Saturday, April 30, 2011

Small Talk

Having Easter in the actual spring time is really delightful, as I discovered last Sunday. Blooming roses and lilacs and sunshine and green grass just can't be beat to celebrate Christ's resurrection. We all went to Pépé's for a 'family' meal, and after several alarms for incoming rain and rearranging of chairs inside and outside, we kids were sent off on an egg hunt around the yard while the adults sipped their champagne and gave out hints or hooted and hollered when two contestants came close. Egg hunting is serious business here; none of those plastic eggs filled with a couple jelly beans, it's all about solid chocolate. The good stuff. Doing an egg hunt is tradition for Cécile's family, even though Romain, Antoine, and Maxime are a bit grown up, and they welcomed the exchange cousins to join them in the annual race to discover the most chocolate. We had a lot of fun, and we shared the fruits of the hunt with everyone. It finally decided to be sunny, so we enjoyed aperitifs and a feast outside in the garden with the birds singing and the dogs laying in the grass. Denis and Martine fixed all kinds of fancy appetizers, and followed them with a course of asparagus (the white kind. Apparently that is the most common type here, which surprised me. I'd always been used to see the green stuff) and truffle sauce with parmesan cheese. The main course was mutton with a fresh salad and fried potatoes, followed up with wine, cheese, and ice cream for dessert. Have I mentioned that Belgians know their food? We kids played a type of blindman's bluff and had fun talking with the adults. Marianne, Denis, and Pépé came and played a few rounds with us too. It was hilarious to watch them get into it, trying to trick the guesser and grinning from ear to ear like 5 year olds. There was a thunder storm a ways off, so it was exciting for me to hear serious thunder, the likes of which never happen in AK. It didn't get close enough to really even rain on us, but we had fun looking for it.
This week we're back in school, although my class has gotten out of school early every single day---the students were there, but the teachers not so much. It's been kinda nice. I have been gorging myself on English novels I picked up in Wales.
We had a real-to-goodness thunderstorm here Thursday, so I was happy that I walked home before it got going. Miss 36 was scared, so I had her in my lap for a while. Good thing she's a whippet and not a Great Dane!
There's a new puppy here at the moment, a little snippet called Libellule (Dragonfly). Someone found her in a garbage bag alongside the road and brought her to Marianne. She's about 9 months old and just the sweetest-tempered little thing you ever saw. She's already found a home, but she's staying here for a week while they're on vacation, so I have been puppy-sitting lately. The bonuses of living with a vet! Poor Piout is quite jealous of the teenier newcomer, who's about half her size (nothing but skin and bones). She's used to being the baby around here. The baby also has some issues with potty-training, but hopefully she'll figure that out soon.
That's all the small talk here for now. Our departure draws ever nearer, with our crises of opposing emotions. July will be interesting.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Cardiff photos

Here's a photo of the castle keep and St. Fagan's.


Monday morning I took buses, trains, subways, and TGV's to find myself in Cardiff, or Caerdydd in Welsh, by noon. Traveling in Europe with trains is incredibly easy, if a bit expensive. I discovered that coordinating it all and catching them all really wasn't worth a stomach ulcer. I did notice that trains in the UK are more classy than Belgian trains; they're more like airplanes, complete with interior carpet, meal service, and tray tables. Their security level is also higher.
I was almost in tears of excitement to see Hazel while waiting for her to find me at the train station. Our mothers grew up together as best friends and we've known each other since we were born; she is the kind of person I haven't seen for 8 months. She got married and moved to Cardiff since I had seen her last. When we finally did find each other, bear hug mania ensued. Throughout the week it was wonderful to catch up with her as well as reminisce together about our families and homes in Alaska. Speaking English tripped me up a bit for a while (not to mention that I couldn't understand a word of what the Welsh cashiers said to me the first day or so. I wasn't even sure that it had been English!) but it was really exciting to see signs and books in my first language again. So I had a little taste of what readjusting to the USA will be like. It's going to be so incredibly strange.
