Sunday, May 13, 2012

What I've learned


 I’ll do a quick update on my CRAZY life before I get into all the sappy stuff, but as my year is coming to a close, you all better be prepared for me to get sappy.

SPAIN
The 11 days I spent with the other exchangers in Spain were probably the best 11 days of my life. Put 70 kids from over 15 countries together and it’s bound to be a good time. 
  • We visited Salamanca and found the frog in the University façade. 
  • We explored Avila and learned about the origins of the Ku Klux Klan. 
  • We went to Segovia where I found the castle I will shortly be moving into. 
  • We were surprised by a visit to a little monastery town where it SNOWED. 
  • We explored Madrid and learned that Hard Rock Café is not worth the 2-hour walk it takes to get there. 
  • We went to Barcelona and skinny dipped in the Mediterranean and soaked up the true Catalan culture
We drank Sangria every day, with every meal. We learned really inappropriate Spanish phrases, and when we tried to use them on the locals, we learned that their football game was more important than the touristy gringas. We learned that it’s possible to go 12 hours without food, but it is not recommended when surrounded by 70 hungry, grumpy, aggressive, multilingual teenagers. We discovered that Easter parades shut down streets for hours at a time, demolishing any disco plans that you might have had. We learned that it’s possible to eat tapas and paella for every meal for 11 days straight and not get sick of it. We realized that even if we had to visit 3 cathedrals a day, we could find ways to entertain ourselves. And most importantly, I learned that I would NEVER forget the people that I shared the best week and a half of my life with. 











Quick trip back to Blauzac
On the way back from Spain, the bus was going to drop me off at a rest stop and my host dad was going to come pick me up and take me to their paradise. My host dad told me to call him when I passed Marseilles. 
However, we did not take into account that when I would pass Marseilles it would be dark, and I wouldn’t be able to see any signs. We also did not take into account when they said “It’s the only big city you’ll see on the way up” that my version of a big city is different from theirs. So, what I learned from this experience is that when you ask the bus driver what time we’ll get to the rest stop, pay special attention to what he says because “deux heures” and “douze heures” sound VERY similar
I also learned that I should verify which city is actually Marseilles, because when I called my host dad and said “Hey I’m passing Marseilles right now, I’ll be there at ‘douze heures’” I actually wasn’t passing Marseilles and wouldn’t get there until ‘deux heures’. I learned this night that host fathers can get very grumpy when they wait at a rest stop for two hours because of a little word lost in translation. Oops.
On this trip I also learned that drinking wine consistently throughout the day will give you some very solid, enjoyable naps in the South of France sunshine.


The Colosseum in Nimes, near Blauzac


ROPES COURSES
I think that one time, back in Cheyenne, in about fifth grade, I did a ropes course. I thought it was a cool experience, but was never really interested in doing it again. I learned that fifth grade me was an idiot, because those things are FUN. A couple of weeks ago, the President of Rotary International came to Belgium. THIS IS BIG. Things like this don’t happen often. So we did some strange little things with umbrellas to welcome him and sang songs and then all got to watch the Hunger Games together BEFORE it was released in theaters. I learned from this experience that watching movies with latinos is a very, very challenging thing, because they’re all too hyper to sit down for ten minutes-let alone a WHOLE MOVIE- and just watch something. That was a Thursday. 
That Saturday, we had a district conference and were all supposed to meet in Antwerp. I learned that every transportation system has its issues, and I learned that we are not good at figuring out the Antwerp metro. This information together means that me and five or six others missed the WHOLE assembly and got there just in time to go on a river cruise of the port of Anvers. In case you were wondering and wanted to learn something, it’s not a very pretty port
That night, I went to dinner in Brussels with all my family and spent the night at my oldest host sister’s apartment there. I learned that she knows really awesome bars in Brussels, and took us to one where you danced on tables. And I mean EVERYONE. Floor dancing is just ridiculously boring; table dancing is so much better. I also learned (by watching) that this is a very good drunk test, and if you fall over the pain of hitting the floor should sober you up fairly quickly. 
I learned that it’s possible to go to sleep at six AM and wake up at eight AM to take the train to a city an hour away to go to a ropes course all day. I discovered that if you dress us in jump suits, hook us up to harnesses, and put us in trees, we’ll have the time of our lives. This could easily be one of the best days of my exchange, and I can’t even pinpoint why. It was good weather (for once…) with good people and such a fun activity that I’ll never forget.  The day after, I learned that I lost every ounce of muscle I’d had, and it was a painful process trying to get it back. I thought that would be the end of my rope courses in Belgium. I learned I was wrong.

