17 days, 4 hours, 48 minutes, 10 seconds. Wow.
That’s how long I have been here in Belgium. It feels simultaneously like it has been a lifetime and a minute. Strange how 8 hours on an airplane can feel so much like eternity, when 8 hours in my host country feels like an instant.
I “woke up” on August 13th, 2010 (and by woke up, I mean I got up, as I hadn’t actually been able to sleep at all) at around 5:30 AM, feeling calm and peaceful as I gathered the last of my belongings and stuffed them into my already bulging suitcases. I suppose that the feeling hadn’t hit me yet, but then again, it still hasn’t hit, so maybe that’s normal. I got my things together, ate a small breakfast of cereal, and hit the road towards the Orlando airport with just my dad as a companion. We stopped for gas at the local favorite gas station, and as I sat in the car waiting for my dad to finish pumping, all I could think about was that I wouldn’t see this pretty city and this well known gas station or any of my friends here for a WHOLE year. This was a tad saddening, but at the same time a smile spread across my face because I began to think about the amazing adventures I was about to have.
We finally arrived at the airport, and when I tried to get my tickets, my passport wouldn’t read in the scanner. Oh darn. Eventually, however, it was worked out, and I received my two boarding passes for my flights to beautiful Belgium. We walked to the security area, and from there I had to go it alone. I didn’t cry, surprisingly, and neither did my dad, but I did give him a big long hug before trooping off to be thoroughly searched. In the security line I realized that I had forgotten the 3 oz. rule for bottles and liquids, and had to forfeit my hair products…. Needless to say, that was not my favorite part of the morning, but I quickly got over it and made my way to my gate, where I sat for another couple of hours with Abby (Belgium outbound). My first flight was relatively uneventful, and in the Washington Dulles airport Abby and I had about 4 hours to meet and hang out with most of the other Belgium outbounds from the USA. The long flight was peaceful and calm, but I was so full of nervous energy for the entire flight that I slept for only about 20 minutes.
For some reason I thought it was a GREAT idea to exchange my euros in the airport, and by doing so I lost nearly $100 dollars of value as a result of the TERRIBLE exchange rate in the airport. I guess we always have to learn, huh?
When I walked out of the secured area in the Brussels airport, there was a HUGE crowd of people waiting for the exchange students; it was so big that there were metal restraining fences to keep them away from the door as we came out! However, I couldn’t see my family anywhere. I was starting to worry, and I felt very lost and confused among this sea of people all hugging the people I had met 8 hours previously, looking for my own family to greet. All of a sudden a blonde girl stopped me and asked, “Are you Lily?” Of course, my answer was “Yes,” and she then informed me she was my host cousin, and that my host mom had been feeling sick that morning and had gone to get blood drawn, and that she, my host dad, and my host brother would be arriving within about 10 minutes. I greeted my Rotary counselor, who also happens to be my host uncle (the dad of the host cousin who had greeted me), and we chatted for a few minutes in a strange mixture of French and English, which was a direct result of extreme fatigue. I also met a few oldies, and finally my family arrived, and there was a very warm atmosphere all around.
We arrived home, and I was given the tour of my quaint and charming home, and then I was told that I had about 15 minutes until it was time to leave for my host grandparents’ 50th anniversary party. Let me tell you, the Belgians know how to eat. The food at this party was incredible. It was a lovely afternoon, despite the fact that I felt so terribly exhausted that I completely abandoned all efforts of speaking in French with my family and spoke in English with my host brother and cousin, until I drank some Coke, which gave me just enough of a caffeine burst as to allow me to continue speaking in French with my new family.
After the party we arrived home at around 9 PM, and shortly afterwards I passed out in my very comfortable new bed, feeling very happy and content with this new place.
Since then I have had some interesting adventures, including attending the City Parade in Brussels to listen to techno music for hours (WHICH WAS AWESOME), and for now I spend the majority of my mornings at home, watching movies in French, as my host mom works during the day and I am, for all intents and purposes, alone in the house. I am so terrifically excited to start school, as I NEED to make new friends and figure out how to get around here, and I feel that the French practice I will get at school will be so incredibly useful to me. I went last week to sign up for my courses, and I’ve got some interesting ones, including Islamic religion, but I have a rather heavy course-load, which is a tad bit worrisome…
I joined a choir that is participating in a musical theatre show this week and next week, and though its incredibly difficult to memorize and learn the songs in French, let alone understand the stage directions that I am being given, it is a truly awesome experience that is helping me to learn more French and culture quickly.
