Thursday, September 15, 2011

Aftermath

No one ever talks about what happens after your exchange is over. Until now. I'm currently in Spokane attending Gonzaga University. I absolutely love it here. The atmosphere is great, the people are open, friendly leaders in their community, and I'm thoroughly enjoying campus clubs and my classes.
How my year abroad affects this year: Definitely in a positive way. Everyone I meet here thinks it's really cool that I spent a year abroad and often want to know what it was like. Gonzaga promotes exchanges for their students, so I can go to the program fairs and have a lot better idea of what they're offering and how to deal with that opportunity. I was able to switch straight into a 300 level French class and I still find it easy. I'm a year older than the other freshmen, which I was a little worried about, but no one can tell and it really hasn't been a problem at all. If anything, I'm more mature and I definitely know how to deal with homesickness and independence a lot better than some freshmen.I know how to stay in contact with friends and how long-distance and long-term separation affects social ties. I'm also a lot more confident in myself and am a lot less sheltered than I would have been otherwise. Calculus was a bit of a shock after a year of tech school, but I'm holding my own, and my English and general academic skills don't seem to have disappeared.
A word on alcohol. Here in the US it's rather taboo to talk about it, but we all know it happens. Since I've been around alcohol in Europe and experienced their less terrified approach to alcohol, I am already aware of some problems that go with alcohol consumption and how different people deal with them. Since I've already confronted the clash between a sheltered, teetotaler lifestyle with the acceptance and more facilitated abuse of alcohol, it's easy to strike a balance between the horror and near-panic some people exhibit when the very word alcohol is spoken and all-out abuse and glorification of drunkenness. No, I won't raise my eyebrows too much or ostracize someone if I hear that they got drunk. No, I'm not going to go out drinking in a country where it's illegal. This balance applies to a lot of disapproved things besides alcohol. Many freshman here have never had to deal with these kinds of decisions before, since Mommy and Daddy were always there looking over their shoulder. I've already been through a limited version of this. So I do have less supervision in college than before, but I had a intermediary step instead of jumping straight from being totally monitored to let loose
completely.
I have made the transition back to functioning as an American. Or I should say, if I were an onion, I have a central core American that was covered with a Belgian layer that has been covered in turn by another American layer. The Belgian's still there, but the American lifestyle and habits are predominant again. That saying, sometimes I still am shocked or appreciate American culture more than before. For instance, our first night at Gonzaga involved a pep band, cheerleaders, and a lot of yelling and going nuts for school spirit. I was bewildered, shocked, and even a little scared. Belgians would never do this. I had forgotten what it's like to be that proud and loudly devoted to an institution. Or a country, for that matter. After the first few minutes I was able to get back into the American groove and remember how cool it is to be purely passionate and patriotic and not worry about things like fascism. Rediscovering religious people was incredibly exciting, not to mention the lack of stares when I say I'm christian.
I also miss Belgium. I miss my family and friends there, and wish international plane flights were shorter and a lot cheaper. Staying in contact with them is hard, but possible. Sometimes I still revert to speaking French. Having a French class and French music really is a comfort---sometimes I just want to express myself in that other way.
I absolutely do not regret spending that extra year and that extra money as an exchange student. I'm a bigger person, my faith is stronger, and my world is a more real and colorful place. I'm already looking up my next study abroad options. You should too.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Homecoming

After 26 and a half hours of layovers and airplanes, I am finally home in good ol' Alaska. Everything seems enormous here---even the people are bigger. After being able to hear Belgian buses and neighbors and other traffic 24/7, the last frontier also seems shockingly quiet. Everything also seems to be newer, and with that impression comes the sensation that there's not as much texture to everything as there was in Belgium. The air is also beautifully clean here. So far my English is doing pretty well, although sometimes I have to pause before I start talking to put something in the proper language. It's a little disappointing to be able to understand everything everyone says; when you don't understand something, you assume it must be wonderful, even when people are just talking about toe jam. Now the mystery is gone and it's just toe jam.
When I came in from the airport I thought I would cry a lot, but it turned out that I was so so overjoyed to see everyone I just had a great big grin from ear to ear and gave everyone bear hugs. Some of my friends surprised me and came too, and it was probably one of the happiest moments of my life to see all those people waiting there for me just as excited as I was.
Leaving Belgium was another matter. It was so difficult to walk away from Marianne, Jade, Julia, Cécile and Jean-Pierre, not knowing when I would see them again. These people mean so much to me, and it's still hard for me to understand that they are so very far away and that I won't see them next week. We all boohooed quite heartily, and stocked up on bisous before I went blubbering through security. I am going back to Belgium, I don't know when, but I am determined that I am going to see those people again before I die.
I've found my family here changed but very much the same. The house has been pretty well rearranged, so I'm still trying to find space to put all my stuff away and figure out where a few things are kept. There's some new little habits and things, but they're still the same people I love. My sister is almost taller than me, but not quite, so I can still gloat over her for now. She seems so grown up to me. I also feel a lot more grown up than when I left; I'm more confident, more independent, and more laid back. I am so glad I spent this year abroad. It was the experience of a lifetime, and now I have so many more special people in my life than before. When asked if I was nervous for college, my response was 'why would I be scared? They speak English there!'
I have 6 weeks here at home, meeting my friends and getting myself organized, and then it's off to Gonzaga University in Spokane. The next adventure awaits!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Dernière Semaine

The last week has finally pounced, the suitcases are filling frighteningly quickly, and addresses and final hugs are being shared all round. And up until the last minute, we've been making the most of Belgium.
Sunday we spent with Marianne, Cécile, and Pépé on the nearby 'mountain', la Mont d'Enclus, where we took the dogs for a walk and enjoyed the sunshine. And some good Belgian food, of course. The café with the great ice cream is pretty much the biggest reason most people bother climbing the hill. Afterwards we played a round of miniature golf, which I'd never done before. My game was pretty catastrophic, but Julia and Jade weren't too far behind, and we had a lot of laughs and a lot of fun. Americans missing the ball entirely and Icelanders sending the ball into their host mother's direction makes anyone giggle.
Monday night we went out for a final soirée with Sharon and Benjamin with a few other buddies from school. We had some good Belgian beer, went bowling, and had a good time reminiscing over the year and just being together. I will miss the students of Saint Union. Thank heavens for skype.
Tuesday Jean-Pierre took Jade and I to Kortrijk, a Flemish town about 20 minutes away. We visited the local museum to learn all about the battle of Gulden Sporen (Golden Spurs), which took place in 1302 in Kortrijk. The gist of the story is that a bunch of Flemish farmers rebelled against arrogant French aristocrats and these untrained foot soldiers managed to rout a sizable group of elite French Knights. The French won the war of course, but the historically unimportant battle became a romantic story and is a touchstone for Flemish and Belgian pride and identity now. The museum was extremely well put together, and the local politics of the day were really well explained. Belgium sure has a complicated, long history. With lots of wars. We also visited the local church, which was gorgeous (I'm going to miss visiting old churches) and checked out some ancient bridges before heading home. Not to mention I picked up a few more Dutch words; Dutch and English is incredibly similar. I can guess at a lot of it when it's written, and the accent isn't too hard to get, except for the g's. Keep learning right up to the last day!
Yesterday we went to Liege to say goodbye to other exchange students in the carré, a famous block of student-catering bars. Many flags were signed and we enjoyed even more Belgian beer. We might have eaten a few waffles too.
So overall: I can't decide whether to jump up and down about going home or whether to bawl my eyes out. I saw an American flag and almost started crying; I can almost imagine getting some kind of Belgian tattoo because it's my second home. I can't wait to hug my family and tease my friends in English, and I can't believe that I won't be able to joke about 40 dogs and say cowly beautiful anymore or be crazy with my two sisters here. Marianne has two more exchange students coming next year; I can't wait to talk to them and hear about their adventures in this crazy house. Life just doesn't stop moving.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

What You Won't Learn in French Class

I have come to the realization that the world geule is used in jillions of expressions and is never taught in French class. Probably because it's a little rude. But really, it's used for everything. So here's the scoop.

la geule= mouth of a dog or animal, muzzle

Ways to use this word:

1. (fermer) Ta geule= (close) your geule= shut up (rude)
2. Faire la geule= to do/make the geule= give someone the silent treatment
3. Tirer la geule= to pull the guele= give the evil eye, give someone a dirty look
4. Se casser la geule= break your geule= have some kind of accident and hurt yourself, wipe out
5. Je vais te casser la geule= I'm going to break your geule= I'm gonna beat your face in
6. grande/grosse geule= big/fat geule= big mouth, noisy
7. regarde sa geule=look at his geule= look at his face/facial expression
8. Engeuler= the verb form of geule= to yell at someone
9. Avoir une geule de con=have a stupid geule= look stupid, seem stupid
10. geuler=another verb form= shouting
11. futre de la geule de quelqu'un=f--- of someone's geule=to laugh at someone

Voilà. Little slang lesson of the day.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

75 Things from Belgium

Here's some random things I've learned or never done before this year. Some are interesting, some are more just life skills or random tidbits I never had before. Happy perusing.

