January 27, 2011


As I write this, through my headphones, I'm listening to "On Danse," by Stromae, a Belgian francophone song that will forever remind me of my stay in Europe. I'm going to continue a techno-European-ish playlist of music to celebrate where I am right now: literally right in the middle of year as an exchange student in Belgium.


Today marks the point exactly between the day I started my life in Linkebeek,  Vlaams-Brabant, Belgium, and the day that I will leave it to recommence my life in the United States.

Periphrasing what I read in another exchange student's blog earlier this year (she was in the Southern Hemisphere), halfway is a lot of time that has passed, but still a lot of time that remains.

And the imminent question is, "does it feel like I'm halfway through?"

I can't answer that question.

But I'll talk about it anyway.


There's no way I can look back on the time I've been here and say, "it seems just like yesterday that I landed here," or "it's gone so fast!"  The month before I left my hometown seems like an entirely different life; taking off from New York seems like ages ago, and my first day in Belgium is a distant, brightly-colored blur.

The next three or so months after that really are a blur as well. It's very strange to look back on-- there are points that stand out, but others that run together. I can't look back and distinguish the difference between a random day of school in mid-September to a random day of school in late November, but I can remember seeing the Grand Place for the first time, or my first day of school.

I can also see the progress of the year--things have certainly changed since August. Of course, my French is a good indicator of that-- as I got here I could introduce myself in French, and talk about the weather and my cats, but that's about it. Today, however, in English class, I spoke more French than English, and after I came home I had a conversation with my host mom about French grammar: comment est-ce qu'on peut utiliser le temps subjonctif. I can walk into a store and have a conversation with the shopkeeper; I can shout directions in French to a group of 25 five- and six-year-old Baladins (Belgian scouts); and I can hold relatively deep conversations (albeit with lots of mistakes) about pretty abstract subjects like psychology or social theory. The constant feeling of not knowing what's going on because I can't understand what people are saying is no longer here, and I feel now more or less in control of my life--I can make my way throughout the day without being completely incapicated with a language barrier. I also am familiar with more and more of Brussels, and more and more of the country around me-- I've visited the other big towns of Belgium and found new amazing places outside of Linkebeek.
I can see that the year has progressed, and that it has changed me-- I am habituated to things today I'd never thought of before I left: I don't worry about eating raw meat; I wear a scarf when I go outside; I greet my friends in the morning by kissing them on the cheek; I eat Nutella on bread for breakfast almost every morning. I compare myself to who I was five months ago and who I am today, and they're not really the same person.

So, in some ways, halfway is a long time. I know that I've changed; I know that I have become able to communicate--not fluently, not perfectly, but at least communicate--in a second language; I know that I've learned a lot. But I know as well that I've been away from my hometown for half the school year already, and that I haven't seen mountains or smelled wet sagebrush or petted my cat or seen my family in person for five and a half months. So, I do feel the time.

But, it does seem fast at some points. As I look back on my time here, there's another part of me that says, "holy crap--am I really halfway through?" In the course of a lifetime, 5.5 months is not a whole lot, and I know I'm never going to have another five and a half months like the ones I've just had. After today, I will have the same amount of time that I've had since August to discover this country, to learn this language, to learn all I can and create as many memories as possible. I think to myself: will that be enough? Will, at the end of my stay here, I feel that I have lived my life here as best as possible? Or will I be wishing I'd tried other things or seen other places?

Looking forward into the year, I have lots of plans. My host family and I will be going on vacations, I'll have school trips and parties and scouts and lots of other things-- I'll be keeping myself busy. But I also know I need to make time to just be here-- to get all I can of the European lifestyle that I may never have again. And that is what I will try to do--that is what I hope I can do. 

All I can say is, within the past half of my stay here, I have seen many new and amazing sights, met many new and amazing people, and captured many new and amazing memories. And it's those things--those memories and sights and people-- that will stay with me throughout my life. And by the time July comes around, I hope to have twice as many.


January 20, 2011

Cinq mois

This week marks the five-month anniversary of the week my life changed.

Just thought I should mention that-- five months ago Monday I left Cortez, five months ago yesterday I left the United States, five months ago right now I spent my first evening in Belgium. Tomorrow will mark five months with my host family in Linkebeek.

I'll save the philosophical reflections for another time-- a time when I'm a little more awake and a little more concentrated. But for today, I'll write a quick portrait of today.

Right now, I'm seated in front of the computer writing this with my host brother Gaëtan playing on the Wii behind me. I just ate dinner-- a blended soup of poireaux, carottes, cèleri, et courgettes--leeks, carrots, celery, and zucchini, followed by une salade, des pommes de terre (potatoes) and de l'agneau (lamb). A typical Belgian meal-- soup followed by meat, potatoes, and another vegetable.

