Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Complete Sentences

    I have been sick this week, but I am feeling better, and I’m even perky enough today to write complete sentences! Hooray! Blogging time!
 I’ve had several cultural notes that have been rattling around in my head for the last 4 months but never made it on paper. Until now.
1.                    Drinking and drinks (not exclusively alcohol) are extremely important in Belgian culture. If you enter someone’s house, you will be asked what you want to drink. Don’t say no. Cafés here are places to come in and drink something with friends---no food involved. Good drinks are important, and this is partially why Belgian beer is such a big deal.
2.                    On that note, Champagne is known as the drink of the dead because it’s supposedly so invigorating that it will raise the dead.
3.                    Stores here are not logically organized. At all. Have fun finding the flour and the sugar---they will be nowhere near each other. Neither will the vanilla or Oregano even though they are both used to flavor things. Shopping becomes a scavenger hunt.
4.                    Also, often large supermarkets do not carry things like hand sanitizer or baking soda---those things are sold in pharmacies (which are not part of the supermarket, like in American Walmarts).

On to more general stories and such.
I got an inside look at the Belgian medical system a while back---mandatory physical to be able to work in the field as an educateur for school. None of us had to pay---free physicals here. Sweet. The patients are called by a nurse, who then designates a cabin (basically like a stall) where they leave their coat. Then they are taken through a door on the opposite side of the stall to a room where basic info is taken by a nurse. I noticed that while they used a computer occasionally, most of the information was kept on paper. Then the patient is returned to the cabin to wait for the doctor, who takes them to yet another room to do their exam. I guess they save money on fully equipped rooms, but on the other hand it’s rather discomforting being asked to leave your pants in a cabin and then follow a doctor down a hall to the exam room. I suppose they coordinate these things carefully to avoid patients meeting each other in their underwear, but still. Plus your coat and anything else you might leave in there is prone to walking off because those cabins are not locked or protected from the general public sitting in the waiting room reading People magazine.
Sunday Julia and I got to go with Fezzy to Tourcoing to an exhibition of Eugène Leroy’s art. I had never heard of him before, but it was pretty cool stuff---lots of huge paintings with literal inches of paint over materials. His style had a lot of texture and was relatively abstract. Julia and I had a lot of fun reading the titles and then comparing our views of the subject and finding other interesting things like dogs and extra faces. Lovely afternoon.
Hopefully I will be feeling better tomorrow and I can pursue some socializing with Belgian friends for the new year---I really really hope I can! Marianne is on vacation this week, as are Jean and Gilles, so if not there will be other quieter things I can get into. We'll see.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Joyeux Noël à tous! Merry Christmas everyone! It’s a beautiful cold, sunny, snowy day here in Kain. Even the wet-blanket humidity has let up for gorgeous, dry, very-reminiscent-of-Alaska weather! Huzzah!
I am rather groggy today, as the Belgian tradition prescribes Midnight as the proper time to open gifts, but I will do my best to piece my thoughts together in coherent English. Yesterday, Christmas Eve (Christmas for Icelanders and Belgians), Julia and I had school. That’s right. School on Christmas. We’d already received our report cards Thursday (I passed all my finals!!! YUS. And Julia did better on her English final than I did. Hem.). Thus, out of 55 5th level Education students, 8 of us showed up to have a little breakfast together and play guessing games for the morning.  I wasn’t much help when it came to matching jingles to ads and brands, but man I know my Disney songs! Plus francophones singing Barbie Girl and Eye of the Tiger is always worth some giggles.
            In the evening we (Julia, Marianne, Jean-Pierre, and I) loaded up and cookies and presents and crawled along the icy roads to Denis’ to celebrate with their family (this entails Cécile, Pépé, Robert, Carole, Romain, Antoine, Maxime, Martine, and Denis of course. Plus Choupie the Shih Tzu.) They were all extremely warm and welcoming (as usual) and I felt right at home in no time. We chatted and belted out ‘Champs Elysées’ and other songs over a delicious repast. Antoine played Ode to Joy on the recorder and the three boys sang us some special Belgian songs. I ate lobster for the first time, and almost succeeded at breaking it open with a hammer--I was a bit too timid to really beat it right there on the dinner table. Luckily my neighbor, Cécile, didn’t have that issue. Marianne started a fad of wearing some of the table decorations as hair bows and barrettes, and Cécile brought a mini santa hat that made the rounds as well---we were quite the festive bunch! At midnight we opened gifts in accordance with Belgian tradition. Everyone opened one at a time together. The gifts had names written on them, but didn’t have who they were from written on them---little cultural difference. Of course this information was relatively easy to find with the conversations and whatnot. Denis made a special exploit---he managed to bring me a 2 ft tall, less than 1 cm thick, Speculoos Père Noël all the way from Brussels---all in one piece! He is quite handsome, and I am sure he will be quite delicious when I can bring myself to break some of him off to eat. Another very special present was a necklace Antoine made himself, decorated with the Belgian and Alaskan flag. I am also armed with books on Belgian recipes and paintings, plus some French CDs to work on my music literacy. I am so thankful for these generous, welcoming people that make up my Belgian family! After presents came desert, in 6 or 7 forms, including éclairs, chocolate mousse, and buches de Noël. Maxime was so tired he fell asleep on the couch with his chocolate mousse unfinished. We got home around 2 PM and slept like…well, like buches de Noël (Yule logs).
            So today we slept in and are taking it easy. While Christmas is a joyous celebration and definitely an important time to experience Belgian culture, I’m kinda relieved to have made it through---Christmas is tough on exchange students. I’ve had some bouts of homesickness in the past couple weeks, but nothing I couldn’t survive. I think the anticipation of Christmas was the hardest part. It’s hard to know that all my friends in college are heading home and we’re not. Plus many people, Belgians and Americans, ask whether I’m going home for the holidays. As AFS says, getting involved and doing something is the best cure. Plus, everyone I’ve talked to always says that social connections, language acquisition, and comfort levels of an exchange really pick up after the Christmas mark. Well, I made it! Less than 7 months left of Belgian awesomeness!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Few More Details

