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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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Some More Photos

At the Seaside

Brussels, Cécile and me at the Atomium

WWII bunkers at the seaside

Another Little Adventure I Forgot to Mention

While Laura and Jade were here and I was off school, we also spent a day shopping in Lille (4th largest city in France and just across the border). It was a beautiful day, perfect for strolling from shop to shop in search of good sales. We succeeded in our proclaimed mission to find shoes for Jade and found some other fun things besides. For lunch we stopped at a creperie for galettes, which is the name for savory crepes. I tried a galette à Maroilles, the infamously smelly and strong cheese of Northern France (it stars in a hilarious scene in Chez les Chtis, an extremely popular comedy here. It's basically about culture shock between southern and northern France, and since Northern France is similar to Belgium in some ways, it's a big hit. I laughed really hard when I watched it.) I was a little worried, but it smelled stronger than it tasted and was actually quite delicious. Later in the afternoon we heard some shouting in the streets, and discovered that it was coming from a crowded bar. Apparently Lille's soccer team was playing. There were drunken fans zigzagging around the square and the police were there to make sure things didn't get too rowdy. Soccer is a little excessive here. It's like football for the US, only maybe worse. Anyways, we didn't have any problems, and after a lovely day of trying on wacky hats and perusing funky purse shops we caught the train home. Good times; here's some photos:

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Day in Roubaix

Last Saturday we went with the family, including Laura and Jade, to Roubaix (France) to visit Letitia and Marco, two ex-tenants and good friends. We admired their new home that they are renovating and enjoyed some coffee before heading out to a nearby museum. The museum is a renovated art deco swimming pool---gorgeous! The building was my favorite piece we saw that day, but the statues and paintings were also nice.
As the 9 of us were walking home, we were confronted by 4 or 5 young men who got riled up when they saw Gilles and Jean holding hands. A slightly older guy convinced the more aggressive one to leave us alone. Fortunately we were in a solid, large group and Marianne is a rather formidable personage. Apparently Belgium is considerably more open and accepting on this topic than France in general. Roubaix particularly has some areas (like around the universities) that are more liberal, but in poorer areas the attitude is very hostile towards gays. I was surprised, as I had formed the generalization that all of Europe was as open as Belgium. We were all a bit surprised, in fact.
We spent the rest of the evening enjoying spaghetti and Belgian chocolate together. We requested for Jean to do some sketches, and we all watched attentively as he drew all 4 of us girls and Letitia(he had his work cut out!). Jean is in art school for a reason, and the sketches turned out very nicely. Marianne was the designated critic, as she has an artistic knack for seeing what needs to be tweaked. We are going to make photo copies and thus we will all have portraits of us 4 sisters.

Kindergarten and Confetti

I spent this last week volunteering and learning in a kindergarten class with 16 or so rambunctious, adorable francophones. They picked up'head and shoulders' in English pretty quickly, and several were quite proud to show off their Dora-the-explorer-acquired words. I gave a little presentation with some Alaskan postcards, and I shared the children's book my Mom wrote with them. It was fun to share a story that I helped work on, and it was a good translation exercise for my french! I brought my qiviut scarf to help explain what in the world a musk ox is, which they loved petting. Northern lights, bears, and anything with horns other than a deer were completely alien for them, and their teacher was also quite curious. I wasn't expecting to, but I actually had a lot of fun painting, reading, playing hopscotch, and just talking with all the kids. I was a terrible arbitrator on the playground, as I often didn't understand the nature of the related dispute, but I was able to hold hands and kiss bonked foreheads without any difficulties. The week went by all too quickly.
This week is Carnaval---no school for a week and parties everywhere! Each town and village has its own carnaval at different times, even though it's supposed to be on Mardi Gras. This way everyone can go to more than one party! Carnaval means costumes for everyone, confetti, and parades. Plus alcohol, often. Yesterday was Kain's little carnaval parade, which started right in front of the house. Marianne, Eva (vet student), the dogs, and I all enjoyed a bird's eye view of the parade from the comfort of the bathroom window. Imagine Marianne's joy when they started doling out confetti right in her parking lot...It looked like it had snowed 30 minutes later!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Cultural Oddities

Some recent notes:

1. The expression 'doigt dans nez'= 'finger in the nose'= it's sure and certain, it's done, it's in the bag
2. Instead of a tooth fairy, a mouse takes children's teeth and leaves money or a surprise
3. College here costs around 1000 Euros a year for a world-class university. THAT'S NEXT TO NOTHING!

Also, I forgot to mention, but I did make meatloaf a third time. The cayenne-free version was much more successful!
Only 18 more weeks left here! I can hardly believe it. I'm feeling very relaxed and 'normal' here now, and now I imagine adjusting back to American culture may take some work. How very odd.

Horse Food

The sun is shining, ladybugs are trundling along the sidewalks, and the first spring flowers are popping up here in Belgium! And it's only March 2nd! Life is good. I'm about to drag Julia on a walk to the store with me to search for some Molasses to accompany fried corn meal mush for supper tonight. Hopefully no one in my Belgian family gets too weirded out when I try to feed them what is considered horse food!
Three weeks ago now, Laura, the previously hosted AFSer from Costa Rica, came to visit. It was fantastic to get to know the famous first exchange student who set the precedent for Julia and me. Plus, we got a glimpse of Central American culture and another wonderful sister! We had a great time together shopping, laughing, and just hanging out. Laura went back to Costa Rica this week with Jade, who's going to absorb Spanish and culture for the next three months. It's extremely calm around the house with them gone...
While Laura was here we all spent a weekend on the French Coast with the extended family of friends. We made expeditions along the beach among WWII bunkers and squinted into the mist hiding the cliffs of Dover. The beach was much wilder than that of Belgium, where all the bunkers have been cleared away and tourist-trapping mussel stands dominate every spare centimeter of the beach. We spent most of our time in a rented house near the beach, playing ping pong, teaching card games, and eating a prodigious amount of French cheese and baguettes. We also enjoyed some sea food, which I succeeded in smashing/prying open without too much unnecessary violence. We came home happily spent and full of warm memories and laughter.
As I have no school at the moment (All of my classmates are working in the field, which is unnecessary for me. Score!) I got to visit Brussels with Cécile and Laura for an afternoon. Unfortunately we happened to pick the one day of the week when all the museums were closed, but we did take a tour of the Atomium (giant molecule sculpture built for the world exhibition of '58---Belgian equivalent of the Eiffel Tower) and took our picture with Mannekin Pis (peeing boy fountain that is also a national symbol. One story says it commemorates a lad who extinguished a firecracker meant to blow up the town hall.) We oohed and ahed over the buildings in the grand place, one of the best-preserved in Europe (it escaped the bombings of the two World Wars) and rubbed the arm of a martyr statue for luck. The town hall was so big and fancy I thought it was a cathedral. We also ogled fountains of chocolate and enjoyed a gaufre de Bruxelles (Brussels Waffle) like good tourists. Overall, a delightful afternoon.
Well, I'm off to search the crazily organized grocery store for some horse food. I will have to finish recounting my latest adventures a bit later.