Author Archives: Nhi in Belgium

About Nhi in Belgium

Hello! My name is Nhi Nguyen and I'm spending my fall semester at KU Leuven in Belgium! I hope you follow me around in my adventures in Belgium, I'm sure exciting things are to come!

A Semester of Wonder

“I am not the same, having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.”

-Mary Anne Radmacher

It has been a week since I returned to the States and felt my feet settle on solid ground. It has been a week of me readjusting to America and my home university. During this week I’ve felt a flurry of emotions- sadness from missing the friends I made abroad, eagerness to see my old friends again, thankfulness for the experience I was able to have- which all mix together to a strange mix-mosh of feelings inside of me. I didn’t know how to react to being back in the States. After my semester in Belgium, I made a short trip to Vietnam to see family I haven’t seen in 12 years, and then flew back home where I had 4 days to adjust and move back to my college campus. When I returned home, it felt like everything stayed constant, but changed at the same time. I was struggling with how to adjust back to my old life in America and then I realized I’m not the same person I was when I left for Belgium. I’m coming back to the States more assured of who I am, more aware of the world, and eager to experience more of it. I’m eager to implement and utilize everything I’ve learned and move forward as a more aware citizen.

America is in a time of immense change and I’m at a place where I am trying to figure out what I can do to enact positive change in a country that desperately needs it. I felt so far removed from American politics when I was abroad, even if it was a hot topic of discussion. I guess this is a part of the culture shock of being back in America. While in Belgium, as political events unraveled I was able to keep a certain distance from it all. But here, I returned just as the inauguration was happening. I returned as America was on the precipice of making history and I’m trying to figure out how to help fight against repeating some not so nice parts of that American history.

As America is on the forefront of the fight for human rights, I’m also struggling on how to slide back into my old life. I feel myself missing and yearning for my life in Leuven. I miss the little quirks of Belgian life, and more than anything I miss the friends I made abroad. My hall-mates and I still talk on a daily basis, all of us finding it hard to get used to life without each other. But this leads to promises of future meet-ups, which I’m excited to see follow through! But this doesn’t mean I’m not excited to be back in America and on my home campus. It’s nice to be back and be surrounded by what I’m familiar with. It’s nice to go back to all my favorite coffee shops and go the library that was my dorm away from dorm.

 

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A friend from my college visited me in Leuven and we took a trip to Bruges to visit the Christmas Markets!

 

The first thing I felt when I returned to America was a mix of familiarity and newness. Everything felt the same, the ground was still the same solid concrete I was used to, my small college felt comfortable, and I reunited with my friends in a seamless fashion which felt like I never left. But something was different. The concrete was different than the brick road I grew accustomed to, it feels weird to not walk 30 minutes to get to class, and I miss the mix of languages that occurred over dinner in Belgium. It was definitely reverse culture shock and after a week of being home, I feel myself getting over that shock. I’m enjoying being back home and also having the time to reflect on the amazing three months I had in Belgium.

Before studying abroad, I definitely was a lot more wary of traveling and going to new places. But now I can’t imagine being stagnant for too long. I’m now yearning to see more of the world, even if it is just going to a different state in the U.S. I’m determined to see and experience more, which means I’ll be able to visit some of my American hall-mates! I feel significantly more comfortable and confident being in unknown places and adjusting to the unfamiliar. Being in Leuven gave me the chance to fully embrace life and get everything I can out of it. I credit this to my hall-mates. Living with a hall of international students has taught me so much. I’ve been able to learn about different cultures, but more importantly I’ve been able to experience how each of them see the world. A friend wrote me a letter and a line of it said, “Nhi, the world is a beautiful place, take a chance to see it.” That’s something I will remember for the rest of my days and I really credit my hall-mates for my newly found desire to take the world on.

 

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Last picture of the hall! (Had to edit the boys in since they never wanted to take a picture with us!)

