As I write this, I'm sitting in Linkebeek, Belgium, in my host family's house. Today is day 2.5-- I got here on saturday evening. So-- I'll talk a little bit about the past few days. For today, I've switched the language of the keyboard from français to English, so that way I can type a bit faster. Keyboards in Belgium are hard to get used to-- A and Z are on the top row, where the Q and S should be, and you have to press shift to get a period. Plus, all the symbols, like the parentheses and the quotation marks and question marks are in strange places. So, in later posts, if I type a Q where an A is supposed to be and don't realize it, I hope you understand.
So, I'll give a brief outline of my trip so far. On Tuesday, last week, I packed my last few things, said goodbye to my house and our cats and most everything I was used to, and we left for Albuquerque. We stayed overnight in Albuquerque, then woke up at around 4 in the morning and drove to the airport. After we said our final tearful goodbyes (it was really hard), I boarded the plane for New York.
After I landed at LaGuardia airport, I met up with some other people from AFS, and we took a shuttle bus to go to a Doubletree Hotel, where there was an orientation. At that orientation, there were probably 200 AFSers, all going to different countries in Europe. It was pretty amazing-- some people were going to Finland and Norway, some to eastern European countries like Turkey and Croatia, some to The Netherlands...Only people going to countries like Germany and France and Spain were missing-- those countries start school later.
But at this orientation, we got some tips about how to function in other cultures; we heard from a Belgian guy about his culture; we watched videos about cultural interaction; we learned about Travel Safety... and then we said an official pledge that certified us as members of the AFS family-- cultural ambassadors and peacemakers.
Throughout this orientation, it was great-- you could walk up and strike up a conversation with absolutely anyone. Even though everyone there was high school age, there was no stupid high schooler drama, because no one knew one another at all. So that was pretty amazing.
The group going to Belgium consisted of sixteen people-- 4 were going to the Dutch (Flemish)-speaking part of the country, and 12 were going to the French-speaking part. They were from all over the country-- from Missouri to Minnesota, Arizona to New York. There was one other guy from Colorado (he lived near Denver, though), who went to the Flemish region.
At the end of the orientation, we got on a bus and went to JFK airport, and waited there until our plane left at 6 P.M.
The flight was long. Well, in reality, it wasn't too bad-- only six hours-- but I wasn't able to sleep very much at all. I'd say, at best, I got 30 minutes of sleep. The time difference from New York to Belgium is 6 hours, so at around 2 A.M. New York time (midnight Cortez time), we got into Brussels. It was 8 o'clock A.M. there.
As we were walking through the Brussels airport, clearing customs, getting our luggage, etc..., it seemed just like any other airport. Sure, there were signs in Dutch and French, but there were also signs in English. It wasn't until we got in the parking garage that I realized, yes, I was in Europe. The cars were tiny. I've seen European cars before, sure, but they were British cars, which are even bigger than those on the continent. There, there were no SUVs, no wheels bigger than maybe 14 inches, no minivans or sedans. They were all tiny.
We got into a minivan, and drove to another hotel for another orientation, called the "survival orientation." This was the orientation for every exchange student coming to Belgium. The people from the U.S. were the first to get there-- we got there at around 8. As the day went on, people from all over the world kept showing up-- New Zealand, Thailand, India, Japan, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, all over Europe...it was pretty amazing.
At this orientation, it was crazy-- and somewhat disheartening--to realize how many people spoke English. Almost everybody I talked to knew some English--they were at least able to carry on a simple conversation. All the facilitators were fluent in both English and French, and some knew Spanish. The Americans, the New Zealanders, and the Australians were the only ones there who weren't bilingual.
For all of Friday, I was jetlagged out of my mind-- I'd gotten maybe half an hour of sleep within 36 hours.
After a day and a half of orientation, where we talked about the Belgian culture, played Frisbee, talked, and tried not to fall asleep, I finally saw my host family. AFS made it very exciting-- they brought us into an auditorium with all of the families in it, and then after that, there was a reception where we could actually meet the families.
I was really excited to see my host family--it was cool to finally meet them, after knowing about them for three months.
They took me to the house and gave me a tour, showing me all the rooms of the house, including mine. It was pretty overwhelming-- I've never heard that much French before. After a first meal of fries, beer, steak, and vegetables, I crashed for the night.
Since then, many of the conversations we've had have consisted of slow French, lots of repetition on their part, and not much talking on mine. I've usually been able to understand the context of the things people say in french, but it's been really hard for me to speak it.
Thankfully, my host parents speak some English, so when I'm completely mystified, they can help me.
As I start adjusting more, I can talk a little more about day-to day life. But right now, I need to get going-- I've spent a lot of time on the computer.
Alors, voila-- je suis en Belgique!