Reflecting on my year at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, there are so many different academic, cultural, and social practices I could comment on. The friendliness and can-do-attitude of Americans, my love/hate relationship with their food culture or the fact that every state and city offers endlessly unique travelling possibilities. However, the one thing that struck me the most while staying there, was the topic that reigns supreme in everyday boring conversation: the weather. I know, I know.
Few subjects can be considered as banal as the weather, yet inexplicably Michigan managed to turn it into one of my most fascinating experiences. While I knew that Michigan winters can be brutally harsh, cold, and snowy, I did not really think much about the other seasons and what they might look and feel like. When I arrived on August 15th, I was completely taken aback by how unbearably hot it was. The heat scorched the buildings and trees until the beaming sun got fainter and a cold breeze announced the anticipation of autumn.
Fall season – Americans don’t really use the term autumn – was an experience unlike any other I have ever had. In Belgium, fall is not really considered a true season but rather the dreary period that makes you miss summer and dread the coming of winter. While the winter season is marked by the big holidays such as Saint-Nicholas, Christmas and New Year’s, autumn passes by without anyone really taking notice. In the U.S. however, and especially in the Midwest and the East Coast, fall season in itself is a celebrated phenomenon and something everyone looks forward to. Apart from the beautiful scenery, fall brings with it a series of things that Michiganders go absolutely crazy for: apple cider & doughnuts, pumpkin spiced anything, Halloween, Thanksgiving and of course, American football.
Before going to Michigan, I had never really tasted autumn before. That changed completely once I got introduced to fall delicacies such as warm apple cider & the accompanying doughnuts. While cider is considered more of an occasional light alcoholic drink in Belgium, it is something completely different in America. Nearby Ann Arbor were lots of so called ‘cider mills’, places that produce their own home pressed warm apple cider as well as bake their own doughnuts. The cider is usually made with homegrown apples and flavoured with all kinds of spices – think of cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger, and cloves. These are also the spices that you find in the oh so popular pumpkin spice lattes. I never really got the hype when Starbucks introduced them in Belgium, but when I tried one at a local coffee shop in Ann Arbor, I fell completely head over heels for it.
Damn it, Janet, I love you!
Apart from Armistice, Belgians only really ‘celebrate’ All-Saints, the day where we collectively mourn and commemorate our lost loved ones. In the U.S. however, they are not as much concerned with the dead as they are with the ‘living dead’ that crawl on the streets during one of America’s favourite holidays: Halloween. When I say Americans go crazy for it, I’m not exaggerating in the slightest. Suddenly houses are guarded by giant spiders that cover the porches in sticky webs. Every house is decorated with lit up pumpkins of all sizes, and skeletons, witches, and pirates become frequent guests. Talking walks around the time of Halloween was like being a kid in a toy store: you don’t know where to look first. Every walk brings a new – and sometimes rather unusual – surprise whether you are ready for it or not.
That being said, my personal highlight happened on the eve of Halloween itself: a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show with a live reenactment at the Michigan Theatre. Rain was pouring down as all of us were packed up like sardines waiting in a huge line to get in, but the performance was well worth it. The personal commentaries that were given by random audience members – most of whom were dressed in exquisitely outrageous outfits – were witty, delicious, and absolutely scandalous. What happens in Michigan Theatre, stays in Michigan Theatre.
The excitement, exuberance and excess of Halloween stood in sheer contrast with the peaceful, cozy, and comfy atmosphere that came to lay over Ann Arbor as Thanksgiving arrived. I was lucky enough to be invited by people from the local Dutch community that consists of Dutch immigrants. More so than Halloween, Thanksgiving is a holiday that Belgians are not at all familiar with for the simple reason that it does not exist in Europe. While the history of the holiday is quite contested and controversial, I do like the idea of coming together with your family and loved ones and showing gratitude for the goods things that have come your way. One of those was without a doubt the famous turkey Thanksgiving dinner I was privileged enough to savour on the day itself. At the beginning of my blogpost, I stated that I have a love/hate relationship with American food… It’s safe to say that the Thanksgiving meal – and especially the stuffed sweet potatoes – I had definitely contributed to the love side of the relationship.
Saturday September 4th, 2022. I got into the habit of talking a walk to Kerrytown and exploring the local Farmer’s Market. I’d buy myself a pastry and I browse through the different products offered at the dozens of stands. This day, however, is different. As soon as I wake up, I can hear life at the fraternity and sorority houses that surround my apartment. They are buzzing with students dressed in yellow and blue who are shouting one phrase over and over again: ‘GO BLUE!!’. This could only mean one thing: it’s game day.
After several Covid scares and lockdowns, the University of Michigan was finally able to let its athletes compete in college sports again. The concept of ‘college sports’ was not as foreign to me as other American practices. Like most foreigners, I grew up watching American movies and TV series, so I assumed I had a pretty good idea of the role sports played in university life. Boy, was I wrong. When Americans say ‘go big or go home’, they one hundred precent mean it. Name a sport and the U-M has a team and a stadium for it: football, ice hockey, basketball, lacrosse, baseball, rugby, and so on. Their crown jewel, however, is the so-called ‘Big House’. This nickname refers to the U-M football stadium which is the third biggest (!) stadium in the world with a capacity of around 110.000 people. When I went to the above-mentioned game, I realised that the entire population of my Belgian hometown could fit into the student section of the stadium. It’s a wild thought that I still cannot fully comprehend.
Autumn is the warmest colour
When he was young, American writer Ernest Hemingway and his family used to travel to Walloon Lake, northern Michigan. Based on his experiences at this lake (named after a group of Belgian Walloon settlers btw), he wrote the follow sentiment: “The best sky was in Italy or Spain and in Northern Michigan in the fall.” The beauty that Michigan offers during fall season was simply put, utterly breathtaking and, in my experience, absolutely unmatched. Green foliage that turns into unimaginable shades of orange, yellow, green, red and purple. Colours that shine with such vibrancy that they sometimes feel painted on. I went on many walks in an attempt to relish each colour and every breeze before winter would come and reset the colourful palette to a blank, white canvas. While words fall short to capture the true beauty that Michigan offers during autumn, the following pictures give you a glimpse of what I was lucky enough to experience.
Maren Vanhouche is a Belgian Fulbright FLTA to the University of Michigan. Having been fascinated by languages and literature from an early age, Maren Vanhouche obtained the degree Master of Linguistics and Literary Studies (Dutch and English) in 2018. During this period, she was selected to attend University College London for one semester in the context of the European Erasmus Programme. She then proceeded to obtain a master’s degree in teaching as well as the degree of Master of Journalism in Printed and Online Media. For the latter she completed a successful internship at the newspaper Metro. Maren currently teaches Dutch and English to secondary school pupils in Sint-Genesius-Rode, one of the twelve Flemish municipalities with language facilities. Consequently, she has experienced the complex Belgian linguistic landscape firsthand. Her hobbies include sports, music and reading.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