Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Gauntlet of the week: standardized tests in French. Good thing my scores don’t even count for the school! Standardized testing here is super super lax in comparison to the US---none of the wasted hours and hours going over how to bubble in your name (no bubbling at all, in fact) and security recitals. Even though I couldn’t answer most of the reading comprehension questions completely, I was still pretty pleased with myself for understanding the gist of the story. And I think I might have gotten a few right!
Yesterday Julia and I did errands, and for the thousandth time I was glad to have another student in the house because it gets pitch dark out around 6 PM and walking home for 20 minutes in the dark alone would be unpleasant and possibly creepy. Same goes for walking to school; it gets light around 8, just when we are heading out. Pretty soon it will probably be dark completely, and once again having a walking companion will be very welcome.
Today I had several American moments.  First off, my English class was reading about Thanksgiving. I got a little excited to see something about Thanksgiving the week of, so my teacher had me explain this tradition to them. Most of them thought it had something to do with Christmas, so I told the whole Pilgrim-Indian story and described some traditional food for them. I’ve found that although American ‘culture’ is extremely marketed and lots of American individuals and products are well-known, American culture really isn’t understood. For instance, all Belgians that I have met have been surprised to find out that we don’t celebrate St. Nicolas or kiss each other to say hello. These same Belgians know Lady Gaga, Doritos, and Twilight. Some American items are also adapted but still known as ‘American’, such as their popcorn (sugared instead of salted). Before coming, I thought American culture was pretty well worn-out and uninteresting thanks to Hollywood and all our other marketing, but it turns out that there are a lot of cultural elements to America that are not obvious to the international audience. My second American moment came during science class when a video had some interviews with American cancer researchers with wonderful Midwestern accents. Everyone else had to read subtitles but I understood everything. –Insert smug grin here-
Today we went to the movie theater with the class.  I had been once before, this last weekend, with Marianne, Jean, and Gilles (we watched a French film called ‘handkerchiefs’ that was actually really good and I mostly understood.) The movie theater here is very Americanized and very nice---very cushy seats and very clean. Here in Belgium they have intermission during the movie, and I think I like this. It’s a nice break to discuss the film, and it gives me a chance to figure out what I missed! Our class and quite a few others watched ‘Le Rafle’, a movie about French Jews during WWII. I bawled my eyes out. And not just once. The movie finished and I was still wiping Catharsis off my face. Sigh. I guess I can take that as a sign I understood the movie well!
We are supposed to have snow by the end of the week! Guess who's super excited to see some familiar white fluffy stuff??? 

Friday, November 19, 2010


Crunchy Speculoos! NOM
                                                                    Cowboy Bread
                                       Belgian Thanksgiving with my Wonderful Belgian Family
                                                        St. Nicolas Chocolate at Chimay

PS: I promise there is more to Belgium than food, but food is a safe subject and very cultural!

PPS: Also, today I understood enough of religion class to explain today why Obama is not a star for many Americans such as myself. (Not that that had anything to do with religion, really!) Hooray for improving language skills!

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Brave Boys, Belgian Notes, Blood, and Cowboy Bread

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!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Finale of the Architect Game

      I realized I never related how Marianne finished paying her architect. She did use a jar of olives, but she added some additional flare. She put a pickle in the jar of olives and then wrote a note to the effect of "careful, some of us have hard centers" and gave it to him. Then she sent his one cent in the mail. HA!