During dinner, I talked normally with my family in French.

At school today, my classes consisted of three hours of French, where I took notes about picture analysis, then two periods of English, where we watched a BBC video clip looking back at the A&E of 2010 and wrote about things we found interesting, then lunch, and then two periods of Dutch, where I sat and looked through a beginning-level Dutch vocabulary book as the other people in the class read articles that I didn't understand at all.

For lunch, my friends and I traced our usual path to the sandwicherie (where I bought a tuna sandwich on a baguette) then to Delhaize (the supermarket, where I bought a bar of chocolate, partly to wake me up and partly to celebrate my Belgium anniversary), then back to the school. There, we sat and talked, finishing our lunches and throwing Kinder chocolate bar wrappers at each other.

I understood probably 98 percent of the French that I heard today. A couple times I had to have people repeat themselves, and a couple times I ran into an expression I didn't know. But that's a lot more than I would have understood five months ago.

And speaking French has become a lot easier in five months as well....Even though I still make errors, it no longer is hard for me to carry on a conversation. I'll talk more about le français at a different point in time. 

After school I got on bus 43, direction Braves, headed toward Linkebeek. I got home, changed clothes, and took a run, winding my way through narrow paths between houses, cobblestone roads, and forest trails. The entire time, I knew where to go.

And tonight, as I write this sentence, the time is 22:43, rather than 10:43 p.m., and I need to go to bed. Because tomorrow, I need to wake up at 6:50 so I can get ready to catch the bus to be at school by 8. I have P.E. class tomorrow first thing in the morning-- we're going to play tennis.

So, I should go to bed.

Mais voila-- described above is a normal day for me in Belgium . I think it's perfect kind of day to mark five months here.


Voila--my third set of pictures of my adventures exploring Belgium. The day after I went to Ghent, I went to Bruges (pronounced brooje in English) with some other exchange students-- six Americans and one Icelandic. It was a cool trip-- great to see the people who instantly became my friends as we left our home country.
It rained the entire time, however, which was annoying... cut down on our motivation to wander around the narrow streets and alongside the canals.

Also, for that reason, I didn't take as many pictures as I did for the previous two posts. But I took a few, and my friend Lila let me steal some off her Facebook album, so below are some photos.  At another point, the next time I go (and maybe there will be sunshine), I'll take some more-- it truly is a beautiful city.

Anyway-- Bruges is another of the old, old Flemish cities--it's been around for a good 1000 years. In the middle ages, it was one of the most thriving cities in Europe-- it was a seaport, which brought merchants and traders, importing and exporting goods. 

Full of canals, beautiful old medieval buildings, and history, it was pretty cool.

View of the city from the top of the belfry (belltower)


Inside one of the many churches in the city

Even though it was somewhat touristy, the carriages added a nice historic flair

The courtyard of the belfry

Groot Markt/Grand Place/Central Square

The Americans, in the top of the belfry.
Bruges was pretty cool-- it made me really want to return on a day with better weather.

But as my friend Liam and I got on the train headed southwest, I was content with the day. 


 It was January sixth, which marks the day of Epiphany. After I got back to Linkebeek and my host family and I finished eating dinner, we had the traditional galette des rois (king's cake), a cake with a pastry crust and fragipane (sweet almond paste) inside. Also inside the cake is a little fève-- a small trinket. The person who gets the fève in his or her cake gets to be the "king"-- complete with crown.

Tradition says that for the pieces to be fairly distributed, the youngest person has to go under the table and say to whom each piece goes.

In this case it was Diego.

And, he was lucky-- the little plastic statue was in his piece, so he got to be king.

A little bit of culture--even if it's simple. J'aime bien.

January 15, 2011


This is the second post about my Belgian adventures during the Christmas vacation. Last Thursday, I went to Gent. 

Gent is a city in Flanders, about a 40-minute train ride northwest from Brussels. Like most of the cities here, it has been inhabited for over 1000 years with a long and complex story of rises and falls, successes and declines, buildings and plunderings. During the middle ages, it thrived-- it was one of the biggest cities in Europe, second only to Paris.

Many of the buildings from that time period remain, so I headed there to see what I could find.


Getting off the train, I headed through the train station that looked rather medieval in itself (well, not really--it was built in 1912, but still...), with low arches underneath the tracks. 

I got out of the station to find a square court, completely full of bikes. There were tons--it was pretty cool.  Flat Flanders and its fiets...  

I circled around this square a few times, trying to figure out how to get into the city center (the train station is maybe 2 km south of the main part of the city). The first thing I noticed was the complete and total lack of French, and therefore the lack of a language I could understand. Everything here was in Dutch-- not at all like the signs in Brussels written in two languages. I wandered around the square, looking at the tram maps and trying to figure out where I was supposed to find the tram stop to go to the centrum. I finally found a sign that said something along the lines of wil u narr het centrum? and it told me to take tram 1.

That seemed logical, so I got on. 

And, with the help of another exchange student I happened to be sitting next to on the tram, I got off at the right stop. 

After a three-minute-or-so walk, I came upon this cathedral, Sint Baafskathedraal (thank you Wikipedia, on the spelling), known as St. Bavo's cathedral in English. 


An amazing building, it has sat in the same spot (albeit in different forms--sometimes getting expanded, sometimes getting plundered by reformers) for over 1000 years. 

I went inside, but respected the posted request to not take pictures. 

Across the cathedral was the belfry ("belltower" in more popular English), which has been around since the 1300s. 

I decided to check it out.  

Going up the stairs, I found myself in a high, arched stone room. In it were the old dragons that had lived on the top of the tower. If you click on the image above, you may be able to see the current dragon perched on the top of the tower. The one pictured below is about 150 years old. 

I went up the elevator (I couldn't find the stairs), and the in next room I found was the drum for the carillion. Each little black nub on this drum pulled a lever which rang a bell overhead--similar to the principle of a music box. Every 15 minutes or so it would play a song. 

Up a few more stairs and I was on the higest accessible level, 

with a gorgeous view of the city. 


I was intrigued by the other church I saw, so I headed back down the steps to check it out. 

I stopped for a second to look at some of the old bells

And to capure an interesting perspective through a tiny window  

and to get another picture of the belfry,

and of some statues of jesters on one of the roofs. 

Finally, I got inside the church (Sint-Niklaaskerk), and was breathtaken, as I usually am whenever I enter one. 

After a little while exploring inside, wondering how many tons of stone were in the building, I entered back onto the street, and crossed the bridge over the river: 

Ghent was built on the intersection of two rivers, the Scheldt and the Lys, which has made it a capital for merchants and traders--they built many of the beautiful buildings on the just facing the river. 

I decided to play a classic tourist and take a on a canal boat tour-- mainly because it was freezing cold and I wanted someplace enclosed. So I joined the group of people on the glass-covered boat, and heard narration in three languages (Dutch, French, and English) as the boat idled slowly up and down the river.

 The three towers--St. Nicholas' Church, the belfry, and St. Bavo's Cathedral, viewed from the canal. Very picturesque, I thought...

They were quite pretty-- I got a good view of the buildings and some of the other boats from a nice perspective.  

This, according to the tour guide, was the only remaining building in Gent with a wooden façade. She pointed out how it was built with overhanging levels to keep the rain from destroying the wood. 

The castle. In the keep, according to the tour guide, there was a very well equipped (and well-used) torture chamber, used in the middle ages. 

After the boat tour, I hung out a little bit longer around town, taking in the setting. Some of the buildings were really cool, radiating a sense of old richess. 

There were lots of other things I wanted to see, including a folklore museum and the place where the Treaty of Ghent was signed to end the War of 1812,  but it was starting to get dark and my hands were freezing, so I decided they could wait another day. So I found tram 1 and took it back to the train station, getting there (luckily) in time for the next train back to Brussel-Suid. 


It had been a pretty cool day. 


For the vacation, I made a goal for myself: to explore Belgium. I fulfilled that as best as I could--I visited some new places, looking beyond Linkebeek and Brussels. In the next few posts, I'll share three new cities I visited (all in Flanders): Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges. First is Antwerp. 

 Called Antwerp in English, Anvers in French, and Antwerpen in Dutch, it is the second largest city in Belgium and a giant port-- the second largest in Europe. There have been people living in the area for over 1500 years, and the history of the city is colorful, complete with religious wars, riots, occupations, seiges, and plagues. Today it is the capital of the Belgian province of Antwerpen, the most populated province in the country, with around 1.7 million people. 

 I went to Antwerp with my host family-- we drove 45 or so minutes almost directly north from Linkebeek through the fields and over the canals of the Flemish region of Belgium.

The first thing we looked at as we got there was the train station. Built at the turn of the 20th century, the architecture is incredible.

Allegedly there are tourists who come to Antwerp and think the train station is a church.

After taking a look at that, we headed towards the center of town. On the way, we passed lots of bikes, both with riders and parked on the sidewalk like this. Because Flanders is almost completely flat, biking is really easy-- almost everyone owns a bike, it seems. It made me a little jealous-- it's not that easy to do in Brussels....because in Brussels not everyone owns a bike, there's a huge risk of your bike getting stolen.

