Thursday, January 31, 2008

American Efficiency Monger

About once an hour I am reminded that I’m an efficiency monger. I get irked so quickly when things are done slowly or backwards. It’s definitely a cultural difference. The Belgian people are laid back and never have a real sense of urgency. They went 193 days without a president or federal government last year. As I sit in class or wait in line I am aware of how much I value efficiency. In the islands I am extremely laid back, but in what I call ‘my real life’ I like to be in control and value expediency. I feel like I even walk and talk fast. I get anxious during long meals, and irritated at small things. I hope I’ll get over this. The realization is just a product of this little experimental semester abroad.

My life is starting to settle in here. For the most part my classes are going really well. I have a bit of routine and it’s pretty comfortable. I’m not as freaked about the school workload as when we got all the massive sylibi. Take one things at a time, and have a lot of fun in the process. I’m meeting great people and adore my housemates. I’m trying to come up with travel plans for the weekend. I think I’ll just go on a day trip within Belgium of the Netherlands.

Next Tuesday is Carnival is a huge carnival celebration in Binche. Everyone in the parade throws oranges into the crowed. The costumes and parade are suppose to be spectacular. I’m debating if I have the free will to skip free will class and go to the carnival. We’ll see.

Amanda Mar

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Wealth, power, religion, beauty, chocolate, romance – A day in Bruges

It’s Sunday night at the end of a beautiful weekend. Getting out of Brussels and seeing a little bit of Flanders gave me yet another twinge of, “Yes I’m in Europe!” It was so incredible beautiful. The buildings feel like poetry as you walk along the canals everything wants to tell a story. The architecture speaks about wealth and power. The huge steeples above the churches and city hall are monuments to God and a symbol of wealth. I’m slowly beginning to understand the faction (opps, I mean pillar) system of government in Belgium. Everything had the symbols of Catholicism, but the gold leaf and extravagance were overt emblems of power. The steeples tower as feats of engineering, and no doubt stole lives of bricklayers who dared to acrobats. The residences and shops also showed off superiority inc. How can bricks do that? Hundreds of feet in the air above Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady) the bricks form perfect arches and seem to bring the heavens into our reach.

Bruges is also full of canals and we took a boat tour. It was a great perspective of the city. The water ways can’t help but feel romantic as they push your through the city. You just look up at so much detail and history. The sun was shinning the whole day and it was about 55F. I wish I had a better word – perfect. We also went to a beautiful little back ally tea house for lunch. It was my first restaurant meal in Belgium and was so good. I had a giant plate of Flemish sweat Beef stew and mash potatoes. It was an excellent treat. Eating in Europe is an experience. I love sitting for long meals with new people. It is a civilized pass time to say nothing else. In America we eat like animals driven with efficiency.

I have so much more to say about Bruges, but I need to absorbed everything I saw first. Bruges is full of tourists and I just gave in and whipped out my camera. I took pictures of everything. I honestly was romanced by this little city. I’m doing well and am extremely relaxed after my weekend. I’m ready for my first full week of lectures to begin.

Smiles, peace, and love,
Amanda Mar

Friday, January 25, 2008

Love on the Metro

This morning I had an 8:30 class so I road the metro with all the commuters at 8am. A I stood and clung to the metal poll I some how felt like I was surrounded with all this love. Normally, the morning commute is filled with groggy eyed people and students with ipods. But, this morning the car seemed to be filled with children and parents on their way to school. An African women sat surrounded by 5 beautiful children. The youngest one sat next to her kept his thumb in his mouth the whole time and seemed to nod in and out of sleep. One of her children sat on her lap and she whispered into his ear, what I hope were sweet nothings. Her love for all of them sat on her face with pride. When they reached their stop the only girl, who I think was about ten acted as a second mother and corralled everyone off the train. This routine must be so normal, but to me it felt extraordinary.

Next to me was a young father in blue jeans and two young boys. He positioned them to stand securely and the whole ride his attention stayed on them. Even as they asked what I assume are typical 5 year old questions to him in French, he appeared patient. At times he would look down at them and touch their small faces affectionately. The three of them made this little triangle, like a team. I don't know why their affection seemed odd. Maybe because it was a gender role reversal in my head. Maybe it would just be odd to see an American father commute with love, rather then as chore or responsibility. His face and posture seemed to say, it is a pleasure to send my little creations off to expand their minds.

