In two days…

In two days I’m back in Belgium.

When I look back to these four months, I feel happy. I arrived here at the end of August and I knew nothing and nobody. Slowly, I have built here a sort of new life. I have learned how to live with my new parents, Hester and Harald. I have met lots of people at school, and the scouting, in my new family. I have learned to speak Dutch. And of course I have learned and visited a lot about The Netherlands.

It was four intense months. I didn’t think I would learn so much! I believe I can say that the challenge of being an exchange student is ending with success. And it’s not at all only due to me, it’s due to all the people I have met here in The Netherlands and with who I walked a moment on the way. I thank them all for what they taught me.

In two days I’m back in Belgium and I take with me a part of The Netherlands, in my head and in my heart.

I hope you enjoyed sharing a part of our experience via this blog. I have found it a wonderful way to show that it’s possible to go across the differences of culture and to live together.






… you’re an exchange student and you want to see typical landscapes of the country you’re staying in. In Zoé’s case: she told us she wished to be immersed in typical Dutch surroundings with meadows, cows, water and mills. Since Hester’s mom and stepdad live in an area with an abundance of all of those things, we went up there this weekend for a meadows, cows, water and mills galore!

So, last Saturday afternoon (21st September) after being welcomed in Pape-city we first went to a national park called ‘De Biesbosch‘, which is in the mid-south-west of the country. We only saw a small part of it of course and not even the best known part, but it had gras and cows and water and all kinds of wildlife even 🙂 . We saw geese, herrons, a (dead…) mole, a huge cricket, a (dead……..) hedgehog, all kinds of birds and spiders. We’ll spare you the pictures of the dead things ;), but we’ll try and give you an idea of the company and surroundings. You can read some extra information about this area (courtesy of wikipedia) if you look at the pictures inside the gallery.

After a walk of about an hour and a half the “oldies” went home to relax a bit. The “girls” wanted to go to Villa Augustus, a very special location in the city of Dordrecht. The centre of attention is an old water tower that has been repurposed as a hotel. But the huge garden surrounding it is a feast for the eyes too and it provides the hotel and the restaurant as much as possible with vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers. And last but not least there’s a market café where you can enjoy delicious drinks and home baked cakes. Hopefully the pictures will show you why we like this place so much…

All that was very nice, but we didn’t see any mills yet this weekend, did we?
We had to wait until Sunday morning, but if this wasn’t mill galore, I don’t know what would be…

The area is called Kinderdijk. The origin of the name is not very clear, but it literally means “children’s dike”. If you’d like to read more about the area and history, you might want to take a look at the official English Kinderdijk website or at the Unesco website.

So, what do you think, were Zoé’s wishes met this weekend?

Language Lab, part 2

The first recording below is from the second “Language Lab” session we did since Zoé’s staying with us. It was taped on the 10th of September and is related to our The Wall posting, because we asked Zoé to talk about the concert in her own words.

And of course we couldn’t keep the next episode of the forest adventure from you any longer. Are you excited to hear it? 😀 By the way, there’s no video just like last time.

My first week at school

Last Monday I went for the first time to my new school, the Marnix College. On Sunday evening I was ready, my bag was packed, I knew the way to school, my bicycle was ready to go, and my alarm was set. I was a bit nervous.

On Monday morning, after breakfast and a last hug, I left home. By arriving in the school surroundings I was surprised by the number of bikes! There were wheels and bells everywhere!

I entered the building and found quite easily my way to my classroom. I received my schedule and after only half an hour I went back home. A really short day! But I had to cover my books. A really long and annoying task! Fortunately Hester helped me and within “only” two hours it was done… Zoe_covering_books

On Tuesday I was really less anxious. I survived the first day, I was able to not die the next. I discovered the buildings. The school is modern, spacious and well-organised. There is a projector and a laptop in each classroom, lots of things (like the schedule and homework) are posted on a special school website.

The atmosphere and the rules are also really different than in Belgium. Almost every student has a smartphone or an mp3-player and uses it in the halls or sometimes even in the classroom too! During the week the weather was very hot and everybody was wearing shorts and tops… I’ve never seen that at school in Belgium.

But despite all those “no rules” the students are very concentrated and show much respect to the teacher. They all arrive in time for class, nobody speaks during class when the teacher explains things. Yes, it’s really different from the Belgian schools.