My host family is wonderful They are such kind people and they do all they can to help me feel welcome. Its probably helpful that my host mom really reminds me of my real mom. Everyone has been so friendly here so far, and I hope that continues, and I’m doing my best to take one day at a time and make the best of each day. I only felt a little homesick after about a week, but that has since subsided and I am loving it here.
Belgium is an incredibly lovely country. There are cows and farm animals EVERYWHERE (although that can be contributed to the fact that I live in a small country village with about 800 inhabitants), and there are beautiful rolling hills and quaint towns and villages. Just looking out my window is a joy! It is, however, much colder here than in Florida, and I already am wishing for a warmer coat. It also rains quite frequently here, but that doesn’t bother me (yet).
This past weekend was the inbound orientation for my district and I made some great friends and strengthened ties with some old friends, and all around had a great time.
I already feel adapted to this strange but real adventure. French no longer sounds different to me, whether I understand it or not, and I can communicate well with everyone I have come across, for the most part. This whole experience is exhausting, and I sleep like a baby EVERY night, but every wonderful day and evening is worth the bleary-eyed mornings where I have to get coffee from the AWESOME coffee maker in our kitchen.
If you are considering exchange, I don’t say “DO IT,” I say CONSIDER IT! It is not for everyone, and you have to be very strong to leave home and jump into the unknown, but if you feel that you can handle that, it is so worth it.
In 4 days I will have been in Belgium for 3 months. 3 entire months of my life have passed here. What have I been doing for these last 3 months that have caused them to pass so quickly?
My life here is sometimes extraordinary, sometimes a bit boring, and most of the time regular and happy, but the truly extraordinary thing about this life is that it is my real life. No longer is a year in another country, on another continent, in another place that is entirely different, just a dream. I am here, in Belgium, and it couldn’t feel more natural.
Speaking of dreams, though, I already had my “dream”. In fact, I dreamt in French throughout my entire first week, but I don’t consider those to be the real first fluency dreams, because they were only as a result of the “French shock”, and I didn’t understand them completely. However, now I dream rather frequently in French, and I understand everything that happens.
I have had no real problems with my language so far. Having had studied French for more than 3 years before leaving, I already had a firm grasp on the basics of the language upon arrival, and, luckily, languages tend to come easily for me. I would consider myself conversationally fluent; I have few problems in daily conversations, and I am passing all of my classes at school, save French, in which I read (in French, of course), because the coursework of the senior class is at a level much too hard for me. I am also in the process of reading the Harry Potter series in French, which is really a fun task for me, because I love discovering the little differences (who would have thought that Voldemort’s name is “Tom Elvis Jedusor” in French?!?!?!). I’ve finished the first and second, and am in the middle of the third at the moment.
I honestly love my host parents. They are two of the sweetest, most genuine and simple-hearted people I have ever met. Even though they lead stressful lives, they are always willing to chat with me and spend time with me, whether that means having a cup of coffee in the morning before school, watching TV together after dinner, or having a big family dinner every Sunday. They help me so much with my French, and thankfully neither of them speaks more than a few key words in English, so I always have to discover new words to fully express what I need/want to say.
My host brother is a bit more difficult. He is 15 and is a bit of a juvenile delinquent. Thankfully there has never been any tension between us, but that is mostly due to the fact that there has never been any type of relationship between us at all. Even though our rooms are right next to each other, it is as if we live in different places entirely. We do not greet each other, we do not say hello, and we do not speak at all. However, I honestly have no problem with that, because I would rather have no contact with him than unpleasant contact. The only real problem that I have with him is that he plays very loud and unpleasant music all day long, but there is nothing that I or my host parents can do- they have tried everything, and I would rather just deal with it than make a scene about it.
Without a doubt, however, I absolutely love this family, and while I know that my second family is very nice also, I am dreading having to change and leave behind this family of mine, and I am also dreading the 2 months that it will take to get used to the next family, only to have to leave again after another month and a half.
I know that right now it’s recruitment and interview season. For those of you waiting for your responses, my only advice is to trust Rotary. They know what they are doing. If they don’t select you, it’s because they sensed in you something that would make you not ready to handle the year abroad (yet). If it is truly your dream, and you aren’t chosen, you can try again next year, after a year of contemplation. For those of you who are selected, hang on, because it’s a wild ride. Prepare yourself for assignments and work, but prepare yourself for 8 amazing months, and then a year that will change your life and make you grow, whether you have the best time of your life or not.