There was another French speaking father and two small boys. Their bond seems so similar to that of the first trio. He carefully instructed them to hold on and stood over them with a watchful eye. The second father was older with one of those european twisted mustaches and wore a felt hat. But still there was no stress on his face. This ride was just a part of life, and his sons were simply a perfect piece of it.

In an odd way I felt like I was surrounded by love and youthful promise as I rode to V-Co.


Thursday, January 24, 2008

Back to School

It was good to turn my brain back on this week. My classes seem like they are going to be excellent at Vesalius. The professors and atmosphere remind me a lot of the Academy. There are only 300 students and all the professors seem to take a vested interest in their student. Plus all of them have been so energetic to teach us and push us to do well. I’m going to be writing so much academically this semester! Every class has an extensive research term paper and a final exam. Plus, researching here is going to be different. The school library has a okay selection of English language books, but I’m also expected to search at the French University and at the Royal library. I’ve worked out my final schedule so I’m taking…..

Comparative States and Institutions – a pretty basic political science course, that SLU somehow skips over. It’s going to help me understand the European social and political systems much better.

Dilemmas of European Integration – This is a three hour night course, and I feel unprepared for it. EU politics are not very standard in SLU’s political science department. The same professor teaches both my politics classes. She seems pretty brilliant and EU integration is her specialty. Plus, she gave a brief introduction of herself and from what I can tell she totally came out of US intellectual counter culture in the 60s. She moved to Sweden and then Belgium. She also told us she worked on the McGovern campaign (which I need to interview her about when I get to know her better).

The Problem of Free Will – This is a wild card philosophy course, but I’m excited to be in a seminar with third years at V-Co. I was a little bit intimidated in class today and didn’t participate. It’s going to be incredibly thought provoking. I also have a feeling there is going to be a lot of comparison of social responsibility in the US vs. Europe.

History of Conflict since 1914 – A history class, but will use a lot of IR and political science. The professor is a New Yorker and I love his energy and accent. His lecture style reminds me a little of Joe Davis, which means we should all be on our toes. I’m still throwing around ideas for what my term paper should be about. He wants us to have ideas by next week. Any post- WWII conflict. It’s hard for me to brainstorm when there are so many.

Art History 108 – I have this class for the first time tomorrow. But, I’ve heard the prof is a curator at a Art Museum in Brussels.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

I saw the sun

The sun came out today! For the second time in a week the sun peaked out and gave me a little relief from the gray today. On my way home from class I got of on the metro stop marked ‘park’ to enjoy it. I will say the Belgians could take a lesson from Olmstead when it comes to landscape architecture. The park is filled with odd trees, dirt paths, clogged fountains, odd statues, and graphite. People run awkwardly along the dirt paths, but they don’t run with the steadfast efficiency like they do in Forest Park. I sat on a bench and enjoyed the architecture and the passing people. Plus I think school had just been let out because the park and metro were filled with teenagers with book bags.

So there was some confusion with the class I took today, it was not at all what I expected or what the syllabus online described it as. However, it might be a blessing. It’s a class on the ‘problems of free will’. I dreaded this concept at the academy when it turned into ugly circles of discussion and argument in colloquia class. But in this atmosphere and with this energetic professor it might be worth the headache. She is teaching it as a cross-disciplined humanity coarse using literature, politics, nero-science, architecture, and art to explore the concept. I’m going to keep pushing SLU to count it as my 300 level philosophy core, but either way I am happy to take it. The first set of readings left me with questions and a lot of internalized thoughts. Plus it’s a capstone, and I’m up for the challenge.

Now I've just come home from a long talk and beer with Lauren, we always have so much to chat about. We had a long dinner with both of Kathleen's parents. They are so nice and helpful, but we both needed a little break from the house this evening. All is well. I’m starting to get a feel for what my classes will be like, but I’m ready to be introduced to three more of them including my political science courses.

