing and Vancouver. They also had many ancient Greek artifacts that gave important clues to historians regarding the details of the ancient Olympics as well as the suits and actual vehicles (i.e –bikes, skis, bobsleds) used in Olympic competitions.
After that highly interesting tour of the museum, we had lunch on the lake, and I really do mean on. The group from the chimney sweeping congress had a first class lunch aboard a ship / yacht that took us along the enormous lake. In fact, the boat made a few stops and one stop we made was actually France. Although most of the lake front land belongs to Switzerland, part of it is actually France. The views of the city of Montreux and of the alps from the ship on the lake were nothing less than breathtaking.
After lunch, the ship dropped us off at the port adjacent to the Chateau de Chillon. This was the next stop on the itinerary for the day. The group again was given audio guides and we took a tour of this incredible castle that lie right on the lake in front of the Alps. The tour ended with a climb to the top of the highest tower in the Chateau from which I was able to see perhaps the most beautiful view of my life.
That same night, the group had a gala in the grand banquet hall of the Montreux Casino. For this night, everyone dresses their very best and enjoys a dinner. This annual event comes with some very interesting traditions. This chimney sweepers federation has members from 27 countries. I was able to meet people from all over the world. There was even two Americans in attendance, with whom I was able to speak English with for a short but refreshing while. For the dinner gala, each country brings a gift for the president. So, after dinner, a representative from each country present at the congress offered a gift from their countries to the president of the chimney sweeping federation. Each gift was something unique from every country. As interesting as this sounds, and was, it became a bit old after 15 countries. Especially when each speech to the president was repeated in English, German, and French. Needless to say it took awhile.
The next day, we headed back to Provence, but not before seeing the presidential suite of the hotel. My host mom is very good friends with the president of the chimney sweeping federation. Because he was the president, the hotel graciously gave him and his wife the presidential suite. The views from the balcony of the living room were literally amazing. The pictures I took do not even begin to do the landscape justice.
After that exciting opportunity, we were piled back into the car for another seven hours of driving bliss. The next three days of this story are the three most recent for me now. Back in Provence, the last few days have held incredible sightseeing trips. On Monday, we traveled to Avignon. The city of Avignon is the perfect European city. It holds within its walls, the classic narrow cobblestone streets lined with shops and cafes. With this, it has extremely interesting historical value. The Palace of the Pope, or what was once the Palace of a Pope exists there today, and of course, the famous Pont d’Avignon, the half completed bridge.
The following day held a trip to Les Beau de Provence. Surrounded by the Alpilles mountains, this town is high up in the rocks and was once home to an incredible Chateau. We took a tour of this Chateau, and again had the all helpful and truly educational audio guides. The tour took us from the point of the rocks from which the inhabitants of the ancient chateau could have seen enemy attacks to the dungeons and prisons located below ground level. After this, we traveled to another small village in the vicinity where, for dinner, we ate perhaps the best pizza ever.
As I write this journal, I am sitting on France’s TGV heading to Brussels from Avignon. I have been on this train for four hours now, and it has taken me just about all four to recall the events of these past two weeks. I am sure I have missed experiences, but I have been more focused on living them than recording them.
The next few days will consist of Rotary activities. A Rotary day in Brussels, a Rotary dinner, and the inbound orientation weekend. Soon school will start and life will become more routine, yet I am still excited. I am working on French, both speaking and comprehension and I know that although school will be difficult, it will help me tremendously. For now, I am absorbing, trying everything, and enjoying this crazy ride that is exchange.
As I sit here, attempting to find the words to begin to describe the last three months of my life, I am utterly speechless. I can remember searching through the pages of this website, eagerly awaiting new journals from students in the countries that I could have possibly been sent to. As each new month turned, I clearly recall wondering why students had not posted new material yet, something I fully understand now. For those of you reading this who are about to embark on an exchange of your own: get ready, because the time between now and your departure date will absolutely fly by. You will hear it a million times, and probably not understand it until you are abroad, but it is true: being an exchange student means living in a fast paced world. As it is impossible to recall and comment on every detail of the last three months, I will attempt to convey my most memorable moments and most difficult challenges.
