I have been in Europe for a month. An entire month already, even though it seems I only just arrived. Although it has only been 30 days. I learned so much. While the United States and Leuven, Belgium have many similarities, there are many things that are not the same in the slightest. In the article "Creating global Thinkers" by John Girard from the website besttravelwriting.com, Girard writes about the importance of study abroad for students, emphasizing the lessons the students learn. In his piece, he claims that there are lessons that students can only learn when they study abroad, not in a classroom. Inspired by Girard's article, I am going to write about the lessons I have learned through the differences of living here compared to the United States during my first month in Leuven.
While in the Huis (that means 'house' in Dutch) kitchen for the first time, I noticed the first major difference: the garbage. In the United States, we have recycling and garbage in two separate bags. That's it. In Belgium, recycling is huge. Being such a small country, Belgium does not have the space to create many landfills or dispose of waste like the United States does. With that being the case, the Belgians emphasize recycling. Here in Belgium, there are three different trash bags and multiple bins for garbage depending on what is being disposed. For example, there is a blue bag for cartons and bottles, a green bag for organic waste, a bin for paper, a special box for hazardous waste, and a brown bag for all other trash that cannot be recycled. When I first saw this system, I thought I would never understand it. There were so many bins and rules to follow, my head started spinning. I did not want to put the garbage in the wrong bin and get in trouble, which can happen, If the garbage is improperly sorted, we have to go through it and take out the illegal contents, which is gross. Being here in Belgium, I learned about the importance of recycling and when I go to the store, I am trying to only buy products that can be recycled, because the bags to collect non recyclables are quite expensive. With this new system of waste disposal, I am now more conscious of what I throw away and what I choose to purchase. In the States, I never thought about the waste I generate, but here I am seeing garbage through a new lens, thanks to the multiple garbage bins. I am learning to live with less and attempting to generate less waste, which helps the environment, as well as I consciously think about my consumerism. Belgium taught me to be more conscious of what I choose to buy and what impact my purchases will have.
The second major difference here in Leuven also fall under the eco-friendly category; In Leuven, everyone rides a bike as their main mode of transportation. On one hand in the United States, people drive as their primary transportation or take public transportation if it is available and might bike if necessary. On the other hand, Belgians ride bikes as their primary mode of transport, since Leuven is so small and gasoline is very expensive. During my month here, I have seen all types of people on bikes, from elderly women to businessmen in black suits, to mothers carrying children in carts their backs. Even when it rains, the people of Leuven are out on their bikes riding from place to place. Biking is so popular that bike theft is actually one of the number one crimes here! For me, it has been very eye opening to ride a bike or walk everywhere. Like the garbage, it has made me evaluate how I get places and how much more biking or walking I could do in the US, since driving is so horrible for the environment. Biking has shown me that I can perfectly navigate a city without the help of a car and that I could easily bike around my hometown without a problem, which I hope to do when my year is finished. Leuven, through biking and garbage, has inspired me to look closely about the lifestyle choices I have selected and be more aware of the impact my choices make on our earth.
For me thus far, the most surprising difference has been the difference in laundry, which I did not expect. While at home, I do laundry in my basement or pay $2.25 at school to wash, dry, and fold a load in under 2 hours. With that in mind, I did laundry almost every week. In Leuven, it is totally different. To use the washing machine at school is costs 3.50 euro, which is about $5 in the United States and the dryer, which only makes your clothes slightly less damp, is an additional charge of 1.50 euro. In Leuven, I changed my laundry approach, since it costs so much more and I have to use a clothesline to dry my clothes. Now, I mainly wash my clothes in the shower. In the shower, I bring my clothes and some detergent and wash them like the "Pioneer Woman" I am. Once they are washed, I wring them out and hang them on a clothesline in my bedroom to dry overnight. Never did I think I would be doing so much laundry in the shower, yet here I am admitting that I have yet to use the washing machine since I have been here. Not only that, I wear every piece of clothing more than once before I wash it. Eventually, I will do a real load, but I am waiting a few more days until it becomes absolutely necessary, which it just about is. Not having the access to laundry I am used to, I adjusted my course of action. The laundry situation here has shown me that I can adapt to new things and that I can live without some modern conveniences and can devise new ways to solve problems, like the shower as a washing machine or creating a clothesline out of a wire ans some ingenuity. Changing routines can be frightening and hand washing my clothes has shown me that I can change my routines and still survive. Plus, using the shower as a washing machine is saving me time and money, which is a major advantage.
