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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!