If Rotary doesn’t give you your “dream” country, accept it with grace. Rotary only exchanges with quality programs, and whether you think you want to go somewhere or not, remember that people live happily in every country on the list, and you can too, if you throw yourself into becoming part of the new culture.
There are few things that I truly miss here, but I suppose I should list them anyway.
1) Hugs. Belgians are affectionate people, but hugs are normally reserved for sad occasions (and drunken occasions). Being a rather hug-oriented person, I find the lack of personal contact truly difficult.
2) Driving. My host parents are very gracious about giving me rides all around, but they are often not available, and living in a small village with only a school bus during the week (and nothing at all on the weekends) leaves me a bit stranded when there is no one to drive me to the train station or a friend’s house.
3) My piano. I really miss the ability to print out a few pages of music and go straightaway to my piano to learn them. In my third family there is a piano, but I don’t arrive there until April.
4) Music classes. I have a truly wonderful choir here, but I really miss having an entire class of kids my own age all together learning music.
5) My family and friends. I am managing quite fine without my family and friends, but on rough days, sometimes it seems like the only thing that can help is a hug or a sleepover.
I recently traveled to both Paris and London with Rotary, and both trips were fantastic. Paris is truly more than I could ever have dreamed of, and I spent an amazing weekend there with amazing people, amazing sights, and amazing experiences. London was also incredible, and I will most definitely keep memories of the two trips with me for the rest of my life.
My journal is getting a bit long; I probably ought to end it here. To the new exchangers- do not deceive yourselves. You will forget to journal, and you will dread it. When I was still at the orientations I thought that it would be absolutely no problem at all, but let me tell you, it becomes very easy to put it off for later.
It has certainly been a while since my last journal, so with this one I’ll attempt to keep you all updated, without boring you to tears.
Firstly, CONGRATULATIONS to the Rotary class of 2011-2012! You guys must be special if they have picked you, and you can do this! When the workload seems staggering, look at it with a smile and say, “This is ALL I have to do to live in another country for a year? Wow, how lucky am I!!” Don’t be late, and don’t get any tattoos before leaving, do be attentive, do STUDY your language, do prepare yourself mentally, and do get ready to have one of the most influential (and hopefully wonderful) years of your life! Rotary is counting on you, and I believe in you all!
So, to begin with my current life here in Belgium. This country has not only fulfilled and exceeded my expectations, but has become my home. It is difficult to describe the sensation of feeling at home in a place so different; I leave my house in a modest village, catch the public bus to school, speak in French for the entire day with friends and adults, and return home to spend the afternoon at home or participating in some other activity. All of this has become so normal to me, and I don’t even notice anymore when I had a long conversation in French without struggles.
As for my language, I am VERY proud to say that today, Wednesday January 12th 2011, I am fluent in French. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I speak as well as a native, and I doubt that I ever will, but that does mean that I speak throughout the day, understanding everything and being able to express any sentiment or idea that I would like to, and having an accent that is subtle enough to fool the Belgians into thinking that I have been here for years; also, they no longer think I have an American accent, but instead a general English-speaker’s accent, impossible to tell whether I come from Britain or from America.
I am also very proud and surprised to say that I have not yet been homesick. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I don’t miss family and friends, but I don’t feel any need to return to my life in Florida, except to give my loved ones a hug, spend a few days seeing them, and to return to Belgium immediately.
I believe that there are several major reasons for not being homesick, among them being that 1)I adored my first host family, 2) I spoke the language well and quickly, and 3) I am Jewish, and therefore do not celebrate the traditional Christian holidays that tend to make people oh-so-homesick.
I very recently changed host families, and am comfortable here in my second home, even though I really do need some time to adapt. They are very nice people, and I will fit in well here, I believe, but it was very difficult and stressful to leave my first host family, with whom I was very happy. It’s not always easy to change, but we can do our best and hold our heads up throughout!
School is going well; for the winter examinations I took 2 exams and passed both of them, and I am receiving good marks on my reports.
I really adore my friends here! I have a couple of close Belgian friends, but most of my best friends here are exchange students coming from all over the world! (Australia, India, all over the United States, etc.) I will admit that sometimes it is difficult to make friends, but overall people are very friendly here.
