Thursday, August 18, 2011

Our First Anniversary

A year ago today, I was in New York City. I spent the day in a Doubletree Hotel with probably one hundred or so other students destined for countries all over Europe. Students arrived all day...we gathered at tables, just talking. For once, we were all equal. Hardly anyone knew anyone else, so common questions flew about the air.

"What's your name?"

"Where are you from?"

"Where are you going?"

Although we were all high-schoolers, there was no hierarchy, no drama. There was only ridiculous amounts of excitement as we all left our childhood homes. For many of us, it was the first time we would leave our homes for an extended period of time. We smiled at everyone, asked about families, host families. We shrieked and danced when we found people going to the same country as us. We hugged people who had just turned from strangers to friends.
At first, we were sitting randomly, then we were separated by country. We spoke with the only Americans we would be seeing for the next year. We played games, joked around. We ate dinner mixed again, sat in the lobby talking, curfew came far too early, we couldn't share enough stories.
We were overexcited, ready for adventure.
A year ago today, I began a new life.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The 30-Hour Day: Before and After

I've been back in the States for two weeks.
Coming back-- "home," as I once called it-- was quite the adventure. Of course, it was really just the end of an adventure (as much as I try to convince myself it was just another beginning, it felt very much like an ending). Before I left, it took me a very long time before I actually believed I was leaving. It started quite symbolically, really. My very last night in Beckerich, I stayed up late trying to pack. When I finally went to bed, I wanted to switch my bracelet from my right wrist to my left (I always wear it on the left-- I had switched it during training because I wear my throwing glove on my left hand). When I took it off, it broke. This was the bracelet that my host family gave me the day they picked me up in Brussels. I wore it every single day, and the fact that it broke the last day I was home was very...finalizing.
I didn't finish packing that night.
Actually, I never really finished packing. We had to leave at 5:15 on Friday (we spent the night in Brussels since we live too far away to leave Saturday morning). Since I never really believed that I was leaving, it felt too weird to be packing. Plus, I have never been good with deadlines. I finished my suitcase and I ended up having to send 45 kilos home in boxes, but I left papers on my desk. Then, when we actually had to go, I just started crying. It was so much harder to leave my beloved second home, not knowing when I'll see it again.
Here's ma maman with the two boxes I sent home-- we had to de-roof to fit them in the car more easily.

We spent the evening walking around Brussels. Our hotel was only 300 meters from the Grand-Place, my favorite place in the world. Although I went to Brussels relatively often during the course of the year, I had never gone with my host family, so I got to show them around a bit while we were searching for a place to eat. We ate at one of the touristy "moules-frites" places, just at the mouth of the street you can't walk down without getting a marriage proposal if you're there after 8. We each had our own bowl of mussels, with a small side of Belgian fries. My host mom insisted on eating hers with mayonnaise, in the Belgian tradition. Topped with a nice dark beer, this makes the Belgian national dish. We swapped the beer for a glass of white wine, though.

After we finished dinner, I showed my family the Delirium Alley, which houses the Delirium Bar as well as the assorted Floris Absinthe, Rum, Whiskey, & Cocktail Bars. Then we walked around the streets for a little while, also passing Celtica, another favorite AFSer haunt. Finally, finally, we found ourselves in the Grand-Place. While I have seen it at its most majestic, lit against a black starry curtain, my family was not quite as impressed by it as I had hoped. Although, the lingering light and thin drizzle made them wish to avoid lingering. So I wandered across the uneven cobblestones, my face towards the heavens, ignoring the light rain. I paused at the mouth of the street and gave one last, lingering glance at my favorite place in the world. And, in turning my back on the tower, I said my first real goodbye to Belgium.