Since I’m in the “sports” section of school, we are obligated to learn different elements of sports that the people in the non-sports sections aren’t. This included “self-defense” or “let’s-show-all-the-really-tough-boys-all-the-ways-to-take-down-a-girl”, “Rugby” or “some-ball-sport-played-in-the-freezing-cold-rain-while-our-Frankenstein-coach-tries-to-get-us-to-tackle-each-other-HARDER”, and finally “Adventure Day” which was by far the best but requires a further explanation. It was originally supposed to be a ropes course and then kayaking down a nearby river, but last week the river flooded (THAT MUCH RAIN IN BELGIUM) and the kayakers had to be removed from their kayaks by helicopter, so they canceled that part of it. Instead we stayed at the ropes course, which involved things like: “the death ride” where you attached your harness to a wire and jumped off a cliff HOPING the two people at the bottom in charge of catching you are paying attention, the “tarzan jump” where you got to jump off a tree and fly full speed ahead into a really painful net, and “barrel roll” which involved getting on your back and pushing yourself through barrels while suspended over 30 feet in the air. 
There were also underground tunnels that luckily were filled with water since it had rained ALL DAY LONG while we were attempting to tarzan jump and barrel roll and ride death. You climb underneath this tunnel into pitch black and get to scrape up your knees and get your hands all muddy and in case this wasn’t fun, they put obstacles in!! Like wooden boards right where your forehead would meet it, and planks that you couldn’t get over or under without getting your entire body soaking wet. 
At the end of the day we got to do the “vertigo challenge”, which meant climbing up a ladder designed for Hagrid, putting your slippery shoes into pony sized horseshoes, and attempting to connect yourself to the bungee wire, which is insanely difficult because they built these sorts of things for tall people with long arms and legs, WHICH I DON'T HAVE. I learned that it doesn’t matter if it rains all day or if you can’t move the next day because every single muscle on your body is killing you (including your fingers), ropes courses are a good time.


Port of Anvers

President Day!

Table Dancing!

Ropes Course with Rotary




GAY PARADE
It just so happens that while all sorts of debating is going on in the States about Gay Rights, we were all celebrating the gays in the Gay Pride Festival in Brussels. The majority of the girls on exchange went, and even though it took me AGES to get there and back, it was an amazingly fun day. There was recently a train collision on my railway out of Dinant where a train carrying chemical substances was rear-ended by another train carrying chemical substances. I’m not entirely sure how this happens, but it’s created a big mess and half the town it happened next to had to be evacuated. No one was killed but since it’s a chemical mess it’s fairly difficult for them to clean it up. So until the line is fixed, we get to cram ourselves onto a bus for 50 minutes and drive to the big city near us, instead of going on a 25 minute train ride. ANYWAYS, the gay parade. Brussels was PACKED since this is one of the biggest gay pride festivals in Europe. Everyone was dressed really colorfully and all sorts of people were there. There were gay and lesbian couples, there were cross-dressers, and there were straight people of all ages. They were blasting music and painting faces and throwing confetti and there were all sorts of free giveaways. A parade happened as well but there were so many people it was impossible for me to see anything. We had to sit down for 3 minutes of silence to be respectful for the 8 countries where being homosexual is a crime punishable by death, but other than that everyone was in such a good mood. The sun was even shining, and that combined with all the colors and how excited everyone was made it an amazing atmosphere. In Wyoming, there are no gay pride festivals. There are very few gay people, and I’m so lucky I got to go to this parade and learn more than I ever possibly could have in Wyoming.







