Summer Travels 2022 - The Friendship Tour - Chapter 10 - A Joyous Reunion & A Tearful Goodbye in Belgium

This story picks up from where we'd just said goodbye to our friends in Brittany. Our next stop was to visit our 2018-2019 Rotary exchange student, Jérôme, and his family in Chimay, Belgium.


We'd been to Belgium before, visiting the magical city of Bruges, but this part of Belgium was new for us. Chimay lies in an agricultural region in the south near the French border, and is known for Chimay Beer, made by Trappist monks. In fact, Chimay is one of only 14 breweries in the world to brew Trappist beer. They also make fantastic cheese. 

Jérôme's family had arranged rooms for us at a local inn, the quaint Hotel de Franc Bois, in nearby Lompret. During this 6 hour drive from western France, we continued listening to YouTube videos of a teenager reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which Charlotte had to read for Summer reading, but was not enjoying. We checked into the hotel and dropped off our bags before heading to see Jérôme and his family for the first time in 3 years. We were all really excited, and it was a beautiful reunion...a continuation of the friendship tour theme of our trip.

During his exchange year here in Connecticut, his family had come to visit, so we'd met them before, and they are absolutely lovely. It's funny how connected your families can become through hosting. It was extra-special that both sets of grandparents came over for dinner to meet us as well. One of the grandfathers is a beekeeper and had sent us a jar of his honey years back, and we got to thank him in person. (We also left for home with another jar of his honey!) 

They have their own pétanque terrain, and we can't resist a game!

We had a tour of their beautiful home (I love the architectural styles there!) and of their sports car collection - really cool. There was a lot of catching up. As Americans tend to speak loudly, it's quite noticeable listening to the subdued, gentle voices of the Belgians. 

There were the Chimay beers to try, sausages, cheeses, champagne, and a barbecued dinner outside. The big surprise was that in honor our wedding anniversary which was that day, Jérôme's family had a beautiful cake made. It was really moving. I'm tearing up a little bit thinking about it. The other thing that really moved me was Jérôme's compass tattoo with the coordinates of our small town on it. I didn't expect it, and I was incredibly humbled that his year with us was such an important time for him.

The next morning we went out to do some sightseeing and have some fun! Our hosts showed us around Chimay, where we peeked through the gates at the Château (did you know Chimay has a prince?) They brought us to the beautiful monastery where the beer is brewed, and to the Espace Chimay, to see the beer exhibition and for a little snack and glass of beer. Then it was time for a little adrenaline with go-kart racing/karting. It wasn't exactly the same as at home - these things went FAST and it was an absolutely huge outdoor course compared to back home. Charlotte admitted that it was pretty intimidating for her as she hadn't started driving yet. It was a really fun day. The kids all wrote out a postcard to our high school French teacher, who taught all 3 of them, and who adored Jérôme. (She later told me she loved it, but since it was a postcard about beer - it was the only postcard we could find in the area - she couldn't display it in her classroom!)

Scenes from our walk around town

Something was looming heavily on me though. Long story short, it was decided that Julien would stay in Belgium to wait for his new credit card to arrive in the mail, instead of coming back with us to Italy to start his backpacking adventure. It was only a few days earlier than expected, but it was really hard. I'd been trying not to think about it, but now it was staring me in the face. 

Sandrine thoughtfully suggested that our family of 4 have dinner that night on our own as a last evening together. It was a beautiful night as we had dinner in the charming square at Le Grand Café in Chimay. Charlotte legally ordered her own Chimay beer! The food was good, we laughed, talking about the adventures we'd just had on our trip. Back at the hotel, I didn't sleep a wink. People ask me all the time how I handle my adventurous kid traveling the world on his own, and as much as I know he's completely capable, I can't help but worry a bit. In the past year he'd only been home maybe 6 weeks in total, and I'd missed him. 

Dinner under the tower

Last dinner together in 2022

We couldn't prolong our departure much after breakfast with Jérôme and his family, and as hard as it was, we said our tearful goodbyes. We would be driving all the way to Chambéry, France for the night, en route to Fiumicino Airport near Rome, to catch our flight leaving in 2 days. 

Julien with his backpack ready to start his own adventure

Driving away from Julien and our Belgian family

Footnote: Julien ended up staying a couple of days with the Meertens family until his mail arrived (mail is delivered there every other day.) In his extra time with his exchange brother, he got to experience the youth club culture that is unique to Belgium. He had a blast biking with René all the way into France! When his mail arrived, they dropped him off at the nearest train station, where he caught a train then a bus across Germany with Poland as his first destination. His adventures had an early start as the bus was stopped by the German police and searched for drugs! His next 5 months, all unplanned, would bring many more adventures & mis-adventures. Julien's experiences inspired today's Travel Tip: Placing a locator in your bag/backpack not only helps you locate the bag say in the airport, or if it is taken, but you can use it to find your way back to your bag if you have to leave it in a forest while you search for a source of fresh water.