Sunday, December 25, 2011

Joyeux Noël!

It's Christmas in Belgium!  For all that's been going on in Liège and in the stores, Christmas wasn't as big a deal here as I had been expecting; St. Nicolas is definitely the main attraction for the little kids.  It's been a lot different here than Christmas back home, with, for me, a lot more people and a lot less dessert.  Because "far away" in Belgium seems to be about 60 kilometers (less than 40 miles), the entire extended family can get together to celebrate.

The main celebration was on Christmas eve, which we spent with my host mom's family: her mother, aunt, two sisters and three cousins and their families.  Everyone brought their presents with them (no Santa Claus here) to exchange over wine and appetizers.  Then, while the children played with their new toys, the adults (which included me, as everyone else of my generation was under 12) enjoyed a fancy dinner: foie gras followed by veal and pasta followed by a cheese platter followed by Speculoos mousse and ice cream.  I wasn't a huge fan of the foie gras, in part because I couldn't stop thinking about what I was eating, but everyone told me that it was a symbol of a special occasion, so I made sure to try to appreciate it.  It was a lot different from the Christmas eve I'm used to (my family of four eating a simple meal and watching a movie), but it was fun to meet all of the family.  They all talked about how happy they were not to have snow this year (the opposite of how I was feeling, especially after hearing about the snow they had back home) and told stories about previous years long into the night.  We left around 2 am, a departure slightly delayed by my host brother's losing of his first tooth, which got lost down the drain and had to be rescued.

This year, for the first time ever, I slept in on Christmas.  For all that I no longer rush downstairs as soon as I possibly can to try to guess what Santa has brought me, I still usually wake up around 7 am.  In part because of the late return and in part because all the presents had been opened the night before, I managed to sleep until 11.  I ate a tartine (no gingerbread cookies for breakfast... no gingerbread cookies at all, in fact) for breakfast and played with some of my host brother's new toys: Disney Trivial Persuit, a Jenga-esque game, toy soldiers, legos...

My host dad's family (his aunts, uncles, father, grandmother, cousins and their children) arrived around 5; all together we were 34.  We had set up little tables throughout the downstairs of the house with chips and pretzels, and served a ridiculous amount of champagne.  Between the 10-person table for the plus agées in the playroom, the table for the small children in the kitchen, and everyone else in the living room, we managed to serve duck, scalloped potatoes, vegetable purée, steamed carrots, and figs to everyone, which was followed by several Bûches de Noël, or yule log cakes.  This was followed by tea and chocolates and everyone left by a (slightly more) reasonable hour.

Tomorrow, there will be even more celebration with family friends and their children, I think mostly to eat up some of the leftovers.

Merry Christmas and meilleurs vœux!

One bûche de Noël

My host family, complete with sapin de Noël and the new iPad 2

Monday, December 19, 2011

The GoPass is a wonderful thing.

The GoPass is a wonderful thing.
For €50, you (being anyone under 26) can buy a train ticket good for 10 voyages between any two Belgian cities, meaning that each aller-retour (round trip) is €10, including any transfers you may have to make.  Considering that a 1-way ticket from Liège to Bruxelles is 13.70, this ends up being a very good deal.  In theory, the concept is simple: before getting on the train, you write the day of the week, date, departure city, and destination city on the ticket, and the conductor punches one of your ten lines when he goes by.  Unfortunately it doesn't always work out perfectly.

On Saturday, I went with two AFSers to Bruges, using our GoPasses.  We enjoyed a lovely (if slightly chilly) day walking around, eating, having hot cocoa from "The place to buy the best hot chocolate," and taking a boat tour of the canals.  We even saw a Christmas parade.  Unfortunately, we got caught in a downpour around 5 or so, and decided to make a run for the station.  Our train was leaving in two minutes, so we hurried down to the track, and got on right as the doors were closing.  We wandered around looking for seats, all the way from one end to the start of the first class and back, without finding anywhere the three of us could sit down, and so we sat down in between to cars.  Right as we were pulling out our pens to fill out our tickets, the conductor came through the door to check them.  We told him that we were still writing them out and he got angry, telling us it was too late and not listening when we tried to explain.  He told us that he could sell us a 22 euro ticket, and that if we didn't pay at least 12.50 now, we would have our GoPasses taken and be fined 60 euros.  He wouldn't listen to the fact that we had been walking around the train and didn't even have seats and acted like he was doing us a big favor.