 

Studying abroad also made me become strong in my beliefs, while simultaneously making me more open to exchange and conversations between differing ideals. I’ve learned to learn from the differences between people and how engaging in thoughtful conversations can really make me develop and strengthen my own thoughts and ideas. I thought I had a strong handle on these types of conversations, but I definitely learned and grew so much as I was abroad.

The past three months were the most transformative of my life and are memories that will never fade from my memory. I’ve made unbreakable friendships, created unforgettable moments, and have grown tremendously as a person. I’ll always be thankful for the opportunity to study abroad, especially to Gilman for helping fund my experience. I will take what I experienced and learned, and use it as I continue with my educational pursuits and as I grow and live.

Leuven gave me a taste of the world and for that I will always be grateful and have a special place in my heart for the small Belgian town that welcomed me and gave me so much more than what I bargained for.

 

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Ostende, a Belgiun coastal city.

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Months of Growth

Hallo! Here in Leuven, Christmas is in full swing! Christmas markets are up, Old City Hall is decorated, and the old church bells have been ringing to the tune of “All I Want for Christmas is You”!

 

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Old City Hall decorated in lights.

 

I can’t believe 3 months have passed and now I’m getting ready to wrap up my time here in Leuven. I’ve done so much since I arrived in Leuven. I’ve made lifelong friends, immersed myself in various cultures, and visited cities that I never thought I would.

Studying abroad has taught me a lot about my strengths, my weaknesses, and quirks about myself that I never realized before. I’ve cultivated an appreciation for the smaller things in everyday life. The late morning breakfasts in the hall, the late night talks with friends, and the laughs shared on a daily basis. I’ve learned to take life slower, to love the simplistic beauty that everyday life has to offer and I know that all of these small things will be what I miss the most when I return to the States. As I prepare myself to leave a town and people I’ve grown so attached to, I’ve taken time to be self-reflective on how I’ve changed over the past 3 months.

One of the biggest ways I’ve grown over my 3 months studying abroad is that I’ve become more confident in my ability to travel and navigate an unknown situation. Travelling internationally by myself for the first time has definitely made me become more self-dependent and also pushed me to ask for help when I need it. Then travelling to different countries during the past 3 months, I’ve become adaptable to the different cultures of the cities and learned to take change in stride. I’ve visited London, Rome, Luxembourg City, Paris, and various other cities in Belgium, and each of those cities have different quirks and their own way of life and being able to adapt to those quirks quickly has been something that I developed during my travels and definitely something that I will take with me as I leave. Also, being an obvious tourist in those cities has made me become more assertive and strong-willed against hagglers and others I’ve met during my time travelling. It has also instilled in me a desire to travel more once I return home, whether it be within the States or internationally, I know this trip will not be my last!

 

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With my family at the Colosseum in Rome.

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Outside of the Palace of Versailles, visiting the beautiful gardens.

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Me and some of my friends in Luxembourg.

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A friend and I at the Roman Forum. It was so beautiful and unbelievable to visit.

 

The friendships I’ve developed during my time in Leuven have made me develop a stronger sense of intercultural awareness. Living in a hall with students from 6 different countries has made me realize the nuances of different cultures and how it effects someone’s view of the world and how they navigate through it. My interactions with my friends have made me grow in my appreciation for difference and ability to deal with uncomfortable situations when those differences come into contact with each other. Being bilingual, I have grown accustomed to switching between languages and had a love for the languages I didn’t know, but by living with my hall mates I’ve picked up small phrases in Spanish, Croatian, Dutch, and German. My hall mates have definitely taught me things about myself that I never realized and helped instill an even stronger sense of appreciation for diversity than I had before. None of us know if we’ll ever see each other again, we can only hope, but I am so grateful to have met these people. They have made me become a better person and have made my time here in Leuven unforgettable and filled with laughter and love.

 

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My hall mates and some friends.

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Meat and cheese party with the girls.

 

Leuven has given me the opportunity to grow so much and it will definitely be an experience that I will never forget and one I will always be grateful for. I don’t know if I’m ready to leave this beautiful town and the unforgettable memories I’ve made, but I know that this experience will push me to explore and learn more when I return home.

