In my application for a Fulbright ETA position to Belgium, I wrote that, “Outside the classroom, I will join a volleyball league in order to create personal, lasting relationships.” I knew that to me, the cultural engagement requirement meant finding a means to meet people outside of the academic sphere through a common interest. However, looking back on my expectations for the year, even something as familiar to me as volleyball was completely different than I could have imagined.
After an hour of Google searches for leagues in Louvain-la-Neuve, I stumbled upon a very old ad for a Saturday morning recreation volleyball group. I contacted the group coordinator and he told me that I could come the following week to try out. Despite having just finished my final season of college volleyball, I couldn’t help but feel nervous – I realized that I didn’t even know any volleyball words in French. That Saturday when I walked into the gym, I quickly realized that not only was I the only woman, but that my age likely brought the average age of the group down by 20 years. After playing with them for a few hours, they officially invited me to join the group. However, they had many questions, namely how did I manage to find out about the group and who was I?
Over the course of my grant, I ended up playing with La Manchette every Saturday. I even entered 3 tournaments with them and eventually joined them for the occasional barbecue. I found out that one of the guys makes and sells aperitifs when I ran into him at the Christmas market in Louvain-la-Neuve. I got to know each of them on and off the court and my cultural engagement quickly translated to friendship and a feeling of being at home.
As the end of my grant approached, they so sweetly organized a farewell dinner for me at a nice restaurant and even gave me very thoughtful gifts to remember Belgium: Galler chocolate, Jules Destrooper cookies, a Tin Tin comic book, and a T-shirt with a picture of 50 different Belgian beers on the front and sweet handwritten notes from them on the back. They tried to convince me not to leave and promised to visit me in the US one day.
I never imagined how much these guys would come to mean to me. I can truly say that some of them have become lifelong friends and that I am really going to miss all of them. Not only were they fun to play with, they were some of the most kind and generous people I have ever met. They welcomed me with open arms into their already very close group and helped make my year in Belgium extraordinary. Although joining this team fit my “on paper” expectations for cultural engagement, I never could have imagined the huge impact this experience would have on me and my time in Belgium. La Manchette, I will really miss you!
Nina Baek is a 2017-2018 American Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Belgium. She has spent the past year teaching at UC Louvain in Louvain-la-Neuve. Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.