In April, I was given the amazing opportunity to go to Italy with 87 other Belgium Exchange Students. We all gathered in Liege to check our luggage in and we left quite early in the morning. It was an overnight bus which was not particularly comfortable, it was hard to get sleep because the bus had to stop every 2 hours for a rest stop and everyone would start getting up to go to the toilet. Eventually they decided we all had to get up for breakfast at 7AM! We were all terribly tired but we had to be ready for our first day in Rome! While in Rome, we visited Castel Sans Angelo, the Vatican, the Sistine chapel, Piazza San Pietro, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum, Antique Rome and Piazza Venezia.
Im back! And no, I havent given up on this blog, Ive just been extremely busy. As you will be able to see, I have had a great time exploring Belgium with my amazing new friends and Italy back in April. I am absolutely enjoying my exchange and I am taking everything as it comes! I am not entirely sure if these posts are in order and I can't remember in detail exactly what I did but I think I'll let the pictures tell the story.
I am attempting to cast my mind back many months ago when I was given the opportunity with my school to visit Ypres and Zonnebeke which are cities in the west of Belgium. These cities are located along the Western Front where ANZAC troops fought in WWI. This trip was for history and geography class and we had one day exploring and doing activities in each subject. On the first day, my group did a geography task which I couldn't really understand as I hadn't been following the lessons, being at language class a lot. We also got to walk through some sand dunes and visit the beach. Later that night we went to a service at the Menin Gate which is an arch that has the names of fallen soldiers lining the wall.
The next day was history and we went to visit several different cemeteries, many of which honoured Australian soldiers who lost their lives. Most of the sites remembered lost soldiers of the Allied forces but we also visited a cemetery dedicated to the Germans that also fought there. One of the most genuine aspects of the experience was being able to walk through an actual recreated trench and see where the soldiers would have lived during WWI. It was astonishing to see how little space they had and the information plaques explained how quite often the trenches would fill with water. Although the educational part was in Dutch, everything I was able to understand was overall quite harrowing.
This is quite a long one unsurprisingly! Every weekend I promise myself that I will finish my blog post but then I go and do something else interesting on that weekend which I must add to my post and so it gets postponed and cycle repeat!
The week of Monday 8th February was a week of holidays for who knows what reason. Not that I’m complaining… This is what I got up to: Sunday 7th February was Carnaval. Carnaval is a celebration similar to the Italian Carnivale that happens before Lent. It is celebrated with a parade of floats that can be compared to those at the Adelaide Christmas Pageant and I was able to go to a parade in Lanaken. People on the floats throw lollies and other snacks or items to the children below. It is a little different to the Christmas Pageant though because the floats are all privately built and it is as much about the adults drinking and dancing than it is about the children but I had a bit of fun anyway.
On the 8th February, I then went with my host family to Amsterdam!
On the first day I got the chance to go to the Madame Tussaud wax museum and have a picture with the president of the United States and Dame Edna Everage which was amazing if a little awkward
We then lined up for the house of Anne Frank where we got a tour of the secret annex. It was an amazing addition to the diary of Anne Frank which I have read at school.
Later that day we found a store selling Tim Tam’s! and of course I had to buy a couple of packets, even though they were €5 each. Even though I didn’t eat Tim Tam’s often when I was in Australia, I find it is the one thing I crave the most along with Milo (Thanks for the Milo in the package mum but it’s already almost gone ). I still regret not buying the entire store’s worth of packets as I have already run out. That night we had dinner at the Hard Rock Café where I ordered a plate of Nachos. It wasn’t a normal plate of Nachos though, it was so big we couldn’t finish the whole plate together! We ended up getting a take away box to save them for another time. This was obviously not meant to be though because as we walked home in the pouring rain and dark, my paper bag with souvenirs completely fell apart and I had to struggle to hold on to everything inside. We attempted to fit everything into another bag but in the haste, the nachos were left behind. We did have a good laugh about it when in the morning when they were no longer there!
On Tuesday, Anoek and I went to the Van Gogh museum which we explored with an audio tour. The tour took over an hour and was set up in order of his earliest to latest works. The progression of his art was fascinating and not only did they have his paintings, there was also a series of letters between him and his younger brother and the audiotour spoke of details in his private life that translated to his painting, all the way up to his admission to an asylum. Here are a few of my favourites:
We found it pretty funny that while walking around that there was a shop called ‘Australian’ with a sign to the side that said “Italian Sportswear”. I very much enjoyed my trip to Amsterdam as museums were well set up. It was a lovely city and I would love to go again someday One of the things I liked was how well the museums were set up. They were engaging and interactive as well as informative.
That Friday, I got to explore a bit of the city Maastricht which is actually in the Netherlands but is very close to where I live. I went with my friends Charlotte and Elise from school who have been to Australia. I then got to give them the packet of Tim Tam’s which I promised them from Amsterdam (they really are legendary). Maastricht is one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands and whilst we only managed some unsuccessful shopping for Elise’s formal dress, I would love to go back and do some sightseeing another time.
