Monday, June 20, 2011

Starting to Sum Up

Last Thursday Julia and I had a hole in our finals schedule so we had a chance to go with Jean Pierre and Jade to do some visiting in the north. We went to Breendonk, a concentration camp from the second world war that's not too far from Antwerp. The guides told us it was a visit of two hours or so, but we spent nearly four without dawdling. The presentation of the camp was minimal and very powerful. We wandered through the halls and barracks with our audio guides, trying to grasp the reality of the horrors that were being described that happened on that very spot. The SS had a Flemish branch that helped run the camp, and I was stunned by the youth of the murderers and prisoners---one prisoner was only 16 and one of the most brutal guards was only 21. Many of the inmates were fellow Belgians. I had known that soldiers would obviously be young, but the realization that people my own age and basically kids were killing and being killed like that really took my breath away. We toured the entire compound, hearing stories, interviews, and descriptions. Torture chambers, gallows, toilets, beds. The worst is that Breendonk wasn't even a death camp---there were worse places. It was a very powerful thing to see and it was definitely something I would recommend doing. Even in the US we are required to read Holocaust literature and we're steeped in WWII stereotypes and stories, but seeing it in person is something else entirely. From what I've seen Europeans are much more conscious and retentive about the World Wars, not surprisingly. Seeing is still more powerful than second-hand information.
After that we took a little detour into Holland to walk about in the sunshine and 'boire un verre' (drink a glass), a very important pass time here. The waiter of course spoke good English. We were talking about the Dutch Stereotype of stupid Belgians and the Belgian stereotype of scroogish Dutchmen when Jade decided to adapt to the country by making a show of tipping the very last drop of soda out of her bottle. The waiter was pretty obviously staring at her. I died laughing, Jade maneuvered her hat to try to become invisible, the waiter kept staring, and we retreated to the less commonly spoken French. Good times.
Saturday night was our going away party. Marianne rented a room, a dj, and basically went all out. We are some spoiled exchange students. It was really wonderful to see all of our friends and family together---so many good memories and special people. We had wonderful Belgian sausages and baguettes and danced and laughed and had a really wonderful time. Around 3 Marianne and Jean Pierre managed to get all of us youngsters back to the house and we all conked out on the sofas. Coffee and tea were very important substances the next day, but it was totally worth it.
I finished my last final today, so now I am done with high school FOR REAL. Hooray! We have to go back to the school next week to get our report cards though, because Belgians don't do online grading. I'm glad; it'll give me a chance to see all my friends again and it lets me procrastinate on freaking out over how little time we have left. Much to do and so little time.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Beens for supper

Lost English of the day: green beens. And is depass a word?
This is the second week of finals at school. There are a lot of finals, but there's only one or two per day so while it takes two weeks to finish them, it also means that you only have to be in school for 2 or 3 hours every day. Plus this last Sunday was Pentecost so we got Monday off.
Seeing as it was Pentecost and time is getting short, I went to the little protestant church Sunday to bid adieu. I think the congregation was a little fuller than normal, maybe 20 people. I was rather disappointed to see that wearing red is not a Belgian tradition for Pentecost. At home everyone decks themselves out in red from vermillion socks to crimson feathery hats and sometimes they even decorate the church. I was glad I had opted for the moderate side and not gone totally berserk with red clothing or I would have been rather odd looking among the primly dressed old ladies and easy-going soccer moms. I did enjoy the service though, and it was good to see some other Christians. I got some email addresses too and said some goodbyes. We also sang the French version of They'll Know We are Christians which was so wonderfully familiar. I can't wait to see my faith family at home. I'm even considering dragging my family to service after picking me up from the airport at 1 am because I don't want to miss a single Sunday!
Sunday afternoon we went to Denis' for a Father's day dinner with the extended family. The theme of the day was Spanish, so we enjoyed paiella, fritata, and many other Spanish salads, sausages, and calamari that I don't know the proper names of. It was all good, and we had a good time sticking ice cubes down each others' shirts and singing around the piano. Denis thoughtfully gave me a National Geographic with an article on a man who did a 7530 km tour of Alaska on foot. Crazy dude. Yet another occasion to practice saying goodbye.
Today I am responsible for supper, so I've been perusing cook books and pondering. Last week Jade and I cooked Costa Rican and made a chicken-avacado-feta salad. It was served in red cabbage leaves because we didn't have raddichio leaves, and it turned out pretty if a little crunchy. We also made a Costa Rican pineapple-prune upside down cake, which was super sweet but not bad. Unfortunately we learned the hard way that not all cream is whippable (gotta have at least 30 percent fat) but our cream still tasted good with the cake. If I have done nothing else in Belgium, at least I have practiced cooking dinner for people!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

5 Wonderful Belgian Things That I Will Miss

1. Public transport. Trains, buses, TGV' can get anywhere and everywhere without needing a license or going to the gas station.
2. Cava? Cava. Et toi? Cava. This one word does everything. How are you? Fine. You ok? I'm fine. Alright. And that's without bringing the infinitive into play.
3. Bisous! Kissing people hello is just so friendly. Cold stuffy Americans just wave. Although having glasses can be a bit dangerous.
4. The food. Having 30 kinds of cheese to choose from is lovely. And then there's the chocolate, waffles, fruited beer, mayo, and américain. And this is why I will need a diet when I go home.
5. Most of all, the people. My host family feels like my own family, and our extended family of friends has a special spot in my heart. Being in a house without 10 dogs will seem quite empty.

