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!

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