My year as an FLTA Fulbright Grantee at the University of Minnesota

I am writing this blog post from the train from Chicago to Washington D.C., a train ride that takes 23 hours and 30 minutes, and this after I already was on the bus this morning that took 8 hours from Minneapolis to Chicago. I decided to travel by train so I had enough time to sit, relax and contemplate my nine-month long experience in the United States.

I was a student who studied Japanese and even though most of my friends while growing up had going to the U.S. high on their bucket list, I have to admit that I never had it that much. As for me, I wanted to go to Japan. However, trying to apply for this program and discovering a nuanced face of “the U.S.” and “Americans”, has proven to be one of the best decisions I made in my entire life.

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Unlike some of my colleagues, I didn’t have anything in particular that I really had to see. Since I’m Belgian, it is also not that hard to get a travel visa, so I guess that just made me feel less like I was running out of time. Therefore, I mostly followed some more fervent friends around and as a result, got to experience the U.S. in a broader sense than expected (or would have on my own). I found it to be different than the image I had constructed of it through news, Hollywood movies and history classes. I liked to analyze people’s social interactions, the organization of the cities and putting these on top of the views of the U.S. that I had created. Mostly, I found people to be nice, although it often seemed fake (but that was similar to my experience in Japan); the food was ok, some things I couldn’t eat because I couldn’t digest it, but the U.S. has the same creativity with food that I found Japan had. They are less bound by traditions and customs like I experience in Europe, and prominently in the U.S., I felt that people were also less subservient to the “unspoken rules”. As such, people here put maple syrup on meat, which to me sounded absolutely horrendous, but after having had really good maple glazed bacon, I got to revise my prejudices surrounding food a little bit. 

Still, what for me was the highlight of my whole experience here, was our outdoor trips. As a Belgian who absolutely loves the outdoors, the U.S. is a wondrous place. I got to go to state parks and regions of pure, almost undisturbed nature, bigger than my country. And that, that was for me the absolute highlight.  

The epitome of this was when our American roommate brought us up to her family’s lake cabin at Burntside Lake in Ely, Minnesota. There, I got my fill of nature and I could observe more closely how well the parks are kept. I think that Europe in general can learn a great deal about how the parks are made accessible,  without disturbing the atmosphere and obstructing the nature that much in the U.S. The roads are mostly dirt roads, which are wonderful and adventurous to walk on. The waterways are clear and clean and accessible to canoes and kayaks. There are distinct areas in which they try to protect the wildlife by prohibiting the use of motorized vehicles (either on water or land). And best of all, I never spot any garbage next to the roads or anything close by. 

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The beautiful sunset from Oregon. The most Western point I ever went before so we HAD to see the sunset. It was so gorgeous.

On Saturday, May 25, the three of us left our house to go to A.’s family’s cabin. A. is from Wisconsin but lived in Minneapolis. K. is my fellow Fulbright FLTA from Russia. A. had to drive since neither of us had a license. She took us op to Duluth and then to the scenic road of the North Shore of Lake Superior where we watched the sunset. It was beautiful. After a long second part of our drive, we took highway 1 in the dark to reach the cabin. Highway 1 has a lot of turns and snakes through Northern Minnesota, so we joked that it was probably made by some drunk engineers on a night in a bar, convinced they were so good at their jobs, they had no need to check it with a ruler. I enjoyed it very much nonetheless since I didn’t get carsick, but my friends were less enthusiastic.

When we finally arrived at the cabin, it was pitch black outside apart from the bright starry sky above our heads. Sadly, it was warmer in the Twin Cities, than we expected it to be over there, so we were awfully underdressed and mostly just wanted to go inside and enjoy the warmth. We were convinced we would have other opportunities to watch the stars later and even take the canoe on the glassy lake to be completely surrounded by the stars, but the Midwestern weather disagreed in the end. It ended up being the sole clear night on the whole trip. However, outside we were greeted by different members of A.’s family. Since K. and I had been away from our family for so long, and we didn’t have a lot of experience in how to move around in friend’s families in the States, we were quite shy. A.’s family proved to be very welcoming and understanding (no one complained about our presence, so I guess it’s fine. Though it might’ve just been the Minnesota nice which reminds me so much of home.). The cabin was made out of logs and smelled of wood. Around it, was basically no other human activity and the neighbors were quite a distance away. Apparently, you should be able to spot wolves coming close, but sadly we only got to see a lot of birds and squirrels. I was in seventh heaven. 

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View of the waterfall. After Niagara Falls it is, of course, small, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be magnificent in itself. The weather was really good so the three of us just enjoyed the view for a while.