1.How to take a bus (don't forget to push the button to get off!!!)
2.How to eat with an upside down fork in my left hand
3.How to text (yes, I know, I'm weird, I never texted before this year)
4.Eaten nothing but fries with mayo for lunch
5.Danced in a flashmob
6. Bought a waffle from a vending machine
7. A little Icelandic...at least I can say the name of the volcano!
8. How to take a train
9. Been to Catholic Mass
10. Used an ATM
11. Made Thanksgiving dinner all by myself
12. Been to Madame Toussaud's
13. Been to Amsterdam, Cardiff, Cologne, and so many other places
14.Said Bon Appetit before eating
15. Casually kissed virtual strangers
16. Paid to use a public restroom
17. Ignored a fire drill
18.Seen real Van Gogh, Bosch, Memling, Rubens, Magritte, and Van Eyck paintings
19. Saw a katydid
20. Slept with 5 dogs in my bed
21. How to effectively use fountain pens (this is harder than it sounds)
22. Stayed in a monastery
23.Read a French play
24.How to say 999 and cuss words in French
25. Sent 20 postcards at once
26. How to appreciate clean laundry
27. Sat on St. Nicolas' lap
28. Met Père Fouettard
29. Did my math homework in pen
30. Dreamt in French
31. Been asked if I was a real American
32. Ran outside and danced because it was snowing
33. Fed noodles to a chinchilla
34. Met someone from: Cameroon, the Faroe Islands, Brazil, Ecuador, Iceland, Iran, Turkey,Malaysia, Rwanda, Indonesia, and so many other places
35. Danced with a Mexican
36. Eaten raw meat regularly and liked it
37. Cried in a movie theater
38. Cooked without measuring devices
39. Had my own room
40. Gone through an entire school year without a textbook
41. Had a beer in a pub
42. Climbed the Eiffel tower. That makes 670 steps to the 2nd floor...
43. Navigated the undergroud all by myself
44. Been lasergaming
45. Gone rock climbing
46. Been inside the Moulin Rouge
47.Took a TGV first class
48. Had homosexual friends
49. Failed a final
50. A little Dutch
51. Watched CSI Miami in French
52.Been offered a cigarette
53. Been away from home for Christmas
54. Opened Christmas presents at midnight
55. Hoarded peanut butter
56. Stayed with Marie Jeunesse
57. How to dance 7 carrés
58. Stayed in a Hostel
59. Been mistaken for a Dutch speaker or an English person
60. Lived in a house with smokers
61. Had drinks in a bar with friends
62. Participated in Adoration (prayer from 2 to 3 am)
63. Went ziplining
64. Van Gogh is worth seeing in person and Picasso is not
65. Been to Disneyland
66. Been out until after the bars close
67. How to play pool
68. How to open and serve champagne and beer
69. Understood films entire in French
70. Drank boiling tea in hot weather
71. Never call Wales England
72. Belonged in another family
73. Found my way around a European capital without a map or cell phone alone
74. Spelunked
75. Had nightmares about leaving Belgium

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Blitzkrieg of Recent Life

Last Friday Jean-Pierre took the three of us girls to Ghent, known as one of the best cities in the world to visit and one of Europe's hidden jewels, according to tourist pamphlets. It was indeed pretty cool. We started with the cathedral, home of the Van Eyck brothers' masterpiece, the accordingly named Ghent Altarpiece. After staring at the enormous arches and the brilliant stained glass windows which were quite something in themselves, plus a Rubens painting, we paid the extra fee to see the enormous altarpiece. The level of detail in Flemish paintings is always incredible, but the Van Eycks took this to a new level. We're talking something like 37 recognizable plant species in a field scene. And even in person, good luck seeing even one recognizable brush stroke. And then there's the iconography and symbolism. Pretty much the Chuck Norrises of painting. Anyways, it was incredible and totally worth the extra fee.
After enjoying some tea in a little café we went to visit the Gravensteen, the local castle. We spent a good couple hours eyeballing swords that were taller than me, devious thumb screws, and looking out over the ramparts at the rooftops of Ghent. You just can't get away from history here. It's delicious.
Afterwards we walked through Graffiti street to visit a few flea markets. This relatively long alley was absolutely covered in graffiti, and the wall decorations are constantly added to. Nuclear bananas, skulls, poetry, you name it and it was somewhere on those walls. Someone even wrote 'I can't draw'. We came out onto a bustling friday flea market. I found a cheap cheese grater that greatly facilitated my carrot-cake making abilities, and we just had a good time looking over the little oddities that came out of people's attics. After a stroll across a scenic bridge or two we found our way back to the car and headed home. So we can check Ghent off our list of things to be done in Belgium.
Saturday Julia and I went to a Belgian-American barbecue for a fellow AFSer whose family from the US came to visit his Belgian family. It was cool to hear some American accents and see their reactions to Belgium. I had to remind myself not to kiss them hello. It was very weird. They brought real instant pink lemonade and taught Belgians how to make cheeseburgers, and the Belgians brought andalouse sauce and made fries, of course. What a great mix of cultures and people.
We spent Sunday through Tuesday in Libramont for our End of Stay AFS orientation, which was by far the best orientation we've had. We had more free time to spend with our buddies of the past year, and we spent much less time talking about problems than the midstay orientation. Generally everyone is at a high point in their experience, and so the biggest issue to be dealt with was the going home process. Which is nothing to be sneezed at. For some kids it's harder to go home than to go abroad. We read our AFS letters that we wrote to introduce ourselves at the beginning of the year; my goodness how things have changed. For me, I find myself much more independent and much more relaxed than last year. And there's so many other things that have changed. You cannot spend a year in another country, in another family, in another culture, and not change. We also wrote letters to ourself 6 months from now. We'll see what kind of surprises that yields.
When we weren't crying over saying goodbye or reflecting, we were laughing and signing flags and talking to future AFSers. We also had to make up skits about Belgium. Almost everyone made fun of how Belgians blow their noses, noisily and without shame, in otherwise silent, public places. All of us foreigners almost died laughing, and the poor Belgians in the crowd were scratching their heads wondering what was so amusing. The government, late trains, our bad accents, fries, beer, and Belgian sayings were also fair game. It's sad that soon almost no one around me will understand any of these jokes or even know where to find Belgium on a map.
I met several Belgians headed to the states soon, so I tried to explain tipping, sales taxes, the lack of bisous and nose-blowing, and some other important little tips so that they wouldn't be too shocked when they show up stateside. There are so many little things that change.
We hugged our Italian, Serbian, Finnish, Icelandic, Indonesian, and just international friends goodbye and thanked the Lord for the internet and facebook. All of us have a lot of visiting to do now. We have been so lucky to meet all these great people. This never could have happened to me in Alaska.
Wednesday I made an American Breakfast for Cécile, Pépé, the boys, and Fezzy. They had never seen my photos and meticulously prepared powerpoint presentation of Alaska, so I finally got to share that with them. I corrected my presentation first, luckily---I got quite a few chuckles out of my French a year ago. Cécile brought me her French cooking bible, so I have her amazing lemon pie and chocolate mousse recipes. Fezzy brought us some beautiful mugs with persian poetry that she made, and another friend sent us some photo albums she had made for us. And a timer with a hatching chick for me (I once cracked open a fresh egg here to find a wiggling, feathered, living embryo inside...I was scarred...but we got some laughs out of it later. Shudder). Anyways, we all ate pancakes and scrambled eggs and drank champagne (why not?) and had a great time together. I'm going to miss Wednesdays here.
Thursday Julia and I went to Lille to hit up the government mandated sales. Huzzah! We went H and Ming and found some nice, cheap stuff. H and M is super duper popular here, and is a must for all girls. It's also better than the branch in the US, apparently. I lost Julia at one point in the store and nearly resorted to screaming her name, but luckily for my dignity she found me. Finding a blond girl in a white H and M shirt in there was pretty nearly impossible. I didn't let her out of my sight the rest of the time, and we had good girl time.
That night we went to Brussels and pulled an all-nighter. We sat in the Grand Place, helping tourists take photos, and just chatting to people. We then went to Celtica, a local club and had a good time dancing all night. We hit up Mc Donalds around 5 in the morning just before they closed (they are required to close for an hour here. NOTHING is open 24 hrs) and caught the train at 6. We slept for 4 hours or so, then headed off to l'accrobranche at Tournai to climb some trees with some friends from school and Jade. We all survived, had fun in the sunshine, and had fun encouraging each other. And then we came home and slept some more.
Yesterday (finally getting close to the present!) the three of us went to Ghent again for a farewell party for a fellow American. We got to meet her family, and practice our handful of dutch words. Luckily they spoke more English than we do dutch. (me and Julia, not Jade. She's fluent). We had fun looking at funny names on a world map and playing with balloons and drinking bio juice with bio crackers. Her parents are pretty green.
I forgot to mention: I passed all of my classes. Bam.
And today the sun is shining, I have less than a week left in Belgium, and we're going to eat lunch and go for a promenade. And Frenchy is sleeping on top of the birdcage, Jade is playing African monastic chanting, and there are no dogs on the couch. Life is full of surprises. à la prochaine. Til next time.