The train crash near my city

And now we get all sad and sappy. Before I went on exchange, everyone told me “appreciate your year, it goes by fast. You won’t even blink an eye and then it’s all over. All you’ll want is to relive every moment that you didn’t take full advantage of, learn every word that you didn’t understand, and become friends with the people that you never got a chance to meet. As soon as you’re comfortable with your exchange life, it’s whisked away…” And I guess that’s life, but it makes me so sad to think about coming home. To realize that I won’t be able to see my best friends every day at school. To comprehend that I can’t just take the train to our magical bar and have 5 or 6 hours of complete exchange. I don’t like those thoughts at all, but May has come and today I have exactly two months left of exchange.
Most of my friends back home are moving out of their dorms and finishing college, to head back to Cheyenne and be reunited with everyone. Most of my exchange friends are in full on panic mode, because we’ve realized how little time we have left and how much we still want to do. Trips to other countries we haven’t yet seen are being organized, plans to go to amusement parks and out-of-control summer music festivals are arranged, and we’re starting to plan our goodbye parties and talk about departure dates. It makes May a very hectic and chaotic month.  
Last night I went to a mothers day dinner with all my family. I was checking with my sisters to make sure they’d be able to make it to the airport to say goodbye to me, and I told them I leave at noon. The oldest one said, “Kenzie I wish you weren’t leaving in the morning, now our entire day will be ruined because we won’t be able to stop crying.” I almost broke out into tears right there in the restaurant. All the exchange students are having problems with this lately. Every time we get together we can’t help but talk about leaving and then we all get all sad and everyone starts crying. 
It’s the biggest emotional roller coaster ever, 
and no one knows how to handle it

Thursday, March 29, 2012

SO MUCH TO CATCH UP ON!!

I seem to start out EVERY blog like this, so I think it's a recurring theme, but sorry I took so long to update!! This last month has been whirlwind, I can't believe March is already gone! First things first...

Amsterdam with Murphy
My sister flew out to Belgium to spend her spring break with me, and it was so much fun. She was only here for 5 days, but we wanted to do as much as possible with her time, starting with Amsterdam!! We met up with her roommate from last semester who's doing an exchange in Scotland, and the three of us had so much fun.

The first day, we got there around two and went to the Heineken Experience. It's this HUGE museum talking all about how beer is made and the history of Heineken. We tasted some, and then I was taught how to bartend. It was so much fun, and my beer was practically perfect!!! After that we looked around Dam Square a little bit, ate an Italian restaurant, and went to bed pretty early because Murphy was exhausted after two days of solid traveling. At the restaurant, she ordered wine and was so happy when the waiter brought it to her without asking for an ID or questioning her age or anything. It's so normal for me now, but it was adorable to see her disbelief.

The next day, we saw the Van Gogh Museum which had amazing paintings, but we were so disappointed that "Starry Night" wasn't there. We also saw the Rijskmuseum with the most amazing china with delicate blue and white designs on it from when Amsterdam first became a city. It was absolutely beautiful. After that we went to the Anne Frank house which is INCREDIBLE. You go through the entire house that hid her and hear the background stories and then you actually get to go past the bookshelf that hid the door into their annex and see EVERYTHING. We saw Anne's room with the clippings she had cut out from magazines, we saw the kitchen that had marks on the wall of Anne and Margot growing taller, and we learned a lot about the history. I can't even imagine staying in one little room for 25 months. She was so young, and she was captured and died from typhus only 1 month before the liberation. She had already started transforming her diary into a novel, and when her dad (the only surviving member of the family) found it, he published it. It was such an indescribable feeling, being in the same house that she was in for those horrible two years.

After the Anne Frank house, we did a canal cruise around Amsterdam. We saw so much of the beautiful city and learned a lot about the history as well. I'm glad it was a nice day out! When we were done, we went to the Red Light District. Murphy wasn't too eager to go but it's such a huge part of Amsterdam's fame that I couldn't leave without experiencing it a little. The District is right in the center of town, and it's a ton of narrow streets that crisscross. We had seen it a little in the daytime, but the girls were a little bit chubbier or older and less attractive. When we went at night, the girls were all bombshells. Most of them looked around my age, with surprisingly classy underwear. None of them were naked, I think they're required to wear at least a bra and underwear, but there were so many of them. Streets and streets and they had windows on the first and second floor. No pictures were allowed (obviously) but it's something I'll probably never forget just because it was so different. When we passed, the girls looked bored and were talking to each other or playing on their cell phones and just kind of generally indifferent to the people around them. However, when a group of boys walked by, they changed their posture, started batting their eyelashes, got rid of the phone, and put all their attention on that boy. It was a dramatic difference.