As we chatted and caught up on every topic under the sun, we also managed to do quite a bit of other things. The weather was gorgeous all week, so we spent a lot of time outside. I can hardly believe it, but I actually had a mild sunburn and many freckles from April sunshine! Monday we drank tea, walked through town, relaxed, took a picnic to a nearby park where we ogled the flowers and found an adorable puppy, and went out for British-beef burgers at the Wetherspoon Pub. British beef is superb, and the Swedish pear cider we discovered was also wonderful. I have to say that the 'chips' (meaning fries) were good but not as good as the Belgian variety. The Belgian frite ain't famous for nothing. I do like the British tradition of vinegar on fries, though. I also really appreciate their policy of free ketchup and mayo and toilets after having to pay extra for all these things in Belgium!
Tuesday we packed a hearty picnic in a super duper specialized picnic backpack and set out past the animal wall (a wall with carved stone animals, including panthers, raccoons, beavers, seals, baboons, pelicans, and others peaking over it) for Cardiff Castle. We sat out on the grounds and enjoyed our bacon sandwiches (British staple. Butter is a mandatory ingredient), pork pies, scotch eggs (breaded meatballs), a teensy bottle of champagne to go in the special picnic champagne glasses, cucumber, and authentic cheddar cheese (did you know cheddar is a place? So is badminton) with traditional Welsh cakes. We then wandered about the fortress, enjoying the historical anecdotes and info ranging from Roman times to Normans, from Victorian renovators to WWII with our audio guides. There were hordes of French speaking tourists around, and it was satisfactory to understand the snippets of conversations I overheard and know that I could translate for them if they needed. We thoroughly enjoyed the trebuchet, the Victorian luxury, the WWII patriotism, and the incredibly thick Roman and Norman walls. When we had exhausted the grounds we hopped across the street to the Cardiff Museum to ogle elegant china and a few classic paintings before heading to a friends home for supper. Fish and chips from a nearby renowned shop (The Albany Fish Bar) was worthy of its reputation and some Welsh Brains (the local beer) was a nice accompaniment. I also learned about the different British meals (Breakfast, elevensies, lunch/luncheon, Afternoon Tea, Tea, and Supper. Tea is like dinner and Supper is like a late-night snack. Think like a Hobbit!) and got a glimpse into the local devotion to football and rugby. I also learned that while calling Welsh people British is acceptable, NEVER call them English. There is a huge difference. Also, the flap I had always thought was English (considering it's always shown for London and on historical ships and things) is actually the British flag. These are NOT interchangeable terms!
Wednesday we slept in and went shopping downtown in the afternoon. I was introduced to Primark, a cute and incredibly cheap clothing store and of course we had a ball there and everywhere else. During the week I noticed that Brits dress a lot more like Americans; they have no fear of the casual or bright funky colors and styles. It was nice to see. That night we made curry chicken for 'tea' and watched the old Planet of the Apes. I hadn't realized it, but there is a strong, logical link between Indian and British culture. There are a lot of ethnic Indians around, and curry in all its Bitishized variations has come to be considered the national dish. There are also a lot more Muslims around than I'd noticed in Belgium. So I learned some things.