Advice for Future Exchange Students

Here's some tips that I've found that might come in handy for you future AFSers out there:
1. ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING. Research about your country is great, but there's no way you can avoid being surprised. Being able to take it all in stride and adapt is key to having a good experience.
2. If you're American and used to the crazy non-metric system, convert important numbers (like your weight, height, the highest and lowest temperatures of your home, distances, etc.) and memorize them ahead of time so you can answer questions about your country.
3. For Belgium, pack warm clothes! Especially socks. Long Johns are not amiss either. Humid cold is not to be scoffed at, even by Alaskans. Warm, water-proof shoes are also important.
4. Bring photos of your home that you can carry around with you easily to share. Photos on a computer are great, but it's a lot harder to pass them around a kindergarten class.
5. Learn as much of the language as you possibly can before coming. It will make your life so much easier when you're trying to integrate.
6. Bring clothes that aren't tight. Eating is a way to participate when you can't communicate otherwise, and almost all exchange students gain weight.
7. If possible, get your hair cut before coming to Europe---haircuts here are crazy expensive. Salons charge around 30 euros a pop for women, and men are around 20.
8. Become Yes-man, especially at the beginning: get involved and try everything, even if you are exhausted. It's the best way to integrate and beat homesickness!
9. If you are a picky eater, do your best to get over it. Food is an important way to connect with others, especially if you can't talk much. Cooking for your family is also a great gift and a fun way to share your culture! Americans might consider bringing their own measuring cups.
10. Plan on buying a cheap cell phone or bring one that will work in Europe. Cell phones are just a matter of security nowadays.
11. Do consider bringing a computer; DON'T abuse it and become a hermit in your room. Americans: if you bring a computer bring a plug-in converter.
12. Be up to date on your country's politics and current issues so you won't be ignorant when someone wants to ask you about so and so's stance on such and such.
13. I would definitely recommend American Field Service as an exchange program. I have had absolutely no problems and many successes with them. Simply put, they rock.
14. Take photos, journal, blog, and just savor your adventure! Live it up!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Starting to Sum Up

Last Thursday Julia and I had a hole in our finals schedule so we had a chance to go with Jean Pierre and Jade to do some visiting in the north. We went to Breendonk, a concentration camp from the second world war that's not too far from Antwerp. The guides told us it was a visit of two hours or so, but we spent nearly four without dawdling. The presentation of the camp was minimal and very powerful. We wandered through the halls and barracks with our audio guides, trying to grasp the reality of the horrors that were being described that happened on that very spot. The SS had a Flemish branch that helped run the camp, and I was stunned by the youth of the murderers and prisoners---one prisoner was only 16 and one of the most brutal guards was only 21. Many of the inmates were fellow Belgians. I had known that soldiers would obviously be young, but the realization that people my own age and basically kids were killing and being killed like that really took my breath away. We toured the entire compound, hearing stories, interviews, and descriptions. Torture chambers, gallows, toilets, beds. The worst is that Breendonk wasn't even a death camp---there were worse places. It was a very powerful thing to see and it was definitely something I would recommend doing. Even in the US we are required to read Holocaust literature and we're steeped in WWII stereotypes and stories, but seeing it in person is something else entirely. From what I've seen Europeans are much more conscious and retentive about the World Wars, not surprisingly. Seeing is still more powerful than second-hand information.
After that we took a little detour into Holland to walk about in the sunshine and 'boire un verre' (drink a glass), a very important pass time here. The waiter of course spoke good English. We were talking about the Dutch Stereotype of stupid Belgians and the Belgian stereotype of scroogish Dutchmen when Jade decided to adapt to the country by making a show of tipping the very last drop of soda out of her bottle. The waiter was pretty obviously staring at her. I died laughing, Jade maneuvered her hat to try to become invisible, the waiter kept staring, and we retreated to the less commonly spoken French. Good times.
Saturday night was our going away party. Marianne rented a room, a dj, and basically went all out. We are some spoiled exchange students. It was really wonderful to see all of our friends and family together---so many good memories and special people. We had wonderful Belgian sausages and baguettes and danced and laughed and had a really wonderful time. Around 3 Marianne and Jean Pierre managed to get all of us youngsters back to the house and we all conked out on the sofas. Coffee and tea were very important substances the next day, but it was totally worth it.
I finished my last final today, so now I am done with high school FOR REAL. Hooray! We have to go back to the school next week to get our report cards though, because Belgians don't do online grading. I'm glad; it'll give me a chance to see all my friends again and it lets me procrastinate on freaking out over how little time we have left. Much to do and so little time.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Beens for supper

Lost English of the day: green beens. And is depass a word?
This is the second week of finals at school. There are a lot of finals, but there's only one or two per day so while it takes two weeks to finish them, it also means that you only have to be in school for 2 or 3 hours every day. Plus this last Sunday was Pentecost so we got Monday off.
Seeing as it was Pentecost and time is getting short, I went to the little protestant church Sunday to bid adieu. I think the congregation was a little fuller than normal, maybe 20 people. I was rather disappointed to see that wearing red is not a Belgian tradition for Pentecost. At home everyone decks themselves out in red from vermillion socks to crimson feathery hats and sometimes they even decorate the church. I was glad I had opted for the moderate side and not gone totally berserk with red clothing or I would have been rather odd looking among the primly dressed old ladies and easy-going soccer moms. I did enjoy the service though, and it was good to see some other Christians. I got some email addresses too and said some goodbyes. We also sang the French version of They'll Know We are Christians which was so wonderfully familiar. I can't wait to see my faith family at home. I'm even considering dragging my family to service after picking me up from the airport at 1 am because I don't want to miss a single Sunday!
Sunday afternoon we went to Denis' for a Father's day dinner with the extended family. The theme of the day was Spanish, so we enjoyed paiella, fritata, and many other Spanish salads, sausages, and calamari that I don't know the proper names of. It was all good, and we had a good time sticking ice cubes down each others' shirts and singing around the piano. Denis thoughtfully gave me a National Geographic with an article on a man who did a 7530 km tour of Alaska on foot. Crazy dude. Yet another occasion to practice saying goodbye.
Today I am responsible for supper, so I've been perusing cook books and pondering. Last week Jade and I cooked Costa Rican and made a chicken-avacado-feta salad. It was served in red cabbage leaves because we didn't have raddichio leaves, and it turned out pretty if a little crunchy. We also made a Costa Rican pineapple-prune upside down cake, which was super sweet but not bad. Unfortunately we learned the hard way that not all cream is whippable (gotta have at least 30 percent fat) but our cream still tasted good with the cake. If I have done nothing else in Belgium, at least I have practiced cooking dinner for people!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

5 Wonderful Belgian Things That I Will Miss

1. Public transport. Trains, buses, TGV's...you can get anywhere and everywhere without needing a license or going to the gas station.
2. Cava? Cava. Et toi? Cava. This one word does everything. How are you? Fine. You ok? I'm fine. Alright. And that's without bringing the infinitive into play.
3. Bisous! Kissing people hello is just so friendly. Cold stuffy Americans just wave. Although having glasses can be a bit dangerous.
4. The food. Having 30 kinds of cheese to choose from is lovely. And then there's the chocolate, waffles, fruited beer, mayo, and américain. And this is why I will need a diet when I go home.
5. Most of all, the people. My host family feels like my own family, and our extended family of friends has a special spot in my heart. Being in a house without 10 dogs will seem quite empty.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Koeln




Now all this year Germany and my friend Daniel have been just a few hours away, but last week I finally did something about it. Jade and I grabbed our backpacks and caught a TGV (ICE in English---Inter City Express. I prefer rocket train) to Cologne, just 3 hours away total. It was great to see Daniel again, who had been an exchange student in my school in Alaska two years ago. He actually gave me the idea to do a year abroad. Anyways, his English is almost better than mine, so we all got along and chatted it up in English over the weekend.
He picked us up from the station in a car thanks to his valuable driver's license (it costs up to 2000 euros to earn your license here---driving ain't no joke) and took us by his old high school to have a look-see. In Germany they have 13 grades, and there were windows in every single classroom, but otherwise it looked like a pretty normal high school. On the way to his home we went along a stretch of THE autobahn---how very thrilling! It was through the city, though, so there was a speed limit. But it was still legit.
We stopped briefly at the house to meet his sister and his mother's fish and then left to catch a train into town. Their metro system is expensive, but comes every 10 or 15 minutes and runs all night. Unlike Belgium, literally ALL kinds ride the train. You can see people with purple hair sitting next to stately elderly gentlemen sitting next to a tipsy dude wearing a knit cap. People watching was quite entertaining. We stepped off the train near the town center and then walked across the Rhine on a bridge with a really long German name that I can't spell. The barrier of the bridge was chock full of locks of all shapes and sizes, covered with all kinds of inscriptions. Apparently the romantic thing to do in Cologne is to put a lock on the bridge and toss the key in the river. Some authorities complain that it's destroying the bridge, but removing all the locks would be a tedious and expensive job for the city, so for now they stay. Photographers n tourists love it, and the locals make use of it for romantic dates as well.
From the bridge we had a great view of the cathedral---the tallest in Europe. It was absolutely breathtaking---I've seen quite a few beautiful churches here, but this was really something. Definitely on the same level or even more beautiful than Notre Dame in Paris. The surface was incredibly intricate, and the relatively new stained glass windows were brilliant (they were all lost in the wars. Amazingly, the cathedral itself was spared intact. The rest of the town was pretty well demolished.) It was also marvelously cool inside---it was around 100 degrees out in the sun. I had never experienced heat that like before, and I was quite impressed. The cold stone floors and breezy chapels were very welcome.
We then took a stroll through the town, Daniel pointing out notable restaurants, apartments, and office buildings all the while. We went to a little-known pub with Cologne-brewed beer for dinner. The servers there don't ask if you want another beer---if your glass is empty, you get another one until you say stop. The bill is kept on the backside of a coaster with tally marks. Really hardcore people make it around the entire coaster in one night. I'm generally not a beer beer fan, but this was a nice mild variety. I then discovered that real sauerkraut is nothing like the stuff I've been eating all my life. Wow, it was wonderful. The ham and mashed potatoes weren't bad either, and the portions certainly weren't skimpy. And they say Americans like their meat. Without thinking, Jade ordered a salad---there's been an outbreak of some kind of bacteria in raw vegetables in Germany recently and there are lot of sick people and 20 or so dead. She hasn't died yet, but in hindsight, a salad probably wasn't the best choice for supper. At any rate, we had a nice meal and then headed off to visit the source of the local beer.
At the brewery we got a taste of more of the typical beer and the typical Cologne bartenders---grumpy as can be and the customer is never right. I got all kinds of dirty looks for asking for water instead of beer after a while, and Jade was teased quite a bit for being a French speaker. We had a good time talking and watching the tenders haul kegs of beer in over their shoulder and wash a prodigious number of beer glasses at incredible speeds. We also practiced saying cheers, please, and thanks in German. Around 3 or so we took a taxi home, chatted with Daniel's sister and her buddies on the porch, and then crashed.
We woke up relatively late the next morning and enjoyed a breakfast of good German bread with jam and nutella before heading off for more adventuring. We were going to climb the Cathedral towers, but the line of tourists was so incredibly long that we decided to go do something else and maybe come back later. Here in Europe the Tourist season is in full swing---even in Tournai the Cathedral is full of little English gentlemen and French ladies taking tours. Anyways, we chose to spend the afternoon wandering around Cologne, checking out the other notable points of the city. We stopped back at the same pub for lunch. We had 'half a rooster' which is a Cologne tradition that is actually bread with a slab of Gouda and butter. Nom. We also had mustard and a serious dill pickle---that thing was enormous. And very very good. The mustard tasted 'normal' to me---much like American mustard vs the make-you-cry-with-smoke-coming-out-of-your-ears French stuff. And of course we had more beer. By that time of the afternoon it was well over 100, so we were rather sluggish. We walked around some more afterwards, and then headed back across the river to the local hang-out spot, the park. We laid in the grass and talked for a couple hours, watching some people play a crazy game that resembled something of a medieval battle. They charged each other with foam staffs and swung balls on ropes over their heads trying to hit each other, so I'm not sure how else to describe it. Looked fun. When we had recovered, we headed home.
We went out later to the grocery store to pick up some dinner ingredients. We learned that Jade needs to move to Germany, since wine is about half the price it is in Belgium. Also, that they have really long conveyor belts at checkout and that feeding the bottle recycling machine is fun the first time. Daniel whipped up noodles with mushrooms, and we chilled watching the Hangover and debating whether its French title is better (Very Bad Trip) before we headed to bed.
We caught a train early the next morning because the silly American got her PMs and AMs mixed up and booked a train early in the morning instead of Saturday night. Hem. At any rate, it worked out just fine. I bought a pretzel for breakfast, since I hadn't seen one of those for ages, and some coffee was also welcome. I was apparently still pretty sleepy thought, as I tried to take the escalator going the wrong way. Comic relief, I guess. 3 and a half hours later we were back in Tournai in time for lunch and the traditional parade, the Carlage. Which is yet another story.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Flea Market and Waterloo



