International Programs in Belgium
By: Elizabeth Reddington (justin) 2012.10.01
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International Programs in Belgium
When you're exhausted, even a stiff plastic chair in the Eurostar train
terminal can feel like a La-Z-Boy - and I sank into this one, savoring
the sterility of the waiting area after London's frenzied, dirty
streets. The hum of the air-conditioning mixed with murmured
conversation to create a comforting white noise.
"Hey, guys, whazzup"?
It was one of our American classmates from Vesalius College, stumbling
toward us through our suitcases and duffel bags. My roommate, Oktawia,
gritted her teeth ever so slightly. "I didn't think anyone else on the
trip was going back to Brussels today,"? she hissed.
Talking to the girl before we boarded the train would have been fine.
But it was after 7 p.m., and she was still - obviously and
unmistakably - drunk from last night's tour of the London pubs.
Everywhere we went, Oktawia and I tried hard not to appear
"American" avoiding Abercrombie, speaking English in whispers - so that
we wouldn't draw attention to ourselves, or perpetuate nasty
stereotypes. So much for blending in.
"Do you believe it? I hava bottle of wine in my bag now,"? she said
loudly. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes glassy. She whipped her long,
blond ponytail back and forth as she turned to talk first to us, then
to some Brits sitting nearby.
"So last night, me and my friend, we met these, these guys,"? she said
to everyone, as if she'd just returned from a high school party.
I felt sick to my stomach, as if I were the one in for a hangover.
NOBLE AGENDAS, SUPPOSEDLY
About a week into our semester at Vesalius - a division of the Vrije
Universiteit Brussel modeled after American liberal arts
schools - Oktawia and I had developed a mutual distaste for the attitudes
many of our American classmates projected. To them, it seemed, our
study abroad program on the development and structure of the European
Union was little more than a season of The Real World - one long party.
They came to our Monday morning history class, held in a crowded
classroom in an imposing office building, talking about this bar or
that club they'd discovered, joking about homework they didn't do. I
never heard them speak so enthusiastically about the Musea des
Beaux-Arts, or Brussels' cathedrals, or Roman Polanski's appearance at
the Belgian preview of The Pianist.
"Maybe their mommies and daddies can afford to send them back whenever
they want, in case there's a Belgian beer they didn't try," Oktawia
would sneer over our dinners of frozen "kip-poulet"? burgers (our pidgin
appellation, mixing Flemish and French for "chicken"). Oktawia had been
born in Poland under communism and still remembered standing in line
for hours to get a loaf of bread. She was very sensitive to waste.
We had a nobler agenda: Study hard all week, travel hard all weekend.
We read on Brussels' trams, on the Metro, in the laundromat off rue
Rodenbach. Between classes, we scoured the Internet for cheap plane
tickets and hostels, and researched which museums kept our favorite
artworks. In Brussels, in Berlin, in Amsterdam and Paris, we trekked to
cathedrals to marvel at the Gothic architecture; to museums to take in
the subtlety of Vermeer's light; and to historic sites, both remembered
(the Berlin wall) and forgotten (the site of Hitle's bunker - now a
Watching the girl in the Eurostar terminal, my distaste almost boiled
over into anger. Can't you see that you're doing this all wrong?
I thought back to the British Museum, where we'd spent all of
yesterday, to the dark, high-ceilinged room that houses the Elgin
marbles. Set on a long, narrow stage in the middle of the room, the
pediment statues are lit from below by gentle spotlights: large horse
heads with delicate veins; Greek female figures missing heads and arms,
wrapped in diaphanous drapery. Stretching my neck back, I got the
feeling I once got staring up at the Twin Towers, the sense that there
are things much greater than yourself in the world.
"I can't believe how beautiful they look, even though they're broken,"?
I whispered. Oktawia nodded, and I wondered to myself if they were
beautiful in spite of their tragedy, or because of it.
Our Guinness-loving classmate was quieter after we boarded the train,
but her voice carried enough across the seats that I couldn't forget
her. Will you remember anything you did here? Will you regret missing
Da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks or the Rosetta Stone? I stared at the
reflection of the compartment in the otherwise black window. I was
right, of course.
