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Posts from the ‘Belgium’ Category

4 Essential Pre-Departure Tips For Your Adventure Abroad

Jeffrey Angeloty is a student at Regis University and an ISA Featured Blogger. Jeffrey is currently studying abroad with ISA in Brussels, Belgium.


95 pounds of luggage for the semester, challenge accepted!

Being an out of state college student, I’m used to flying to my University to start a new semester. Having the privilege of flying on an airline that allows me to check two bags for free has been spectacular, and after 5 semesters I finally got the hang of packing efficiently. Packing for studying abroad on the other hand, is quite different.

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Brussels or Bust

Sarah Hartley is a student at the University of Tulsa and an ISA Featured BloggerSarah is currently studying abroad with ISA in Brussels, Belgium.

Belgian waffle

Trying Belgian waffles- Tulsa style

Just two more days until I depart for the adventure of a lifetime! Thankfully, I think I’m finally ready. Preparing to go abroad can be quite the process. In my case there was paperwork, a visa application, lots of reading about Belgian languages and culture and of course, packing. Maybe I’m the only one, but packing to go abroad for four months was actually kind of fun. I don’t normally feel that way about filling a suitcase, but there is so much excitement associated with this trip, that packing became exciting for me too.

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Getting Around Brussels

Brandon Baker is a student at Grove City College and an ISA Featured Blogger. Brandon is currently studying abroad with ISA in Brussels, Belgium.


Brussels‘ public transportation map is itself a work of art, all lines emerging from a single point and decorated with more colors than a rainbow. Clearly, what’s more impressive is not the map but the network of buses, trams, and metro lines that carry hundreds of thousands of passengers ever day. No matter where you are in Brussels, you can guarantee yourself that you’re only a short walk to a bus stop. And if you get lost, which at some point you will, you can locate yourself on any one of the conveniently placed maps at every transportation stop. Fortunately, I can take a single bus line that drops me off within walking distance to all of my frequented stops.

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What to do in Belgium “the Capital of Europe”

Farnaz Alimehri is a student at Regis University and an ISA Featured Blogger. Farnaz is currently studying abroad with ISA in Brussels, Belgium.


Brussels may be a small city, but the range of cultural activities it has to offer is quite broad. Whether you’re a club goer or a history buff, there will always be something for you to do in this city. I, being the multifaceted girl that I am, have enjoyed doing many things here in Brussels.

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My First Week in Belgium

Farnaz Alimehri is a student at Regis University and an ISA Featured Blogger. Farnaz is currently studying abroad with ISA in Brussels, Belgium.

I had waited all summer for the months to pass until I could finally begin my journey abroad. After fourteen weeks of waiting, I finally boarded my plane in Denver, Colorado and started my voyage to Brussels, Belgium. Now, I’d like to tell you that once I landed I felt energized and was ready to start exploring my new home, but after over twelve hours of flying and a two hour lay-over in Montreal, the first thing I wanted to do when I got to Brussels was shower. Before I could go home and unwind, however, I had to actually make it out of the airport. I was greeted with warm smiles from my ISA Directors, and brought over to a quaint little cafe in the airport where the rest of my ISA companions were sitting.

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Brussels, Belgium: More than Chocolate and Waffles

Belgium’s central location within Europe allows me to travel shorter distances to the other countries I would like to see. I already have trips planned for Ireland, Hungary, France, and Germany.

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We’re Not in Brussels Anymore…

Our host mom, Martine, was watering flowers in the front yard when my roommate and I were leaving for our farewell dinner with the rest of the ISA gang. We hesitated on our way out — wait… is this the last time we’re seeing each other? Ever?

We tried to express our gratitude. “Martine, merci, BEAUCOUP. c’était incroyable!” We probably sounded silly.

Martine did not sound silly in the slightest. She was sad. She told us we were like her daughters, if only for four months. Then she cried.

Saying goodbye to Brussels was difficult. It wasn’t just a goodbye to a city that I came to cherish, or to Europe in general. It was a goodbye to an existence. It was a goodbye to the life that I built from scratch over the course of nine months — a life that I would never have again and a life I can only hope to visit a shadow of one day.

