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.

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