Griffin in Leuven, Belgium Spring 2015 Semester

Although I had never even considered studying abroad until the very last minute, my second semester senior year, I can already say that it has been one of the best decisions I have made in my life. Leuven has turned out to be the perfect fit for my study abroad experience. The city is relatively cheap (although the Euro is not the most cost effective currency), close to other major cities, and has a small college town vibe that sets it apart from other large touristy cities. Belgium also seems to have a never ending variety of one of my favorite adult beverages in the world…beer. After a month overseas, I have already experienced so much. Let’s start from the beginning.

The flight to Brussels from Chicago was a very smooth 8 hour plane ride, and getting to Leuven from Brussels was an even easier 2 minute high-speed train ride. However, the journey to my residence once in Leuven was beyond difficult. Checking two bags was a quick regret after walking miles on foot in the rain to find my residence at Camilo Torres, which seemed to be the farthest possible point on the map from the train station. After getting all settled in, I was able to meet some of the other exchange students and it wasn’t long until we started planning our weekend trips throughout Europe.

My first stop was Amsterdam. I had never seen a city like this before. Bikes outnumbered people and there were more canals than there were streets. If I didn’t keep my head up, the odds of getting hit by either a bike, tram, car, or eager tourist were very high.  Such a lively place. Overall Amsterdam was beyond beautiful, and I had the opportunity to see much of the city in a boat tour that went through many of the canals. I also toured the Heineken Brewery and saw the house where Anne Frank hid in before the Nazis captured her and her family.

Asmsterdam sign

My next major stop was in Budapest, Hungary.  For those of you who don’t know, Budapest is actually two cities, Buda and Pest, that are separated by the Danube River. Buda is very hilly and scenic with lots of old castles and unique architecture, and Pest is extremely flat with more restaurants and bars. Some highlights of this trip include swimming in the Szechenyi hot thermal bath, which is the largest medicinal bath in Europe, attending a Hungarian fish fry festival, and climbing St. Stephen’s basilica, which offered an amazing view of the city. We also accidentally stumbled upon the changing of the guards at the Hungarian Parliament building, which I had never seen anywhere before. To close out the trip, the thirteen of us reserved a large table at Trofea, for an all out all you can eat all you can drink buffet style dinner for only 18 Euro!!! This was by far the best deal I think any of us has scored for a restaurant like this. You just can’t beat the quality and variety of Hungarian cuisine for that kind of price.

Griffin Budapes

After traveling to Amsterdam and Budapest, I can already realize that each trip to follow will be its own unique adventure with different people and new stories. So far, I have already booked trips to Oslo, Prague, Munich, and Berlin. Until then, I will be getting back to my full time job as Belgian waffle connoisseur.