At the beginning of September, I began school at the College Saint-Joseph de Chênée. As you can imagine, the first day of school held many anxieties and apprehensions. The first two weeks of my exchange held incredible journeys and discoveries. I was high above could 9, and when school began, my realistic life here in Belgium began to solidify. The first day, I must say, was rather easy. Although I now take the bus daily to school, my host mom drove me so I would not have to deal with tackling the bus and school in the same day. On that first day, I had nothing but a notebook and a pen. I knew no one, not even the other exchange students, and did not even have a schedule. Among the crowds of students, I made my way to the office in search of the woman who would be in charge of the exchange students for the year. She explained to me, in French, that the exchange students would not have schedules until the following week, and that the first day was a simple meeting with all the students in the 6th form. I however, did not understand this fully until the day was over. It would take two weeks for me to have a set schedule, and during those two weeks I had a rough schedule where I simply observed classes. I am now enrolled in: French (6th form), French (3rd form), Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geography, Math (5th form), Religion, and Gym.
Differences between American and Belgian school:
- Transportation: In the United States, our school transportation is overseen by school districts. Each district is responsible for the running of school buses, which provide transportation for students solely for the reason of getting to and from school. Here in Belgium, there are no school buses. Rather, students just take the public bus system. While in the United States the public bus system is not very popular in average sized cities, here it is very common not to own a car and depend on public transportation. The driving age in Belgium is also 18, and therefore, all students attending ‘’high school’’ use the public bus, or are driven by parents.
- Grade level: In the United States, we of course have three different schools and mark our grade levels by consecutive years from 1st-12th. Here in Belgium, they have two sets of forms 1-6 primary and 1-6 secondary. The “6eme” is equivalent to the senior year in the U.S, and it is the level that I am currently placed in. However, I do have classes with other grade levels.
- Grading Scale: Rather than letter grades, students receive Bulletins, our equivalent to report cards, which rank them on a scale of 0-20, 20 being the highest achievable.
- Academic Rigor: In my opinion, I find student drive and determination here far more rigorous than in the United States. Perhaps this opinion is only a result of my attending Le College Saint-Joseph, but I have found that the students take school much more seriously than in the States. I have come to the conclusion as well, that it is likely a result of higher work ethic. The American school system often yields hardworking students because they understand the American University system. Those students who take honors, AP, DE, and IB courses are likely those who want to excel in high school in an effort to gain acceptance into a university. Here, students must pass exams to gain acceptance into the university of their choice. They are not evaluated by the grades they received in high school, yet, I see more drive in the students here despite this.
- Freedom / Strictness: At my school here in Belgium, you are allowed to leave the campus to eat lunch for an hour. In the United States, I feel it is safe to say that in most cases, high schools often do not let students leave for lunch. So Belgian school seems laid back right? Wrong. School here is taken very seriously, including timeliness and free time. For example, if you are late to a class, you must first knock on the door and ask the professor for permission to enter the classroom. As I did not know this, the first time I was late I followed my own cultural standards, and entered the classroom quietly attempting not to disturb the teacher. The class was stopped and I was shown the correct way to enter a class when late. Students also stand at the beginning of a class, and wait until the teacher gives permission to sit down. There are truly a million small examples of this, and I have come to the conclusion that there exists a high level of respect for both teachers and the educational environment.
While it is different for each exchange student, school has proved to be one of the most challenging components of my life here. I am expected to attempt all the course work. I am close to finishing a book in French and will be given an exam on its content at Christmas. I will also be given an exam in my math class, a high level trig course, including material I have not yet seen. While school can be frustrating and easily overwhelming it is not all negative. I have met great people and made good friends with many Belgian students, of whom, I have been to the city with many times and enjoy spending time with. I can only hope that with more work my French will improve.
If school is the most difficult part of exchange, progression in the language is a close second. Upon my arrival I was quite literally unprepared mentally for living in a world of no comprehension. While I had taken a few years of French in high school, reality would soon show me I knew very little. Many people will tell you that three months is the golden time frame. “Oh don’t worry Jordan, after three months you’ll understand everything.” My advice to all future exchange students is to embark on your journeys without expectations. Progress in your host language will not just come to you after a specific amount of time. While living in the world of your host language will help tremendously, language progression will not come without much effort and studying. Today, I will be honest and admit that I am often frustrated and overwhelmed. However, when I find myself feeling this way, I tell myself to think back to that first day, where I understood only a word here and there. As of now, three months into my exchange, I can speak a fair amount. In my host family, we speak only French. I understand close to everything my host mom says to me and usually, if I don’t understand, it only takes repetition to understand. While this is encouraging, I feel like it is also because she knows me well, and knows the vocabulary and level of French that I am able to understand. After three months, I can read the newspaper and understand enough text for comprehension of the topic, but not necessarily details. I can also write fairly well, and can send text messages to Belgian friends and family only in French. My problem however, is general comprehension. As French is a very fast spoken language, it is difficult to understand teachers at school, TV, movies, etc. This of course is ideally the skill I would like to achieve, as it will make living here much easier. For now I am simply going to continue studying and attempting to make progress.