Thursday Hazel wasn't feeling well so I took the morning to do a bit more shopping and track down some book stores. I had fun in several thrift shops and discovered the wonders of Cardiff's second-hand bookstores and marketplace. I didn't get much marketing done for our children's book (Musk Ox Magic, written by my mother and co-illustrated by my sister and me. More information and orders can be placed by emailing since the one independent book store I found was closed for good friday. Brits also get Easter Monday off. Why don't we do that in the US? Anyways, I found some treasures and toddled back through the park without getting lost. That afternoon we dedicated to St. Fagan's, an open-air museum/garden complex that is also Hazel's favorite place in the world. It's probably near the top of my list as well. The gardens were really and truly gorgeous, with trellises and topiaries and towering trees occupying terraces around pools and streams. Taken with the Manor house, I kept expecting Jane Austen or one of her characters to come sweeping up the lane or across the thick carpets. St. Fagans is also a National History Museum; they have collected buildings from around Wales that visitors can explore. We wandered through farm houses ranging from the 1500's up through the 1800's, a cock fighting pit, a men's club, a traditional Welsh Chapel, a muraled church, and a really cool row house exhibit. They had the row houses set up so that as you went down the row you also moved chronologically from the 1800's all the way to 1985. Row houses play an important role in The Magician's Nephew by CS Lewis, so it was cool to see these connected, mirror-immaged houses in reality. I also got to stay in one; it's true that you hear all kinds of strange noises the seem are in your house but are really next door. Luckily Hazel warned me so I didn't get spooked. Anyways, we enjoyed the exhibits, ate our picnic under the trees, enjoyed Welsh icecream, and chatted to a friendly museum employee for an hour or so. He talked to us about Welshness in general; apparently spoken Welsh is on the upswing and there are supporters of an independent Wales. He found that Americans were actually more open and willing to give the Welsh language a shot than other Brits, probably because they had never even heard it before and weren't intimidated. It's always nice to hear good things about American culture. On the way home we found a delightful detour through some fields and stopped at a pub named The Robin Hood for a half pint of Guinness. Just had to.
Friday we walked around the bay, soaking up the sunshine. We didn't see any seagulls up close, fortunately. Cardiff seagulls are very well-fed, large, and aggressive. Think The Birds with bigger, nautical fowl. We saw the stadium up close and the area where movies and tv shows are often filmed before heading across the bridge and across to the other side of the bay to pay a visit to some relatives. We enjoyed a piping hot cup of tea (it doesn't matter what the temperature is---tea is the mandatory beverage. And it is never anything but piping hot.)and a chat with them before heading back. We stopped at Nando's, a chicken specialty spot with a particular atmosphere, for dinner. Another note: British food does not come in Medium. Only large and small. By the time we had polished off our mushy peas, mash, and chicken burgers the friday parties had kicked off in the street. It was still relatively quiet, but singing and coppers were present. We also noticed two beefy looking bouncers guarding McDonald's. Only in Europe.
Saturday we took it easy and I packed up my bags. We determined that that visit would not be my last, so it wasn't impossible to say goodbye. The train to London was full of football fans; I guess Cardiff was playing someone in London and the already booze-happy supporters were heading down. I sat next to a Bulgarian lady and had a nice little chat with her, but enjoyed the enthusiastic singing for all 2 and a half hours. I got home just fine, happy to see Belgium and French again. What can I say? I've been assimilated.
Other random things I learned:
Americans eat with one hand because back in the day on the frontier holding a knife in your right hand was conducive to stabbing your neighbor during the meal. Thus, it was considered more polite to keep the knives in the center of the table and only use it occasionally or cut with the fork than to eat with both. Totally logical.
Daffodils are Welsh symbols, and sheep are also important.
Love spoons are a Welsh tradition. These hand-carved and symbolic gifts are basically like engagement rings given by the groom to his bride. We saw both the largest (close to 10 or so feet high) and the smallest (smaller than a matchstick).
I also noticed that British English is closer to French than American English. For example, Brits might say 'pardon' instead of excuse me or sorry. That's the same word as in French.
They also say sorry for 'excuse me' a lot more than in the US. Or that's how it seemed to me.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Walabi to Wales

The last week has been full of amazing stuff; here's the breakdown.(and please excuse my typing as I'm on a normal keyboard and thus have issues).
Thursday: I spent the day with Marianne at the pony club monitoring dogs and playing with children in the sand. Touchtou was running basically nonstop all day; normally he is limited by how much his humans will put up with a wet tennis ball, but between thirty kids there is always someone who wants to play! Thus he ran and ran and ran. Come bedtime he crawled into bed and just lay there whimpering he was so sore and tired! Poor silly boy. After being outside and running about all day I might have whimpered a bit too, but the uno-playing (pony-club style, which means cheating just as much as you possibly can without being caught), fellowship, and cute kids definitely were worth it.