Life continues to click right along here. I'm progressively losing my English (how do you spell occasionally? Thank heavens for spell check!), thinking in French, and feeling really and truly at home in this family. When I think about leaving I feel like I'm leaving home all over again, except this time it's less certain I'll be back. It makes me teary just thinking about saying goodbye, so I'll move on to other topics.
Last Saturday I strolled down to the village center to check out a Belgian flea market. I found some deliciously cheap earrings and a scarf among the china teapots, plaster leopards, Star Wars figurines, and ancient typewriters. Thrift stores and consignment stores don't really exist here, so I was really happy to do some treasure hunting that didn't hurt my wallet.
Later that afternoon Jade, Julia, a Canadian AFSer and myself went out for a fondue at a hawaiian café, something we'd been meaning to do since January. The melted Belgian chocolate was quite delicious of course, and we had a nice chat. That night we made peanut butter cookies and goofed around as only exchange students know how. Julia, with her horror of all nuts, tried making nutella cookies (that is the one exception to her nut antipathy) but it turned more into a cake since they spread out a bit much. Happily chocolate is hard to ruin, and the experiment was still perfectly edible.
Sunday I got up early and joined Mina, a Norwegian AFSer, for a day in Waterloo. Yes, how many of you knew that Napoleon got his French booty kicked in Belgium? We visited the Duke of Wellington's quarters which is a 300 year old inn that has been turned into a very informative and interesting little museum. We saw the Lord of Uxbridge's artificial leg he never got the chance to wear, as well as the room he died in and his leg's burial spot. We saw many handsome swords and pistols and banners, and listened to drums and cannons and bugles on our audio guides. We also climbed the Lion Monument that was erected on the spot where the Prince of Orange was wounded in battle. It's a veritable mountain by Belgian standards, and we had a great view of the countryside from on top. The tourist season here is in full swing, so we saw plenty of Americans, Englishmen, Asians, and even some Danish folks who were happy to have a conversation in Danish with Mina. While it was sad to learn about how many men and horses and drummer boys were butchered on the field, it was also very impressive to get the full impression of what courage and discipline it must have taken to be a soldier or general in battle.
Monday I went with Marianne to the pony club for an impromptu barbecue to celebrate Alice's casting in a cooking show. It's a Belgian cooking competition show, featuring culinary students from around the country. Alice was picked out of close to 200 candidates to participate, so we are all very excited. The show will air in January, so Julia and I will have to check it out online or something. We enjoyed champagne, ribs, and Cécile's famous chocolate mousse with strawberries. (I've got to learn how to make that stuff!) It's just the end of the strawberry season here, and they were nearly as exquisite as the mousse.
Later in the week we also went to Veronique's for supper. Gilles, and Jean were there too, so we made up quite a large and lively party, as Jane Austen might say. We sat out in the sun and laughed at the grumpy neighbor's donkey and the loving, drooly dogs. Quite a lovely evening.
Another cultural note I've failed to mention: Godparents actually count for something here. They help with babysitting, throw birthday parties, and are generally like a more involved aunt or uncle. Pretty cool.
To be continued...

Monday, June 6, 2011

AFS Video

I made a video for a project for AFS USA and it's on Youtube! Check it out! Here's the url to copy/paste into your bar because I'm having troubles getting blogger to put a link directly in: http://youtube.com/watch?v=Pv5aeSLEKT8

Saturday, May 28, 2011

As of late

Time to hit up the highlights of the last couple weeks before I forget them. Alors.
Last Saturday night I went to a friend's surprise birthday party. It was great to see her face when everyone yelled surprise and started singing from the balcony above the deck where the tables and chairs were all set up with the dj's equipment and strobe lights. It was a beautiful night and we could see out across the lake to the rampart ruins and ziplines that cross the water. We had a good time munching on pineapple out of our sangria and rocked out to Thriller and Alors on Danse (this song is Belgian, by the way. Check it out) when were weren't just chatting and enjoying each others' company. Good times. I am going to miss these people.
The next morning I came back once again to the lake, this time with AFS for our last committee activity together. Already. It feels like we were getting to know each other on the train to Amsterdam only yesterday. We had a wonderful last day. Our first stop was the swimming pool, which had a pretty cool waterslide, which was also apparently dangerous because Julia came out with a quite spectacular bruise on her shin. After a picnic lunch in the parking lot and playing on playground equipment like the mature adolescents we are, we walked to the Accrobranche to try our hands and feet and everything else at ziplining and tree-obstacle-coursing. It was pretty cool to go swinging through the trees on ropes and various types of bridges, we were basically playing at Tarzan! I also discovered that I am not Tarzan or even Jane as I am definitely not a fan of bridges that consist of little swinging pieces of wood that also spin when you step on them. The biggest two ziplines went over the ruins and across the lake---so cool! We then hopped in the van and took off for lasergaming. This time we played at being Luke Skywalker and had an absolute blast running around a dark maze with laser guns. At the end of the day we were all pretty exhausted and happy. A huge thank you to all the AFS volunteers who organized so many cool activities throughout the year!!!
This week at school clicked right along. Tuesday I was invited to my English teacher's home for dinner, which was nice. I got to meet his Italian wife and 3 adorable children (also their new bunny) and got to know him a bit better too. We had Pizza (can't get much more authentic) and Italian wine and a good time chatting over language differences and school systems. While Europe is united by its money and lack of border control, their school systems have remained pretty much unique according to the country. This makes for a large headache for trying to use professional diplomas in other countries, but otherwise makes sense since education is such a big part of culture and Europe's cultures are all so different.
Wednesday afternoon a couple friends came over and we worked on a psychology project. We took a blanket out into the garden because it was absolutely gorgeous---heat wave weather! When we'd finished we took the dogs for a little walk, not too far because Mamie Rouge got pooperated pretty quickly with her bad leg and the heat. It was great to walk along the canal with two and 4 legged buddies. All the roses and poppies and flowers of all kinds are out and make you catch your breath.
That night we had a full house for supper as usual, plus Jon and his girlfriend came to pick up their dogs who'd been boarding here. Sabine and Marianne just beat Jon and Marianne's operating record of 102 dogs in 2 and half days in Spain, so there was much joking and threatening that Sabine would just have to go every time from now on. We all had a good time and enjoyed some good belgian ham cooked in beer.
Thursday Jade came home from Costa Rica! We were worried that with the Icelandic Volcano (poor Julia was just enjoying the lack of volcano questions, but now they've started up again) her flight would get canceled, but she made it home just fine. I made quiches for dinner, which turned out really good even though what I thought was cream turned out to be sour cream. So, in case anyone ever needs to know, sour cream is just fine in quiches. Thank heavens. They were a hit, and my yogurt cake wasn't half bad either. I'm getting better at this cooking dinner thing. Jade showed off her spanish for us and there were many bisous and hugs that night. We're going to have so much fun together for these last few weeks!
Friday we had our duathlon at school. Julia and I did the same one, swimming and running, and came in 15th and 14th overall(6th and 5th girl), respectively. Yet another new experience. It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, and I might even be in a persuadable frame of mind to do it again. At any rate, I'm happy to be done with the last involuntary gym class of my life!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