The next week, I was back to school again but not into lessons I couldn’t understand, I’ve now actually started Dutch lessons! On the Monday afternoon, I went with Kristof to the Huis van het Nederlands where I was asked questions about my background in language and given a test similar to an IQ test. The test was very easy and I got full marks which meant I was recommended the fastest Dutch course which was 80 hours per course to start the next day. So Tuesday morning I had my first Dutch course in class 1.1. This class was a lot easier to understand as even though it is taught in Dutch, the teacher deliberately uses English sounding words when giving an explanation. The other students in my class are from many different places in the world but are all adults. There are people from Ukraine, Hungary, Bulgaria, Iraq, Syria, France and other countries and they all speak Basic English but only two others speak it at native level like me. So far I have learned to introduce myself and shop at the supermarket. I can also describe symptoms to a doctor and say that ‘ik heb geen kinderen’!
Along with my Dutch class, I have now started an Italian class to keep it up for next year, and a beginner French class which I am greatly enjoying. It is different here though, as languages are always taught with the teacher speaking the language being learned while teaching which is good because I doubt I could understand a French lesson taught in Dutch. Just the fact that the teacher speaks mainly the language being learned has definitely made a difference to my listening and understanding skills as I have found they are quite weak in Italian. I am lucky that most people here especially the teachers speak good English and can translate for me if needed. I now take 24 hours per week of language classes!
Once a month on a Wednesday, Rotary organises everyone in my district to go somewhere in Belgium. In February, we went to a brewery and museum in Antwerp called De Koninck. It was an eventful day because it was the first time I ‘tried’ to catch the bus to my Dutch school. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out perfectly as instead of taking my correct connecting bus, I took a bus with the correct number but that took me part way back to where I had just come from. Luckily Kristof came to the rescue and was able to take me back to the stop so I could try again, this time successfully. That wasn’t the end of my bad luck with public transport though as after school I took the bus to Hasselt station and everything was fine until the person that I was supposed to meet couldn’t find me and had left her phone at home. It ended up with me missing my train and trying desperately to contact her which ended in catching a slightly later train and it not being a particularly big problem. So I eventually ended up in Antwerp at the brewery and there I met my oldies for the first time who are all amazing, despite some of them being slightly obsessed with beer. The tour showed us how beer was made and how each kind has its own glass! At the end they gave us a free sample which didn’t taste that great, so I didn’t drink much of it. Overall, the day wasn’t a complete disaster and I had a lot of fun.
Yes, this room is covered in beer glasses
The next Saturday, I went with the organization, Rotex, to Brussels for a tour of the chocolate factory, Planete Chocolat. They gave an entertaining presentation about how chocolate is made along with a taste test. It was amazing. After the chocolate factory, we ended up at a comic strip museum for the start of a Scavenger Hunt. I was on a team with 2 other Aussies and 2 others and we had a work sheet to fill out along with tasks like take a photo with Mannekin Pis. The hunt took us to many famous places in Brussels but only briefly because it was of course, a competition. Our dedication in the end paid off as we won the Scavenger Hunt and were presented with a fake medal and a small bag of prizes including a pack of good cards and small comic book (in French…). I had a lot of fun though and we got lost quite a few times but with the help of random strangers in shops and on the street, we found our way back to the station successfully.
The next weekend, us Aussies decided that we liked Brussels enough to go again (along with it being a central place to catch up, coming from many places in Belgium). So I took another 2 hour trip to Brussels to meet Elijah, Felicity, Jayden, Jasmin and a couple of others. We weren’t quite sure of what we wanted to do so we walked around and saw some of the main tourist places and ate waffles. After a while, we finally decided to go and visit the museum of Belgian painter Rene Magritte. This museum was set out similarly to the Van Gogh museum but Magritte’s style was obviously different. Magritte seemed to change techniques and mediums frequently but while using the same object of a sphere in many of his paintings. After the museum, we went to eat frieten (hot chips) for lunch, obviously with the amazing Andalouse sauce and mayonnaise. It was great to catch up with my Aussie friends and get back some of my accent.
This weekend just past, I went with one of my Aussie friends to Tongeren for an exhibition about Roman gladiators. The street was set up with stalls selling various items that would have been around in Ancient Rome, many of which were made of bone, leather or wood. There were publically staged gladiator fights and Roman soldiers marching through the streets as part of this festival. We also went into the Gallo-Romeins Museum which had a thorough exhibition with pieces from many different museums. The museum explained the different types of gladiators and what weapons they fought with along with the animal fights they had with lions, tigers and bears. We also went to see the cathedral in Tongeren which was very intricate and beautiful as Tongeren is the oldest town in Belgium. After exploring the exhibition for a few hours, we took a quick train to Liege where I didn’t have much time, but I got to visit St Lamberts Cathedral which was even more intricate and beautiful than the cathedral in Tongeren. Im sure I will return to Liege at some point as I assume I haven’t even touched on the things there is to see.
The weather in Belgium seems to be clearing up which means no more snow but also less rain and cold which is good. I’ve also cracked my phone which sucks but it still works so I guess that’s okay for now. Ive also made meatball risotto successfully but it took about 2 hours!