Friday: Up and at 'em bright and early to catch the train to Walabi, the Belgian amusement park, with buddies from school. Julia and another AFSer, Savannah, came too. We had a really good time chilling together, and it was really really wonderful to be part of a group of friends again. Since Sharon isn't a fan of intense rides, we did a mix of calmer and scary rides. One, the Vampyre, was like a roller coaster, only the seats were designed so that you were almost standing up and there was almost nothing in front of you. I screamed like a banshee, nearly deafened Benjamin, and put myself in the perfect state of voice to sing Johnny Cash. I also really had fun in the bumper cars...I got to DRIVE! Albeit like a giggling maniac, but still. So we passed a great day together in the sunshine, had fun making fun of the town names on the train (a town named Faux (false)? How Bizarre), and collapsed into bed when all was said and done.
Saturday: After lunch with the family I caught yet another train to Louvain la Neuve, a university town in central Belgium, for a Palm Sunday get together with Marie Jeunesse and other Catholic groups. I found a friend on the train, and she kindly showed me about Louvain la Neuve before the soiree got kicked off. The town is basically the equivalent of an American University town, only instead of dorms everywhere it's 'kots' which are more like apartments. There's basically nothing but University buildings and stores, malls, a movie theater, and a church all catering to students, but there are a few families who could be seen walking around the central lake as well. So it provides a more concentrated University life, unlike other Belgian universities where students live out in the town and don't all use the same facilities. After our little promenade we joined the others for some warming up activities, a supper of soup and sandwiches, and a bishop-led palm walk. No donkeys like at my church back home, but it was still nice and we sang as we walked. Afterwards we had a worship and prayer service that kicked off adoration. I went to bed early, after a couple hours, in the school next door. I didn't expect to sleep much, as we were settled on concrete floors with sleeping bags, but the Lord provided and I found some detachable cushions on nearby chairs that let me get enough sleep to be functional the next morning at 5:45 when they woke us for mass. I left on an early train tired but with a filled soul and renewed spirit.
That afternoon I finished packing up my bags to take the train to WALES, which will be continued on (at least) another post.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Flying Bells and Brussels

Paques is here! That means Easter, people! Two weeks and a day off from school (I love the idea of Easter Monday) and chocolate eggs for all! The weather here has been drop-dead gorgeous too, with temps in the 60's and 70's and sunshine for almost two straight weeks. The flowers are at their height, the spandexed runners and flashy convertibles are hitting the road, I'm getting a tan--- I can hardly believe it's only April!
A Belgian tradition here for Easter is Marie Pontoise, bells with wings. The story is that during Easter there is one day when the bells in the Vatican do not ring (for real) and the bells have flown off to scatter chocolate eggs and candy for the kids in the gardens and fields. Thus, along with rabbits and chickens, chocolate and other goodies are made in the shape of flying bells. I have also learned some handy Belgicisms for rain (very practical here, normally):
1. Il drache=it's raining hard (not accepted French)
2.Caer par seau= to fall by buckets=it's really raining
3. Il tombe des cordes= it's falling ropes=it's raining cats and dogs
Today Julia and I took advantage of the vacation and spent the day in Brussels. Since this art nerd was bound and determined to visit the Magritte Museum and Julia wasn't quite so excited about that, we split for the morning. Since the museum wasn't far and we only had one map, I gave the map to Julia and set out. Thus, I was all alone in a major European city with a dying cell phone and no map. At the beginning of the year this would have meant major insecurity and perhaps a bit of panic. No big deal now, even with getting lost several times. What a great feeling. Anyways, I found the museum just fine and spent a delicious hour and a half soaking in the galleries of the Belgian surrealist. I hadn't been much of a fan of Magritte previously, but after eying giraffes in champagne glasses, pipes that weren't pipes, doves sprouting out of leaves, and curious sky-patterned shapes I changed my mind. I find Magritte is more accessible as a surrealist than Dali, and often has a discernible message. Plus, he almost always gave interesting titles to his works: The Flavor of Tears and The Companions of Fear are two I remember particularly. Anyways, this museum is an absolute must when visiting Brussels.
