Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Industrial, Amusing, and Daily Machines

Yesterday Pépé generously took us to see the ‘ascenseurs’ of Belgium, the machines that transfer barges from canals on one level to another. First we drove to ascenseur 4, one of the newest and largest. It was truly enormous! There was also a museum of the geniuses of Belgium, with short films about each genre. There were exhibits for painters, musicians, cartoon artists(Belgians invented comic strips in the 40’s), athletes, scientists, and more. I couldn’t understand much, because even though the films were in English, it was very English English and the machines of the ascenseur were very loud. But it was still very interesting. We watched a French barge be lifted all of 73 m to the next level; it was very impressive. Then we drove to another ascenseur, another large one of a different type, with a gradiated ramp rather than an elevator-type  system. It was also absolutely huge, of course. In the tower, they had a panoramic view; we could see Brussels, Waterloo, and other landmarks (including cows and sheep) from there. It is very flat here, so you can see for a long way. We also enjoyed a museum about the life of ‘bargees’, including headsets and replicas of daily life for the people who work the canals. Happily the headsets were available in English, so we learned a lot of new information about things like how bargee children go to school and the culture of the bargees compared to landlubbers. I had never thought about this before, or even really seen very many barges, so it was a new experience.
    Today we drove with Cecilia, her brother’s family (Carole and her sons: Roman, Antoine, and Maxime), and Pépé to an amusement park for the day. The park was set up with different areas with themes from around the world, so we started in ‘Mexico’ and ended up in ‘Canada’(Canada? Exotic?).  I screamed through the loop-the-loops of the roller coaster with my eyes shut (Julia laughed at me), admired the giraffes, and got pretty wet on the ‘super splash’. Roman went to watch the super splash IN FRONT of the protective window, and he really was soaked. He even had to wring out his handkerchief! Happily the sun was shining so we all dried out. Carole went with us on some of the gentler rides, and her face was the best part of all the rides put together. Julia and I laughed ourselves silly at her expressions of horror when we where spinning around in little pink teacups and gently bumping down a ‘river’. It wasn’t crowded at all, and it really wasn’t noisy---very different from the AK state fair or the other amusement park I went to in Pittsburgh. We could see cows and farms from the top of one of the rides. Cows and farms are ubiquitous (good word) here. There will be two or three shops, and then, all of a sudden, more cows and fields. And then more shops and houses. Julia and I found that amusing when we weren’t yelling. We stopped for lunch in the ‘wild wild west’ of America and I had a Belgian-American Hamburger with fries(frites). Like all food of the Belgian sort, it was good. The frites here are different; they are thicker and aren’t salted. Mayonaise goes on fries, not hamburgers, and you eat fries with a fork. Ketchup has no bounds however, and you may eat it however you want.  At the end of the day, I also got to try a waffle. They are sold like icecream or crepes, with or without chocolate. I told Cecilia and Antoine that we eat waffles for breakfast with peanutbutter and honey. They thought that was quite novel. Apparrently there are two types of Belgian waffles: the Liege and Brussels types. I had a Liege type with chocolate. It was heavier than waffles in the US, and very sweet. I managed to get chocolate everywhere and thoroughly enjoyed it. The boys sweetly gave Julia and I  stuffed lions for souvenirs. Mine is named Albert, after the Belgian King.
A note on the daily machines of Belgium: cars. OH MY GOODNESS GRACIOUS, driving here is intense! The roads are narrow, without any real markings, and intersections seem to be open to interpretation. Parking is extremely precise and close, and everyone drives fast. Drivers here are very skilled, and all the cars are small and well-kept. Pépé has a device in his car that beeps when you are close to backing into something. Good idea. I am rather relieved I only have to worry about learning French and the metric system and not how to drive!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Big Family

