After a little over three weeks in Brussels, I feel like I have definitely learned a lot. Of course I have learned theories, current events and a ton about the European Union (maybe more than most citizens of the European Union know), but I’ve also learned many important life lessons. Here they are:
1. When the program instructions say pack light, try to follow that. If you can’t, like me, then hope there is someone to help you carry your bags and pray that there won’t be stairs.
2. Belgian people are really friendly. Before coming to Europe I heard a lot about how Europeans hate Americans, but I have not found that to be the case. Everyone I have met so far has been very welcoming and open-minded.
3. When in doubt, get a waffle. Belgian waffles are as delicious as the rumors make them out to be. You don’t even need to put anything on it. It has honestly been some of the best two euros I have spent.
4. Just because you have learned about something in school, it doesn’t mean you really understand it. This became very apparent to me when I visited Breendonk concentration camp here in Belgium. I have learned about the Holocaust in school several times. I’ve read books and seen pictures but nothing can compare to the feeling of walking through the camp. The cold, damp air, the cruel living conditions and the torture room made it even more real. I think everyone should visit a concentration or extermination camp to really understand what people had to suffer through during this dark part of history.
5. Plan if you’re a planner. There is so much to see in Europe, and you don’t want to miss any of those opportunities. Make a list of all the things you want to see, places you want to go and food you want to try and figure out how to make it work. Even if you’re not a planner try to see all that you can.
6. Staying awake in class and site visits. This can sometimes prove to be very difficult. If you feel yourself start to nod off, there are many things you can do to help. Take a sip of water or chew gum or a mint. Maybe try biting the inside of your mouth or drawing in the margins of your notes. Sometimes taking notes helps, and if it comes to it, go to the bathroom for a short break and to walk around a little bit. It happens to the best of us.
7. Just because someone talks a lot in class or at site visits, it does not mean that he or she is smarter. Sometimes the people that talk a lot and ask many questions are not really saying anything and are not showing that they have been listening and learning (no offense). I have learned that being a good and attentive listener is a very important part of being a good student. Participating and asking questions is obviously important, but it isn’t an easy task for everyone. Try researching the topics that will be discussed the night before the site visit to familiarize yourself with the topic and maybe prepare a question. I think this will help make it seem less scary.
8. Be prepared, and by “be prepared”, I mean always have Band-Aids or an extra pair of shoes with you. We walk a lot here in Brussels, and many of the streets are cobblestone. Blisters are a real problem. This mostly applies to the ladies, but if you can fit a pair of comfortable walking shoes in your bag, you should do it.
9. The Council of the European Union/The Council of Ministers/The Council, the European Council and The Council of Europe are different institutions. Get them straight. Do whatever you have to do to memorize and really understand what they do and the differences between each institution. Never mix them up.
10. Be open-minded. I think this is one of the most important parts of travelling abroad. When submerged in a different culture, you can’t dismiss the opinions and customs of others just because it is different. Don’t be afraid to try new things, but also know your limits and what you like. There is so much to learn about different cultures from people, their lifestyles and their opinions about issues in the world, such as climate change, being ‘green’, education, security, war, the topics we discuss in class and so much more. I have gained a better understanding of Belgian life and the different European opinions about global issues from my host family and from site visits. Keeping an open mind allows you to learn more and develop your own opinions.
I hope to learn many more life lessons by the end of this trip.