I’m being melodramatic. I can always visit Brussels.

Manneken Pis

Gaggles of people crowd the Manneken Pis. Maybe he’s just trying to pee in peace?

I can always return to the Manneken Pis to giggle at the hoards of tourists in disbelief. I can always return to Place Saint Gery for coffee and cool-people-watching. I can always return to Place Saint Catherine for shrimp croquettes on the street, exceptional gourmet ice cream served by an exceptionally grumpy man, gooey almond croissants alongside organic honey beer bread…

But I won’t be living there. I will have no justification for pretending to be an expert on my surroundings. My French will be awful again, and I won’t be able to have silly exchanges with the silly locals all the time. And I won’t have the fantastic friends, the families, that made it all so memorable.

This “existence” can’t be replicated. It’s being an American 20-year-old studying abroad in the capital of Europe. It’s not being tied to anything except a few courses a week and self-inflicted desires for adventure, high-brow culture, epicurean delights and bizarre conversation. This existence could only last a year, which I acknowledge in full. Much longer, and a real life would start to form, and such fun is tough to maintain in a real life.

That free feeling could happen again. I could lead a more exciting life in the future. I could visit 15 new countries in another short-term stint abroad, somewhere, someday. It’s very possible. Yet, settling back in the States has so quickly made those dreams seem even more dreamlike. Brussels in itself feels like a dream that never really happened.

Less than one week ago, I was celebrating my last night in Belgium. There was a party, sponsored by my college, where the top floor to a swanky club was rented out. There was bottle service and flashy wristbands that said “VIP Guest.” We danced all night and said our goodbyes. Closure. A friend and I took a cab back out to the suburbs. To home. We sat on an apartment ledge, the cobblestones beneath our feet glittering from the rain from hours ago. Another friend took his cab to the airport. He waved goodbye, and that was it. The birds had already begun singing. We held each other and cried for hours. We slept for minutes. And then it was time for my own taxi, a gorgeous ride through the lush Eastern suburbs. Brussels winked at me as the sun came out for the first time in weeks.

The initial feelings about America, after coming back, are what you would expect. Everything’s so big. Everyone’s so wasteful. Everyone’s in such a hurry yet life is so slow. Consumerism. Consumerism. Consumerism.

I have photos and memories, but already, they somehow don’t feel real. I continually tell myself: “Yes, Janelle, that happened.” Speaking in past tense is sad enough, but not speaking at all, when no one around really cares, is quickly setting all those memories into sepia tones.

I’m ending this post with an excerpt from an email from a new friend, an amazing friend, from New York, who I met in Brussels, in a chance encounter that feels like long, long ago:

“When I returned from my first study abroad in Estonia, a close friend of mine from there left me with an Estonian proverb:

 ‘Kes on läinud välja maailma seal viibida.’

It roughly means:

‘Who has gone out to the world will stay there.’

So where do we wander to next my friend?

Janelle Bitker
Brussels, Belgium
Academic Year 2011-2012

You can follow Janelle’s other travels on her personal blog

How to Fall in Love with Brussels

Nearly nine months ago, I arrived in Brussels with one backpack, one suitcase, and not much else. I was easily excitable. I was nervous. I was uncomfortable. I was overwhelmed by city life, by options, by people.

And here we are. Nine months later. I’m leaving Brussels in a week, as easily the best year of my life comes to a close. What has changed? What has studying abroad done for me?

While my parents were visiting, they said I was more worldly and confident. Those seem like obvious traits to contract from a long stint in any hyper-international city like Brussels. I’d hoped there would be more differences, more improvement, but maybe worldliness and confidence is good enough. Those are, after all, pretty valuable.

And from what I’ve gleaned from other international students, the real internal changes comes during the reverse culture shock stage — the return home, the reassimilation, the hurt, the longing, the confusion, the disconnect.

The disconnect.

I’m banking on my new friends spread out across the states, across the world, as a support system for these inevitable moments of feeling alone, alienated and disenfranchised with everything normal.

But until then, prepare for some reflections, guides and lists, as my way of attempting to summarize this experience into comprehension. An attempt to remember and continue to remember the things I’ve cherished most as an American studying abroad.