The rest of the ride to Leuven (where we were staying for the night) was a bit somber, but we were lucky enough to encounter an AFS volunteer when we arrived, who was waiting for a friend and offered to take us out for a beer while he was waiting.  We had a fun evening walking around the city and even got a free bus ride (because the driver was too lazy to count out change).

The next morning, we carefully wrote in our GoPasses before even getting to the station, where we took the train to Bruxelles.  The weather wasn't great (rain/snow), but we had fun seeing the city anyway, and the Bolivian girl I was with enjoyed seeing snow for the first time.  We saw the Grand-Place and Mannekin Pis, ate waffles, walked through the Village de Noël, and took a lot of pictures.  The sun even came out a bit toward the end of the trip, making us glad we decided to brave the weather.

Pre-boat ride in Bruges: Me, Mauro (Bolivia), and Miriam (Bolivia)

Grand Place!

Waffles with Manneken Pis

À tantôt!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

There was a shooting in Liège yesterday; a man threw grenades of the roof of a sandwich shop and shot into the crowd.  In the middle of the city, where I take the bus, about 15 minutes after my bus left.  It was weird to come in today and see the shattered glass from the bus stops on the ground and police tape everywhere.  It was even more strange to see the the flowers and candles set out where the 17-year-old high school student was killed waiting for his bus on his way home from exams.

Belgians have this reputation for being nice and friendly and boring, and I haven't met anyone who didn't live up to at least the friendly part, so it's still hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that something like this would happen in Belgium, in my city.

Memorial at the bus stop

But as much as this has been reminder that there are bad people in the world (and yes, even in Belgium), it is also a reminder of how good most of the people are.  Last night and this afternoon, there were messages on facebook and cell phones and emails from students at my school, other AFS kids, people at home, asking if everybody was all right, if everyone would be in school tomorrow, and if we could talk to the school about doing something for the people whose friends and families had been injured.  At school today, everyone was forgiving of any absent, sympathetic to anyone who might not want to take their exam in light of yesterday.  In Place Saint-Lambert, where the shooting occurred, there were people gathered around talking to each other, offering tissues to strangers, placing signs and candles for the wounded.  I even saw one younger boy tell a couple to stop arguing, that there shouldn't be any more fighting right now, and they stopped.

I hope that in the rest of the world, things have been a little more peaceful.  Maybe someone else has taken on the nice and boring personality, at least for one day.  My sympathies go out to anyone whose family or friends were hurt in Liège or in any other violence in the past.  Je suis de tout cœur avec vous.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

St Nicolas

Even though I'm American and we don't do St Nicolas, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the holiday entailed:  on December 6 eve, kids put out their shoes and St Nicolas comes on his donkey to give them candy or a toy-- not too complicated, no big deal.

Wrong, on every count.  St Nicolas is huge here; much like the States has Christmas decorations going up the day after Thanksgiving, Liège has St Nicolas things going up the day after the fair ends (Nov 15).  Lights start appearing on buildings and across the streets, a 'letters to St Nicolas' station gets set up in the Galleries St Lambert, and people dressed as St Nicolas start walking around the city.  My host brother started putting his shoes out a few weeks ago and gets surprises every so often: legos, chocolates, St Nicolas-shaped Speculoos cookies...

On Sunday, my family, including Constantin's grandmother, and another family went to celebrate St Nicolas with some friends and their grandparents.  Everyone brought toys for the kids "from St Nicolas" (apparently, in addition to writing to St Nicolas, you tell your friends to ask for toys you want in their letters, he brings them to their houses, and you all give each other the gifts when you clebrate together), which resulted in a Christmas-equivalent amount of presents, except that St Nicolas gets all the credit.  Everyone also got a pile of clementines, chocolate coins, and a chocolate St Nicolas with their toys.

The actual party was pretty low key and wasn't much different than the normal weekend dinners my family has, except with marginally more wine and a lot more dessert.  And whereas I normally spend the time after dinner playing hide and seek or some other such game, on Sunday it was spent putting together Playmobil.  I don't think I've ever seen so many Playmobil in my life; I put together two pirate ships and a zoo and barely made a dent in the six children's-worth of toys.

