I spent my first Thanksgiving away from home last week. While my family rolled out dough for pumpkin pie and brought cranberry sauce to a simmer, I floated down the sluggish Meuse on a Rotary boat trip. Compared to rivers in British Columbia, the opaque brown water didn’t provide much scenic value. The three hours offered me plenty of time to chat with other exchanges students, however. My mind on Thanksgiving and home, we discussed clashing attitudes and ways of life.
Here, youth are more liberated. There are “bals” every few weekends, usually in conjunction with the fêtes de villages. I attended Tinigny’s soirée mexicaine Friday. The white tent pulsed with music and three thousand young people, beers and cigarettes held carefully in the gaps between bodies. Parents offered to pick their children up at 2:30 in the morning, something my mother back home would never do. I’m not legal in B.C. anyway. When there aren’t bals, youth often go out together on weekend nights to the Club des Jeunes. Yet this freedom is not paired with greater responsibility. Fewer students maintain jobs and parents are automatically expected to pay for university.
At school, I’ve needed to defend my history of soccer. One of my classmates commented, “isn’t that a sport for lesbians?” when I mentioned searching for a team in Belgium. A friend of my host dad’s attempted to justify the lack of girls, explaining that playing develops large thighs like those of men. So apparently I’m a lesbian with man thighs. Great. I joined the region’s one female team anyway. The coach and the girls are very friendly and the team is ranked well. While in Vancouver, I operated under the assumption that a certain amount of muscle was attractive. A dancer in my gym class displayed her calf to me, lamenting that you could see a curve of muscle (though it was barely visible). Their aesthetic and perspective on sport is different, especially in relation to girls.
A vegetarian suburbanite, hunting never entered into my sphere of existence before I arrived in this country village. There is a signed hunting reserve at the edge of Chauvency and yesterday I jumped at the boom of guns as I jogged along a dirt road. In the distance, I spotted two men dressed in kaki enter the woods. My host dad raised and butchered sheep last year. The other day, he served me salvaged wild boar he crushed on the road with his Jeep. I got a bloody piece from the side of the impact. Hunting is very expensive in Belgium (less so in France, though still not cheap) and thus is not affordable for all. I’ve been introduced to two poachers.
The nine hour time difference meant that I skyped my family and friends Sunday morning as they finished Thanksgiving dinner. In my pajamas at 8:00 am, I felt a pang of homesickness. My host mother thought that Thanksgiving and Halloween were the same event. The most challenging aspect of being an exchange student for me is not necessarily adjusting to the different attitudes and traditions themselves. What’s harder is the fact that people here can’t understand or appreciate where I come from. I have to be the one to justify my mismatched actions or ideas by underlining the disparities when I discover them. Otherwise, I quietly realize, accept and move on. When I wrote my Rotary application, I explained that I wanted a new view on home, to take another look at some of the realities I took for granted. It’s happening.