Thursday, September 15, 2011


No one ever talks about what happens after your exchange is over. Until now. I'm currently in Spokane attending Gonzaga University. I absolutely love it here. The atmosphere is great, the people are open, friendly leaders in their community, and I'm thoroughly enjoying campus clubs and my classes.
How my year abroad affects this year: Definitely in a positive way. Everyone I meet here thinks it's really cool that I spent a year abroad and often want to know what it was like. Gonzaga promotes exchanges for their students, so I can go to the program fairs and have a lot better idea of what they're offering and how to deal with that opportunity. I was able to switch straight into a 300 level French class and I still find it easy. I'm a year older than the other freshmen, which I was a little worried about, but no one can tell and it really hasn't been a problem at all. If anything, I'm more mature and I definitely know how to deal with homesickness and independence a lot better than some freshmen.I know how to stay in contact with friends and how long-distance and long-term separation affects social ties. I'm also a lot more confident in myself and am a lot less sheltered than I would have been otherwise. Calculus was a bit of a shock after a year of tech school, but I'm holding my own, and my English and general academic skills don't seem to have disappeared.
A word on alcohol. Here in the US it's rather taboo to talk about it, but we all know it happens. Since I've been around alcohol in Europe and experienced their less terrified approach to alcohol, I am already aware of some problems that go with alcohol consumption and how different people deal with them. Since I've already confronted the clash between a sheltered, teetotaler lifestyle with the acceptance and more facilitated abuse of alcohol, it's easy to strike a balance between the horror and near-panic some people exhibit when the very word alcohol is spoken and all-out abuse and glorification of drunkenness. No, I won't raise my eyebrows too much or ostracize someone if I hear that they got drunk. No, I'm not going to go out drinking in a country where it's illegal. This balance applies to a lot of disapproved things besides alcohol. Many freshman here have never had to deal with these kinds of decisions before, since Mommy and Daddy were always there looking over their shoulder. I've already been through a limited version of this. So I do have less supervision in college than before, but I had a intermediary step instead of jumping straight from being totally monitored to let loose
I have made the transition back to functioning as an American. Or I should say, if I were an onion, I have a central core American that was covered with a Belgian layer that has been covered in turn by another American layer. The Belgian's still there, but the American lifestyle and habits are predominant again. That saying, sometimes I still am shocked or appreciate American culture more than before. For instance, our first night at Gonzaga involved a pep band, cheerleaders, and a lot of yelling and going nuts for school spirit. I was bewildered, shocked, and even a little scared. Belgians would never do this. I had forgotten what it's like to be that proud and loudly devoted to an institution. Or a country, for that matter. After the first few minutes I was able to get back into the American groove and remember how cool it is to be purely passionate and patriotic and not worry about things like fascism. Rediscovering religious people was incredibly exciting, not to mention the lack of stares when I say I'm christian.
I also miss Belgium. I miss my family and friends there, and wish international plane flights were shorter and a lot cheaper. Staying in contact with them is hard, but possible. Sometimes I still revert to speaking French. Having a French class and French music really is a comfort---sometimes I just want to express myself in that other way.
I absolutely do not regret spending that extra year and that extra money as an exchange student. I'm a bigger person, my faith is stronger, and my world is a more real and colorful place. I'm already looking up my next study abroad options. You should too.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


