I’M FINALLY HERE: Starting my Fulbright, Getting adjusted, Navigating “solo” time

GREETINGS loved ones!

Ahh… I can’t believe I’m writing my first Fulbright blog post! It seems like just yesterday I was editing my application essays until 4 am and entering class like a ghost the very next morning with a gallon of Loyola Starbucks coffee in hand. Those were the days… (sarcasm intended, though not regarding Loyola Starbucks. God I miss that place. And all the money I wasted there.). It also seems like just yesterday I was writing my blog posts about studying abroad in Leuven — this deja-vu is even more surreal, especially given the fact that I’m BACK in Belgium and there are just so many parallels between my time in Leuven and my time thus far living in Brugge. However, though I’ve only been here for just under a month, I already know that this experience will be far different from my previous time living in Belgium. Most obviously, I’ll be here for a substantially longer time period (my grant duration is around 10 months) and will be a workin’ gal! I’m just so lucky to be here and am immensely grateful for this opportunity; I really can’t say it enough (and words DO NOT suffice when it comes to expressing gratitude!!!). On a daily basis I find myself forcing myself to stop and smell the roses; quite often I force myself to take a mental screenshot of where I’m standing and vow to myself that I’ll remember this for so many years to come. It’s the little things I want to never take for granted; the sound of bike wheels hurrying over the cobblestones, the water lapping against the brick steps by the canals, the early morning greetings of the train conductors, the hourly bell tower serenades. These are the things I ingrain into my memory and FORCE myself to fully take in. 

Where shall I begin? I guess when I arrived. That would probably be the most logical way to start this blog post. C’mon Allie.

I arrived in Brussels on August 29 after a layover in London and settled into my adorable loft Airbnb super nicely. Upon my arrival, I actually didn’t have a permanent place to live yet (cue Jean-Ralphio’s “technically i’m hoOoOMELeEsS”), but — thankfully — I was able to sort out an agreement with a nearby landlord and moved into my apartment just a few days after my arrival in Brugge. It’s a fantastic apartment in a really centrally-located area — and I have my OWN bathroom and kitchen! FANCY LIVING HERE WE COME LADIES. And Brugge. Just Brugge. I can’t imagine a more picturesque place than this city, and I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that I get to call this my home for the next year or so. On days where I have practically nothing to do other than practice my Dutch on Duolingo, I walk around until my legs feel like noodles and spend as much time as possible enjoying the sights and sounds of the canals. I’ve also discovered a nearby park (called Minnewater Park) that’s just beautiful and is a perfect place for a nice walk or run. My favorite area in the park is where all of the swans and ducks congregate — the herds of swans just really contribute to the fairytale essence of Brugge itself. So, it’s safe to say that a good 80% of my time here has consisted of spending time outdoors and adventuring around parks and canals and taking pictures of swans. I’ve never walked so much in my life, and I am proud to say that I have never enjoyed getting daily exercise as much as I currently do. With a city as beautiful as this one, it’s pretty easy to want to walk around for hours. **I can’t believe I almost forgot to write about coffee, but I discovered the single BEST coffee spot here — and her name is Vero Caffe. I’ve never encountered such strong feelings about a double shot latte before. BEAUTIFUL PHOTO OF THIS BEAUTY WILL BE FEATURED BELOW… TWICE** 

So, it’s September 23 and we are just DIVING right into my grant! Our official Orientation was held last weekend in Brussels at the Royal Library and offered really wonderful practical tips/guidance for us current grantees. The first night consisted of a welcome dinner at a traditional Belgian restaurant in the center of Brussels; all of the grantees were introduced to each other, and we were also (finally!) introduced to the Fulbright Belgium/Luxembourg/Schuman team (*cue anxiety-riddled memories — really non-memories — from the interview process*). It was so wonderful — and so energizing, as a quintessential extrovert — to meet my fellow grantees after being in Belgium already for over 2 weeks. The next morning, we began our official grantee orientation full of practical information, dates to remember, advice from the Fulbright team, and a VERY mentally stimulating lecture about diversity in the European context (specifically focusing on the feelings of nationalism/conceptualizations of diversity and inclusion in both France and Belgium). We ended the first day with a trip to the Belvue Museum, where we learned about Belgium’s history (surrounding its independence, monarchy, colonization, immigration, pop culture, industrialization, etc.). This museum was extremely informative — and the building itself was STUNNING! King Leopold II’s daughter actually lived there for quite some time. I also coincidentally formed a cosmic bond with our tour guide Daniel. I think he might be the Belgian grandfather I never knew I had.

