I am wrapping up my first week in Belgium and it has been so much fun!!!! The change in cultures has sparked an array of emotions including homesickness, excitement, happiness, and fear. Amidst the transition, I have managed to make some really good friends who I enjoy spending time with and I have learned a lot about Belgium, my new home for the next five months. Below I have listed a few of the things I have discovered, experienced, or just found to be interesting about this wonderful little country I now live in:
My first experience with homesickness:
Travelling has always been a favorite pastime of mine for as long as I can remember. While growing up, I always loved travelling to any and everywhere to explore new territory. My experiences ranged from travelling to week-long summer and sports camps, vacations with family and friends, as well as travelling to Europe both with family and on school related trips. Those opportunities away from home never bothered me. In fact, my mom used to always joke about how she could send me off to another country for three months for fun and I wouldn’t miss home at all. Well… that statement became a complete fallacy the minute I found myself all alone in a new country my first night in Belgium. Three years ago, when I left for college, I never experienced any kind of homesickness. I didn’t select a college too far from home but I rarely chose to go back home unless I needed something or had some type of appointment. I loved my family dearly but I loved my new college life equally and I enjoyed being at school on the weekends with all my new friends. Living away from home never phased me emotionally because I knew I could see my family and friends regularly and everything in my college town was familiar to me.
Upon departing for Belgium, the familiarness of my American culture had quickly vanished. The plane ride was probably one of the most uncomfortable experiences I have ever had. The plane itself was functioning just fine and was the smoothest international flight I had ever been on, but emotionally, it was quite the roller coaster. Looking back on my emotions, one would have thought I was never going to speak to anyone I ever knew in my life again. I couldn’t sleep or eat on the plane because my stomach was upside down. Luckily, I had the pleasure of sitting next to a girl who happened to be in the same program at my university. We immediately hit it off and talked all the way until our landing in Belgium. We have gotten to know each other and have hung out every day since we arrived!! She is awesome! We both shared the struggles of leaving our family and friends, but we stayed focused on what we knew would turn out to be an amazing experience abroad. Deep down, we knew this experience would allow us to grow personally and provide us the knowledge to view the world from a different perspective. We also had time to narrow down where we want to travel in Europe over the next few months… LITERALLY EVERYWHERE! So, as you can see, her friendship provided me the security to ease my mind and relax for the remainder of the flight.
However, that security went right out the door the minute it was time to go to sleep, the first time by myself, in a stark white dorm room where I knew maybe two people in the entire country. Of course, being awake nearly 36 hours due to the flight and time change, did not do my state of mind any favors either. I had gone from living in a sorority house with 40 of my closest friends to living by myself in a foreign country. Talk about a culture shock! Needless to say the first night was a little unnerving. I stayed up until about 3:30am talking to my parents and boyfriend who helped to settle my nerves. At that point, there were no comforts of home and everything was completely unfamiliar to me…
It was a new semester in Belgium and only the international students had arrived at this point. The dorm was fairly empty as the remaining students would not move in until the following week. It was like a ghost town, I couldn’t read or speak Dutch, I had no groceries nor did I know where to buy them, my room resembled a white prison cell, I had no wifi, and I had no clue where anything was other than my dorm room, and I was functioning on very little sleep. Luckily, the next day came very quickly and things began to take a turn for the better. I was able to get questions answered, tour the town, connect with friends and get acclimated to my new home. I have been fine ever since. Every day has gotten better and I can now say 7 days later that I absolutely love Belgium and am so happy I decided to do this!! It’s perfectly acceptable to be homesick the first few days, in fact it’s normal, and it just means you have some really great people back at home who love you very much and who will support you during your time abroad.
I now attend a university with students of over 100 nationalities!
This week I participated in events daily with international exchange students from all over the world. We had an international pub crawl where certain bars would give us a discounted beer with a free shot and let me tell you, folks from other countries like to party ALL night long, night after night (like 4 consecutive nights in a row)! I also attended an international dinner with every international student on our campus and it was fascinating to learn about the various countries and to hear about where everyone has traveled from to do a semester abroad in undergrad and in graduate school.
I live in a special quarter with 14 people and this consists of students from 8 different countries. (United States, Mexico, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Belgium, England, and Japan). It has been such an amazing week speaking with them and learning about the differences in our customs and traditions, particularly when it comes to social norms. We have also discussed how the education system works in all of our countries, the number of languages that each student speaks, and what our experience in Belgium has been thus far.
During my first two days in Belgium, I noticed how there were no stoplights in the main part of the city and everyone seemed so nice about letting me cross the road before they did or vice versa. During my third day in Belgium, I took a two-hour city tour with other international students. During this tour my guide introduced the group to the city’s new procedure entitled “Shared Space”. Some of you may know what this is, but due to being raised in Indiana, this was a new concept to me. Shared Space is the concept of drivers and pedestrians negotiating at traffic signs, lights, or at curbs as to who may pass first. This decreases the dominance that vehicles or pedestrians feel they have as they are moving around the town. This often causes confusion as to who has the right of way, therefore, with this new concept, everyone stops before they act. This has helped eliminate traffic accidents in the city and I have experienced nothing but positive outcomes during my first seven days in my town.
