Week One

In which I get settled, discover that Brussels doesn’t “do” air conditioning and make it work.

“If you didn’t blog about it, did you really go abroad?” It seems one of the implicit requirements for nomadic college students is making a travel blog and pimping it out on various social media channels. And there’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but now it seems that whenever I go on Facebook, instances that have slowly but surely come to be few and far between, I scroll through nothing but graduation ceremonies, travel blogs and wedding engagements. It makes me feel old, is all. And while I used to love getting to feel old – 10 years and I’m in the double digits, 13 and I can see better movies, 16 and I can drive – it doesn’t hold the same appeal anymore. True, the older I get the more seriously I’m taken. And that has always been and will always be important to me. But I’m going to be a senior in college this year. Then I’ll be graduating. Then a months-long job hunt will (hopefully) result in employment, and then I’ll need to move somewhere and buy my own groceries and find a dentist and go to work at the same time every morning. And now that I’ve had a taste of the desk job life, I can understand why people find it so draining. So I’ve come to a point in my life where I don’t want to be any younger but I don’t want to get any older. It’s a bizarre limbo, a combination of burgeoning responsibility and carefree irresponsibility. But that’s college, isn’t it? Which leads me to studying abroad – truly a once in a lifetime opportunity (thanks mom and dad for encouraging me to take advantage of this). Never again will I be able to hit pause on every other thing in my life with no consequences. Never again will I be able to fill my carry-on with Advil and socks and relocate to a foreign country without so much as having to find a place to live. So it’s a good thing I’m doing this now and not when I’m 46 and trying to Eat-Pray-Love my way out of my responsibilities. That would be immature.

We begin our journey in the Chicago O’Hare Airport, where the afternoon sun glows warm and bright through the walls of windows and the A/C sits unbothered. I have to wait for 3 hours at the gate, and I feel like I’m sitting in the prize-winning solar cooker I made in a Junior DECATS food science class. This lack of air conditioning is an omen of things to come, though I couldn’t possibly know this yet, and while I’m being a little dramatic about the temperature in the Chicago Airport – and I must admit, I refused to take off my jacket because I didn’t want to hold it – I reserve the right to occasionally be a little dramatic on this trip. It is my first time being out of the country without my mother there to remind me to put on sunscreen after all, so it’s a big deal for me.

The flight is uneventful. I get to sit next to Mary and eat definitely-not-the-worst lasagna and watch Birdman on a 12 inch screen. I and my trusty tiger-striped neck pillow give sleeping a go, but I only manage about an hour. I don’t think I’ve ever exceled at sleeping on planes, as I have vivid memories of being 11 years old and crouching in my seat on a 9 hour flight to London, surveying a veritable sea of sleeping passengers. But I did give it a try, and that’s what counts.

After going through customs, a process which was a little too stress-free, and retrieving my big blue suitcase with its newly broken handle, I shuttle to my apartment on Rue Souveraine, my home for the next ten weeks. It’s nice, spacious, with three levels, lots of natural sunlight – something I was told there would not be so much of – and perennially dirty white tiled floors (I’ve taken to walking around my apartment in flip flops, like I live in a dorm bathroom). I have five friendly roommates; – Mary and I share a room, arguably the cleanest one in the apartment – a washing machine that barely functions, a courtyard, a bathroom that doesn’t lock and an electric kettle, which makes it almost too easy to help my tea-drinking habit along. My bed is narrower than a twin bed in America, and the wooden bed frame goes sliding along the floor at the barest of touches. I make it work.

We quickly discover that not only are there no air conditioning units or screens on the windows, but the heater is on and has been on for God knows how long. We open the windows anyway and swat the flies that take that as an invitation. We make it work.

For the entirety of Week One, all 6 of us share 3 sets of keys. This, as I’m sure you can guess, does not always go smoothly, and Mary and I, the undisputed moms of the group, are woken up at 3 am by the buzzer on more than one occasion. We make it work.

Dividing groceries among 6 people would be far too complicated for our college-educated selves, so we pair off by roommate and we each get a cabinet and a few shelves in the fridge. It’s a small kitchen and a crowded fridge, and the disposal-less and always-clogged drain in the kitchen sink quickly becomes a nuisance. We make it work.

Huh, it seems we have ourselves a motif here. “Making it work.” It will become a theme of sorts for the trip and especially for me and Mary, neat as we are, as we face life in a messy apartment with some messy new friends. As I’m sure you can guess, we’ve been making it work.

Speaking of, the promise of work was one of the biggest draws of the Brussels program. My lack of field-relevant work experience has been a quiet source of stress for me over the past two years – just stressful enough to occasionally keep me up at night for a few extra hours, but not quite stressful enough to do anything about it, apparently. The inclusion of an internship is a selling point for the Brussels program, and finally having something to put on my résumé is sweet relief. It doesn’t hurt that the program director manages to find me an internship at a real public relations/communications firm, with name-recognition and branches all over the world. Granted, I’ve worked for big corporations before, but working as a consultant and working as a sales associate are two very diferent things. FleishmanHillard is a much more impressive résumé builder than Old Navy, for instance.

I arrive in Brussels on a Friday and by Tuesday I’m taking the metro to a building across from the Ecole Royale Militaire – the Royal Military Academy of Brussels – to meet my new boss at a social media training. There are armed soldiers on the sidewalk and I’m nervous when I walk by them, even though I know I don’t have much reason to be. No one else seems nervous, so I carry on.

My new boss’ name is Brett and he’s American and I’m more than a little relieved to have an ally. He introduces me as his “colleague” even though I’m his intern and I feel pretty good about my first day, even though I barely spoke at all. On Wednesday I go to the office, a 15-minute walk from my apartment, and overcome a minor bout of anxiety at the realization that I cannot enter any doors without a key fob to have a successful second day. I have a desk in a cubicle, a laptop that I never take home with me, a cup of pens left by last employee who occupied my orange swivel chair and a company email address. Everyone at the office is friendly, there are about 10 other interns relatively close to my age from the UK and I don’t pay for my own lunch once the whole week. That will probably not last.

I get a bit of work done on a Twitter campaign for a client throughout the week, but mostly I have meetings with HR and shake hands with people from all around the world whose names I almost never manage to catch. People are impressed, or they pretend to be, that I’ve studied strategic communications and can now put my knowledge to practical use at a communications firm. They say I’ll be good, one of the best because I actually know what I’m doing. It’s not convincing, but it’s encouraging nonetheless. Brett tells me he picked me as his intern because he saw my portfolio and recognized an ability to visualize copy and graphics together, even though I’m not a designer. He says not everyone can do that, and that other people on other teams in the office will want me to help them because of my skill set. He says he’s told everyone they’re not allowed to steal me, and I feel as accomplished and important as I ever have. It’s at the end of Week One, as I lie in my teeny tiny bed with my feet sticking out of my covers and under the open window to catch the breeze that it dawns on me. I made it through a week of being abroad without losing anything and I managed to get an internship that put me to work and made me feel valued. How could I be so lucky? It’s not the first time I’ve asked myself that question, and it won’t be the last.


Things I saw:

  • On a walking tour: Grand Place, the Brussels town hall, Victor Hugo’s home, La Sablon, Manneken Pis, the bottom of a Jupiler beer glass
  • Place Flagey & the weekend market
  • Saint Boniface Church
  • Louise Square

Things I tried:

  • Rabbit | ★★★
  • Merquez – goat sausage | ★★★★★
  • Black coffee | ★★
  • Mitraillette – fried mystery meat and salad with mayonnaise on a baguette | ★★★
  • Frites | ★★★★
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