The next day, the airport, saying goodbye to my host family without really knowing when I'll see them again. It was the hardest day of my life. Tears and tears and tears, a Belgian flag, signed by my Rhéto class, wrapped around my neck like a scarf. The passport line, the longest line I've ever stood in, looking back and seeing my host family, but no longer able to speak to them. And waving goodbye before crossing the barrier and crying like I never have into Johanna's shoulder as she cried into mine. The 30-hour day had begun.
Eight hours on a plane across the Atlantic in a windowless windowseat, with only The Sun to brighten the trip.
Four and a half hours in JFK Airport, goodbyes and waiting, waiting.
An hour and a half on a smaller plane to Burlington, Vermont with Mathilde, relishing the green.
Another four hours in the Prius with my parents, the ferry, so much English.
All the while, a dreamlike trance. This isn't real.
And then, my house. My home? Short ceilings. Everything, the same.
I say goodnight, brush my teeth, and cry myself into sleep.
The longest day of my life.
I called my host family the next day, and we have since Skyped once, though we often send each other messages on Facebook. Things are weird. The eggs are so white, the bread so tasteless (I make my own), and the shopping carts, cars, meals, streets- are so huge. Gone are the cobblestones, replaced by black cracking asphalt. Gone are Beckerich's springs, replaced by the grand St. Lawrence River. Gone is the Jupiler, replaced by Budweiser and Coors. And gone, gone, is my heart...scattered across the world, pieces with each of my exchange student friends, school friends, and, mostly, my host family.
Now, my English doesn't slip too much, but I'm living off Quebecquois French at Mathilde's. in general, I haven't been doing much. I went through everything I own and found a lot of things that I just don't feel the need to have anymore. I had a small graduation party and I have been getting things ready to go to university at the end of August, where I will be living in La Maison Française- the French language and culture residence hall at Naz. And I have been spending some time with friends, of course, though not as much as I thought I would.
And now, this life ceases to feel dreamlike. My memories are becoming the dreams, despite all I do to keep them from slipping.

Dites-moi que ce n'était pas un rêve.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Yesterday, I went to Bastogne with a fellow AFSer, Ágústa from Iceland. We visited a few museums and took a tour of General McAuliffe's basement office (the NUTS! story ring a bell?). We also walked to the Mardasson. Despite the rain, we had a good time. It was pretty cool, really. The first time I really spoke to Ágústa was on in three days ago.
Here we are in downtown Bastogne.

This is one of the really amazing things about being an exchange student. No matter when you meet another exchange student, you can always connect about something. You always have something to talk about, always have this common experience. And because of this, I've ended up making friends from all over the world this year. Such an amazing thing, this is also going to be one of the things that will make leaving so hard. Nothing will ever be like this year. In returning to Belgium, the country may not have changed much (or maybe it will have a government by then), but the experience will never be quite like this. I will have my host family, of course, and there will be other exchange students, but never again can I call up someone on my network of exchange student friends from all over the country and just hop on the train and meet them in Brussels for the day. That, for now, is my life. And the train is my home.

What am I going to do without it, when I leave this home in fewer than three weeks' time?
I have an ultimatum, and I don't know how to deal with it.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Oh, dear.

I finished high school today.

and now, I can't sleep. I keep getting stressed about going back. I'm exhausted, but I just can't calm down enough to actually sleep. Three weeks from today, it will be my last night in Europe-- and I won't even be home.

the worst part is that I'm completely torn.

part of me never wants to leave.
part of me wants to be back in the states right now.

and most of me...

most of me is just absolutely terrified.

Sure, I'll be going back to a place I can call home.
could call home.

I'm going back to a place that I know. Or, at least, a place I once knew.

But I don't anymore.

I'll go back, and the place will maybe be mostly the same. But the people will have changed, and more importantly, I will have changed. I have changed. I already look at the world with wider eyes, no longer enclosed in that little cage that is the hometown I left ten months ago today. I have experienced the life of an exchange student, the life of a traveler. I met people who have changed my life, people who I will never forget. I became a lost soul so I could try to find myself.

Did it work?

I suppose I won't know...

I hate this.

laisse-moi rêver

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Hoböing: Half an Adventure.

