Friday, December 21, 2012

quatre mois

Four months ago today, I left home... it's crazy that so much time as passed while I still feel like I've done so little here. But I have learned that I should fear the most beautiful moments of my lives slipping by us while I hardly notice. And the later, have it dawns on me and wish that I could go back.

Right after AFS accepted me, I set this goal... To not take anything in Belgium for granted. I made it a promise to myself for this trip. I haven't lived in the moment since I got here or taken every opportunity that I've been given and I haven't loved every second of my time here. But I'm grateful for each of those seconds, waiting in the rain, sitting in math class, getting to know my family or drinking beer with friends. After all that I know I'm on the right track.

And today, I want to make a second promise to myself, for more than the rest of this trip. Today I'm promising myself that for the rest of my life, I will work to take nothing for granted, and if I ever catch myself doing so, I'll immediately readjust.

When I'm old, I won't reflect back on my life wondering where the time went. I'll know exactly where it went and remember that I lived my life.

Today I promise myself that.

Friday, December 14, 2012


In Belgium, St. Nicholas Day is a much better deal than in the United States. I got candy from St. Nicholas on many different occasions, but this was the plate that my host family gave me.

AFS Liege had a Potluck to celebrate St. Nicholas Day and also say goodbye to all of our students who were only staying for three months. I sat on St. Nicholas' lap! Everyone was supposed to bring a some food from their country. I made cheese cake with speculoos crust instead of graham crackers, which turned out well. Another American though, made Pigs in a Blanket! Never been so happy.
  Recently, my host family got firewood delivered. The picture doesn't really accurately depict just how much firewood there really is.

Monday, November 12, 2012

the world goes out without me, how dare it

I've been missing home lately.

When two or three weeks after I got here, I was very schoolsick. There was a part of me that desperately wanted to be at Oberlin High School, in the library during Spirit Week or at football games. I think this was driven by a.) there was so much going on (Homecoming, etc.) and here, I still wasn't really used to the way things are run.

Now, as Thanksgiving draws near and election season is past, I realize that the period between now and February is going to be one of the hardest parts of my exchange. It just feels so weird to be here but still be American. It was like this on 9/11 also -- it's just so weird to be surrounded by Belgians. They're aware of what happens in the States -- I don't know how many times I've been asked if I like Barrack Obama -- but it doesn't affect them in the same way it affects me, even though I'm in Belgium, and it's such a strange feeling. But on the opposite end of the spectrum, Halloween passed by, and I barely knew. The stores didn't have Halloween decorations, no one put anything in their yards, and although I went to Liege and people were dressed up, I don't feel like I missed a Halloween or even like Halloween happened at all.

I don't know what to attribute that too -- that I didn't see many pictures of Halloween, that I was busy with things here, or the fact that the holiday is so commercialized in the United States that without the candy companies reminding me by changing the shape of my Reese's cup I didn't really realize.

I celebrated All Saints' Day with my host family this year, and I think the 'new' sort of overshadowed that I would have liked to see Trick or Treators and my mom dressed as a giant whoopie cushion.

I accidentally give myself these reality checks. Today I was sitting in History day dreaming, and when I arrived back in the present, I realize that, holy shit, I'm in Belgium. Despite the fact that I've been here two and a half months, and I've started missing things about American culture, I think that it's yet to really dawn on me that although I'm in an different place, everything at home is carrying on essentially the same without me. It's a little unfathomable to me... Maybe because perception is our reality, I'm finding that when I'm not home I just feel that it should be on pause, or something.

But I think in the next month and a half, I'm going to hit a brick wall: Yes, I just missed Thanksgiving and yes, the world goes on without me.

But now, just for the actual updates on what I've been doing here, not just my ramblings:

First of all, in Belgium, they have four breaks, not just three. One fall break, for All Saints' Day, but it's an entire week. Two weeks at Christmas and New Years, and then another week at Carnival and another at Easter.

During my fall break, I did a lot of things in Liege, but also went to Namur for the first time!! It's a very nice city, I didn't take any good pictures, but it was very different from Liege. A lot smaller, first of all, and also a little bit cleaner and safer feeling! More like Huy.

This is a castle! I walked a "ballad" with my host family and everyone stopped for lunch at this castle. It was absolutely beautiful, I didn't get a good picture but behind, there was this huge valley and all the leaves were changing. Inside, there were all the family names inscribed on the walls above these huge, classic busts.  

This was in the south of Belgium on All Saints' Day. My host dad's brother lives in a farm in the same area that he grew up. I was confused, but they run a golf course with farm animals! The Belgian country side is so beautiful.

