I thought I would be ready to start exploring Belgium and the rest of Europe as soon as I stepped off the plane. But the overnight, direct flight from Washington, D.C. stirred in me only the desire to find the nearest bench on which to fall asleep. I pushed through sleep deprivation because I knew 120 days in Europe would be gone before I knew it, and I would be begging for one more day by the end of it.
Fast forward through the 4 days I spent in London, and my Brussels experience starts here. I left the train station and didn’t look back, eager to find my way in a city I knew nothing about. I knew I would have to become familiar with the city at some point, but walking is not the best way to do it. Brussels is a small city and certainly walkable with the right shoes, but I would recommend taking public transportation whenever possible.
On my very first bus ride, a local helped me tell the bus driver that I needed to get off at a stop about 10 minutes down the line. As any amateur would, I pressed my face up against the window trying to match the phonetic sound of my stop with the correct spelling, unsure of both. It was a guessing game, but another local noticed my state of worry and spoke to me in English, promising to let me know when my stop was. A few more locals promised to do the same. When I arrived at my stop, I hurried to gather my suitcase before the doors closed as a dozen passengers reminded me that this was my stop! They made me feel so welcome in the city, and it was just what I needed after struggling through the day without any sense of direction.
I didn’t walk more than a block until I noticed I had arrived at my new home. My homestay mother was welcoming and received me with the customary greeting. My roommate agrees that our living situation is nearly ideal. Delicious meals, warm hospitality, and a bold effort to speak with us in English make living where we do as comfortable as it is. My roommate and I are both taking an introductory course in French in hopes of one day having a substantial conversation with our homestay mother.
As with any new environment, I began to make observations about the locals and their culture. Here’s a list of just a few:
1) The price you see is the price you pay. Tax is already calculated into the amount, so it’s never a guessing game.
2) Shops open at 10:00AM and close when owners feel a full day’s work has been accomplished, which is not always the time labeled on the window.
3) Street signs are labeled in two languages, French or Dutch. You might get directions to a street with a French name when you are only familiar with the Dutch name. Street signs are tricky to find, so look carefully!
4) Locals have a laid back and casual attitude.
5) Conservation of water and electricity is important, and you should use only as much as you need.
6) Food: Eating chocolate is appropriate at any time for any reason. The French fries, called ‘frites,’ are incredible and eaten with every kind of sauce, except for ketchup. Waffles are delicious and are eaten as a dessert. Every sip of Belgian beer is to be savored and enjoyed.
Orientation week was a lot of fun as I got to meet the other students in the ISA program. They are a great bunch of friendly, likeable people. Orientation week was capped off with an excursion to The Netherlands, my highlight of the semester so far. By the second week, I had established a routine managing classes, friends, free time, and local events. Every weekend, markets set up in different parts of the city attract crowds of shoppers looking for the perfect treat or knick-knack. The Grand Place is beautiful, but even the best photograph cannot do this urban landscape justice. Most of the tourist activity can be found close to the Grand Place and on Avenue Louise, the main shopping district in Brussels. Studying abroad means your transition from tourist to local student can be as fast or as slow as you would like. The tourist sites are a must see, but you are going to run into them at some point during the semester, so start exploring the hidden treasure of Brussels’ 18 other municipalities right from the get-go.
Belgium’s central location within Europe allows me to travel shorter distances to the other countries I would like to see. I already have trips planned for Ireland, Hungary, France, and Germany, with more to come! Some classes at the university offer field trips to important international organizations like NATO and the EU. Those field trips are coming up soon, and I am signed up to go on both of them!
I didn’t know what to expect from my university before coming to Brussels. I didn’t imagine what the student body would look like, but I was pleasantly surprised to find out the student body is comprised of students from all over the world. In fact, most of the students aren’t from Belgium. The diversity of the student body has exposed me to a full spectrum of opinions on every subject that I would not have received had I stayed at my home university. My worldview is challenged, and I am reminded that I would be a fool to think as I have always thought, do as I have always done, and believe what I have always believed. And that is the most rewarding part of my experience so far.