By Aleeza Zinn
When I first arrived
At the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year, I was an exchange student studying French in Belgium. I found a program online, applied, paid, and off I went. The program found a host family for me, and I was fortunate enough to receive an amazing family. My family lives in a small, rural town, Jurbise, outside of a larger city, Mons. My host family consists of a single mother, Caroline, (pronounced Caro-leen), and her six-year-old daughter, Laly, (pronounced Lah-lee).
When I first arrived in Belgium I had an orientation weekend with my program before I met my host family. I originally assumed there would be around 10 other teenagers on the Belgium program, because Belgium is not a very popular country to exchange in. To my surprise, there were 68 other teenagers on my program online, not including other students who were doing exchanges with other programs in Belgium.
That weekend was a complete whirlwind of emotions and experiences. I had just left my family for three and a half months, and was surrounded entirely by strangers. I was the only student from America, so I did not even have someone from my own country. The other students were from all over the world, and were extremely friendly. All of us were in the same boat, feeling the same things. We were all ready to quickly make friends, and naturally we succeeded! I can now say I have friends from Australia, Slovakia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico and Italy.
Orientation weekend came to a close, and our host families came to pick us up from the rundown youth hostel we had occupied for the past three days. To call us nervous would be an understatement. We were about to meet the people whom we were meant to live with, in my case for three and a half months, and in other cases, a year.
My host family arrived, we went to lunch at Ikea, and drove for an hour to my new home. All was well in paradise.
The first month of my exchange was a bit of a blur. I traveled all around Belgium, started school, made new friends, and attempted to speak the language. I blended into the everyday rhythm that my host family lead, and honestly, I was too busy to be homesick. Every day was a new experience, even if we were just going to the grocery store. I felt genuinely interested in life, and was excited to discover all the country had to offer.
A typical school day
6:00– Wake up and shower (Their shower was actually not a shower, but rather solely a bath. The bath had an adjustable shower head that one has to hold over oneself during the duration of one’s shower. To state it plainly, showers were not a pleasant time, especially in the morning when the bathroom was about 55 degrees fahrenheit.).
6:45-Turn off the house alarm system, walk through their backyard ‘mudroom’ to the laundry room, and grab some cereal.
7:10-Brush my teeth, make my lunch, and organize all of my supplies for school.
7:20-Leave the house and walk to the train station, about a six-minute walk.
7:26-Check the train schedule board to make sure my train was running and make sure I was standing on the correct platform.
7:31-My train arrived and I would stand wherever there was space, usually right by the train door.
7:47-Walk from the train station to my school, which was in the bustling city of Mons.
8:10-I lined up with the rest of my class (like elementary school), and school began once we got to our classrooms.
12:35-1:30-Usually I would eat in the cafeteria, but if it was not raining I would eat outside.
4:00-School was finally over, an hour later than Alameda High School’s end time, and I either took the train immediately home, or I would go shopping in town for a little while.
4:30-bedtime-Each day after school consisted of different things, whether it was going to movies or taking my host sister to her gymnastics class. Dinner happened when it happened, and there was not much definitive structure.
9:00-Wake up and have either cereal, or have pastries that my host mom bought or baked. Caroline was a wonderful cook and made her own bread and white fig jam.
Depending on the weekend, I would either meet up with other exchange students and explore some new city, or spend the day with my host family. With my exchange student friends we would easily take the train to a new city and wander around taking pictures, trying delicious foods, and shopping.
If I was spending the day with my host family, then we might go to Cirque du Soleil, a festival in Mons, or on a walk around town.
Belgian food is surprisingly unique and delicious. The country is famous for waffles, chocolate, french fries and beer, however there is much more on their menus. A popular dish, waterzooi, is typical of the Flemish speaking town, Ghent. Waterzooi is similar to a stew or soup, with either whole pieces of chicken or fish soaking in the mixture, making the the chicken or fish melt deliciously in your mouth. Another tasty dish, la carbonade flamande, is a beef stew with typical Belgian beer. The beef rests in the stew for hours before serving time, so the pieces completely melt in your mouth, similar to the waterzooi.
One of Belgian’s staples, waffles, or guaffres in French, are actually very different than our American waffles. There are literally waffles everywhere here, even in vending machines. They’re dipped in chocolate, stuffed with chocolate, stuffed with fruits, served cold/room temperature, served hot–the options are endless.
The most important thing to know about Belgian waffles is that there are two different kinds. There’s a Liege waffle, (in French ‘gauffre de Liege’) and a Brussels waffle (gauffre de Bruxelles), and they are quite different as waffles go. The gauffre de Bruxelles is most similar to our American waffles, but instead of being four squares it’s only two. Also it’s a bit more sweet, but practically the same as our American waffles. The guaffres de liege are not as soft, are sweeter, and the edges are ragged and not in the clean cut waffle shape that we know.
Coming home and reverse culture shock
My entire exchange was amazing, except for the day I had to leave. Life in Belgium was as close to perfect as you can get, which made it all the more difficult. To quote Kacy Stoddard, sophomore at Alameda High School, coming home was “oh, what a shocker.”
I experienced what is called reverse culture shock, and it was not fun. I could no longer relate to my friends, for their lives had not changed, while mine had changed drastically. Every little detail about life that I had found so exciting in Belgium was no longer exciting at home.
After about three weeks I had finally gotten back in the rhythm of daily life, and I accepted that my once in a lifetime experience was over. Lucky enough for me, I brought home a huge supply of waffles, so I can indulge myself whenever I feel nostalgic.