9 mois

We've been here for 9 months now, and we only have 50 days left in beautiful Belgium! As I get closer and closer to my host family, I'm also getting more and more excited to see home again. I guess you can't have your cake and eat it too.
Speaking of expressions, here's another few I've picked up:
'to just drool over'= Icelandic way to say 'by the skin of your teeth'
'payer la peau de fesse'= to pay the skin of the butt= to pay an outrageous or very high price
'vachement'=cowly= super, really ie: 'il fait vachement beau'=it's cowly pretty outside
'rahnyahnyah' (this is not an actual word)=PMSing (This one makes me laugh)
Life here is going pretty swimmingly. Last weekend Sharon and I went out on the town. We watched Thor in 3-D (good movie) and then went out to eat. Afterwards we went to a club with a couple other friends. Europeans' adoration of remixing (or butchering) songs was painfully brought to my notice, and I got an idea of what a club looks like even though it was a pretty quiet night. Overall we had a quite a bit of fun.
Sunday we went to friends' for dinner and had a good time admiring their son's insect collections and looking through photo albums. Not to mention enjoying good food, a beautiful garden, and much laughter.
Teachers here are gearing up for exams and students are groaning under the stress of 13 final exams coming up in June.I'm not too worried, especially since I'm not getting any academic credit for this year. What a very odd sensation not to worry about my grades! In gym we've been training for a triathlon next week. When we went running it made me grin to remember how scared I was at the beginning of the year that I would get lost on the running route that I now know confidently.
I guess that's all for now. Just spending time in Belgium, not really touring or visiting or anything, just doing everyday things, is a good way to soak it all in. And only 50 more days to do it in!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Of Scary Syringes and a Belgian Birthday

Saturday Julia and I joined a small group of AFSers to visit Lessines, a smallish town known for Magritte, cobblestone export, and its ancient hospital. We walked past the place where Belgium's most famous surrealist painter was born (in the street fittingly named after him) and admired several monuments and a sky-motif-painted cultural center in his tribute. Magritte was born in Lessines, but didn't stay long. The typical local stone can be recognized in some of his works, though. Apparently the stone around Lessines is perfect for making cobblestones, but the stone is so hard that for a long time they had to be made by hand. This was major business back in the day, and Lessines also had chemical match factories and mills all over the place. We saw a lot of old factories and row houses about too. Now there's more people in the villages around Lessines than actually in the rather empty town, but tourist still come from all over to see l'Hopital de Notre Dame à la Rose.
The hospital was established in the 1200's and was inhabited and run by nuns up into the 1980's---talk about longevity! We had a perky blond tour guide who seemed to enjoy telling us about the Mother Superior's exploits, invented medicines, and medical beliefs of the day. It is truly amazing that anyone who got sick ever recovered. To get rid of the bad airs, the sick room was freshly ventilated at all times, meaning no heating, except from the two other sick people in your tiny bed. Then there was the bleeding, and the bowel-purging, and the lead eating utensils...The surgery instruments were really the most impressive. Very frightening to imagine a barbaric-looking corkscrew being used to hold your skull in place (without anesthesia) while surgeons with unsterilized, rather blunt-looking knives tried to piece you back together. And that's only one of the operations they used to do. Marianne said that what struck her most when she visited was that this horrifyingly low level of medical knowledge and prowess really wasn't that long ago. You would think, hundreds and hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, but it's really only been 150 or so. Yikes! Anyways, we ogled the architecture, the paintings, and gawked at the medical instruments before taking a trip through the medicinal garden to see the 'glacier', which is basically a big underground room on a hill covered in trees that makes an old-time fridge. Even though it was hot outside, the little brick room was quite chilly and we didn't stay too long. I'd never seen anything like that before, so that was cool. After a little promenade through Lessines to see the chapel, church, and some remnants of the ramparts and hearing some Giant-parade music(Hainaut has several towns that traditionally have parades with, well giants. Pretty cool.) we caught the train home.
Sunday we went to lunch at Veronique's (Marianne's sister) and passed a very pleasant afternoon sipping wine, petting the dogs, paging through photo albums (so much fun to see people 30 years ago!), and just chatting. It's moments like these I realize how much I've adapted and integrated to this family. Now I know the favorite stories, the dogs' names, and a general layout of how everyone gets along. I'm actually familiar with people and places and have memories of them to fall back on. I feel at home.
Wednesday was my 19th birthday, and I had a really great day. My class sang happy birthday to me in English, which was simply adorable because francophones can't say 'th'. They also liked the American brownies I made for them. I was supposed to give an oral presentation in health class, but we lucked out and the other group took too long. Plus it was Wednesday, which means a half-day in Belgian schools. Hooray! Since he couldn't come to the party in the evening, Benjamin dropped by for a visit, which was delightful. Later Julia and I took a blanket out to the pasture and just hung out in the sunshine. We had to shoo off the geese several times (I got me a big honkin stick) and the ponies dropped by to say hello. Simply lovely. That night Marianne organized a party in the waiting room with the everyone (the extended family, more or less) and Lindsay came from school too (most kids couldn't come as it was a weeknight, etc.). We had a lovely time drinking champagne, chatting, telling stories, and laughing. Robert brought a barbecue and we had grilled sausages in baguettes before I opened the many beautiful presents from all these dear people. It was pretty funny because they all thought to get me something small and light to go into my suitcase, so I ended up with oodles of jewelry. According to tradition, I put all of my presents on at once, and my goodness was I shiny! I also received several very GREEN things---they know me only all too well. After eating cake, Lindsay got a brilliant idea for the leftovers. She and Julia had me close my eyes and take off my glasses and led me right over for a face plant into the cake. I knew it was coming, and we all laughed really hard. Then Marianne and Cécile grabbed Julia, pinned her on the floor, and administered revenge for me. If Lindsay hadn't had to leave at that particular moment she would have been next. Poor Julia reminded me a little of a cat thrown in water, but she put up with it, and we had fun. After some napkins we felt a bit more respectable. Later on someone dared Marianne to do the same, and naturally she did. No hesitation there---never dare Marianne to do something unless you really want her to do it.She also took revenge on her darer. What a group. They occasionally inform me seriously that normal Belgians do not behave this way, and I smile. I am one lucky kid to be their exchange student. I really felt to be part of the family, and that party with those people will be something I remember until I die.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Spelunking and Bathrobes in the Ardennes

Wednesday the three classes of us 5th level Education students took off on our long-anticipated trip to the Ardennes to animate and be animated. 40 teens on a train is just fun stuff, even more so because we had the entire car reserved to ourselves and our overstuffed baggage was safely en route by truck. When we arrived in the village of Lustin we took a little hike to the infamous building that the school rents every year. I had heard horror stories of sleeping in an attic with holes in the roof and pigeon poop encrusted all over the floor, with a meager two showers and trough-like sink. I was pleasantly surprised to find a clean two-story building with functioning appliances, electricity, and a spacious attic to sleep in, albeit with several holes in the roof. Luckily it didn't rain.
After rolling out our sleeping bags and enjoying some school-made spaghetti we got ready to present our activities. My class and another were in charge of the veillée (like a night party, think the traditional night around the campfire with songs and games). Our theme was 'challenges and spectacles' so my group did several skits. Overall they went well and we got people to laugh. I played a black singer with pipes in one and a rather dumb bloke trying to brush his teeth in another. For the second I wore a truly incredible bathrobe of Marianne's (she has quite a stock of costume material) and everyone was relatively shocked when the quiet Alaskan kid started head-banging and brazenly acting the part of the funny fool. I got a kick out of their shock. They were equally surprised when I showed up at the soirée after the official veillée was over, not to drink beer(yes, Belgians drink beer on school trips) and sit on the sidelines but to rock out on the dance floor as it were. I, in turn, thoroughly enjoyed the partying, dancing profs and other kids. It was a good time; we crawled into our sleeping bags around 1:30 and conked out.
The next day was a busy one. After breakfast we swaddled ourselves in raincoats and old clothes and walked to a nearby cave to go spelunking. I had visited some touristic caves in Alabama, but this was nothing of the kind---no light show and nice level walkways with handrails. This was a headlamp, crawling over boulders, wiggling down shafts, and scooting through mud affair. We spent two hours following our guides up, down, and sideways through the caves. The rocks were all smooth and there wasn't much in the way of stalactites, partially due to the amount of traffic the cave gets. It's been hot lately so there wasn't much in the way of water either, although the mud was pretty abundant. I kept thinking of Tom Sawyer discovering Injun Joe and Bilbo creeping through goblin tunnels. Despite the amazing skills of writers, their descriptions never really imparted the whole impression of being underground that I found. Chaos, with all its primeval connotations, would be a good word to describe it. Anyways, I had never done anything like that before and it was really rather fun, even if we were all dead-beat and looked like we'd fought in Vietnam by the time we came back out into the sunshine.
After changing out of our mud-caked clothes and enjoying some Belgian hotdogs it was time for our group to do 'VTT'. I knew that the V stood for vélo (bicycle) but I was unaware that the whole abbreviation meant MOUNTAIN biking. And thus, imminent danger and possibility of death and humiliation by hurtling metal vehicles over rough terrain. I was in the 'strong' group, thus mostly boys. Who mostly liked the idea of rocketing down the steep and plenteous little mountains of Belgium regardless of the trail conditions or traffic. Gulk. I'm not a very coordinated person, and I almost never bike. Thus, biking on a flat surface is already peril-frought as far as I'm concerned. It took me about 10 minutes of sticks, leaves, and pointy rocks to decide that mountain biking is on my antipathy list. Plus shortly after I fell up to my hips in a mud hole. So much for my dry underwear and my only clean jeans. I decided laughter was the best response to my misfortune and clumsiness, and I managed to joke with the others about how I obviously missed the spelunking mud. Anyways, after losing and finding multiple members of our group and pedaling up and down and all over the beautiful countryside for 3 hours, we made it back to home base. The forest and farms really were gorgeous, with tractors and cattle out on the hills and flowers in the woods. We also saw a snake. Quite exotic fauna for an Alaskan. I would have been in raptures about it all if I hadn't been focusing on survival.
After dinner we had another veillée put on by the remaining class. Everyone was dog tired, but we managed enough enthusiasm to participate and help our comrades out. Their theme was 'battle', and everyone participated in the different challenges. I got called out to help in a dance-off (we won, I might add) and then a sing off. I'm not much of a singer, and I don't know all the words to most of the popular songs I'm familiar with, so I chose to sing 'Soldier Soldier Will You Marry Me' (a yankee tune that dates back to the Revolutionary war) and acted out the story of the wily, married soldier who tricks the maiden into buying him all kinds of clothes. One teacher understood the story and indignantly berated the rascal with his 12 children at home. So that went relatively well. Afterwards I managed to stay awake with a few other brave souls to dance for a bit, but gave up relatively quickly. I wrapped myself up in the bathrobe of marvels to stay warm and slept like a rock.
Friday we packed up and took the train to Floreffe, where we strapped into harnesses and clipped on ropes to go rock climbing. The mountain really wasn't that big, and we really weren't all that high, but it sure felt like it. We went around on courses set up with metal cables bolted into the rock, holding ourselves up on whatever we could. We also did a type of tight rope walk, rope bridge, and rope ladder. We also did a zipline. It was pretty petrifying, but I climbed and clambered and hauled myself all across the cliffs and ropes and out of caves. And I was really quite proud of myself for it in the end. With the exception of a break for some barbecue (hot dogs in baguettes. I don't think I'll be able to stomach wonderbread ever again!)we spent all day clinging to ropes and whatever else for our lives, so we pretty well collapsed when we made it on the train home. We ended up in the first class car, whose cushy seats were thoroughly appreciated, because there wasn't enough room anywhere else. Score.
So the trip was pretty cool. I did a lot of things I'd never even considered doing, and I bonded with Belgian buddies.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Small Talk