There was a party at my school -- literally, a PARTY. Not like Homecoming or Prom, an actual party. This was that night, several weeks ago, and these are my friends!

I'm going to try and blog more regularly again... I always tell myself that I'm going to blog about the week on Sundays, but somehow it gets away from me.


Friday, September 28, 2012

i'm going to catch the black plague.

I've been here a month. It feels like forever... but it also feels like I got here yesterday.

I still remember walking to the car with my host family for the first time, and my host dad asking me, "Tu as faim?" I had no idea what he was saying to me. Not because I didn't know the French, but because no one had ever really spoken French to me like that. It feels so good that I can *almost* speak French now. A month later I know that, No, I am not hungry. 

I still don't understand a word my teachers say and when people try to say something to me at school, it's almost always followed by a "Quoi??? :O" from me and a sigh from them before they repeat what they said.

I find it so interesting that it's only taken me a month to fall in love with the country. I love the winding roads and how nice everyone is. I love the cows and God, even the copious amounts of bread. I love the view from my window and although I hate the cold I'm becoming partial to the way the air is always a little crisp.

I'm definitely starting to figure out the routine. Tuesday is Crepe Tuesday. My host mom comes home late and so my host dad makes crepes for souper. Yesterday I had five (two with nutella, two with Ohio maple syrup ;), and one peanut butter and jelly -- that combination always gets me odd looks and I love it.) But I justify this by reminding myself that I also had to jog for an hour. Wednesday everyone gets out of school at noon and Zephyr comes over.

It feels good to settle in. It still blows me away when I think that I'm actually in Belgium, that it's all actually happening, but at the same time, it's starting to feel like home, little by little. Even if I desperately miss our blue kitchen, Agave burritos and my mom's cooking.

I guess I'm just going to try and re-cap everything that's happened, my punishment for letting it go so long without a blog.

First of all, I went Belgian folk dancing with my family. There was this whole huge festival (that is apparently tradition for my family) that vaguely reminded me of pioneer days scaled down and to a Medieval theme. So not really pioneer days at all. There were these Flame Thrower guys who were super stressful to watch, but impossible to ignore.

I got to meet my AFS liaison for the first time and also got to see Guillemans (the big train station in Liege) and part of the University of Liege campus.

For the most part, nothing has been so culturally shocking that I've be unable to wrap my mind around it. Except one thing: nose blowing and coughing. Belgians are reckless and they never wash their hands. And as a result literally everyone in school is sick. Including me.

Tomorrow is a holiday here, so everyone in Liege with AFS decided that we're going to Brugge. I promise there will be many pictures from that. And I'll do a better job of updating more regularly.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

beaucoup de fromage

I promise the beaucoup de... trend will end soon, but this was just too perfect.

I went to a cheese party today at my host mom's aunt's house. The way it was explained to me, I thought it was going to be like, fondue. But it wasn't at all.

Literally, plates of cheese that you tasted and -- the hard part, I'm told -- remember which ones were the best ones. I tasted four! One was brie, I know, but I don't remember the others. (I failed, hahaha). There were also boxes of wine, which I found very humorous. Then after we had pie... I had rice pie. So weird! Good though.

So I've been in Belgium a week, and I think I've officially met the entire family.

In other exciting news, Zephyr (one of my older host sister's son) now knows my name.

After all of this, we went on a walk. (See pictures below.)

beaucoup de photos

Saturday, September 1, 2012

beaucoup de mouche

I'm sitting at my window right now, which is an incredibly pleasant view. HOWEVER, my host family has horses and there are tons of cows in the area. So naturally, there are tons and tons of flies. I suppose this is how people feel when they come to Oberlin in the summer, but really, I'm going to lose my mind.

I'm homesick for the first time today. It's sort of weird. I really, really, really miss American food. Belgian food really isn't all that different, honestly, and it's really good! And I find myself wanting not only the best food from home, but also the crappy food that I get when I'm in a hurry, like the Chinese food from the mall or Agave. I dunno... Maybe that's just how my homesickness is manifesting, but I really want wings from the Feve or my mom's spaghetti.

I also think it's because I'm at the end of a couple of really busy days, and I don't know when I'm going to see the friends I've made in Belgium yet.

I think that I was in sort of a grace period, where I got to go to Liege for a French class and speak English with other AFS students that I already knew. Now I have to face the actual facts of my exchange, that I don't really know anyone at my school (except Eva) and all my classes will be in French.

I still feel optimistic though, because the French gets easier every day, and I know I'll be able to make friends one way or another.

