Sunday, August 28, 2011

It's been a nice, lazy Sunday to bring my busy first week with my Belgian family to a close:  I slept in until nearly 10 o'clock, had a leisurely breakfast of bread and croissants with everything you could want on bread or croissants with my Papa, and read one of my brother's Adventures of TinTin.  (I've been trying to read a bit in French, and attempted to start The Old Man and the Sea, or Le vieil homme et la mer ici, thinking that Hemmingway's simple prose would be a good place to start.  Unfortunately, even that required more looking in the dictionary than I would have hoped, so I've moved back to comic books.)  I'm not sure what else today will bring, although I do think there is a family friend's birthday party, which will give me a chance to show everyone just how bad I am at Pétanque.

After posting on Wednesday, I headed out to the Maison des Jeunes, about a kilometer away from my apartment, for my French courses.  I got slightly lost on the way, but was able to ask a woman on the street for directions and understand them, which put me in a great mood when I arrive.  We split into two groups based on whether we'd taken a couple years of French or a couple months.  My group, for those of us who had studied more French, went to the park to play games while the other group had their lesson.  We played some name games, Trois Deux Un Piano (French version of Red Light Green Light), Le Petit Poisson Rouge (like Sharks and Minnows, except that the sharks call out a color first, and anyone wearing that color gets a free pass), and our favorite Citron Citron.  We went back to the school for our classes, which were still pretty basic: we introduced ourselves, told each other about our families, what we liked to do, what we usually ate, etc.  
There was a break for lunch around 1:30, during which a few of the other students and I (Sofia, also from the states, Karamea, from New Zealand, Emile from Canada, and a few others) went and bought waffles and fries. Both were delicious; the mayonnaise here is a lot different than in the US, and was surprisingly good on the fries.
Everyone met up at the school after lunch for our walking tour of Liège.  We went through the famous Carré (old part of the city where people go to party on Friday nights) to the Place Cathédrale, then to the Place St Lambert to see the Palais de Justice.  We had a race up the Montagne de Bueren, about a million stairs which lead up to the citadel; almost everyone started out running, but nobody was able to run up more than about a third of them.  We were rewarded with a very nice view of the city before walking back down and parting ways.  
I went out for another waffle (this time covered in chocolate) with Karamea and Sofia and the AFS returnee Mathilde, who had to wait to catch a train, and got home with just enough time to put some pictures on my computer and eat an apple before going to field hockey practice.  It didn't seem quite as hard as on Monday, although I was still exhausted when I came back home to shower and have a quick dinner before falling into bed.

Tuesday began again with relatively basic French lessons from our very condescending Belgian teacher, whose goal seems to be to correct any and every small pronunciation error we make mid-sentence.  All the AFSers were pretty frustrated by the end of the lesson, so a few of us went out to a café to have a beer.  Sofia, Emile, Karamea, two other boys and I met Karamea's British friend Mark at the Place Cathédrale and tried a variety of Belgian beers.  I had a Kriek, which was fruity and relatively inexpensive, Sofia got a dark beer, which was also pretty good, and one of the boys got something peach flavored that didn't really even taste like beer.
I got home with enough time to relax with my brothers a bit before going out to meet their cousin Loureen and her friends for dinner.  We went to a place called Touch and Go for pitas, which they maybe picked for me because its menu was mostly in pictures, but was really tasty all the all the same.  We went out after to get a drink in the Carré, and everyone was really impressed when I bought a Jupiler (a beer that's inexpensive and popular in Belgium).  They told me that that was what all the boys here drank, and that the boys liked to tease the girls who bought cocktails/fruity beers.  Everyone was really nice and tried to talk relatively slowly for me.
I got home around eleven (Loureen walked with me to a bus stop near my family's apartment) and watched the end of a movie with Côme and Hugues and their friend before bed.

