An American in Belgium This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

September 30, 2008
There’s nothing worse than waking up in a freezing house. I was warm and cozy in my bed today, bundled up and buried in my pillows, but it was cold beyond my bed. When I finally convinced myself to get up, I tucked the purple afghan around me and looked out the window only to see the hovering fog. The weather in Belgium is not unlike the British countryside or northern California: cold, gray, and rainy. But it’s so unbelievably breathtaking that I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

It’s raining now too. The steady drizzle lazily drips from the sky as if it’s not quite sure it wants to fall. My host father has turned the radiator on, and my host mum has just handed me a mug of steamy hot chocolate. In Belgium, it is a common belief that chocolate makes everything better. After being here for a month, I’m beginning to agree.

The unfamiliar sounds of Arabic are drifting from the television. My host father is Tunisian and enjoys watching television in his first language. I can say exactly three words in Arabic, and when I murmured a soft “Insha’Allah” one night during dinner, he beamed at me and offered some French words of praise I didn’t understand. At least, not yet.

My host mother is Spanish, and for the first few days, Spanish was my only means of communicating. Needless to say, I was thanking God for my high school Spanish teacher. Even now, when I don’t know how to say a word in French, I ask my host mum, “Como se dice esto en francés …” (“How do you say this in French?”) There is something about learning one foreign language while using another that is exhilarating.

Belgium seems to be a very diverse place. Not only am I exposed to French, Spanish, and Arabic daily, but my “godparents” are Italian. A few students at my school and I are taking Italian classes. For native English speakers, Italian is a hard language to grasp because it is chock-full of intonations and insane rules, but I am beginning to understand.

Something about gray, dreary days makes you reflect on life. I am remembering the last rainy day I had in Belgium. I walked down a cobblestone street under an umbrella with a friend. We had just finished a day of shopping and were bundled in coats and scarves, with cappuccinos warming our hands. We reached the train station and parted with a kiss on the cheek, saying, “A tout alors.”

Something I have learned about languages and cultures is that you absolutely cannot be shy. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t sure of your grammar; ask the question or make the comment anyway. People appreciate it when you make an attempt to speak their language and they are happy to correct you when you make mistakes.

I’ve been here for a month, learning languages, living a different sort of life, and loving … well, everything. I’ve made friends, become part of a family, and have become integrated into a culture so different from my own. I may not understand everything or be able to speak French as well as I would like, but I question and I observe and I have a desire to understand.

The program director told us before we left, “You are the secret weapon to world peace.” I didn’t understand that then, but now I am beginning to. And I can’t help but wonder, if the whole world tried to understand each other, tried to learn each others’ languages and cultures … then maybe the world would know peace.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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This article has 7 comments. Post your own now!

Ian_M said...
Nov. 20, 2011 at 3:16 pm
Italian godparents. Heh. (Insert Sopranos here)
PrettynPerky said...
Jun. 10, 2010 at 6:05 pm


I absoluetly loved your article. My mother and I are visiting Belgium this year and now I simply can't wait to go there! Your last paragraph really was inspiring and may you keep writing beautiful articles! :)

alizee said...
Jul. 22, 2009 at 4:29 am
Shelby this is a beautiful article! I grew up in Belgium, and your despcriptions are so spot on, its just like being back! Its so refreshing to hear about a foreigner living somewhere and trying (and obviously succeeding, in your case!) to adjust instead of attempting to adjust their culture for yourself! I found your final paragraph so inspiring, the quote from your director was just as beautiful as the way you are making a huge effort to learn languages and appreciate cultures! I wish you good... (more »)
Robyn said...
Jan. 24, 2009 at 3:05 am
Shelby, you are such an amazing girl. I love your zest for life! I have to tell you that your last paragraph made me well up with tears of joy. After my experience of being a host mom, I too got it. The world really is a small place and we really are significant in promoting peace. I didn't get it until my late 30's and here you are only in your teens and understand soo much. Thank you for representing our community, our country, our heritage, Rotary and your faith so well!
Cochoa said...
Jan. 16, 2009 at 9:53 pm
What a beautifully written article. It was so colorful with it's descriptions; made me feel like I was there with you. Your comment on being the "secret weapon" to world peace is powerful. Also, thanks so much for giving Benjamins such thoughtful and constructive comments on his poetry.
Enjoy your adventure in Belgium!
Ash021787 said...
Jan. 13, 2009 at 2:50 pm
Grandma tells me about your experiences over there after she gets to speak with you but his piece is awesome! You are a gifted writer. I love you and I hope you are having fun! Love, Ashley
kdzpstr8 said...
Jan. 13, 2009 at 6:34 am
Shelby, What a great article. I am so glad that you are having such a great time. We all miss you here. We love you so much, God Bless you. Love Maria
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