The Longest Way Around is the Shortest Way Home

Or: How Traveling Helps You Find a Little Bit of Home Everywhere You Go

Mural in Bruges, Belgium (2010)

Three weeks before her departure in 2010, Anna found this giant mural in Bruges that perfectly characterized her sentiments about her adopted country. She now owns a flag with the same design that hangs proudly next to her ‘autograph book.’

Unlike in the United States, Belgium has no laws against the disfigurement or misuse of its flag. The inbound Rotary student tradition in Belgium is to use one as an autograph book at the end of the year. Everyone signs it, leaving messages, names, numbers, and caricatures. I would spread mine across the foot of my bed each night, the silver letters of well-wishing glowing from the streetlights outside.

When I flew home a few weeks later, the first thing I saw of Washington, D.C. was the massive American flag towering above the control booth, standing out bright and proud against the somber concrete and metal of the airport. I couldn’t interpret the tears I was blinking back as I gathered my Rotary blazer and carry-on bag — were they from relief or from the ache of missing Belgium already settling in? Two steps into the terminal and I was overwhelmed by American stores and advertisements; my ears pounded with the din of incessant English.

Nothing about it was subtle — everything screamed, “YOU ARE HOME!” Why didn’t it feel that way?

My return to my hometown was an emotional blur: familiar faces and places and foods, questions, answers, hugs, kisses. I forced myself to smile, tried not to bristle against that impossible question, “How was Belgium?” Lying in my own bed a few hours later, my flag crumpled next to me, I watched for shooting stars crossing the glittering sky outside my window. On each one, I wished fervently to shoot myself back to Belgium.

This was the beginning of a spiral into reverse culture shock that would last me a year. Like my own period of culture shock in Belgium, I’ve come to realize in hindsight that it lasted much longer and was much more severe than the reverse shock of my other friends and peers who had similar experiences. I let it paralyze me. I didn’t see, at the time, that coming home was another opportunity to which one must be open and must adapt, and I lacked the desire and the courage to do so. The biggest difference is finding the balance between maintaining what you’ve acquired abroad and between integrating yourself once more into American culture.

Going back to using English was both refreshing and disappointing. As a longtime literature student, I love everything about the inner workings of English, and as a writer, I love playing with it. But speaking and hearing French constantly was something I began to miss upon landing. English felt flat, dull, everyday, easy in comparison. And I missed the French and Belgian expressions and words that simply don’t have proper equivalents in English. I was, in short, encountering a communication barrier similar to the one that had confronted me during my first month in Belgium.

The Belgian flag flying above the Ticonderoga at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont.

On a trip to the Shelburne Museum in Vermont during her freshman year, Anna found Belgium flying grandly above the Ticonderoga.

Burlington, Vermont’s proximity to Québec would have made this an ideal opportunity to get involved in the culture of the Québécois residents. And it would have been a good time, too, to start practicing my written French more, to read more in French in my free time, to listen to French radio and to watch French television and movies. Additionally, because my language learning muscles were already toned, it would have been an opportune moment to go back to Spanish or to pick up a new language. As far as the return of your competence in English, that’s never something to worry about — a week or two of speaking, reading, and writing, and you’ll be comfortable in your native tongue once again.

Food, too, was an unforeseen element of my reverse culture shock, and for two reasons. One: I picked up on differences between typical American and Belgian cuisine and food habits, which I hadn’t even noticed during my exchange. For example, it is easy enough to find American snacks and ingredients in a city as international as Bruxelles when you need your fix. However, in the U.S., it isn’t quite as simple to find a standard Liège waffle, to find authentic Belgian frites, or to get the sensation of eating a whole meal when you’re drinking a beer. Two: food in Belgium is less a basic human necessity and more a way to bring people together. In my first host family, our Sunday lunches lasted over two hours because we spent so much time talking and laughing over appetizers and drinks, then the main dish, then a dessert, then coffee and tea. Coming back to America and diving back into the habit of eating quickly and eating alone was disconcerting.

If you have the means, start cooking the dishes you miss most for yourself. Don’t worry if you didn’t cook much while abroad — look up the recipes on cooking sites and blogs native to that country. Your family and friends will love getting the chance to sample authentic dishes from where you were. Furthermore, if you’re like me and you’re coming from a culture that eats a certain meal of the day in a noticeably different way, invite your friends to share an imitation of that mealtime habit together. Some of my favorite memories from freshman year were just that — planning a night when the French house would make French (or Belgian!) food together and eat it around the coffee table in the common room, reluctant to get up and keep studying.

As director of the French house in 2011-'12, Anna did everything she could to Belgicize the program, particularly through cooking and food. The residents recognized her efforts and her love for the country by making her secret Santa gift very Belgian themed!

As Director of the French house at the University of Vermont in 2011-12, Anna did everything she could to Belgicize the program, particularly through cooking and food. The residents recognized her efforts and her love for the country by making her secret Santa gift very Belgian (and cooking) themed!

The most difficult part of coming home was finding a place for myself both in my old hometown and at my new university. Whoever I was to my family and friends before wasn’t the same person who came back ten months later. And I wanted to tell everyone I knew all the details of how my incredible experience had turned my life on its head. I realized later that I was setting myself apart and making it harder for my peers to relate to me, and I to them. I began to automatically assume that no one was interested, and consequently that everyone was less fascinating than the people I had encountered abroad. Huge mistake. We’re inherently curious and social beings — we are all, on some level, intrigued by what we don’t know, and we all have our own intricate backgrounds. Don’t assume Americans have less to teach you simply because they’re a part of your native culture. I find myself now with a group of friends at the University of Vermont who, while never having voyaged much themselves, understand completely this Belgian part of my identity without my ever having to explain it fully. If you’re feeling hopelessly alone when you come back from studying abroad, as I did, don’t panic. You’re not. Keep in touch with your new friends on the other side of the world as much as possible, but don’t let it limit you from making a life for yourself back stateside.

You assume everything will go back to normal when you are back, but just because we grow up unaware of the influence of culture upon us doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. No matter how long you study abroad, be it two months to a year or more, it’ll take you a moment to get used to the money, the language, the transportation, your classes, and so much more. The most important thing to know, to start, is that it is an exact mirroring of culture shock. All the same discomforts with language, food, customs, etc. are there. When you learn how to mesh different ways of life into your personal habits, views, and methods of approaching the world, then you can go anywhere.

I’ve talked about getting a flag of the city of Bruxelles to commemorate the year I’m currently living here. But having written this blog, I feel differently. I am Belgian, but I am American — I am a New Yorker, but I am a Vermonter — I am a country mouse but I am also Bruxelloise. I reminisce with wistful fondness about Lessines, but also about my American hometown and about my university. If I could, I’d have my own flag made, something that combines the borders of all three places and visualizes what makes everywhere I’ve ever been my home.

Anna Weber Anna Weber is an English and French double major at the University of Vermont and is spending her junior year in Brussels, Belgium with the CIEE Advanced Liberal Arts program at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. She has traveled to Greece, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Germany, but will always call Belgium home. Read her Spotlight to find out more about her time in Belgium!

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