Now I’m off to study for my final exams. (Too bad I can’t escape from these!!)

Thanks for reading and I’ll write again when I return to the States!

Dag!

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Culture Across a Town

Hello again! Now there’s only a month left in the semester and classes are starting to wind down as finals come closer. Normally a student at KU (Katholieke Universiteit) would take 6 classes a semester but my coordinator here at KU set up an opportunity for me to do an internship while I’m here to replace some of those classes. My internship is two-fold: For the first part I intern at a local children’s bookstore. There my main project is creating a way to explain the Christmas tradition of Sinterklaas to the parents of English-speaking families. To do this, I created a poster to be handed out to the parents during an informational event. In the poster I explained Sinterklaas and compared him to Santa Claus. Doing the poster was interesting because I got to research about Belgian holiday traditions and it was really cool to see how they differs from American ones.

 

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Outside of De Klein Johannes, the children’s bookstore I intern for!

 

The second part of my internship is at the local art museum in Leuven, Museum M. Through this internship I was able to talk to the head of the Public Relations office, and she explained how the museum is trying to create educational activities that use art as a universal language to break language barriers and act as a unifying tool for the whole Leuven community. My main task is to shadow different tours and educational activities to see how children interact with museum and the art in the museum. Though most of the programming is done in Dutch, my contact in the museum wanted me to follow the programming as an outsider and just read the crowd and see how the students react to the museum and the tour guide. As an Anthropology major, I’m used to reading the texts of anthropologists who do fieldwork like this, so it is very exciting to be doing this at a smaller scale, but also in the field that I am trying to pursue in the future.

 

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Outside view of Museum M! It’s very new and modern!

 

My favorite thing about my internship is seeing how hard my coordinator at the bookstore and my contact at the museum try to cultivate a community across Leuven- across different cultures and families by using art and literature to bring them together. They are trying to break boundaries and the classist and social stigma surrounding an art museum and literature. They want an inclusive community in Leuven and they are really doing an amazing job at it. Hearing what my contact at the museum says about the power of a museum was really inspiring and has reinforced my passion to pursue museum education in the future. This wasn’t something I was expecting to experience when I came to this internship, but is something that I will always remember.

 

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A children’s picture book that Museum M published. They publish one every year and base the museum’s educational activities on the theme of the book! This one is Called Geluk voor Kinderen, or “Happiness for Children.”

 

Throughout this internship I also learned a lot about how to connect different parts of a scattered community to become one cohesive unit and how to try and make a shared culture become the central part the community – one where people from different walks of life can find comfort. People like my coordinators are trying their best to make the marginalized and forgotten community in Leuven feel welcome and also uplifting the positive characteristics of the community.

I’m so happy I was granted the opportunity for this internship and it definitely added a different angle to my time abroad that I would not have otherwise gotten.

Until next time!

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7 Things To Do in Leuven

Hey guys! Now I’m more than halfway into the semester! Time has flown by and I can’t believe I only have 7ish weeks left in Belgium. From my study abroad experience here so far, I’ve created a list of 7 things you must do if you study in or travel to Leuven, Belgium:

1. Go to Oude Markt.

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Oude Markt.

Oude Markt, or Old Market, is the place to go to for a night out. With dozens of bars lining a main pathway on two sides, Oude Markt is the go to place for anyone looking to go dancing or catch some drinks with friends. Oude Markt is also just beautiful, both during the day and at night. The architecture is beautiful and it’s just a few steps away from the Old City Hall. During the day, the bars act as a place to grab a yummy lunch. At night it transforms into a lively place where thousands of people are strolling around dancing and socializing. It’s a MUST GO when visiting or studying at Leuven. Funny enough, at the end of Oude Markt there is a secondary school, so at 2 pm you’ll see hundreds of students pour out of the gates on their bikes riding through Oude Markt.