Smiles, peace, and love,

Amanda Mar

Monday, January 21, 2008

Caffeine and Writting

So I think I created a Monday afternoon ritual today. After lunch and classes I came home and let myself slid from the gray outside into bed. I’ve caught a cold either from the weather or transition. After sleeping off the rain for 2 hours I had to get out of bed. I walked around the city center for a half hour in search of the perfect tavern to sit and sip espresso and write. I wondered to Grand Place again and then back towards home and finally wondered into a cozy and typical nameless pub. I ordered an espresso and sat with an open notebook. My pen began to fly. I often try to write in cafés in America; I make up stories about my fellow patrons. Too often I find myself eves dropping to catch tidbits of their actual stories. However, that is impossible because of the buzzing French. The atmosphere lets me become an observer and lends itself to fiction.

The espresso left me wired and writing in a frenzy. I started to pick up on every detail of the room and the people sitting around me. It was the perfect atmosphere for writing practice and for me to catch up on all the thoughts that have been flying through my brain for the last week. I couldn’t believe how easy the words came in this atmosphere and I am excited to do this in a different but similar place next Monday. I can’t believe how much time will be built into my schedule to read and write for myself. In this way I am in heaven. I may even have time to polish some of my free writes, in the future I may post some of them on this blog or a different one. For five semesters I have been a slave to my schedule, and suddenly I feel a little freed. I feel that I need no text or professor for many of the lesson I will learn here. Each time I enter the city I pick up the innuendos of this place. A walk down the block leaves my mind buzzing with globalization, urban development, public policy, and just quarky bits of humanity. So many people exist in peace and flow comfortably through this city. It makes me realize how black and white-up and down America is.

My first Monday in Brussels was simple, but leaves me more excited and ready to seek out all that my new world has to show me.

Smiles, peace, and love,

Amanda Mar

Sunday, January 20, 2008

My new Home

Pictures of my new home. Kathleen has a beautiful home and I love coming home to this little sanctuary. There are pictures of my bed and the door out to a small garden. It's quiet and calming for the most part. Its a great place to leave the city behind and just read or be me.


More exploring

Yesterday afternoon I met up with Ryan again and we walked in a different direction then I had gone before. The city can change so quickly. It was good to escape the tourists in the center and just walk and look. I had my first waffle, so good! Later, Kathleen acted as a guide to our wondering and showed us the Moroccan and Turkish neighborhood. I felt like I was in Morocco, for a few blocks it literally feels like you have left Belgium. There is still a mix of globalization and tradition here; there is an oddly placed Catholic church in the middle of the neighborhood. There were venders selling everything from colorful costumes and robes to luggage to pastries and fish. Arabic music is piped into the streets and everywhere you turn there is a new smell and a new face. I’m glad Kathleen took us here, and she told us to go back in the spring when the sun really transports you out of Brussels. The city can change from block to block, and even the 8 different provinces are subdivided by culture and wealth. All of these people somehow live in peace within this truly international metropolis. But even in this strange neighborhood with beggars, curry, and languages I cannot begin to understand I still felt like I was accepted and part of it all.

This morning Kathleen took us to market with her. Every Sunday block after block of stalls are set up selling everything from switchblades to kiwis. There were coat, sweaters, boots, every kind of olive, cheese, meat, fruit, or vegetable. All cramped into this space surrounding a large metro station. Kathleen carries a little trolley on wheels and bought produce for us. Lauren, Pryia and I just wondered through the market smelling and looking at everything. You feel lost in a sea of people with far too many distractions. I loved most of it, but was hungry and overwhelmed by the end. I definitely want to go back, it is something that anyone who comes to Brussels on a Sunday should see. The market goes on and on; just when you think you’ve reached the end it turns a corner and crosses a street and there are even more blocks of stalls. It’s a good place to go if you are looking for something specific, otherwise you can get lost in the madness of it all.

Classes start tomorrow. I’m very ready to see what school will be like here. I think I’m prepared and know what to expect; but this is Brussels. Nothing is what it seems or what you expect Kathleen says. For instance there is a well-kept brick building across the street from us that is very inconspicuous, but it is actually houses asylum seekers. Hopefully all will go well and this next week will show me what my routine will be like and introduce me to more people. All is well for now and I am learning so much already.

