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.