On Friday, the other AFSers in the more advanced group had a trip to the Archéoforum planned for 10:30, which didn't pan out as expected because (if I understood correctly, which is a relatively big if) there was some sort of bomb scare at/near the Archéoforum.  We decided to walk to an aquarium nearby, and right as we were crossing the Meuse, in probably the most exposed part of the city we could be, it started pouring rain.  We got to the museum dripping wet, which made looking at the fish and animal skeletons slightly colder and more miserable than it should have been.
At around 12:30 we left the museum and our group split near the Place Cathédrale to find lunch.  Karamea, Sofia, Emile and I went into a little café for sandwiches and hot chocolate, which came with an adorable miniature waffle (about the size of a half dollar coin).  French class was even less fun than it had been on Thursday because we were all wet, but we were still able to laugh a lot.
Everyone went straight home after class (I'm not sure I've ever been that happy to have dry socks) and watched the men's Belgium - Netherlands field hockey game with Hugues while Maman made dinner.  Belgium lost 3 - 2, but they still are going/have a chance at going to the London Olympics next summer. I was really excited (probably too excited) when Maman asked me to clear the table after dinner (I'm enough a part of the family to do chores!), and I watched the news with the family until I got too tired to understand anything, at which point I determined it was time for bed.

Hugues had a field hockey game yesterday afternoon, so after getting a Belgian cell phone (GSM) with Papa, I went to watch with Côme and his friend.  I was rather appalled at the number of players who stepped off the field and immediately lit up a cigarette, but I guess that's just something I have to get used to here.  We went up to the little restaurant at the club and all the players got drinks and watched the Chelsea - Norwich soccer game.  Everyone seemed to be rooting strongly for Chelsea; I couldn't tell if that was because they were winning or if Belgians really feel strongly about English Premier League.  Maman and Papa arrived and were out on the patio with some friends of theirs.  I went out to join them and talked a little with some of their friends.  I got my first real bout of homesickness as I was thinking frustratedly to myself about everyone here smoking, but as we left the club (having to squeeze four kids in the backseat) and I warmed up and stopped smelling smoke, I cheered up quickly.  Côme's friend stayed for dinner, and two of Maman and Papa's friends came over as well, which meant it started late and lasted a long time.  We had wine and cheese starting around 9:30, and dinner and dessert lasted until after midnight.  I left the table before anyone else and still didn't get to sleep until around 1 am.

Alors. I leave you now to get dressed and get a few things done before we leave for the party around four.  À tantôt!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Je suis arrivée!

It's hard to believe that I just left home a week ago... I've been so busy with the AFS orientations (on both ends) and my family here in Liège that it feels like I've been here much longer.  (And the days do seem longer when you have to translate everything you hear.)

My flight to New York was uneventful; it was a little hard saying goodbye to my parents at security but there were no tears... until I was past the glass.  My shoes set off some sort of alarm going through the scanner and I had to be searched and my shoes taken away and tested.  I started crying and the woman searching me got really worried.  It was really embarrassing standing there and trying to explain that I wasn't crying because of the search, but it was over soon enough and I found my way to my gate.  Soon enough another girl with the AFS yellow tags, going to Norway, sat down next to me and we were able to talk about our host families and such until the plane boarded.

When we landed in New York, there was another yellow-tagged girl waiting at the baggage claim who was also going to Belgium, albeit the Flemish half.  I couldn't believe there were two girls from Maine going to Belgium, but there wasn't much time to marvel as we were quickly ushered over to a group of AFSers waiting to go to the orientation at the hotel.  Once there, we all waited around for our rooms to be ready.  All the people going to Belgium ended up congregating at one table because we were (it seemed to us anyway) the most interesting and energetic people there.  I spent the rest of Wednesday and Thursday morning doing various AFS activities hanging out with the 11 other people going to Belgium (two to Flanders and nine to Wallonia) and the sole girl going to Hungary, who we adopted into our group.  We all got really close (a lot of us are startlingly similar), although our loudness and rambunctiousness sort of alienated the other countries (for example, when we played spoons and were yelling and running across the room to get to the spoon, we got a lot of dirty looks).  We left for the airport at 2:30 and took off for Belgium around 6:30.  We were all to excited (and in some cases uncomfortable) to sleep, so we congregated in the aisle and talked during the flight; we are already plotting a get-together so we can keep in touch and compare experiences.