Another aspect of St Nicolas, which I didn't anticipate at all, is the celebration for university students.  Yesterday was the fête de St Nicolas for the University de Liège (different schools have different dates, and some high schools (not mine) have fêtes as well), which meant that instead of going to class, the students dressed up in lab coats to go around asking for money.  Much like the shoe tradition, this started well before St Nicolas day, and all the students have slowly gotten their robes filled up with drawings and notes from their friends.  On the day of the fête, the students are out in full force with eggs and flour to throw at anyone who doesn't give them money.  At the end of the day, they go out with their money for "free" beer, fries, and parties.

I saw piles of flour and eggshells all over the city, but the main targets are high school students.  My school was oddly compliant; though they sent a letter home warning people to bring change and not wait outside too long in order to avoid enfarinement (getting covered in flour), it was clear that this was not out of concern for students but because they didn't want flour in the school.  I arrived yesterday morning with plenty (I thought) of 1, 2, and 5 euro cent coins, but there were so many students waiting at the door that it would have been nearly impossible to give money to them all.  I ran out of money before even reaching the main crowd, but my honest face (or confused/overwhelmed look and accent) must have made them feel bad for me, because I got only flour and not eggs.  I was able to brush most of it off in the locker room the school had specifically designated for that purpose, and even made it to class on time.

Most people were not that fortunate.  A lot of people came late trying to avoid the most crowded times, but didn't have much luck.  There were a lot of people in the halls with eggshells in their hair and their entire bodies coated in flour.  Some were so messy that they weren't allowed into class; there were definitely a few boys in my class who exploited this to go home and take showers, faking an effort to clean themselves off in order to show exactly how disgusting they were.

Not only were the university students outside every exit at every time people would be entering or exiting (before and after school, lunch, recreation...), but Liège 1 let them in during 2nd period.  I only had about 5 minutes of math due to the constant stream of students coming in to beg for money and write things on the chalkboard (we had mini lessons on 2+2=4, exponential functions, and Pythagore, and one student kept telling us that Mardi, MARDI, there is a quiz about LIFE).  They weren't supposed to be allowed to bring their flour inside, but a few managed to sneak it in and I got a second faceful.

I'm a little disappointed I only got to be on the recieving end of this unexpected tradition, but maybe I can start something new in the US.

Joyeux fête de St Nicolas et à tantôt!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Une grève des bus

All yesterday, people were asking each other if they were able to come to school, if they would come to school, what they would do instead of coming to school... eventually I got the idea that there was something happening today.  My first reaction was SNOW DAY!, although when I walked by the pharmacy and saw that it was 12˚C (54˚F), I realized that probably wasn't it (boo, it's December, I'm ready for some snow) and decided to ask.  Everyone thought I was pretty funny for thinking that it was a weather problem... evidently there aren't snow days in Belgium.  Sometimes buses don't come because of snow/etc., but the school is never closed.  People will be excused if they can't come to school due to weather and bus problems, but are expected to come if at all possible.

It turns out that problem today is that the TEC (bus system in Wallonie) is on strike, so people who live far away (like me) have trouble getting to school today.  My host dad was going in to Liège this morning and said I could get a ride with him, but he had already left when I got up to get ready for school so I'm staying home today.

Normally I love surprise days off, but most anything I would do when there isn't school requires taking the bus into Liège.  It's chilly and rainy here in Othée, so I've cranked the radiator in my room (I <3 radiators SO much) and worked on college apps and exam reviews most of the morning.  For the afternoon, I anticipate much playing with Constantin because he doesn't take the bus and had to go to school; Qui Est-ce? (Guess Who), Puissance Quatre (Connect 4), and Pirate Attack (Battleship) are some of his favorites.

À la prochaine!

To update:

It is not only the TEC, but three unions in Belgium (CSC, FGTB, and CGSLB... don't ask me what they stand for) who are on strike today, accompanying 50,000 demonstrators in Brussels.  The problem is the new government, which is supposed to form next week; apparently even after taking 500+ days to organize a government, Belgium still can't come to a proper agreement.

Here are a few sources of information on the subject(s):
About the Belgian Government
About the strike (in French)