Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Then we came to the end

I've been back in the US for not quite three weeks.  I've been back at my house for not quite three days.  (And non-consecutively, too.)

In the past month, I've been so busy, not only physically, but emotionally processing my return, that I haven't found the time to write anything down.

The last few weeks of my exchange were surreal.  I met up with exchange students often, went out often, partied often.  I went to Paris with an American friend.  I saw the start of the Tour de France, which was pretty awesome.

I had to move to a temporary family because my host family was going on vacation, so I spent a couple days packing/unpacking (it was like a practice going home and saying goodbye) and getting to know the new family (they were so, unbelievably nice, especially to someone they knew would only be in their lives for about a week and a half).

There was what they call the end-of-stay orientation, a three-day meeting that was supposed to be an opportunity for us to see each other again and say goodbye and to prepare us for our final days and imminent return.  As it usually went with the big orientations during this year, all the exchange students felt that we spent too much time doing activities that were probably important but that we ignored and didn't have enough free time to socialize with our friends.  In all fairness, I'm sure that it's nearly impossible to arrange a schedule that will make everyone happy and I'm sure the activities (although repetitive) had some value, but in our defense, at the end-of-stay, nobody really wants to make new friends-- we're leaving in a week, we just want to spend time with the people we love but don't know when we'll see them again.  And when you leave a group of exchange student friends alone, they will most likely talk with each other about their problems and concerns much more freely than they would in front of semi-strangers and older volunteers.  But enough ranting.  I still managed to have a lot of (fun) time visiting with my friends, and between them, goodbyes, and activities, I managed to cry every day of the orientation.

I went to a fourth of July party at one of the Americans' houses the last time I saw several people and the last time before the plane ride I saw the Americans.  I also got to meet some cool Belgians, but like I said before, although I enjoyed talking to them and using my French while I still had the opportunity, I wasn't really looking to make friends.

And then, after another day of packing and repacking and weighing my luggage (my initial attempt at my suitcase was about 20 pounds over the limit), plus one day where my host family took me out to a nice dinner at a local restaurant and gave me a watch to remember them and Belgium by (the nice Ice watches I had been admiring all year and they didn't even know!  I love them!), July 7th came around and I flew home.  It was simultaneously the longest and the shortest day of my life.  One minute I was in Belgium, the next (30 hours later...) I was at my house in Maine.  More accurately, one minute I was waking up at 5am Belgium time (11pm the previous day, EST), spending a couple hours getting to the airport, spending an agonizing amount of time saying goodbyes to my family before security, sitting on a cramped airplane for 8 hours, dragging my way overweight carry-on throughout JFK getting to my much-delayed connection and spending my entire layover being sad about leaving the other Americans, and driving 2 1/2 hours to my house; the next, I was there.

It was not weird waking up in my house the next morning, which was really weird.  I knew where everything was: clothes I hadn't brought to Belgium in my closet, files on my computer, everything in the kitchen.  I had a bunch of friends over and we did exactly the same thing we did the last time I saw them before I left.  I took a bike ride around town and didn't notice any changes.  The only thing that I could tell was different was me:  I struggled to find the English equivalents for my words in French, I had an endless number of stories and observations about Belgium, I wanted more adventure and excitement than I had before, I tried to talk about subjects that are apparently only interesting to exchange students.

Since I left the next day to visit my family in Wisconsin, a several-week trip that has been a whirlwind of driving, seeing relatives, swimming and other water sports, giving slideshows, my cousin's wedding preparations and her wedding, a visit to Dartmouth (my future college campus), and more driving, I can't really say if I've adjusted to "normal" life any more than I had.  I still think and dream sometimes in French, but I no longer have problems with English.  I've learned to limit talking about Belgium to a few key sentences when asked and anecdotes only when extremely relevant.  I haven't gotten over the fact that the people I saw so often are no longer a short bus or train ride away, or that things I saw everyday I may never see again.

Looking back on my year now is such a bizarre thing to do.  While there it felt like each day went by slowly, even if it was fun and activity-filled.  It didn't quite feel like the literally once in a lifetime experience that it was:  I realize now that I will never be in Belgium again with the same people, opportunities, and mindset I was for the past 10 months.  It felt often like the most difficult thing I'd ever experienced, and often like the best time of my life, as well as all the feelings between terrible and truly amazing.  Thinking of the best, and the worst, times I had in Belgium brings tears to my eyes because only looking back on it do I see just how incredible my time there was.  It is probably the most important thing I have ever done, something I would not change if given the chance.  Because I am a new person now, a year older physically and much more aged mentally.  I have learned more about myself and people than I ever thought possible, as cheesy as it sounds.  It's hard to put everything I'm feeling into words, even just in my head or to other exchange students, so I think it's probably impossible to convey to the world, especially without speaking.  So for now, all I can say is that I had an awesome (in the true awe-inspiring meaning of the word) year and loved it.  If you ever get the chance to do something similar, I highly recommend you seriously consider taking it.  Despite its many difficulties it is worth every second.