2. Go to Grote Markt.

Grote Markt, or Large Market, is a large plaza in front of the Old City Hall and stretches into a shopping center in central Leuven. Grote Markt has a large outdoor market every Saturday morning where you can buy fresh cheese, fruit, and other foods. You can also shop for some antiques at the Saturday market and other little knick-knacks at the surrounding stores. There are also a handful of food places you can grab a bite to eat at- either a quick on-the-go meal or a nice sit down meal. Also, the Old City Hall is also here. You can behold the beautiful building where thousands of hand-carved figures detail the structure. It’s always bustling in this area due to the fact that the market center leads into several main streets.

3. Visit the Stella Artois Brewery.

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At the Stella Artois tour with our vests.

Leuven is home to the original Stella Artois Brewery. You can take a tour through the brewery for as cheap as 7-8 euros and see the process of how the city’s famous beer is made. You also get a few goodies on the way out! It’s fun and you get to wear a neon orange vest when making your way throughout the factory. The people there are kind and are passionate about brewing quality beer and its really fun to see how much the beer means to them as a community.

4. Visit Museum M.

Museum M is a newer art museum that opened in 2009, but it is very popular and such a fun place to visit! Museum M is also where I do half of my internship but I’ll talk more about that in my next post! The people who work at the museum have worked very hard to make the museum a true community space where everyone is welcome. Even though most of the programming is in Dutch, they believe that art and creativity is a universal language that can be understood by all. If you have a Culture Card, which is usually connected to your student ID card, you can gain entry for only 3 euros! And if you buy a student member card for only 10 euros, you can get in as many times as you want for a year!

5. Visit OTHER Cities in Belgium.

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Me and the girls in Gent, a BEAUTIFUL city an hour and a half train ride away from Leuven.

Though Leuven is bustling with a lot to do, it’s also important to explore Belgium’s other cities. Brussels is only a 20 minute train ride away, and other popular cities like Ghent or Bruges is only an hour and half to two hours away by train. It’s definitely worth it to make day trips out there and see the beautiful cities Belgium has to offer. On the weekdays round-trip tickets are usually about 12 euros but on the weekends it’s significantly cheaper. Or you can buy a Go Pass for 50 euros and get 5 round trip tickets! It’s totally worth it! Those pictures you look up on Google about Belgium really do not do any justice to the reality. Every time I visit a new city, I just stand there in awe of the beauty of it all and feel so grateful and lucky to be able to study abroad.

6. EAT EAT EAT!

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Fries with Andalouse sauce!

You’re in Belgium so eating some frites, waffles, and mussels is a must! But also eat the Speculoos gelato you can find at the numerous gelato shops around Leuven. You won’t be disappointed! Eat at Domus, which is a restaurant on Tiensestraat, right by the Grote Markt, which boasts authentic Belgian food. Taste the authentic Belgian beers with your meal and really indulge yourself in the food culture of Leuven. The food culture also involves stopping by Panos and getting a large sandwich on a baguette to go, or getting waffles slathered with chocolate sauce in between classes! Enjoy it!

Fun fact: a lot of Europeans call cream cheese “Philadelphia.”

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Eating some yummy gelato at Ostende, a coastal city in Belgium.

 

7. Indulge in the Culture of Others

Leuven is a huge international hub where students from all over the world come to study at KU (Katholieke Universiteit). Take advantage of that. Not only immerse yourself in Belgian culture, but also the culture of the other international students you will live with in dorms or have classes with. I’ve not only learned about the Belgian culture but I’ve also learned about Spanish, British, and German cultures because of my hall mates. It has been a really transformative experience and one I am so grateful for. Make sure to not stay in only your circles. Reach out and go to the events that KU provides and really try to meet new people. With them, you’ll learn and experience new things that you’ll never forget.

 

I hope this hopes anyone planning to study abroad in Leuven! I’ll check back in a few weeks to talk about my internship! Tot Ziens!!

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A World of Firsts

Making the decision to study abroad wasn’t an easy one. Going abroad meant I’d be further away from my parents than I have ever been. When I was deciding what college to go to,  I chose one close to home so I could make it back to my parents whenever they needed me. My parents and I were used to being able to seeing each other weekly, so the idea of going 4 months without seeing each other was scary. But it was my parents who in the end pushed me to go. They knew it was an experience I would never get otherwise. So off I went, ready for an adventure of a lifetime that was both exhilarating and terrifying.

