October 22, 2012
Salut, tout le monde !
It seems like such a long time ago that I said goodbye to my family, friends, and town, but simultaneously the time here has flown by. An exchange student's perspective of time is definitely strange. Regardless, every second, no matter how fast or slow, is one that I love here. My host family is really welcoming and I felt “at home” immediately. It helps that I have a host brother in Brazil on exchange, so I think my family treats me as they want him to be treated: as a true son and member of the family. I have met more people than I could possibly remember here so far, both Belgians and other exchange students. There are around 230 RYE inbounds in this tiny country, which has been très cool. In addition, at my school, along with a 2 RYE students from Mexico and Brazil, there is an Ecuadorian and 5 other Mexicans with other programs. I'm trying to refresh my 4 years of dormant Spanish to keep up with them! My school, St. Stanislas, is a Jesuit sch ool (but is still public) and is over 450 years old, before St. Augustine was even founded. That definitely puts into perspective the difference between European and American “old.” I am a rheto (the equivalent of a senior) here, and my class has been quite welcoming to us exchange students. School works quite a bit differently here, though. I have a different schedule each day, we have an hour for lunch and another 20 minute break, and if the teacher isn't there, we simply don't have class. I guess substitutes don't exist here (actually, today, 2/3 teachers that I would normally have weren't there, so they just let us go home before school even started!) To give an idea of what school is like, my schedule goes like this: Monday, wake up around 6:45, leave the house at 7:30 for school which starts at 8:10. I have 3 hours of French, then a break, then 2 more hours of Religion (which is just a codename for philosophy, I find.) Then, I'll go to a park or somewhere to eat lunch, then I have an hour each of Geography and History. Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday mornings I have a French language course for foreigners at a local university, from 9:00-12:30, so I get to sleep an extra hour those mornings. Then I return to St. Stan for an hour or two or French or History and Geography. Wednesdays are well-loved because we get out of school at 11:50! I especially like them as well because I have, in addition to even more French, Spanish class. It's a first-year class, so since I've already studied Spanish it's pretty fun. In general, I find that school is at a higher level here. St. Stanislas is the (self proclaimed) best school in my town, though.
Speaking of my town, Mons: it is an amazing city. The moment I first ventured into the downtown I became enamored with it. With nearly 100,000 people, it's a “big” city for me, but not so big as to be overwhelming. It's easily walkable (and walk, I do. A lot) and quite charming. Despite Belgium's reputation as being flat, Mons was built on top of a “hill” and has many sloped streets. In addition, the countryside around is riddled with these abrupt-looking hills that I later found out are actually artificial: This area was the first area in Continental Europe to colonize because of it's natural resources, and these hills were made by the earth they dug up to mine for coal and metals. People here are incredulous when I say that Mons is a big city and that the surrounding area isn't flat. It's all a matter of perspective!
Mons is also a university town, so there is always something interesting going on with the young people. Additionally, it's the town where the Prime Minister of Belgium, Elio Di Rupo, got his political start; he's actually still the mayor and lives here when he's not in Brussels. Consequently, I met him (for the first time) 6 days after my arrival here. He just was passing through a student area on a Friday night and everyone was so casual about seeing him, though my friends were sure to introduce me. A few weeks later, he came to the little festival the village I actually live in just outside Mons and he remembered me! I have since seen him walking down the street a few more times. I'm determined to be best friends with him by the time I leave.
Belgium is a seriously awesome country for exchange students. Seriously, come here. There are over 230 RYE students here, an area 1/5 the size of the entire state Florida, though the vast majority of us are in the French-speaking Wallonia, which halves the size again. That's not to mention all of the hundreds of other exchangers with other programs, too. But of course, Rotary is the best! Rotary at the district and multi-district level is quite active and we often have activities together. So far, we have had a day in Brussels, an orientation day for just my district, a day in the capital of Wallonia, a kayaking trip through some really breathtaking scenery in Dinant, and we have an “exotic dinner” coming up where students from teams based on their nationalities to prepare a typical dish from their country or region. Also, based off my observations it must be a requirement for the male Rotarians to have fantastic facial hair. My counselor/YEO has probably the most magnificent mustache I have personally seen. But perhaps the cooler thing is that Rotary here gives us freedom to travel around the country since it's so easy with the awesome train system. I've been many places so far, including Brussels several more times and, of course, Bruges (watch the movie In Bruges if you've never seen it!) It's pretty neat to be on the train, and, as soon as we cross the border from French-speaking Wallonia to Dutch-speaking Flanders, the language on the train and signs switches. It's nearly like going to another country (many people would actually like this to be the case, but it's a bit of a sensitive issue.) But to fully get the Belgian experience I've been trying to learn a bit of Dutch, as well. I feel rather fortunate to be an English speaker here actually, because if you combined a language very similar to Old Dutch and a language very similar to Old French and let them brew for close to a thousand yea rs, you'd get a language very similar to Modern English. English is Germanic in structure, which makes Dutch easier, but much of it's vocabulary comes from French. This is useful because if I don't know a word in French I say the English word with my best guess as to how it would be said in French accent, and more times than not, it's the French word as well. Overall, I'm pretty happy with how my French has been coming along for not having studied it in school. I think I understand roughly 3/4 of conversations now, and I'm hoping to call myself conversationally fluent by December.