3 Months

This otherwise insignificant, ordinary date marks the third month since I left Alaska. I’ve been here in Belgium for basically a quarter of a year. 8 months remain. Please allow me a little of reflection, even if it seems a bit ridiculous.  These things seem bigger when you are halfway across the world and are prone to homesickness and accomplishing adventures.
I am a little surprised at myself, but I miss snow. Snow is pretty and cozy and also much less WET than rain! Plus it’s so weeeird to see flowers blooming in November! Yet it feels super cold and wet here. Hooray for long johns!
Time seems to be chugging along; the first couple weeks I was here time passed “like a snail dragging a history book” (Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie---hilarious book. Read it.) but now things feel more normal and are going lot faster. All kinds of school projects and trips and tests are whizzing right along!
For instance, today we had our first animation in the field. STRESS. The first hour or so went like clockwork. We had stations set up and divided the young boys into small groups; easy to manage and everyone had a good time. Then we had some larger games that weren’t prepared very well: basically a massacre. Carnage. Anarchy. I was responsible for one of the larger games in between two others--- envision trying to calm and get the attention of 20 screaming, running 8 year olds when you don’t speak their language. Heuh. Luckily our teacher intervened for me and told them that I was American and that they had to be really nice to me because it was hard for me to speak French. Phewf. I made some goofs, there was a bit of brouhaha, but we all survived my animation without absolute carnage. Hopefully this gets easier with practice, because next time I have to do this alone instead of in a group with 11 other students!
I also learned about another Belgian holiday today. In art class we made St. Nicholas out of empty toilet paper rolls and someone asked me if we had St. Nicholas in the US. I thought it was the same thing as Santa Claus, but it turns out that St. Nicholas has his own holiday here. He is kind of similar to Santa Claus (Father Christmas=Père Noel); he brings toys for good children and has a big white beard and wears red. He carries his presents on a donkey and carries a shepherd’s crook. For girls however, St. Catherine is the one who brings the presents. I don’t really understand all the details here. The holiday is December 6, so there are lots of chocolate St. Nicholases and special pastries and candies in the stores now. I guess this is a good replacement for Thanksgiving!
  Some notes on Belgian culture I have forgotten to mention:
Belgians say they are punctual, but they’re not.  If they say that they’re going to do something at a certain time, often they start 5 or 10 minutes later. In school, it’s no big deal if you’re a couple minutes late to class so long as one of the other students can tell the teacher where you are during roll call.
Saying ‘you’re welcome’ isn’t used as much as it is in English. Every now and then someone will say ‘it’s nothing’ or ‘with pleasure’ but a response is not drilled into everyday etiquette like it is in English.
Tomorrow I am going to make cornbread (for real!) and gravy for dinner with some of the cornmeal my church sent me. Oh boy!
I recently learned a nickname for American Field Service (AFS): Another Fat Student. Ha. Unfortunately, it is based on the truth. Almost everyone gains weight on their exchange. Potential exchangers, ye be warned.
OH, I almost forgot, I have to announce that I finished the entire 100 page play we had to read for French class! With two dictionaries and a pencil, I understood the entire thing! The ENTIRE THING. Just wanted to share that very exciting fact. 

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Rain+Chocolate+Fries+Beer+Cheese= Definitely a Day in Belgium

Yesterday we went with AFS to Chimay, a little town in Hainaut famous for beer, cheese, and pickled eel. Our first stop was a chocolaterie for a presentation(and free samples!). The smell alone was worth getting up at 5 in the morning, and it was mesmerizing to watch the chocolatier filling molds from veritable fountains of chocolate of different kinds. He also explained some chocolate facts (like why white chocolate is more expensive) and told us some recipes. I tried to reference the I Love Lucy episode in the chocolate factory but no one else had ever seen it. There was much talk of Charlie and the Chocolate factory, however.
After this little trip to heaven, we had free time to find lunch, and the wetness began.  Belgium has been having horrendous weather this weekend---Thursday we had a wind/rain storm that knocked down several trees, and rain has kept up pretty much since then. Yesterday it was ‘raining ropes’ unceasingly. In French you can say that weather is beautiful (beau) and when it’s nasty out you say that the weather is ugly (moche). Yesterday the weather had a wart on the end of its nose, a black eye, and missing teeth. Despite our umbrellas and raincoats, we were dripping by the time we made it to a friterie. We draped our coats on a nearby heater and left full of hot frites, sauce, and new courage.
Little did we know we were hopping out of the frying pan into the fire. We made it back to our rendez-vous at the tourism center and found out that we were heading out for an hour and a half walking tour of Chimay. The tour guide had excellent English (although this was his first tour in English for native English speakers in 6 years) and gave an interesting tour of the local church and monuments. I had no idea, but some of the cobbled streets here date back to the 17OO’s. Wow. We were walking the exact same street as contemporaries of the French Revolution. I thought that was very cool. Chimay was originally settled around 1000 or 1100 (I forget which) and was mostly a forested region. Iron working and limestone was big in the region, as was the church. The local monks created the now-famous Chimay beer and cheese. The church was beautiful, primitive gothic, and DRY. We enjoyed our 15 minutes in there very much.
We survived the tour and returned to the tourism center to watch some videos on Chimay specialties and wring out our clothing. The videos showed us how the beer and cheese was made, and then we got to try some. The beer was, well, beer (bitter and not very good) but was better than some varieties I have tried. The cheese, on the other hand, was delightful, with and without celery salt. We shared our Belgian repast and then headed out to wait for the bus (more rain) that would get us back to the train station in Charleroi.
All in all, it was a worthwhile day. We students have been here almost 3 months, and now we are having more and more conversations in French between ourselves instead of just English. I find it is so much easier to be social and outgoing and friendly in English or with English to fall back on. A day to use my English and be outgoing was very welcome, even if it was rather soggy. I got soaked right down to my voting card in my wallet, even with the advantage of a raincoat, and today I am rather snuffly.  Jane Austen, I will never make fun of your characters for getting their feet wet and then catching cold and almost dying again. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

My School

I realized that a photo of my school might be an interesting thing to put here. So here's the website: Sainte-Union
This is a distant, flattering photo. The building was an English hospital during the 2nd World War and has been through a lot.

