I can still vividly remember that day in the airport.
The adrenaline rushing through me.
The inability to believe I was actually an exchange student leaving the country on my own to live with strangers for nearly a year.
Strong emotions, that hadn’t quite erupted, with the realization that I’d be leaving my family, my home, and all that was comfortable to me.
It was a strange day. I’d recently gone through a break-up with my high school sweetheart, a guy who wasn’t willing to do the long distance. To be honest, the relationship was lacking; though this fact had yet to dawn on me. I’ve never been good at letting people go.
I had a few friends there to send me off with well-wishes. Oddly, none of it sunk in until the moment I was about to get on the plane. The security at my small hometown airport allowed solely my parents to accompany me to the gate, a privilege I certainly wouldn’t have had elsewhere. That’s where the tears came and my fears and incapabilities rushed to my head.
Me with my parents, sobbing while clutching tissues at the airport before my flight.
I told them I couldn’t do it, a year was too long, that I should have done the six-month exchange student program instead.
My mom kept reassuring me, surprisingly stoic as she’d cried at least a week up until me leaving while I was the strong one. All in due time, I suppose. She told me if I wanted to come home and didn’t like it, that I could. So they pushed me out of the nest and it was up to me to fly.
Cannot skip out on Garrett’s Popcorn when in Chicago.
I had three flights. Hometown to Chicago, Chicago to Washington Dulles (which I thought was a weird name for an airport), Washington Dulles to Brussels. On my last flight, I met up with the only other American exchange student heading to Belgium with my program, a girl named Emma. We clicked immediately, she was much more extroverted than I and our excitement for the year to come started growing.
One of the better shots inbetween takes of us giggling while holding sporks and banana bread.
We ate shitty airplane food together, taking pictures of the smallest loaf of banana bread known to mankind that each person on the flight received (though I wonder with the explosion of gluten free this day and age if that’s changed, maybe now they offer some form of cracker or chip. I’d be partial to just receive a block of good cheese for the flight duration).
Looking back on the pictures, I believe our exhaustion from barely sleeping on the flight had a lot to do with how incredibly funny a baby banana loaf was to us. I certainly wasn’t of age to drink on that flight, so my now-normal vice of forking over the money for that sacred little bottle of red wine (that guarantees me a few hours of sleep on those tiny aircrafts) wasn’t an option.
A spork for comparison.
At the airport, Emma’s quintessential Belgian host family was there to greet us. They are all very excited to meet her and so friendly, I feel a slight tinge of jealousy creep up but force it back down. I am much too happy to be put off albeit a little bummed at waiting longer to meet. Since I had emailed my host mom a few times over the past few months of preparation, I was ready to meet both she and her daughter.
I discovered the seemingly perfect host family were to drive me to my destination, as they lived in southern Belgium and were going through what was to be my place of residence, Liège. I like them more and more along the ride and am anxious to meet my family but slightly disappointed at the prospect of leaving Emma and her charming hosts.
We marvel at the typical European differences previously unknown to each of us — the signs, fire trucks (as we were rerouted through back roads due to a collision), the scenery.
Everything was so unique to each of our own separate views of America.
This was the first day of many new experiences for me. Being an exchange student is something that never leaves you and adds a whole nother dimension to your life. A new family that you take as your own, ability to communicate in a foreign tongue (a task that feels impossible at the beginning), sights, sounds, and tastes you’d have otherwise never known existed.
I can’t say all the times were perfect, as goes life. New Years would find me upstairs in a strangers room phoning my mom half-drunk and wishing to be anywhere but there. However, the good of being an exchange student far outweighs the bad. You learn how to overcome homesickness to the point of not wanting to leave this other home, of which you will also become homesick. It’s a vicious cycle that keeps you on your toes with eyes searching for the next challenge, the next opportunity to connect with someone in words misunderstood by others, the next chance for a trip to a foreign land.
I’ll stop trailing off and tell you now that the host family I ended up with wasn’t my last host family. Not even close.
However, it definitely turned out for the best.
I cannot imagine not having met my Belgian family, nor can I even think of missing out on the experiences that were to come.
Stay tuned for the next post of my Belgian experience. I’ll be sharing them the first and third Tuesday of the month until I run out of stories to tell (not likely to happen anytime soon).