Another few details I forgot that are worth mentioning:
1.     The worship group of Marie Jeunesse put together a selection of gospel pieces---what a treat! They had an adorable French accent, but they belted out Go Down Moses like real American Baptists!
2.     In comparison to my last weekend with other Christians, I could understand and participate in conversations so much more easily! Other noticed too. I got most of the sermons and bible readings, and I even understood some of the jokes the first time! J
3.     Belgians also play the game where you wrap up a present with lots of tape and then try to open it with gloves on. Fun to watch in all languages!
  Here are some photos of fun in the snow:
                                            Waiting for the train in the snow with Ange!
                                           I got to stay here...feeling very Euro
                                            2 lovely friends
                                           Benjamin and Natalie talking over desert
The Train Station

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow...

            Christmas vacation has finally arrived, and with it, Alaskan-caliber snow! It’s been snowing since Friday, and we’re supposed to get more tonight---this is the most snow Belgium has seen for 90 years (everyone says it must be my fault)! This has caused a mini-crisis as far as transportation goes here; all the buses are out of service, the trains are a mess, and the few cars are crawling along because they don’t have snow tires or 4 wheel drive and snowplows don’t exist.
            Despite all the snow, I went to Ciney (towards the Ardennes) for a Christmas gathering with Marie Jeunesse this weekend. Marie Jeunesse is a Catholic community specifically for young people that was started in Quebec and has stations all over the French-speaking world. This weekend was a Christmas get-together---services, prayer, and a potluck (I learned that there is no word in French or even in Flemish for potluck. It’s not a very common tradition either. How sad!).  There were a lot of Quebecoise there, plus people from Martinique, Rwanda, Tahiti, and even another American from Wisconsin, so we were a very international Christian family. There were a lot of people there that I had met at Soulfest, so it was really wonderful to see people that I already knew (whenever I recognize someone here in a public place or just in general it’s a big deal---makes me feel like I’m in Palmer again where you can see friends in the post office or Fred Meyer’s all the time.) We learned ‘7 carrés’ (7 squares), a Quebecoise dance, played games, watched skits, and worshipped together. I also attended an ‘adoration’ for the first time---prayer in shifts all night. My slot was at 2 am to 3 am. It was a very peaceful and special time with God, and it was totally worth it. I spent a very enriching weekend there with them and enjoyed friends’ company all the way back to Tournai on the snow-delayed trains.  My spirit is renewed and I am totally ready to celebrate Christmas in real Christian joy now!
            Some more Belgian sayings: mange les pissenlits par les racines= eating dandelions by the roots= pushing up daisies
Pouvoir marcher contre le vent=able to walk against the wind= you’ve eaten well
            An Icelandic saying: (I don’t know how to say or write it in Icelandic) I don’t poop money= Money doesn’t grow on trees (you should have seen my face when Julia tried to use this expression)

Friday, December 17, 2010

4 month note

    4 months today! Only 7 months left...
 Two interesting facts I have forgotten to mention:
    1. FML was originally a francophone website (for those of you who don't know, fml stands for 'f--- my life' and is a website full of ironic/funny stories posted by readers. Extremely popular).
    2. The infamous chicken dance and song were created by Belgians (known here as the duck dance). The world owes them a debt.
   One week until Christmas and only one more final left! All my finals have been just fine, although the teachers keep checking up on me. We find out Thursday how we did; no suspense-relieving iparent here!
    We had a real snowfall last night that's been able to hold up to the sunshine today. I took Touchtou to go play in the snow, Miss 36 too, and they had a ball. Touchtou kept losing the frisbee in the snow, so he had a game of hide and seek on top of the regular fetch. Now my lil buddy is sleeping next to me here on the bed, all tuckered out.
   This weekend I am going to a Christmas potluck with Marie Jeunesse. I am bringing a carrot-raisin-pineapple salad. Should be fun!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