Peace and Love,

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Feeling ALIVE

I’m feeling alive after my first big night out in Brussels. Yesterday I registered for classes and spent the rest of the afternoon wondering around the city heart with Ryan and Stephanie. Kathleen gave a us Belgian cheese for beginners for dinner. Cheese bread and wine. I should find out the names, but they were all delicious. I was also advised never to eat cheese or any other food in Holland. Also on of Kathleen’s good friends joined us for dinner. The conversation was a bit of a comparison between America and Europe on everything from gun control to healthcare. They cannot believe how much money we pay for healthcare and education. It is literally jaw dropping for them. I hope to learn more and more about both the Belgian education and healthcare systems while I’m here.

After dinner my house mates and I got dressed and met some other V-CO students in the center. Our location really is perfect and I am so happy to know I can simply walk home at the end of the night without navigating the seemingly complicated night bus system. We went to Delirium, which is the biggest tap room I have ever seen. The beer list in bottles and on draft is literally a 2 inch think binder. I stabbed in the dark to find tasty beers. We also met a student from Utah who was studying in Switzerland for the year and a local who spoke perfect American English. It was an excellent first night and now I’m thinking about what to see today. There is so much!

Smiles peace and love,
Amanda Mar

Thursday, January 17, 2008


Triumph of the day: A women on the street asked me for directions in French. This means I at least blend into this city and appear to be somewhat of a civilian.

Failure of the day: I could barely reply “I do not speak French”. I feel like a mute in a land of stories and have this urge to speak to all these bustling people.

Oddity: milk and most juice come in waxy cardboard containers and only needs to be refrigerated after you open it.

My appetite finally came back today. It was the first time since I got here and jetlagged that I felt like eating. I went to a Pennini shop close to campus with Lauren and Ashley. It was good to feel hungry and the simple sandwich was delicious. This afternoon I explored our neighborhood and walked for what seems like miles around and around the heart of Brussels. At first I was in search of the Metro Boutique to buy a 3 month pass, but after I got so turned around Lauren and I looked up saw the steeple above city hall and walked to Grand Place. Each time I walk into the square I am reminded I am here. As I walk across the cobblestone I can’t help how many people over hundreds of years have stepped on those stones. I am surrounded by stories and conflict and wealth and culture.

I try to conceal my amazement and gawking, but sometimes it’s hard. Each street hold the same types of shops, but each is uniquely beautiful. Kathleen often says Brussels is a village, and I can see how this is true. Patronage and friendship must keep the city economy working. I had a beer in the afternoon with Lauren and this charming café right off the square. I already feel like I’ll go back. America has either strayed so far away from this sort of business that we can’t fathom it or it never existed. I just know I never want to step foot in another corporate restaurant if I can help it.

Jet lag finally hit last night and today. I’m tired and going to bed early. It was so good to speak over the phone to Mom and Dad today. Everyone should get a skype account; it is the easiest way to speak to me. It worked very well today when we tried it.

Smiles peace and love,
Amanda Mar

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Brussels as home?

Okay day 2 in Brussels. I fell like I’ve already been here a week. I keep having to remind myself to just take it all in bit by bit. More and more I am realizing that it is impossible not to fit into Brussels somehow. Every language, race, and nationality are represented on the streets. The Belgians themselves seem to embrace this. Everyone I’ve encountered so far has been incredibly polite and helpful. Each is ready to speak to me in English and laugh with me in my occasional confusion and embarrassment. Yes, I am an American. Yes, I’m fresh of the plane. Yes, I will get better at all of this bye the time I leave here in five months.

Today as I walked around the crowded streets of the city center I felt oddly comfortable and at home. It is easy to forget that I am so far from home when there is so much to see. Kathleen ran a few errands with me downtown and we also went into a huge English bookstore. Reading familiar titles made me think…. the world is flat. It’s also easy to blend in and simply watch (I snicker at many of the people on the inside). I saw this old balding man with huge clear plastic rimmed round glasses and he had a peace of stainless steel chain connecting his two backpack straps. He was wearing one of those 80s windbreaker jackets. I laughed on the inside, but thought if he fits in so easily here, then surely I can too.