This is the one picture I managed to take last weekend, while I was in Antwerp with Johanna. But I thought I should write a post, maybe, anyway. And this photo will just serve as a reminder of the trip.

I left Arlon at 8h43. I've come to know the times of the trains fairly well. Or, I know at least that the train direction Bruxelles-Midi leaves at 40 or 43 minutes past the hour, starting just before 5h, and that the train to Arlon from Bruxelles-Central leaves at 37 minutes past the hour. Anyway, Johanna joined me on the train as we passed through Namur. We changed trains in Bruxelles-Central, probably our favorite station. Somehow, despite the rather gaudy decor, it manages to appear beautiful to us. Perhaps it's just its location near one of my favorite places in the world, I don't know. But we got pretty lucky with our train, actually. We had a connection almost right away, and we ended up getting into Antwerp before 13h. We hunted down a grocery store and bought a nice loaf of seedy bread, a box of cheese, and a box of tomatoes, then we ate near a statue of something. When we were just about finished, some guy came up to us and asked us to sign his shirt. He was soon to be married. It was for his bachelor party. We saw at least ten groups of people who were obviously doing activites for their bachelor or bachelorette parties throughout that day, and several of them came and talked to us. It was pretty funny.

We'd headed to Antwerp without a plan, so after lunch we just continued down the main street. We stopped to watch a street performer for a while. This guy had his bicycle, like everyone else in Flanders, but the front wheel had been replaced by...a piano. Not an electric piano, either. A legitimate, upright piano with wheels added to the bottom and coat hooks attached to the back. He played and sang in English. We looked in some of the stores along the street and marveled at outrageous prices for clothing. Mostly, we wandered around aimlessly, looking at whatever was there, including a few pretty cool antiques markets. We went to the main square and from there, we followed pretty buildings. Eventually, we made our way to Rubenshaus, the home-museum of Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens. We walked around a bit longer, then decided to go get dinner. We found a restaurant and we both ate for under 15€. The waiter placed us at a table next to two Flemish guys. At first he moved the table away to separate it, but he moved it back as soon as we sat down. Kind of strange. But dinner was good. We split a pineapple pizza and a salad, and even had some pizza left over, which we put in the cheese box for later. After dinner, we walked around a bit more, since it was really nice out. We took the train out a little after 22h, and on the train, we met a guy who had worked in Boston!


puis, une nuit blanche...


On Sunday, we met Austin in the Brussels area for a medieval market. Most of the adventure was getting there, but we did end up finding quite a beautiful park near Bruxelles-Schuman (that's right-- once you get out of the station it's actually NICE). And we got hobo points for being in that station of plywood, industrial metal, and paper signs. And the market itself was pretty cool. We listened to some interesting music played on really interesting instruments, had a picnic, and just walked around.

And then we took the train home. And we got up on Monday morning to run 6,2 kilometers.

Badass, eh?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Libre: A Rant.

parce que parfois on se rende compte qu'on ne peut pas tout faire...que personne n'est parfait, même si on essaie sans cesse. on vit et on apprend, et on trouve enfin que ça, c'est assez.