Monday, June 13, 2011


Now all this year Germany and my friend Daniel have been just a few hours away, but last week I finally did something about it. Jade and I grabbed our backpacks and caught a TGV (ICE in English---Inter City Express. I prefer rocket train) to Cologne, just 3 hours away total. It was great to see Daniel again, who had been an exchange student in my school in Alaska two years ago. He actually gave me the idea to do a year abroad. Anyways, his English is almost better than mine, so we all got along and chatted it up in English over the weekend.
He picked us up from the station in a car thanks to his valuable driver's license (it costs up to 2000 euros to earn your license here---driving ain't no joke) and took us by his old high school to have a look-see. In Germany they have 13 grades, and there were windows in every single classroom, but otherwise it looked like a pretty normal high school. On the way to his home we went along a stretch of THE autobahn---how very thrilling! It was through the city, though, so there was a speed limit. But it was still legit.
We stopped briefly at the house to meet his sister and his mother's fish and then left to catch a train into town. Their metro system is expensive, but comes every 10 or 15 minutes and runs all night. Unlike Belgium, literally ALL kinds ride the train. You can see people with purple hair sitting next to stately elderly gentlemen sitting next to a tipsy dude wearing a knit cap. People watching was quite entertaining. We stepped off the train near the town center and then walked across the Rhine on a bridge with a really long German name that I can't spell. The barrier of the bridge was chock full of locks of all shapes and sizes, covered with all kinds of inscriptions. Apparently the romantic thing to do in Cologne is to put a lock on the bridge and toss the key in the river. Some authorities complain that it's destroying the bridge, but removing all the locks would be a tedious and expensive job for the city, so for now they stay. Photographers n tourists love it, and the locals make use of it for romantic dates as well.
From the bridge we had a great view of the cathedral---the tallest in Europe. It was absolutely breathtaking---I've seen quite a few beautiful churches here, but this was really something. Definitely on the same level or even more beautiful than Notre Dame in Paris. The surface was incredibly intricate, and the relatively new stained glass windows were brilliant (they were all lost in the wars. Amazingly, the cathedral itself was spared intact. The rest of the town was pretty well demolished.) It was also marvelously cool inside---it was around 100 degrees out in the sun. I had never experienced heat that like before, and I was quite impressed. The cold stone floors and breezy chapels were very welcome.
We then took a stroll through the town, Daniel pointing out notable restaurants, apartments, and office buildings all the while. We went to a little-known pub with Cologne-brewed beer for dinner. The servers there don't ask if you want another beer---if your glass is empty, you get another one until you say stop. The bill is kept on the backside of a coaster with tally marks. Really hardcore people make it around the entire coaster in one night. I'm generally not a beer beer fan, but this was a nice mild variety. I then discovered that real sauerkraut is nothing like the stuff I've been eating all my life. Wow, it was wonderful. The ham and mashed potatoes weren't bad either, and the portions certainly weren't skimpy. And they say Americans like their meat. Without thinking, Jade ordered a salad---there's been an outbreak of some kind of bacteria in raw vegetables in Germany recently and there are lot of sick people and 20 or so dead. She hasn't died yet, but in hindsight, a salad probably wasn't the best choice for supper. At any rate, we had a nice meal and then headed off to visit the source of the local beer.
At the brewery we got a taste of more of the typical beer and the typical Cologne bartenders---grumpy as can be and the customer is never right. I got all kinds of dirty looks for asking for water instead of beer after a while, and Jade was teased quite a bit for being a French speaker. We had a good time talking and watching the tenders haul kegs of beer in over their shoulder and wash a prodigious number of beer glasses at incredible speeds. We also practiced saying cheers, please, and thanks in German. Around 3 or so we took a taxi home, chatted with Daniel's sister and her buddies on the porch, and then crashed.
We woke up relatively late the next morning and enjoyed a breakfast of good German bread with jam and nutella before heading off for more adventuring. We were going to climb the Cathedral towers, but the line of tourists was so incredibly long that we decided to go do something else and maybe come back later. Here in Europe the Tourist season is in full swing---even in Tournai the Cathedral is full of little English gentlemen and French ladies taking tours. Anyways, we chose to spend the afternoon wandering around Cologne, checking out the other notable points of the city. We stopped back at the same pub for lunch. We had 'half a rooster' which is a Cologne tradition that is actually bread with a slab of Gouda and butter. Nom. We also had mustard and a serious dill pickle---that thing was enormous. And very very good. The mustard tasted 'normal' to me---much like American mustard vs the make-you-cry-with-smoke-coming-out-of-your-ears French stuff. And of course we had more beer. By that time of the afternoon it was well over 100, so we were rather sluggish. We walked around some more afterwards, and then headed back across the river to the local hang-out spot, the park. We laid in the grass and talked for a couple hours, watching some people play a crazy game that resembled something of a medieval battle. They charged each other with foam staffs and swung balls on ropes over their heads trying to hit each other, so I'm not sure how else to describe it. Looked fun. When we had recovered, we headed home.
We went out later to the grocery store to pick up some dinner ingredients. We learned that Jade needs to move to Germany, since wine is about half the price it is in Belgium. Also, that they have really long conveyor belts at checkout and that feeding the bottle recycling machine is fun the first time. Daniel whipped up noodles with mushrooms, and we chilled watching the Hangover and debating whether its French title is better (Very Bad Trip) before we headed to bed.
We caught a train early the next morning because the silly American got her PMs and AMs mixed up and booked a train early in the morning instead of Saturday night. Hem. At any rate, it worked out just fine. I bought a pretzel for breakfast, since I hadn't seen one of those for ages, and some coffee was also welcome. I was apparently still pretty sleepy thought, as I tried to take the escalator going the wrong way. Comic relief, I guess. 3 and a half hours later we were back in Tournai in time for lunch and the traditional parade, the Carlage. Which is yet another story.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Flea Market and Waterloo