When we had seen enough of that, we went to this delicious Argentinian place and ate. Then we went to a bar and the bartender kept giving us free shots and he gave us adorable little hats for St. Patricks day. We were completely exhausted after so much walking and sightseeing that day, and we left Monday morning at ten to head back to Belgium!

Belgium with Murphy
Once we were back in Belgium, we headed to Breendonk, the concentration camp just outside of Brussels. I had never been but I really wanted to go because world war two history is so interesting to me. When we finally found it (we got a little lost...) we got headsets to hear the information about the camp. It was not a happy place (obviously). The weather that day made it a little worse too, it was all grey and cloudy and cold and generally Belgian-like. We learned a lot about the perpetrators of the camp, and a little bit about the prisoners. 3500 people were kept in the camp, but only about 600 at a time. 164 were shot, 21 hanged, and 100 died of sickness, bad treatment, and exhaustion. It wasn't a very big camp, because it was more of a holding ground before they were sent to the bigger camps like Dachau, Bergen Belsen, and Auschwitz. We saw the place where they hanged and shot the prisoners outside, and we saw where they slept inside. It was freezing cold. Everything is built with concrete and had a wettish feel to it, plus it was just a generally depressing place, so as long as you were inside you couldn't get warm. We also learned a lot about the Mechelen Trials, which were held to prosecute the workers of the camp.

When we were done with that depressing experience, we went to Brussels. We saw the Grand Place and ate a delicious Belgian waffle and fries. We also had a beer at all the exchanger's favorite bar in Brussels.  We couldn't stay long because we had to meet my family for dinner, but it was a quick and efficient way to show my sister the main places I go in Brussels. Also, my friend found this hilarious thing about living in Brussels, basically if you've ever been to Belgium you'll understand most of it. It's completely accurate and hilarious.
http://cheeseweb.eu/2010/06/top-20-signs-expat-brussels-long/

The next day, we saw the Maredsous Abbey and had some beer and cheese from there, and then went to see the Citadel. I'd only been there once with Rotary and I hadn't gotten to see the whole thing, but the view is absolutely incredible. You can see all of Dinant, I could even pick out my families houses!

It was such a busy week with her, but it was awesome to see my sister again. It's crazy to think that I've been here for 7 months and can't imagine leaving. Definitely a good life I live :)

Friday, February 24, 2012

CARNAVAL!!!

The first thing I would like to say is that America doesn't celebrate Carnival. And we should. Because it might be my new favorite holiday ever. We get to celebrate Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) which represents the beginning of spring (which we all appreciate) and then it's about a week long party. My dream is to go to Brazil for carnival, because that one is infamous, but the one I experienced here was awesome as well!

Last Friday, my family and I left Dinant to go to Uzes in France. It's normally about a 8.5-9 hour drive (if you follow the speed limit) but my host dad got us there in about  7. So that was fun. My host family has a house in an adorable little village named Blauzac, which in the winter has about 900 inhabitants but in the summer it rises to about 3000. Belgians know how to vacation. Normally they leave the first week of July for summer break (generally France, sometimes Africa), and don't return until late August. They just moved into this house about 3 weeks ago, and I think I've fallen in love. It's the prettiest house in the whole world, and since my family owns an art gallery they've stocked it full of art. There are 7 bathrooms, 6 bedrooms, an office, an indoor kitchen and an outdoor kitchen, a pool, a fountain, a vineyard, and a guest house. The WiFi box is on one side of the house, and it's so huge that we have no signal on the other side. It's ridiculous, but wonderful. I've decided to stay until mid-July just so I can come here again in the summer and relax before returning to real life in the States. But I digress. Anyways, we went to the amazing house in the South of France for one night before heading to the Pyrenees for skiing.