While I have had so many incredible experiences in three months, I will try to limit it to the most memorable.
U2 – While this is not unique to my host country or the fact I am living in Europe, it truly was an amazing night. Before my departure from the States, I met a Rotarian by the name of Rick Hughes. His family had once hosted an exchange student from Belgium for an entire year. Mr. Hughes still considers him a brother to this day, and both have visited each other on their respective sides of the world multiple times. In a conversation about his experience with exchange, it came to his mind that his ‘’brother’’ had a son close to my age, and thought it would be a good contact to have. I spoke with Carl Hermans many times before coming to Belgium, and we had both wanted to find a time to meet. A few weeks after arriving he posted something on Facebook about having received tickets to the U2 360 concert in Brussels. I commented on his post, saying something about how I was jealous. It happened to turn out that his family had an extra ticket, and they invited me to not only go to the show with them, but also to come back and stay at their home that night. The next day I was shown around their beautiful city of Louvain (in French), or Leuven ( in Dutch). They live in the Flemish part of Belgium, and staying in their home and being shown their city was an opportunity to see not only another part of Belgium, but also another side and perspective of life here. Not to mention, the show was absolutely incredible. And all of this resulted from a simple handshake with a Rotarian from Florida. The power of networking can yield many incredible opportunities, and I have learned that the more people you introduce yourself to, the broader the window of opportunity becomes.
Amsterdam – The week of my 18th birthday was when I first had a bit of homesickness. The honeymoon period was just beginning to fade and I found myself becoming a bit more isolated in thinking about friends and life back home. My birthday fell on a Monday, which conveniently was also a school holiday. As exciting as this was, my host mom had told me that for the weekend, including Monday, we were going south to a family event. From what I had understood, it seemed to be something of a family reunion. While I was not thrilled by the idea of spending my 18th birthday at a family reunion full of strangers, I tried to understand that my host mom and brother were obligated to go and that I could celebrate my birthday another day. On the morning that we left, the day before my birthday, we piled in the car quite early and headed off. After about a half hour of driving, we crossed the Holland-Belgium border. This confused me, because I was told we were visiting family in the south of Belgium. When I asked why we were in the Netherlands she explained to me that the highway crossed over into the country and then back into the part of southern Belgium that we were going to. Another half hour of driving passed and I found nothing out of the ordinary with the situation. However, then my host mom handed me a birthday card, which I found a bit odd knowing she knew my birthday was not until the following day. When I opened the card I found it signed by everyone, a really nice gesture that I appreciated. She then handed me 9 pieces of paper, and told me to put them in order. When I figured it out, they spelt A-M-S-T-E-R-D-A-M! We spent the next two days discovering this amazing city, including taking a city canal tour by boat, walking the streets, and visiting the Anne Frank House.
London – Rotary in Belgium organizes trips throughout the year for exchange students, rather than organizing one large Euro trip at the conclusion of the year. For four days in the beginning of November, I traveled with Rotary and 70 amazing exchange students to England. The trip was taken all by bus. We left from Belgium and drove to northern France where we would take a ferry (with the bus) across the English Channel. We arrived in Dover, and drove to Canterbury where we visited the famous Canterbury Cathedral. We then headed to London. For the next three days we experienced all the sights and sounds of England, including: Tower of London, Tower Bridge, The British Museum, Piccadilly Circus, Windsor Castle, Madame Tussauds, Big Ben, Parliament, and perhaps the most incredible, riding the London Eye.
Day Trips - One of the coolest and most unique things about Belgium is their incredibly efficient train system. For students, traveling the country is not only very easy but also relatively cheap. Although I do find myself missing the freedom of my car, in reality public transportation in Belgium makes it possible for me to move freely and discover this beautiful country. Myself, along with a few exchange students, have taken advantage of this. I have been to Brussels twice, to Antwerp twice, and to Huy and Namur in an effort to discover new places. The ability to take a day and just go, to discover new places and adventures, is something that I find great pleasure in and enjoy doing here.
While I could truly go on and on about the experiences I have had, I feel it is perhaps more important to reflect on myself as a person in relation to this experience.