And now, the last of my goodbyes.  I could say 'au revoir,' as I did with so many people in Belgium, but like with so many of the au revoirs that I said, I wouldn't mean it.  In all likelihood, I'll never see this blog again, never write again, never find all the Belgians and non-Belgians that I met.  And so I say a heartfelt adieu, wish you the best in the rest of your life, and hope that I had some sort of positive impact on your life.  Even if I never know it, that kind of thing is important to me.

Adieu, bisous,

Thursday, June 21, 2012

School's out for ever

Yesterday afternoon I got to briefly see all my (former... how odd is that) Belgian classmates as they all flocked to the school to see their results from the exams.  Nothing specific, but in the front lobby, there were six sections (one for each grade) of papers hung up on the walls: lists of all the students and whether they were "admis(e)" into the next grade or to university, whether they had a "repêche" or several (summer classes and a second final to hopefully allow them to move up a grade in August), or "refusé."  There were tears of joy and some disappointed faces, depending on the result, although I was surprised to see how few people were "refusé."  It seems you can have quite a few "repêchages" before they decide that you actually failed.

I was refusé... I made a few jokes about it to my friends (most of whom passed without problems, and were thrilled to have a nice, long vacation ahead of them), but when I said goodbye, I surprised myself by tearing up a little bit.  Not that I was upset about not passing... I wasn't expecting to.  Some things, especially remembering details for history or analyzing texts in French are just a little too difficult for me to do up to standard.  And I'm sure my pay-attention-in-class-but-don't-waste-your-time-with-studying philosophy didn't help much.  I've already been accepted into university back home, so I find it more worthwhile to travel and hang out with other AFSers than to pore over all my photocopies (did I ever mention that there are no textbooks here, only photocopies of courses?).  But seeing my name and my result printed out in such official black ink made everything seem so final.  I will go back to Liège 1 once more next week for the "remise de bulletins" but after that I say goodbye to it and everyone associated with it, possibly forever.

The past week has been full of moments like this, which goes along nicely with the intermittent rain that I've started to get used to here (I hardly go anywhere anymore without my semi-waterproof jacket, sunglasses, and sometimes even an extra pair of socks).  Since everyone's out of exams, exchange students and Belgians alike have been meeting up to hang out and, often, party, all the time.  Last weekend was quiet, save for a short shopping trip with two of the Bolivian girls I know, who, despite worrying about how they were going to fit all their clothes into their suitcases on the way home, managed to take home quite sizable shopping bags.  But Monday I had a sleepover/pajama party with a friend in Leuven, complete with movies and candy and ghost stories.  Wednesday there was a pretty good party in Liège to celebrate the end of exams as well as to say goodbye to more Rotary students (their departure dates are spread out far more than the dates for AFS).  It ended with five of us heading to Brussels to give one departing student a chance to try absinthe before they left-- we all enjoyed the lighting the sugar on fire bit, but actually getting the stuff down was a bit trickier-- and then slept over in nearby Gembloux.  It's strange to go from extremely content to sad and back again so often in a night; to go from laughing and joking with one another to not knowing if you'll ever see each other again.  I borrowed 5€ from one of the Rotary boys and promised to pay him back next week in the carré, only to realize that there probably wouldn't be another carré for him since he leaves next week.  It really is the weirdest feeling.

On the one hand, I keep telling myself that I have just over two weeks left (plenty of time!), but on the other... 15 days and this entire year becomes a memory.  They are 15 full days, with parties, trips, orientations, and even one final move planned (my host family's annual vacation overlaps with my departure, so I will be staying with some AFS-oriented family friends for my last week), but that can only go so far.  All I can do is try as hard as I can to make them count; to take pictures and make memories that won't fade into the dreamlike, did-that-really-happen quality that so many memories have.

Wish me luck!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Graduation (just a little late...)

Hey guys, so it's been a pretty long time since I've written, and I don't really have an excuse. Finals? Of really. I only have one a day, which takes a couple of hours grand maximum since they're (almost) all oral. I'be already taken English, a written and oral Geography exam, and Bio. Even if it's a pretty good deal for me to go in to the city, spend a couple hours at school, hang out all afternoon, then go home at the normal time, I'm still a little jealous of all my classmates in Maine that graduated last weekend, before I even started finals! It was pretty weird to see all the photos of graduation online and hear from everybody how great it felt to finally graduate. This is one of the few things that have made me homesick all year; at my school in Belgium, we have a "remise des bulletins" which is as close to a ceremony as they seem to get in schools, but there are no caps and gowns or speeches, and the jazz band won't play. (It does make me laugh to think that, in all the years I've been in the band, the one graduation I don't make it to is my own.) I do know enough about graduations to be able to tell people hear that we really do ear the funny outfit like in the movies and that we really do throw the hats in the air at the end. Which is almost as good. And I do feel slightly better talking to some of the other exchange students, who seem to feel kind of the same way about missing graduation; that it was totally worth it to leave, so it shouldn't really be sad, but it still kind of is. Although I'm wondering if part of it is knowing that the year is almost over. I'm ready to go home, I think, to move on to the next thing, but it's still hard to think about going home. I've finally gotten used to life here and made friends; it doesn't feel like I should have to leave that behind. I would guess this is how most people feel at graduation, though, so maybe I'm not actually missing much. And at least I have 3 weeks of goodbye partying after school ends insteadbid just one 'project graduation.' À la prochaine!

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Finals start next week at Liège 1: two weeks of oral exams causing all my Belgian classmates to STRESS!

I'm not really sure why, though... sure, tests might be graded more harshly here, and having a one-on-one exam with the professors is more intimidating than having a written test, but grades here don't seem to matter nearly as much as in the States.

While, back home, the goal is always 100%, an A+, the best grade possible in order to get into the best college possible, here the goal is to pass.  At 50%.  Since, as far as I can tell, anyone with a high school diploma and ±800€ a year can go do university (catch the note of jealousy in my voice?  As someone who spent hours on applications and will graduate with her fair share of loans, I think it's justified) and since no Belgian university is inherently or outstandingly better than the others, there is no need for anything more.

Obviously I'm not saying that Belgians don't want good grades, or that their parents don't want them to get good grades, or that people here aren't going to study more than I probably ever did for my finals.  But the mindset going into the exams is entirely different.

Today, when we received out bulletins for the 3rd period, everyone spent the hour of "ask questions and review for the exam" time in French to count up their "points d'avance" (extra points) to see what grade they needed to make at the exam to pass the year.

I'll use my grades in English as an example, since they're my best ones (cheating, I realize):
                1st period:   16/20 = 6 points d'avance
                Exam Noël: 27/30 = 12 points d'avance
                2nd period:  19/20 = 9 points d'avance
                3rd period:   19/20 = 9 points d'avance

                Exam June: 36 points d'avance

To succeed, I need half the 60 points possible at the exam, which I already have, and then some.  This means I could literally walk in, say "Bonjour, au revoir" and pass English for the year.  (I'm not going to do this, in case you were wondering.)  I don't think that any Belgians have this many points d'avance, but there are some in my class who only need 5 - 10 points on their exams.  Since passing by a large margin doesn't make a huge difference, they can take it easy on the studying.

Not that I'm jealous, having already done what I need to graduate high school and be accepted to college, I can take it easier than any of them.  So there! haha

Monday, May 28, 2012

Voyage, Voyage, Voyage!

That is my advice for exchange students or any people spending a year, semester, trimester, or any other extended period of time in Belgium.  And do it with other exchange students!  C'est trop bien!

This weekend I met up with two of my favorite Bolivian AFSers (who have dubbed me an 'honorary Bolivian' because I often crash their outings) who were showing around a Bolivian girl in Germany who came to visit them in Belgium.  We all went to Antwerp on Saturday afternoon, which was a very different outing from the one I had with my Belgian friends.  We did a lot more "touristy" things, like visiting the 'Grote Markt' (Grand Place) and the port, which was really beautiful.  It was finally hot in Belgium, so I enjoyed wearing around a summery dress and soaking up the sun.  I even had to wear sunscreen!

After a few good hours of walking around the city and a stop for a refreshing drink (at a thai restaurant... something that one of the others knew), we went back to the house of one of the Bolivians to swim in the pool (which also had plants on one end and fish!) and eat dinner.  We all four managed to fit in one bedroom, even if we didn't get much sleep; we had spent a lot of time in the pool trying to touch the fish, which were always far too fast.

The next morning we went to Brussels: saw the Grand Place, Manneken Pis, the Royal Palace, one of the big parks, and of course ate a waffle.  We also took after some other AFS students we had seen in Antwerp and went around offering 'free hugs.'  It was a lot more fun that I thought it might be, and we got all kinds of reactions: strange looks, people taking photos, one British family even told us that Jesus loved us for being so kind.  It was also quite surprising how many people said no to a hug and changed their mind when we said "but it's free!"