Brussels is an odd mix of old and new; tradition and globalization. In the center there is this massive gothic looking building with a giant Coke-a-Cola sign on top of it. It sits and feels like it looms over the center (America!). Everywhere there is this struggle to be modern but still respect history. I’ll take pictures of some of these paradoxes soon. They intrigue me and I find myself recalling all this globalization theory as I simply walk down the streets. I feel like living each day in Brussels is part of my education. I want to learn the stories behind the buildings, the people, and each bit of history. I’m sure each is filled with scandal and conflict, but also somehow beautiful because it makes up this giant puzzels of a city.

Today was orientation in the morning and scheduled bar hopping in the evening. We went through all the usual first day speeches and tours. In the evening we met at the college and a huge group of us went to 4 bars close to school. I sampled a few Belgians and just took in the scene. Each place was different and the patrons definitely matched the surroundings. I enjoyed just sitting and sipping with a few new friends; but sadly I find that many of the American students I’ve met so far live up to our stereotypes. Each time they yell or clink glasses loudly I cringed (I know mom you are thinking I’m judgeing people to harshly, I’m honestly trying to keep an open mind). Like always I will find the right group, transition just takes a little time.

All is well on day two and each minute in Brussels is teaching me a little something. Which makes me anticipate the next day even more.

Peace and love,
Amanda Mar

P.S. For Becca and others that are interested my snail mail address is bellow. Kathleen says the postman will come everyday and then not for two or three weeks. But hopefully if you do send something it will find me safely.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Finally in Brussels

It seems like I have been awake for days, and honestly have no sense of time. I left New Albany at noon Monday, and now it is 9pm in Brussels Tuesday. I guess that’s not so confusing, but I still have no idea how many hours I’ve been awake. I was lucky to get a nap in this afternoon.

After eight hours in the very back of the 747 I escaped a seat that was impossible to sleep in and gossiping flight attendants. I found myself only slightly disoriented under florescent lights and blue signs directing me towards immigration. I found my bags, one housemate, and driver. In a huge blue van we drove in what seems like circles until we arrived at our new home.

Months ago when I was signing up for a homestay I fretted over the prospect of moving into a strangers home half-way across the world. However, my homestay is so lucky! My host Kathleen could no be more nice or helpful. She has truly prepared and anticipated all our needs. Plus she is young and a French professor (I know so lucky considering I am young and don't speak French hehe). She lives in a walk up built around 1700. You have to walk through this wooden gate that just looks ancient. The house it self is nicely renovated and modernly furnished. We live in the ‘heart’ of Brussels. We are literally a six-minute walk from everything. I have my own room, and it is perfect. I’ll post some pictures of the house when I get a chance (I know Dad wanted to see it). It’s a small lavender room with a white metal daybed. There are a set of wooden French doors that lead out into a small garden with a cute café table and chairs. The doors are covered with perfect white curtains and the bedding has a pretty floral design. Kathleen even left me a big bar of Belgian chocolate on my desk. Everything about this room feels European and feminine. Each minute I spend in it reminds me that I am here, and yes my adventure has finally begun!

Tonight Kathleen took us out to dinner and a quick tour of the surrounding area. As we walked through the streets I heard the buzz of languages I couldn’t identify. Restaurants of every fashion and ethnicity line the cobble stone streets that intersect at such odd angles. Hair salons and huge plate glass windows guarding chic fashions intersperse the building line streets. As we walked into Grand-Place my breath was literally taken away. The buildings in the square are covered with glided facades, gables, rooftop sculptures that feel old, but timeless. I felt like a tourist for gawking, but I didn’t care. It seemed like everyone in the square was gawking at the sight. Kathleen says when the weather gets nice people just grab some beer and sit down in the square and talk far into the night. It’s the perfect backdrop and so far from America. It reminded me of one time we simply sat down on the SLU mall and were gawked at and eventually run off in less then 15 minutes. I am in a different world, and it is beautiful.

We ate French fries and strange meats for dinner. Not my favorite meal, but Kathleen says it is very typically Belgian. The restaurant was filled with young and old. Freitland is open 24hours a day and caters to the inevitable bar patrons at 5 in the morning. Now everyone is jet lagged and falling asleep. I have a huge day tomorrow filled with orientation and filling in details. It is just so good to be here and feeling so comfortable.

I love you all. I am safe and looking forward to tomorrow and days after.

Peace and love,
Amanda Mar