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January 3, 2013

Local Voices from Around the Globe: I've got a lot of catching up to do

By Haley Hohensee
Cooperstown Crier

---- — My last few months in Belgium have been a whirlwind. I’ve been seeing and doing so much! 

I can’t believe that I’ve been here for four months already, time is passing by MUCH to fast. I am still with my first host family (whom I absolutely adore) but will be switching to my second after New Years, which will be a new adjustment. Luckily I’ve gotten to know my next family pretty well over the past few months. They are all incredibly nice, welcoming and fun. I will have four sisters (ages 18 to 26), two parents, two dogs and a cat. They live a little farther out of my city than my first family so I’ll be taking the bus and the subway to school.

School has been going very well. My schedule includes physics, chemistry, biology, calculus, religion, gym, geography, history, informatics, English, several French classes and theater. I am in the sixième (senior) grade. We are divided up into classes based on what we plan to study in college. We all follow the same schedule, so each class sticks with the same people. We went on a retreat in Liege together in mid-October, which was a great opportunity to get to know the other students. Usually I hang out with my friends after school at a nearby café and then head home around 6 p.m. to gather my things for either volleyball or track practice. Our family always eats dinner together after and lately I’ve been helping my mom cook. She’s taught me so many great recipes that I’m definitely taking back with me.

Charleroi isn’t the most beautiful city in Belgium, but there are always things to do and it’s really easy to travel. Almost every weekend I’m in Brussels, Mons, Liege, Namur or some other city touring around or going to a festival.

One sure fact about Belgians is that they love to celebrate. They find almost any opportunity they can to throw a huge party with tons of food, chocolate, music and laughs. For Thanksgiving I decided to cook a huge dinner for all three of my host families. I was a bit intimidated because I’d never taken on such a large task before, but I was eager to try it out. Luckily, everything turned out delicious.

I cooked a turkey, mashed potatoes, broccoli, cranberry sauce, applesauce, zucchini and a whole lot of pumpkin and apple pies. Everyone had a great time and it was great seeing all of my family together.

We’ve also recently celebrated my host father’s 50th birthday with a huge party (around 50 or 60 people), which was crazy but so much fun. We’ll be doing the same thing again on Dec. 29 with the family. I spent all Christmas Eve day with my second host family to help cook and prepare for the party later that night. We started eating around 8 and the final course didn’t make an appearance until 2 a.m. For fun, everyone at the dinner decided to dress up. The characters included a Christmas tree (me), a fairy, a reindeer, a pirate, Santa Claus, a Viking, a hippie, a gangster and more. When the clock struck midnight it was a huge round of bisous (kisses), hugs, confetti and dancing. I spent actual Christmas with my first host family at my host grandmother’s home with all of the extended family. There we ate cougnolle (a typical Christmas bread with chocolate, sugar, or raisins). It was so much fun celebrating Christmas with two families, quite the experience! Everyone was so friendly, welcoming, and entertaining I didn’t have time to get homesick.

Since my last update I’ve done quite a bit of traveling. At the end of October I took a three-day trip to Paris with the Rotary. We visited the Château de Versailles, Musée d’Orsay, Musée du Louvre, Sacre Cœur, Notre Dame, and l’Arc de Triomphe. We also took an elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower (the stairs weren’t open at the time) and a nighttime boat tour on La Seine. It was unbelievably breathtaking and am already planning my trip back (Paris is less than an hour and a half away from me).

At the beginning of November I also went on a four-day trip to London. There, we went to Windsor Castle, Canterbury Cathedral, The Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus, the wax museum of Madame Tussauds, Buckingham Palace, The Royal Observatory and saw an amazing Michael Jackson tribute musical.

In early October I went to Chimay with my host aunt and uncle for a beer and cheese festival. I also got together with Cooperstown’s own, Anna Weber (previous Rotary Exchange Student who is now attending university in Brussels). We took a short trip to Brugge, which is in my opinion, one of the most beautiful cities in Belgium, where we ate delicious pasta, walked along the canals, and visited the huge windmills. For a holiday celebration, the Rotary organized an exotic dinner for all the students in Belgium (held in my city). Everyone made a special dish, traditional to his or her country to share with everyone and their host families (I made a creamy pumpkin spice soup). It was really fun tasting all the different dishes and seeing everyone together.

My French has progressed a sizable amount as well. I am finally able to carry on full (intellectual) conversations, correctly conjugate verbs automatically, and understand most of the dialogue in movies. This experience has been amazing so far and I can’t thank Rotary enough for allowing me this unforgettable adventure. I love my host family as if they were my own. I care for my friends here as if I’d known them for ages. And I’ve really embraced the Belgian culture as if it were my own. I can’t wait to see what new things I discover throughout my exchange.

Haley Hohensee is a Cooperstown Rotary exchange student.