How to Fall in Love with Brussels

I’ve rarely found anyone during my travels that understood why I chose to study in Brussels. I’ve rarely found anyone that understood what I saw in this city, how I could be enamored with a city that’s so dirty, dumpy and boring, with its top monument being a little peeing boy.

Brussels is weird, full of dichotomies, and so long as you don’t dig the conventional, it’s easy to fall for the city.

1) Cultures and Languages

Gare Midi

The Sunday market at Gare Midi makes for a remarkably international morning.

As I’ve said before, Brussels is incredibly international. It’s the home to the European Union, and for that reason alone, diverging European cultures are brought together and present everywhere.

Legally, all signs are in French and Dutch, the country’s top languages. But German is also an official language, so sometimes you’ll see signs in all three, or if you wander east, signs exclusively in German. Then there’s English, because in Brussels, more people speak English than Dutch. Then there’s every other language in the world.

I hear new languages on public transit every day, and I can rarely identify them. Is that Bulgarian or Macedonian? Is that Polish or Czech? Am I hearing Arabic? Which of the many, many African dialects is that? Why would I even bother asking myself such questions?

In turn, exotic restaurants abound. Japanese specialty shops have made it to the suburbs. Street markets can transport you to Turkey.

But at the same time, Belgium has its own unique and quirky culture that’s absolutely evident in day-to-day life in Brussels. It’s something that sets it apart from the likes of New York City or London — international cities that, while are obviously fantastic, can’t exactly be considered emblematic of their countries.

2) Architecture

Brussels isn’t uniform. The Grand Place is, of course, stunningly gorgeous and remains the most beautiful city plaza I’ve ever laid eyes on.

Outside the center, you have examples of 19th century Parisian style apartment buildings, pristine, beige and permanently royal looking. Then there are the typical, narrow brick homes you’ll find all over the country. And then there’s a sprinkling of truly unusual Art Nouveau, and nothing says cool like stumbling upon a Victor Horta.

Some find the modern architecture, particularly around the EU quarter, an eyesore. Maybe they have a point, but I find it all part of the charm. Brussels is old and new, in all respects, like most of Europe.

3) Food

Beer tartare sandwich

Even a simple sandwich — beef tartare and capers — can be an amazing lunch in Brussels.

Belgians are the butt-end of many French jokes, but Brussels has more Michelin starred restaurants per capita than Paris. So, ha!

In all seriousness though, it’s real difficult to have a bad or mediocre meal in Brussels. The restaurant scene is thriving and diverse, with traditional, rustic bistros just as popular as the most cutting edge, modernist dining rooms. It’s all here and it’s all more affordable than, say, Paris.

I could never tire of the smell of caramelizing Liege waffles in the streets of downtown. I always relish the opportunity to pick up top quality chocolate at the grocery store for next to zero euros. And there’s not much else as satisfying as a cone of fries after a long night of beer tasting. In fact, there’s not much I’ll miss more than the fast food — deep fried meats served simply so, and juicy, meaty kebabs. Sultan’s, move to California, please?

4) Art

Brussels doesn’t have a museum that every tourist “must” visit. There’s no Louvre, no National Gallery, no Albertina, no Prado. But there’s a lot of smaller stuff, and in fact, the artistic community in Brussels is really active. It’s easy to enjoy without any pretension.

Apart from festivals and little galleries and stellar rotating exhibits (hint: the current Stanley Kubrick photography expo), there are some permanent gems.

The Magritte Museum has an unrivaled collection of the Belgian surrealist’s works. And the Belgian surrealist’s works are awesome. The BOZAR consistently churns out interesting, high-brow exhibits in Victor Horta’s palace. Tucked away far from the center, the Musee d’Ixelles has a surprisingly impressive and vast permanent collection, including original posters by Toulouse-Lautrec.

And there are concerts, lots of them, all the time, all over the place! The options are overwhelming, with high-profile artists coming through constantly. Good and bad: the venues are small, meaning the shows sell out quickly. But when one manages to get tickets, the reward is tremendous. Particularly beautiful and intimate venues include La Botanique, Cirque Royale, and Ancienne Belgique.