After 26 and a half hours of layovers and airplanes, I am finally home in good ol' Alaska. Everything seems enormous here---even the people are bigger. After being able to hear Belgian buses and neighbors and other traffic 24/7, the last frontier also seems shockingly quiet. Everything also seems to be newer, and with that impression comes the sensation that there's not as much texture to everything as there was in Belgium. The air is also beautifully clean here. So far my English is doing pretty well, although sometimes I have to pause before I start talking to put something in the proper language. It's a little disappointing to be able to understand everything everyone says; when you don't understand something, you assume it must be wonderful, even when people are just talking about toe jam. Now the mystery is gone and it's just toe jam.
When I came in from the airport I thought I would cry a lot, but it turned out that I was so so overjoyed to see everyone I just had a great big grin from ear to ear and gave everyone bear hugs. Some of my friends surprised me and came too, and it was probably one of the happiest moments of my life to see all those people waiting there for me just as excited as I was.
Leaving Belgium was another matter. It was so difficult to walk away from Marianne, Jade, Julia, Cécile and Jean-Pierre, not knowing when I would see them again. These people mean so much to me, and it's still hard for me to understand that they are so very far away and that I won't see them next week. We all boohooed quite heartily, and stocked up on bisous before I went blubbering through security. I am going back to Belgium, I don't know when, but I am determined that I am going to see those people again before I die.
I've found my family here changed but very much the same. The house has been pretty well rearranged, so I'm still trying to find space to put all my stuff away and figure out where a few things are kept. There's some new little habits and things, but they're still the same people I love. My sister is almost taller than me, but not quite, so I can still gloat over her for now. She seems so grown up to me. I also feel a lot more grown up than when I left; I'm more confident, more independent, and more laid back. I am so glad I spent this year abroad. It was the experience of a lifetime, and now I have so many more special people in my life than before. When asked if I was nervous for college, my response was 'why would I be scared? They speak English there!'
I have 6 weeks here at home, meeting my friends and getting myself organized, and then it's off to Gonzaga University in Spokane. The next adventure awaits!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Dernière Semaine

The last week has finally pounced, the suitcases are filling frighteningly quickly, and addresses and final hugs are being shared all round. And up until the last minute, we've been making the most of Belgium.
Sunday we spent with Marianne, Cécile, and Pépé on the nearby 'mountain', la Mont d'Enclus, where we took the dogs for a walk and enjoyed the sunshine. And some good Belgian food, of course. The café with the great ice cream is pretty much the biggest reason most people bother climbing the hill. Afterwards we played a round of miniature golf, which I'd never done before. My game was pretty catastrophic, but Julia and Jade weren't too far behind, and we had a lot of laughs and a lot of fun. Americans missing the ball entirely and Icelanders sending the ball into their host mother's direction makes anyone giggle.
Monday night we went out for a final soirée with Sharon and Benjamin with a few other buddies from school. We had some good Belgian beer, went bowling, and had a good time reminiscing over the year and just being together. I will miss the students of Saint Union. Thank heavens for skype.
Tuesday Jean-Pierre took Jade and I to Kortrijk, a Flemish town about 20 minutes away. We visited the local museum to learn all about the battle of Gulden Sporen (Golden Spurs), which took place in 1302 in Kortrijk. The gist of the story is that a bunch of Flemish farmers rebelled against arrogant French aristocrats and these untrained foot soldiers managed to rout a sizable group of elite French Knights. The French won the war of course, but the historically unimportant battle became a romantic story and is a touchstone for Flemish and Belgian pride and identity now. The museum was extremely well put together, and the local politics of the day were really well explained. Belgium sure has a complicated, long history. With lots of wars. We also visited the local church, which was gorgeous (I'm going to miss visiting old churches) and checked out some ancient bridges before heading home. Not to mention I picked up a few more Dutch words; Dutch and English is incredibly similar. I can guess at a lot of it when it's written, and the accent isn't too hard to get, except for the g's. Keep learning right up to the last day!
Yesterday we went to Liege to say goodbye to other exchange students in the carré, a famous block of student-catering bars. Many flags were signed and we enjoyed even more Belgian beer. We might have eaten a few waffles too.
So overall: I can't decide whether to jump up and down about going home or whether to bawl my eyes out. I saw an American flag and almost started crying; I can almost imagine getting some kind of Belgian tattoo because it's my second home. I can't wait to hug my family and tease my friends in English, and I can't believe that I won't be able to joke about 40 dogs and say cowly beautiful anymore or be crazy with my two sisters here. Marianne has two more exchange students coming next year; I can't wait to talk to them and hear about their adventures in this crazy house. Life just doesn't stop moving.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

What You Won't Learn in French Class

I have come to the realization that the world geule is used in jillions of expressions and is never taught in French class. Probably because it's a little rude. But really, it's used for everything. So here's the scoop.

la geule= mouth of a dog or animal, muzzle

Ways to use this word:

1. (fermer) Ta geule= (close) your geule= shut up (rude)
2. Faire la geule= to do/make the geule= give someone the silent treatment
3. Tirer la geule= to pull the guele= give the evil eye, give someone a dirty look
4. Se casser la geule= break your geule= have some kind of accident and hurt yourself, wipe out
5. Je vais te casser la geule= I'm going to break your geule= I'm gonna beat your face in
6. grande/grosse geule= big/fat geule= big mouth, noisy
7. regarde sa geule=look at his geule= look at his face/facial expression
8. Engeuler= the verb form of geule= to yell at someone
9. Avoir une geule de con=have a stupid geule= look stupid, seem stupid
10. geuler=another verb form= shouting
11. futre de la geule de quelqu'un=f--- of someone's geule=to laugh at someone

Voilà. Little slang lesson of the day.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

75 Things from Belgium

Here's some random things I've learned or never done before this year. Some are interesting, some are more just life skills or random tidbits I never had before. Happy perusing.

1.How to take a bus (don't forget to push the button to get off!!!)
2.How to eat with an upside down fork in my left hand
3.How to text (yes, I know, I'm weird, I never texted before this year)
4.Eaten nothing but fries with mayo for lunch
5.Danced in a flashmob
6. Bought a waffle from a vending machine
7. A little least I can say the name of the volcano!
8. How to take a train
9. Been to Catholic Mass
10. Used an ATM
11. Made Thanksgiving dinner all by myself
12. Been to Madame Toussaud's
13. Been to Amsterdam, Cardiff, Cologne, and so many other places
14.Said Bon Appetit before eating
15. Casually kissed virtual strangers
16. Paid to use a public restroom
17. Ignored a fire drill
18.Seen real Van Gogh, Bosch, Memling, Rubens, Magritte, and Van Eyck paintings
19. Saw a katydid
20. Slept with 5 dogs in my bed
21. How to effectively use fountain pens (this is harder than it sounds)
22. Stayed in a monastery
23.Read a French play
24.How to say 999 and cuss words in French
25. Sent 20 postcards at once
26. How to appreciate clean laundry
27. Sat on St. Nicolas' lap
28. Met Père Fouettard
29. Did my math homework in pen
30. Dreamt in French
31. Been asked if I was a real American
32. Ran outside and danced because it was snowing
33. Fed noodles to a chinchilla
34. Met someone from: Cameroon, the Faroe Islands, Brazil, Ecuador, Iceland, Iran, Turkey,Malaysia, Rwanda, Indonesia, and so many other places
35. Danced with a Mexican
36. Eaten raw meat regularly and liked it
37. Cried in a movie theater
38. Cooked without measuring devices
39. Had my own room
40. Gone through an entire school year without a textbook
41. Had a beer in a pub
42. Climbed the Eiffel tower. That makes 670 steps to the 2nd floor...
43. Navigated the undergroud all by myself
44. Been lasergaming
45. Gone rock climbing
46. Been inside the Moulin Rouge
47.Took a TGV first class
48. Had homosexual friends
49. Failed a final
50. A little Dutch
51. Watched CSI Miami in French
52.Been offered a cigarette
53. Been away from home for Christmas
54. Opened Christmas presents at midnight
55. Hoarded peanut butter
56. Stayed with Marie Jeunesse
57. How to dance 7 carrés
58. Stayed in a Hostel
59. Been mistaken for a Dutch speaker or an English person
60. Lived in a house with smokers
61. Had drinks in a bar with friends
62. Participated in Adoration (prayer from 2 to 3 am)
63. Went ziplining
64. Van Gogh is worth seeing in person and Picasso is not
65. Been to Disneyland
66. Been out until after the bars close
67. How to play pool
68. How to open and serve champagne and beer
69. Understood films entire in French
70. Drank boiling tea in hot weather
71. Never call Wales England
72. Belonged in another family
73. Found my way around a European capital without a map or cell phone alone
74. Spelunked
75. Had nightmares about leaving Belgium