We landed in Brussels around 8 am Friday and were shuttled to the hotel there.  The Wallonia-going and Flanders-going Americans were sadly separated for our overnight and four day orientations, respectively.  We then met up with some students from Honduras and were all shuttled over to the hotel. One of the American girls is Columbian, and speaks fluent Spanish, so she easily made friends with the other students.  Throughout the day, students from various other countries started arriving, and I helped myself stay awake by talking to them.  The group of Americans got along especially well with some girls from New Zealand, probably because, even though everyone at the orientation spoke English, we had the language in common.  We had to stay up until ten or so to watch a powerpoint and movie put on by the AFS Belgium volunteers (although many people, me included, fell asleep as soon as we sat down to do so), and even though a lot of AFSers wanted to try to go out to a bar or something in Brussels afterward, I went straight to bed.

I unfortunately couldn't sleep in on Saturday because we had breakfast starting at 7:30 and had to have everything out of our rooms by 9.  We were supposed to hang around in the hotel and the immediate surroundings, although two of the American girls and I stretched the limit a little bit by walking around the streets close to the hotel.  We got back and ate lunch, and then AFS had some activities for us to do, such as all plotting our locations on a giant map of Belgium, a crash course in French for those of us who needed/wanted it, and a scavenger hunt/walking tour of the streets around our hotel.  We were split into groups by chapter (there are five AFS chapters in French Belgium:  Liège, where I am, Hainaut, Namur, Brabant, and Luxembourg) and did a few more things before we met our host families.  In the Liège meeting, we got handed a bag of a few tourism booklets with things to do, the AFS schedule for the year and AFS Liège contact sheet, as well as a few Belgian goodies (Speculoos cookies, Chokolotoff and Napoleon candies).  We then attempted a few games: one in which you tap an empty chair and a person in the middle races a sitting person to it, and musical chairs, before settling on one called Pêche-Banane-Pomme (or any three arbitrary fruits).  Everyone sits in chairs in a circle and is given the name of a fruit.  One person stands in the middle and can call out any of the three fruits; when they do, everyone assigned that fruit must get up and find a new chair, while the person in the middle tries to steal one.  In addition, the middle person has a "secret-weapon:" Citron-citron, which means that everybody has to get up and find a new chair.

Finally, after many collisions and one girl almost tipping over her chair in our Pêche-Banane-Pomme game, we were herded outside and given roses to give to our host families.  The Liège chapter (not unlike my Belgium-going American group) was especially loud and excited, and there was much yelling of "Liège c'est la meillure!" (Liège is the best) and "L'Hainaut, ces sont de blaireau!" (People in Hainaut are smelly animals).  The chapters then went in one at a time to find their families and go to their new homes.  Liège was the last to go, and we all held hands and ran in cheering.  I found my family right away and we said a brief hello before getting in their car and heading to Liège.

We went out for dinner at a restaurant near their house; I had salmon for an entrée and then steak and fries, and we toasted to my arrival with wine.  The fries were a lot different than those in the states, less salty and with a flavor that I can't really figure out... almost like chow mein noodles maybe?  They were at least equally good as American fries, though, probably better (I'll just have to taste more Belgian french fries to be sure).  I was really tired when we got back to the house, so I went straight to bed.