From Blauzac to the Pyrenees is about a 3 hour drive (with my host dad driving, maybe 5 for normal people). We drove right next to the Mediterranean Sea for maybe 45 minutes and then headed up into the mountains. Paradise is where you can see snow and sea at the same time. We got to their condo in this resort called "Les Angles" at about noon and we hit the slopes by 1:30. Skiing here is a little different than skiing back home. The difficulty of the slopes at home goes from Green to Blue to Black to Double Black. Here, it's Green, Blue, Red, Black. The resort was fairly small compared to Steamboat but it was considerably bigger than Snowy Range. They only had 2 double blacks but they weren't open because of lack of snow. The snow wasn't bad but it hadn't snowed in a while so by the end of the week it was fairly icy. Also, in the states, a lot of people wear helmets. I would say more than 70%. Here, only about 10% wear them, and they are all little kids. There were no mogul runs here, but quite a few steep ones. There is one black called "the wall" and there is a chairlift right next to it. Every single time I used that chair lift we saw someone fall at the top of the run and slide all the way to the bottom. There was literally nothing they could have done, it was that steep and slippery. I went down it with my host sisters boyfriend and there were three people that had fallen within 25 feet of each other and two of them had to call ski patrol and ride down in a sled because they were injured. Getting injured isn't funny but watching people slide about 75 feet is fairly comical. We decided the ski resort should try and put a camera to film the slope, they would get hilarious videos.

Another big difference is that they use poma lifts A LOT here. More than chair lifts. And most people prefer them over chairlifts, which I think means that they are crazy. For example, with chairlifts, you get to sit down, rest your feet, you get a pretty view, you can relax and rearrange your gear, get on the phone, whatever you want to do. If it stops, you sit comfortably and wait for it to start again. People can ski under your lift without a problem. With Poma Lifts, you have about a 3 second window to grab a pole and shove it between your legs before it whips you forward so hard and fast you have a heart attack and get bruises on your thighs. You can risk taking your hands off the pole, but the second you hit a bump, you're screwed. You have to stand up the whole time, and can't even really lean on the pole because then you fall over. Rearranging gear becomes a ninja exercise because you have to hold the pole, your poles, and then if you need to take your gloves off, you hold those too and have about two fingers available to fix whatever you need too. You get the thrilling experience of seeing skiiers and boarders flying towards you and refusing to slow down because your Poma trail just happens to cross their cat track. If it stops (which it does, often), it's probably because some little kid couldn't figure out the system and got all tangled up in the trail. So you get to stand helplessly and wait for the kiddies to get their act together. Some really demented workers decided on one lift it would be hilarious to make a jump as soon as you took off with the Poma. So you grab the pole, shove it between your legs, take off and warp speed and then hit this giant bump that scares you to death and almost throws you off the pole. You're almost reorganized after that terrifying experience when you hit another jump and the same thing happens all over again. And the demented workers can't stop laughing. Anyways, as you can see, I'm not a big fan of Poma Lifts.

One more difference in skiing back home and skiing here is that in Europe, I can drink. I never understood my parents desire to go to the bar instead of the hot tub after a day of skiing, but now I get it. Hot wine feels as good as a hot tub. We can also drink beer and wine at lunch, and then go skiing. It's a very entertaining process, if not slightly dangerous. We ended up skiing for six days, and it was exhausting. Spain is about a 30 minute drive from where we were, and they are on vacation as well as France, so the place was completely packed. Now I'm back in Blauzac until Sunday, and it is SO WARM here!! I can hear the birds every morning when I wake up (something that doesn't happen in Belgium) and the sun is shining without clouds (again, NEVER happens in Belgium) and I'm very happy :) It's not warm enough to go swimming yet (I know, how sad), but it is warm enough to tan in lawn chairs by the pool!!! Which, incidentally, is where I am writing this. I'll put up pictures soon :)

I've been here 6 and a half months, and time is flying by. My boss from last summer and the summer before that is coming to Belgium in two weeks, so I'll get to see him and then I'm going to Amsterdam with my sister! I CANNOT WAIT. Six weeks from now is my trip to Spain for two weeks, and then it's basically summer time. What a good life I live :)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The second half...

Hello!! 