We continued down the streets, passing old, Flemish-style buildings, built in the 15- and 1600s, when the artisans and traders in Antwerp were some of the richest in Europe.

Today the streets like this are still very chic, filled with clothing stores, waffle stands, and chocolateries.
One of the chocolateries caught our eye-- this one had chocolate sculptures:

They also had a flavors of chocolate pralines I hadn't seen before, including banana, mint (made with real mint leaves) and...wasabi. Weird. Gaëtan, who tried it, said it didn't taste very much like wasabi at all.  

We came into the center of Antwerp. The tower that you can see is that of Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal, the city's cathedral. 

Here it is from a closer view:

We came into the Grote-Markt (Grand Place in French), which was like a smaller version of Brussels'.

From there, we headed towards the river. My host mom Aude got a picture of me with the cathedral in the background:

And here's the Scheldt river, which connects Antwerp to the North Sea. This river is what has made Antwerp so important throughout the years-- it allows ships to reach the city, and from the city these ships have been unloaded and the cargo distributed all around Europe.

Like any old European city, the castle at Antwerp still stands. I didn't get a whole lot of history on it--it's all very complicated-- but it was an impressive building. 

Here's a view of an Antwerp street from the other side of the castle:

After seeing that side of the river, we went down two old wooden escalators 

into a 1/2-kilometer-long tunnel, that went underneath the river. 

From the other side, I got this panoramic view of the city--click on it to get a larger version. The bank isn't really curved like that, it's just because I didn't have a tripod, which made the angle kind of messed up.

After trip back through the tunnel, we passed a rommelmarkt, kind of like a flea market/giant yard sale. There was someone selling beer glasses--lots of beer glasses. It was quite a Belgian thing. 

After lunch, we visited the Museum Plantin-Moreus, the preserved estate of Christophe Plantin (pronounced plahn-TAN) , an influential 16th-century printer who lived in Antwerp. 

The museum had preserved the look of a 1500s mansion, full of Flemish tapestries and beautifully carved heavy wooden furniture. It showed the type of place a very well-off merchant at this time period had. 

Christophe Plantin was a French printer and bookmaker who moved to Antwerp and started his trade. At the time period, books were just becoming a big deal because with the invention of the printing press, books no longer had to be written one-at-a-time by monks. This made them marginally more common, and allowed printers like Plantin to get very rich. 

In this museum were thousands of books Plantin had printed--mostly bibles and books relating to religion. Below is a book with chants for mass: 

And an old bible, printed in Latin, as was the custom:

These books were printed with removable type-- something pretty impressive. Thousands of lead pieces (called "sorts") with every character imaginable were lined up--by hand-- to create the books' words.  


The workers would ink the letters, and press them onto the paper using these presses. 

This museum actually held the world's oldest surviving printing press: 

Maybe it was just because I was in journalism and got interested in typefaces, but this boggled my mind: you know the font "Garamond," that you can still find in Microsoft Word today? All seven sets of the original typefaces--the typefaces that Garamond himself made-- are at this museum. I know it's nerdy, but I found that pretty impressive.

And to look around at the books in the shelves and think that they contained thoughts and information from 500 years ago-- that was also pretty incredible. 

One of the things where this idea was really evident was looking at the maps. You can see how Brussels was laid out in the 16th-century-- the Grand Place is right in the center, and many of the streets around it look the same today. 

Also incredible was to look at the globe: 

It really showed how people here in Europe in the 1500s viewed the world. In the display case, the globe was tilted the wrong way (which resulted in a somewhat blurry picture), but the representation you can see below is what people in Europe knew of North America:

The strangely-formed country is what we know now as the United States and Canada. 

After a long time at that museum, we headed back onto the streets of Antwerp. We passed some pretty impressive architecture: 




Another thing that Antwerp is known for is its diamond trade. Each day, billions of dollars worth of diamonds are traded in the 1-kilometer-square "diamond district" in Antwerp. It amounts for about 7 percent of Belgium's GDP. 

As it got dark, we took a quick look into the some of the windows: 

And these weren't even the best-- it was too late for us to go all the way inside the district--most of the stores were already closed. I'll check it out another day....

 Finally, right before we left, we went to one of the two Starbucks in the country of Belgium. While I normally campaign against Starbucks in the U.S., this was the only place I've seen where I can get a cup of American-style drip coffee. It was a little bit of nostalgie.  

I ordered a very large coffee and felt the effects of the caffiene the entire ride home. Buzzzzzzzzzzz....