Top Ten Hassels in Europe I Love

Studying abroad in Europe, I wasn’t expecting life to be much different than in the States. After all, Western Europe and America are like cousins, right? Things really haven’t been shockingly different or hard to deal with so far. Of course, I’ve only been here a few weeks. Most aspects of living in Brussels that have confused me or made me slightly uncomfortable have more to do with my novice status in the world of cities and public transportation than anything else.

However, in my short time here, as I settle into my house and stop eating out everyday (much to my back account’s pleasure), I have reflected on a few norms in Belgium that make life a little more inconvenient. These inconveniences do not in any way take away from the experience of living on a different continent (I mean, how awful would things have to be for that to get ruined?) These inconveniences also have a very good purpose, typically being eco-friendly, and as someone who prides herself as being pro-environment (I recycle, okay), I absolutely do not mind these norms and will hopefully bring some back to the States.

So here’s a list of the Top Ten Hassels in Europe that I Love.

10.) Separating Recycling

The typical home in Brussels contains three garbage tins; one white, one yellow, and one blue. Each tin corresponds with the color of the trash can liner that goes in it. The color of the bag designates the content of the bag. Green is for paper and cardboard, Yellow is for plastics, and White is for trash. Each color has a specific day it’s allowed to be placed on the curb. Glass must be walked to appropriate disposal next to the bus stop. Noncompliance with any of these rules can result in a fine of up to two hundred euros.

The process is a little more complex to the ‘toss it in the bin’ non discriminate recycling I have back home. Belgium has the capabilities of recycling more complex plastics than North Carolina and for that reason I will happily go through the extra step of separating my recycling.

9.) Shower Time

I am admittedly guilty of taking wasteful showers. Typically I use a shower as a break from school work and therefore I tend to linger. I am nothing if not a creative procrastinator. Here, our shower is attached to a tank. The tank, which is refilled daily, must be enough for all five inhabitants. Since no one wants to be that roommate that causes your friend to shiver in her morning shower, it is important to keep your showers short and to the point.

8.) Windows 

It took me a while to grow accustomed to the windows here in Brussels but now that I have, I can honestly say I’m in love. If the handle on the large window is pointing straight up, then the window cracks open vertically from the top. This is perfect for the bathroom during steamy (but short) showers.

If the handle is pointed horizontally, then the windows open up like a door, letting in more air and construction noises than any window I’ve run into in the States.

7.) No A/C

Where there air conditioning units, they are typically turned off or give a meager wisp of air roughly the same temperature as the room it is meant to cool down. While this has lead to some insufferable three hour classes, it has been interesting living without constant a/c. It has forced me to be more conscientious when I dress in the morning and to consume four times as much water as I would back home.

6.) All the Freakin’ Stairs

My home for the semester is very cozy, very nice, and very tall. The house is split up into half stories, meaning that at each half flight of stairs, I’m at a different room or cluster of rooms on the other side of the house than before. And guess whose room is almost the very top of the house. This gal.

I do not wish for the curse of the stairs to follow my back home. I’ve been lucky my two years at Wofford to live in ground story dorms. But if third times the anti-charm and I end up on a higher level for my junior year, I will be okay and well trained. Because there is not a building at Wofford as tall as my house in Brussels.

5.) Bus Times

Living for the first time in a big city, I expected and was excited to take the metro here and there. The metro does not go by my suburban home (though it has much less of a yard than the suburban homes I am used to). So I have been taking the bus everywhere: to school, to home, to the city, to metro stations. I love it. I like being able to sit mindlessly while someone else drives. I like the cosmopolitan (not in a classy sense, admittedly) feeling of taking public transportation. I like that in order to get home I must take the bus with the word Wiener shinning on it.

It does get frustrating not knowing exactly when to be at the bus stop to get picked up. I’ve waited nineteen minutes for my regular bus, much longer for a smaller one. I’ve j-walked and awkwardly waddled hastily with a backpack on to make the bus that pulled up just a hair too soon. I’ve had buses leave the second my foot touched the curb. The bus has been my enemy as well as my friend.

