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March 21, 2013

Local Voices From Around the Globe: Making another life in a new land

By Haley Hohensee
Cooperstown Crier

---- — I’ve been in Belgium for almost seven months now and am having the time of my life. There is always so much going on and so many amazing and interesting people to meet.

I’m living with my second host family and they’re great. I have four sisters (Alice, Perrine, Wendy and Julie), two dogs, a cat, a mom (Marie-Claude) and a dad (Eddy). My two eldest sisters (Wendy and Julie) live with their boyfriends, but they are always stopping by, and Julie runs with us three or four times a week. Perrine is studying at University so she only comes home during the weekends.

For the most part, it’s just Alice and I. All of them are great though. Very accommodating and family-oriented. We’re all hooked on “Top Chef: France”, so every week we all watch it together (each episode is incredibly long, about three hours). My host sisters and I are in a serious tournament of cards as well. I also fell in love with the cat. Although I’ve always been a dog person, our cat, Mia, is the most adorable, relaxed creature I’ve met in Belgium. Plus she’s always great at listening to me.

I really miss my first host family. It didn’t really hit me that I was really changing houses until my first night at my second host family’s house. There are a lot of little things I miss about the first host family, like cooking with my mom, playing board games with my brothers and joking around with my dad. Luckily I still see them pretty often at track, parties and Rotary events.

My parents from Cooperstown are actually coming to visit me really soon. I’m so excited to introduce them to everyone and show them Belgium. That week I’m moving back in with my first host family (because they have extra rooms and they speak a bit of English), which I’m looking forward too! We’ll be traveling around Belgium, but also taking a trip to Paris for a few days.

I’ve done so many interesting things since my last report. To start with, I went to an amazing carnival during our February break, Le Carnaval de Binche. There were hundreds of people lining the streets in costumes just dancing, singing and having a great time. When the actual parade got going I was in awe. It’s a very special carnival because all the participants must be men, native to the historical city. They dress up in the most elaborate costumes with gigantic feather-covered headdresses. But that’s not all. Binche is known for their tradition of launching oranges. You know how in the U.S. they throw Tootsie Rolls, and maybe some mints at the crowd? Well in Belgium they have hundreds of men marching around in wooden shoes and feather hats launching oranges at the crowds for two hours.

I might have gotten elbowed in the face and pushed a few times, but it was SO much fun! It also gave me a reason to move around because that day it was freezing. At the end, we ended up lugging more than 200 oranges back home with us.

New Year’s was also a really memorable night. It started out with just a small group of American exchange students in Brussels, but by the end of the night we’d gathered about 200. We all watched the countdown in the Grand Place, followed by a show of fireworks. When we finally made it back to the train station, it was hilarious to see the same 200 exchangers sprawled across the steps waiting for the first trains to get rolling.

I celebrated my birthday with my first and second host families with a bunch of different delicious cakes. I think I forgot to mention that my host mom takes patisserie classes, so I’m pretty much in heaven all the time. My host family gave the most thoughtful gift too. They ordered a custom designed running shirt for me with my name, Belgium 2012-13, and the names of all my host families written on it. They told me that they want me to think of them when I’m running even when I’m back in the States.

Another great experience I’ve had was spending a day in patisserie, baking and chocolate classes. Eric, the district chairman in Belgium, also happens to be in my club. He graciously invited me and several other exchange students to spend the day at the technique school where he teaches. I learned how to make croissants, éclairs, bread, pralines and chocolate. It was really different, but also so much fun. Let’s hope I remember the recipes for when I get back.

I also went to a really cool music festival in Chimay with some of my good friends. A senior class hosted it, but it was very professional. There was a huge tent, friteries and great music (some of the same DJs from Tomorrowland).

I’m still playing volleyball and running a lot. Our volleyball team is actually ranked pretty high right now, but we only have a few matches left. That is really disappointing because I love hanging out with the girls on the team. All of them are so sweet and friendly.

School is going well, when we have it. These past few weeks have been kind of crazy with the weather. There were a few days where it was 65 degrees and sunny, immediately followed by a snowstorm that shut down all public transit and all the schools. Also in Belgium the system works very differently. When the teachers don’t show up (which is often) all of the students can go home. I find it odd how often the teachers just don’t show up and won’t tell the school.

Also, lately there have been a lot of strikes in Belgium. The workers aren’t happy with the government because they take so much of their money through taxes (nearly 40 percent in some cases) so the trains, buses and subways all shut down for a day to strike. When there are strikes, students aren’t obliged to go to school. I guess it’s their form of “snow days.”

The language is a breeze at this point. I don’t feel like I need to consciously translate, or concentrate to understand things. French is just kind of second nature to me now. I’m so relieved to be able to watch the television and movies with my family without subtitles, read books in French, and hang out with all my Belgian friends without needing to ask “Quoi,” “Pardon,” “Comment,” ou “Repetes.” And believe me, they appreciate it too. I’ve made such stronger friendships with my Belgian friends since my language skills have progressed.

The day after they leave I’ll be taking off for Italy for about two weeks. In Belgium we don’t have a EuroTour but the Rotary does a great job organizing individual trips and activities. We’ll be visiting Rome, Naples, Pompei, Florence, and Venice. When I get back I’ll be switching to my third and final host family.

This year is so much more than I could have ever imagined. Now that I’ve tackled the French and the holidays, time is just flying by. It’s honestly a little heartbreaking thinking about leaving my life here, all the people I’ve met and all of the family I’ve made. I, like all my fellow exchangers, have made another life in a new land. Although I only have a few more months here, I’m sure I’ll make the best of it. There are already so many great things I’m looking forward to and so much more to learn.

À la prochaine et gros bisous.

Haley Hohensee is a Cooperstown Rotary exchange student.