Monday, November 8, 2010

As American as Apple Pie

I have accomplished my project for the week: Mission Belgian Thanksgiving complete! While I am deeply indebted to Mom for sending me oodles of recipes and instructions (Merci!), I am quite pleased with myself for making a Thanksgiving dinner all by myself; it makes me feel rather grown-up!
After poring over Mom’s recipes I went trundling off to the store with my trusty backpack to find turkey and lard and other strange items (I asked about an entire turkey and the store clerks looked at me like I was nuts. Those only appear here around Christmas).  Turkey is not very popular here (except at Christmas. I guess a whole turkey has become a tradition); there are large sections of duck, lamb, pork, rabbit, and chicken, with even some pheasant thrown in, but only a smidgen of turkey. Luckily I found some nice turkey thighs that served quite well. Saturday I made real American apple pies without catastrophe, and Sunday morning I made stuffing, baked the turkey thighs, mashed the potatoes, dug out the cranberry sauce, set out the olives, cooked the veggies, and whipped out the gravy. All without catastrophe. Marianne remarked that I seemed rather serious and wasn’t singing like I tend to in the kitchen---I was too busy trying to think of everything I might have forgotten and what was in the oven and what could possibly burn, boil over, or get cold!
Once Pépé came I started breathing more easily, and we had a nice chat while he helped me finish. Cécile, Gilles, Jean, Jean-Pierre, and of course Marianne, Julia, and myself were also present. I took pictures of everybody and made them all say something they were thankful for before the feast. Everyone took my little traditions in stride and we had a lovely festive feast, complete with champagne and apple pie and ice cream for dessert. We all ate a little too well and got sleepy in the true Thanksgiving spirit, and of course there were the mandatory Thanksgiving leftovers. Success.
Today I shared some of my precious American peanut butter with my class (I had told them that it is different than the stuff here; less sugary). The brave Belgians curiously sampled some with little plastic spoons and I watched their faces to see what they thought.  There were quite a few delighted raised eyebrows, some quizzical frowns, and only a few horrified grimaces. My health teacher tried it and really liked it too. Most of them were really surprised how salty it was. So now they have been properly introduced to the wonders of American cuisine.
 Also: Deedee, I am wearing the magnificent fingerless gloves you made! My fingers are wonderfully toasty and I can type at the same time! What's more, the colors match my favorite coat. Thank you very very much! 

Friday, November 5, 2010

Forgotten Food

Another thing I forgot to mention about last weekend: I discovered the pleasant traditional Belgian breakfast and the…not so pleasurable pressed head.
The Belgian breakfast consists of a bowl of coffee, hot chocolate, or tea. Not a cup---a bowl. Then you take a sandwich with butter, jam, and/or chocolate spread and dip it in the forementioned bowl of hot liquid and devour. Oh so good.
            I discovered pressed head quite by accident. It was this mysterious meatloaf-looking stuff that didn’t look too dangerous, so I took a slice and added a generous dollop of mustard at Benjamin’s suggestion. During the meal, after I had eaten about half of the gummy, wet stuff and discovered that horseradish was an important ingredient in the mustard, someone asked what the meatloaf stuff was. After a description of boiling pig heads, extracting brain matter, and pushing it together in forms, I regarded my not-so benign slice of meat with a whole new perspective. Luckily I had plenty of mustard left.
            And while we’re speaking of food: I found cranberry sauce here in Belgium! Hooray for my Thanksgiving meal-to-be! 

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Short Stories

There's a new edition to Marianne's interactions with the architect. He found his payment was missing 5 cents. She said she was pretty sure it was there, but he affirmed that it was missing---he counted ALL the coins twice. So Marianne made a cootie catcher (paper dealie for kids) and put 4 coins under some of the flaps and wrote 'no luck, it's lost' under the others. She then put the cootie catcher in 3 or 4 envelopes, increasing in size, and delivered it. The game continues; he's coming again for his 1 cent and she's dreaming up a new scheme for it now. Perhaps 1 cent in an olive in a jar of olives? 