Andrew Bird performance at Cirque Royale

Seeing Andrew Bird perform at Cirque Royale was easily one of the cultural highlights of my year.

What I adore most, though, is the love for cinemas. The BOZAR holds Cinematek, a separate film museum that screens classics and silent films with live piano. Film festivals abound all over the city, in art house cinemas like Cinema Nova or the Vendome. Walking through the super touristy Rue des Bouchers, you’d never know that if you walked through one hotel lobby, you’d end up in an adorable cinema called Actor’s Studio, with just three small screens. Even smaller: Le Styx, in Ixelles, where screens have space for a dozen or two. Wherever you go, there’s likely an unusual film, from somewhere in the world, in its original language, with trendy moviegoers lining up, nearby.

5) Green

Bois de la Cambre

A couple takes an afternoon stroll through the Bois de la Cambre.

Yes, Brussels is pretty sustainability-minded, but I’m talking about accessibility to greenery. Brussels has a lot of natural beauty for a place many mistaken to be urban sprawl. I’ve heard folks claim it to be the Greenest Capital in Europe, and they could easily be right.

Part of this distinction is owed to the massive forest that spreads across the southern part of the city, along with the huge Bois de la Cambre, whose center is a lovely lake, whose center holds an island, whose center has a Swiss chalet turned restaurant. To the east, there’s Parc de la Woluwe, which combines hilly forests and large ponds. Wandering any of these spaces, it’s easy to forget you’re in a metropolis.

The obvious parks — Parc Royale in the city center and Parc du Cinquantenaire with its giant arch — are both enjoyable with feelings of importance. But nearby are other gems: a few steps from Parc Royale lies Parc Egmont, completely hidden and incredibly peaceful, and close to Cinquantenaire in the EU Quarter is Parc Leopold, a prime spot to people watch around a pond, surrounded by modern architecture.

Also: Parc de Tervueren, the most pristine and manicured of them all, a gorgeously green tram ride just outside city limits. And Parc de la Sauvagere in Uccle, rough and hilly, with horses grazing.

Nine months later, I’m still discovering new things about this city on a daily basis. And from what I’ve heard from many locals, Brussels can continue to surprise for years.

Janelle Bitker
Brussels, Belgium
Academic Year 2011-2012

You can follow Janelle’s other travels on her personal blog

Fitting in

Art Museum - Brussels

It's impossible to be bored in Brussels, especially at night. This was taken at an art museum, where burlesque performers weaved through visitors.

I have a Belgian friend who refers to me as his Belgian friend. Obviously, I am not Belgian, but my consistent willingness to meet him at a neighborhood bar on a Monday night has won me the title.

Apparently, he hasn’t met another American so open to hanging out on weeknights. And, coming from neighboring city Ghent, he doesn’t stay in Brussels on weekends and doesn’t have tons of Belgian pals at school.

It’s interesting, we Americans at our big universities are used to having our own bedrooms in apartments with friends, with large kitchens and spaciousness, while our parents only live a couple hours away. We never go home. The American college experience means to live independently (well, not financially) and grow up. In Belgium, students live at home with their parents while attending school. If that’s not feasible distance-wise, then they rent a tiny, tiny studio and return home every weekend.

Horses in the city

Horses grazing in the middle of the city? There's always more exploring to be done.

What is my point? My point is that it’s hard to make Belgian friends here in Brussels as a temporary student. It’s tough to make European friends in general, when you know and everyone else knows that you’re leaving in the not too distant future. I’m fairly certain my ISA comrades from last semester did not leave behind many local friends. When the time for goodbyes arrived, they were sad to be leaving each other.

That’s completely valid, of course. The study abroad experience immediately connects you to others in similar positions. Having Americans around is a comfort, and you get comfortable real fast.

I was determined not to let this happen to me. I was aggressively pursuing friends early on, which kind of worked, and I kind of came away with a legitimate local friend or two, and a lot of highly enjoyable acquaintances that I’ll realistically never keep in contact with upon departure.

Leuven, Brussels

I've been taking lots of day trips, like to Leuven, a cute medieval city less than 30 minutes away from Brussels.

