(Editor’s note: This is a hand-written letter received via “snail mail,” which explains the delay.)
There were two moments thus far where I really felt like a missionary. The first was when I put on the name tag on day one in the MTC, and the second was when I arrived at the airport and I could feel people starring at me. It was quite a mind shift for me that Monday morning. I realized that every move I made now not only represented me, but the Lord and his church. That responsibility carries a bit of weight but is easily adjustable as long as you always strive to live that beforehand.
I'll start with the nonstop flight to Amsterdam. We boarded the plane at about 6 p.m. in Detroit, watching just a downpour of rain. Ironic for the last day for two years in America. The ride was all right. I struggled falling asleep and ended up mostly starring at a display of our flight projection. At about 3 a.m. I had a great study session in Preach My Gospel and enjoyed my first real airplane food. It was just how I imagined it from "Planes, Trains and Automobiles." But after a sleepless flight we finally beheld the rising sun and the big, bustling city of Amsterdam. We met the mission president and headed to the mission office in Leuven. At this point my head started throbbing as my internal clock was very confused by sunlight. It's crazy how many people smoke here. It was such an eye opener to be smelling drugs and seeing scantily clad girls after being in the MTC bubble. We did paperwork and walked over to the pancake house. The nanekooke was giant! This large crepe-like thing with powdered sugar. It was great. Man, the amount of foot travel was incredible. I could not believe how many bikes there were. The evening concluded in the amazing house that is the mission home.
We opened our calls and met our trainers the next day. Claflin is a really great guy. I don't have any clashes with him, and he's a big-time clown. A lot of people think he's funny. But that day was transfer day. And with missionaries and luggage and all sorts of trains, it remains a crazy day of lost luggage and sometimes mass confusion. But we eventually got to Genk. We ended up with some other Elder's luggage, but things worked out. Oh, man, and the Antwerpen train station!!! If you look up pictures please do! It is a ginormous with five or six levels and a big classic clock tower. So amazing! We arrived in Genk and headed over to the mission leaders house for a meal. Brueder Paters is renowned for his "Paters Flams!" And, by that, I mean he just speaks Flams, but weirdly, and I could barely catch a word he said. I finally got to unpack that evening and went to bed. That first week I had lots of dreams. My brain was going crazy. But I've been pretty blessed. I prayed that I wouldn't be over stressed, and I haven't been. It's been great.
Genk is really cool, too! It's not very scenic, but it's been a great city for me as a “greenie.” We haven't done much biking; mostly bus. A company called "The Lihn" runs the buses, and every day we are at the whim of the bus system. I feel asleep a lot on that first week on the bus. We have such a huge area! The entirety of Limburg. That includes, like, five cities. Genk and Hasselt, I know for sure. One evening while door contacting in Hasselt we ended up in a really nice neighborhood. And let me tell you, Belgium people love their yards. The fresh green bushes are always kept trimmed perfectly. They stick wires in the ground and grow a plant in a cool loop sort of thing, it's so cool! I've taken a few pictures, but take my word, it's incredible seeing these perfect yards everywhere. People have a thing for doorbells here too. They just enjoy elaborate doorbells. I've heard the beginning of the Beethoven symphony and all sorts of interesting tunes. Another weird thing is that doors lock from the inside. So, whenever you knock on a door you'll hear someone fumble around with keys for a while and then unlock the door. Basically, if you throw your keys out the window, you can lock yourself inside your house. And door handles are weird too. A door handle sometimes extends the entire length of the door. Super odd. They have old style brick houses but super modern doors.
My first Sunday was pretty good. Church is only two hours, and sacrament meeting is last. Priesthood consists of about seven men, and sacrament meeting has three main families that show up. Super tiny branch, but it feels so homey. I like it. I'm usually good at making little kids laugh, but it's different when you have the language barrier. We had an appointment in the evening with this nice old guy in the branch. We weren't sure what time the last bus was coming, and we decided to check the bus stop once we got off. But it started pouring – just a complete downpour! That happens here a lot. These Dutch people take rain for granted. But we dashed out of the bus and headed for the old folk's home. In that process, we didn't check the bus times. After the visit and my first taste of a weird ginger herbal tea we went back to the bus stop and discovered the buses were done for the evening. It was about an hour and a half walk back home. It was memorable. I've never gotten so many middle fingers and honks as I did that Sunday evening. There's a good amount of Muslims, and they aren't fond of us. I'm over it, though. Just smile and wave at the angry Muslim drivers. At one point during the walk, we saw an ice cream truck, like the one I've always imagined, playing music, and we asked for a ride, but the driver said no. That was a memorable evening.
Another day we knocked on a door and a short old man came from the other side of the house. We started talking to him and his dog was walking around his legs. At one point there was a pause, and I saw the dog's leg go up and begin to pee. The man starting talking again and didn't notice at all the urine pouring onto his leg. Once my companion noticed, he said, "Pas op!" (watch out). It pretty much ruined the conversation, but it was hilarious. I don't know how he didn't feel it, but there was a lot of pee on his leg. On a different day we stopped in the main bus station in Hasselt and started walking to an appointment. We saw a large crowd gathered around and stopped to look, too. There was a man doing some sort of acrobatic dancing. But, he was doing it with a shopping cart. Yes, a shopping cart. He was gracefully dancing with a shopping cart, and people were watching as if it was a normal thing. The first day I felt like I was in Europe was when I walked down a cobblestone road with tons of mashed together buildings on either side. It was great.
On my first P-day we went to Munsdricht in the Netherlands. If you can look up pictures, do it. It is a beautiful Dutch city with busy streets and a big old courtyard with a big, classy building in the middle. I loved walking around, in and out of stores, just taking in all the culture. Speaking of culture, I haven't had too much cultural food. I've had a decent Belgium waffle and lots of Haggelslog. Haggelslog is chocolate sprinkles you put on bread. I'm in love with it. I'm eating a piece of bread with butter and haggelslog almost every day. I haven't had this, but I have seen a lot of "doner” shops. A "doner" is a type of sandwich, but the meat comes off this big slab of meat hanging on a line.
Besides all these cool things, it's a mission. I'm loving learning another culture and continually more about the gospel. Teaching lessons is quite interesting, and we have a good number of people we meet with. I can't wait to break this language barrier and really be able to speak my thoughts. This mission is not easy, but I'm already aware of the great change that is happening within me. The Netherlands/Belgium mission has felt to me like the refiners fire. And I've met a lot of good missionaries here.
Sorry for the terrible handwriting. I'm on train as I write this on my way to Leiden. Hope things are well in the states.
Love you all, Elder Eli Andrew
First time eating Hagelslag! I'm a little addicted..
PHOTO CAPTION: Oldest City in Belgium, Tongeren! This church was built in the year 1100 I believe. It was a bit of a boring, gray city, but this church was incredible! Only about 45 minutes away from the apartment in Genk.
PHOTO CAPTION: Belgium people love their yards. The fresh green bushes are always kept trimmed perfectly.