4.) No supermarkets

Well, there are supermarkets. They are just not as super and do not exist in such large numbers. A supermarket here sells school supplies, towels, clothes, and maybe a few snack items. As a college student trying to save her money for things like traveling, this doesn’t bother me. Having to move through a city to buy multiple items keeps me in check. It’s also a great way to productively see the city. What does get frustrating is the hours in which these stores are open. If I wait until five or six o’clock to go buy my dinner or my binder, then chances are that I will not get them. The hours are even trickier on the weekend because some stores will close for one day or two half days or simply close whenever they feel they won’t get any more customers.

3.) You can’t buy drugs just anywhere

You have to get everything at the pharmacy here. Even over the counter items like ibuprofen. And pharmacies close early. The shops rotate which one in the entire city will be open all night. Odds are, it’s not the corner of happy and my house. While this is cute and quaint, it is actually more annoying than anything. This quirk might not make it back to the State.

2.) Paying for a bag

If you go shopping for groceries or at a handy dandy super market, it is customary to bring your own bag. I’ve even seen some people with a rolling cart like bag, like one you might buy from Thirty-one. If you don’t have a bag or forgot one but cannot carry things in your hands, you can buy a bag. Whether you purchase a reusable bag for the next visit or a flimsy plastic bag, you have to pay a small charge. I absolutely love this idea. Though a bag may be only thirty cents, it is still an incentive for most Belgians to use reusable bags.

Bringing my own bag has also made me more conscientious of my purchases. What I’m buying must fit in this one bag. I have to carry this bag all the way home. It has really cut down on my miscellaneous snack purchasing.

1.) Limited Wi-Fi

For four months, my phone will be switched to Airplane Mode and at the mercy of wi-fi. But don’t give that stuff away for free. Often, a casual dinning place in which you purchase your food and then eat will have the access code on the bottom of your receipt. That code may only be viable for an hour. Most places do not allow public access to their wi-fi at all.

This has been frustrating at times when I am lost or am trying to contact someone. However, it has also made me more attentive while I’m out. I can’t hide from strangers in the world of Facebook. I can’t ignore my friend by skimming through Instagram. Without wi-fi, I’m stuck wherever I am. But where I am is in Europe so I think I’ll be okay.

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Top Ten Thoughts On An Airplane

A big part of studying abroad, or really just visiting abroad, is the plane rides there and back. Even students who study “abroad” in New York or D.C. usually fly there. My first flight was three years ago when I was 17. It was short and international and so freakin’ cool.

So far in my life I have taken 13 flights and seen 10 airports. To some people this makes me a newbie and to others an expert world traveler but really I’m somewhere in between. I’ve taken enough flights to not panic in the airport when I need to find my gate. But I do tend to get over confident in my airport abilities and mess up somewhere along the way (this time I forgot to take my laptop and camera out of my bookbag when going through TSA and had to wait and wait and wait and wait (they aren’t the speediest people) for a person to personally go through my bag).

But once I get on the plane, each and every flight is full of magic, boredom, and cramps. So here are some of my thoughts I have on the plane:

10.) Why aren’t these people looking out the window?

I absolutely do not trust people who do not look out the window during take off. The one and only time I have not watched take off was when I fell asleep on the window halfway down the runway. Take off is such a magical time. It’s like a slow roller coaster for your stomach, a drive up a mountain for your ears, and a Pixar movie for your eyes.

I understand that some people are afraid of flying or heights and that other people get motion sick if they watch out the window and so they avoid looking out the window. These people I forgive. You do you, I get it.

What is unforgivable, in my humble opinion, is missing take off because you are already engrossed in your book or movie or game to enjoy the bird’s eye of the city or farm lands or neighborhoods or highways you are leaving behind. Maybe you’ve taken this exact flight a million times before. But the light is always a different shade, the trees a different stages of bloom, and the clouds are never the same. Which brings me to number 9…

9.) Holy Cow I’m in a Cloud.

Clouds are by far the most magical part of flying. Whether through your window the planes appears to be consumed by the fluffiest of fluffy clouds. Or a wisp of a cloud pulled thin at the edges floats along. Or a cotton ball cloud suspended still in the air so thick and white that you look for the strings holding them up. Or the shadows cast upon the hills below by the white misty balls above. It’s all amazing.

