I will not sugar-coat it; I was miserably stressed in my first weeks here in Brussels. Now, after nearly two months of living here, I laugh at my early-September-self for feeling so hopeless. Pre-Brussels-Adriana could never imagine that I would be able to find my way around the city without using Google Maps, that I would feel comfortable going on solo day-trips to nearby cities using the trains, or that I would actually feel like I belong in this city. All the clichés that “studying abroad changes you” are completely true; the stressful push outside of my comfort zone has now molded me into, quite possibly, the happiest version of myself!
For the first few weeks, I developed a Google Maps dependency. I was glued to my phone walking down the streets, worried about taking a wrong turn on the way to the coffee shop at which I had plans with friends. Two things got me out of my Google Maps dependency: the fear of looking like a “tourist” and the regret from not truly enjoying my walk. Locals in Brussels told me it is so easy to spot a tourist just by seeing who is struggling to use Google Maps on the street, and ever since this moment, I vowed to slowly phase out my use of Google Maps. After all, I live here now, so I cannot be acting like a tourist on the streets! Not using Google Maps allowed me to people-watch while strolling down the streets or admire the beautiful architecture I used to pass everyday without noticing because Google Maps demanded all of my attention. Yes, I got lost a few times (as expected without Google Maps), but I learned to recognize a few easy-to-spot landmarks as well as the important public transportation stops. Now, I walk around like a local, and I have even had tourists come up to me and ask me for directions! In Europe, cities are completely walkable and pedestrian-friendly, so I walk EVERYWHERE, even if it takes 45 minutes. It’s enjoyable, it’s light exercise, and it’s the perfect time to get some impromptu sight-seeing done!
Not only is almost every city walkable, but cities are so well-connected to other cities that I could take a train for less than half an hour and end up in France! One night, on a whim, I bought train tickets to Lille, France for the next day. I went alone, arriving in Lille at around 9:30 AM, and I spent the entire day getting lost in the streets and checking out cute boulangeries and cafés (with the best pain au chocolats and cappuccinos I have ever had!). At one point, I sat down on a bench eating a 1-euro baguette I just bought and I thought to myself, “I am literally in France on a spontaneous solo-trip eating a baguette on a random Thursday in September.” How did I get so lucky to experience that?! This was the moment I truly realized that I am abroad and this is my life for the next few months! After this solo-trip, I took many more spontaneous trips (both solo and with friends), and I am beginning to understand that this is truly the norm in Europe.
One of the spontaneous trips I took with friends recently was to Paris, France for a weekend. In Paris, I realized how different it is to travel with European friends than with American friends. I experienced a few culture shocks, but I actually appreciate the European way of travel much more! For instance, “travel” and “sightseeing” does not mean going to all the major tourist stops or going on a tour bus or following a tour guide; “sightseeing” instead was walking through the streets and making random turns to streets that intrigue us, perhaps finding a hidden gem of a coffee shop or an open-air market tucked away in a maze of cobblestone streets. Rather than spending hours in line at the Louvre, we spent hours walking through the Marais, which is the Jewish district of Paris and has the BEST pastries and falafels. Another culture shock I experienced was how flexible Europeans are with transportation. Every time I have traveled with Americans, we always look for the fastest way to get from point A to point B. With my European friends, we saw that it would take an hour to get from point A to point B by walking (versus 15 minutes by metro), but we decided that the weather was nice and an hour-long-walk is not that long. We saved so much money this way and we were able to enjoy Paris beyond the tourist attractions while walking through the streets. Many American tourists tend to find Paris underwhelming or overrated, but I am convinced this is because they aren’t doing Paris “right”- the key is to get lost in the city, to explore the neighborhoods on foot, and to be spontaneous and flexible.
Overall, there are a few key takeaways from my study abroad experience thus far. First, you are bound to feel lonely and homesick and lost at first, but this feeling is only temporary. Now, in a turn of events, I actually feel homesick for Brussels! After coming back from my weekend in Paris, I felt so much relief stepping foot in the Brussels bus station, thinking that I am finally home after an eventful, yet exhausting weekend. Second, you have to get comfortable doing things by yourself. It was hard at first to go to coffee shops and restaurants and even other cities by myself without feeling awkward, but once I did it a few times, I learned to be content with my own company and to appreciate the fact that I am in a new place, even if I have no one to share the experience with. Third, you have to be ready to learn so much everyday. I have a running list of new words I learn (not only in French, but also in German and Danish!) and I also have a running list of interesting ways-of-life in Europe. For instance, in Brussels, there are car-free Sundays every once in a while where there are no cars in the street! Everyone rides their bicycles or walks instead. Additionally, and rather strangely, in Belgium, they eat their popcorn in the movie theater with sugar instead of with salt! My lists keep growing with each day, and I can’t wait to tell everyone back in America about everything I have learned.