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,