Having Easter in the actual spring time is really delightful, as I discovered last Sunday. Blooming roses and lilacs and sunshine and green grass just can't be beat to celebrate Christ's resurrection. We all went to Pépé's for a 'family' meal, and after several alarms for incoming rain and rearranging of chairs inside and outside, we kids were sent off on an egg hunt around the yard while the adults sipped their champagne and gave out hints or hooted and hollered when two contestants came close. Egg hunting is serious business here; none of those plastic eggs filled with a couple jelly beans, it's all about solid chocolate. The good stuff. Doing an egg hunt is tradition for Cécile's family, even though Romain, Antoine, and Maxime are a bit grown up, and they welcomed the exchange cousins to join them in the annual race to discover the most chocolate. We had a lot of fun, and we shared the fruits of the hunt with everyone. It finally decided to be sunny, so we enjoyed aperitifs and a feast outside in the garden with the birds singing and the dogs laying in the grass. Denis and Martine fixed all kinds of fancy appetizers, and followed them with a course of asparagus (the white kind. Apparently that is the most common type here, which surprised me. I'd always been used to see the green stuff) and truffle sauce with parmesan cheese. The main course was mutton with a fresh salad and fried potatoes, followed up with wine, cheese, and ice cream for dessert. Have I mentioned that Belgians know their food? We kids played a type of blindman's bluff and had fun talking with the adults. Marianne, Denis, and Pépé came and played a few rounds with us too. It was hilarious to watch them get into it, trying to trick the guesser and grinning from ear to ear like 5 year olds. There was a thunder storm a ways off, so it was exciting for me to hear serious thunder, the likes of which never happen in AK. It didn't get close enough to really even rain on us, but we had fun looking for it.
This week we're back in school, although my class has gotten out of school early every single day---the students were there, but the teachers not so much. It's been kinda nice. I have been gorging myself on English novels I picked up in Wales.
We had a real-to-goodness thunderstorm here Thursday, so I was happy that I walked home before it got going. Miss 36 was scared, so I had her in my lap for a while. Good thing she's a whippet and not a Great Dane!
There's a new puppy here at the moment, a little snippet called Libellule (Dragonfly). Someone found her in a garbage bag alongside the road and brought her to Marianne. She's about 9 months old and just the sweetest-tempered little thing you ever saw. She's already found a home, but she's staying here for a week while they're on vacation, so I have been puppy-sitting lately. The bonuses of living with a vet! Poor Piout is quite jealous of the teenier newcomer, who's about half her size (nothing but skin and bones). She's used to being the baby around here. The baby also has some issues with potty-training, but hopefully she'll figure that out soon.
That's all the small talk here for now. Our departure draws ever nearer, with our crises of opposing emotions. July will be interesting.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Cardiff photos



Here's a photo of the castle keep and St. Fagan's.

Caerdydd

Monday morning I took buses, trains, subways, and TGV's to find myself in Cardiff, or Caerdydd in Welsh, by noon. Traveling in Europe with trains is incredibly easy, if a bit expensive. I discovered that coordinating it all and catching them all really wasn't worth a stomach ulcer. I did notice that trains in the UK are more classy than Belgian trains; they're more like airplanes, complete with interior carpet, meal service, and tray tables. Their security level is also higher.
I was almost in tears of excitement to see Hazel while waiting for her to find me at the train station. Our mothers grew up together as best friends and we've known each other since we were born; she is the kind of person I haven't seen for 8 months. She got married and moved to Cardiff since I had seen her last. When we finally did find each other, bear hug mania ensued. Throughout the week it was wonderful to catch up with her as well as reminisce together about our families and homes in Alaska. Speaking English tripped me up a bit for a while (not to mention that I couldn't understand a word of what the Welsh cashiers said to me the first day or so. I wasn't even sure that it had been English!) but it was really exciting to see signs and books in my first language again. So I had a little taste of what readjusting to the USA will be like. It's going to be so incredibly strange.
As we chatted and caught up on every topic under the sun, we also managed to do quite a bit of other things. The weather was gorgeous all week, so we spent a lot of time outside. I can hardly believe it, but I actually had a mild sunburn and many freckles from April sunshine! Monday we drank tea, walked through town, relaxed, took a picnic to a nearby park where we ogled the flowers and found an adorable puppy, and went out for British-beef burgers at the Wetherspoon Pub. British beef is superb, and the Swedish pear cider we discovered was also wonderful. I have to say that the 'chips' (meaning fries) were good but not as good as the Belgian variety. The Belgian frite ain't famous for nothing. I do like the British tradition of vinegar on fries, though. I also really appreciate their policy of free ketchup and mayo and toilets after having to pay extra for all these things in Belgium!
Tuesday we packed a hearty picnic in a super duper specialized picnic backpack and set out past the animal wall (a wall with carved stone animals, including panthers, raccoons, beavers, seals, baboons, pelicans, and others peaking over it) for Cardiff Castle. We sat out on the grounds and enjoyed our bacon sandwiches (British staple. Butter is a mandatory ingredient), pork pies, scotch eggs (breaded meatballs), a teensy bottle of champagne to go in the special picnic champagne glasses, cucumber, and authentic cheddar cheese (did you know cheddar is a place? So is badminton) with traditional Welsh cakes. We then wandered about the fortress, enjoying the historical anecdotes and info ranging from Roman times to Normans, from Victorian renovators to WWII with our audio guides. There were hordes of French speaking tourists around, and it was satisfactory to understand the snippets of conversations I overheard and know that I could translate for them if they needed. We thoroughly enjoyed the trebuchet, the Victorian luxury, the WWII patriotism, and the incredibly thick Roman and Norman walls. When we had exhausted the grounds we hopped across the street to the Cardiff Museum to ogle elegant china and a few classic paintings before heading to a friends home for supper. Fish and chips from a nearby renowned shop (The Albany Fish Bar) was worthy of its reputation and some Welsh Brains (the local beer) was a nice accompaniment. I also learned about the different British meals (Breakfast, elevensies, lunch/luncheon, Afternoon Tea, Tea, and Supper. Tea is like dinner and Supper is like a late-night snack. Think like a Hobbit!) and got a glimpse into the local devotion to football and rugby. I also learned that while calling Welsh people British is acceptable, NEVER call them English. There is a huge difference. Also, the flap I had always thought was English (considering it's always shown for London and on historical ships and things) is actually the British flag. These are NOT interchangeable terms!
Wednesday we slept in and went shopping downtown in the afternoon. I was introduced to Primark, a cute and incredibly cheap clothing store and of course we had a ball there and everywhere else. During the week I noticed that Brits dress a lot more like Americans; they have no fear of the casual or bright funky colors and styles. It was nice to see. That night we made curry chicken for 'tea' and watched the old Planet of the Apes. I hadn't realized it, but there is a strong, logical link between Indian and British culture. There are a lot of ethnic Indians around, and curry in all its Bitishized variations has come to be considered the national dish. There are also a lot more Muslims around than I'd noticed in Belgium. So I learned some things.
Thursday Hazel wasn't feeling well so I took the morning to do a bit more shopping and track down some book stores. I had fun in several thrift shops and discovered the wonders of Cardiff's second-hand bookstores and marketplace. I didn't get much marketing done for our children's book (Musk Ox Magic, written by my mother and co-illustrated by my sister and me. More information and orders can be placed by emailing snowstorm.press@gmail.com) since the one independent book store I found was closed for good friday. Brits also get Easter Monday off. Why don't we do that in the US? Anyways, I found some treasures and toddled back through the park without getting lost. That afternoon we dedicated to St. Fagan's, an open-air museum/garden complex that is also Hazel's favorite place in the world. It's probably near the top of my list as well. The gardens were really and truly gorgeous, with trellises and topiaries and towering trees occupying terraces around pools and streams. Taken with the Manor house, I kept expecting Jane Austen or one of her characters to come sweeping up the lane or across the thick carpets. St. Fagans is also a National History Museum; they have collected buildings from around Wales that visitors can explore. We wandered through farm houses ranging from the 1500's up through the 1800's, a cock fighting pit, a men's club, a traditional Welsh Chapel, a muraled church, and a really cool row house exhibit. They had the row houses set up so that as you went down the row you also moved chronologically from the 1800's all the way to 1985. Row houses play an important role in The Magician's Nephew by CS Lewis, so it was cool to see these connected, mirror-immaged houses in reality. I also got to stay in one; it's true that you hear all kinds of strange noises the seem are in your house but are really next door. Luckily Hazel warned me so I didn't get spooked. Anyways, we enjoyed the exhibits, ate our picnic under the trees, enjoyed Welsh icecream, and chatted to a friendly museum employee for an hour or so. He talked to us about Welshness in general; apparently spoken Welsh is on the upswing and there are supporters of an independent Wales. He found that Americans were actually more open and willing to give the Welsh language a shot than other Brits, probably because they had never even heard it before and weren't intimidated. It's always nice to hear good things about American culture. On the way home we found a delightful detour through some fields and stopped at a pub named The Robin Hood for a half pint of Guinness. Just had to.
Friday we walked around the bay, soaking up the sunshine. We didn't see any seagulls up close, fortunately. Cardiff seagulls are very well-fed, large, and aggressive. Think The Birds with bigger, nautical fowl. We saw the stadium up close and the area where movies and tv shows are often filmed before heading across the bridge and across to the other side of the bay to pay a visit to some relatives. We enjoyed a piping hot cup of tea (it doesn't matter what the temperature is---tea is the mandatory beverage. And it is never anything but piping hot.)and a chat with them before heading back. We stopped at Nando's, a chicken specialty spot with a particular atmosphere, for dinner. Another note: British food does not come in Medium. Only large and small. By the time we had polished off our mushy peas, mash, and chicken burgers the friday parties had kicked off in the street. It was still relatively quiet, but singing and coppers were present. We also noticed two beefy looking bouncers guarding McDonald's. Only in Europe.
Saturday we took it easy and I packed up my bags. We determined that that visit would not be my last, so it wasn't impossible to say goodbye. The train to London was full of football fans; I guess Cardiff was playing someone in London and the already booze-happy supporters were heading down. I sat next to a Bulgarian lady and had a nice little chat with her, but enjoyed the enthusiastic singing for all 2 and a half hours. I got home just fine, happy to see Belgium and French again. What can I say? I've been assimilated.
Other random things I learned:
Americans eat with one hand because back in the day on the frontier holding a knife in your right hand was conducive to stabbing your neighbor during the meal. Thus, it was considered more polite to keep the knives in the center of the table and only use it occasionally or cut with the fork than to eat with both. Totally logical.
Daffodils are Welsh symbols, and sheep are also important.
Love spoons are a Welsh tradition. These hand-carved and symbolic gifts are basically like engagement rings given by the groom to his bride. We saw both the largest (close to 10 or so feet high) and the smallest (smaller than a matchstick).
I also noticed that British English is closer to French than American English. For example, Brits might say 'pardon' instead of excuse me or sorry. That's the same word as in French.
They also say sorry for 'excuse me' a lot more than in the US. Or that's how it seemed to me.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Walabi to Wales

