Thursday, January 27, 2011


So my last post is all in big red letters. Because I copy-pasted my post from a word document into the title box. BECAUSE Blogger has changed their posting so I can't copy-paste from a word document to the normal text box and I forgot to type it here instead of in a word document. The end.

5 and a half months in Belgium---half of my exchange has flown right on by! This last month I have been noticing some drastic differences between my arrival and now. For instance, I can talk in French without thinking, and I sometimes talk to myself in French instead of in English. I can have REAL conversations with friends, and I understand their conversations, even in noisy, crowded cafeterias! Switching between French and English is basically effortless now, although I may mix the two or forget some words (normally English). Two of my teachers asked me to read out loud in class like everyone else last week, and even if they laughed at my cute American accent, they understood what I was trying to say. People are willing to make jokes about my accent now because they know me and know that I will understand the joke and that I won’t be offended. I have found several previous misunderstandings too: for instance, Tournai is the town of 5 bells, not 400. I don’t know how I goofed that. It’s one for each of the 5 towers of the Cathedral. Also, people don’t use ‘duck’ as an insult… the word is ‘conard’ NOT ‘canard’. Basically means stupid. On top of all the language improvements, I am feeling like Belgian things are ‘normal’. I can refer to my host home as home and Julia as my sister without getting that little weird awkward feeling that is very familiar to exchange students. Also, I actually am starting to have a Belgian social life with Belgian peers. I went to the movies with a couple girlfriends last week (I actually understood the entire film!!!) and I got to go to another friend’s yesterday to hang out. I have a solid ‘group’ I hang out with at school, and I feel comfortable and at ease in the crazy Belgian school system. I had heard that exchanges get better after Christmas, and I can now confirm the rumors. Last weekend was a blast; our AFS committee organized a trip to Disneyland in Paris! (I had no idea that there was a Disneyland in Paris until this year, but hey). I had never been before, so it was fun to see the giant stuffed characters and princesses walking around and singing and whatnot. My favorite was Mulan because she wasn’t even Asian. I got a good giggle out of that! The castle was beautifully built, and the ‘main street America’ looked pretty typically American…it was interesting to see how America was ‘exotic’ and what the stereotypical idea of the USA in the Euro mind is. The highlight of our day was definitely the roller coasters. I kept my eyes shut through Space Mountain, but by the second time through Indiana Jones and the Aerosmith roller coaster I was riding with my eyes wide open and screaming for fun instead of from sheer terror. Disney has the roller coaster design down pat---they weren’t jerky, they locked you in well, they were wild but not so wild that your nerves were a mass of jelly by the time you got off. Good fun. Disney has also figured out that when you are locked inside an amusement park with nothing else for innumerable kilometers you will pay 6 freakin’ Euros for a ham sandwich. Shudder. We thwarted them during the dinner hour however, and bought slightly less extortively-priced sandwiches at a gas station on the way home. The night before Disney and our extremely early departure and the night after our late return several girls with AFS came to spend the night here in the house of dogs. We had lots of fun chatting and eating pizza and showing them around. It’s amazing how showing someone else around a house can make you feel at home too. Some of Jade’s friends were also there, so it was a bit of a hotel. Good times. I’ve been quite busy with school and everything else that must be done, and stages is coming up. I’ll be working in a preschool…gulk. Another adventure.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Goede tijden (Good times)