I spent a lovely Christmas with my host family and my choir, performing a midnight mass on Christmas Eve and spending a fun evening with my host family the next night. Belgians know how to party! For New Year’s Eve I went to Brussels with several friends, exchange students and Belgians, to watch the fireworks and roam the busy streets, which was one of the best experiences!
Recently I spent a day participating in an English immersion program for Belgians, while watching films, performing skits, singing karaoke, and all around having a good time!
Being an exchange student has changed my life, and I would like to thank Rotary for giving me this opportunity!
Je vous remercie pour tous que vous avez fait pour moi! Merci Rotary!
It has been a while since my last journal, and lots of things have happened since then, so I figured I would update you guys! My life here is in full swing, as always, and I think that I have really found my “groove” here just recently (which will make it even harder to leave come July 5th, 2011). I changed families for the second time about a week ago, and what an awesome week with my third and final host family! I feel very comfortable here already, as opposed to my second family, where I was really quite unhappy all the time. Thankfully, though, my third family is just about as ideal as it can get!
I’m having such a great time in Belgium, but it gets harder and harder to think about my return with every day that passes. I haven’t gotten to the point of crying about it yet, but I think its just because I’m in denial. I don’t want to think about it, but unfortunately people ask me ALL the time when I’m supposed to be leaving! It’s terribly sad.
On a happier note, right now is a traveling period for me! A couple of weeks ago I went to Amsterdam, where I spent 3 AMAZING days with my Rotary friends, and a few days ago I got back from a trip to Greece for 11 whole days! My countries visited list just keeps growing! Right now I have USA, Israel, Belgium, France, England, Holland, Greece, Switzerland, Italy, Luxembourg, and Germany on there, and later on this year I’ll be adding on the Czech Republic and potentially even Spain or Sweden! I love the fact that I’m getting to see so much of the world that I didn’t know before. It is really a bizarre thing for me to see how small, and, at the same time, how large Europe really is. To get to Italy (in order to then take the boat to Greece) we passed through 3 separate countries! Suffice it to say that I am not ready to leave this place.
Speaking of leaving this place, however, I only have a couple of months until my plane touches down in Florida. I am ecstatic at the prospect of seeing my family and friends again, but I just wish that they could come here instead, and that I could stay here forever! However, I knew when I signed up for this program that I would eventually have to leave, and that doing so would be incredibly painful. I comfort myself with the fact that when I get home, I get to head off the beautiful and amazing New College of Florida!
I’m very happy with my friends here. Unfortunately I haven’t made very many friends at school, but at least everyone is friendly with me, and I have a few good friends to pass the day with. Outside of school, however, I have plenty of great friends! I joined a choir my second week here, and I made many friends there, especially my friend Rianne, who is one of my best friends here, and who lives in the same village as me. We even sang a duet together for my village’s cabaret! Also, I am quite close with many of the other exchange students. It is true what they say, that only an exchange student can really understand what you’re going through! I love to just hop on the train with a few of my exchanger friends, go to some random Belgian cities, and spend the entire day wandering around and having fun. People in Europe are very open and helpful, and if ever you ask for a recommendation for something to do in a city they are more than willing to help (especially when you speak their language!). I have had some absolutely amazing days doing things that were completely unexpected and suggested by strangers.
I have some great things coming up in the next couple of months as well. In a couple of weeks I’ll be going to Belgium’s best known amusement park, Walibi, with the Belgian Rotex, and I am planning on screaming my head off on all of the roller coasters! Also, I would like to see if I could soon plan a trip to Spain during the month of May or June to visit some distant cousins. In early May I have my final Rotary club presentation (2 months before my departure!), and all of my host families are invited to see it. In June I have a couple of exams at school, and then I have a 7-day trip to Prague! I’m certainly doing my best to fill up each day with as many wonderful experiences as possible, because when will I ever get to do this again?
I promise to any of the new outbounds that are reading this that I will try to write another journal soon, because I realize that I have been slacking. It’s just that life here in Belgium is so fantastic that I forget that I need to keep you all updated as well!
Thank you again to Rotary for this fantastic opportunity, and I can’t wait to see you all in 70 days, 16 hours, 56 minutes, and 30 seconds! (Alright, those last two might be a bit precise. But in that general time frame!)