The last week has been full of amazing stuff; here's the breakdown.(and please excuse my typing as I'm on a normal keyboard and thus have issues).
Thursday: I spent the day with Marianne at the pony club monitoring dogs and playing with children in the sand. Touchtou was running basically nonstop all day; normally he is limited by how much his humans will put up with a wet tennis ball, but between thirty kids there is always someone who wants to play! Thus he ran and ran and ran. Come bedtime he crawled into bed and just lay there whimpering he was so sore and tired! Poor silly boy. After being outside and running about all day I might have whimpered a bit too, but the uno-playing (pony-club style, which means cheating just as much as you possibly can without being caught), fellowship, and cute kids definitely were worth it.
Friday: Up and at 'em bright and early to catch the train to Walabi, the Belgian amusement park, with buddies from school. Julia and another AFSer, Savannah, came too. We had a really good time chilling together, and it was really really wonderful to be part of a group of friends again. Since Sharon isn't a fan of intense rides, we did a mix of calmer and scary rides. One, the Vampyre, was like a roller coaster, only the seats were designed so that you were almost standing up and there was almost nothing in front of you. I screamed like a banshee, nearly deafened Benjamin, and put myself in the perfect state of voice to sing Johnny Cash. I also really had fun in the bumper cars...I got to DRIVE! Albeit like a giggling maniac, but still. So we passed a great day together in the sunshine, had fun making fun of the town names on the train (a town named Faux (false)? How Bizarre), and collapsed into bed when all was said and done.
Saturday: After lunch with the family I caught yet another train to Louvain la Neuve, a university town in central Belgium, for a Palm Sunday get together with Marie Jeunesse and other Catholic groups. I found a friend on the train, and she kindly showed me about Louvain la Neuve before the soiree got kicked off. The town is basically the equivalent of an American University town, only instead of dorms everywhere it's 'kots' which are more like apartments. There's basically nothing but University buildings and stores, malls, a movie theater, and a church all catering to students, but there are a few families who could be seen walking around the central lake as well. So it provides a more concentrated University life, unlike other Belgian universities where students live out in the town and don't all use the same facilities. After our little promenade we joined the others for some warming up activities, a supper of soup and sandwiches, and a bishop-led palm walk. No donkeys like at my church back home, but it was still nice and we sang as we walked. Afterwards we had a worship and prayer service that kicked off adoration. I went to bed early, after a couple hours, in the school next door. I didn't expect to sleep much, as we were settled on concrete floors with sleeping bags, but the Lord provided and I found some detachable cushions on nearby chairs that let me get enough sleep to be functional the next morning at 5:45 when they woke us for mass. I left on an early train tired but with a filled soul and renewed spirit.
That afternoon I finished packing up my bags to take the train to WALES, which will be continued on (at least) another post.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Flying Bells and Brussels

Paques is here! That means Easter, people! Two weeks and a day off from school (I love the idea of Easter Monday) and chocolate eggs for all! The weather here has been drop-dead gorgeous too, with temps in the 60's and 70's and sunshine for almost two straight weeks. The flowers are at their height, the spandexed runners and flashy convertibles are hitting the road, I'm getting a tan--- I can hardly believe it's only April!
A Belgian tradition here for Easter is Marie Pontoise, bells with wings. The story is that during Easter there is one day when the bells in the Vatican do not ring (for real) and the bells have flown off to scatter chocolate eggs and candy for the kids in the gardens and fields. Thus, along with rabbits and chickens, chocolate and other goodies are made in the shape of flying bells. I have also learned some handy Belgicisms for rain (very practical here, normally):
1. Il drache=it's raining hard (not accepted French)
2.Caer par seau= to fall by buckets=it's really raining
3. Il tombe des cordes= it's falling ropes=it's raining cats and dogs
Today Julia and I took advantage of the vacation and spent the day in Brussels. Since this art nerd was bound and determined to visit the Magritte Museum and Julia wasn't quite so excited about that, we split for the morning. Since the museum wasn't far and we only had one map, I gave the map to Julia and set out. Thus, I was all alone in a major European city with a dying cell phone and no map. At the beginning of the year this would have meant major insecurity and perhaps a bit of panic. No big deal now, even with getting lost several times. What a great feeling. Anyways, I found the museum just fine and spent a delicious hour and a half soaking in the galleries of the Belgian surrealist. I hadn't been much of a fan of Magritte previously, but after eying giraffes in champagne glasses, pipes that weren't pipes, doves sprouting out of leaves, and curious sky-patterned shapes I changed my mind. I find Magritte is more accessible as a surrealist than Dali, and often has a discernible message. Plus, he almost always gave interesting titles to his works: The Flavor of Tears and The Companions of Fear are two I remember particularly. Anyways, this museum is an absolute must when visiting Brussels.
After some lost wanderings and brief phone calls Julia and I regrouped at ChaoChow, a Chinese restaurant recommended by a handy-dandy map for young people in our possession. Their deal of 3.80 for the dish of the day is hard to beat, the food was good, and we had a nice spot to sit. A gentleman seated next to us heard us talking in English and asked if we needed help with the French on the menu. He spoke English impeccably and was very eloquent and friendly. He explained the Belgian political pickle of the moment (it actually makes sense to me now!)and the formation of Belgium, then we discussed Palin (yeeeah, he knew who she was), Obama, Socialism...By the end I knew I didn't agree with him on his political stance, but I couldn't really remember what my reasons were. Even so, it was interesting and I learned from him. He was one of the few Flemings from Brussels; he said he'd been speaking French since he was 6 and English since he was 12. The Flemish side of the country pushes language accumulation a lot more than in Wallonie. After all, more people in the world speak French than Dutch. So I enjoyed my Chinese beer and beef and got to listen to some interesting English---lovely! I also bought a book on Japanese modern art and culture at the museum. I am ridiculously excited to have English reading material!
After an hour of politics we followed our wonderful map to a nearby vintage shop. We had a lot of fun rummaging about and trying on elegant gloves and retro glasses. We came out with some treasures and scooted off through several other stores. Before catching the train home we stopped at EXki, a Belgian restaurant chain of natural fast food. It was a bit pricy, but the fresh yogurt was divine, the interior was calm and colorful, and the bathrooms were clean and free. Definitely worth the price.
Tomorrow I am going with Marianne to Cecile's to help with her campers at the pony club. Marianne has already worked her tail off two days, and tomorrow it'll be me too. I must be crazy. But all exchange students are.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

100 days

Happy belated April Fool's! Here it is known as Poisson d'Avril=April Fish. I have a suspicion it has something to do with Lent. The traditional gag is to slap a fish (paper or otherwise) on the back of a friend. For all that, I didn't see too many gags yesterday. I did have fun and send my parents a tall tale message...who says you have to be on the same continent to pull off a practical joke?
I've got some other little cultural notes that have been accumulating:
1. Belgians see nothing weird about reaching up their shirt and spraying deodorant all over their armpits in public places. Often.
2. Besides 'Punaise'(thumbtack), which I've previously mentioned, Belgians expletives also include 'mince'=slim and 'purée'= mashed (potatoes).
3. Belgians are much more blunt about aesthetics than Americans. If they think something is ugly, they will jolly well let you know. No polite temporizing, really.
4. Polluting the environment is a much bigger sin than in the US. Although they don't seem to care about litter. But greenhouse gases? Gadzooks and mashed potatoes!
5. Almost everything closes on Sundays, and grocery stores never stay open 24/7 like they do normally in the US.(Little ironic considering almost no one is religious enough to associate Sunday with the Sabbath). We discovered this last Sunday when we went to Namur to hang out with some Americans. Just about everything was closed down. We found a little tiny grocery store open and bought cheese, chocolate mousse, spoons, and a baguette for a picnic in the sunshine. And took pictures with a snail statue. Because that's what Namur's known for. It was a good day.
This weekend is Carnaval here in Tournai. Not sure why it's now, as Mardi Gras was quite a while ago, but this is when the Tournaisiennes have their party. Since costumes are pretty much mandatory, Julia and I are going to get into some closets today and create something appropriately wild to wear. Should be fun.
Only 100 days left in Belgium! I can hardly believe it!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Blegny Mine, etc.