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Blitzkrieg of Recent Life

Last Friday Jean-Pierre took the three of us girls to Ghent, known as one of the best cities in the world to visit and one of Europe's hidden jewels, according to tourist pamphlets. It was indeed pretty cool. We started with the cathedral, home of the Van Eyck brothers' masterpiece, the accordingly named Ghent Altarpiece. After staring at the enormous arches and the brilliant stained glass windows which were quite something in themselves, plus a Rubens painting, we paid the extra fee to see the enormous altarpiece. The level of detail in Flemish paintings is always incredible, but the Van Eycks took this to a new level. We're talking something like 37 recognizable plant species in a field scene. And even in person, good luck seeing even one recognizable brush stroke. And then there's the iconography and symbolism. Pretty much the Chuck Norrises of painting. Anyways, it was incredible and totally worth the extra fee.
After enjoying some tea in a little café we went to visit the Gravensteen, the local castle. We spent a good couple hours eyeballing swords that were taller than me, devious thumb screws, and looking out over the ramparts at the rooftops of Ghent. You just can't get away from history here. It's delicious.
Afterwards we walked through Graffiti street to visit a few flea markets. This relatively long alley was absolutely covered in graffiti, and the wall decorations are constantly added to. Nuclear bananas, skulls, poetry, you name it and it was somewhere on those walls. Someone even wrote 'I can't draw'. We came out onto a bustling friday flea market. I found a cheap cheese grater that greatly facilitated my carrot-cake making abilities, and we just had a good time looking over the little oddities that came out of people's attics. After a stroll across a scenic bridge or two we found our way back to the car and headed home. So we can check Ghent off our list of things to be done in Belgium.
Saturday Julia and I went to a Belgian-American barbecue for a fellow AFSer whose family from the US came to visit his Belgian family. It was cool to hear some American accents and see their reactions to Belgium. I had to remind myself not to kiss them hello. It was very weird. They brought real instant pink lemonade and taught Belgians how to make cheeseburgers, and the Belgians brought andalouse sauce and made fries, of course. What a great mix of cultures and people.
We spent Sunday through Tuesday in Libramont for our End of Stay AFS orientation, which was by far the best orientation we've had. We had more free time to spend with our buddies of the past year, and we spent much less time talking about problems than the midstay orientation. Generally everyone is at a high point in their experience, and so the biggest issue to be dealt with was the going home process. Which is nothing to be sneezed at. For some kids it's harder to go home than to go abroad. We read our AFS letters that we wrote to introduce ourselves at the beginning of the year; my goodness how things have changed. For me, I find myself much more independent and much more relaxed than last year. And there's so many other things that have changed. You cannot spend a year in another country, in another family, in another culture, and not change. We also wrote letters to ourself 6 months from now. We'll see what kind of surprises that yields.
When we weren't crying over saying goodbye or reflecting, we were laughing and signing flags and talking to future AFSers. We also had to make up skits about Belgium. Almost everyone made fun of how Belgians blow their noses, noisily and without shame, in otherwise silent, public places. All of us foreigners almost died laughing, and the poor Belgians in the crowd were scratching their heads wondering what was so amusing. The government, late trains, our bad accents, fries, beer, and Belgian sayings were also fair game. It's sad that soon almost no one around me will understand any of these jokes or even know where to find Belgium on a map.
I met several Belgians headed to the states soon, so I tried to explain tipping, sales taxes, the lack of bisous and nose-blowing, and some other important little tips so that they wouldn't be too shocked when they show up stateside. There are so many little things that change.
We hugged our Italian, Serbian, Finnish, Icelandic, Indonesian, and just international friends goodbye and thanked the Lord for the internet and facebook. All of us have a lot of visiting to do now. We have been so lucky to meet all these great people. This never could have happened to me in Alaska.
Wednesday I made an American Breakfast for Cécile, Pépé, the boys, and Fezzy. They had never seen my photos and meticulously prepared powerpoint presentation of Alaska, so I finally got to share that with them. I corrected my presentation first, luckily---I got quite a few chuckles out of my French a year ago. Cécile brought me her French cooking bible, so I have her amazing lemon pie and chocolate mousse recipes. Fezzy brought us some beautiful mugs with persian poetry that she made, and another friend sent us some photo albums she had made for us. And a timer with a hatching chick for me (I once cracked open a fresh egg here to find a wiggling, feathered, living embryo inside...I was scarred...but we got some laughs out of it later. Shudder). Anyways, we all ate pancakes and scrambled eggs and drank champagne (why not?) and had a great time together. I'm going to miss Wednesdays here.
Thursday Julia and I went to Lille to hit up the government mandated sales. Huzzah! We went H and Ming and found some nice, cheap stuff. H and M is super duper popular here, and is a must for all girls. It's also better than the branch in the US, apparently. I lost Julia at one point in the store and nearly resorted to screaming her name, but luckily for my dignity she found me. Finding a blond girl in a white H and M shirt in there was pretty nearly impossible. I didn't let her out of my sight the rest of the time, and we had good girl time.
That night we went to Brussels and pulled an all-nighter. We sat in the Grand Place, helping tourists take photos, and just chatting to people. We then went to Celtica, a local club and had a good time dancing all night. We hit up Mc Donalds around 5 in the morning just before they closed (they are required to close for an hour here. NOTHING is open 24 hrs) and caught the train at 6. We slept for 4 hours or so, then headed off to l'accrobranche at Tournai to climb some trees with some friends from school and Jade. We all survived, had fun in the sunshine, and had fun encouraging each other. And then we came home and slept some more.
Yesterday (finally getting close to the present!) the three of us went to Ghent again for a farewell party for a fellow American. We got to meet her family, and practice our handful of dutch words. Luckily they spoke more English than we do dutch. (me and Julia, not Jade. She's fluent). We had fun looking at funny names on a world map and playing with balloons and drinking bio juice with bio crackers. Her parents are pretty green.
I forgot to mention: I passed all of my classes. Bam.
And today the sun is shining, I have less than a week left in Belgium, and we're going to eat lunch and go for a promenade. And Frenchy is sleeping on top of the birdcage, Jade is playing African monastic chanting, and there are no dogs on the couch. Life is full of surprises. à la prochaine. Til next time.

