December 24, 2010

On the Christmas season, missing home, and multiculturalism

The Bilans de Noël (the huge tests at the end of the trimester) are finished; the bulletins (grades/evaluations) have been passed out, and les vacances de noël/Christmas vacation have begun. Whoof.

The past couple weeks have been relatively crazy-- the bilans happened last week, and for the weeks before them everyone was studying hard. I took five (everyone else took more-- science, Dutch, math, Latin for some): of the tests  Art d'Expression (Theatre), FGS (Geography, basically), English (which, surprisingly, wasn't easy-- I had to write an essay in French about a topic given in English), plus two in French. For these exams, I played it cool-- I went into them not really knowing what to expect but ready to do my best. So, I can now say that I've experienced the exams of Notre Dame des Champs-- I'd call them a cross between finals and standardized tests (without bubbling or the stupid time limits-- they gave us two and a half hours to finish).

Anyway, the weeks leading up to the bilans were rather crazy at Notre Dame des Champs-- everyone was studying, somewhat stressed, and the teachers were continuing to assign work. That along with a crumbling bridge which has stopped the buses from running through Linkebeek (in the mornings my host mom drives me and my host brothers to the nearest stop) and the beginning of snow and ice (the amount of snow here right now is breaking records-- there's over ten centimeters!) has made the days rather tiring.

But, now, after everyone knows the results of the tests (I did well), tout va bien. And Christmas is in two days.


With the tests, and the days of school that began to seem identical, Christmas has seemed to come extra fast this year. And, for me, it's been strange.

People say that the Holiday season is one of the harder parts of the year for exchange students, and I agree with that. For me, I haven't been crying myself to sleep missing my family and my town and my country, but there are little things that trigger bits of homesickness. I can definitely shake them off-- I know my experience is amazing here and that I shouldn't worry too much about the American Christmas I'm missing this year, but they still come.

One of the biggest  things for me is Christmas music. Here in Belgium, you don't hear it as much as you do in the U.S. In fact, you listen to the radio, or walk into almost any store, and most of the time you hear the same pop music you hear any other time of the year. When you do hear a Christmas song, it's American, and often along the lines of "Santa Claus is comin' to town." Thing is, when I ask people here if they can understand the words, they're happy to tell me that no, nobody does--they just like the sound, the jingle bells and so forth. So, that makes it a little weird. For me, even though oftentimes the words are... should I say... not all that deep or meaningful, it's still nice to at least be able to sing along with them and know what's being talked about.

Another thing is the fact that there are not all that many Christmas lights here. It makes perfect sense-- most houses are at least three stories high but maybe only 20 or 30 feet across. That makes it almost impossible, and rather pointless, to put up a string of lights across the top of the house. It would look ridiculous. But at the same time, it makes the streets seem a little bit dark at times.

Also-- this is where it gets difficult to describe-- the feeling in general about the Christmas season here is just different.  The thing is, I think the celebration of Christmas is less of the "big deal" here that it is in the United States. Americans seem to be, in general, more ostentatious and excitable about the idea of a Christmas "season." In the U.S., it seems like the whole month of December is filled with Christmas concerts, Christmas parties, Christmas celebrations, etc.... There's Santa Claus and ho-ho-ho and mistletoe and presents for pretty girls (quoting Lucy from A Charlie Brown Christmas), and almost all the streets, all the houses, all the businesses are dressed up in garlands and lights. In the weeks before Christmas you can feel the anticipation and the excitement for the upcoming holiday. Here, it's a lot lower-key-- there are not tons of parties and concerts and celebrations--even in Brussels, a big city, you don't see the craziness of the Christmas season like you would in, say, Chicago. There are decorations--quite nice decorations, in fact-- there's a big Christmas tree in the Grand Place and lights over the streets-- but they just have a different feeling. It's a feeling very hard to describe....I guess the best way to describe it would be just more...European (I know you're thinking "like, duh," but it's the best I can do). Here, I guess you could say, the celebration of Christmas seems to be something much quieter--a day to spend with the entire family, give gifts but not tons, enjoy oneself but not necessarily make a huge production of everything. Really, a critic of the American way could say that Christmas here focuses less on consumerism and food, and more on family togetherness and quiet celebration. But really, I think the best way to describe it is as AFS told us before we left: "It's not good or bad, just different."

I guess the thing is, being an exchange student isn't only about seeing castles and becoming fluent in a new language. It also means spending a year-- Christmas too-- away from home and things familiar. And it means finding the differences-- not only the differences in food and sizes of cars, but in the subtleties of the culture like the attitudes about a holiday as well. As I left, I was ready to start in on that--in fact, that was one of my main motivations for becoming an exchange student-- to learn about and connect to a new and different culture. But it's a different perspective to be inside and experiencing that-- discovering a new culture and missing the familiar one at the same time.  But as I'm doing this, I feel myself developing new perspectives-- new perspectives on how to celebrate a holiday and new perspectives on both the culture of Belgium/Europe and of America.


However, in the midst of this cultural experience, I've found myself whistling/singing "Let it Snow," in all its jazzy style. It's worked, too--it has snowed like crazy. My host parents say they've never seen snow like this in their lives, and the commune of Uccle has run out of salt to clear the roads, which means there are no buses, and cars are sliding all over the place. For a Coloradoan, it's rather funny to watch someone with a squeegee or a broom trying to clear four inches of snow from their driveway. But oh well-- in extreme circumstances like this, I mustn't laugh.

Finally, back to the theme of multiculturalism, on the giant Christmas tree in the Grand Place, there are bunches of little star-shaped papers with Christmas/Holiday messages on them that visitors have written. Yesterday I took some pictures--

And, the buses even wish happy holidays. 

I'm going to try to post more holiday-type pictures tomorrow, but I'm not sure if I'll have the time. If not, I wish happy and peaceful holidays and joyeux et heureuse noël to everyone! 


  1. Cody wants to know if you liked the peanut butter.... :)

  2. We missed you SO MUCH at Christmas, but we're so glad you are having such an amazing experience. And we'll enjoy our next Christmas with you even more than ever!