Our second day of orientation only involved Fulbright’s English Teaching Assistants; we bid farewell to our researcher friends as they returned to their host cities. Our ETA orientation was extremely beneficial, as it was helpful to receive tips and tricks with regards to classroom engagement, grading, and cultivating connections with local communities. During my grant, I plan to integrate service and community outreach as part of my weekly routine (and plan to engage my students with non-profit community organizations); Fulbright actually provided us with a working list of community-based organizations, so I’m really looking forward to reaching out to some of these contacts and hopefully getting something started shortly

As for my official ETA work, I’ve been placed at Howest Hogeschool (a university college with campuses in the cities of Brugge and Kortrijk) and am truly loving it so far. I had my first day as an ETA at the Brugge campus today (can I get a woop woop) and have already had my first day teaching at the Kortrijk campus. So far, the majority of my students are third-years (which means it’s technically their senior year, as compared to the U.S. university system); I really and truly enjoy this age range (although absolutely all of them are taller than me and look older than me) because their English skills are already quite sophisticated — we then are able to devote more time toward refining language skills (i.e. grammar, syntax, etc.) as well as facilitating really interesting conversations about cultural differences and common identity-based misconceptions. My teaching has really just begun, though; I’m super excited to see what kind of conversations that my students and I will have and can’t wait to develop relationships with them as well as with my colleagues at Howest. For now, I’m taking it day by day — and saying YES to practically anything that comes my way. This is a golden opportunity to develop professional skills — particularly within the realm of global education — and I think it’s really important that I take advantage of all opportunities to connect with different colleagues and to expose myself to a diverse array of career paths. For example, in Kortrijk, I assist with Howest’s Business Development class; since I studied Psychology and Philosophy in undergrad, I’d never really been exposed to cultivating skills like writing a business plan or building a portfolio. As an ETA in this particular course, I’m learning in tandem with the students; the reciprocity of education is something so beautiful!  

By the time that I write my next blog post, I’ll definitely have more teaching experience under my belt; I was just really itching to write and figured, “Why not write one right off the rip?” Other than beginning my work as an ETA, I think something that’s been really transformative (already) and interesting to navigate has been spending so much time by myself. If you know me, you KNOW that I’m the epitome of a “people person” — I’m extremely extroverted, and being around loved ones gives me such an incredible rush of energy. And, if you know me, you know that Amanda (my twin) and I have practically been attached at the hip since birth. Literally, we’ve done almost everything together. Elementary school, middle school, high school, college, sports, college major, extracurricular activities, everything. We are the same people aside from our hair color and tattoo