Time for some catching up...We took advantage of our last few days of vacation to get into all kinds of marvelous mischief!
Thursday Julia joined me as an honorary American (after all, she does watch more American shows than I do and beat my English class score!) to hang out in Bruges with 6 other American AFSers. It was a drizzly day but we had a great time climbing the enormous belfry, wallowing in nostalgia with American food (Subway, Hershey's chocolate, and Reeses), and checking out some Van Dyck masterpieces at the Groeninge Museum. We also bought some Chocolate de Bruges---it's supposed to be the best in Belgium. I don't know if it really is the best chocolate in Belgium, but the Banana chocolate was absolutely divine. The Birthday cake chocolate was just weird. We hung out at a friterie and experimented with some new fry sauces (no mortalities, but there were some teary eyes from the Samurai sauce) and hung out at the Snuffel Backpack Hostel where we spent the night. I had never stayed at a hostel before, but I really enjoyed Snuffel's funky décor, free board games, fellow students, and cheap prices. We sat around brushing the dust off our English with some Belgian beer and a couple girls whipped up spaghetti for everyone. It was great to see some familiar American faces and find out how everyone's been doing the last 5 months. It's also great to hear some real American English, complete with Midwestern twangs. We ran into some other American tourists in Bruges too, and quite a few other students who were touring around for the holidays.
After chocolate and speculoos with breakfast Julia and I caught a train home. Two hours. We got home in time for me to struggle with some Belgian Identity card paperwork before the Hôtel de Ville closed. I love Belgians and Belgium, but their paperwork system and method of organization is about as efficient as using toothpicks to build a bonfire. It's been 5 months since we applied for our identity cards, and we still don't have them. This is slow even for Belgium. Luckily we don't actually need them for much of anything, or I would really be insane.
Saturday we met Jean-Pierre in Antwerp and he showed us around the town where he used to study. Antwerp is one of the largest cities in Belgium and a fashion center. People wear a lot more bright colors and bolder styles than here in Tournai. Tournaisiennes and Belgians in general wear almost nothing except for neutral colors (black, gray, white, beige) and in very safe, moderately cute styles. Almost everyone shops at the same stores, and they also wear the same outfit for two days in a row. In short, if you want to dress like a European, you rewear your clothes and wear nothing that will attract much attention. It did me good to see some wilder styles on the streets of Antwerp, and we also found an awesome little vintage shop. I came away with a bright green 80's sweater (it put my classmates into shock when I wore it yesterday) that I adore and Julia found some smokin' vintage sunglasses. Her optimism seems to have worked, because the rain dispersed and the sun actually came out after she bought them. We also got a taste of haute couteur in the Museum of Fashion, where we saw a collection of Stephen Jone's hats. I had no idea you could still make a living doing nothing but making hats, but this Englishman is really an artist. He had hats in the shapes of igloos, frying pans, birds, lily pads, and so many abstract shapes and designs! We had a lot of fun looking at those.
Antwerp is also Ruben's hometown. We took a tour of his home---beautiful big old house that he redesigned himself with lots of old furniture, significant paintings, and gilded leather for wall paper. Very cool. We also got to see his Descent from the Cross and Crucifixion in the Antwerp Cathedral---very powerful in person. There was a statue of Rubens in the main square too, complete with a scarf for the holidays.
Good tourists that we are, we also checked out the statue of Brabo throwing a giant's hand into the Scheldt. The story goes that a giant, Antigoon, was exacting tolls from the people who wanted to cross the river Scheldt and if they couldn't pay he cut off their hand and threw it into the river. The hero Brabo thus cut off Antigoon's hand and threw it into the river, freeing the people of this injustice. Some say that the name Antwerp comes from this story, from the word 'hand' and 'werpen' (to throw) but there is some argument on that point. At any rate, there is a large statue commemorating brave Brabo. We also admired the statue of the 'Wopper' a giant who is called on by exasperated parents to control their children. Wopper Street is also where Rubens happened to live.
After stopping by a European version of Walmart (not a sort of store that's easily found here), we spent the night at Jean-Pierre's in a small town in Flanders. We watched some ENGLISH television and visited the castle and priory of the village, and then drove to Zsomethingsomething in Holland to check out the harbor and scenery. I thought Belgium was flat, but I'd never taken Holland into consideration. Flatter than a crepe. We had a lovely stroll along the beach and learned a teensy bit of dutch (I now know how to say cheese (kaas), taste (smaak), with (wet), and the (het. Dutch is actually a lot like English. I can usually guess at what most of the words mean, and sort of pronounce them. Dutch sounds like a backwards combination of American and British English; I actually really like listening to it. Anyways, we had a lot of fun, and after all this time in Flanders I had to work a bit to switch my brain back to French. (In Flanders it is better to speak English rather than French because of the tensions between Wallonie and Flanders and just about everyone speaks English).
Today Jade came home! It's great to finally meet the person I've been talking to and whose bedroom I've been living in for the last 5 months! Touchtou now has two 'mamans' and spends his time being crazy over one or the other of us. Tonight we're going to have some nice hot raclette with Cécile and Pépé to help warm Jade up after coming back to the wet Belgian winter from the Australian summer.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Third Time's the Charm