By the way, the teachers and the students are open and kind. I already have spoken with several students: all are curious and interested in what I’m doing here. They also help me to understand some courses.

Certain courses are really hard, others are really great. For example, I understand almost nothing in economics class, but music and geography are fun and interesting. I’m not excessively motivated to do my homework, but I enjoy being at school and meeting people. I hope I will have four great months at the Marnix College!


Language Lab

One of Zoé’s primary exchange goals is learning the Dutch language as well as possible within four months. Even though she’ll immerse herself in the language and culture through school, we also try to help her as much as possible at home. We even intend to have at least two language sessions every week. One specifically for pronunciation and the other for grammar. Our very own “language lab” if you will. And the best part of such sessions is recording yourself and listening to it. It’s the worst thing obviously 😉 but lots of fun too and very educational.

The idea for the blog is that we’ll try and share Zoé’s progress on a regular basis. We’re very ambitious and will do our best to post videos or sound recordings every Monday. You read it: “try” and “do our best”. 😉 We do realise that all of this being in Dutch might not be very interesting to our international readers. Still we hope you’ll be able to hear differences and see changes in Zoé’s attitude maybe when listening to or watching our lab sessions the next couple of months.

So here we go. The following recording is Zoé’s final reading session during our first lab. We’re using a children’s book with very pretty drawings, which makes it more fun to read even. During such a session we record small parts of the story, listen to it again, talk about it and try to improve the pronunciation. What you hear is a recording of Zoé reading all of the sentences we practiced in this particular session in one go.

Although we’re using youtube, there’s no video there in this specific case. Maybe we’ll figure something out later for just recording sound, but for now it serves its purpose.

The second and last video for today is one of Zoé talking about her day in Dutch. We’re looking forward to sharing her progress with you and hope you’ll enjoy it with us. We’re very proud of her already 🙂 .

School’s out for summer

The schools are out for summer, but a couple of days ago we had our first “parent meeting” at the school Zoé’s going to attend: the Marnix College. By the end of August, during Zoé’s first week over here, we’ll have our second meeting and the grand tour at school.

This time we only had a brief look around the main building and most importantly, we spoke to the exchange coordinator. There wasn’t that much to discuss really, but it was nice to speak to her in person. We talked a bit about the school in general, their experience with exchange students, expectations about this exchange in particular, and so on.

If you’re interested in reading about this school:
Unfortunately that website is only available in Dutch, apologies to our international followers 😉 However, this school also has a bilingual department at the level preparing for university. They have their own website, in English:

Another small step recently was pre-ordering Zoé’s textbooks. That was fun because it’s such a practical step during these weeks of, primarily, waiting. It makes you feel that the “real” beginning of this adventure is finally coming nearer. We also now know which subjects Zoé will take, which was something we were very curious about. We hope (and think) she’ll be happy with this chosen set of courses. Once it’s all official, we’ll tell more about it 🙂

Becoming a host family

So we, Harald and Hester, will be a host family for an exchange student. That’s not something we decided overnight. The source of this idea seems to be an exchange a lifetime ago.

Hester in Scotland

Hester in Scotland

Hester went on an exchange to Scotland fifteen some odd years ago. This was a short summer program of six weeks and did not involve going to school or anything like that. She stayed with five  different families in the central part of Scotland. Having the experience of families inviting you, a total stranger, into their home and showing you the surroundings from a very local point of view was extraordinary.

Somehow the idea of sharing your home with young people looking for an international adventure stuck. It slumbered for quite a while, but a couple of years ago it emerged again when, you know, you’ve become older, things have settled a bit, stuff like that. This time though from the host family point of view.

So we looked the organisation that Hester had gone to Scotland with up on the world wide web. This must’ve been somewhere during the winter of 2011/2012, and we found they were still very active, offering all kinds of programs, including a High School Holland program. That’s what we were looking for.

Logo exchange organisationAt first we just read through the information on their website and looked at the profiles of students that were looking for a host family that following year. We were curious about which countries the students were from, what you could conclude from the short descriptions about their lives, hobbies, families, how they saw themselves. When we would check the profiles again some weeks later, we’d see who had been paired with a family already and who had not. We tried to predict who would be placed soon based on their description or if this seemed, for example, related to the country they came from. We couldn’t predict anything 😉 and got more curious about everything going on behind these webpages.