Being a first-generation college student means that all of my college experiences were firsts. So when I was applying for study abroad programs, I didn’t have anyone to tell me what the best countries to go to were or to help me with the process of getting my visa. I was on my own. My parents supported me in any way they could, but in the end it came down to me doing everything independently. No one in my family knew anything about Belgium, so I had nothing to go off of besides reading what I could off of Google. I think this is the biggest thing that sets me apart from other students studying abroad. I had to try and figure everything out myself. Though going through the process of applying, choosing a program, and getting ready to study abroad was definitely a growing experience for me. It made me become more independent and grow more confident in myself.

I knew my parents couldn’t come to visit me half way through like most of my friends’ did. I knew I would be without family for the entirety of my abroad experience. I see a lot of my friends get excited that their family will be coming to visit and I know that that will never be me, that I will never fully share this experience with my own family. That being said, it didn’t mean I wouldn’t try to take them with me! I had an idea of taking family photos for every new place I visited. So, I went to Hema (it’s like Target but smaller) and printed out 3 large photos of my parents and brother and took them with me around Belgium and to a trip out to Luxembourg! My mom got the family photos after all!!

 

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Me and my family in Arlon, Belgium! Arlon is the smallest town in Belgium and right near the border to Luxembourg.

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A panorama of Luxembourg! So pretty!

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A photo of houses in Luxembourg City.

 

To any first-generation college student thinking about studying abroad, I would absolutely say do it if the circumstances are right! The fear and uncertainty that come with studying abroad dissipates as soon as you get settled in your home abroad. When things get overwhelming, take a deep breath and remember what your goals are. Filling out dozens of papers and going through hoops and obstacles to get your visa will be worth it in the end. Things will be crazy and you will go through a whirlwind of emotions, but once you feel settled, you’ll look around wherever you are and you’ll see how it was all worth it. For me, I knew I wasn’t studying abroad for just myself; I’m studying abroad for my parents too so they can see glimpses of the world through my pictures and they know I’m taking Europe on for them!

 

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Duck faces with my family in Luxembourg City!

 

Tot ziens! Until next time!

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A Day in Leuven

Hi Friends! Since my last blog post, I’ve visited Ostende, a coastal city in Belgium, and Gent, another beautiful city in Belgium. Whenever I return to Leuven after traveling to other cities in Belgium and Europe, I feel like I’m coming home. In this post, I’m going to take you through a typical day for me!

On a typical day I have two classes: Human Rights, a law course intended for non-law students who want to know more about human rights and how they actually play out in a European context, and Low Countries, a history class about well, the low countries, that being Belgium and the Netherlands. They’ve both been interesting and I’ve learned more about European law and history through them. The building where these classes are taught is about a 15 minute walk from my residence, and goes straight through the shopping center into a central part of Leuven. On my walk I encounter a lot of other students, in college, primary, or secondary school. I smell freshly made waffles and see people in cafes sipping their espresso or afternoon beer. There is a yummy Thai restaurant just steps away from the building where students line up for affordable (less than 5 euros!!!!!) pad thai or curry. My friends and I usually decide to catch lunch there in between our classes.

 

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A typical classroom set up.

 

On any given day, I’ll go to a store to browse or the closest grocery store, Colruyt (think a smaller version of Costco), to pick a few things up. (It’s important to remember your own shopping bags!) One day after class, I decided to go to a vintage store with a friend. The vintage store is located at the end of Oude Markt (Old Market) a popular nightlife spot that is constantly bustling with the inhabitants of Leuven. It was a rainy day today, so the streets were a little less crowded and umbrellas were up!

 

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A cloudy day in Leuven after a random rain shower.