It's a Friday afternoon, the end of a hectic week of school. On Monday, the Rhétos at l'Athénée Royal d'Arlon started exams. My Belgian classmates have been studying like crazy for the past few weeks. And I, in my pointless attempt to be a Belgian, tried to join them. The thing is, at the same time, I was trying to be the exchange student that I am, who travels and discovers Belgium in limited spare time. At school, I'm considered "une étudiante libre" -- a free student. But, studying like the Belgians, I hardly felt free. I had a hard time choosing between traveling and studying. I wanted to travel, but I felt obligated to study, so I tried to do both, with the result of halfheartedly doing each of them. I must admit I regretted only halfheartedly studying during my French exam on Monday morning, but I certainly learned from it. This was an oral exam -- I had two questions, 15 minutes to prepare my answers, and then 15 more minutes to respond. I wasn't able to answer the questions, which wasn't surprising, considering I could never answer example exam questions in class. But somehow, this seemed so much worse during the exam itself. I wasn't prepared at all, and I felt so terrible about it. And yet, before I left, my French teacher reminded me of something -- that I can't do everything, that I was the one who had made a choice. At the time, I didn't really feel like I had chosen anything -- it was AFS who said I had to take the exam. But, thinking about it later, I realized I really had made a choice. Many, in fact. I was the one who decided to become an exchange student, the best decision of my life. To do this, I chose to work like a crazy person all through high school, chose to apply to colleges I never got to visit, and chose to Skype my own high school graduation rather than attending in person. I chose to stop speaking English, chose to skip a few days of school for my AFS project, and chose to leave on weekends. Right now it's still a little hard to take in. It's not easy for me to consciously decide to not do things I should, especially school work. All my life I've listened to people speak about the importance of hard work and motivation. And while I agree that both are important -- without them I wouldn't be here -- I can't help but thinking that sometimes I'm too serious about them. When I look back on this later, I think I'm going to prefer memories of wading in the North Sea, Liège at Christmastime, absinthe, and sitting in the Grand-Place in Brussels after midnight than weekends of studying for exams that don't even count for anything. And so, when I failed my math exam today, I wasn't upset and I didn't regret that I didn't study enough. For once, I didn't care that I failed. The exam doesn't count for anything anyway. And somehow, failing made me feel very free. I think I may finally be able to embrace who I am, perhaps much later than I should have. But voilà, here I am. Mary Lawrence, exchange student, fluent in French, who is learning to be independent. Mary Lawrence, who will not walk at her own graduation because she has something that is so much better, who is nervous for losing this freedom when she leaves Europe. Mary Lawrence, who looks up at Brussels Town Hall, lit up in the midnight sky, and feels at home, more free than ever.

d'une façon, je n'ai jamais senti aussi libre...

Sunday, May 29, 2011


Imagine for a minute.

Brick walls. Barbed wire.

Every door, closed. Locked. Numbered.

You, inside. Praying to a god who seems to have forgotten you.

Who you now know has forgotten you.

You're hot, you're cold. Shivering, burning.
Whatever they choose, you suffer it.

The horses have names.
You have a number.

The horses have stalls.
You have a cage.

Finally, freedom.
In a way.

They regret.
But that didn't save you.

Horror. Pain. Loss.

This was Breendonk.
And it wasn't even the worst.

Don't let this happen again.

(for more information:

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Bare Feet, Backpacks, and Bastogne

It's a beautiful, warm, and uncommonly dry spring in Belgium, so I've been doing a lot of traveling on the weekends. I generally meet up with other exchange students and spend the night somewhere...and I've been going through go-passes like crazy. SNCB probably loves me.

Anyway, last week I finally went to the North Sea! I went to Brussels on Friday night, where I went out with several exchange students at Delirium. Then Johanna, Liam, Austin and I took the midnight train back to Austin's house for the night. We got up early enough the next morning and headed to the train station...only to find out that no trains were running through Linkebeek that day. Perfect.

So, instead, we took the bus and a tram into Bruxelles-Midi, where we found a train to Blankenberg. From there we took the tram to De Haan, right on the North Sea. We stopped at a grocery store to get our picnic of baguettes, goat cheese, américain préparé, and apples, which we ate in a park.

There are these funny little buggy/bicycle hybrids all over. They're really popular near the sea.

After lunch, we walked over to the beach. Liam and I went wading in the (rather chilly) sea, while Johanna and Austin looked for pretty shells. We were lucky with the weather- it was actually supposed to rain that day, but it ended up being sunny and warm enough. It was windy, of course, but it was still very pleasant.

In the afternoon, we decided that it was a good time to get back to Brussels. But first...instead of taking the stairs, Austin decided to climb the wall, and the rest of us followed. We're always in search of adventure, no?

We walked barefoot through De Haan and got on the tram with sandy feet, content with our day.

