Between talk of the USA/Belgium soccer game this Tuesday and photos from around the globe that JMU friends have been posting from their study abroad adventures, I’ve been thinking a lot about my study abroad semester in Belgium. Even though I was there over a year ago for only three months (and country hopping most weekends), the experience will stick with me for the rest of my life and I can’t wait until the next time I get to go abroad again!
Our First Belgian Waffles
I learned a lot about Belgian culture while there: the northern part of the country (where we were) speaks Flemish, a dialect of Dutch, and the southern part speaks French…although pretty much everyone knows English, thankfully, or it would have been much more difficult to get around. Brussels, Belgium is the head of the European Union. Belgium has the best chocolate, beer (super strong), and waffles (“Belgian waffles” in the U.S. are nothing like real waffles from Belgium). It’s cold and rains very often, and when it isn’t raining it’s usually still cloudy. There are many cobblestone streets and beautiful cathedrals. Coffee and speculoos cookies are served often. The country itself is very centrally-located. By train, it only takes an hour to go from Antwerp to Amsterdam, and only two to go from Antwerp to Paris.
During all of our travels between Belgium and other European countries, we learned to ask locals we didn’t know for directions when we were lost, and as time passed, we got more comfortable asking random people to take pictures for us. It hit me that many people we came across or met were ones we’d likely never see again. There are a few people in particular who helped us out that I’d love to thank again. Because I don’t know the names of most of them and have no way of contacting them, I figured I’d explain my thank yous right here to give myself the pleasure of reminiscing on such a crazy and awesome experience and to encourage anyone reading this to think about whether they have similar “thank you notes they can never write.”
LONDON, ENGLAND/BRUSSELS, BELGIUM: Of course on our first weekend trip without the whole group, there were problems with the train, it got delayed, and we missed the last train from Brussels to Antwerp on our way back from London. Since we got back late, there was barely anyone in the Brussels train station (and no one manning the informational/help desk areas). We finally found a woman who worked there and could give us more information, but she only spoke Dutch. Thankfully, some nice Belgian girls who were also stuck translated it for us and we were able to get a cab and take it back to our place in Antwerp. They definitely deserve a thank you because without them, we would have been stranded in the wrong train station for much longer.
PARIS, FRANCE: The weekend after London, we went to Paris. It was over Valentine’s Day weekend with two of my best friends and we were lucky enough to have beautiful weather the entire trip. We quickly realized that the stereotype of the French not liking Americans was true and that if we were asking a question, it was absolutely necessary to say “Bonjour” and THEN “Excuse me,” not the other way around, if we wanted to avoid making people super angry. Not everyone was rude by any means, though. In fact, there are three groups of people that I’d like to thank from our Paris trip.
Palace of Versailles
The first thank you goes out to three college guys from Brevard who navigated the confusing French “Metropolitan” system with us as we struggled to get on the correct train to get to the Palace of Versailles. Thanks to them, we also got some pictures with the gorgeous background of the palace.
The second thank you is to the hilarious American-but-living-on-a-military-base-right-outside-London woman who befriended us and drank wine with us while waiting in line at the Eiffel Tower. We didn’t get any pictures with her, but I’ll forever have memories of the funniest line I’ve ever waited in.
The last Paris thank you is for the girl (also a tourist visiting the Eiffel Tower) who took this awesome photo for us when we asked her to get a picture of us with the Eiffel Tower behind us. She had this cool idea for a sweet angle and here’s how it turned out.
DUBLIN, IRELAND: First of all, we should definitely thank the nice Irish man who explained to us how to get to the tram so we could get into the city center to get on a bus tour. We followed the vague directions from our hotel receptionist but got super confused and would have never found the station had we not come across this guy.