Anyway, in other exciting news, I finally had my first gaufre (waffle) and my first frites! Tres bon! The first time we got frites, we made the mistake of getting ketchup, which is NOT the same and as a big fan of American ketchup, I wasn't into the weird Belgian stuff. The next time, we did like the Belgians and got mayonnaise and a mustard sauce that I could pick off a list but trying to spell it would be impossible.

I keep telling myself that I'm going to take pictures of all of this stuff but when I'm in the moment it just doesn't come to my mind... But others DO take photos, and I'll steal them :p

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

beaucoup de pains

Lol, my blogger is in Dutch now! Je ne connais pas le Dutch!! :p

Well... this is my fourth night in Belgium. When I left the United States, I thought that I'd blog right away about my first day. But my plan was botched by AFS itself.

For the first two nights (if you don't count the one on the plane from New York to Zurich), all of the AFS students staying in Belgium this year were in Brussels together. Without internet access. It was ok - we all got to know each other very well, however, blogging really wasn't an option.

Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning were spent in Brussels, learning about Belgian culture and how to deal with any difficulties we may have.

Sunday evening, my host family picked me up and we drove home to Verlaine. It was uneventful, for the most part. We all learned just how terrible my French truly is and we talked about all the weird awkward stuff like what my duties are around the house and whether or not I do my own laundry.

I had my first meal with the family. Croissants. I've realized that Belgians eat a loooot of bread. It's cool though - it's the awesome bread that we only get when we go out to eat or on special occasions in the United States, so it's a treat. A carby, delicious treat.

Eva (my host sister) and I went for a walk around the town with un chien, Jack, and then a second walk with un cheval, Sweety.

Yesterday, I met the rest of the family - Eva's older sisters, their significant others and un bebe, Zephyr, who is quite possibly the cutest thing ever and the grandparents. It was a bit overwhelming, but they were all super night and welcoming and tried to speak English for me.

This morning, I went t my school in Huy for the first time. It's in a 1,000 year old abbey, and I have religion classes. Also, my luck finally ran out and I'll have to take a physical education class. On the way back to Verlaine, we stopped and saw a few chateaus. Tres belle! It's crazy how old everything is here. My house is five hundred years old. I saw pictures, and I *think* (not sure how to ask... :p) that it was damaged in World Wars and my host parents restored it in the '80s. 

It's interesting coming for Oberlin and OUR war history to Belgium and THEIR war history. I've been plotting how I'm going to tell my family about that...

So far, the hardest thing is thinking quickly enough. It's frustrating because I know that the French is in there somewhere, and if I had time to write it out, I could do it perfectly. But as soon as someone asks me a question and everyone is looking at me, it's like the entire world is in fast forward. Then everyone is watching and repeating themselves and it's even faster.

Friday, June 22, 2012

I have a host family?

Verlaine, Belgium. An hour from Brussels and thirty minutes from Liege.

The funniest thing is, it's exactly what I wanted. I hoped, in the back of my mind, that I'd be placed near enough to Brussels that I could visit it multiple times, but I would still be in the French part of the country. And Liege, is the first city in Wallonia that I ever read about, and the one that convinced me I'd be applying to the right place. It's karmic synergy. It re-convinces me I'm headed to the right place.

Everyone I sell cookies to or tell about my exchange says to me, "Belgium! Where are you going to be?" And all I can say is, "I'm not sure yet - but I do know I'll be in Wallonia, the French region."

Now I can finally tell people everything.

I have my flights, and my host family, and I'm well on the way to making enough money.

Everything just makes this feel realer and realer, and it's absolutely terrifying and unbelievably thrilling.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Travel & Logistics

Woke up this morning to an email from AFS telling me I'll be leaving the US at 8 am on August 23rd. That's a Thursday.

I have to be in New York the day before, and then, eighty four days from today, I will be departing for Belgium.

Finally, it feels 100% real :)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

dolla dolla bill y'all

May hath begun—and I’m kicking my fundraising efforts into high gear.

AFS ain’t cheap. Actually, that’s even an understatement, I’d say. Tuition for ten months in French Belgium is $13,500, and I’ll also need another $1,000 for my expenses DURING my exchange. So $14,500. I’ve never even dreamed of spending that much money on a single thing--but I truly understand the value of the experience I'm about to begin, and I'd do anything to have it. (As long as it didn't involve breaking the law or losing limbs.)

But fortunately, I’ve already managed to knock a huge chunk out of that. Through AFS, I’ve received three scholarships, and I personally have saved a little over $1,000 working at Ben Franklin and MindFair Books in Oberlin.

I’m down to $10,625.

That’s still a lot, but it’s some how relieving to know that I’m even the littlest bit closer.