   I have been surprised to find how very large our family is; so far I have 3 ‘mothers/aunts’ besides Marianne! And then there are their families and friends! It is very warm and welcoming to have so many friendly faces to kiss! (although sometimes the who-when-where part of kissing is a little confusing).
     We have visited Cecilia’s (and the pony club) twice now. We had dinner there once with a Belgian from Flanders. It was amusing because I (from across the world) could speak just as much French as he could (from the same country!). He didn’t speak English, but several times I thought he was because some of the Dutch sounded a lot like English with an accent.  After dinner Thomas, Celine,(the brother and sister working for Marianne) Claire (Marianne’s goddaughter), Julia, and I went over to the pony club hang-out area and taught Julia Uno and ate ice cream. I was actually able to understand most of what went on at dinner and during Uno and was able to participate some in the conversation. Which is a marvelous sensation! We also met Willong, who is a very handsome fellow, and all the other ponies. We will ride after the 15th, when Cecilia goes back to work. We also met a lot of other friends, including Alice, a girl who will have some of the same classes with Julia. She is going to walk us to school the first day so we don’t get lost! (I’m relieved!)
      Last night we went to Cecilia’s brother’s home for his birthday. Denis speaks very good English and was eager to use it with us. He has a baby grand piano and can REALLY play! He and his older brother, Robert, had a rip-roarin’ time belting out everything from Rachmaninoff to Frank Sinatra to the Beatles. He insisted Julia and I play something, so I played Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho, and Julia played a bit of Edelweiss, much to his delight. Denis travels a lot and works in Brussels at some kind of international institution, so he was very interested in learning how to say the name of the Icelandic volcano (I can now say that name, Christmas Eve, Hiccup, and River in Icelandic. But I cannot spell them!!!) and also asked about Palin. We also met Robert’s three young sons. The oldest, Roman(spelling?) has studied English for two years, so he wanted to practice some with us. He speaks very well, and so that was fun for all. They served couscous and other foods from Morocco, which of course was delicious.  We all had a good time and sang happy birthday very loudly.
      We also visited Fezzy(sp? Pronunciation?), an artist from Iran. She and Marianne have coffee every Friday. She is also very sweet, speaks English well, and has lived all over the world. Her pottery and ceramics are exceptionally beautiul. We also met her niece from Iran, who is studying there to be a mining engineer.
      Bernadette is another mother/aunt. She also works with AFS and is hosting an Australian in the volunteer program right now. She helped us through the rigmarole of choosing what courses to enroll in and the actual enrolment process. She is very energetic and friendly, and also speaks English(which was extremely helpful for enrollment!!!).
  I believe we are doing something today, but I don’t know what. That is usually how things work around here; we often don’t know what or if we’re doing something until just before. It is different, but surprises can be nice.
     I am so grateful for this family and place; all the people are so good to us. The animals are also good; barn humor doesn’t need to be explained and animals don’t have to speak anything to be good friends. Thank you, God! Merci, Dieu!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Quel Jour!

  Today we went into town to the natural history museum and the art museum; both were wonderful! We saw paintings by Monet, Manet, Seurat, Courbet, Rubens, and at least two others whose names I can't believe I have forgotten...!!! The natural history museum reminded me of an old movie about explorers and scientists; most of the taxidermy was pretty ancient. We saw pygmy hippos, giraffes, a platypus(I know Karen will appreciate that!), a musk ox (now I know the name for them: boeuf musque) and so many birds, fish, and other critters! They also had a vivarium there, with some snakes, lizards, fish, and even a caiman. Trying to figure out the names from the French names was interesting, and I learned some. Afterwards we went to a café and had crêpes. Julia and I had nutella with our crêpes, and I tried some cidre( slightly alcoholic cider) which was really quite delicious---I think it's my favorite alcoholic drink in my limited experience. Earlier today Julia and I ate some pralines with breakfast (so healthy!) that Marianne had bought for us to try. The rumors are all true: Belgian chocolate is absolutely, positively superb! Marianne says that the French even come here to find chocolate! Ha.
   I am half-watching CSI NY right now, in French. It's interesting to see how all the voices are switched and the lips don't match up with the words.
   Here are some things I have noticed that are different here:
    One eats with both your hands, and the left does the actual feeding with the fork, and the right uses the knife. Spoons are only for yogurt and soup. 
    All the glasses are tall and skinny.
   The streets are cobblestone
    A lot of people bring their dogs more places
    Mayonnaise comes in tubes, with lemon added (nom!)
    Milk comes in little bottles
    Drinks come in glass bottles
    And lots of other things. Cool beans.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


I'm all registered for school! We are going to Institut de la Sainte-Union, a Catholic tech-type school just down the road. I'm excited to be able to walk to school for once! I am in a sort of social-worker course of study. I will have PE first thing, then geography, religion, French, Science, English(not too worried about that one!), math, psychology, education, Society, Health, Technical education, human development, and then professional activities for a total of 33 hours a week. Julia is taking cooking classes, but we'll be at the same school.  I'm scared that I'm going to get horribly lost and have no idea what to do a lot of the time, but what's the worst that could happen? At least I will know enough French to ask what the heck is happening.
   Miss 36 is keeping me company right now. She is a whippet, and likes to tuck herself into my bed, under the covers and all, to get warm and comfy. She has eyes like a deer, and is very petite and pretty. And here is Peout! (Pewt). One is never lonely here. If there aren't any dogs, there are always people! There is a lady who comes each day to clean; Adrienne, and then there are two teens who work for Marianne, Thomas and Celine, and then there is Claire, Marianne's goddaughter who is staying here while her parents are out of town. And then there are friends! It is truly marvelous.