Life continues to click right along here. I'm progressively losing my English (how do you spell occasionally? Thank heavens for spell check!), thinking in French, and feeling really and truly at home in this family. When I think about leaving I feel like I'm leaving home all over again, except this time it's less certain I'll be back. It makes me teary just thinking about saying goodbye, so I'll move on to other topics.
Last Saturday I strolled down to the village center to check out a Belgian flea market. I found some deliciously cheap earrings and a scarf among the china teapots, plaster leopards, Star Wars figurines, and ancient typewriters. Thrift stores and consignment stores don't really exist here, so I was really happy to do some treasure hunting that didn't hurt my wallet.
Later that afternoon Jade, Julia, a Canadian AFSer and myself went out for a fondue at a hawaiian café, something we'd been meaning to do since January. The melted Belgian chocolate was quite delicious of course, and we had a nice chat. That night we made peanut butter cookies and goofed around as only exchange students know how. Julia, with her horror of all nuts, tried making nutella cookies (that is the one exception to her nut antipathy) but it turned more into a cake since they spread out a bit much. Happily chocolate is hard to ruin, and the experiment was still perfectly edible.
Sunday I got up early and joined Mina, a Norwegian AFSer, for a day in Waterloo. Yes, how many of you knew that Napoleon got his French booty kicked in Belgium? We visited the Duke of Wellington's quarters which is a 300 year old inn that has been turned into a very informative and interesting little museum. We saw the Lord of Uxbridge's artificial leg he never got the chance to wear, as well as the room he died in and his leg's burial spot. We saw many handsome swords and pistols and banners, and listened to drums and cannons and bugles on our audio guides. We also climbed the Lion Monument that was erected on the spot where the Prince of Orange was wounded in battle. It's a veritable mountain by Belgian standards, and we had a great view of the countryside from on top. The tourist season here is in full swing, so we saw plenty of Americans, Englishmen, Asians, and even some Danish folks who were happy to have a conversation in Danish with Mina. While it was sad to learn about how many men and horses and drummer boys were butchered on the field, it was also very impressive to get the full impression of what courage and discipline it must have taken to be a soldier or general in battle.
Monday I went with Marianne to the pony club for an impromptu barbecue to celebrate Alice's casting in a cooking show. It's a Belgian cooking competition show, featuring culinary students from around the country. Alice was picked out of close to 200 candidates to participate, so we are all very excited. The show will air in January, so Julia and I will have to check it out online or something. We enjoyed champagne, ribs, and Cécile's famous chocolate mousse with strawberries. (I've got to learn how to make that stuff!) It's just the end of the strawberry season here, and they were nearly as exquisite as the mousse.
Later in the week we also went to Veronique's for supper. Gilles, and Jean were there too, so we made up quite a large and lively party, as Jane Austen might say. We sat out in the sun and laughed at the grumpy neighbor's donkey and the loving, drooly dogs. Quite a lovely evening.
Another cultural note I've failed to mention: Godparents actually count for something here. They help with babysitting, throw birthday parties, and are generally like a more involved aunt or uncle. Pretty cool.
To be continued...

Monday, June 6, 2011

AFS Video

I made a video for a project for AFS USA and it's on Youtube! Check it out! Here's the url to copy/paste into your bar because I'm having troubles getting blogger to put a link directly in: