Thanks, from Belgium

Being away from your family, your friends and your familiar home is tough during the holidays. Some of the Americans at my school were noticeably depressed today, thinking of the Thanksgiving celebration they were missing and the classes they were attending instead.

I wasn’t feeling the gloom too much this week. In fact, I basically forgot it was Thanksgiving until I saw my Facebook flooded with comments about home and reunions and happiness. And then I got a wee-bit sad.

But at least I had a Thanksgiving dinner to still look forward to. Sabine and ISA made sure that we Americans got our fill of gluttony, and it was one of the most adorable and delicious holidays I’ve ever experienced.

Sabine used to be a chef, so the special-ordered turkey was perfectly tender, the fresh cranberries were vibrant and sweet, the stuffing with apples and cranberries tasted like the season, and the mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and red velvet cake were, of course, excellent.

What was especially impressive was the mass of contributions from students and friends. More than 30 of us piled into Time Square, a small cafe underneath our office that closed down for the day for our private party. Cynthia, Sabine’s assistant, made pumpkin pie and Brussels sprouts. Yanni, the kind owner of Time Square, made mushrooms, carrots and salad. I made cornbread. Another student made mushroom crepe casserole and Mexican hot chocolate. Another made deviled eggs. Another made apple cider, and another made truffles. Another made gravy. Another made cookies. And there was wine. Lots of wine. And espresso to wake us up from our food comas just enough to find our ways home.

There was also an ugly sweater contest. I bought my gorgeous, itchy thing from my favorite flea market for one euro. It’s like the sweaters I wear at home, that I was too embarrassed to pack with me for fear of European trendiness and judgment. I was right, of course. The European students here wouldn’t be caught dead in my ensemble, but alas, I no longer care.

My sweater took third prize. The winner was Alex, who sported a woman’s sweater that was unlike anything I had ever seen. A button-down collared shirt, basically, turned sweater, with jewel buttons. The win was well deserved.

It was a lovely meal — a meal I am truly thankful for, with company that I am truly thankful for. The ISA family has really been a family.

An example of our family bonding soirees? A chocolate making workshop.

I had been excited for this day since before I got to Brussels, just from seeing pictures on the program’s Facebook! The whole thing felt a little rushed — 45-minute presentation on chocolate followed by 45 minutes of “making chocolate” — but had plenty of delicious tastings.

Basically, we got to play with chocolate. We got to make designs with the hot, melty form, let them harden and take our shapes home. It was great fun, and naturally, I made cats.

In three mere weeks, this ISA family will be done for. The other 20 students are heading home, one other is transferring to the program in Italy, and I will remain in Brussels with Sabine and Cynthia. A new flock will arrive, and I know I will feel weird about it.

But for now, I will stick to the sap: I am more thankful this year than I have ever been before.

I am thankful for this study abroad experience. I am thankful for my family, for helping me get to where I currently am and supporting me in every way humanly possible. I am thankful for my friends at home, still staying in touch and pretending to keep up with my blog. I am thankful for my new friends, so different from those at home and yet still so wonderful, and probably oblivious to how much I talk about them on the internet. I am thankful for the ISA program, which has been a great mix of cultural exposure and American comfort. I am thankful for my host family, who has been more loving than I ever imagined.

Lastly, I am thankful for just about everything else.

7 reasons to love Ghent

Another Saturday, another ISA excursion. This time, we invaded Ghent, an adorable Flemish city that is frequently compared with, yet ignored for, Bruges. We fell in love quickly. Since Saturday, my roommate has declared time and time again, “I am going to live in Ghent.”

Reasons to love Ghent:

1. The beautifully restored medieval architecture feels like a fairytale.

2. The city center is car-free. Trams pass through, and there’s the occasional car needed by a business owner, but otherwise its just pedestrians, bikes and sprawling terraces.

3. A river runs right through the center, giving the trendy youth a place to lie out, eat ice cream and people watch.

4. The center is one charming cafe after another.

5. There is a booming student population, giving the whole city a lively feel.

6. To combat grave graffiti problems, the city actually designated alleys for it. So now graffiti artists can create and create and create, though knowing their creations will be temporary.

7. Did you see the photos?

Our group spent much of the day apart, exploring the city on our own as we wished to. Together, we went through a castle displaying torture devices, took a boat ride along the river and had a guided walking tour.

Sabine provided us some Ghent culinary specialties, too.

The bagel-looking things are called “mastellen,” and they are basically ultra-soft bagels with notes of cinnamon.

The mustard is another story entirely. It’s Yves Tierenteyn-Verlent mustard, only available from one shop, made fresh every day and jarred on the spot. It’s a masterful balance between tangy and sharp, with a wasabi-like punch at the end. There are no preservatives so the goodness doesn’t last long, otherwise you can bet that I would have purchased jars and jars for my family at home.

The purple cones are “cuberdons,” and the special candy is nicknamed “the nose of Ghent” for its shape. These noses are chewy and gummy and sugary, with a syrup center, made with various fruit extracts.

In conclusion, Ghent is wonderful, and I intend to come back, perhaps sometime in spring when I no longer have ISA excursions. I hear the nightlife is sweet, and I can imagine only joy in such a picturesque setting.

Day trips to Wallonia

This weekend, I’ll let the photos do (most of) the talking.

With the ISA program, we students get some preplanned weekend excursions. On Saturday we went to Han-sur-Lesse and Dinant. Han-sur-Lesse is a small touristy village, which brings hoards in for its underground caves of wonder.

It was a fun stroll. At the end, there was a dramatic light show set to even more dramatic music. It was really silly, but I’m sure a lot of people love it. The village itself is cute and Belgian, and the drive to it was filled with lovely green pastures and donkeys.

Dinant, however, is an actual place for actual people. It’s in French-speaking Belgium, with a gorgeous river running through, and lines and lines of charming restaurants and cafes. It reminded me of the small towns I enjoyed in southern Switzerland last summer, but maybe because I don’t have much else to compare things to.

The main event was a tour through the Citadel, an old fortress with some really silly mannequins.

Really silly.

But the views from the top were absolutely spectacular — and they better have been, given the 408 ancient steps we hiked!

After we went for a boat ride and had some wonderful ice cream (I opted for pear sorbet if you were wondering), and we all couldn’t wait to nap on the bus ride home. And napped we did.

On Sunday, a few of us met up with a French speakers meet up group, as in meetup.com. The group is made up of randoms from all over, but who all are either native French speakers or folks who want to practice their French, and they go do fun things around Brussels. This event was ISA sponsored again, meaning for the few of us who went, the entire trip was free! Yay!

The trip was to Abbaye de Villers-la-Ville, an ancient Wallonian abbey of ruins about an hour outside Brussels. The arches and rose windows, with green grass growing out of every corner, were marvelous.

We had a picnic on those tables, which was made up of a lot of cookies and chocolate. And on the train ride home, we ate more cookies and chocolate. It’s the Belgian way.

I have arrived

My first Belgian beer in Belgium was a Blanche de Bruxelles. Sissy, I know. But it was hot, and I was exhausted and jetlagged, and I didn’t want a beer that’d nurse me to sleep too early.

Alas, that one beer became two — with the easy potential to become three or four — when my roommate and I were quickly recognized as Americans. Americans giggling over their first Belgian beers in Belgium. Another round was sent over, and we became obligated to sit with two much older men with nicotine-stained teeth. One was Serbian, spoke some English and was obviously infatuated with my roommate. The other was born and raised in Brussels, spoke English arguably worse than I spoke French, and kept saying, “Belgium beer good, no?”

And perhaps even quicker, the whole outdoor cafe patio became friends, chatting about America, Belgian beer, and how the present Belgians really needed to learn more English and how the present Americans really needed to learn more French.

Alas, two Belgian beers later, we didn’t mind the barriers. It allowed for smiling and nodding while paying more attention to the passing rain showers, and the charm of Brussels’ Schaerbeek commune: The gorgeous brick town houses cover the skyline at four stories each, and nearby, a haven of a park is filled with older couples sharing ice cream cones. Across the way, lines of small shops, boulangeries and ethnic eateries beckon, with no hawkers necessary.

And yet, a Belgian man across the cafe patio says to me, “You are from America? Why do you come to bull-shit Belgium?”

I smile. I had done a lot of reading on Belgian culture, and sure enough, this Belgian was pissed at his nation’s lack of government, and the divisiveness between the Flemish-speaking north and the French-speaking south. He muttered some more things about the “bull-shit,” and how he wished he lived in Philadelphia.

Well, I have been in Belgium for less than one day, but I can confidently say that I’d rather be here than in Philadelphia. I haven’t even seen the “Brussels” that everyone sees — The Grand Place, the Atomium, and yes, the peeing boy — but only the airport, my beautiful new home and the adorable neighborhood that surrounds it. Tomorrow, the ISA program orientation begins and I’ll see the Brussels that everyone photographs with my own eyes. But after today’s traveling mayhem — delayed flight, almost missed connection due to delayed flight, lost luggage — I am just happy to have made it.

Saturday’s the day

In exactly two days, I’ll be in the air, on my way to Belgium.

I’ll be met at the airport by an ISA rep and taken to my new home, my new family, my new life. This life will take place in Schaerbeek, one of 19 municipalities in Brussels, with an apparently high immigrant population. Home will be a small townhouse, with a single mom, two daughters, a dog and at least one other American student. It is said to be warm and welcoming. It is said to be 30 minutes from the center of Brussels and 20 minutes from school by adorable yellow tram.

As part of my pre-departure activities, I’ve pre-packed and unpacked my suitcase, just to make sure my list of things all fit. Then I packed again. I’ve finished my Rough Guide to Brussels, and I feel as though I understand the city at least on a superficial level. I’ve scheduled the suspension of my cell phone service. I’ve purchased adapters. I’ve purchased a backpacking backpack. I’ve purchased random things like hair ties and stomach acid reducers. I’ve purchased a book about professional hedonism and travel writing for the long plane ride.

This trip has been on my mind since September, and I finally feel like I’m good to go.

But I don’t really feel much else.

I’ve been postponing this blog post for weeks, continually thinking I’ll have a decent answer to that, “So how are you feeling?” question that I get asked multiple times a day. I suppose I’m excited. I suppose I’m nervous and anxious. And even though I feel like I’m good to go, I don’t really feel like I’m going. Am I really going to be attending my new school’s orientation in a few days? Am I really not going to be driving anymore, ever? Am I really going to be seeing street signs in Flemish and French everywhere I go? I suppose I am. And I suppose stronger feelings will hit at some point.

For now, I’m trying to enjoy my last days in the Bay Area. Yesterday I met a friend for a typical, lovely San Francisco afternoon — lounging in Dolores Park and blissfully eating Bi-Rite ice cream. Today I took in the sun, which I am soon likely to rarely see, and my dad and I will have our “last supper” at Commonwealth in the city. We’ll celebrate all the things I’ll miss about living in the Bay Area — local and sustainable produce, trendy and casual settings and unmatched creativity. Tonight will be one of my last hang-outs, for a good long while, with the friends I’ve grown up with. We’ll probably snuggle with blankets, drink tea and watch the city’s lights twinkle across the bay.

And after, perhaps I’ll feel ready to take on the nervous-excited-anxiety that I keep hearing about.

Wait, where are you going again?

August 20, my departure date, is nearing. Soon enough I’ll be blogging about food and cafes and pubs and awkward limited conversations due to language barriers… and food and cafes and pubs.

But I suppose I could narrate my life a little more effectively by telling you what, semi-exactly, I’ll be doing over there in Belgium.

The first question I often get is, why Belgium? Perhaps one of the strangest countries in Western Europe, and seemingly always ignored for France, England and the Netherlands, Belgium certainly seems like a strange choice. Well, I had no choice.

How’s that for dramatic?

In order to effectively study abroad, and effectively financially, I knew I wanted to be gone for a full year. I also knew I had to go to a French-speaking country, or, er, city, or, er, partially French-speaking partially city, but I had to be able to take my classes in English. Because, pardon my French, my French sucks.

Those two requirements alone ruled out every possible University of California program. They either allowed me to take French with other classes in English for only a semester, or I had to be fluent in order to stay for a year.

And that, friend, answers another common question: Why aren’t you studying through the University of California?

That’s right! I’m not studying through my alma mater!  I’m going through a third-party provider based out of — of all places — TEXAS! It’s called International Studies Abroad (ISA), and here’s the link to my program.

Now you might be thinking, “Great Janelle! You still haven’t answered my first question. Why Belgium? Why not just go through an outside provider and go to Paris like everyone else and like you probably secretly desire?”

I’m sorry, let me answer that for you.

This ISA program in Brussels offers some badass classes. Badass classes that will count toward my major, Technocultural Studies, and help me graduate on time. That’s another thing about studying abroad — it’s easy to fall behind and be forced to stay a fifth year. The ISA programs in France, while they looked fantastic, would have surely set me back another year.

In Brussels, I’ll be taking communication (and hopefully journalism in the spring) classes at Vesalius College — a small school with about 300 international students. It’s part of a 10,000-student Dutch university, so us internationals benefit from big-school amenities but still have 25-person classes. I’m pre-enrolled in film theory and scriptwriting, mass communication, intercultural communication, European art, and then I’ll be placed into a French class at orientation. Being over ambitious, I’m also intending to apply to the school’s English, student-run magazine, Vernacular.

There are some pre-planned ISA excursions to Bruges, Antwerp, Ghent, Dinant and The Hague in Holland. I have a pre-planned trip to a Tuscan villa with my family in the spring. I have a month off in the winter, and I intend to see Prague and Istanbul somewhere during that time. And of course, I’m approximately two hours (or less) from Paris, London, Amsterdam and Cologne by train!

In the mean time, I’m trying to choose which travel guidebooks to buy — Rick Steve’s? Lonely Planet? The Rough Guide? Frommer’s? And my suitcase remains on my bedroom floor, empty and taunting me. And I’m still waiting to find out who my host family is, and who these other ISA students from across the states are.

Until then, stay tuned.