October 29, 2011
I’m fighting back tears as I squeeze my mom tight. Everything collapses around me. I let the tears slide down my face as I let go to take my little sister into my arms. All of a sudden, everything starts hitting me and my mind starts racing with thoughts about how I wouldn’t be there to tuck her in at night anymore, how I’d miss her first tooth falling out, and I just hope she’d still be constantly smiling like someone who has never heard the word “worry” when I return to my family in a year. As much as it breaks my heart to do so, I release my embrace, take my passport in my hand, and walk towards my plane and year as Rotary Youth Exchange Student in Belgium, away from my home and all its comforts.
4,500 miles of travel later, I wiped the tears off my face to make room for a smile and wide open eyes. Three months later, I find planting that smile on my face one of the best decisions I have ever made. Difficulty lingers in the corners of my daily life more than I ever imagined. I had just moved to a francophone country and I couldn’t speak French. Let the charades begin. I was in my new home, yet I was merely a blank canvas to everyone there. Without the optimism I carried behind my smile, I would have quickly succumbed to the adversities before me and been on the first flight back to Florida.
As soon as I arrived in Belgium, it became apparent to me and everyone else just how many gaps I had in my knowledge. I was in shock at how clueless I was. I held my fork and knife in the improper hands, ate pizza wrong, avoided the bathroom my first night because I had no clue where the light switch was, and silenced a room in utter shock by accidentally omitting one word from my sentence. The biggest shock, however, was just how closed off I unknowingly was to what’s out here in this big world. As terrifying as it was to be thrown into a world where the sky's green and the grass is blue, having never discovered how much the world has left to instill in me would have been much worse.
It’s crazy how much life can change in what seems like the blink of an eye. After my short time here, I've immersed myself in Belgium and already consider it home. Maybe it’s because of all the waffles, fries, and all the other things Belgium is known for, but I quickly found that the life here is just that, life! The Belgians truly live and enjoy themselves and I couldn’t be happier to share their culture with them.
I couldn’t find the words to condense my time here in a simple journal, but I can assure you it’s not because I haven’t had anything to write about. I’ve built genuine relationships with my amazing families and friends here. I’ve met my new horses, cats, dogs, and chickens. Yep, chickens. I’ve passed by my cute neighbors, AKA cows, every day. I’ve said my teary eyed good bye to my absolutely fantastic and muy caliente host sister who left for an exchange in Argentina. I’ve visited my country capital a couple times, which I can’t even say I’ve done in the USA. I’ve attended many Rotary events: orientation (very different than in Florida!), mined the day away, kayaked in utter beauty, visited a fort and waved countless flags on top of it, saw my tiny town from up in a helicopter, and was even lucky enough to visit England with my Rotary club where I said something along the lines of “How adorable ol’ chap!” every two minutes. I've had the opportunity to visit Amsterdam and let my inner nerd out in the Van Gogh museum and simply took in all the beauty around me. I’ve settled in at school and dressed up as Britney Spears for just any other day there. Even though I still don’t understand why in the world they lock the bathrooms when Europeans still have bladders, I actually love my school. When it comes down to it, it’s more about the overall experience here and how everything together has added up to what I’ve been able to apprehend from my exchange.
There are so many concepts I’ve heard of all my life, but never truly grasped until now by experiencing them firsthand. I now sincerely understand tolerance by embracing a culture differing so vastly from my own, independence by no longer having my family and friends around to hold my hand when times get tough, hard work by abiding by an attitude of “I must speak French” rather than “I’d like to speak French,” sincere joy by seizing each day knowing your time is limited, maturation by learning from the many mistakes I make, appreciation by being welcomed as true family, and, first and far most, myself through all of this.
I am forever indebted to Rotary and couldn’t have been more blessed!
Tantôt (for real, no more being late)! Bisous! (:
December 28, 2011
The other day as I was waiting for my bus with a friend, she asked me when I was going home. Without thinking twice, I responded with “Considering the bus will be here any minute now, pretty darn soon I’m hoping.” Then came that awkward moment of confusion until we realized that we each had something different in mind for my home. Over these past four months in this fascinating country, my adorable three road village has naturally become ingrained in my head as "chez moi" and I couldn't be happier about that.
No matter how many excursions I have, whenever I reflect over my time here, I can’t help but automatically just think of the personal changes rather than what has occurred on the surface. The internal growth is constant. As an exchange student, you’re always finding yourself in situations where you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone until there's really no longer a point in trying to maintain one. Starting to tear down those walls I’ve unknowingly built around myself throughout my whole life is one of the most difficult but most rewarding things I’ve done.
I've had so much luck here and I am so grateful for all the opportunities that have been granted to me. My second host family took me with them on a trip to the sea in the north of France and, oh goodness, it was beautiful! We also saw a seal in the water! For all you Floridians and even Americans, I’m sure you’re thinking I’m a wacko for including that little tidbit, but apparently it’s really rare here and well deserving of a freak out. Hearing kids excitedly yell the word for seal in French definitely made the whole trip!
The holidays have come and gone and they were absolutely wonderful! Homesickness overcame for the first time on Thanksgiving, but I had loved ones both here and back in Florida to quickly help me move past it. That weekend, my host mom was the amazing person she is and hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for us and two other families. It was a wonderful thing seeing the Belgian and American cultures mix together, e.g. chowing down on some classic mac and cheese but it being a fancy dinner party lasting until 1 AM.
The Christmas that just passed is one that will forever be engraved in my memory. I could explain how it went but, in actuality, Christmas is about family and it’s really a matter of how each individual celebrates it. Yes, there was the main Belgian gist of it of celebrating it on Christmas Eve but I’m pretty sure not every Belgian has a 5 hour dinner because sometimes you’re just too busy dancing and singing to Elvis and Spice Girls to eat.
Many laughable mistakes later, my French has vastly progressed. Thank goodness! I don’t find myself to be fluent yet but I no longer view that point as some dot in the far off future. Now that I’m speaking and understanding the language, I’m truly seeing myself as part of my family, school, and group of friends and that brings so much light to everything. Also, it’s quite interesting being able to watch Sex and the City with your host grandma and sister and read Gossip Girl in French.
Félicitations to all the lucky new outbounds who are about to have their lives changed! Brace yourself guys! Hug your family and friends that you’ll learn to appreciate so much more when you no longer have that chance. Smile at the beautiful Florida sunshine that beats down even in the end of December. Most importantly, absolutely ENJOY yourselves abroad because time is going to speed right before your eyes!