As an exchange student, I have found it very important to have Belgian friends. It is good both for assimilation and for language progression. However, it is only natural that many of your friends will be your fellow exchange students. Today, a few of my greatest friends are from Russia, India, Peru, Mexico, and Columbia. I constantly find myself in compelling intellectual conversations about the cultural differences that exist between our countries and personalities. I have always had a picture in my mind of whom I would ideally like to be. Someone who is well traveled and well educated, someone who understands more of the world than the average individual. My friendships with people from around the world bring me closer and closer to that persona with every passing day. I have grown in my ability to interpret the world around me and that alone is enough to declare my exchange a success. I give an effort to use every day as an opportunity to learn and grow in some way. Whether that means learning something academic such as French, or learning something personal such as strengths and weaknesses, each day brings a step forward.
This experience has also proved to be an excellent opportunity to gain insight into the field of study I am headed for. Upon my return to the United States, I would like to study international business. Keeping this in mind each day, I search for differences and similarities in marketing, and how businesses atmospheres change with country and with people. It has also been fascinating to discover just how global some companies are. What makes companies like Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Subway both popular and successful in European markets? Posing these questions and searching for answers will hopefully give me great advantages in my future professional career.
In considering all things, I cannot yet come to a solid conclusion as to what I feel about the last three months of my life. While there have been many challenges and hardships, there have been just as many incredible moments. I sometimes find myself doing something simple, such as waiting for a bus in the freezing cold, and this amazing moment of revelation will overcome me. Realizing that I am living in Europe, a place where many people dream of even visiting. Perhaps the one solid conclusion that I can make, perhaps the only one that can justify the thoughts that come to my mind, is that to understand the life of an exchange student, you must be one. This journey is seen through the eyes of the beholder. While it is easy to merely explain what I have done and attempt to explain my thoughts, it really does the overall experience little justice. What I can tell you in confidence is that I am growing in immense ways, both socially and intellectually. For now, I will continue to do just that, and enjoy this rare and amazing opportunity that is life on exchange.
A bientôt !
As I sit here at this European cafe on this beautiful Friday morning, I find myself baffled by just how much exchange as already changed my life. I have just passed the 6 month mark, meaning I have now been living abroad for half a year. So much as happened since my last journal, so many opportunities have been had and so many memories been made.
My last journal told of my journey up until November, so I will begin there. After my incredible voyage to London, life went back to norm. I was fortunate enough to join a gym, Vital Club, and go after school as often as I can. It has become an activity I really enjoy, and as helped fight those pounds that can easily accumulate from all the amazing temptations that Belgian cuisine brings. Thanksgiving, although I was not too worried, did prove to be a bit difficult. On that particular day, which of course has no meaning here, my host family had a commitment and I therefore was left alone with a bowl of pasta. While this image does seem a bit depressing, it is justified by the mind set of knowing that this experience is once in a lifetime, and that there will be many Thanksgivings with family to come.
Here in Belgium, Christmas is not celebrated as widely and as seriously as it is in the United States. The magic of the holidays exists for children on December 6th, Saint Nicholas. This figure is different from Papa Noel, or Santa Clause as we call him. Saint Nicholas comes on December 6th to give children gifts and, rather than hanging stockings on the mantel, the children place shoes before the fireplace. Saint Nicholas then places clementines in the shoes. While the story of this holiday is more for children there also exists a unique tradition for high school students as well. On December 6th, the "Rhetos" (our equivalent to seniors) from the previous year return to the school, all wearing thin white coats (similar to those for painting). They demand money from all the students at their previous school, and if the students do not have coins to put in their cups eggs and flour are thrown at them. I managed to escape this humiliation, as I came to school prepared with plenty of coins. The students collect money the entire day and then proceed to the city to drink it all away.
As December came to an end the first round of exams at school came up. I choose take my math, and two French exams. As mentioned before, I have a French class with both the 6th class (seniors) and the third class (equivalent to our 8th grade). I am happy to say that I succeeded in all of them receiving positive remarks from all three professors.
On December 23rd, my host mom, her boyfriend, her boyfriend's daughter and I piled ourselves and a whole lot of luggage into the car and headed to Provence, France. This was my second trip to the home of my first host family in Noves, Provence, France. Unfortunately, this time the drive was through heavy snow, and therefore lasted 12 hours. The drive however was well worth it, upon arrival into southern France we had managed to escape the extremely cold and snowy weather of Belgium and has even found the sun! The next day my host brother and the second daughter of my host mom's boyfriend joined us after taking the train.
I spent an amazing Christmas with this group of people who truly had become family. Here, Christmas is celebrated on the evening of December 24th, rather than on the morning of the 25th. We enjoyed a nice formal dinner at a magnificently set table prepared by my host mom. Throughout dinner, we opened gifts and as it came to each person, they had to actually guess the gift before being able to open it. You can imagine it was a bit difficult for me, but was a fun challenge none the less.