In other words, I feel quite lucky, and I’m so relieved, again, to have two semesters to cement these friendships, because having just one semester would have made the task near impossible.

In other words, also, I’m feeling really comfortable and local. Hell, I even feel Belgian sometimes. I don’t feel that urge to explore new neighborhoods every day like I did just a few months ago, but I still always feel alive. I relax at home more. I have regular hang out spots. I think in Euros and Celsius. I say certain words with European accents. I’m fully caught up on my favorite American television shows. But at the same time, I know I’m leading an abnormally active life — quick, spontaneous daytrips to neighboring cities, weekend couchsurfing adventures, and hunting down the best in local eats and weird nightlife.

In other words, I’m amazed it has taken nearly seven months for me to feel semi-local in Brussels, and I am so content that I can still relish every day.

In other words, I was devastated when midterms came and went, meaning I have less than a quarter of my study abroad experience left.

In other words, I am not ready to go home.

Janelle Bitker
Brussels, Belgium
Academic Year 2011-2012

You can follow Janelle’s other travels on her personal blog

Getting to Know BeNeLux: Utrecht, Rotterdam

Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg are often grouped together as “BeNeLux.” The three small, bordering countries have overlapping languages, policies and vibes, and as a resident of Belgium, I feel a personal duty to be adequately acquainted with all before returning to the States.

Firstly — It’s true! I’m officially a resident of Brussels. The paperwork isn’t completely finished, but I’m documented with an identification card and everything. With near success a whopping six months later, I’m too relieved to be annoyed at the bureaucracy any longer.

So my little side trip last weekend to Holland was legal. Hooray!

As a professor canceled class on Thursday, and I don’t have classes on Fridays, I enjoyed four days in the land of bikes and windmills.

Bicycle riders in Utrecht

Old Utrecht with its thousands of bicycles

My first two days were spent in Utrecht, an adorable city about 30 minutes from Amsterdam by train. It’s one of Holland’s oldest yet liveliest — a student city home to one of the country’s most respected universities.

Canal in Utrecht

One of Utrecht's many canals

Between the spread of canals and cobbled alleys, it’s impossible not to be charmed by Utrecht. I spent a lot of time drawing comparisons to other cities — it’s like a smaller Amsterdam, but with the young energy it feels a lot like Ghent too. And while I biked alongside other students through the outskirts of downtown, I felt like I was back at the University of California, Davis.

The slight nostalgia continued in Rotterdam. The city center was destroyed during World War II thanks to some German bombing sprees, so the rebuilt Rotterdam is essentially a new city.

Modern architecture in Rotterdam

Crazy "modern" architecture in Rotterdam, including its famed cube houses

When I got off my train Friday night, I was amazed at how much I felt like I was in America. I was walking alongside tall office buildings and modern window displays, overwhelmed by consumerism for the first time since I’ve been in Europe.

I still find it a bit amusing that Rotterdam and Amsterdam have a fierce rivalry. Given how incredibly different the two cities look — “skyscrapers” and funky 1970′s “modern” architecture compared to the classic Dutch brick upon brick — it’s hard to see where comparisons are made. But there are similarities. The two biggest cities in the country are both hotspots for culture and art, boasting loads of museums and special events. Coffeeshops are prevalent in both, although made into far more of a tourist spectacle in Amsterdam, while Rotterdam hosts a more well renowned nightlife. Rotterdam’s skyline reflects its more cutting-edge offerings.

Erasmus bridge and Rotterdam skyline

The Erasmus bridge and Rotterdam skyline

It’s easy to feel at-ease in the Netherlands in general, not just because of its closeness to Belgium, but for its liberal nature and kind inhabitants. And the trip was cheap — with couchsurfing and spending a few more hours on buses instead of trains, I managed to spend less than 70 euros in total for four days of fun!

I’ll get to round out my Dutch experience with an ISA-led excursion to The Hague and Delft at the end of the semester. Combined with an imminent weekend trip to Luxembourg and my past travels through other Belgian cities, I think I’ll be leaving BeNeLux with a fairly thorough education to this second home’s varied wonders.

Janelle Bitker
Brussels, Belgium
Academic Year 2011-2012

You can follow Janelle’s other travels on her personal blog


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