Advice for Future Exchange Students

Here's some tips that I've found that might come in handy for you future AFSers out there:
1. ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING. Research about your country is great, but there's no way you can avoid being surprised. Being able to take it all in stride and adapt is key to having a good experience.
2. If you're American and used to the crazy non-metric system, convert important numbers (like your weight, height, the highest and lowest temperatures of your home, distances, etc.) and memorize them ahead of time so you can answer questions about your country.
3. For Belgium, pack warm clothes! Especially socks. Long Johns are not amiss either. Humid cold is not to be scoffed at, even by Alaskans. Warm, water-proof shoes are also important.
4. Bring photos of your home that you can carry around with you easily to share. Photos on a computer are great, but it's a lot harder to pass them around a kindergarten class.
5. Learn as much of the language as you possibly can before coming. It will make your life so much easier when you're trying to integrate.
6. Bring clothes that aren't tight. Eating is a way to participate when you can't communicate otherwise, and almost all exchange students gain weight.
7. If possible, get your hair cut before coming to Europe---haircuts here are crazy expensive. Salons charge around 30 euros a pop for women, and men are around 20.
8. Become Yes-man, especially at the beginning: get involved and try everything, even if you are exhausted. It's the best way to integrate and beat homesickness!
9. If you are a picky eater, do your best to get over it. Food is an important way to connect with others, especially if you can't talk much. Cooking for your family is also a great gift and a fun way to share your culture! Americans might consider bringing their own measuring cups.
10. Plan on buying a cheap cell phone or bring one that will work in Europe. Cell phones are just a matter of security nowadays.
11. Do consider bringing a computer; DON'T abuse it and become a hermit in your room. Americans: if you bring a computer bring a plug-in converter.
12. Be up to date on your country's politics and current issues so you won't be ignorant when someone wants to ask you about so and so's stance on such and such.
13. I would definitely recommend American Field Service as an exchange program. I have had absolutely no problems and many successes with them. Simply put, they rock.
14. Take photos, journal, blog, and just savor your adventure! Live it up!