Belgian Teenager Finds Ozarks People Kind, Their Hobbies 'Odd'

Jul 14, 2014

Belgian exchange student Marie Vanderelst has spent the past year as a senior at West Plains High School.
Credit Jennifer Davidson, KSMU

Good morning, and welcome to Around the World, Here at Home. I’m Jennifer Davidson. In today’s interview, we travel to a country about the size of Maryland. It was occupied by Germany during both World Wars and its capital, Brussels, is home to numerous organizations, including the EU and NATO:  it’s Belgium.   Joining us to talk about her home country—and her experiences here in the Ozarks—is Marie Vanderelst, who just finished a year as an exchange student at West Plains High School.

Vanderelst watched the World Cup soccer game between Belgium and the United States earlier this month, and celebrated big when her home country won.

"It wouldn't have been that much of a big deal if I were in Belgium. But here, I was like, 'Ha! We won!' I went somewhere around town with my [Belgian] flag," she said.

She said being here in the Ozarks, she missed her freedom as a teenager.

"We're kind of more free [in Belgium], in a way. We cannot drive [in Belgium], but we can go out," she said.

Also, she said she is tired of fast food.

"I like fast food, but after 11 months, I'm kind of tired of it. We have McDonald's in Belgium, but I used to go maybe three times a year. And here, it's three times a week," she said.

The people in the Ozarks are nicer, she said.

"Like, you go somewhere and you don't know anybody, and they're gonna talk to you. And it's like, 'Okay, hi!'  In Belgium, if you go on a train and you're sitting on a train, they're not gonna talk to you," she said.

While an exchange student, Vanderelst took part in a musical, joined the soccer team and ran cross country. She made fantastic friends she says she will miss dearly.  But she also found some things culturally odd.

"Hanging out at Walmart was one of them...Walmart is okay. But hanging out there, that was weird for me. I would hang out with my friends, and we went to Walmart, and we would play hide-and-seek there," she said.

Also, the obsession with hunting in this small Ozarks town confused her.

"Because we don't hunt in Belgium. And everybody was like, 'I'm going to hunt today!' And I was like, 'Okay,'" she said.

Also, she said gun ownership is not usual in Belgium.

If the roles were swapped, we asked her what her American friends might find odd if they spent a year in Belgium.

"I think they would find odd our parties. Because we kind of go out every Friday.  And since I'm going to the university, it will be more than every Friday. And, like, you just go out and go to one bar, then go to another one, and just have a good time together," she said.

It's legal in Belgium, and much of Europe, for teenagers aged 16 and older to have alcoholic drinks, but Vanderelst says teenagers whose parents don't mind their children having a glass of wine are able to drink even younger than 16.

KSMU’s Jeremiah Gill contributed to this report.