Being above clouds is a concept I am unable to process. It is just something I cannot comprehend or come to terms with though it is something that I find incredible and a moment I cherish every time.

8.) How does a plane even fly?

Another concept I cannot for the life of me wrap my mind around is the ability of these gigantic metal planes to fly. Part of the reason I don’t understand this is because I have no basis or interest in the physics and mechanics that explain this phenomena. But if I did become an expert in the in’s and out’s of aviation, I think that the whole process would become even more miraculous to me. I have a basic understanding of how clouds work and they still send me into existential crises. I will go to my grave claiming that planes, like Santa’s sleigh, run on magic and the dreams of passionate travelers.

7.) Wow it got dark fast.

This thought is really only applicable to certain trips. On my way to Belgium, it was the summer, so I was used to it being light outside until 9. I was traveling east through the time zones, making my way into the future. I also departed in the evening. All these together meant that every time I checked out what was going on outside my window, which was about every thirty minutes, I was taken aback by how dark it had gotten. Night found us fast and I was not prepared.

6.) I hope the pilot doesn’t get lost.

It’s dark. A large portion of the flight was above open waters. Clouds are cool but they aren’t exactly landmarks. How the heck does a pilot know where they’re going?! I know they have GPS systems and working experience and a ton of other things I don’t know about. But the way can’t be straight forward. There are not roads or exits or lanes in the sky. To a certain degree, a pilot has to adjust the plane’s position based on the wind current.

What if the pilot got really lost? Would s/he eventually find their way back on path? Would we emergency land at some other airport to fill the gas tank?

This situation is extraordinarily unlikely, but it is still something I think about.

5.) I guess I could die.

Speaking of unlikely events. There is always a point in my journey when I think about the possibility of death. It’s not a thought that comes from fear or stirs up fear. It’s just a thought that leads to others thoughts. I think about what could go wrong that would lead to my death. I think about what it would be like if the plane crashed and we all ended up on a deserted island which makes me think of Flight 29 Down, the awesome Discovery Kids versions of Lost starring my life long celebrity crush, Corbin Bleu.

4.) Do I really want to eat this?

I have been on a few flights that offer at least two meals during the journey. I always get the vegetarian option. I know that I’ve probably eaten meat faker and grosser than the meat offered on the plane (hello McDonald’s), but I just can’t with good conscience eat plane meat. I kind of don’t want to eat any of the food because of the stigma of plane food despite the fact that my body has already been afflicted with such atrocities as Ramen Noodles, freeze dried meals and preservatives out the wazoo.

But I always eat it. And I usually enjoy most of it. And then I wonder why I’m enjoying it. Am I oblivious to the difference between good and bad food? Am I doomed to enjoy crappy, unhealthy food for the rest of my life? Is this what it means to be American?

But actually, the ice cream they serve on United flights are very good.

3.) Why are these people in my space?

On my flight to Belgium, I had the window seat and shared my aisle with a European mother and daughter. The daughter, who sat beside me, sat criss-cross applesauced for the first bit of the flight. Her knee was blocking my headphone jack so I couldn’t watch a movie until she changed positions. Maybe I could have asked her to move but I didn’t know how much English she spoke or how her mother would react to me asking her daughter to get out of my space.

Later, when we were all trying to sleep, I woke up with my face on my tray. I turned to find that my face was mere inches from the mother’s feet! She had her legs spread across her daughter’s lap as she slept which I totally understand. And I would be perfectly fine with it if she were wearing socks or was half an inch shorter. What made the situation more annoying was that she did not wake up when the pilot informed us that we were preparing to land which meant that I had to risk startling or pissing off the woman just to get my tray in it’s proper upright position.

2.) I hope my luggage doesn’t get lost because I forgot to pack underwear.

Whenever you travel, people strongly advise that, in case your luggage gets lost, you pack a couple of outfits in your carry-on. So I packed two extra shirts and two extra shorts. Halfway through the flight I realized that all my undergarments were packed in my check bag. So if my luggage was lost, life would stink until I found the Belgian equivalent to Target (which is Carrefore, by the way).

1.) What if I fall asleep and fart really loudly?