Yesterday I once again took the train to Liege, this time with our AFS regional committee (Hainaut) to join the Liege committee on a tour of Blegny Mine. This particular mine is one of the last Belgian coal mines open for visitors, so it merited getting up early for the train and an hour bus ride from Liege. The 5 or 6 of us from Hainaut spent the surprisingly sunny spring morning strolling the grounds of the mine-turned-tourist-park and climbing the terril(the name for artificial hill of old mining debris). We checked out some pretty impressive machinery, climbed inside mining cars, and took a gander at the flora and fauna of the terril. One of the volunteers with us is a geologist-in-training, so she was able to tell us all about the shist and pyrite and coal that we saw. There were a lot of birch trees, as they don't mind unstable soil, and with them these strange little star-mushrooms that looked like little octopi. We had a good time pondering what in the world they could be until our quandary was answered by one of those marvelous educational placards put up for tourists.
We enjoyed our picnic lunch with everyone, watched an educational film on Belgian mining, then began the tour of the mine. There are no operational mines in Belgium now, as gasoline and other sources of energy basically drove the coal mines out of business, but there used to be mines all over Wallonia. Coal mining was the economic basis for Liege and Charleroi, and was also important for the region around Mons. This is also the reason there is a strong Italian community in these areas, as well as other immigrant groups.
On top of the Terril
After putting on hardhats and protective cotton jackets, we followed Michel, the very dynamic last miner, into the rather cozy elevator. Michel told us all kinds of anecdotes and stories from his life as a miner (he started at 14) and from his parents' experiences too. I didn't understand all of what he said, thanks to his heavy liegois accent and rapidity, but I did get enough to laugh often and enjoy his vivid personality. There was also a host mom there who explained some points to me in English afterwards. He told one story about his grandmother sorting coal. The coal was often mixed with all kinds of rubbish, including feces (it was unthinkable to waste energy hauling out feces when coal needed to be hauled out. This is one reason so many miners died of disease), which the sorters would get on their hands, of course, and wipe on their coveralls. Once when she was sorting away, she dinged her hand on the metal bin and unthinkingly followed her first instinct---putting her hurt finger in her mouth! Eeew. He also told stories about accidents, the miners' horses, and just how mining life really was: incredibly loud, hot, cramped, and dangerous. All the same, he spoke of mining and miners with a fierce pride and even love---he saw mining as the job that allowed him to live well and provide for his family. It was also his expertise, his skill, and really, ironically, you might even say his comfort zone. Exchange students try to go out of their comfort zone and try new things and adapt to new environments, but even so, I am really glad necessity does not require me to be a miner!
On the train home I quickly noticed some college guys with the telltale, heavy American R's. Sitting just in front of them, I could tell 2 things: 1. They understood not a word of French 2. They were embarrassing. Especially since others in my group could definitely understand the multitude of cuss words and crude subjects they were discussing. Dang. They seemed to have no notion that maybe other people could understand what they were saying, either. NEVER assume this, even in Wallonia! Fortunately my group got involved in more elevated and suitable conversations and paid them little heed.
On a more humorous note, I had a little go-around via text with Marianne on the train. I sent her the time I'd be getting into the station to request a ride (as she wished), but then realized I messed up the times. When I sent her the right time, she teasingly responded she hoped she would mess up the time too... I said perhaps it would help if I mentioned how very much I love her? She responded 'not today, I have a migraine!' Unfortunately I was completely oblivious and took her seriously (it may help that my mom at home really does get migraines that prevent her from driving). I told her not to bother herself, and to take the dog for company. She thought I'd gotten the joke, accordingly. So when our train was late, I didn't text her, since I figured I was walking. Half an hour late, she called to see where in the world I was. We laughed pretty hard when we figured out the misunderstanding. Sometimes I am too serious for my own good.
I have a couple more expressions to add to the growing dictionary:
Tirer une balle=Pull a ball=shoot yourself
De dix hommes, onze sont conards=out of ten men, eleven are jerks/dummies. A little feminist, but I like it anyways.
En avril, on ne se couvre pas avec un fil= In April, one doesn't cover oneself with a thread=it's still winter and cold, bundle up!

Liege photos

Here's some photos from Liege last Saturday.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Forget the 7 months---4 more to go!

It's a quiet Sunday here, just taking it easy with a couple puppy dogs after playing badminton and having guests over for an American supper yesterday (my baked beans, cornbread, salmon dip, and cherry pie all went over well, thank goodness!). Marianne is quite pleased because all us young 'uns are sore from Badminton and she's feeling great. There's a sports hall not far from here, so for the last couple weekends we've gone with Sabine to play some badminton. Good exercise, and good fun!
I've been here for 7 months, just about. But now that doesn't seem important---it's the 4 months left that I'm counting with a mix of dread and excitement. The dominant emotions changes from moment to moment, but I know I'll need boxes and boxes of kleenexes come July!

Here's a couple more expressions:
1. When an awkward silence shows up, 'un ange passe'= an angel is passing. More poetic than the English, 'Gosh it just got quiet!'
2. gros cou=fat neck= stuck up, proud of themselves. They also use the Dutch word, which SOUNDS like didineck. Or something like that.
3. C'est cadeau=it's present=it's really cool, nice. This is a newer expression that's just emerging among the University kids.

Liege (Leechge)

Liège style waffleImage via Wikipedia

Friday I got to spend the afternoon in Liege: home of Jupiler Beer (Belgian lifeblood), heavenly waffles, and an infamously heavy Belgian accent (turn Liege from lee-edge to leechge). Unlike Tournai, Liege also actually has 'mountains'. Towards the end of the two-hour train ride I could look out the window and ogle trees covering craggy hills that had been blasted for the train to pass. I saw a chateau perched among the trees too---made me think of a story book. It did my heart good to see some open space and nature. I met Eva, a vet student who just finished up her internship with Marianne, in the recently redone station. When I remarked on the size of the swooping building, Eva explained that Liege is in the middle of reconstructing that particular quarter and trying to renovate its character---it's become run-down and is known to be a bit dangerous (but better than Charleroi). So there was quite a bit of construction going on.
On our way to a friend's kot (Belgicism for a student's housing. They don't really have dorms here, so it's often an apartment shared with other students) for a barbecue we passed Jupile---home of Jupiler Beer. The mountains of beer cases were quite impressive. There were also several cases at the barbecue. The other vet students were very welcoming, and I really enjoyed the relaxed ambiance (they were relatively calm that day). Eva explained to me that vet students are notorious for their partying, even if it's a moderately difficult field of study. So I got a taste of the student culture as well, albeit a very mild version. Along with baguettes, sausages, and bacon, grilled camembert was also featured. The whole box was put on the grill, and then we opened it up and dipped pieces of baguette in the gooey center. Divine.

After some goofing around and visiting, Eva and I took our leave to go walk around Liege and see the sights. Our first stop was the Carré---4 teensy streets that make a square who are completely devoted to cafés(and thus, young people!) It was quite peculiar to see students hanging out in the middle of a street as if it were a school hallway. We then took a stroll through the Cathedral. It was smaller than the one in Tournai, but was incredibly detailed, more colorful, and in great condition. Beeyootiful. We walked around for a while, staring at the painted ceiling and marveling at the intricate stained glass windows. Afterwards we participated in an essential Liegois tradition---waffles! And good golly, they were good. Liege waffles are my favorite of the two types of Belgian Waffles. They are heavier, and more like a cake. They're a smaller square, with clumps of sugar in the dough. You eat them with chocolate, cinnamon, or just sugar, hot, in hand. While we munched we walked. We saw chanchés (sp?), a traditional Leigois doll decoration, in store windows and in a life-size sculpture. As Eva is from Kain here at Tournai, she didn't know all of the history and stories behind things, but she was able to show me the highlights and give me a pretty good idea of the life of a student in Liege. We saw the bull statue who's a city symbol, as well as the Perron, a monument. Not sure to who or what, but we saw it! We also saw the famous stairs of Liege---Mon Martre is nothing compared to these babies. Happily we did not need to go up or down them. The palace of Justice was also quite impressive. Later Eva also showed me around the campus of the university, specifically the veterinarian section. The campus is separated from the town, up on a hill. It was surprisingly spaced out and forested; it felt a lot like some American universities. The facilities were large and new, well equipped to deal with the 1800 or so vet students and the resident animals. There isn't much in the way of sports or intramural activities, though. There is a sports center for the students, and there's a few football tournaments. Very different campus life than in the US. Students don't really mix between branches, and mild hazings are important for bonding and getting to know people. Even so they have fun between kots that can be compared to dorm life on a much smaller scale, with parties, pranks, etc. It was cool to get an idea of what a Belgian university looks like.
So I had a wonderful afternoon with Eva. I noticed that Liege seems to be much more modern and spacious than Tournai, which surprised me. Every time I see a new area of Belgium I have to adjust my idea of the country, and hopefully it's getting more and more complete as I go!
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