Obviously we had not only looked at this website, but we had also discussed inviting an exchange student into our home over many a cup of coffee. At this point though, it must have been around May 2012, we decided there were too many other things going on in our life to actually go for being a host family that coming August. It was somewhere in the autumn of 2012 that we decided to look into all this again.

Our personal considerations when we thought about the idea of being a host family for an exchange student were the following. This was before we’d spoken to the exchange organisation in detail about the program.

Upsides we had thought up:

  • give a young person a chance to follow a dream;
  • experience another culture, language and way of thinking without having to travel;
  • give this experience to your own children;
  • teach your native language to a person that chose this program for learning about another language and culture;Green Tunnel
  • enrich your local social life through school and other student activities.

Downsides and/or uncertainties:

  • have a total stranger live with us for a couple of months while we’re used to living
    with just the two of us;
  • extra cost of living for an (almost) adult for a longer period of time;
  • the responsibilities for this person and their stuff;
  • what if… the student does not want to do anything once here?
  • what if… the student wants to do everything that is not allowed?
  • what if… the student is not motivated at all to do schoolwork?
  • what if… the student turns out to hate our country/culture?
  • what if… we don’t like each other at all?
  • what if… it doesn’t work out between the student and the kids?
  • what if… the student doesn’t embrace the experience and wants to contact their home all the time?
  • what if… the student doesn’t want us as a host family?
  • how do we communicate if the student hardly knows Dutch and English?
  • what about our personal work/travel plans?
  • probably at least 10 other things we didn’t have the answers to yet.

Summing all that up you might think “Why would you do something like this?!”.

Still we weren’t discouraged enough to just give up on this idea 😉 We contacted the exchange organisation. They provided us with lots of written information, answered many of our questions patiently through numerous phone calls, chats and e-mails. Quite a number of the downsides we’d come up with were eliminated after just a couple of  conversations with them.

We found out that financially all we have to provide is a roof over the student’s head and food. School, insurance, trips, but also stuff like toiletries, clothing, school lunches, anything extra will be taken care of by the organisation or the students themselves. As a host family you can choose to pay for certain extras, but you don’t have to. Also the exchange organisation will always take final responsibility for the students.

When it comes to the behavior of the students (being motivated at school or not, wanting to embrace the experience or not et cetera) the exchange organisation is very clear also. There are quite a number of rules that the students (and their parents) know of and agreed to when entering the High School Holland program. School results must be good. Rules at school and at home must be obeyed. Students are not allowed to smoke, drink alcohol or use drugs. Students are very much discouraged to have lots of contact with people at home to prevent homesickness as much as possible. For this same reason it’s not allowed to have friends or family from home over during the exchange. And there are (serious) consequences for the students if they do not stick to the rules of the program.

So next round of questions. What if there’s no “click” between the student and host family? Or at some point there’s a conflict? Or the host family is new at this and could use some help or tips? For all and any of such cases there’s a local exchange organisation representative available 24/7. This is the same person that “approves” the host family after a personal visit at our home. He or she also arranges the school and leads the introduction week with the students once they’ve arrived in the Netherlands. This person, called a Volunteer Cultural Exchange (VCE), can always be contacted during the program in case of issues or questions and will negotiate a transfer to a different host family if there are no other options left.

On we go. What if our preferred student doesn’t want us as a host family? The answer to this question was easy, because students do not really have a choice when it comes to their host families. The only exception that might be made is if a student objects to same sex host parents or to a one parent household. There are many students in the program every year and often not (immediately) as many host families available, so there’s no room for being picky on their side 😉

By this time we were quite convinced the list of downsides and uncertainties was by no means outweighing the upsides anymore. We’d discussed the idea with more members of our family and some friends and they were mostly or very positive overall. We realized that answers to questions such as “What will it be like with a third person in the house?” and “How do we communicate with someone who doesn’t speak Dutch (or English in some cases)?” could only be found during an actual exchange. We did read some stories about how other host families managed all this, but at this point we didn’t even know from which country we’d have a student. So we concluded this would have to be one of these things you’ll figure out once the situation presents itself.

