Friday, May 30, 2008

Day Trippin'

Hi everyone! Hope all is well with you all.

Today, we took a group day trip to Bruges, which was really cool. We took an hour long train ride from Brussels to Bruges. Bruges is a small town about an hours train ride away from Brussels to the north, which means that it is part of Flanders, where primarily Flemish and Dutch are spoken. Bruges is famous because it is a very old town, dating back to medieval times, and for the fact that it is one of the oldest towns which was not hit by any bombs during both World Wars. All the buildings are really neat architecturally and because they are so old. There are a series of canals running through the town, making Bruges kind of like a Northern European version of Venice.

When we got into the train station, we walked up to the city center. When we got there, we walked out onto the Grand Markt, which is basically like the center of town in most European towns, although it depends by where you are what they are called. It's usually the center of town. One of the sides was a city hall which was centuries old with a belfort (bell tower). Some of us decided to climb up the bell tower, which was about 330 stairs. From the top, we got a great view of the whole town of Bruges. Once we had climbed down the spiraling staircase, Dr. Kreppel gave us an hour to explore the city. I just meandered down the streets and looked into some shops along the way. Afterwards, we met up again and all went to lunch together. We ate at an Italian restaurant and since the whole excursion was covered in our fees, we didn't have to pay for anything out of pocket. The food was very good and I ate almost my entire pizza and then our table split some tiramisu (sp?) and ice cream. After lunch, we went on a boat ride through all the canals, which was really neat because it gave you a whole different perspective of the town. We passed a lot of really neat, old buildings.

After, the boat ride, we headed back home to Brussels. While we were at the train station, we went ahead and bought our train tickets for next weekend, when we plan to go to Amsterdam. We are planning to travel quite a bit while we are here, going to Amsterdam, Paris, Dublin, and possibly either London or Madrid, all of which should be really fun. So, if anyone has any tips on any of these places, let me know!

Tomorrow is our first actual day of having nothing required of us. I'm planning on going out and doing at least some sightseeing tomorrow, hopefully if I don't have too much homework to do. I'll update you and I'm planning on posting pictures at some point in the near future.

Got to go for now. Love to all!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Here Comes the Sun, Waffles, and Other Bits of Randomness

Today was pretty uneventful except for the fact that it was pretty much sunny the whole day. I've only been here five days and I already realize why some people are not huge fans on Brussels. The weather does leave something to be desired. It is cloudy quite regularly and it usually rains or at least mists/ sprinkles at least once a day. Today, however, it was sunny for the majority of the day. It clouded over a few times and only rained a little bit this morning. Overall, it wasn't too bad. The cloudy/ rainyness isn't that bad because the temperature here is perfect. It has been mainly in the upper 60s, lower 70s in the day and it gets down in the 50s at night.

Anyways, today some of us decided to try walking to school which was great. It's a long walk (about 50 minutes), but you go through one of the many parks in Brussels. It was beautiful and the houses along it were beautiful. Brussels is apparently one of the greenest cities in the world as far as the number of parks.

After class, we all went to get bus passes for the month of June so now we can use the transportation system as much as we want. On the walk home, we stopped by a waffle stand and I experienced my first real Belgian waffle. It was delicious! I think they coat the waffles with a sugary glaze of some sort, which is wonderful. I assume, because the only places you can get waffles are stands and little shops on the street, that waffles are more of a snack food for on the go here. Syrup is not used and, really, was not necessary. They also had the option of having the waffle dipped in chocolate sauce, which I guess I will have to try at some point as well.

On the whole, the food here is really good. I'm looking forward to trying mussels et frites (mussels and french fries), which is apparently another must get in Brussels. I also want to try the Belgian chocolate which is supposed to be some of the best in the world. I will keep you updated on that.

Love to all,

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Great Divide

So I thought I would do an extra post on the culture and people here in Belgium. For those of you who may not know, Belgium is made up of two different populations. For the most part, the northern part of Belgium is dominated by the Flemish, who primarily speak Flemish, which is also known as Dutch. The southern portion of Belgium for the most part is populated by French speaking Walloons. (Each of these is named for regions in Belgium: Flanders and Wallonia.) Brussels is a dual language city. Basically, the history of Belgium explains this. Belgium has been taken over throughout history by pretty much anyone of consequence, but the French and Dutch languages stuck. Today, there is pretty much constant tension between the two groups. At one point, the two sectors wanted to split and form separate countries, but for now that debate has been quelled. The French speakers usually associated more with France, while the Flemish seem to take more after the Germans.