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Top Ten Horrible Parts In Applying For a Visa

Maybe I just got extremely unlucky, but applying for my visa to study abroad was a nightmare that lasted weeks. I had only applied for one other visa before: to visit India for two weeks this January for Interim. Though that visa application was weirdly personal (I had to provide my religion, the address for my father or husband’s place of work, and indicate whether or not my grandparents were Pakistani), my professors did the bulk of the work and shouldered much of the cost. This visa, however, was all up to my dad and me.

And it sucked. Here’s the top ten reasons why it sucked:

10.) The Picture
Has anyone ever taken a good visa/passport/CVS picture? You are doomed the moment you walk into the drug store, with the florescent lighting, the digital camera from 2004, the close proximity of the photographer, to leave the store with a picture that will shred any ounce of self-esteem you had coming in.

The picture for my Indian visa was comical. With deep bags under my eyes, flared nostrils as if in disgust, and eyelids appearing to be rising from the world’s longest blink, I look just like the kind of person you would want to keep out of your country.

For Belgium, I had much better luck. For starters, I can recognize myself in the picture. My face isn’t taken over by shadows or sleep deprivation and my eyes are wide open. It’s not exactly profile picture worthy, but it is definitely an improvement.

9.) Going to the Doctor’s

In order to get my Belgium visa, a doctor had to declare that I was healthy enough to travel and that I wasn’t going to start a epidemic in the EU.

I hate going to the doctor’s.

What made the questions and the poking and the prodding and the pricking and the paper gown even worse than usual is the fact that, because I had to fill out a specific form that had to be notarized, my dad and his secretary were hanging out in the waiting room waiting for me to finish. Not only was I a twenty year old being checked out in a pediatrician’s office (I’ll get a big girl doctor some day…), I was chaperoned by two adults. Not exactly a high point in my life.

8.) The Notarizing.

The doctor’s visit was by far not the only piece of paper I had to get notarized. I mean, I guess I understand that the EU needs to ensure that it is my actual signature on all these forms, but it got tedious.

7.) The Amount of Paperwork

As per instruction (or so we thought), the application ended up being hundreds of pages long, costing eleven dollars just to ship. Originals, duplicates, copies and more copies. My application could make a forest weep.

Turns out we sent too much. And had to pay for the FedEx envelope to send the extra (is it considered extra if it is referred to as required on their website?) paperwork home.

6.) Incorrect Information

A great disconnect lay between the instructions on the CIEE website (last updated two years ago), the consult’s website, and the material actually accepted and considered. Navigating through all the information, some of which was vague or outdated, was stressful to say the least.

5.) Proving We had the Goods

My dad had to provide multiple bank statement and other adult stuff I’m sure I’ll learn about one day to prove that, in case of emergency or law breaking or my death, he had enough money to clean up my mess. I can understand the purpose but it seemed a tad bit intrusive.

4.) Paying in Euros

Part of the payment required for the visa had to be paid in euros. This proved a problem in two ways. One, the cost was deceivingly large since the euro is worth more than the dollar. Two, we didn’t know how to pay in euros considering we had none and neither did any ATM.

3.) The Cost in General

Between the euros, the application fees, the shipping costs, and other sneaky, unexpected amounts here and there, the application was a fortune. I feel robbed, honestly.

2.) Sending Your Passport

Rule Number One of international travel: DO NOT LOSE YOUR PASSPORT. While traveling, we have 101 techniques for keeping our passports safe from others and ourselves drilled into our heads. So sending off my passport through the mail for strangers to handle and send back through the mail, though understandable and necessary, does not sit well with me at all.

1.) The Wait

Once you have sent off your visa application, it can take up to four weeks for the request to processed and your passport to be given back, with or without a visa. Knowing that you have four weeks and a day until you depart and that if the application were to be rejected, the entire trip would probably be cancelled is more than enough to keep someone up at night. Luckily, the consult’s office expedited my application and my passport with visa was returned in less than a week.

Out of all the troubles and potential lessons one could draw from  my visa nightmare, let this be the most important: Do Not Procrastinate!!!

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Top Ten With Kaitlyn

During my semester in Brussels, Belgium, I plan on blogging in a ‘Top Ten List’ format. Why? Because it almost rhymes with my name. And it’s easier to write this way. And it’s (hopefully) more fun to read posts this way.

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