Winter tree

We checked the list of students on the website of the exchange organisation often and even had some ideas on preferences for a girl or a boy, which country the student would be from, how long the exchange would have to be and so on. This was getting somewhere!

Still we didn’t feel like taking the final step and subscribe as a host family. This was due to some work related travel plans at first and the before mentioned rather unexpected plan to move house during the winter of 2012/2013.

Then came last spring, March 2013. We had moved house, were settled pretty much and we decided we were ready to contact the exchange organisation and finally go for it! Obviously we already knew the High School Holland crew and they knew us. So when we contacted them the actual subscription for becoming a host family didn’t take that long.

Officially we had to be accepted as a host family, so an appointment was made with the VCE. Before that we had to fill out some forms with our basic information, a description of ourselves, our family, expectations and stuff like that. We also had to provide two references, family members not allowed.

During the VCE’s visit we talked about the forms, the program in general, her role during an exchange, which school we preferred and she answered any questions we still had. After this meeting the VCE would contact our references. A few days later the organisation let us know we were officially accepted as a host family. Yay!

The next step was finding a student that we thought matched with us, our lives, interests and exchange wishes. The exchange organisation website already had a number of students on it that would start their semester or school year in August 2013, but we were told still a lot more had yet to be officially accepted. Lots of paperwork has to be done for and with these students, much of that depending on the country they’re from. There are also quite strict language requirements. If they’re not proficient enough in English, they’re not accepted to participate in the program.

So it was early spring and there were only a handful of students on the High School Holland website yet. We’d already seen a girl that fit our “wish list”, but shouldn’t we wait until there were more student profiles disclosed?

Passport photo Zoé

Our wish list at this point looked something like this:

  • a girl;
  • an older student;
  • a period of 1 school semester (August – December);
  • a student from Belgium or another country not too different culturally from the Netherlands;
  • not the super-sporty type student.

It probably won’t be a surprise it was Zoé’s profile that had already been published and she matched all of our wishes. As we were now officially approved as a host family, we were allowed to see the complete files of students. So we requested to see Zoé’s file and received it through e-mail. This was very elaborate and included forms with basic information but also detailed descriptions of her family, hobbies, interests, school results, a medical certificate, a motivation letter from Zoé herself and a letter from her parents.

After reading Zoé’s complete file and talking to the exchange organisation about what they already knew about other student profiles that were not yet published on the website, we decided to look no further. We felt we might regret it if we waited longer and Zoé would be matched with another family. We had a good feeling about what we thought we could conclude from all the information we’d gathered about her.

So we were ready for the next episode. Finding a school that accepts an exchange student for a longer period of time is essential for the High School Holland program. No school, no exchange, it’s simple as that. But Dutch schools only get  government funding for students that are enrolled for an entire school year. So only schools that can see an exchange as “paying back” through the practical experience for the school and its student are likely to be open to the idea of hosting an exchange student.bikes_at_school

During our meeting with the VCE earlier we already talked about a local school we had in mind for our exchange student. It’s a very internationally oriented school, they even have a four year bilingual program at the level preparing for university. They also have all kinds of charity events, which by that time we knew would be something that would appeal to Zoé a lot. So the next step was contacting this school and finding out if they’d be interested in hosting an exchange student for one semester. All this was done by the VCE. We had good hopes because of the international character of this school and we weren’t disappointed. Zoé’s school results and overall profile appealed to them and she was accepted. Yay again!

At this point, somewhere at the end of April 2013, the exchange organisation contacted Zoé to let her know the exchange was final and who her host family would be. Our contact information was shared with her and she could decide how to contact us for the first time. She did through e-mail and since then we’ve mailed quite a few times already. Sinterklaas cupcakes

So there you go.
– Host family, check.
– Exchange student, check.
– School, check.
– Shared contact information, check.
– First e-mail contact, check.

And now. We wait.
It’s July and Zoé’s off to some other adventures abroad first before she comes to the Netherlands. She’ll be here in about 7 weeks. We’re looking forward to it!

This was our story about how we became a host family. Of course this is only the beginning as it’s not until we’ll actually have an exchange student at home, that we’ll be able to share the real host family life experiences. And that’s what the rest of this blog will be about 🙂