In Brussels, there are usually distinct areas which are either French or Flemish, but it is hard for me to tell where these are. All the signs around the city have to be posted in two languages and apparently advertisements in metros and buses and such have to be equally distributed with both languages represented. Sometimes, to get around this, advertisers just advertise in English. Most people here in Brussels seem to speak at least their own language and some English. The Flemish are known for their mastery of languages and so most of them are tri-lingual, but most will not answer you in French if you try to talk to them in French because this is considered rude and they don't really like it. Most of the French speakers it seems don't care to learn Flemish except for the little they need to survive, but most speak English.

Brussels seems to be a big melting pot with people from all over the world here and many different languages spoken. It is very impressive to run into the people who can speak three and four languages. At the market, I noticed that there also seem to be a lot of immigrants living here from Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. It is really interesting to be surrounded by such diversity.

On another note, Emily wanted to know about my conversation abilities here in Belgium. I am practicing my French, but I haven't really had any conversations with people yet. Mainly my practicing involves me either ordering food or greeting people or excusing myself when I bump into someone. But, I do feel like I am getting better and more confidant in my French. I haven't learned any Flemish yet, but Dr. Kreppel is going to teach us a few phrases to say when we take a day trip to Bruges on Friday. It should be interesting because Flemish seems like it is fairly difficult. However, it is a Germanic language and so some words do look and sound similar to some English words, which is helpful. I challenge myself by trying to read advertisements and signs while we are out and about to try and improve my knowledge or both languages.

Well, that's pretty much all I can think of to comment on these subjects. If you all have any more subjects you think I should address in my posts, let me know and I will.


International School?

Hi to everyone! Sorry for not posting yesterday. I was quite busy with school starting and everything. We had to wake up fairly early because Dr. Kreppel had to come over to show us how to get to the university. Basically, we had to take a bus and a tram and then walk a few blocks to get there and we would have never found it if she had just told us where to go. When we got there, we were all given an orientation and then taken on a tour of the university. We are taking classes through Vesalius College, which is part of a larger university, VUB (which stands for some Flemish words which mean Free University of Brussels). Kind of like the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is part of UF, Vesalius is the international, English speaking sector of VUB, which is a completely Flemish speaking university. Apparently there is also a French Free University of Brussels. This is one of the many wonderful and confusing aspects of the whole two languages thing, which I hope to address at some point in a blog. Anyways, we took a tour of VUB, which is probably one of the ugliest colleges I have ever seen. All the buildings were built during the seventies and all are made of just concrete. Consequently, they look like remnants of the Cold War which you would find in some Eastern European country. Basically, I have no idea what they were thinking when they constructed these. (I'll try to post pictures later so that you can see them in all their glory.) The campus itself is fairly nice. They have some nice green areas and a rugby pitch with a track around it. The campus is pretty small and compact and apparently most of the students there are graduate or doctoral students. Also, they don't really interact with the Vesalius students.

When we returned to Vesalius, we started class. First, I have Dr. Kreppel's class which is the European Union in the World. She introduced herself and told us about the course and then we went around and everyone introduced themselves because our group only makes up about half of the class. All the UF students were sitting together in the front and we all introduced ourselves first. Some of the people in the group were quite interesting in introducing themselves, with some of them explaining where they were from (ex: Pennsylvania) and then following that with, "it's in the northern part of the United States." Once we got through half of the other students, however, we realized that all the other students except for one were Americans as well. Dr. Kreppel had been telling us for days that this was an international school and that there were people from all over the world and we ended up with a class of Americans! It was funny, but pretty disappointing since we had all looked forward to meeting some different people. My next class, European Identity and Skepticism wasn't really any better. There are two Belgians, one Dane, and a girl from Turkey in the class and everyone else is American. Each of the classes lasts for two hours and my first class starts at 11. We have a one hour break for lunch from 1 to 2 and then the second class from 2 to 4.