International Things

1. Music: Justin Bieber, We Will Rock You, California Girls, and more
2. Coca-Cola
3. CSI Miami (Les experts Miami)
4. Nutella
5. Pigeons
6. Nesquick
7. Laughter
8. Sticky-notes
9. Converse
10. Jeans

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A day in Flanders

Today was amazing!!! Marianne, Pépé(a friend---I don't know if that's spelled right), Julia, Touchtou, Pewt(I have no idea how to spell his name. It rhymes with cute. Touchtou and Pewt are the two dogs allowed inside all the time. Touchtou is a whippet and Pewt is a shih-tzu) and myself drove about an hour to Bruges today. The dogs slept on our laps. Bruges is beautiful. We walked through the town, looking at lace shops, the brick houses, swans in the green canals, the bell fry, and crazy chic clothes in shop windows. We stopped at an old hospital to look at the museum. Marianne had to stay outside with the dogs, and we went in with Pépé. There were ivory carvings, reliquaries, intricate woodwork, and so much more, but my favorite were several portraits by MEMLING and a triptych by BOSCH!!!  The paintings weren't even labeled, I guess because they are so famous! I was so excited! I got to look really closely at them, and try to see the tiny tiny tiny brushstrokes that they used to create so much detail! I couldn't, really.  It was truly incredible. We also went to an outdoor café for something to drink. I had orange fanta, which is basically carbonated orange juice.
   Then we drove to the sea! I can't remember, spell, or even say the name of the town, but we walked along the touristy sidewalk and then along the actual beach. It was super windy and sunny, so now I think I have a little sunburn or windburn or both. Either way, I am already tanner than when I left Alaska! We stopped and ate lunch there. I had croquettes à crevettes, shrimp croquettes.  We also had a side order of frites (french fries, except the Belgian kind don't have salt) It was delicious, of course. The dogs weren't allowed on the actual beach, so we drove a ways out of town to walk along the beach with them. It was so windy that poor little Pewt had so much sand in her eyes that she had to be carried. The rest of us had to squint and lean into the wind. There were a lot of people with kites and windsurfing. We played fetch with Touchtou and threw the stick with the wind so it went twice as far.
       We had a wonderful time and we learned some more French along the way. Marianne and Pépé are very patient. A wonderful day.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Day 3

    Today we went to the mall for a couple hours. Marianne dropped us off, and we wandered around for a while. There was a waffle stand that I will have to revisit sometime. However, Julia had some kind of allergic reaction, we don't know what to, and an itchy rash was bothering her. I was able to ask for cream for mosquito bites, and eventually a pharmacy. And follow directions to the pharmacy without getting lost! And I only got asked if I was English once. We found the pharmacy, and Julia is fine. And I am thankful for the painful, timed treasure hunt Madame made us do for a test grade! 
   Later this afternoon we went on a 'promenade' with 5 of the dogs. First we went to a field and let them run. The greyhounds and whippets are so graceful! And of course they remind me of the pharaohs' majestic dogs.  Then we walked for another hour or so along the river on a sort of bike path. It was beautiful and sunny, and the dogs were so happy! Put( Pewt--a shih-tzu who is one of the special dogs allowed in the house all the time) had to be carried now and then. Julia says he reminds her of a rabbit.
    Things I have learned:
1. A lot of people smoke
2. They grow corn here
3. Brussels is the greenest capitol in Europe
4. 4 or 5 new card games from Iceland and Belgium
5. Their floors are mostly tile
6. Most schools in this area are Catholic
7. Their paper is longer than ours
8. They have so many different kinds of cheese all the time!
9.  In Iceland they only have 5 comics in the newspaper
10. I can almost say the word for Christmas Eve in icelandic. Sort of. 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