-Griffin Abel



Adventures in Belgium and the Netherlands: Brett Zentner

After the first month of being abroad I can honestly say that this was one of the best decisions I have made in my life. Not only that, but the program that I am participating in must be one of the best if not the best program in Europe. There are many reasons I could bring up to back my point, but in general the atmosphere of not only the country of Belgium, but specifically the city of Leuven is something that stands out. I never had a negative outlook coming into this experience, but I must say I had my doubts. As one of two seniors in this program and most likely the only two out of any program in the spring 2015 semester, I was definitely a little rattled choosing to forego graduation and study abroad instead. My decision ultimately came down to the fact that I will never be granted this kind of an experience ever again in my life. After going through that thought process, I decided it was time to make the move. After anxiously awaiting my departure from Chicago, my family had set up a going away dinner. Little did I know the snowstorm coming in was not going to allow my flight to take off on Sunday as it was cancelled about a day and a half before. In a hectic move we decided to switch my flight to Saturday, while I was at my little brother’s wrestling tournament. I had to rush home say my goodbyes to the family and head off to the airport. I met my friend Griffin at the gate who had also switched his flight in the same panicked matter that I did. Upon arrival in Brussels airport we saw another student that we recognized from the orientation and met up with him once we were off the plane. The transportation from the airport was extremely easy. It was a twenty-minute train ride, I had remembered reading in my book given to us by KULeuven before arriving that it would be a difficult commute. I thought we for sure had screwed something up, but that was not the case. Regardless we got off the train and immediately went searching for food. Probably one of the first places we saw we went into. Now with all the hype about Belgian beers, each of us decided to try a couple of them and start getting used to the beer drinking culture that now surrounded us. After eating, we decided to head off and find the housing service so we could get our keys to move in. Each of us was carrying close to a hundred pounds of luggage, while it was also drizzling rain on us in 25-degree weather. Not to mention the sidewalks are pretty much all cobblestone making it twice as hard to wheel our heavy suitcases down the sidewalk. After about a mile and a half walk, accounting for getting lost one time, we had finally made it to housing service. Of course, how did we not know that everything in Leuven is shut down on Sundays. At this point in time we were all drenched and pretty cold, so we headed back towards the train station because we had no idea where else to go. Back another mile and a half we went, we all still had our spirits up despite our misfortune because guess what? We were still in Belgium and never seen anything this different. We went back into a different bar after desperately searching for wifi, so we could find a hostel to stay in. We ended up finding one, with plenty of time to spare to get the Super Bowl up and running. This all came at the expense of getting a little more wet from the rain and needing to take a nap from the shear exhaustion we were all feeling at that point. Throughout the night we ended up getting yelled at once, due to our obnoxious cheering during the Super Bowl, but once we explained ourselves we had a couple other folks from Belgium hangout in our room and watch the game with us. The next morning we all got up around ten in the morning to check out and off we went to housing service to finally get our new rooms. After getting our keys, we walked over and moved into our new homes for the next five months. The only bad part about these dorms, which we did not realize until we met the other students was that we are about a mile walk further from the town center compared to the other students. No complaints on my end, considering this will be one of the things that will help keep the pounds off, while I pick up a waffle on my way to morning class and fries with mayonnaise on the way back. I know anyone reading this is probably thinking what I thought before trying it, that is fries and mayonnaise sound like a disgusting combination. I tried it about a week ago for the first time and I must say the mayonnaise that they make here is a lot better than what we have in the States. Although I had concerns before I got here and the first couple days of being here, I can honestly say that I have enjoyed every minute of being abroad. The people, the buildings, and the atmosphere of this city has already begun to change my perceptions of European culture and I am extremely excited to travel throughout Belgium and Europe to learn as much as I can during my stay.

As we settled in to our new home of Leuven, my older brother had told me there was a possibility he could visit Europe for a few days instead of returning home. This was a little confusing for me, but I will try to explain this to my readers at this moment. He works for KPMG and he is headquartered in Chicago, but was working in New York at this time. The flight from New York to Amsterdam was the same price as a flight from New York to Chicago. For his company as long as the price to another destination does not exceed that of your home destination the company will pay for it. After knowing all of this he decided he would come visit for the weekend in Amsterdam. Off Griffin and I went to Amsterdam on our first weekend in Europe to another city. We had to wait a day for my brother to get there, so we walked around to familiarize ourselves with the area a little bit. We walked to the Red light and I must say it was a very odd setting. After walking around this area we decided to go to a bar. After a few Heinekens we went back to the hostel because we were exhausted from the travel and the week we had endured in Leuven. We somehow managed to sleep through our checkout and the host at the concierge did not seem to happy. I tried to make up a story about how we had forgot to return our keys upon leaving the hostel, but she was not having it. She stared at us and honestly looked like she was going to beat us. After this hostile conflict she finally gave us our deposits back and said good luck. She seemed extremely happy to get us out of there. After walking around for a few hours we met my brother at the Marriot he was staying at. This not only helped us save money, but also gave us a great nights rest and free meal off of appetizers. The bed in the hotel was something out of a dream after sleeping on the rocky hostel mattress the night before. Before we had gone to sleep we did a repeat of what we had done the night before and went to sleep. The next day, which was a Sunday we walked around and did the normal tourist things. We went to the Van Gogh museum, took a picture at the infamous “I Amsterdam” sign and also went on the Heineken brewery tour. After all of these things we had to say our farewells to my brother, in order to actually be on time for our train. We made it to the train station with time to spare, but we did not realize that we had to make a connection. We stressfully searched for an information desk and once we found one we were gifted with the fact the attendant knew perfect English and helped us find our train. One thing I must say about the people in the Netherlands is that the entire trip they were extremely helpful and that I will return one day just to be greeted by the people there. I will continue to update my blog with my travels and any stories that happen to come up while abroad. #illinoisabroad