Another humorous occurrence: Coming back from Libramont, I was using a Go Pass for my train ticket. For each trip you have to fill out the departure and arrival station and the date on the ticket, and then perhaps during the trip the conductor comes and punches it (perhaps not). This particular time the conductor came asking to see our tickets. I groggily gave him my filled-out ticket and waited for him to hand it back. Instead he studied my ticket and frowned and said something fast in French. When I asked what was wrong, he said something to this effect: 'I don't know what you've been smoking, but this says it's the 11th of January'. Horrified, I realized I had written the date like a crazy American, with the month first instead of the day. I started to worriedly explain, but he cut me off, handed back my ticket, and walked away laughing. Oh la la. The other kids with me remarked that since it didn't specify on the ticket which was the day and month my ticket technically wasn't wrong.  Even so, I'll try to be more European next time!

Thank you!

To everyone in the UP Church up in AK:
  I got your package yesterday! Thank you so much! I am enjoying every little bit of that box, from decorating my room with the cards, laughing at he cornmeal, ogling the flashy office supplies, right down to reading the funnies that were used for stuffing! You made my day!
   On another note, just FYI (for your information): We changed our clocks here this weekend, much to my confusion. I thought we were horrendously late, but turns out everything was okey dokey. So for now there's only 9 hours between Belgium and AK time!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Wonderfle should be spelled like Waffle

            This weekend was chuck-full of wonderfulness (I just had to stop and stare at the word ‘wonderful’ and wonder if I should spell it wonderfle. This is becoming a common occurrence. And wonderfle makes sense because it is spelled like waffle, which is another way to say wonderful).
            Our class was recruited to work at a cross-country race for the elementary schools, so we didn’t have any classes Friday. Instead, I got to try to help control hundreds of rowdy, infantile francophones. Oh la la. I worked in the warm up station, so after a day full of jumping jacks and encouraging small children I was pretty whipped.  With the help of friends and some chocolate, I made it home and to the train station, where I set off on a 3 hour train trip with Benjamin (a friend from school) for Libramont and Soul Quest!
            Soul Quest, a Christian youth festival, was really a blessed time. There were around 300 youth there, plus 10 or so different Catholic communities (including Marie Jeunesse). I got to meet the Texan brother who had invited me and discovered that quite a few of the brothers and sisters in the communities are Americans and Canadians. I loved hearing the familiar American accents! I also laughed to see how they would speak French and pause and say the very American ‘um’ (Francophones say ‘euh’). What’s more, they offered translation! I took advantage of that for the first speaker and then discovered that I could understand most of what was going on. How absolutely marvelous to comprehend! This has got to be one of the most satisfying parts of being an exchange student.
            Out of this enormous Christian community, I am pretty sure I was the only Protestant. They welcomed me with open arms and answered my questions patiently. I also found that most people didn’t know much about Protestants either (and the different braches of Protestants---definitely not.) so we got to compare notes and teach each other at the same time. I learned what was going on during the mass, the biblical reasons for praying to saints, about the sacrament of confession, and about other facets of a rich and powerful Christian tradition I had never really understood before. I found their style to be much much more physical and concrete than other churches I have seen, and I find that element of their worship to be a positive way to focus the whole being on interaction with God. That said, I also disagree with some elements, but I understand their point of view better now. I had a very rich glimpse into the lives and faith of fellow Christians and came away with a new perspective---it was great!
            Last Friday we got our ‘bulletins’; our report cards. Both Julia and I are doing just fine. I definitely met my goal of passing all my classes, and when the principal called Marianne to talk about our grades he had only smiley faces to report. It was a good way to kick off our week vacation from school! November first is the festival of Toussaint (All Saints) and the second is the Jour de Morts (Day of the Dead). Most businesses were closed down for All Saints day, but Jour de Morts had things back to normal. Halloween was also this weekend, but Halloween is not a big thing here. There are a few people who actually dress up and eat candy, and there’s a teensy bit of trick or treating, but mostly it is an American holiday that they are trying to market here. Like popcorn and peanut butter, it hasn’t really taken off. Jean really likes Halloween however, so he and Gilles spent the weekend at two Halloween parties and actually dressed up. I am anticipating seeing the photos!
            Another story to recount: Marianne had to pay her architect last week, and she normally writes him a poem or some kind of joke to go with the payment. This time she ran out of literary inspiration, so instead she went to the bank and asked for several hundred euros---in coins. Then she took off the wrappings of the different types of coins and mixed them up in a box (it would’ve been just too easy otherwise). He opened the box and called her a bad name and they had a good laugh. Our house is full of laughter.
            I am going to be a busy girl this week; I want to make a Thanksgiving dinner AND my French teacher expects us to read an entire 100+ page play (La Nuit de Valognes) over the break. I am getting ready to delve into it with the aid of my two dictionaries and a pencil, and Benjamin has offered to help me too, so I think I will make it. Hopefully. And by the end I will be oh so proud to have read an entire play in French. Wonderfle.