September 22, 2013
So, it’s officially official. I have lived in Tournai, Belgium for 29 days. As weird as it sounds, even though I have been here for almost a month and time feels like it’s moving so fast, it also sometimes feels like I just left yesterday. My last few weeks home were so surreal. I hung out and said my goodbyes to friends I have known for years, ate my favorite foods at my favorite restaurants, and cried a bit when my best friend spent the night at my house for the last time and as I said goodbye to my family and my whimpering dog. I remember leaving my familiar life in Sanford, Florida on Saturday August 24th at 8 am, and with a couple of tears I boarded my plane, hugged my mom, and left my old life. 24 hours later, I was in Belgium. The plane ride was long, but bearable, and I think the worst part was at night. While almost every passenger on the plane is asleep and the reality sets in, you are faced with all of the thoughts, fears, and jitters you have been trying to suppress. I sat fidgeting in my chair for most of the ride wondering if I really was as crazy as people thought I was for leaving my home that I have known my whole life.
When we touched down in Brussels, it was all kind of a blur. People started talking in languages I didn’t know, I tried to find my way through foreign customs, all the French words and sayings I spent hours memorizing disappeared, magically I somehow managed to find my bags, and rolled them to the lobby all by myself to my eagerly awaiting new family. I can’t explain what it’s like to feel at home with people you have never met, but it’s awesome.
My first host family is great and there are no words to explain how blessed I am for their open arms and support. Our house is a recently renovated barn house that is more than 100 years old. It has a little courtyard in the middle with a patio and small garden. My house is in the country side surrounded by cow pastures and lots of corn, but it only takes 10 minutes to get into the city. My bedroom is the biggest room in the house and has been painted different shades of blue and has stripes. I have my own bathroom that I share with my older host sister Tamara, but she is only home on the weekends. Both of my host parents make the best food. Like seriously, almost every meal I have eaten has been home cooked, and all of it has been delicious! Tamara and I bonded over music and when I helped her move into her apartment in Brussels. She has already taken me out to parties and such and has introduced me to her friends, and she even brought me back a little present from her trip to Spain. My little nugget Margaux is the cutest. We always play together after school and she has been teaching me the colors, how to count, and new phrases every day. I think part of the reason I feel like part of the family is because of her. I don’t expect for her to really remember me when she gets older, because she is only four, but she is the sweetest thing and I already love her so much. We can’t communicate that well, and she often gets frustrated with my poor level of French, but kindness is a universal language. And to any future exchange students, hugs from little kids make any day better. Within my first week I went to a party and tried tons of Belgian specialties including chocolate, beer, and raw ground beef which they call “the American”, I met up with all 200+ Inbound exchange students in Brussels and toured the Grand Palace and the Parliament, successfully rode my first train and bus, went to Lille, France with other exchange students for a day, and met more relatives/family friends than I can remember.
The next Wednesday I had my first real day of school. Let me just say that it is NOT at all what I expected. I attend Saint Andre, an optional boarding Catholic school that includes grades 1-6, or 7th-12th in the US, and only has about 600 students- 600 students was roughly the size of my graduating class at Seminole High School last year, so I’m still kind of shocked. My school day starts at 8:15 in the morning and usually goes until 4 pm, except on Wednesday when we start at 8:15 and end at 12:40pm. The best part of any day is study period, English class, and lunch. Study class is where I spend most of my time since my “angel” at school Pauline has at least one study class per day and if you have a study class first period or the last you can come/leave school early! English is interesting, to say the least. My teacher Ms. Delhaye HATES the American accent, so she doesn’t make me answer questions often, but the rest of the class loves to ask me about America and it is the only class where I know exactly what’s going on. I enjoy going to school because I meet new people every day, but the classes are so hard. I expected to walk into a class like math or maybe a science that I have already taken and understand a little bit of what is going on, but I don’t. The teachers are writing down English letters all jumbled up into words that look like English, but aren’t. You can’t drink water, get out of your seat, or go to the bathroom during classes. And if you are caught using your cell phone on campus, they take away your phone and you get a week’s worth of detention. Needless to say it’s been a tad bit difficult adjusting, but it is all part of the process. Tomorrow (Monday) I actually get to go on the 6th grade week long field trip. I’m so excited because it was free (thanks Rotary!) and it’s a great opportunity to bond with my new school friends. After almost 2 weeks of going to school, I still get asked the most random questions. I was asked if I owned a gun, if I go to Disney world every weekend, and if I play football. Surprisingly a lot of Belgians like to watch American football and they love that fact that I was a cheerleader, which they call pompom girls, because they don’t have anything like that in Europe. My favorite part of the week is Friday. In Belgium, Friday is the day when everyone goes out. It’s kind of funny, but right after school, most students regardless of their age practically run to Le Place Saint Pierre, a square of bars, to try and forget about their week at school with the help of a few (or many) alcoholic beverages.
Here’s a little list of things I have found that were really different than back home and just some facts about Belgian’s and their life style….
- Almost everyone smokes. If you don’t like it, it kind of sucks to be you.
- Belgians drink beer like I drink sweet tea or coffee.
- It is freaking cold and its only September, so basically in the winter I will freeze to death.
- School is kind of like a fashion show. Girls might not wear that much makeup, but they carry around purses and wear high heels, and like no one wears yoga pants/sweatpants to school.
- Scarves are always acceptable.
- When you see your friends you greet them with a kiss on the cheek. Even if there are people you don’t know, you kiss them. Oh and when you leave you have to kiss everyone goodbye, so start saying goodbye 10 minutes before you have to leave.
- People drive like a bat out of hell and all the cars are really tiny. It’s almost like trucks don’t exist because I have only seen 3.
- People will just walk out in front of your car and it is your job not to hit them even if they are not in the crosswalk.
- 5’8” is really tall for a girl here, I feel like a giant.
- Bars rarely check ID’s. I have seen kids who are 14 order beers and smoke cigarettes.
- Je suis perdue (I’m lost in French) is something I use a lot.
- French fries aren’t really French. They’re actually Belgian and they are called frittes. And they’re delicious, especially with mayonnaise. They are eaten on a weekly basis with cute miniature forks.
- The French “r” is really hard for me to say and it’s in so many words. Mecredi, Vendredi, rouge, Septembre, Octobre…you get my point.
- French is hard in general, but Dutch is practically impossible.
- Beware of the trains because sometimes there will be one long train that will split in half. One side going to Tournai and the other side going to Geraardsbergen and you will end up going to Geraardsbergen because you don’t understand what the announcements are saying and it will take you 4 hours to get home.
- Everyone wears shoes or slippers in the house.
- There are spiders everywhere, so if you are deathly afraid of them like me, Belgium might not be the best place for you.
- Belgians tend to eat a lot of food at every meal. They hold their silverware the whole time: knife in the right, fork in the left. And they love bread and potatoes.
- Belgian waffles (gaufres) are AMAZING. They are so good that they make these weird little packaged waffle thingys for snacks.
- Kinder chocolate and Speculoos cookies/spread/ice cream (those delicious spice cookies that you get on the plane) <3
So far my time here has been amazing and I couldn’t imagine my exchange year anywhere else.