Tonight I made tortillas for the third time here, and for the first time they turned out right! My previous efforts were thwarted by my oblivion as to the difference between normal flour and flour 'fermental' which has something in it to help things raise. Tortillas do not need to raise, but mine sure did---they resembled thick, puffy discuses that could have been used by ancient Greeks in battle. For all that, they were edible. No one lost teeth or anything. Tonight, however, my tortillas were much less frightening, and Cécile, Pépé, and Gilles were there to enjoy them too. I had to give them lessons on how to eat them, but they caught on pretty fast and soon mastered the skill of eating tortillas without spilling their contents. I also made peach cobbler, which was a novelty for everyone (Gilles never had cobbler in the US---horror!) A triumph overall.
Now that I have conquered the tortilla problem, my next project will be to make proper meatloaf.I have made it twice before, and I thought I followed the recipe, which seemed to yield an extremely spicy variety of meatloaf. Thanks to a cooking consult with my mothers, I came to the realization that what with all the French hand English (among other things) floating around in my head, I somehow thought that paprika and cayenne pepper were two names for the same things. They're both red, after all. So I had been faithfully dumping in two teaspoons of red hot pepper instead of the much much milder paprika. Unfortunately, by the time I realized this my meatloaf was already in the oven? At least I was able to prepare Marianne and Julia to sample the meatloaf with caution. It was edible, but barely? We drank a lot of water and ate a lot of carrot salad with it, and no one died. Piout actually liked it a lot---Marianne said she was becoming a 'hot dog'. I guess the third time's the charm with my cooking.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Kickin' off 2011

Well, I didn’t make it to my friend’s, unfortunately. But fortunately, there’s still a whole week of vacation to cram a whole bunch of whatnot into!
            Julia and I went with Marianne to the Moyarts’ to usher in 2011. For Belgians, Christmas is a family holiday and New Year’s is for friends. Normally young people go out and party in miniskirts into the not-so-wee hours of the morning, but Julia and I went for the milder option. We came into 2011 dancing to the radio, and then began the kissing rounds---in Tournai, 4 kisses per person, 2 per cheek, are required for the New Year. This took a while. We started enjoying dinner around 10 PM and finished around 3:30 AM, so we definitely slept well when we got home!
            The next day we fulfilled another Belgian tradition---visiting elders. Apparently back in the day this tradition was stronger, but a few people still observe it. The young people visit their older family to wish them a happy new year on the first, and the elders would give money and waffles to the visitors.  We stopped by Adrienne’s (the house keeper who is like a grandmother) to bring her flowers and share some sodas.
            Today I got to go with Fezzy to Lille (4th largest city in France, and not far from Tournai) to an exposition of middle-eastern/oriental artists that was sent from London---super cool! Julia was invited too, but now she is sick, unfortunately. There were installations, paintings, sculptures, textile work, even a taxidermied camel stuffed in a suitcase. One of my favorites was a collection of foil sculptures. The foil had been formed around at least one hundred different praying female figures, left with the face open so you could see that they were empty. It was entitled ‘ghost’. The exposition overall was very thought-provoking and offered a wide variety of works. Very very cool. After the museum, Fezzy took me through the old section of Lille to admire some of the renovated 18th century facades that now house chic boutiques and cafés. Fezzy taught me the French equivalent of ‘window shopping’: ‘lèche vitrine’= ‘window licking’. We stopped for some hot chocolate in a café for young people that was defnitely aiming for some American style. They even had NON sugared popcorn served as snacks on the tables! In France and Belgium, English names for products and stores are considered chic---ha! The grass is always greener on the other side. Fezzy used to live in France (among other places) before she came to Belgium, so I asked her what differences between the cultures she notices. Here’s some things she brought up:
1.     Politics---French people like talking about politics and being up to date on everything going on. They are extremely patriotic and will defend ‘la France’ if it is criticized in conversation. The French are also perceived as being racist. Belgians are more prone to joke about their country and government than to have a seroius conversation about it. And no one is patriotic or really cares what the heck the government (if it exists) is up to.  
2.     Snobbery---call it what you like, but the stereotype of snobby French people is based on a sophisticated, meticulously-dressed culture who is, in fact, prone to snobbery. Overall, the French are complicated. Belgians are less so.
3.     Food quality---French people like paying lots of money to eat very high quality food in very high quality restaurants. Belgians, on the other hand, love their friteries and aren’t so drawn by high-end, pricey dining.
4.     Speed---the French are more like Americans in that time must not be wasted, and they have places to go and things to do and don’t get in their way. Belgians are more relaxed and laid back---they’ve got time.

Another cultural note: Disney is an international touchstone. Icelandic, French, Belgian, American---Julia, Jean, Gilles, and I are totally capable of having a great time playing Disney trivia even if the songs have different words and the characters’ names are different. Viva la Disney!
Also, here's a link to a video of the expo: enjoy!
Well, 'th-th-that's all, folks!' Here's to a coming year spent mostly in Belgique!