In the morning, we were woken up by the singing of the birds and the smell of bacon and blueberry pancakes. After enjoying breakfast, we went on a tour around the lake on the speedboat, sniff the healthy forest-air where afterward A.’s parents picked us up and drove us to Ely so we could see the town, visit the shops and buy a fishing permit. Since I never went fishing before, A.’s father had proposed to teach me and of course, I jumped to the chance. Fishing, it would seem, is a lot more difficult than expected. When I tried on Monday, I didn’t catch anything, but I also didn’t break anything. K., A.’s father and I shared a canoe and peddled from one lake to another so we could see some of the prints that Native Americans made at some point in time on the rocks. Apart from the marvelous, albeit really chilly, trip, K. and I got to learn a lot of new words. Both of us were previously convinced that our English proficiency was sufficient. After that Monday, both of us realized that we couldn’t be farther away from the truth. Seated in the canoe, A.’s father handed me the fishing line after explaining how to use it. I craned my neck as far as I could to see what he showed in the back because as far as I was concerned, half of the words he used sounded like gibberish. We just learned the word “portage” which is carrying a canoe in your shoulders on pieces of land in between lakes, but this was a whole new level and I have to admit that I’m not yet able to reproduce them. Luckily, he chose a fairly simple rod for me to use, which meant that I was able to deduce some of the functions simply by applying the ancient art of “trial and error”. There was not a lot I could do. I caught a lot of reeds, learned the actual meaning of “trolling” before the internet ruined that one for me, even caught the whole branch when we went out on the speedboat again in the evening, but the fish were seemingly all visiting relatives in Canada. Because my permit was for 24hrs, A.’s father also took me early in the morning on Tuesday in the canoe on the lake to try to catch something for one last time. He also taught me how to “cast” my line, which I mastered decently at the end!. The misty rain from the previous day had cleared up and a flare of early sunlight, warmed our flanks while we peddled calmly. We still didn’t catch any fish, but we got pretty close to some loons!

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… and me taking the lead in the hike. Thanks to K. for taking the picture.

On Sunday night, we also made a bonfire and roasted s’ mores! I have to admit I was kind of skeptical about the whole thing. I don’t like the graham crackers, nor Hershey chocolate, but boy, was I wrong again! When you put them together with a masterfully caramelized marshmallow, those things are just amazing!

On Tuesday, we were going to drive back in the afternoon, so after my beautiful morning on the lake, we took the car to a beautiful trail that would take us to a small, but happily situated waterfall. When we drove off the driveway, we were surprised by the sudden flight of a black bear with four cubs! All three of us were ecstatic! (we admitted later that that was mostly because we were safely seated inside the car) The mother and one cub dove into the long grass on the right side of the road, but three other cubs graced us with their cute attempts to escape the horrible car by climbing in a tree. They were so close! At one point, all three of them were in the tree and their round ears pointed away from the bask, so I tried to take a picture, but of course, that didn’t really work out that well though. With some effort, you can see all three of them there. Two have their ears out, and one decided on that millisecond to switch positions. It was the first time any of us saw them in the wild. I was positively shocked that they freely trotted around in the woods. I can’t imagine the same happening anywhere in western Europe. 

Afterward, the hike was beautiful and we leisurely enjoyed the breathtaking sights. I love hiking. Especially here where A. and I tried to test our best tracking skills. When writing this, I have to admit that even though the enthusiasm is there, we clearly have no real skill in that department and most of it was purely guessing and speculation. It was a lot of fun though and the sun shone brightly. Tuesday also proved to be our wildlife day. After the loons and bears, we drove to the wolf center and learned a lot about wolves and about different policies in the Midwest. We also got lucky and all the “ambassador wolves graced us with their presence. It was my first time seeing a wolf so close up. 

Our stay in Ely was packed every day, but I wouldn’t have wanted to do it any different. When we arrived back in Minneapolis, the Midwest Summer (finally) came through so we had to adapt to that. But I got to do what I assimilate with the power and beauty of the States and am incredibly satisfied. I wish we would’ve done it sooner and that the weather would’ve been in the 70°F (or 20°C) earlier in the Spring so we actually could’ve. For anyone who like me also likes the outdoors, don’t feel shy in communicating about that with friends from the U.S. People here are very friendly and would definitely take you along. In the Northern States especially since a lot of people want to give you a good image of the U.S. And even if you never liked the outdoors in Europe, try it out in the U.S. The wilderness and vastness of the area is radically different of what you can experience in Europe. I’m not a good photographer so my pictures don’t do it any justice. So look at the pictures, and beautify them, make them more impressive in your mind and maybe then, you could grasp a fragment of the magnificence of U.S. nature. 

I hope you’ll find your way to the U.S. somewhere. And I know I cannot be partial about this, but trust me, Americans will laugh at you saying it, but the Midwest is definitely worth the visit! There is nothing here, which makes it the best place to go if you yearn for some peace and tranquility and beautiful views of a landscape almost untouched by humans.

Kris Van Doorsselaere is a 2018-2019 Fulbright FLTA Grantee to the University of Minnesota.

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.
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