As expected, Paris was spectacular. Julia, Gilles, Jean, Marianne, Sabine, and I all loved meandering along the Seine, strolling the Champs Elysées at night, touring the Musée d’Orsay and wandering through the Isle de Cité to find dinner. It was great not to have an itinerary or a schedule and just be able to go and do what we wanted in no particular hurry. All of us had been to Paris before (are we lucky or what?), so there was no pressure to see every single sight or anything like that. We enjoyed the Louvre, Notre Dame, Galleries Lafayette, Monmartre, and so much more.  We got pretty good at using the Metro, found lots of scrumptious French food, and laughed often. I could definitely see the difference in my French skills from my last visit, and Paris didn’t seem like such an alien world as before---after all, it’s only an hour and a half away from Tournai by train!
            I could rattle on for a lot longer, but I have to go study for my final tomorrow. Sigh.  Suffice to say I’m wearing a sweatshirt that declares ‘J’adore Paris’ and my host family rocks!

Thursday, December 9, 2010


            Just FYI: I am really really loving my time here; I am so glad I decided to come. I am confident that I can express myself sufficiently in French to take care of just about anything (give or take a few misunderstandings) and that I can adapt to whatever comes my way. I have stepped outside how I defined myself at home, and I’m getting a taste of adulthood.  I consider myself pretty well adapted now. Belgian school and our routine are feeling like ‘normal’, and I am dreaming partially in French. I have Belgian friends that I hang out with outside of school, and I’ve even caught myself using ‘we’ to talk about Belgian people. I am blessed!
         For those of you who like hearing about food: read on! For those of you who can’t stand to read another eulogy about various European foods: ye be warned.  Sunday we were generously invited to Denis’ for dinner. When we arrived, Denis showed me that he had drawn a map of Alaska on a chalkboard in his kitchen, complete with the Brooks Range and lots of blue ocean!  I got to mark Palmer with a big pink X. We were then shown into the festive living room and this is where the culinary voyage began.
Now I knew that Denis likes to cook, but wow. This food was MAGNIFIQUE. I am going to attempt to describe what we had---Denis, forgive me for slaughtering the names and finer details!
We started off in Belgium with several appetizers featuring Coquilles St. Jacques (big clam thing that I don’t know the name for in English), a wonderful pumpkin soup, some kind of cooked squash with several other sauces, duck paté, and champagne. We then departed for the dining room and Ireland/Russia: Vodka served in ice glasses, several versions of smoked Irish salmon and a dill sauce. We also enjoyed a bit of traditional Belgian marzipan in honor of St. Nicolas. The next course took us to France: smoked duck, duck paté, bread, and foie gras with red wine. I have been told that people either love or hate foie gras. This was my first try, and I discovered that I am the loving kind. Foie gras is like nothing else I’ve ever had---it almost melts in your mouth, but it’s meat. Duck liver, in fact. Put this on your bucket list if you’ve never tried it. We then headed to the south of Belgium, the Ardennes, with smoked ham cooked with morel mushrooms. Glazed turnips, green cabbage, a salad, and fried potatoes were also served. In conclusion we enjoyed chocolate mousse in the living room accompanied by some desserts that Julia and I had brought to share (Icelandic pastries and good ol’ chocolate chip cookies. Denis liked the cookies) and coffee. Several varieties of liquor were added as a post script. Each and every dish was exquisite, and we enjoyed each and every one! We spent a lovely afternoon laughing, eating, drinking, and speaking and listening to a mixture of French, English, Dutch, and German. Merci beaucoup, Denis!
            I also learned from Denis that Père Noel (Father Christmas) originally dressed in green here, but in the last 50 years he has gone to red, thanks to Americans and Coca-Cola. Good old cultural dispersion.
A couple weeks ago I went to Charleroi to wish a fellow AFSer au revoir at the end of her trimester program. Charleroi has been called the ugliest city in Europe, and it has a bad reputation as far as crime goes. That said, it’s also more metropolitan than some other cities and we had a wonderful afternoon. We ate at a Belgian-middle eastern place (frites and kebabs), went shopping, took photos with St. Nicolas, and had a great time hanging out together in general.  I found Jane Eyre in French in a huge bookstore, so I’m working on reading that now. We also checked out the Christmas market (they’re pretty common in the towns right now) and the Christmas specialties (hot wine, escargots, sausage, punch, and waffles, of course). We made a scrapbook to surprise our departing friend and gave it to her in a café after sharing some Belgian beer. Tissues were in demand. It’s incredibly powerful to share the experience of growing into French-speaking Belgians together. We come from so many different backgrounds but we share the same problems, the same delights, and even the same basic, butchered French!
Speaking of French: WE’RE GOING TO PARIS THIS WEEKEND!!! Marianne and Sabine are attending a vet conference there, and Gilles, Jean, Julia, and I get to come along! Yippee! Off I go to check out some Paris maps and pack my warm socks!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Photo Time