 

Once I get back home, it’s normally dinner time so I’ll cook whatever I’m feeling like or me and a friend will make a meal together. Usually pasta and pesto or curry and rice have been the go to for me. I eat dinner a bit earlier than my hallmates, which means I get the kitchen to myself! By the time I finish dinner, the rest of the hall will decide they’re hungry and start cooking. Once you get 13 people in the kitchen trying to cook their own food, it’s bound to get crazy! During that chaos, I kick back on the couch in the kitchen and catch up with everyone and share funny stories.

To end the night, I’ll catch up on some homework, water the 3 cacti I bought at the local flea market, or stay up late talking to the people on my hall. Conversations get interesting and laughs are always shared. I’m happy to have found my rhythm in Belgium. Time is FLYING by!

Thanks for checking in, I’ll catch you again in a few weeks!

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The Highest Highs and the Lowest Lows

Hello again! Since my last post, classes have started and I have been getting more acquainted with the city of Leuven. I’ve had my fill of Belgian frites and warm waffles and have explored different cities. The past 3 weeks have been an amazing roller-coaster and now I feel like I’m coasting on a high. But it didn’t start out like this.

When I was preparing to go abroad I knew that I would feel homesick but I thought that the idea of being in a new country would overshadow most feelings of homesickness. But the first few days here were a whirlwind of emotions. I was feeling really excited to be in Belgium but I was feeling so alone, even though I was on a hall with 13 other international students. After spending a month and a half at home with my parents prior to leaving, I was missing them a lot and missed being able to talk to them whenever. I also felt some FOMO (fear of missing out) with my friends at my home college and in turn started to miss all of my friends. Along with loneliness, it was hard to talk with people back at home because of the 6 hour time difference. There is only a small window of time when I can FaceTime with anyone in the States.

All of this made me sad and intensified my homesickness. This was definitely my lowest point during my time here in Leuven. But after a few days those feelings went away and it became easier for me to enjoy my time here in Leuven. When classes started, that definitely helped put me on a schedule and once I got comfortable navigating Leuven I started to explore other cities in Belgium and have planned a few trips to other countries. So even though it was a rough start, once I became settled it has been going smoothly ever since!

One of my favorite memories so far has been visiting Brussels. It was beautiful and definitely a sight to see. Like Leuven, in Brussels everything is within walking distance. I went with a group of girls from my hall and it was definitely a bonding experience for all of us. We walked to see the Manneken Pis, the Peeing Boy statue, which had a lot of hype surrounding it but in reality was a statue that was only a foot tall! People clamored around the fence protecting the statue to take pictures. Even though it was small it was definitely worth the experience. We visited a breathtakingly beautiful cathedral that garnered a lot of visitors. We also stopped at the city square, and the buildings there were absolutely beautiful. I was in awe of how surreal it felt to be in a foreign country. At every street corner, you could smell the fresh fried Belgian frites and sugary scent of freshly made waffles. The chocolate shops had window displays that were drool worthy and there were lots of fun little shops to buy souvenirs in. We tried to visit the Chocolate Museum there but missed it by 20 minutes, so it’s a must for the next time I go!

 

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Me in the middle of the city square in Brussels.

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Me and the girls in Brussels.

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Outside of a beautiful cathedral.

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One of the beautiful stained glass windows in the cathedral.

 

My absolute favorite part of being in Belgium so far has been the friendships I’ve been making here. The people in my hall are all amazing people and they have made my transition to a new country significantly easier for me. They’re all so kind and so fun to be around! We definitely have a mix of students too, ranging from America and England to Croatia, Spain, and Germany! All of us are already dreading having to leave once December comes around. I know I’ll always keep them, along with the experiences I’ve made abroad, with me as I go through life. We’ve also had a hall family dinner where we made tacos and just caught up with one another, so that was super fun! This was definitely one of my biggest fears when preparing to go abroad- the question of whether or not I would be able to connect with the people I live with. But I am so happy with the group of people in my hall and am so thankful for them!

To end, being in Belgium has already given me so many lasting memories and has helped me grow as a person. I’m off to a local flea market at the town square here, so I’ll be checking back in in a few weeks! Tot Ziens! (That’s good-bye in Dutch!!)

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