“I had to look up where Belgium was before I started my application last year…” A student told me this the first week of orientation as we shuttled our way from the hostel to Cantillon, a lambic brewery in Brussels and the city’s only continuously operating one for the last 100 years. I’m not surprised that he had to look up where Belgium was – I’ve been living here for the last three years and some of my family members still get confused as to where I live – is it Germany? No, no, no, it’s near Amsterdam, so I think it’s in the Netherlands…. But she speaks French, but she’s not in France, I know that – she’s in Switzerland, right?
While some people might get annoyed that other people don’t know exactly where their adopted second country is on a map, I take a secret pride in it. Brussels, and Belgium, is the ultimate hidden gem of Western Europe. Most people have heard about Belgian waffles, Brussels lace, the medieval city of Bruges and of course, the beer. But they’re still lured by the dazzling lights of the Eiffel Tower or the history along the banks of the Thames, so they rarely stop and spend time in Europe’s capital. Which is ok. It means there are more waffles, fries and beer left for me to enjoy! And I know after a month and a half, all of the BCC students this semester are feeling that way too.
The students have thrown themselves into discovering the mysteries and charms of Brussels and Belgium by day and night. They’ve thrown themselves into the culture by attending plays and films in French, learned how to cook tangine from a Moroccan-Belgian, and even played on a variety of tanks from World War II during our first excursion to the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne.
But the students have also begun to experience that extra special joy that comes from traveling – that feeling of returning ‘home’ after spending a weekend away. That feeling is really a significant turning point in the study abroad experience. It helps to bring extra special joy when you realize that the Grand Place isn’t filled with touts or too many tourist groups, so you have room to sit down in a circle with your friends on the cobble stones with a packet of frites to watch the Town Hall light up at night. Because it’s then you realize that you wouldn’t want to spend your semester abroad anywhere else but here, and you’re sort of glad you had to look it up on a map first.