Last Friday Jean-Pierre took the three of us girls to Ghent, known as one of the best cities in the world to visit and one of Europe's hidden jewels, according to tourist pamphlets. It was indeed pretty cool. We started with the cathedral, home of the Van Eyck brothers' masterpiece, the accordingly named Ghent Altarpiece. After staring at the enormous arches and the brilliant stained glass windows which were quite something in themselves, plus a Rubens painting, we paid the extra fee to see the enormous altarpiece. The level of detail in Flemish paintings is always incredible, but the Van Eycks took this to a new level. We're talking something like 37 recognizable plant species in a field scene. And even in person, good luck seeing even one recognizable brush stroke. And then there's the iconography and symbolism. Pretty much the Chuck Norrises of painting. Anyways, it was incredible and totally worth the extra fee.
After enjoying some tea in a little café we went to visit the Gravensteen, the local castle. We spent a good couple hours eyeballing swords that were taller than me, devious thumb screws, and looking out over the ramparts at the rooftops of Ghent. You just can't get away from history here. It's delicious.
Afterwards we walked through Graffiti street to visit a few flea markets. This relatively long alley was absolutely covered in graffiti, and the wall decorations are constantly added to. Nuclear bananas, skulls, poetry, you name it and it was somewhere on those walls. Someone even wrote 'I can't draw'. We came out onto a bustling friday flea market. I found a cheap cheese grater that greatly facilitated my carrot-cake making abilities, and we just had a good time looking over the little oddities that came out of people's attics. After a stroll across a scenic bridge or two we found our way back to the car and headed home. So we can check Ghent off our list of things to be done in Belgium.
Saturday Julia and I went to a Belgian-American barbecue for a fellow AFSer whose family from the US came to visit his Belgian family. It was cool to hear some American accents and see their reactions to Belgium. I had to remind myself not to kiss them hello. It was very weird. They brought real instant pink lemonade and taught Belgians how to make cheeseburgers, and the Belgians brought andalouse sauce and made fries, of course. What a great mix of cultures and people.
We spent Sunday through Tuesday in Libramont for our End of Stay AFS orientation, which was by far the best orientation we've had. We had more free time to spend with our buddies of the past year, and we spent much less time talking about problems than the midstay orientation. Generally everyone is at a high point in their experience, and so the biggest issue to be dealt with was the going home process. Which is nothing to be sneezed at. For some kids it's harder to go home than to go abroad. We read our AFS letters that we wrote to introduce ourselves at the beginning of the year; my goodness how things have changed. For me, I find myself much more independent and much more relaxed than last year. And there's so many other things that have changed. You cannot spend a year in another country, in another family, in another culture, and not change. We also wrote letters to ourself 6 months from now. We'll see what kind of surprises that yields.
When we weren't crying over saying goodbye or reflecting, we were laughing and signing flags and talking to future AFSers. We also had to make up skits about Belgium. Almost everyone made fun of how Belgians blow their noses, noisily and without shame, in otherwise silent, public places. All of us foreigners almost died laughing, and the poor Belgians in the crowd were scratching their heads wondering what was so amusing. The government, late trains, our bad accents, fries, beer, and Belgian sayings were also fair game. It's sad that soon almost no one around me will understand any of these jokes or even know where to find Belgium on a map.
I met several Belgians headed to the states soon, so I tried to explain tipping, sales taxes, the lack of bisous and nose-blowing, and some other important little tips so that they wouldn't be too shocked when they show up stateside. There are so many little things that change.
We hugged our Italian, Serbian, Finnish, Icelandic, Indonesian, and just international friends goodbye and thanked the Lord for the internet and facebook. All of us have a lot of visiting to do now. We have been so lucky to meet all these great people. This never could have happened to me in Alaska.
Wednesday I made an American Breakfast for Cécile, Pépé, the boys, and Fezzy. They had never seen my photos and meticulously prepared powerpoint presentation of Alaska, so I finally got to share that with them. I corrected my presentation first, luckily---I got quite a few chuckles out of my French a year ago. Cécile brought me her French cooking bible, so I have her amazing lemon pie and chocolate mousse recipes. Fezzy brought us some beautiful mugs with persian poetry that she made, and another friend sent us some photo albums she had made for us. And a timer with a hatching chick for me (I once cracked open a fresh egg here to find a wiggling, feathered, living embryo inside...I was scarred...but we got some laughs out of it later. Shudder). Anyways, we all ate pancakes and scrambled eggs and drank champagne (why not?) and had a great time together. I'm going to miss Wednesdays here.
Thursday Julia and I went to Lille to hit up the government mandated sales. Huzzah! We went H and Ming and found some nice, cheap stuff. H and M is super duper popular here, and is a must for all girls. It's also better than the branch in the US, apparently. I lost Julia at one point in the store and nearly resorted to screaming her name, but luckily for my dignity she found me. Finding a blond girl in a white H and M shirt in there was pretty nearly impossible. I didn't let her out of my sight the rest of the time, and we had good girl time.
That night we went to Brussels and pulled an all-nighter. We sat in the Grand Place, helping tourists take photos, and just chatting to people. We then went to Celtica, a local club and had a good time dancing all night. We hit up Mc Donalds around 5 in the morning just before they closed (they are required to close for an hour here. NOTHING is open 24 hrs) and caught the train at 6. We slept for 4 hours or so, then headed off to l'accrobranche at Tournai to climb some trees with some friends from school and Jade. We all survived, had fun in the sunshine, and had fun encouraging each other. And then we came home and slept some more.
Yesterday (finally getting close to the present!) the three of us went to Ghent again for a farewell party for a fellow American. We got to meet her family, and practice our handful of dutch words. Luckily they spoke more English than we do dutch. (me and Julia, not Jade. She's fluent). We had fun looking at funny names on a world map and playing with balloons and drinking bio juice with bio crackers. Her parents are pretty green.
I forgot to mention: I passed all of my classes. Bam.
And today the sun is shining, I have less than a week left in Belgium, and we're going to eat lunch and go for a promenade. And Frenchy is sleeping on top of the birdcage, Jade is playing African monastic chanting, and there are no dogs on the couch. Life is full of surprises. à la prochaine. Til next time.