After some lost wanderings and brief phone calls Julia and I regrouped at ChaoChow, a Chinese restaurant recommended by a handy-dandy map for young people in our possession. Their deal of 3.80 for the dish of the day is hard to beat, the food was good, and we had a nice spot to sit. A gentleman seated next to us heard us talking in English and asked if we needed help with the French on the menu. He spoke English impeccably and was very eloquent and friendly. He explained the Belgian political pickle of the moment (it actually makes sense to me now!)and the formation of Belgium, then we discussed Palin (yeeeah, he knew who she was), Obama, Socialism...By the end I knew I didn't agree with him on his political stance, but I couldn't really remember what my reasons were. Even so, it was interesting and I learned from him. He was one of the few Flemings from Brussels; he said he'd been speaking French since he was 6 and English since he was 12. The Flemish side of the country pushes language accumulation a lot more than in Wallonie. After all, more people in the world speak French than Dutch. So I enjoyed my Chinese beer and beef and got to listen to some interesting English---lovely! I also bought a book on Japanese modern art and culture at the museum. I am ridiculously excited to have English reading material!
After an hour of politics we followed our wonderful map to a nearby vintage shop. We had a lot of fun rummaging about and trying on elegant gloves and retro glasses. We came out with some treasures and scooted off through several other stores. Before catching the train home we stopped at EXki, a Belgian restaurant chain of natural fast food. It was a bit pricy, but the fresh yogurt was divine, the interior was calm and colorful, and the bathrooms were clean and free. Definitely worth the price.
Tomorrow I am going with Marianne to Cecile's to help with her campers at the pony club. Marianne has already worked her tail off two days, and tomorrow it'll be me too. I must be crazy. But all exchange students are.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

100 days

Happy belated April Fool's! Here it is known as Poisson d'Avril=April Fish. I have a suspicion it has something to do with Lent. The traditional gag is to slap a fish (paper or otherwise) on the back of a friend. For all that, I didn't see too many gags yesterday. I did have fun and send my parents a tall tale message...who says you have to be on the same continent to pull off a practical joke?
I've got some other little cultural notes that have been accumulating:
1. Belgians see nothing weird about reaching up their shirt and spraying deodorant all over their armpits in public places. Often.
2. Besides 'Punaise'(thumbtack), which I've previously mentioned, Belgians expletives also include 'mince'=slim and 'purée'= mashed (potatoes).
3. Belgians are much more blunt about aesthetics than Americans. If they think something is ugly, they will jolly well let you know. No polite temporizing, really.
4. Polluting the environment is a much bigger sin than in the US. Although they don't seem to care about litter. But greenhouse gases? Gadzooks and mashed potatoes!
5. Almost everything closes on Sundays, and grocery stores never stay open 24/7 like they do normally in the US.(Little ironic considering almost no one is religious enough to associate Sunday with the Sabbath). We discovered this last Sunday when we went to Namur to hang out with some Americans. Just about everything was closed down. We found a little tiny grocery store open and bought cheese, chocolate mousse, spoons, and a baguette for a picnic in the sunshine. And took pictures with a snail statue. Because that's what Namur's known for. It was a good day.
This weekend is Carnaval here in Tournai. Not sure why it's now, as Mardi Gras was quite a while ago, but this is when the Tournaisiennes have their party. Since costumes are pretty much mandatory, Julia and I are going to get into some closets today and create something appropriately wild to wear. Should be fun.
Only 100 days left in Belgium! I can hardly believe it!