Fitting in

Art Museum - Brussels
It's impossible to be bored in Brussels, especially at night. This was taken at an art museum, where burlesque performers weaved through visitors.

I have a Belgian friend who refers to me as his Belgian friend. Obviously, I am not Belgian, but my consistent willingness to meet him at a neighborhood bar on a Monday night has won me the title.

Apparently, he hasn’t met another American so open to hanging out on weeknights. And, coming from neighboring city Ghent, he doesn’t stay in Brussels on weekends and doesn’t have tons of Belgian pals at school.

It’s interesting, we Americans at our big universities are used to having our own bedrooms in apartments with friends, with large kitchens and spaciousness, while our parents only live a couple hours away. We never go home. The American college experience means to live independently (well, not financially) and grow up. In Belgium, students live at home with their parents while attending school. If that’s not feasible distance-wise, then they rent a tiny, tiny studio and return home every weekend.

Horses in the city
Horses grazing in the middle of the city? There's always more exploring to be done.

What is my point? My point is that it’s hard to make Belgian friends here in Brussels as a temporary student. It’s tough to make European friends in general, when you know and everyone else knows that you’re leaving in the not too distant future. I’m fairly certain my ISA comrades from last semester did not leave behind many local friends. When the time for goodbyes arrived, they were sad to be leaving each other.

That’s completely valid, of course. The study abroad experience immediately connects you to others in similar positions. Having Americans around is a comfort, and you get comfortable real fast.

I was determined not to let this happen to me. I was aggressively pursuing friends early on, which kind of worked, and I kind of came away with a legitimate local friend or two, and a lot of highly enjoyable acquaintances that I’ll realistically never keep in contact with upon departure.

Leuven, Brussels
I've been taking lots of day trips, like to Leuven, a cute medieval city less than 30 minutes away from Brussels.

In other words, I feel quite lucky, and I’m so relieved, again, to have two semesters to cement these friendships, because having just one semester would have made the task near impossible.

In other words, also, I’m feeling really comfortable and local. Hell, I even feel Belgian sometimes. I don’t feel that urge to explore new neighborhoods every day like I did just a few months ago, but I still always feel alive. I relax at home more. I have regular hang out spots. I think in Euros and Celsius. I say certain words with European accents. I’m fully caught up on my favorite American television shows. But at the same time, I know I’m leading an abnormally active life — quick, spontaneous daytrips to neighboring cities, weekend couchsurfing adventures, and hunting down the best in local eats and weird nightlife.

In other words, I’m amazed it has taken nearly seven months for me to feel semi-local in Brussels, and I am so content that I can still relish every day.

In other words, I was devastated when midterms came and went, meaning I have less than a quarter of my study abroad experience left.

In other words, I am not ready to go home.

Janelle Bitker
Brussels, Belgium
Academic Year 2011-2012

You can follow Janelle’s other travels on her personal blog www.janellebitker.com.

Author: Janelle Bitker

Janelle Bitker is a journalist based in Oakland, California.

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