After class, we had to set up our Vesalius computer accounts and stop by a copy shop to get the reading for Dr. Kreppel's next class because the book hadn't arrived yet. Then, we went to a store that is the Belgian version of Sam's or Costco. It was interesting. It was smaller than a Sam's and the "bulk" items usually came in much smaller packages than they do in America, but it was still interesting to see this because I had no idea that we had exported our love of buying things in bulk for cheap overseas.

That day, we didn't get home until about 6:30 and we were all pretty tired and cranky from the long day and not enough sleep. We all went to our separate apartments and some people took naps. I started on the readings we had for the next days classes. It looks like I will be spending a lot of my time here in Belgium either reading or in class. It makes you wish it was just "abroad" and the "study" part just wasn't there.

Later, some of us went out to a cafe down the street which was lots of fun and interesting because the owners were spoke Spanish, which a lot of people liked because most of them converse better in Spanish than in French.

Today, I got up and we all went to class. We all met up outside our apartments so that we could go together to the university. It took all 11 of us to make sure that we were going in the right direction, getting on the right bus/ tram, not getting hit by cars (the Belgians are probably the worst drivers I have ever seen!), etc. to get to school.

Classes were better today... much more interesting than the introductory stuff we studied yesterday. Also, we are meeting more of the other people in our classes, even if they are Americans, it is still good to meet other people and branch out a little from our little group.

After classes, a small group of us went home while others in the group went with some other students to the bar on campus. (Yes... you read right... a bar on campus. Apparently the drinking age here is 15 if you can believe that... just another interesting tid bit.) I went home and started on my readings for tomorrow's class. (I know... a lot of reading!) Then, some of us went up to the grocery store around the corner to get some things. This grocery store was much smaller than the other one we went to, but much closer and they had pretty much everything we wanted. The whole grocery store thing is very interesting. I had expected Belgium to be more like France in the fact that you go to different shops for different items that you need, but this is not the case at all. You go to a grocery store that sells everything. They do have specific bakeries here, but that is pretty much it as far as specific food stores.

Well, better close for now. Hope everyone is doing well and enjoying their summer (or almost summer for Fraz.).

Love to all,

Sunday, May 25, 2008

To Market We Go

Today was pretty eventful and exciting. I slept fairly well last night, only waking up once and then going back to sleep pretty quickly. I woke up early (around 8:15 or so) and had a European breakfast... a wonderful croissant! Then all but one of our group met up to go down to Gare du Midi for the open market that they have every Sunday. We rode a tram, which is basically a trolley but more modern looking, into Gare du Midi. There, we stopped into a cafe and most of us had some coffee and the people who hadn't eaten had some breakfast. I'm not a huge fan of coffee to begin with and this stuff was very strong, but it did the trick and woke me right up. Then, we went exploring through the market.

The market is basically like a giant flea market with people selling everything from knockoff purses to clothing to books. However, there are also lots of stands which sell food like fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, and breads. The food at these stands, especially the fruits and vegetables are usually cheaper and fresher than most of the grocery stores here so this was wonderful. Many of them have samples of the foods that you can try. I sampled an orange and just had to buy some because it was one of the best oranges I've ever had. This seems quite odd because being from Florida, one would expect that the oranges here would not be quite as good, but the one I had was amazing. I bought three of them and conversed a little bit with the vendor in French, which was also quite exciting. (More on the whole language thing to come.) Hopefully these oranges will be as good as the one I tasted.

After the market, we rode the tram back a ways and got off at a big street sale that the neighborhood of Ixelles was having. Apparently they hold this sale every year and we just happened to be passing that way at the right time. Most of the stuff was second hand, but it is just neat to walk along the streets, watch people, and "window" shop at all the different stalls.

After walking up this street, we came back home where most people proceeded to take naps. I decided not to and decided instead to call my parents. We all got cheap cell phones yesterday which use SIM cards, which run on a prepaid minutes type plan. It is very expensive to call the US, but I thought it would be good to at least talk to my parents.

After that, Jessie came over to our apartment to hang out and we started to hear some music. It turns out that the Jazz Festival which we missed last night was continuing this afternoon. Three of us went down to the Place de Ferdinand du Cocq and listened to some pretty great bands. The music wasn't really jazz music, it was more just all different kinds of music. The weather was great and we just sat and listened to the different bands. It was wonderful.

Well, we have an early day tomorrow with classes starting so I've got to end this post for now. More later.