The biggest thank you by far goes out to the Paddywagon bus tour guy who turned our entire day around. We got on the tram and made it into the city, but it was the slowest tram ever, and so after sprinting through Dublin’s city center (which none of us had ever been to), we found that our tour bus had left without us since we were running late. We had pre-paid for the all-day bus tour and therefore hadn’t planned what to do with our day since we didn’t plan on missing the bus. This nice guy told us that there were a few open seats on a tour of the same price going to Northern Ireland instead of the coast and the Cliffs of Moher, which was the destination of our original tour bus. He let us hop on the bus, which is where we met a couple other Americans and got to go to Titanic Belfast (which was one of the ports of the Titanic) once we were in Northern Ireland. The most Northern point on Earth I’ve been to is now Belfast, Ireland. We never would have done any of that if it wasn’t for the nice Paddywagon guy.
ROME, ITALY: We had more train trouble before we even got out of Belgium and onto our plane to Italy – our train lost power for a while but we eventually got it back, took a “rapid taxi” to the airport (guess I should thank the taxi driver for getting us there as fast as humanly possible without killing us), and eventually made it to Rome.
These thank yous are a little more vague than some others, but this trip became awesome due to a few people we met along the way. We got along super well with our hostel roommate, Jacob, and were ecstatic when we learned that he not only spoke English but was Canadian (our first Canadian friend!) and had been in Rome for a while and knew what to tell us was worth seeing. I was also spoken to in Italian twice in the 48 hours we were there by Italian people who thought I was also Italian. Pretty cool, so thanks, guys…or, I guess I should say “grazie!”
We tried to pack in every Italian thing possible in 48 hours, and we did a pretty good job of it between eating gelato, pasta, pizza, and wine; tossing coins in the Trevi Fountain; visiting the Spanish Steps; getting a glimpse at the Pantheon; spending time in the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica (which is GORGEOUS); and more. In between running around all over Rome, we stopped for coffee. I’d like to thank the guy who made our lattes at this cute little coffee shop in Rome and applaud him on his talents of writing “Rome” in cursive with raspberry and chocolate syrup.
The trip would have been incomplete without a visit to the Colosseum, but we got there barely before it closed, so my friend Hayley and I sprinted to the Roman Forum to wait in line for tickets while our friend Katie stayed at the main ticket place, and by dividing and conquering, we were able to get tickets just minutes before they stopped selling them for the day. In this case, I’ll thank Hayley and Katie for being determined, quick thinkers, and fast sprinters. We proceeded to take in the vastness of the Colosseum and take a ton of pictures.
BRUSSELS INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT – BRUSSELS, BELGIUM: My study abroad semester finally came to an end after three months of traveling all over the place, learning the culture of Belgium, and sleeping very little. One of the nicest deeds I remember most vividly from being abroad was by the sweet lady at the Brussels airport who weighed my suitcase before putting a tag on it. After getting a maximum of two hours of sleep the night before thanks to tearing up Antwerp one last time with my study abroad group, I almost couldn’t find my passport in the morning before we left for the airport and I clearly wasn’t thinking straight. She told me my suitcase was a little overweight, which threw me off because the numbers on the scale looked fine to me…until I realized it was in kilograms, not pounds.
I immediately began thinking about clothes I could take out and layer over what I was already wearing and asked Hayley if there was room in her suitcase, despite the fact that I had already stuffed all sorts of things in her bag that morning when they wouldn’t fit in my own. The lady said she’d let it go even though it was over the weight limit, put the sticker on the bag, and placed it on the carousel behind her.
No scrambling to put on even more layers in an attempt to lighten up my bag. No paying an extra fine for having an overweight bag. No being told my suitcase would not be put on the plane. I doubt that lady remembers telling me it was fine, but I’m so thankful and happy that she let it slide.
I’m sure there are even more people to thank, but those are ones that come to mind immediately. These are thank you notes I can never write and send, since I will likely never see these people again, but their actions left a lasting impression on me in several countries and all different scenarios. I am very thankful and will continue to pay the kindness forward.
“Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote, and I know that I shall be happily infected until the end of my life.”