A week later, Mathilde, Johanna, Austin, Liam, and Trey came to visit me in the south. On Saturday we went to Bastogne, where we visited a few very interesting museums. It's so cool to learn about our history from a different perspective.

When Johanna, Mathilde, and I walked out of one of the museums, there were a few American military trucks driving through downtown Bastogne.

This is a picture of the Christmas meal during the Battle of the Ardennes. We were standing in that room, where the chairs are set up as if they had all just left the table.

Mathilde, Johanna, and Trey stayed an extra night and we all went to the Allure Libre in Habay on Sunday. My host family and I ran, while the three of them went and found a playground and cheered us on from there. We went to my host grandparent's for lunch afterwards, where Mathilde and Johanna gave Trey a haircut. They did a really good job, actually.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Just Two?

I've been trying to avoid counting down, but it's apparently inevitable.

Two months.

That's what I have left- two months in the European life I've been dreaming of all through high school. It's a vicious ultimatum. I usually try to think "I still have two months" instead of "I only have two months," but it's difficult not to know when I can come back, and even harder to know that Belgium will never be the same again.

I think I'm going to try to spare your eyes and cut off here. Instead, I'm going to talk about hope.

Hope, because I can remember the last time I had two months before a departure. Rewind to June 2010. I was a junior in high school, suffering a bad case of senioritis. I had been accepted into the AFS program in Francophone Belgium and I had basic information on my host family. I was ready to be finished with Ogdensburg Free Academy, to leave, and to learn. I imagined that the days went slowly as I roamed the streets of Ogdensburg in the moonlight, humming to myself and wondering how bright the stars would be in Beckerich. Preparing myself to leave then was easier - I knew that I would be back in less than a year. But I remember the anticipation, the excitement, and I am so excited for those of you who are experiencing that right now. So let your days go as they will. Relish this anticipation, for it will be well answered!

And now I should go. There's a particularly beautiful springtime from which I need to profit.

I love my beautiful Beckerich.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Adventuring with Anna

My sister, Anna, is studying abroad in Spain at the moment. But she came to visit me in Belgium and Luxembourg during the last week of Easter vacation. On Tuesday the 19th, she got on the Eurostar in London with her snazzy L.L. Bean backpack, passed through the Chunnel, and three hours later I met her in Bruxelles-Midi. Here she is with the Brussels cityscape. We're right near the Palais de Justice, which is just to the left, out of the picture.

And here I theory I'm crushing the Atomium, but really I'm only crushing the air between the Atomium and the Grand-Place.

An Egg for Easter!
The Grand-Place. I'm pretty sure I take the same picture every time I go to Brussels, but I can't help it. It's so beautiful, especially in the sun, and every time I take the picture it has a different sense, depending on who I'm with.

Voilà, our first legal drink together. Unfortunately, that can't happen again for a while, considering the age will be 21 for me again when I go back.

We headed back to Arlon on the train, using my go-pass. It was a double-decker train, so we sat on top, of course.
On Wednesday, my host mom didn't have to work, so the three of us went to eat lunch in France. I tried boudin noir (blood sausage) for the first time...and it was delicious!

Then, we briefly visited these Roman ruins, and headed to the Abbey of Orval.

This is the entrance to the Abbey. The monks make very delicious beer and cheese. Orval is a brown trappist beer that's pretty well known in Belgium. Actually, after every Allure Libre (the 5k I run on Sunday morning), many of the runners drink one after they finish.

There's a museum that explains the process of's Anna and I standing on part of it:

La Fontaine de Mathilde.

The restored ruins of the old abbey:

On Thursday, Anna and I took the bus into Luxembourg. We visited the Grand Duke's Palace...

...looked out into the valley...
...and crossed a street via bridge.

Afterwards, we went to training at Athletic Club Dampicourt, as my family does most Tuesdays and Thursdays. Anna was happy to throw hammer again.

The next two days were just...chill. We took a lovely walk from Beckerich to Oberpallen on a path that passes the Belgium-Luxembourg border, made cookies, and slept late.

Man, am I lucky.