This is the story of an American in Paris.
Only it’s me – a junior technocultural studies major and San Francisco Bay Area stereotype – in Brussels – a city portrayed in the movies as a dreary political center and not much else.
There are no romantic walks on the Seine or bottles of wine under a twinkling Eiffel Tower. There’s a beloved fountain of a peeing boy, a giant atom and a whole lot of beer instead. This is the story of a UC Davis student abroad for one year, judging the hell out of Americans and Belgians alike. No one is safe from my scrutiny – myself included.
You might recognize my name from publications such as, well, this one. I was your campus news editor last year, and having spent hours every day in a basement, I feel well prepared for sunless Brussels.
While a year in Paris may sound more like every American girl’s fantasy, Brussels can be pretty magical as well. The Art Nouveau architecture on every block is stunning, as are the abundance of parks and ivy-laden brick. There are charming chocolatiers next to trendy cafes with sweeping terraces next to ornate churches.
And the people I meet every day don’t help keep me grounded in reality. With the European Union in house, Brussels is automatically an international city with tons of expatriates. Most Belgians speak three or four languages, but you can often hear six or seven walking down a busy street.
“Where are you from?” and “What brings you here?” have never been more complicated questions. Often the response is, “How much time do you have?”
“I was born in Belgium but really I grew up in a combination of Hawaii and Shanghai. I moved back here for the university. Oh, and I speak five languages.”
What’s even worse is how my pathetic answer will generally yield a very favorable response.
“Ohhhhhhhhh! California! Where abouts?” I answer. “Ohhhhhhh! San Francisco!” You don’t even need to say you’re American, just say you’re from San Francisco!
There we have it. My delusions of being special are reinforced almost daily.
My school doesn’t help either. I go to Vesalius College, a 400-person international institution with what seems like more study abroad students than actual students. Classes are taught in English. Classes are small. Classes are built around the “American” model of student participation.
But that’s not the point. The point is that Vesalius is the most expensive school in all of Belgium at 5,000 euros per semester. I was completely unaware of this fact, as 5,000 euros isn’t remotely ridiculous by American private school standards.
Thus, most of the European Vesalius students are filthy rich. And coming from a large public university where socio-economic diversity is valued, it’s weird being among designer labels every day.
My first week in Brussels, this one Italian took a liking to some of the girls in my program. He brought us to a quintessential European nightclub – sleek white furniture, chandeliers and disco lighting – and after mumbling something to the bouncer, got us all inside for free. Not just inside, but in a VIP section, where we could dance slightly above the common folk and drink endless gin and tonics.
Life abroad isn’t all dreamy pleasantries though, of course.
There are students in my group from Missouri, Idaho and Texas. I think it’s needless to say that we have different values. Daily I am slapped in the face by how conservative these kids are, slapped in the face when I hear things like, “Are those two guys actually kissing?” Or, “I really hate feminists, it’s not like women aren’t getting jobs these days.”
My culture shock in Brussels has not been from language barriers or unrefrigerated milk. It’s been from other Americans.
Don’t worry – this column will definitely have its share of fairy tale anecdotes, and even criticisms of European ways. But as someone who has only lived in liberal bubbles, I’m hoping to gain insight into the American culture that I’ve never met, too.
JANELLE BITKER is bummed she won’t be around to see Cake play at UC Davis. Tell her what other awesome things she’ll miss at firstname.lastname@example.org.