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,


  1. Hi Audrey, I've loved reading all of your blog posts from your exchange year. I've been considering doing an exchange program in either an English or French speaking country as I live in the US and have been taking French for 3 years (since 7th grade, and I'm going into 10th). I don't really know how to approach my parents about it. I would probably do the exchange program my Junior year, so 2013-14. How did you approach your parents about the exchange, and any advice? Thank you for blogging your experiences this past year and I hope you're enjoying your summer before college starts!

    1. Thanks so much! I would highly recommend doing the exchange program, if possible; it was one of the most exciting and worthwhile experiences of my life, despite its ups and downs. And it might not be as difficult approaching your parents as you might think. As I recall, I started thinking about doing an exchange my senior year when I was in 10th grade as well. I was really worried about asking my parents but ended up just saying something along the lines of "hey mom, what if I did AFS my senior year?" I had a few selling points lined up: I would already have finished the graduation requirements for my school, French was a subject that really interested me and challenged me, I would learn all about another culture, I would be more prepared to live on my own in college, I would become more responsible/independent, etc. Obviously you know your parents better than I do, so you might want to argue your case slightly differently, but those are the arguments I used. My parents were kind of surprised, but after they realized it was something I really wanted to do, they were really open to the idea.

      Presumably you're going with an organization (maybe AFS, but there's also Rotary, WEP, EF...), so you'd be living with a host family (so not entirely free of obligations or supervision, something parents like to hear) and will have a lot of support in case something goes wrong (I only have experience with AFS but I met exchange students in other programs and they all seemed pretty similar).

      There is so much advice to give to exchange students, but all I'll say is to take advantage of your time abroad. Think about your priorities there and do everything to make it happen: travel often, even if the timing/planning isn't perfect; hang out with people even if you don't know them well; speak French as much as your can, people appreciate the effort and will correct you if you ask them to, mistakes are how you learn. Keep an open mind and a smile at all times. Be thankful, and let people know that you are. Almost everybody I met approached their exchange differently but they all loved it. If you do get the opportunity to go abroad, have a great time and best of luck!

    2. Also, consider writing a blog! I've had a couple people (including you, thanks!) say they enjoyed reading it, and it also serves as a good journal. I felt slightly more obligated to keep up the blog than I did my journal, since my relatives etc. were reading it, haha.

  2. Hi, Audrey. I don't know that you still check your blog now that you've returned from Belgium, but I hope you can find time to answer a couple of questions I have about your experience. I'm looking quite seriously at applying to spend a gap year next year in Belgium.

    Did you look at other programs besides ASF? I checked out the programs you mentioned above, but it didn't seem like you could be a US student exchanging abroad. ASF is the only program I could find where I could exchange to Belgium, where I really want to go.

    How difficult was it for you to cover the costs? This is really my only fear about applying for the program. I realize fundraising really can help, but I'm still unsure if I could get all the costs taken care of. Also, if you don't mind, approximately what was your tuition charge? These costs change with time, sure, but old information would be a lot more helpful than TBD to get started thinking about how much I would need.

    I recently discovered your blog in my endeavor to apply to ASF, and it's been a lot of fun looking through! I really hope that I can enjoy a similar experience.

    Thanks, Pearl

    1. Hi Pearl. I didn't look much into other exchange programs. I knew AFS from my US school and hadn't heard much about anything else until I was already abroad. I certainly knew other Americans who were with Rotary and WEP, so even if it is difficult to find US-Belgium exchanges, they do exist.

      The initial AFS cost was very high (I believe Rotary is less expensive, but am not sure what it costs), about $12,000. However my school has an active AFS chapter and contributed significantly to my tuition. When I was applying, there was also a fundraising deal where AFS would match contributions from donors, up to several hundred dollars. I don't know if this is still in effect but it helped a lot.

      I really hope you find a way to go abroad. It was an amazing experience for me and I'm sure it would be for you as well.

      Best of luck!

  3. stumbled upon your blog. fellow AFS US-->Liège returnee (08-09). Really brought out the nostalgia for me.

  4. Your blog is awesome! I am thinking of going to Belgium in my senior year. How was the college application process abroad? Any troubles?

    1. Thanks! I highly recommend it. The application process being almost entirely online, the only real trouble I had was finding the time and motivation to write the essays early without having teachers and counselors constantly reminding you about it or making time for you to write. I would ask anyone you want to write a recommendation or read your essay drafts if they would do so before you leave, and get started early! I don't know how big your high school is or how well you know guidance counselors, but if it's a large school and they don't know you well, I would make an effort to keep in touch and make sure they're getting anything that needs to be printed sent in. Good luck!

  5. How much did your French improve over the course of your exchange?