WHAT DO BELGIANS EAT FOR DINNER, ANYWAY?
"Our landlady invited us to dinner next weekend,"? Mike said, pulling
his leather coat close against his body. "It was really good last time."?
There was no way to avoid him - we were headed to history class. I
shivered under my umbrella, no match for the persistence of Belgian
"Thanks, we'll have to see. We were planning on going to - on going
somewhere this weekend," Oktawia answered for us.
"Okay, just give me a call then, and I'll let her know. You guys have
my cell number, right?"?
That night, over microwave lasagne, I asked my roommate if she thought
we should go. "I feel kind of bad," I said, "because she invited us."?
"Well, I don't. She didn't even remember that I lived in the building!?"
The landlady had been the first Belgian I'd met - a thin woman in her
60s, with reddish-brown hair - my introduction to a new home, a new
country, a new culture. She told me where my room was, and not to let
spaghetti go down the drain. Then she left.
"Yeah,"? I said, "we'll tell her we're away. Besides, what could we
possibly talk about with them anyway?"? I was right, wasn't I?
ROMULUS, REMUS, AND CHEERING FOR ROMA
"C'mon, we'll cheer for Roma!"? our traveling companions squealed, with
the high-pitched enthusiasm of Justin Timberlake fans. They were on
their way to an Italian soccer game.
Oktawia delivered the excuse: "No, you guys go ahead. We're tired, and
Elizabeth's feet hurt."?
As soon as the hotel-room door shut behind them, relief washed over me.
These girls may not have been interested in bars, but there were other
things they always had to check out - namely, $200 leather boots and hot
Italian athletes. My roommate and I separated ourselves often, hunting
down Caravaggios in obscure churches down narrow streets. They paid
extra for clothes; we paid extra for a guided tour of the Sistine
"What do you want to do now?"? I asked Oktawia. It was too late for
museums, but not late enough for sleep. She pulled out some photocopies
and a blue highlighter. "I'm tired,"? she said. "We run around all day.
It's just too much sometimes."?
I was tired, too. I lay down and thought about what it would be like at
a soccer game - the crowds, the noise, the excitement, Italian men
whistling at you.
At least, that's how our friends described it when they returned. I
could tell them the story of the wolf depicted on their new red
scarves - the she-wolf that nursed Romulus and Remus so they could grow
up to found Rome - but I could not tell anyone what the soccer field
looked like in the dark or how the crowd cheered for a goal.
My last week in Brussels, I realized that in four months, I'd never
tried a hot gaufre, the chocolate-covered waffles served by street
vendors. They were everywhere, but somehow I'd missed them.
I'd missed other things, too.
It was winter, about 6 p.m. and already black outside. In the cold, I
was glad to board a crowded tram. Oktawia and I were on our way home
from our last final.
"So, what did you think of Palo's exam?"? I was surprised to see Lena, a
Swedish girl who had been in our class.
"I don't know, it was pretty long," I said. "There was just so much information."?
"Oh, I'm sure you guys did fine. You guys always do fine."? I was
surprised, again, that she'd noticed.
We learned that she was on her way to work as a secretary at a law
office, that she was staying in Brussels over the winter break, and
that she'd moved into a new apartment.
"I'm sharing with a few other girls, but they're nice, so I don't mind.
You guys should come over some time." This was no empty gesture. This
was a genuine invitation.
"Oh, that's so nice, but we're going back home in a week - and we're not
going to be back next semester,"? Oktawia said. I knew she was
disappointed, too. At Lena's stop, we laughed again and said how funny
it was that we'd never seen each other on the tram before, and good
luck with everything, and see you around.
I would not trade David's The Death of Marat for a night in a bar in
Brussels. I wouldn't trade the Mona Lisa for a conversation with a
stranger in a cafe. If I could do it all over again, there wouldn't
have to be any trading. I would take off my blinders and see the path
between two extremes.
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Photos by Lonely Planet Image\Doug Mckinlay, Leon Lim, Jeff Booth