A single mother raised my brother and me. When I was four, my mom decided to start her own business—a bookstore. In 9/10 situations, I don’t considered this a hindrance, but in this case, it sort of is. We’ve never had a lot of money, or anything. But the #1 thing I admire about my mother is the way she never lets anything keep us from getting what we need. When I needed $200 to go to Columbus for Model UN, she got it for me.  When I needed braces, she figured out a way to pay for it.

But $10,625?! She’s not just going to find that for me, you know? I have to raise it. I’ll have all the help I need, but I’m going to have to find it for myself.

My plan, very simply, is to work my butt off.

First of all, I’ve kick started a baking initiative. I’m going to be all over the place, selling people cookies. (Today’s were peanut butter… a little over cooked which bothered me, but eh. Tonight I’m making sugar with M&Ms.) And, maybe popcorn, too—but that plan’s still a work in progress.

I’ve also got fundraisers coming up: “Postcards from the Underground” and a tea.

I’m sending out a fundraising letter to everyone who might want to give me a little money—whatever they can give. That’s amazing.

Lastly, though: Sponsor and AFSer. AFS offers an option where student can use their blog to raise money. We just have to get people to check out our blogs, and people can simply donate. It’s safe—the money goes through PayPal and is directly applied to my account. 

 To sponsor my AFS program now, please click the ChipIn! button.

Thank you so much<3

Sunday, April 22, 2012

I'm in.

I was accepted... AFS accepted me for an year long trip to Belgium...

It's really still pretty surreal to me. I've wanted this more than I've wanted anything in my life. And I really never acknowledged the possibility that I wouldn't be going. But at the same time, I don't think I ever really realized how crazy the whole thing is.

I'm going to be gone... for an entire year. Away from Victor, and my mom and Karen, and Pepper. And all my friends... And downtown Oberlin! Black River, Ben Franklin, Agave, Gibson's... And Oberlin High School! I'll be going to school somewhere else. Will where ever I'm placed in Belgium have anything like Ben Franklin? Or a place like Agave?

I still can't really quite imagine it. It's still not really real to me, even though I now know it's happening. A part of me wonders if it ever really will become real... Maybe when I'm on the plane, maybe during my first shower in Belgium. Maybe the first time I try to sleep over there. I know I won't be able to. I know I'll cry, and wish Pepper was there to cuddle. It might be my first day at school, or walking around the new town or city or neighborhood with my host family. Or I might spend a year in Belgium expecting to go home the next day. As much as I hope I acclimate well, I still sort of hope I don't get used to it. I want to absorb everything--and be constantly looking for things to do, because I know I won't be there for long.

When ever something stresses me out these days, I just remind myself that I'm going to be in Belgium next year, and none of the petty Oberlin stuff is going to matter or even be relevant. (Petty Belgium stuff will be. Sigh.) I'm resolving to not get too involved with anyone or with any long projects--because I don't want another thing to miss or be held back by. But I think my motto for the time I'm in Belgium is going to be sort of the opposite: Learn everything you can. Meet everyone you can. Do anything you can. Don't get bored. Don't miss out. Because this whole thing has one big time stamp on it. When I come back, I want to miss everything and I never want to get over it. I'll get comfortable, but I won't take a single thing for granted.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Hi, everyone!

Ever since I can remember, I've known what I wanted to do. When I was little, all I wanted was to be a teacher. I played school every day, and made endless plans on how I would pay my way through college. (My mom still talks about my plans to open my own beauty salon to earn the money to make it through Harvard.) Then it became a lawyer. I decided I would defend the people--representing those who needed it the most. After I moved past that, I wanted to be "pediatrician that specialized in neurology." I would earn my undergraduate degree from Dartmouth or Princeton, then go to medical school at Johns Hopkins, after which I would join the Peace Corps. and work in Africa. Today, I couldn't tell you exactly what I want to do in the way that I could when I was younger. I'm pretty sure that I don't want to go Ivy League, and I can't see myself becoming a doctor. Some days I want to be a Diplomat, or a UN Peace Keeper. Other days I want to dedicate my entire life to relief work. It changes, but one thing has always remained consistent: My desire to help people, and the goal of becoming a valued citizen of a global community. 

That's a phrase I use a lot... "Valued citizen of a global community." In general, I think there's a huge disconnect between cultures. People understand the terrible things that happen in developing nations because of religious or political differences, or how awesome the chocolate is from certain parts of Europe. But we don't get it. We understand that in Italy, family is a huge deal. But we don't get it! Unless we're Italians, or have been Italians, we can't possibly fully understand Italian culture. And how could we be expected to? Italy is literally more than four thousand miles away! We can't just walk there and see, and consequentially, most of us won't ever make it. Even from this place I sit in Northeastern Ohio, I can't really fathom the complexity and diversity of the world.