Of course, no journal about la Belgique would be complete without talking about the food. Yes, I eat some sort of waffle nearly every day, whether it's a simple plain one for a snack at school or one loaded with chocolate or raspberries or any number of things either inside or on top of it. Yes, Belgium indeed invented, and perfected, the French fry. The preferred condiment is mayonnaise, though, rather than ketchup. Yes, I eat chocolate literally every day. It simply wouldn't be a complete day without it.
The cold and rain are fast approaching, send us over some Floridian sunshine if you can manage it!
À la prochaine fois !
April 12, 2013
Wow. The months that have passed since my last journal have been the most intense, challenging, and fulfilling of my life. I have millions of excuses for the time taken to write this new one (including a broken hard drive on my computer), but I apologize nonetheless.
In all of our training to become a RYE student, we hear repeatedly that our year abroad will simultaneously be the most difficult and the most fun year of our lives. I, at least, just took that information in at face value, but I could have never imagined how true it would become, nor in the ways it did. I won't lie, the Belgian winter was really tough; between the shortened days and the constant rain/fog/clouds/snow, there were stretches of not seeing the sun that lasted up to a month. Being from Florida, I definitely took the sun for granted. Things quite literally become depressing. Coupled with the holiday season taking place at the same time, I caught the winter-time blues. It didn't help that this was the least sunny and coldest winter since before World War II! At times when all of my Belgian friends were busy studying for their important exams, I felt like I simply wasn't doing much. Lost in my own mind, I questioned why I had chosen to go on exchange t o this odd little country.
However, in January, as my "oldies" tearfully left and my "newies" arrived, my attitude changed. Having these new RYE students (primarily from the Southern Hemisphere) experience everything for the first time again allowed me to gain a fresh perspective, make new friends, and feel rejuvenated. And now, a few months later, I can easily say that I am the happiest that I have been. I love my city, my school, my host families, and I love this peculiar divided country and the freedom I have here. As I sit here writing this, I'm waiting at the gate to fly to Switzerland, dead tired. I returned from a 10 day trip with Rotary to Spain just yesterday. The feeling I got when I woke up on the bus, in Belgium, was surprising. I felt the same comfort I would get as if returning to my home in Florida when I was younger. It was nice to see the omnipresent waffles, French fries, and beer again. I, along with most of the others on the trip, had become homesick for Bel gium. And at that moment, I felt successful in my exchange. This was what I had come here for: not just to see beautiful sights and get fat eating so many waffles, but to really feel as though I had made a new home. And I truly feel that I have.
Of course, it also helped that I have seen some amazing things in the past few months. In December, I spent a weekend in London with my host family, in February, I visited some RYE FL friends in Budapest and Warsaw, and, as I said before, I just spent an incredible 10 days all throughout Spain with about 70 other RYE students. I have also continued to travel just throughout Belgium regularly, since it's so easy with the train system. It's pretty awesome to casually be able to go to Brussels, the capital of Europe, on a Wednesday afternoon and be home in time for dinner. Although recently, me and some of the other exchangers in my city have really been exploring just around Mons. It really is a wonderful, quintessentially European city. Small enough to walk across in 20 minutes, big enough to be home to 3 universities and the prime minister, it has a lovely grand place and a belfry beautiful enough to be a UNESCO World Heritage Sight. Mons and the surrounding area, k nown as the Borinage, have a strong identity themselves. This was one of the first areas in continental Europe to industrialize because it used to have very fruitful coal mines, thus, it was once one of the most prosperous regions around. However, in the past half-century or so, the area has fallen on hard times and high unemployment. If anything, this has only forced the "Borains" to band together in the community to make it, creating an even stronger culture. They have their own dialect and language, their own festivals, and own specialties. It has been fun getting to know the Borain culture as well as the the typical Belgian one, and I can't wait until the end of May, when the Ducasse de Mons, an absolutely massive festival, will happen here. This city will also be the European Capital of Culture in 2015, so major works are taking place all over, including a new train station being built.
School has continued on normally, but frankly it isn't very exciting. I still go to my French course for foreigners, which has helped my progress immensely. I suppose I consider myself conversationally fluent, though I think I'm a bit hard on myself sometimes. I still struggle with certain words, but I did have a bit of an "a-ha!" moment back in December. As I was riding the bus, I was just thinking about my exchange and realized "Hey, I speak French. It's far from perfect, but I can still, at its most basic meaning, *speak* it." Around the same time, I had my first time being mistaken for a Belgian! I still have problems sometimes speaking very formally (and the subjunctive is the bane of my existence) but overall I'm pretty content with my progress.
As my French continues to progress, so does my self confidence. Sometimes I'll just get those moments where I realize how awesome it really is to be an exchange student, but also how many difficulties I have overcome. This makes me feel like I have the power to do anything. Never before have I been more proud of myself. I now feel fluent in a new language, a new culture, and a new family. I can't wait to get back to Florida a more confident person, but for the moment, TIME, PLEASE SLOW DOWN!