For quite sometime before Christmas arrived, I had thought of what to get my host family. While I could have easily went into the city and found them little things, I wanted to give them something special, perhaps something that would be memorable. With my mom back in Florida, we came up with gift ideas and she put together stockings for each family member. She then sent me a rather large Christmas box that was full of both goodies for me and the stockings for my host family. I managed to bring the box of stockings in the car with us to Provence without them finding out what exactly was in it, so on the night of the 24th I had the pleasure of sharing one of my favorite Christmas traditions - stockings. They had no idea why I was handing them big socks full of little gifts, as they had never even heard of the tradition. I thoroughly enjoyed sharing the story with them, and it really made Christmas 2010 an unforgettable experience.
During our winter stay in Provence we returned to one of my favorite places in the world, Les Baux de Provence, a village I had discovered on our summer trip. We also visited the city of Aix-en-Provence, a very charming city very typical of the Provencale style.
On December 29th I returned to my home in Liege, Belgium with the TGV (much quicker than a 12 hour car ride), and it was soon time to celebrate the New Year. In my opinion, while Christmas in much less important in Europe, New Years is much more important. Often times people in the United States opt to just stay in for the night, and just "watch the ball drop". Here everyone either goes out to a function, or perhaps hosts one at their home. I decided to attend a New Years party with friends from exchange and from school. The party was an absolute blast, and it will be a night that I will not soon forget.
Soon after, the Rotary organized a day trip for all the exchange students to visit the beautiful city of Bruges. Bruges is a city located in Flanders, or the northern section of Belgium. It is often referred to as "the Venice of the north", because of its many charming canals and waterways.
On January 7th, I changed host families. While I was sad to leave my first host mom, I could not of been happier to have been placed in my current family. While before it was just my host mom and I, I now have a host dad and a host brother in his twenties who comes and goes throughout the week. In changing families I also made a drastic change in scenery. My first host family lived more in the city, but I have since moved to a small suburban town called Esneux. It is perhaps the most beautiful town I have ever seen. There is a river that runs though the middle, and it is some how centered in between three very large hills, which us Floridians would likely classify as mountains. On the top of the "mountain" or large hill over looking the center of the town, there is an incredible Chateau which at night is breath taking. The history is perhaps even more fascinating. Many years ago, when it belonged to the commune of Esneux, it was badly burned in a fire started by teenagers. The commune did not have the money to repair it, and therefore decided to put it on the international market for ONE EURO. The catch, of course, was that the new owner had to completely restore it to it's former glory, and someone did just that. What is baffling however, is to think that that magnificent structure is a private residence. In telling me this story, my host dad also mentioned that it has been said it was the inspiration for the original castle at Disney world.
My new host dad also works at my school, which is extremely convenient as I now ride with him to school and therefore avoid the joy of taking a bus early in the morning. The only possible downfall is its lack of proximity to the city. It is roughly 50 min by bus to get into the city and to the main train station, but the beautiful landscape is well worth it.
At the end of January I was able to attend another another concert here in Belgium. I have always been a huge Blink 182 fan, and have always appreciated Tom Delonge's music. So when I heard that Angels and Airwaves (Tom Delonge's second band) was coming to Brussels I was really excited. My third host dad ended up buying me tickets for Christmas and I along with two friends had a blast watching the show.
As everyone knows, the Super bowl was only a few weeks ago. While I didn't care much for either team, it felt weird knowing I was not going to be able to see it this year. A Belgian friend from school, who has a satellite service invited me to her house to watch the game. I truly had a great time that night, despite the game starting at 12am and ending at 4:30am, not to mention getting up for school the next day. Occasionally I will have moments of realization, that I am infarct not in the United States and that I am living abroad thousands of miles away from home. As Christina Aguilera sang our nation's national anthem, I had one of these moments. Sitting with Belgian friends as the only American I suddenly realized just how big exchange is, and how far away from home and the norm I am. It was in no doubt a negative feeling, but rather one of pride and accomplishment.
My level of French as improved tremendously, and I understand almost everything as far as everyday conversations are concerned. I speak only French with my host family and Belgian friends. In an effort to bring my French to an even higher level, I have started a class in the city for non-French speakers. After taking a test to evaluate my level, I was placed in the most difficult class. I can already recognize the difference 6 additional hours of instruction a week is having, and will be excited to see its impact after another 5 months.
For now, I shall continue enjoying my Belgian life.