Sunday morning I slept in and the family had a big breakfast together.  My Belgian Papa bought croissants, pains au chocolat, and several types of bread at the boulangerie, and we ate them with butter, several types of cheese, jam, and nutella.  My Maman and my brother Côme and I went for a long bike ride along the river Meuse, which runs through Liège, while my other brother, Hugues, studied and Papa cleaned the garage.  We stopped at a little café on the water and had lunch; I had a croque monsieur.  We rode back, which was kind of difficult into the wind, and then watched some TV with Papa and Hugues.  The boys and I walked the dog, Flicka, in the park, then came inside and played a car racing game on their playstation while Maman showered and made an "early" dinner (it was maybe seven or eight o'clock).  The family then watched a movie (in French, but with French subtitles so that I could understand) and I finally got some sleep.

On Monday, after a breakfast of Meusli and citrus juice with Maman, I went to enroll at school: Athénée Royale Charles Rogier Liège 1, where Côme and Hugues go also.  I will be (at least for the beginning) in cinquième, the second-to-last year in school.  Someone my age should probably be in sixième, or rheto (sp?), but because of the French and, as my Maman said, the reputation for American schools to be bad in math and science, I'm starting in the year below, with Hugues.  I will be following a track with a lot of science and math (six hours a week of each) and less of languages (I'll have four hours of a foreign language, in my case English because I wold be waaay behind in German or Dutch, a week) for a total of 31 hours a week of school.  (I figured it out that in the states, at 80 minute classes * 4 classes a day * 5 days a week, I have about 26 hours of classes a week, so here it is an hour a day longer... not too bad.)  I then spent the rest of the day with Hugues:  we got ID photos taken for enrolling at the school, went to the park with his friend and his friend's little brothers, and came home and played the racing game with his friend, Jordy (sp?).  When Papa came home, I changed into clothes to go to field hockey practice.  The practice was really long (two hours) and intense, and everyone was better than me, which was kind of depressing.  Fortunately though, all the girls there were really nice, so I didn't feel so bad.  We came home a little after nine and had dinner, then I could finally shower and get some sleep.

Yesterday I finally got to have a lazy day.  There was a really loud thunderstorm around 3 am, so I slept in until about 10, when I had a chocolate-filled cereal breakfast with Côme, then hung around the house with him until Hugues and a friend came home from the school.  We went out and met Maman for lunch at a restaurant, where we all got giant and delicious sandwiches.  We walked back home and I worked on college apps (ish) while the boys played Call of Duty.  Maman came home from work around 6 o'clock, and Hugues and friend left for field hockey.  Côme and I met his friend David for a walk, and then I sent emails/arranged my room until dinner.  The boys and I took one more walk with Flicka before bed.

Phew.  Finally I'm caught up with my blog and I can start writing smaller posts at more regular intervals.

I start French classes today at the Maison des Jeunes with the other AFS Liège students.  Wish me luck!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

It's my last full day in Maine and I only just finished packing my suitcase.  Deciding what to pack was a lot harder than anticipated;  I had no idea how many clothes were needed for a whole year abroad.  A couple friends were having a similar issue in packing for college (although they can always bring back more things when they come home to visit), and I eventually came up with this list.  It was the weirdest feeling when I closed my suitcase (without even having to sit on it... YES!)-- the (almost) year of preparations for my trip were finally over and all that was left was waiting and saying goodbyes.  Woah. (Plus I looked around and my room was cleaner than it has been in a looong time.  Talk about closure.)

I got my visa in the mail at the end of last week so I could stop worrying about it.  It's super pretty and makes me laugh at the fact that I had tried so hard to get a picture where I looked good:  the picture on the visa is so blurry that you can only just tell it's of me.  I'll still have to go to the "municipal authorities" (which they kindly clarified as city hall in an attached note) when I arrive to get an ID card and such, because the visa is only good for 90 days.

I had meant to brush up on current events and on my French, of which I have done neither, so I guess I'll have to carry on the stereotype of Americans being ignorant when they travel.  I'm thinking if I compose a short list of essential things (on both subjects), I can study up on the plane and come out somewhat OK.  I guess we'll see.

Well, that's about all I have to report.  Just one more day of goodbyes (and au revoirs, of course) and waiting before I FINALLY LEAVE FOR BELGIUM!