In Antwerp train station

So excited!


That evening, while the others continued to Dinant, I split off to join a few other Americans in Arlon for a festival there: MaiTrank.  I'm not entirely sure what it's all about, but it seemed to be the whole town getting together to celebrate the end of May with music, games, beer, a big "beach" in the town square, and general merriment.  We all crashed at one of the nearer-by American's houses (I love how so many exchange students and host families are willing to let me randomly spend the night!) after the party.

I don't have school today, thanks to Pentecost, a holiday which I don't entirely understand, but which worked out well for me beaus it meant I could go through all my photos today!

Only one more week of school before exams!  It's crazy how much time has gone by so fast!
À la prochaine!

Monday, May 21, 2012

They say it's your birthday...

For once in my life, I've actually been able to sing the "it's my birthday, too, yeah!" line, and mean it.  Not to brag or anything, but yes, yes it is my birthday.  And thanks to Facebook, even the people in my school who I've talked to on a few occasions, added as a "friend" to be polite and to see what they're up to know that.  Which means that I've had more people say 'happy birthday' to me today than I usually did in Maine just because of the sheer size of my Belgian school.  Who doesn't love getting told happy birthday?

Especially by foreigners (I realize that I'm the foreigner, but that's beside the point); whether it's in French ("joyeuse anniversaire") or in English with an accent (as many of them would say, "ahppy bearthday Ohdray"), it's a lot of fun.  I had a couple of people make fun of each other for their accents and argue over which one was "better."  As I always say (and almost always mean), I like all the accents, and think they're usually pretty adorable.  Plus, I don't want to give them any openings to make fun of my own, which, while getting less noticeable, is still there on a lot of words.

All in all a pretty good day:  I won more than often at cards at lunch– while dealing out the first hand of "President" I told them that they had to let me win because it was my birthday.  I don't know if it was coincidence or if they didn't understand it was a joke, which happens sometimes, but I was the "trou de cul" a lot less than often.  (Thank you, French, for making things sound more polite.)  I also went out for a waffle after school, and even though it started to sprinkle a little bit, the weather was nice and warm.  I even got home to find a couple of cards for me from the States!  I feel so loved :)

Well, you just read your first post by an 18-year-old!  À la prochaine!

P.S.  On a completely unrelated note, I was marveling at the English language today:  my teacher handed out a list of 10 verbs (come, cut, fall, get, go, keep, make, run, take, turn) and 10 prepositions (away, back, down, in, off, on, out, over, through, up) and asked us to make at least 20 "phrasal verbs" (basically just verb+preposition).  I made my 20... then about 50 more.  I still can't get over the fact that you can add one (or 10) little word(s) after a simple verb to give it a new meaning.  It's so cool to think about English this way!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

100 jours and other bêtises

Normally, as the days until the end of the year dwindle down to a tiny 100, schools across Belgium have fêtes de cent jours.  These seem to vary from school to school, (in style and in date... seeing as my 100 jours was about 70 jours late) but all include the rhétos (seniors) dressing up in costumes.  At Liège 1, people in costumes ranging from superheros to cartoon characters to religious figures (I was surprised, too, to see at least four monks, a nun, and a rabbi) had a "flash mob" during the break, followed by a massive squirt gun fight and an after-school barbeque for the rhétos.

Me (a superhero) with two Standard de Liège (soccer) players
and 3 of the four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

With a "pregnant" teenager and a character from a French ad campaign
(look hereor here to see a sample)

The flashmob was a little less spontaneous and less well-organized than might have been ideal, but still fun.  We were supposed to do "Thriller" but the dance turned out to be too hard to learn for us and it got changed at the last minute to the "Cha Cha Slide," which somehow ended up still being too complicated, but a good time.

The water fight got a little crazy, and ended up being everyone getting revenge; I would get caught in the crossfire between two classmates, send a little splash at whoever had initiated it, and things would spiral upwards until people were filling up buckets and dumping them over each others' heads.  It was a sunny day, at least, which meant that we dried off relatively quickly, but the floor of the locale turned into a pretty muddy sloop.

We all went out into the carré afterwards, in costume, to show off, which was doubly fun for me because I could show off to all the other exchange students there as well.

(Just to brag a little more, I'm now enjoying a 4-day weekend, including a trip to Gent tomorrow, haha! Go Catholicism being a big deal in Europe!)

À bientôt!