Wow the time has gone really fast! It seems like only yesterday that I stepped off of the plane to such a warm welcome yet Ive done so much already! In these two weeks I’ve sorted out my ID, bank account and bus pass, started school, been to my first rotary meeting here and visited many new parts of Belgium.
The first few days here were mostly spent getting over jet-lag, learning where everything is in a new environment and playing the piano. The food here is generally a bit different, I have tried the amazing BELGIAN fries and waffles along with some nice chocolate but our everyday dinners are not what I am used to in Australia. We have eaten A LOT of fish and my family do not have margarine! They did buy some especially for me though. Most days we eat a sandwich or roll for lunch with salad, cheese and ham or, once in a while, Nutella.
On the first Wednesday, I was able to go with Karen to the primary school that she teaches at. Her class of 8 year olds were very excited to see me and were asking me many questions which I couldn’t understand but Karen acted as a translator for this day. I helped with some simple Maths and Spelling tasks and I learned to count to 20 in Dutch!
Thursday night, I met the YEP Chairman for my district, Pierre Veys, and the only other inbound this season, Natalia who is from Colombia. We met at her house and Pierre ran us through the program and rules for this year. I look forward to many exciting trips in Belgium and Europe with Rotary and with my amazing families this year. I will be going to Brussels to visit a chocolate museum and a comic strip museum very soon and a trip to Italy in the Easter holidays!
Friday was my first day at school. I have been placed with a 5th year class (where most of the students are a year younger than me) studying Economics and Modern Languages. All classes are taught in Dutch which makes it very hard and I usually have no concept of what is going on. Soon I will start beginner Dutch classes at a different school hopefully with the other exchange students. Economics is definitely a lot harder than in Australia as they have all been studying it for a few years now and I have only done half a year. History and Geography are only minor classes with 1 & 2 lessons a week but their level of knowledge is much greater than mine. I am going to find some easy French books as I cannot keep up with their level of French either! The only class I understand is English as the teacher speaks only in English. My only assignment so far is to do a presentation on Australian history as the others have to do one on a part of British history which they had been studying before I came. The school day here is almost exactly the same here as in Australia, we begin at 8:35, have seven 50 minute lessons and finish at 3:30, the main difference being the lack of home class at the beginning and end of the day. I also go to every class with the same people. They have all been so nice and welcoming and can help me out in English when needed.
Friday was also the 14th birthday of my host sister, Margo. I was luckily enough, able to make a successful Pavlova as a birthday cake that was enjoyed by my host family and their extended family on Saturday night. They had never tried it before and I think they liked it so I believe I will be making it again!
On Sunday, we headed to Ghent for Margo's High Jump competition! She broke her indoor PB! Afterwards, we had a look around the city and went on a tour of Gravensteen castle which was built in the middle ages.
School this last week has been much the same and relatively uneventful however I now kind of know my way around. I have discovered that many of the TV programs here are popular English shows such as NCIS and Modern Family with subtitles. Other notable happenings this week: I have now applied for an ID card (where I had to give fingerprints of both hands while the machine decided that it didn’t like me) which should arrive soon. I have a Buzzy Pazz which allows me to ride the bus without paying every time. I have a Belgian bank account. I bought a nice backpack <3
On Thursday, I had my first Rotary meeting with my host Club, Bilzen – Alden Biesen. Many people came over to introduce themselves and talk to me. I had the chance to introduce myself to the club with the microphone, a little in Dutch and mostly in English. My host sister, Anoek, is an outbound with this club to California in August and was meant to come to introduce herself as well but she was on a school trip to Berlin. I did get to meet the other two outbounds from the club who are going to Spain and Italy. I believe my club will also be hosting another two exchange students in August and I’m very excited! Everybody was very nice and I found out that my second host family has a dog!!!
This weekend, my host family took me to the Belgian coast! It was 2 hour drive and we spent Saturday in Bruges shopping. I managed to pick up a few bits and pieces that I needed which was good because there were decent sales that have now ended. We also took a tour around the city on a horse and cart which was amazing! An interesting fact is that we had to pay to go to the public toilets in the bus station!
On the Sunday, we went to a shopping street which was about 2 streets from the apartment where we were staying. First stop was a shoe shop which had sales up to 80% off. Due to Karen being addicted to shoe shopping, we spent two and a half hours in the shop and bought 16 pairs of shoes! Only three were mine. This was particularly surprising to mum as I hardly ever successfully find shoes in Australia! After that, Anoek and I were rather tired and there was also a bit of rain so we decided to go and get a hot chocolate while the others continued on shopping. It sooo amazing!!! Unsurprisingly the shoes were a bit of a jigsaw to fit in the car on the way home! When we got home we had pancakes for dinner and everybody tried lemon & sugar for the first time!
Some extra little things: My host family were amused when I told them that a particular breed of dog we call a ‘Sausage dog’ Gloves in Dutch is literally translated to the words ‘hand shoes’ In residential streets, there are strange ‘half-lane’ blocks to slow people down, but it pretty much just merges traffic into one lane going both ways which seems pretty dangerous to me.
Side note: I have almost finished writing this and I saw a bug for the first time in 2 weeks so I took a picture. But then it flew on me and its terrifying HELP!