This semester, I only have real responsibilities on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Other than those days, there is a 99% chance I will not be in Louvain-la-Neuve, considering it is a large commuter school for Belgian students and pretty much everyone clears out on the weekends. This Tuesday, I had a new awakening to what my “real person” days could consist of.
I was really frustrated as I was let out of my French class an hour early. I guess every university struggles to pull it together on a regular basis? Anyways, I was frustrated because I am truly only in class 3 days a week, and it feels good to be educationally productive and structured every once in a while. (Lol who am I kidding I live for 4 day weekends in a hostel without showering… Tmi? But I digress…) So as my American companion Paul and I headed out of class, we ended up striking up conversation with a classmate that we are always friendly with. In French, she proposed that we go have coffee and chat since we were supposed to be in class anyways. The devil/antisocial side of my shoulder wanted to run back to my room and nap, but the angel/worldly side proved to be the winner and I willingly sat down for some café avec mes amis. This was my pivotal move, and my motivation for the rest of this post. We ended up having a truly wonderful conversation in French for over an hour! For me, this was huge. I have felt overwhelmed by the language barrier here since my arrival; it is truly difficult to communicate with someone when you genuinely have no idea what they are saying to you. (Case in point- I had to return to the mobile phone shop 3 times in 20 minutes to ask the lady to repeat to me how to activate my prepaid card … Seriously.) Anyways, we talked about our home institution studies (she is from Salamanca, Spain), where we are living in Belgium, the courses we are taking, how cute our French professor is, the US, various controversial government issues, grad school, parties … Need I say more? By the time we said “bon journée” my brain was having a spasm but I was so proud of my success at holding a meaningful conversation in the language I have studied for so long! It is very difficult to pick up a language when you are not immersed in the culture and forced to use it and I am so glad to finally be in that position. That accomplishment helped me realize lesson one of the day: if I push myself without fear of failing, my education outside of the classroom while abroad will be infinitely more beneficial to my life than my time spent at a desk taking notes. Although I definitely had that mindset going into this trip, real life examples have helped me to confirm my beliefs that this semester is made for education way way wayyyyy beyond reading a PowerPoint presentation. I walked away from that social hour feeling happy and confident. Even though I probably still would have no idea what the mobile phone store lady is telling me about my 15 euro prepaid credit, I was genuinely satisfied to have just forged the beginning of a meaningful relationship in a foreign language. It’s the little things I guess. Moving forward, I was super motivated to really focus on utilizing my free time in LLN wisely. I purchased a novel in French (that I need to read for class) and actually felt excited about starting it. Imagine the accomplishment of reading and comprehending an entire book in French? (Warning: book nerd alert!!!!)
Later on, I attempted to continue my educational productivity but came upon another road block. As my eyes drooped from reading a chapter on EU trade policy, I decided to switch gears and work on my spring break plans. Rule #1: two week spring break > any other responsibility you think you may have ever. My friends Jenna, Taylor, and myself have slaved over this planning for hours and we still have a lot to do. It’s hard when plans don’t work out or you end up booking flights you realize weren’t the best idea… But here is what I realized today. While abroad, the possibilities that I have at my fingertips are legitimately endless, and I cannot go wrong with any of them. Oh we decide to go to one southern Portugal city over the Canary Islands? Can’t go wrong. No morocco but Mallorca? Still doing it right. Stuff like this is trivial and I am so fortunate to even be saying the words “go to” and “Portugal” in the same sentence, which is why it is so important to me to appreciate every possibility available and make confident decisions without looking back. That being said, the opportunity to travel the world is rare, whereas the opportunity to read about EU trade policy can happen any ole day (although it does need to happen before Wednesday at midnight :)). I actually do take school really seriously, but I’ve learned to let other worldly opportunities be equally as beneficial and important to me as writing a report. I think that that realization is great to have for my future; it will help me to keep work and play in a good balance. The relationships and memories I make are equally as important as the job I have and how much money I have to my name.
My final event of the day took place in my kot, or dorm. I usually stick to myself when I am here because I am unfamiliar with my roommates and it’s in my comfort zone to spend some alone time. Today I made dinner (surprise!) downstairs and ate/did some reading at the kitchen table. I ended up having great conversation (although in English) with two of my roommates. My first roommate has a hard time speaking English but told me that it would help her to practice with me. We chatted for a bit but the thing I took away was: she was clearly as nervous to talk to me in English as I am to talk in French. It’s a universal concept… Duh Gina. This is something I need to remember on a daily basis. My second roommate and I talked about various things but what I will remember most is the stereotypes of Americans that he told me. We are apparently completely uninterested in learning any other language besides English. We think everyone else should speak English as fluently as we do. Things of that nature. While this may be true of some of us, it is most definitely not true of all of us. I give full credit to anyone who grew up in the US as a native English speaker who has the motivation to travel and immerse themselves in a foreign language and culture. Why? Because it is truly FOREIGN to us. The USA is huge; we can travel hundreds of miles and still be in the same country. To venture to another continent is a big deal and takes a lot of courage and commitment. You have to want to hear and pick up new languages; you simply cannot expect every person you meet to be able to converse with you in perfect English. Hopefully I left an impression on my Belgian roommate that not all Americans are all about “America”. We are curious and willing to see and learn and experience new surroundings. So there’s my life lesson.
If anyone took the time to read this I congratulate you, as these are my late night thoughts written into a corny blog. But for my own memory’s sake, this is what I want to remember to take away from this 6 month adventure. Just because I do have to go to class and read boring articles doesn’t mean I can’t make the most out of the rest of my time in this little Belgian city.
1. Speak French. You may sound like an idiot but you can only get better.
2. Plan. Get excited for the future. Waste time looking up flights but be thrilled when a great trip is added to the calendar.
3. Make an impression. You may only be able to represent yourself in the long run, but at least you can sleep soundly knowing that you are always trying to become the best you possible.
Goodnight from my awkwardly small and not very comfortable dorm room bed! Xoxo