But I want to be a student of that diversity, and I want to start now.

All throughout Middle School, I had this idea in the back of my mind about studying abroad. I didn't have a plan; I didn't know where I wanted to go. It wasn't like my ideas as a little girl--it was in the back of my mind, simmering on the back of the stove. When I started my freshman year of High School, I thought that I wanted to go to Spain or Italy. Then, in the winter, I was messing around on the internet, probably on Tumblr, and I saw a picture of Aurland, Sogn og Fjordane, Norway, and it all made so much sense. My junior year, I would go to Norway. I read about the history of Norway, and I looked at pictures of Norway daily. When I started working last spring, I saved as much as I could get away with, and became far more frugal than I ever have been. Last summer, I bought a huge mason jar, and implored my friends to dump their loose change into what I dubbed "My Norway Fund," when they came by my house. (Big thanks to Eleni, who faithfully added change, as well as my Big Homie, Kenny, who always gave me the change leftover from his Snapple purchases, and my brother Victor, who oddly enough have a collection of pennies that he gave me.) I saw connections to Norway everywhere, and I credited it to karmic synergy (which is pretty similar to the concept of "destiny," but really has to be explained in person). 

Then, my mom gave me a copy of "I Was A Teenage Norwegian." In the book, Peter Dublin writes about his journey has a foreign exchange student to Norway. Between the things written in the book, and the things my brother's Swedish friend who came to stay with us for several weeks this summer told me, I realized: I don't want to be Norwegian. I do want to see Norway, and I will, one day. I'm interested in the history, and I will read about it. I want to take a trip to Norway, I don't want to make a move there. So I was without a country I wanted to go to anymore.

In Middle School, everyone took Spanish for a third of the year in seventh, and half the year in eighth. I liked Spanish a lot. I was in the Spanish club, and I enjoyed trying (and failing) to speak with my teacher in seventh grade, Mrs. Soto. So in High School, I selected to take Spanish. But in order to have Mr. Russell for history(if you aren't familiar with who Mr. Russell is, I can explain is briefly by saying "the best"), I had to take French. I compromised. And I realized that I really love French. (On an interesting side note, this year, because I'm taking French II, I can't take Mr. Russell's African American History class. Isn't that something...)

When the Norway thing fell apart, I concluded I would go to France or Belgium, or somewhere I could speak French. After conversations with my mom and friends, I also concluded that I would leave for France, the second semester of sophomore year. That was it. I started my application, and the Norway Fund was renamed the "No Way" Fund.

Fortunately, however, I missed the application deadline.

I'm absolutely positive now that a full year in Belgium is what I what I want to do. I'll learn French, eat fries and live in a country with a monarchy. (A really cool monarchy, too! If you haven't read my About Me, I love monarchies. Fully aware of how weird that is.) I'm not going to go for only a semester, and come home with having had half the experience. I'm going to do my exchange 100%.

When my AFS interviewer came, she expressed concern that my expectations for my trip were too large. I think that most of the reason for this is my "becoming a citizen of a global community" thing, and it's true, I do want that. But I don't expect this to suddenly happen while I'm in Belgium. I want Belgium to be the first step towards a life of working towards it. A lot of the reason why I want to go to Belgium is because I'm a little bit antsy. I've been in essentially the same spot for sixteen years, and I don't want my legs to fall asleep. I want to go, and have fun, and meet new people, and learn a new language, and eat new foods, and celebrate holidays differently, and see different trees every day than the maple right next to my house! I expect Belgium to be enlightening and changing, but I also expect it to be challenging and frustrating, and I know I'll be sad there sometimes, and mad, or happy. But I want to go and be challenged, and frustrated, and happy and mad and sad.

Honestly, I do think I have the necessary qualities to become a successful foreign exchange. I think I'm good at going with the flow. I'm opinionated, and I have a strong personality, but I'm still flexible. I'm also confident, and fairly outgoing. I've had a year and a half of French, and I'm always trying to speak French with my mom (who is fluent) and trying to learn. I'm enthusiastic, and I'm a tryer. Even if I'm not sure, I'll try it.

I'm several steps away from submitting my App, paying the application fee, and passing the point of no return. When I do, I'm going to start fundraising like crazy. I promised myself that I won't let money be the reason I can't go, but I'm going to need everyone's help! 

Thank you so much for reading :)

Sincerely, Julia