In Belgium, you will find modern meets medieval. The country, historically influenced by the French, Dutch, Austrian, and Spanish, is a unique combination of cutting edge and traditional cultures. The country consists of three regions: Flanders in the north, where most people speak Flemish; Wallonia in the south, where most people speak French; and Brussels, the bilingual capital located in the center of the country, also home to the European Union and NATO.
AFSers in Belgium can choose to be placed with a host family in the Flemish speaking region or in the French speaking region. AFSers attend local high schools known for their high educational standards.
Your local AFS chapter may organise activities throughout the year, which include parties or excursions to other cities or regions in Belgium. Also, over the course of the program, AFS staff and volunteers will hold orientations and evaluate your experience to help with your cultural adjustment.
Belgium has three official languages – Flemish, French, and German. Flemish is the national variety of Dutch spoken in Belgium and is used in the north, French is spoken in the south, and a small population in the east speaks German. In Brussels, the capital of Belgium, both Flemish and French can be heard in the streets.
Host Family & Community
Belgium family life is a unique integration of strong family ties while encouraging maturity and independence in their children. Both parents usually work, and you will be expected to do your share of the housework and daily chores like the other children in your host family. This reflects the particularly Belgian style of working out compromises and “pragmatic anarchism.” Despite the dislike for imposed discipline, the Belgians are well-organised and self-disciplined people.
Students are placed throughout Belgium. Most families are in suburban (40%) or rural (40%) areas, although urban placements are not uncommon (20%). Public transportation is well organised and safe. The country itself is very small and no matter where you are placed, you will always be within a two hour train ride from Brussels, the coast, and neighbouring countries (France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg).
Host families in Belgium, like all AFS host families worldwide, are volunteers and are not paid. They open their homes to students in order to share their community and culture as well as to enrich their own family lives.
Belgians are tolerant, flexible, modest, sincere, warm, friendly and open-minded. Belgians value privacy, enjoy a safe and comfortable life, work hard and are self-disciplined. People will be glad to know you, but you may have to make the first steps toward establishing contact. By showing enthusiasm and interest, by using your charm, tact and openness, you will build real bonds with your new family and friends.
Social life often centres on family and a small group of friends. Belgian youth enjoy attending concerts, going to the movies or a lecture and sharing a drink or meal together. Many of them enjoy scouting activities on weekends.
When they are not studying (around two or three hours in the evening and sometimes during the weekend), teenagers enjoy getting together for after-school activities. Common sporting activities include practice athletics, basketball, volleyball or netball. Also available are public swimming pools, sport centres, football clubs and riding schools. Music, drama, singing, drawing, painting and sculpture are taught in special schools called Académies, with classes after school or in the evening.
Belgian cuisine is much more than good chocolate and beer. Some say that it is actually one of the best in the world. Certainly, Belgian people enjoy eating (they are said to be real connoisseurs), and families get together regularly for the evening meal, while during the midday meal everyone is either at work or in school.
Meat and seafood are common staples, accompanied by bread and potatoes, and often cooked with oil or broth. One of the things Belgians are particularly proud of are frites (french fries), which they claim to have invented. Some other traditional Belgian foods are the stoofvlees (stewed meat in a sauce prepared with brown beer) or the famous waffles now eaten all around the world.
Attending high school in Belgium will be quite demanding, as the country holds high educational standards. AFS students are generally placed in the 5th or 6th grade (the 11th or 12th year) of what are called “general secondary schools”. Compulsory school subjects are French/Flemish (depending on your placement), mathematics, history, geography, sciences, religion or ethics, and physical education. Optional courses include foreign languages, arts, and computer sciences.
Education in Belgium tends to be mainly intellectual and less about sports or artistic activities. That said, extracurricular opportunities are available after school through youth clubs or other community groups.
AFS Belgium will accept high school graduates as long as they have not already started university in their home country. Keep in mind that graduates must be recent grads (less than three months since high school graduation), they must still be within the program age ranges, they must demonstrate that they understand they will be expected to participate fully in school, and they must understand that they may be placed in a school with students younger than them.
Orientations & Activities
In addition to the orientations that you will participate in domestically, you and your fellow AFSers will have several orientations while abroad. These orientations give you a chance to gather important information about your host country, to meet other AFS teens from around the world, to share experiences and make friends.
In addition to the orientations, many local chapters organise activities for students and host families throughout the year. These will vary from chapter to chapter but may include parties or excursions to other cities or regions in Belgium. Unlike the orientations, these activities are optional and are at the student’s expense.