Love to all,

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Day One

Greetings to all from Brussels! I hope this post finds everyone well.

Today was my first day in Brussels. I arrived at the airport after a difficult night on the plane. I think I slept for maybe four or five hours at the most, but I kept waking up because of the lights from the tv screens and because I kept getting cricks in my neck (even with my little pillow). While we were descending, I was able to look over (I had an aisle seat and not the bulkhead like I had hoped) and see the atomium, which was all lit up. The atomium was built for the one of the worlds fairs and is meant to look like a giant atom, hence the name. This was definitely exciting because I had read about this in my travel book on Brussels. Anyways, I disembarked and went through customs. I met Russell, one of the guys from my trip who was arriving around the same time at baggage claim and we took a cab to the apartments where we are staying in Brussels. On our way into town, we passed a lot of the EU buildings, which was pretty cool. Most of them were fairly nondescript, but it was just neat to see where all the EU business takes place.

We arrived at the apartments, which are very nice, but not quite as nice as the ones on the website (if I showed any of you). It turns out I am in one of the nicer apartments of the lot, but I have the smallest bedroom. My roommate won't be here for another week though because she is doing another study abroad program in Berlin so I have the room to myself for a while. Dr. Kreppel, our adviser, gave us fifteen minutes to wash our faces, brush our teeth, etc. Then, we left for what she called the "Bataan Death March." Basically this consisted of her trying to show us around our area of the city and trying to keep us from falling asleep to prevent jet lag. It was grueling and I was tired, but it was really neat just being in a new city. Brussels reminds me of Paris to some extent, but is not quite as uniform and proper looking.

We went down the Chaussee d'Ixelles, a shopping street near our apartments and then we rode the metro into the center of the city where we went to the Grand Place, which is the oldest square in Europe which is still intact after both world wars. The Place was all set up for the Jazz Festival which they hold in Brussels every year around this time. They have different stages set up all around the city where you can go and hear jazz music. We sat down and listened for a while, but then we continued our march. We went to another shopping district, where Dr. Kreppel left us to find our own way back to our apartments. We didn't have any trouble doing this. We just hopped on a bus and were there in no time.

Then we rested for a few hours. Later, Dr. Kreppel took some of us to one of the larger grocery stores in the area where we stocked up on everything from soap and laundry detergent to pasta to cook for meals. It was quite an interesting experience since everything here is a little different and all the packages were in two or three different languages (French, Flemish, and sometimes English). We returned with our groceries and we all took showers because we all felt disgusting from the plane ride and walk around the city. Afterwards, I fixed myself a small sandwich and we headed out. We went to a local cafe, which was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, by the time we were finished there, it had started raining and we were not able to go to the Jazz Festival events which were close to us in the Place de Ferdinand du Cocq so we just went home.

And now, I must close and catch up on some much needed sleep. Tomorrow promises to be interesting with a 9:30 meeting for a flea market out at Gare du Midi.

Love to all,

Friday, May 23, 2008

Learning to Fly

Bonjour from the city of brotherly love! I am currently stuck in the Philadelphia airport and expect to be here for another four hours. Ah... the joys of air travel!

Today started really early. I woke up around 4 and could not go back to sleep. I made it to the airport in Tallahassee with family in tow. They all came to see me off despite the early hour, which was really wonderful especially the fact that Fraz was willing to wake up so early. I made it to Charlotte without any delays or problems and spent about four hours wandering around the Charlotte airport. The airport in Charlotte is very nice, but there is definitely not enough there to entertain anyone for four hours. By this time, I was desperately in need of a nap and those awful airport chairs are not conducive for sleeping. Consequently, I slept for most of my flight from Charlotte to Philly and even slept through takeoff which always surprises me that I am able to do this considering I'm a fairly light sleeper. Anyways, now I am awaiting my flight from Philly to Brussels. I will probably wander around the airport here some more. There are a lot more shops here, but there's only so much time you can kill looking at knick-knacks.

I'm dreading the eight hour flight to Brussels and the having to sleep on the plane. Luckily, I have a bulkhead seat (I think) so at least I will be a little more comfortable. We'll see if it helps at all.

I guess I will close for now because I don't want to bore you all with my ruminations on the carpet here at the Philly airport (sound familiar Haley or Leah?). Hopefully later blogs will be more interesting to read.

Love to all,