The hardest thing I adaptedt to has been the timetables of life here in Leuven. In America, stores are open late, until 9 p.m. or later, some even 24-hours a day. I can run out at any time to buy groceries or get a cup of coffee. In Leuven, every store closes at 6 p.m. and nothing is open on Sunday, with the exception of bars and restaurants which are open late and on the weekends, too. Many an evening, I sat in my room wishing I could run to the store to pick up an ingredient for dinner or a pack of flashcards to do homework with, but alas, I cannot. It has been quite the adjustment, since I have to plan trips to the store in advance to ensure it will be open. Sundays were the worst because nothing is open, so it felt like there was nothing to do. I adjusted to relax on Sunday, which is what the Belgians do, too. I go for walks, sit in the yard, and spend time with my classmates, which has been really nice. I enjoy my relaxing Sundays and I am getting used to the idea that nothing important can take place on Sunday, except maybe mass. With these different hours of operation, I am learning to slow down and enjoy my surroundings, as well as to plan what I need to do throughout the week. Sundays have become important in my routine because they help me to unwind and prep for the week, which has been really helpful. It has been nice on Sundays to reflect and have time to myself, something that does not always happen in America.
The final difference I adjusted to is in regards to going out. In America, there is a certain culture and standard when it comes to going out. We go out around 11 p.m. and come back around 2 or 3 a.m. We wear heels and dresses to go out, dressing to the nines with makeup and perfume. Plus, we only go out Thursdays, Fridays, or Saturdays. In Belgium, no one goes out until 12 p.m. and they stay out as late as 6 a.m. The biggest nights here for going out are Tuesday and Wednesday and the weekends are dead because the Belgians go home to their families to relax. When Europeans go out, it is incredibly casual, even if its to a dance club or a bar. To go out, everyone wears jeans and girls wear a nice top or tee shirt with little to no makeup, and the guys were tee shirts and jeans. In Europe, they do not try so hard when they go out and that got me thinking; Why do I have to try so hard when I go out? Can I go out without putting in so much effort and still feel comfortable? I realized that I like to go out and be dressed casually and I like not having the pressure to look a certain way. After a few weeks here, I like the way they go out here, minus the fact that they go out so late and I like to sleep! I enjoy not having to spend so much time getting ready and that I can wear the same clothes to go out that I wore during the day. On top of that, I feel as though I get to show my true self, not some made-up version of me. The European way of going out has taught me to be more comfortable with the way that I look, which can be hard nowadays. Being in Leuven has helped me feel more comfortable with the way that I look and how I present myself.
During my time in Leuven, I learned to become self-sufficient in a new way. I buy my own groceries, cook my own food, go to the pharmacy, and fill out legal paperwork to gain residency. Not only that, I navigate the city with help of others and have learned my way around quickly and feel confident I can travel around Leuven on my own. Being here, I feel more independent than ever. I always felt like I underestimated what I am capable of and Leuven has shown me that I can do anything and I can adapt to a new way of living. I have gained confidence in myself and feel as though I can truly conquer anything, whether it is a challenging course or travelling around Europe on my own. I am challenging the way that I live, the way that I see, the way that I feel.
Like the students taught by Girard, I have already learned so much during my time in Leuven and will only continue to grow and change as the year progresses. Girard is absolutely correct in saying that students learn lessons abroad they cannot learn at home and I am the living proof. There are things I have learned in Leuven I never would have learned in america and I am grateful for that. Here, I am going to continue to grow and change as a person, and that excites me. I enjoyed opening up to you guys about the things I have learned and I am thankful to John Girard for the inspiration to write this piece. Enjoy and thanks for reading!
If you'd like to read Girard's piece here is the link: