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The Carnaval of the ALA Program

The Spring 2012 ALA students have been tearing up Brussels for one full month and have a lot to show for their well-spent time. When you study abroad in Brussels, one of the first questions you need to master in responding to en français is “Why Brussels?” Local ULB students and Belgians alike are always interested in understanding how and why foreigners decide to come to Brussels for study abroad. The students this semester are definitely making sure there’s no doubt about it that they’re in Brussels to dig deep into the culture of the francophone world outside of France and to make their mark proving it.


In just one month the ALA students have already attended a francophone Belgian play and had a chance to participate in a private Q and A with the director of the spectacle, “Sabotage Amoureux” by Amélie Nothomb. They’ve also become involved with the community by helping out with refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Roma migrants and explored the historical connection between Art Nouveau and Brussels by visiting the house and workshop of architect Victor Horta.

Plus, they’ve gone knee-deep in very Belgian interpretations of Carnaval. As a group they experienced the Carnaval of Malmédy, a small francophone town in Wallonia, where the celebrations consist of jovial parrot-esque men capturing you with long pincers. To escape and have confetti thrown on you, you must ask for forgiveness from the parrot man! They also participated in the UNESCO recognized Carnaval of Binche – a centuries old celebration that involves a lot of orange throwing and even more confetti.


They’ve already started to fall in love with the charms of Belgium and are looking forward to their next few months here. Some things are definite, like scenic bike rides through the Bruges countryside, a chance to sit in on a trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and a visit to a European institution. But who knows what other quirky surprises Belgium has in store for them? Only time will tell…


Experiencing European Culture through Film



Studying in the capital of Europe is an exciting way to expose yourself to many different types of culture. One of the best ways to capitalize on, and to truly comprehend, the true international composition of Brussels is through cinema. Belgians love film and the experience of the cinema. Brussels is absolutely flush with wonderful little cinemas throughout its borders – a wonder for such a small city. And these cinemas do an excellent job upholding the cosmopolitan essence of the city. Unlike many other countries, Belgium doesn’t dub their films. They opt to keep the wide range of films on offer in their original version, while adding Dutch and French subtitles to the film.


One of the consistent activities offered by CIEE is a weekly film series, which allows students to capitalize on the breadth of film and culture available here. About once every other week the ALA program checks out a film in one of Brussels many cinemas, usually in all sorts of languages. Instead of being daunted by the prospect of conquering a film in say, Arabic, students have happily sunk their teeth into fine-tuning their French subtitle reading skills. So far this semester we’ve seen a highly-acclaimed Belgian film on hormone-trafficking, a French-Canadian film focusing on family and conflict in the Middle East, and a Swedish film full of cacophony as it follows a group of musical terrorists making music throughout a city.



The Beginning

It’s about six weeks into the 5 month long program, and I’d like to share a little of my experience with you. I arrived in Brussels, Belgium in the beginning of February along with eight other Americans. Ciee provided a three day long orientation that included: a tour of the city, a tour of the Cantillon brewery, a tour of the ULB campus (and a ton of information regarding classes), and many typical Belgian meals. After being well fed and educated we were sent off to our housing arrangements and everyone seems to have something a little different. I live in a “chambre loué” which is exactly what translates as: a rented room. It’s a 4-story typical Belgian house. The land lady has two kids that are grown up and have moved out, so she rents the two extra rooms to Ciee. She told me I am her 15th student, so she is accustomed to having a foreigner around. I have the 4th floor completely to myself, I share a bathroom with another American student who lives on the floor beneath me, and the kitchen and living room downstairs are at my disposal. I even get (although shared with the other American) a cupboard and part of the fridge. Other students have apartments with other students—both local and foreign. Some have similar situations as me, but no one has host families which I believe are reserved for the BCC (business, communication and culture) program.

Classes started the second week of the program and it was extremely hectic. Since we are not technically Erasmus (European exchange students) we are free to take any classes from any department, which is unlike the structure here. It makes finding classes that are transferrable much easier! I’m a French/Communication major back home, so I figured it would be easy picking. Wrong! All of the classes I wanted seemed to be at that same time. The first two weeks I attended 10 different classes—we need a minimum of 6. Thankfully I found out about the Tandem program, which is a language exchange offered for 5 ECTS (credits) for a year or for us semester students 3 ECTS. I have to meet up with a Belgian student for 2 hours a week for 12 weeks in order to get credit. We speak one hour in English and one hour in French. My French is supposed to be accessed at the beginning and end of the semester and significant progress has to be evident. I signed up early and have a Belgian partner named Elizabeth. We’ve met twice now and out third meeting is this evening. I love how informal it is compared to my other classes; we usually meet up at a café or bar and have a drink and chat about our lives. It makes conversation in another language much more fluid than in class. My other five classes are going well too, thankfully. Ciee requires us to take a Belgian history course, and I’ve picked two communication classes as well as two linguistic classes. My Pragmatics of Communication is really interesting and the Professor is very animate and gives great examples for all the concepts. Ciee is really good at keeping in contact with us about our classes and school too. Today they took us out to lunch to discuss how things are going and if we need help with anything. I love when then feed us—being a poor college student means eating skinny here, especially since the exchange rate is not particularly ideal. They take us out periodically and make sure we are well fed, and I really appreciate that because I wouldn’t have full meals like that otherwise.

It’s important to note that I have been studying French for over 9 years, and have already completely one exchange in France 4 years ago. I believe that it is for these reasons that I have been having little difficulty in my classes, communication, and making friends. The other students, however, have been taking French for 4+ years and all seem to be doing fine as well. I think confidence in the language is key.

At this point in the program I am finally settled into my classes and have a routine. I have class M-Th, and gave myself three day weekends to travel. Except I’ve yet to leave the city on my own accord because Ciee has planned trips for us and they’re already paid for—so I tend to participate in those instead. Maybe this weekend I’ll burst out of my bubble, but who knows! I really think Ciee is a great program when it comes to the things important to me like traveling. We have at least one excursion a month in which all necessary expenses are paid. Mardi Gras in Binche was unbelievable and I can’t wait till we go to Luxembourg next week!

It’s starting to get late though, so I should probably get ready for the conversation table—my favorite event hosted by Ciee. Twice a month Ciee rents out half a bar downtown and invites all the students in the Brussels programs (ALA and BCC) as well as a ton of Belgian students from all over (including our “parrains” students which is essentially our school buddies) Brussels. We chat in French and English, but many of the European students speak other languages as well! I got to practice my German with a Polish guy who also speaks Polish, English, French, Spanish and a little Russian. Ciee provides the first two drinks but the conversations last for hours. I hope that gives you somewhat of a picture of what’s going on now. More to come later!
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Bienvenue à Bruxelles!

Welcome to the Spring 2011 Advanced Liberal Arts semester in Brussels, Belgium!

After a whirlwind orientation week, students are enjoying the unusually sunny Belgian weather while surviving their first week of classes (and tram strike to boot!) at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB).  On top of this, they are enthusiastically discovering what Belgium is all about.  You may also be wondering...Belgium? Well, it feels only fitting to let Belgium introduce herself in this inaugural blog post, so we'll let her do the talking.

Stay tuned for further adventures and photos from the program as we roll into the rest of the semester. 


Ala group
Bienvenue à Bruxelles!