Week 1 (16 May 2015 – 23 May 2015)

What a week! My first week on the Study Abroad journey has been pretty fantastic. Due to bad weather in southern China, the trip got off to an exciting start: I was stuck on the tarmac in Hong Kong for 4 whole hours and then the flight deliberately avoided Georgia and Ukraine on the way to Frankfurt, giving me a personal experience to go along with the current crisis in Ukraine. Ultimately, I ended up in Frankfurt just by the time I was supposed to be in Brussels––causing me to nearly panic as I couldn’t get a hold of anyone. Thankfully, by the time I was in Brussels, things were cleared up, and I got a ride with Francois to the restaurant where everyone met with their host families.

Schuyler’s and my host mom then picked us (and Conner, whose host family wasn’t in town yet) up and drove us to our residence of the summer, where we got to meet the entire family. Prior to this point, I thought my 4 years of middle school French would serve me decently during my time in Belgium. That belief was shattered almost immediately––on hearing I could speak un petit peu, the host dad (who didn’t speak English) started blasting me with rapid-fire French. Faced with the first full-fledged conversation in French in my life, I had to admit that there was still much for me to learn.

The day was long, but it was nowhere near over. The host-brother and his friend then brought the three of us tired travellers on a speedy tour around much of Brussels. During this late afternoon, I got to see more of Brussels than I saw of Atlanta in the 4 semesters I’ve been there. They then brought us to hang out with some of their friends near ULB. It was quite the day: extended travel, rapid-fire French conversation, speedy Brussels tour, and hanging out with francophone teens.

The rest of the week was also extremely interesting. During Francois’s tour, not only did I see the landmarks of Brussels, but I also picked up a sense as to where things are geographically placed as well as the historical and cultural contexts of the buildings and places. I gained some insight into the different architectural styles that marked both the improvement of building techniques and the control of different European powers.

In the very first International Affairs class in my life, I got to learn about the conception of the European Union (or the European Coal and Steel Community as it was called then). While I did learn in the preliminary readings that what became the Union was first started as a peace project, it wasn’t until Dr. Birchfield specifically pointed out that the ECSC was formed just years after the devastating Second World War that I realised just how remarkable that Europe was able to form the ECSC before the ashes of war even settled completely. In the other class, we ended up with a discussion of Europe’s different nuanced views towards immigration. There were concerns over immigrations about former colonies, taxpayer’s money, assimilation into mainstream culture, different levels of education, illegal migrants, human rights, and the question of citizenship. Hearing these, I was struck by how much these concerns echoed those being debated in Hong Kong over migrants from mainland China and elsewhere. The different European viewpoints over immigration were also largely paralleled those in Hong Kong: recognition of the contributions of previous immigrants to society, desires to keep the others out due to economic, cultural, and educational differences, questions over taxpayer’s hard-earned money, and––most especially after Hong Kong’s handover––the question of identity.

On Friday we had our first “site-visit”, in which a NATO communications officer came to ULB to speak to us about NATO and took our questions. Though it was a short visit and we didn’t get to learn much new things about NATO, I felt that it was a great experience being in a dialogue with an official and thought that it prepared me for future discussions with the different officials we are going to meet over the course of the programme.

And to finish off the week, I visited the Centre Belgie de la Bande Dessinée, satisfying one of my wishes as a fan of Tintin. Here, I got to learn about the creation of comics, the historical and contemporary conditions surrounding European comics, as well as what I was aiming for: lots and lots about my favourite Belgian reporter and his friends. What surprised me however, was the exhibition on the development of the museum. It showed how the beautiful art nouveau building that housed the museum came to be: it was once a beautiful store for textiles designed by architect Victor Horta in the early 1900s which then fell into disuse as the city progressed, until it was ultimately saved in 1980s with the intention of using it to celebrate Belgian Comics. It drove home to me the issues of a growing city: development of new buildings, protection of heritage, and the redevelopment of old buildings for new uses. All in all, the week was a fascinating one, and I couldn’t wait for the next one!