Our host mom, Martine, was watering flowers in the front yard when my roommate and I were leaving for our farewell dinner with the rest of the ISA gang. We hesitated on our way out — wait… is this the last time we’re seeing each other? Ever?
We tried to express our gratitude. “Martine, merci, BEAUCOUP. c’était incroyable!” We probably sounded silly.
Martine did not sound silly in the slightest. She was sad. She told us we were like her daughters, if only for four months. Then she cried.
Saying goodbye to Brussels was difficult. It wasn’t just a goodbye to a city that I came to cherish, or to Europe in general. It was a goodbye to an existence. It was a goodbye to the life that I built from scratch over the course of nine months — a life that I would never have again and a life I can only hope to visit a shadow of one day.
I’m being melodramatic. I can always visit Brussels.
I can always return to the Manneken Pis to giggle at the hoards of tourists in disbelief. I can always return to Place Saint Gery for coffee and cool-people-watching. I can always return to Place Saint Catherine for shrimp croquettes on the street, exceptional gourmet ice cream served by an exceptionally grumpy man, gooey almond croissants alongside organic honey beer bread…
But I won’t be living there. I will have no justification for pretending to be an expert on my surroundings. My French will be awful again, and I won’t be able to have silly exchanges with the silly locals all the time. And I won’t have the fantastic friends, the families, that made it all so memorable.
This “existence” can’t be replicated. It’s being an American 20-year-old studying abroad in the capital of Europe. It’s not being tied to anything except a few courses a week and self-inflicted desires for adventure, high-brow culture, epicurean delights and bizarre conversation. This existence could only last a year, which I acknowledge in full. Much longer, and a real life would start to form, and such fun is tough to maintain in a real life.
That free feeling could happen again. I could lead a more exciting life in the future. I could visit 15 new countries in another short-term stint abroad, somewhere, someday. It’s very possible. Yet, settling back in the States has so quickly made those dreams seem even more dreamlike. Brussels in itself feels like a dream that never really happened.
Less than one week ago, I was celebrating my last night in Belgium. There was a party, sponsored by my college, where the top floor to a swanky club was rented out. There was bottle service and flashy wristbands that said “VIP Guest.” We danced all night and said our goodbyes. Closure. A friend and I took a cab back out to the suburbs. To home. We sat on an apartment ledge, the cobblestones beneath our feet glittering from the rain from hours ago. Another friend took his cab to the airport. He waved goodbye, and that was it. The birds had already begun singing. We held each other and cried for hours. We slept for minutes. And then it was time for my own taxi, a gorgeous ride through the lush Eastern suburbs. Brussels winked at me as the sun came out for the first time in weeks.
The initial feelings about America, after coming back, are what you would expect. Everything’s so big. Everyone’s so wasteful. Everyone’s in such a hurry yet life is so slow. Consumerism. Consumerism. Consumerism.
I have photos and memories, but already, they somehow don’t feel real. I continually tell myself: “Yes, Janelle, that happened.” Speaking in past tense is sad enough, but not speaking at all, when no one around really cares, is quickly setting all those memories into sepia tones.
I’m ending this post with an excerpt from an email from a new friend, an amazing friend, from New York, who I met in Brussels, in a chance encounter that feels like long, long ago:
“When I returned from my first study abroad in Estonia, a close friend of mine from there left me with an Estonian proverb:
‘Kes on läinud välja maailma seal viibida.’
It roughly means:
‘Who has gone out to the world will stay there.’
So where do we wander to next my friend?
Academic Year 2011-2012
You can follow Janelle’s other travels on her personal blog www.janellebitker.com.