In front of me stood the extensive airport security and behind me lingered my family, waiting for the imminent goodbye. I glimpsed back, giving them a reassuring smile as I fought back tears, knowing I wouldn't be seeing them again for twelve long months. With luggage in hand and a prayer in my head, I stepped into what is known to be the greatest year of an exchange student’s life.
Living independently from my family, seeing the world's most beautiful cities, and tasting foods I never dreamed existed is only the beginning of all that is Rotary Youth Exchange. Apart from gaining once-in-a-lifetime memories, I am acquiring a lifetime’s worth of lessons and knowledge.
Living in a foreign country has opened my eyes to the diversity of the world’s beliefs and lifestyles. I have witnessed the differences first-hand and have grown to appreciate them. Some nuances of Belgian culture, any American is bound to question: whether it be men drinking Belgium's signature beer for breakfast or redundantly kissing all 26 of your school mates' cheeks every morning. True submersion occurs only when you stop questioning the culture. The moment I sat down with the old men drinking Jupiler and felt insufficiently greeted without my morning "bisous" was when I truly appreciated and adapted to this new way of life. I recognize that differences aren't negative, but a chance to understand and share new ideas.
When I first arrived in Belgium, I had never spoken any French. Teaching myself how to listen, understand, and speak a new language was my first and foremost responsibility. After two months of translating sentences word-by-word and willing my brain to remember vocabulary from hundreds of flash cards, countless headaches have come, but so has progress. One of the best moments you will experience as an exchange student is when you catch yourself using foreign expressions in your head as you do things. In French, a very popular phrase is "comme ça" which means "like that" and when I'm doing work, I say it I'm my head without thinking about it.
I am defined by where I come from, where I have been, and where I plan to go. Luckily, Belgium is so small, I have already been across the entire country. I have also been to France and England, and plan to travel to Italy and German soon as well. With each new country I see, I get to experience a different culture and meet people who expand my view of the world. I'm quickly discovery how vastly different people are on the other end of the spectrum. As each day passes, I'm realizing who I want to be, and on which end of the spectrum I belong.
Well, I have been in Belgium for a little more than 4 months now. Nearly half of my exchange is over and it's extremely difficult to grasp that concept. It feels like I've just arrived, but also like I'm living a life I've always known. I suppose the best way to give an accurate glimpse of what an exchange in Belgium is like is to share a bit about different aspects of daily life.
Here in Belgium people dress pretty well for school. For me, that's normal because in Florida I went to an art school and my friends and I would always get pretty dolled up for school. However my Canadian best friends always whine about how at home they could show up to school in slippers and "bunny hugs" (what Canadians call hoodies...). Apart from the sweater or dress and heeled boots I usually wear for school I also have to add a heavy jacket and a scarf. It's cold here. Not only is it cold, but it's wet, which makes going outside rarely sound desirable.
When I'm finished getting prepped for school, I eat breakfast with my host family, and to your surprise, no we don't eat waffles every morning. My host mom drives me to school, or I take the bus. There are a lot of schools within very short distances of each other in Belgium because every school has grades k-12. Belgians kids are very welcoming to exchange students: my fellow exchange student and I are friends with everyone in our grade, but of course have our close knit circle, too. Everyone else at the school knows who we are, even if we don't know them: thats part of being an exchange student. If you are "the American" at school, at a party, or anywhere you go, somehow EVERYONE knows you and usually want to talk to you or even take pictures with you, like you're Taylor Swift or something!
The school schedules are very different here: I have a different number of classes everyday and the teachers are in different rooms everyday, which was very confusing my first week! I take French classes with 6th graders and have English, religion, geography, calculus, and gym with rhéto (seniors). Gym is very different from home also, for example, this last month we went to a rock climbing center for class.
One perk of the Belgian school week is that on Wednesdays all the schools across the country finish at lunch time. Us exchange students (about 300 kids) take advantage of our short day and always get together after school. We take the trains and spend our Wednesday afternoons getting frites and seeing a new city.
On weekends, my friends and I go to festivals, parties or just take a train to a new city to explore. With our "go pass" we can travel to and from any city in the country for just 10€. I have seen all of the major cities in Belgium, just traveling with my friends: Brussels, Liège, Anvers, Brugge.. The list goes on.
When I'm at home, I hang out with my host family. They all watch American shows here, especially Desperate Housewives and crime shows. My host mom cooks a delicious meal then we all watch a show together in the living room and have fruit for dessert. Then I go to sleep and start it all over the next day.
A lot of days in exchange are just normal, boring days; you can't expect everyday to be crazy incredible. You will have ups and downs and some days when you won't even understand why you chose to leave everything you know and love to come on exchange. BUT, then you have one of those crazy incredible days that no one you've ever known can say they have experienced and you're reminded why you came. You're 100% guaranteed to have at least one of those amazing days, and once you do, you realize that day is worth 364 boring days.
I only have three months left. How is that possible? Time has gone by so fast and I have experienced so much since I left my home on August 18th of last year.
I've made best friends: some of which are just a couple hours from my home town, some who call Belgium their home, and some who live even further than where I am now. I have explored and know well an entire country which was once completely foreign to me. I can speak and understand a language of which before sounded as far from my own language as a bark of a dog. I have eaten foods I never even heard of and have tasted drinks I will be searching frantically for when I get home.
I have sipped wine in the south of France, with a host mom that has adopted me as her own daughter. I crossed the channel to London; ate fish and chips, saw Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the British museum and every other major landmark in London. I explored the dreamy city with my best friends from the U.S. and Canada as well as spent an evening out with some real live Brits. I've had my first white winter and my eyelashes have now caught countless snowflakes. I spent Christmas with a family other than my own and watched my baby sister open her gifts through a Skype screen. I counted down to the New Year six hours earlier than I would have at home, standing under fireworks in the capitol of Europe. I have traveled to Budapest and Warsaw, reuniting with my fellow RYE Florida exchange students and spending a week seeing places I never imagined I would. I've soaked in the hot baths of Hungary and watched the sunset over Pest from the top of a castle. I've eaten re al Polish pirogues and lived a day in the life of a fellow Floridian exchanging in a country even colder than mine. I've dressed up in costumes for countless festivals and celebrations that have become as dear to me as the Belgians who made them worth while. I have been shocked by many traditions and even disgusted by some others. I have come to think like a Belgian: an hour train ride is too long, it's never too early for a Jupiler, and a bit of sun is a rare gift from God.
I shouldn't say I ONLY have three months left, I should say I STILL have three months left. I've done more than I ever imagined was possible in just seven months, now I have three to finish what I've started and make my exchange the most amazing year of my life. A great exchange isn't just handed to you on a silver platter, you have to take the opportunities that are presented to you and YOU have to make them into memories you'll want to treasure forever.
La vie est Belge.