So, I think it’s pretty safe to say that I’ve NEVER spent this much time by myself — especially apart from Amanda. I want this blog to be as authentic as possible, and I want to most transparently share my experiences as an expat in Belgium. It’s so beautiful here I can’t even get over it, the people are amazing, I’m getting better at Dutch and I’m also getting better at riding my bike on cobblestones, and I’m just so extraordinarily blessed and grateful and happy to be here. I feel like this path was simply meant for me and I believe there’s a higher power guiding me through this fellowship. I’m just so happy to be here — but that doesn’t mean that every day is filled with butterflies and rainbows and sunshine and pure and utter joy. I’ve gotten frustrated, I’ve gotten homesick, I’ve felt guilty that my Dutch isn’t as proficient as I probably thought it was, and I’ve gotten self-conscious about my effusiveness as compared to the more reserved social manner of Belgians. Most notably, I’ve had to learn to enjoy time by myself; it’s something I definitely wasn’t used to at home, and I was anticipating a little bit of a struggle. Although I have to admit it was challenging at the onset, spending time by myself — even going out to eat solo (something I wouldn’t really do at home) — is something I’ve found extraordinarily refreshing. I think having so much “solo time” has allowed me important time for the reflection, self-care, and self-love that I’ve put off for the longest time. Being alone and living independently (especially in a different country) — although initially frightening and a little stressful — is something I’ve found a welcome challenge. I feel like I’m getting to know myself more and more, free from a lot of the distractions that I have at home. Walking through the park, going to see the swans in the afternoon, reading in the park, taking a bike ride to the windmills — these are the times that offer such invaluable time for self-care. I feel revived afterwards, like the feeling you get after you go on a run; I feel accomplished, I think, that I’ve become able to truly enjoy time by myself. Sure, I’ve gotten lonely and homesick — and sometimes I experience this the most at night — but I’m extremely proud of my adjustment to solo life. I even took a leap of faith and went to a concert BY MYSELF for the first time (s/o Hozier); I was afraid that this would be weird and uncomfortable, but I honestly had the best time and am so glad that I made the decision to go solo. I think that society places such an emphasis (and false importance) on always being surrounded by others and makes us feel ashamed for spending time alone; eating alone is something I’ve felt ashamed of in the past, and I’m growing to replace that feeling of shame with a self-care-oriented mindset. Spending time alone has also increased my self-confidence in ways that I hadn’t previously experienced; I’ve often found it to be a social crutch to have friends around me at all times. In my short time here, I’ve allowed the solo-time to become a catalyst for making new friends as well as an opportunity to really throw myself out there. Solo-time is beneficial in terms of self-care, but it can also drive you toward really interesting conversations with strangers, I’ve found.  

All of this being said, OF COURSE there are moments in which I miss my family and friends from home. It’s inevitable, as my grant has only just begun and my schedule hasn’t been solidified yet, to feel homesick and sometimes be jaded by spending so much time with me, myself, and I. But that’s ok — all of these experiences as someone who has just moved are VALID, and I realize that the adjustment period may take a unique path than compared to previous experiences. My trick for combating loneliness is to stay busy; I’ve registered for a Dutch course (woooo! I take my level test tonight… stay tuned!) and I’ve had such a fabulous time with my fellow grantees (if you’re reading this — you guys are AMAZING). Other than spending time exploring nature, I’ve spent a good amount of time planning lesson plans and brainstorming fun and engaging activities for my students. I’m also actively looking into volunteer organizations to become a part of (as noted earlier), so it’ll be super exciting to see how that unfolds. In short — getting involved even outside of my schedule at Howest has been key to maintaining an active and healthy daily routine. On the other hand, too, it’s important to note that it’s ok to have some days filled with Netflix and chocolate and Facetime. Everything in life is a balance, right? 🙂 

With over three weeks living in Brugge under my belt, I’m feeling very well-adjusted (my past experience in Leuven definitely helped), excited for the weeks to come, and just so immensely grateful. I really can’t say it enough. Being here is surreal in itself, and being able to pursue teaching — something I genuinely love — in a place that I ALSO genuinely love is a true gift. Even in the hiccups and mistakes (i.e. me almost being late to work because I couldn’t figure out the gears on my bike, me forgetting my passport-sized photos for my residence permit appointment, me getting a taxi to the completely wrong location after arriving from the airport and kind of being stranded… the list does not end here), I’ve been able to find opportunities for growth. I’ve also realized it’s crucial to be able to laugh at yourself. It’s a survival mechanism, and probably one of the most important. Life is too short to be stressed about the little things, ladies!!!   

Aaaand… that’s all the time we have for this FIRST Fulbright blog post! I’m super excited to continue writing these and to be able to share my journey with all of you. These upcoming months are going to be really, really special.  

Thanks for reading! Talk to y’all soon 🙂 -Allie

Allie Weis is a 2019-2020 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to Belgium.

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