Finding a home away from home in Belgium
As a child, when a certain kind of yearning struck, I’d find the globe in my dad’s study. My father’s globe rested on a rickety, three-legged stand that swayed at the slightest touch. It was a relic from a time before Google Earth. The papery exterior felt rough on my fingertips as I traced the mountains and borders of the world. Sometimes I’d close my eyes, spin the globe and jab my finger at some point on the sphere. When I opened my eyes I’d see where my finger landed and imagine what that particular location might be like. The world felt small in those moments.
When I grew a little older, I learned that I was supposed to fear the world. Television and films taught me that ordinary men could secretly be mustache-twirling villains, and that I needed to watch my step when I walked into a different country.
I couldn’t do it, though. I found that I couldn’t fear the world. I could recognize the wrongs and injustices, but I couldn’t fear what waited for me. I could recognize the danger; but the yearning that I had felt standing in front of the globe with my eyes closed stayed with me.
Possibility became more important than fear.
When I arrived at Clemson, I told everyone I met that I was going to travel to Italy. I wanted to eat pasta and traipse through Florence. As a history major, a trip to the home of the Renaissance and the Roman Empire was catnip for the imagination.
As I entered my junior year, though, I began to explore other possibilities. When I discovered the opportunity to spend a month living, traveling and studying in Belgium, I signed up, packed my bags and lifted off.
No longer a tourist
The rain was pattering when the plane’s wheels hit the tarmac of the Brussels airport. By the time my shoes hit the cobblestone, I was exhausted. The transatlantic flight had taken a toll, and I just wanted to flop into an unfamiliar hotel bed.
Professor Stephen Wainscott didn’t let me sleep, though. He had been leading Calhoun Honors College students through the streets of Belgium for years, and he had the first day planned to the minute. His love of the city was palpable, and his seasoned wit broke me out of my bleary-eyed haze. He showed us the Palace of Justice, ribbed in scaffolding; the local market, filled with the aroma of freshly baked bread; and Grand Place, buzzing with the shouts of tourists with mouths agape, eyes pointed toward the statues that dotted the tops of the ornate guild halls. I, too, began to love the city. When I finally fell into my bed, I felt like I had truly experienced something different.
I studied in Brussels with eight other students as a part of Professor Wainscott’s European Crossroads program. The city was the base from which we explored much of Belgium. While our hotel was comfortable, I spent just as much time sleeping on trains, leaning on the window as the pastures and townhomes whisked by outside. When I wasn’t riding a train, I was usually ambling around on my sore legs. Unlike Clemson, Belgium is flat — but we walked for miles every day.
I began to learn the country. I saw the quiet medieval beauty of Bruges, cloaked in grey; Antwerp, the home of Rubens, with transcendent art burrowed between the kitschy diamond shops; Ghent, with its enigmatic altarpiece and its towering Gothic works of stone; and Dinant, sitting quietly on the riverside, with a fortress looming on the hilltop.
Brussels was home, though. It sounds bizarre, even forced, to call a place I knew for a month home. But it was home. I came to know the streets and the Metro routes. I came to know the weathered statues that stood on the street corners, looming stoic above oblivious passersby and reverent pilgrims alike. I came to know the locations of the best food stands, the places where I could get greasy sandwiches piled high with fries and mayonnaise. At the end of the month I didn’t feel like a tourist. I felt like a resident.
I was melancholy when my month ended. Leaving felt like saying goodbye to a friend. I might even have shed a tear if my eyes weren’t so tired.
However, departure wasn’t worth mourning. The world of possibility that I’d once yearned for had opened up before me. I had experienced a place that I’d once pointed to on my father’s globe. And I had come to know that place.
One day soon I’ll give the globe another spin.
How you can study abroad
Want to travel the globe? Check out the Study Abroad Fair on Sept. 20 to find an international experience of your own. The event will take place in the Hendrix Student Center from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Head over to the fair to discover and explore study abroad programs for summer and fall 2018.
If you can’t make it to the fair, plan a visit the Clemson Abroad Office in E-301 Martin Hall or contact your academic department to see what opportunities are available.