I asked around and now I think I understand how this whole St. Nicolas deal goes down. It is a very Belgian Holiday, and is a bigger deal than Christmas for most people. St. Nicolas is traditionally the holiday where kids write lists and receive gifts; it was American soldiers who brought over the notion of giving presents at Christmas. Thus, Christmas evokes ‘coca cola’ here. St. Nicolas brings presents for all the good children and young men and Père Fouettard (Father Whip---dark scary dude) comes with him in case anyone has been naughty. St. Catherine is in charge of bringing gifts for the unmarried girls who’ve had their period. (A boy mimed this word for me because the girl who was trying to explain got embarrassed. Ha. ) So there are lots of ads for presents and busy parents right now. The big day is the 6th of December.
I have also learned lately that Tournai and this area is a very French part of Belgium; the people speak more or less French French and are Belgian but not BELGIAN. I have run into a couple people with heavy Belgian accents and had a lot more trouble than normal understanding what they were telling me.
Several other notes on Belgian culture:
Marianne told me that the European man-purse and men kissing other men to greet them didn’t exist in Belgium before the social revolution of the 60’s and 70’s. These things were seen as too girly. Interesting.
I have discovered some traditional Belgian food combinations: tuna salad with peaches and hazelnuts in sausage. Tuna salad here consists of tuna, mayonnaise, and often boiled egg, and then they either eat it over peaches or put it on a baguette with peaches. Very interesting flavor---like nothing I’ve ever eaten before. The idea of putting pickles in tuna salad is totally bizarre for them. The sausage was a sort of salami with whole hazelnuts inside---really super yummy.
Also, I have learned that Francophones really like to call people animals or other evocative names. For instance, being called a chicken or a flea is an endearment. (Go figure). A duck, however, is a jerk/twerp, and a turkey is a stupid woman. A fat woman can be called a certain type of fat sausage (Budin) or a whale. An ugly woman is called a tuna. Ouch. I'll stick with the chicken and flea!
Today we had our first swimming class of the year and I got a look at the craziness of a Belgian swimming pool. First of all, there is no male/female locker room. There aren’t any lockers either, for that matter. You come in, take a coat hanger thingie and go into another room full of little stalls that each have 2 doors. This is where one gets changed. You have to enter the stall from the left and exit on the right (I have no idea why). Much more modest than American locker rooms. Then you leave all of your stuff in a sort of closet-room, without any kind of covering or lock. Then you have to walk through an ankle-deep pool of ice-cold water to wash your feet off---gah! Finally you make it to the shower room and walk out on deck. I didn’t see a lifeguard (of course, I didn’t have my glasses so I didn’t see much anyway), so I hope my PE teacher knows how to save drowning teenagers. There were no gutters around the pool, and the bottoms of the lane weren’t marked, but otherwise the pool itself was pretty much familiar. The other craziness I noticed is that none of the girls used soap in the shower to get rid of the chlorine and that the normal price for admittance translates to be about 6 bucks a pop. Heek. I’m glad the school gets a cut rate!
I am feeling more and more socially normal and adept in school, although I haven’t made the leap to hanging-out-on-the-weekend-casually yet. I’ll get there eventually, hopefully. I do have some inside jokes now. For instance, the other day after learning about blood types in health class Sharon asked me if we had the same blood type system in the US. However, I thought she asked if I had blood. I replied with some incredulity, 'Yes, I have blood' at which point Sharon looked at me quizzically and burst out laughing. Now this has become a favorite reference when I miss something or she's not sure if I got what was going on. Blood has never made me so happy before!
I made cornbread last night for supper and it was marvelous. Cécile came too and I got to introduce this All-American dish to them. I told them that this is what cowboys would eat sometimes, and they got a kick out of that and called it cowboy bread. Yay for American cuisine!