I can't believe I'm already half way done with my exchange. Before I left, January seemed ages away and now it's HERE. This panics me, because I'm so happy with my life and my exchange here, I don't want to go home. The exchangers that arrived last January headed home two weeks ago, and seeing them leave really makes me appreciate everything that I have here and I'm ready to enjoy it before my time is over!

Here are a few of the things I've been up to...

After Christmas, my family took a trip to Disneyland with all my cousins and me. It was so fun, we stayed right in the park and we all had a great time. At Disneyland Paris, the castle is Sleeping Beauty's castle. My 9 year old cousin that went us LOVES Aurora, and had the best time watching all the Princesses. I had lots of fun riding the rides! We stayed for 3 days and did practically everything, we even went to a Buffalo Bill show that was "Cowboys vs. Indians" and there were 4 teams. Colorado, Montana, Texas, and Wyoming. I was on the Montana team, but I wish we could have been on Wyoming's team! Wyoming won, so it worked out in the end! Here are some photos!!







On January 6th, the oldies from New Zealand left. I went to Kayla's goodbye party and then her family, other exchange students, and I went to the airport to say goodbye. It was horrible. When I think back on the first part of my exchange, I think of everything Kayla and I did together. We were practically inseparable, and after having someone be there for you when you don't know the language, you don't know your family, and you have no friends, it's really hard to say goodbye to that someone. It was even worse watching her family say goodbye to her. Normally, with Rotary, you change families three times. Kayla stayed with her family the entire year, and they all got really close. When she hugged her family goodbye, and her dad and grandpa just started bawling, everyone watching started crying as well. When we say goodbye to our families before we go on exchange, we know that we will see them in a year. When exchange students say goodbye to the friends and family they made on exchange, it's an actual goodbye, because you don't know when you're going to see those people again.  I also had to say goodbye to my really good friend Danielle, from South Africa that day. I've decided that I hate goodbyes. As if saying goodbye to the Kiwi's and Danielle wasn't bad enough, on January 13th more than half of the Australians left. Although I wasn't as close to the Aussies as I was to Kayla, they still managed to become some of my best friends. And it wasn't only us saying goodbye to them, it was them saying goodbye to each other. Australia is a huge country, and some of the people that became very best friends won't easily be able to see each other. After we said goodbye to the majority of Aussies, we decided to spend the night in the airport because the other Aussies were leaving the next day at 6 AM. We went into Brussels for a while and then came back to the airport on the last train. It was not the best night of sleep, but I learned that the Starbucks in Brussels International (one of only THREE in all of Belgium) stays open all night. I really, really miss Chai tea latte's. We then said goodbye to the other Aussies and left the airport completely drained. I managed to get home at 9:30 the next morning, but took the prettiest picture of my town on the way home.

I also changed families on January 7th!! I still live in Dinant, only about a 15 minutes walk away from my last house. I have three host sisters and one host brother, although I haven't met the brother and one of the sisters yet. I have a sister who is 19 and goes to school in Namur but comes home every weekend. She's hilarious, and we get along really well. Another sister is 22 and lives in Liege, and my oldest sister is 25 and lives near Brussels. My host mom is an accountant at my host dad's law firm, and they have a house in the South of France (with a vineyard)! They also have a house on the beach of the North Sea near Calais (can't really go swimming in the North Sea but I hear it's super pretty!) and then a condo in the French Pyrenees where they are taking me skiing for a week for Carnaval. They also have a dog and a cat here! The dog is blind and deaf but really sweet, and the cat is 22 years old and likes to sleep right next to my head each night. My middle sister also has a 2 year old dog who could play fetch for hours but also likes to snuggle at night. I love the animals :) My family also said they would take me to their house in the South of France for the summer vacation if I stayed long enough, so I think I might be coming home around mid-July. We have to pick our return dates soon, and I absolutely don't even want to think about returning. But before I go home, I still have several concerts to go to, a Spain trip, a Prague trip, and I hope a couple more weekends traveling!!

I also went to Antwerp with a friend and Bruges with Rotary, and both those cities are the most picturesque places I've ever been. My newies also arrived in Belgium, they remind me so much of me when I first got here. It's hard to believe how quickly you change, even if it's only been six months.

The exchange life is very, very good for me right now. I'm so happy, I can't even imagine my life without exchange.