First Day

It is my first day in Tournai, la ville de 400 cloches(the city of 400 bells)! We arrived last night around 7 PM after an hour’s drive from Brussels. It has been so hot here! The sun was shining in Brussels all during our orientation and the students from the north nearly melted while the kids from Mexico and Ecuador thought it was cool out.  It was fascinating to meet so many people from around the world at the orientation---so many of them speak very good English! I had a nice chat with people from Italy, Latvia, Turkey, Mexico, Indonesia, Malaysia, Portugal, Norway, and many others that I have forgotten. The Italians said that parties and Coke are the first thing they think of when they hear America. The Norwegian boy asked me one thing: Palin. Our hotel had posters of Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin; America is global. The downside of the orientation was that everyone was dog-tired. We Americans were the first to arrive, at 8 in the morning, without any sleep, and then we had to stay up until 10:30 PM before we could sleep in our hotel rooms. Some of us fell asleep sitting up during dinner. I got to meet Julia (pronounced Yooliah) and the other girl from Iceland. They tried to teach me to say one or two words in Icelandic, but I have a hard time remembering all the sylables! Luckily she speaks flawless English.
We met our families and gave them roses. Gilles was one of the volunteers at the orientation, but we didn’t talk to him until we were actually supposed to meet him. Marianne has a big smile and a strong character. Gilles helps us a lot because Julia can’t speak French yet and Marianne can’t understand English. He will only be here for the weekend, and then I will have to help. I am thanking heaven for Madame---I am usually able to pick out enough words of a conversation to guess what people are saying in a group, and understand most of what they say directly to me. After we put our suitcases in our rooms, we left for a friend’s house for a barbecue. We kiss everyone to say hello here. I think I like it; it is very warm and friendly. We ate outside by candlelight after the sun went down. The food here knocks my socks off---it is positively wonderful. I don’t know how I am going to avoid obesity here! First we had aperitifs, appetizers, (chips, little mini cheese rolls, and barbecued sausage) for about several hours with champagne(my first). Then we had grilled ham, salad, some kind of carrot dish, some other kind of grated vegetable, an amazing cucumber dish, cooked tomatoes, and baked potatoes. I was amazed by how many different dishes there were, and all of them were sublime. I especially liked the cucumber dish; it was very unusual tasting. Then there was dessert---three kinds. I can’t remember the name now, but I had some kind of chocolate brownie-like thing that had soft chocolate in the center. Then they got out the photo albums and talked for another hour or so. We left around midnight and were the first to leave. I guess this is normal for the weekend.
 This morning I had my first tour of the animals. It is truly amazing. Most of the animals belong to Marianne permanently, but she also runs a small kennel that boards dogs. Several dogs are allowed in the house, but most of them are kept in half of the kitchen by a gate. Then there is a door that lets them go out into the garden area. I also saw the clinic, where the older and young dogs live, as well as the dogs who aren’t as friendly and chinchillas, guinea pigs, and rabbits. On the other side of the clinic, I also saw the fields and stables where the ponies, chickens, peacocks, sheep, and pigeons live. All of the animals are very well-mannered, happy, and like people. Touchtou and another little dog whose name I don’t know how to spell (it sounds like pewpeet) are sitting on the bed with me to keep me company. I am in Jade’s room for now, because the other room is being renovated.
 I also met the artists who live in the apartment here, Marianne’s goddaughter(Clara), Gille’s father(Jean-Pierre), Gille’s boyfriend (Jean),  Marianne’s best friend and director of the Pony Club (Celise), and several cats. They are all very welcoming and friendly.
This afternoon we went into Tournai to see some of the sights. Julia and I climbed the bellfry and looked out over the town. There were a lot of spiraling stairs, but the view was worth it! Then we went into the Cathedral and saw the ‘trésor’ (treasure). Everything was gorgeously crafted and so old! We also ordered drinks at an outdoor café. I had an orangina and felt very French.
In short, a wonderful first day!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Almost there!

 This morning I flew safely into JFK airport in New York City! It was cloudy, but we could see the skyline, and I think I might have seen the Empire State Building. If not, it was a super big building anyway!
   I am staying at a really nice hotel near the airport with a lot of other AFSers. There are 12 Americans goings to French-speaking Belgium, including another Sara(h). Surprisingly, already-graduated 18 year olds make up the majority of our group, so I am not alone. There's even another Salutatorian/in our group.
   They have fed us well and reiterated a lot of methods for dealing with cultural adjustment today. Tomorrow we go over safety, don out newly acquired, bright yellow AFS shirts, and head out for Brussels! I can't wait to meet my host family! And to see Belgium!