“Bethany the Bicycle”
Bethany is the name I have given my new bicycle I rented for the semester. Some of you may think it is silly that I named my bicycle, but I don’t care because it is fun! The company I rented from gave me a discount with my student card and I get my deposit back at the end of the semester. In my town, it is the norm for people to ride bikes rather than drive cars. Renting a bicycle was highly recommended to me by my study abroad director. It is also a great way to become more involved in the culture. However, due to the high volume of bicycles, there are certain laws you must follow or you will be fined. The fines can be quite expensive. For example, you must have an actual bike light on the front and back of your bike for night time riding. It is illegal to have anyone else ride on the back of your bike, and you must ride on the correct side of the road. There are 6 different types of traffic signs that you must learn to know where you can and cannot ride your bike. I could go on and on about bike rules and traffic regulations, but I have yet to learn them all.
The “Target” Store of Belgium = Hema
Nothing like a little retail therapy to get me through the stress of the first few days in Belgium. Hema, a store similar to the American “Target”, made my second day in Belgium much easier. I was able to buy basic kitchen utensils and cute household items to make my room more “homey”. They carry clothing and cute accessories such as scarves, hats, jewelry, etc. This is a Dutch discount store, which was established in the Netherlands. It is a fun store to shop in and it’s very easy to access around the city since there are numerous locations.
To the grocery I go!!
My first trip to the grocery store was quite fun and a bit overwhelming. I went with three other friends who lived in my hall and we had an interesting time trying to compare items to our home country and trying to figure out similarities with brands we had at home. I was happy to see that they had a nice assortment of food, but since I normally don’t do grocery runs by myself I wasn’t quite sure what all I should buy. I mainly got things that looked familiar to me since all of the labels were in Dutch. I had no clue what I was reading. I ended up buying turkey, bread, noodles, granola bars, cereal, and milk. This doesn’t sound like a lot and that is because it wasn’t. The cereal I bought was the equivalent to Coco Puffs called “Choco Bubbles”. They are pretty tasty, but not very good for me and for the first week they were acceptable. I was willing to sacrifice my normal healthy eating for comfort until I get more acclimated to my new world. I also purchased what I thought to be milk, but later realized that it wasn’t actually milk (or at least from a cow) since it tasted like sour goat cheese and yogurt mixed together, YUCK! I don’t know what it was, but it was not appetizing. I did not waste any time the next day getting to another grocery store to get the correct milk. I have been enjoying my “Choco Bubbles” ever since. In the future, I am going to aim for the healthier side, but for my first trip I was clueless and tried my best.
~Just some advice: when eating out in Belgium, you do not tip in restaurants, a service charge is already included.
I met my Belgian Buddy!
My Belgian Buddy’s name is JJ!! She is so sweet and pretty and I cannot wait to get to know her better this semester! She really made me feel more comfortable about studying here and gave me some tips and tricks to make my time here more enjoyable. I also learned a few new things about Belgian students. Due to Belgium being such a small country and it is equivalent to the size of Maryland, all of the university students go home on Fridays and do not return until Sunday or Monday depending on their class schedule. Apparently, this is not near as common in any other country but because of the size of Belgium this is just the culture. During the week, many students will go out Monday through Thursday evening with their pregame routine starting at about midnight or 1:00am. Then the festivities will continue in bars and they will stay out until the wee hours of the night until 4:00am-6:00am. Well I don’t know where everyone else went to school, but I don’t plan to be staying out that late four consecutive nights in a row or go out that many nights in general. Not all Belgian students go out that much, but some do and I found that to be really interesting. I also learned that many high school students go out to the bars on weekdays as well because they are legal to do so. In Belgium you are legal at 16 to drink beer and wine and legal at 18 to drink spirits. This does not mean I will be participating in all this craziness, but I just wanted to educate you on the norms of the college bar scene in Belgium.
Now, after explaining the bar scene, I already know I will be receiving texts from a few family members giving me their opinion about how much I should partake in these activities and at what hours I should do so. I am here to tell you that I plan to travel a lot, and bars are expensive, so no worries!
Academics, Academics, Academics!
Yeah! Class begins this week and I am looking forward to meeting my new professors and classmates. I have class for only ten hours a week which is much less than what I had at my home university. I am very excited to be a part of the Belgian education system to see how it compares to that in America. I am going to have quite a bit more free time than normal so I will keep you updated on all of my new hobbies!
I hope you enjoyed this little tid-bit about some of the interesting things I discovered in Belgium this week!! I can’t wait to learn more about this beautiful country and I look forward to sharing my discoveries about all of the other European countries I visit.
Beste groeten, (Best regards in Dutch)
P.S. “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new” ~Socrates