Cowboys and Indians

                                         The American with St. Nicolas and Père Fouettard

Saturday, December 4, 2010

St. Nicolas at St. Union and Other Things

      Yesterday was quite a day at school. During class ‘St. Nicolas’ and ‘Père Fouettard’ showed up to tease us and give us candy. My classmates insisted that the American get her picture taken on St. Nicolas’ lap since she had never met him before. That afternoon all the Education classes put on their annual St. Nicolas animations for the elementary kids. Our class’ theme was cowboys and Indians, so I got to dress up like an American! Ha. I was also rather helpful with some English spellings of ‘Farwest’ and such. Our obstacle course went relatively well, and I got to teach kids how to say bonjour in Indian and Cowboy (howdy and how---those h’s were rather tricky).  It was a lot of fun to see everyone dressed up like cowboys, Indians, Baloo the Bear, Tigers, Gypsies, Cinderella, and more. There are no school spirit days here, so seeing all the well-dressed Europeans being a bit goofy was especially delightful.
            Our report cards also came in yesterday. I am passing all of my classes (I had a little tweaking help for my language issues in one class, but other than that, I did it all normally)! Hooray! Hopefully it will stay like that through the finals, which are coming up next week. All the finals are worth more than all the other work we’ve done this year, and all 8 of them are cumulative. Yeesh, I’ve got some studying and memorizing to do! At least I know I’ll pass English!
            Speaking of the scholastic system, I have realized how extremely convoluted and complicated Belgian and European systems of running things are. At the school level, every teacher only teaches a few classes at each school, so they don’t come every day and have to travel in between. This makes arranging classes a bit complicated. We recently had a class taken away from one of our teachers and given to a brand new teacher---week and a half before finals, and we still have our original teacher in some another class. So now we have a whole new ball game for the finals. Belgian politics are so complicated I’m not even close to being able to say anything about how they run---even Belgians don’t really know. I DO know that when I tried to send a package through the mail it was a small nightmare because all the post offices have been being downsized and moved despite the same demand. At the international level, the European parliament somehow functions (I put their efficacy in serious doubt) with 785 members and 23 different languages. Then there’s the European Commission with 27 members, the European Counsel with the 27 head shmos of each country, and the Council of Ministers with 27 members for each different department.  The European Court of Justice has 27 judges that rule on each case---3 times as many as in the American Supreme Court. I will never complain about the American government being cumbersome or complicated again.
            Another note: European governments are also much more repressive in some ways than the US. For instance, the 2nd amendment, right to arms---forget it. You also do not have the right to be openly racist. They do have an actual document for the Rights of Man, but apparently being racist is not one of them.
I have learned some new Belgian sayings:

Sauter du coque à l’âne= jump from the rooster to the donkey=to change subjects randomly
Punaise=thumbtack= crap, dang it, etc. (not a real cuss word)

Friday, December 3, 2010

St. Hubert

I have some catching up to do. Several weeks ago, Cécile and the pony club put on their annual show for St. Hubert (the patron saint of dogs and horses. All the ponies are blessed each year). Of course, a buffet was also available, as well as plenty of things to drink.  Jean-Pierre, Julia, and I enjoyed the frites and porkchops that Marianne helped make and then settled in to watch the show. The little kids performed drill routines with themes like Snow White and Oui-Oui (a British cartoon character) and were simply adorable on their little ponies. The older kids showed off some very well-done dressage and tumbling, and many a proud parent took photos. The highlight of the show (at least for me) was the in-between acts. Marianne started this tradition one year when there was an unusually long pause between acts (naughty pony), and ever since the parents get together and do something silly between classes. This year the theme was Robby and the Jacobettes (I’m told this comes from Robby Jacobs in the TV show Dallas). Marianne and the other parents dressed up in orthodox Jewish costumes and pranced about to Jewish music and everyone’s great delight. It was wonderful to see grown-ups having so much fun. During one intermission Marianne came out in a ‘wedding dress’ to re-enact Robby Jacob’s marriage. After a spirited wedding dance and their exit, the bride came running back because she had forgotten to throw her bouquet. So she did. With all the force of a full-time, dog-wrangling vet. Rather like a quarterback. The rather heavy bouquet smacked the wall, showering the spectators with straw, and left Julia and I bent over double laughing. Our host mother is awesome.