Did you ever ask yourself why you should go on an international exchange? There is travel involved, perhaps you’ll be gone from your loved ones, and you might have to share a room with several people you don’t know that well. It all sounds quite uncomfortable, but we dare you: Think again! Exchange programs - even the short one-week ones - can often be intense with work but in general they are also a lot of fun, and you will always learn something new: if not about the subject, then about yourself. Below you can read about our experience spending a week in Brussels on the SUHET project.
SUHET stands for Sustainable High-End Tourism and is an Erasmus+ program aimed to create a new MOOC (massive open online course) on the subject. In the last week of November, we got on a plane and flew from Rovaniemi via Helsinki to Brussels - also known as "the capital of Europe". Glad about the late 10 o'clock start on Monday morning after a late flight on Sunday night, we got into the classroom with just enough time to grab a cup of hot, steaming coffee before the first lecture commenced. In the classroom we also met the rest of the group, with students and teachers from Belgium, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Spain. The organizations involved are Fundació Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, UNIVERZA V MARIBORU, ERASMUSHOGESCHOOL BRUSSEL, EUROPEAN CENTER FOR QUALITY FOOD and Lapland UAS.
After a day packed with information and lectures, we finished just after 5 PM, in a room filled with sleepy faces. Yet, this did not stop the students from making the most of their travels as about half of the group met after dinner to go ice skating at the local Christmas Market.
The work continued bright and early on Tuesday morning, when we hopped on a bus which took us to a town called Tongeren in Western Belgium. We visited the Eburon Hotel, which has a fascinating history. The hotel used to be a convent, then a hospital and now it’s turned into a 4-star hotel. Everybody was able to feel the history and the special atmosphere the hotel had.
Free time in Tongeren included having lunch (the famous Belgian fries) and walking around the beautiful town. After that we headed to our next destination which was Ordingen Castle just half an hour from Tongeren. Ordingen Castle is a beautiful 5-star hotel, which actually looks like a castle from the outside. We found inside a few restaurants, a wellness section, comfortable conference rooms, and outside a beautiful park that we got to see.
Our last destination of the day was the Clos d’Opleeuw vineyard. The owner took us to the vineyards to see where the grapes actually grow, and we were able to ask him questions about his job and the way of life as a winegrower. At the end of our visit, we of course got to taste the white wine.
Wednesday morning started with a couple of lectures held by the teachers from our partner universities as well as Teija from Lapland UAS. We heard about management of high-end customer experiences and marketing in sustainable high-end tourism. After spending the morning on campus, we got free time for the rest of the day. Some students went to see the city centre, Brussels Christmas market, Royal Palace of Brussels, Manneken Pis, Grand-Place and warmed up at a student café with a cup of hot coffee. Another student group opted to get on a train to discover the nearby city of Bruges.
On Thursday morning we hopped on a train to Antwerp. In the city of diamonds, we got to visit the 5-star Botanic Sanctuary Hotel Antwerp. We were given a tour around the hotel, dining and conference rooms and one of the most luxurious suites of the hotel. Botanic Sanctuary Antwerp had a fascinating story of combining the old and new – as the pathway in the front yard of the hotel connects the old and new parts of the city of Antwerp. After a little bit of touring around Antwerp we got the train back to Brussels. Back on campus we held the final evaluation session of the week.
Once finished, we got to celebrate a job well done. One of the benefits of an international exchange is that we got to taste different drinks which everyone had brought from their own country: Belgian beer, Spanish and Slovenian wine and Finnish Salmiakkikossu. It was a great ending to the week we had spent together. (Text continues after the picture)
So, after one week in Brussels – what have we learned?
First, beyond the course, when exploring the city, we realized that Belgium – while a small country – has a rich, complex, and diverse culture and as such may truly deserve its title of "European Capital" even beyond the European Parliament.
Second, culture shock is something you can experience any time you travel. Sometimes the more similar the culture is to your own, the greater the culture shock since you presume to know what to expect. Yet, at times we struggled with simple tasks like finding a café or restaurant as our experience did not match our current reality. (Text continues after the picture)
Finally, when spending an intensive week on an international exchange, you inevitably make friends with the people around you. Nationality, age, background… they really don’t matter as you work together towards a common goal. And that is really what these international exchanges are about.
Written by tourism students Riikka Iivari and Liisa Siippainen (Degree Programme in Tourism)
Photos by Riikka Iivari