December 24, 2010

On the Christmas season, missing home, and multiculturalism

The Bilans de Noël (the huge tests at the end of the trimester) are finished; the bulletins (grades/evaluations) have been passed out, and les vacances de noël/Christmas vacation have begun. Whoof.

The past couple weeks have been relatively crazy-- the bilans happened last week, and for the weeks before them everyone was studying hard. I took five (everyone else took more-- science, Dutch, math, Latin for some): of the tests  Art d'Expression (Theatre), FGS (Geography, basically), English (which, surprisingly, wasn't easy-- I had to write an essay in French about a topic given in English), plus two in French. For these exams, I played it cool-- I went into them not really knowing what to expect but ready to do my best. So, I can now say that I've experienced the exams of Notre Dame des Champs-- I'd call them a cross between finals and standardized tests (without bubbling or the stupid time limits-- they gave us two and a half hours to finish).

Anyway, the weeks leading up to the bilans were rather crazy at Notre Dame des Champs-- everyone was studying, somewhat stressed, and the teachers were continuing to assign work. That along with a crumbling bridge which has stopped the buses from running through Linkebeek (in the mornings my host mom drives me and my host brothers to the nearest stop) and the beginning of snow and ice (the amount of snow here right now is breaking records-- there's over ten centimeters!) has made the days rather tiring.

But, now, after everyone knows the results of the tests (I did well), tout va bien. And Christmas is in two days.


With the tests, and the days of school that began to seem identical, Christmas has seemed to come extra fast this year. And, for me, it's been strange.

People say that the Holiday season is one of the harder parts of the year for exchange students, and I agree with that. For me, I haven't been crying myself to sleep missing my family and my town and my country, but there are little things that trigger bits of homesickness. I can definitely shake them off-- I know my experience is amazing here and that I shouldn't worry too much about the American Christmas I'm missing this year, but they still come.

One of the biggest  things for me is Christmas music. Here in Belgium, you don't hear it as much as you do in the U.S. In fact, you listen to the radio, or walk into almost any store, and most of the time you hear the same pop music you hear any other time of the year. When you do hear a Christmas song, it's American, and often along the lines of "Santa Claus is comin' to town." Thing is, when I ask people here if they can understand the words, they're happy to tell me that no, nobody does--they just like the sound, the jingle bells and so forth. So, that makes it a little weird. For me, even though oftentimes the words are... should I say... not all that deep or meaningful, it's still nice to at least be able to sing along with them and know what's being talked about.

Another thing is the fact that there are not all that many Christmas lights here. It makes perfect sense-- most houses are at least three stories high but maybe only 20 or 30 feet across. That makes it almost impossible, and rather pointless, to put up a string of lights across the top of the house. It would look ridiculous. But at the same time, it makes the streets seem a little bit dark at times.

Also-- this is where it gets difficult to describe-- the feeling in general about the Christmas season here is just different.  The thing is, I think the celebration of Christmas is less of the "big deal" here that it is in the United States. Americans seem to be, in general, more ostentatious and excitable about the idea of a Christmas "season." In the U.S., it seems like the whole month of December is filled with Christmas concerts, Christmas parties, Christmas celebrations, etc.... There's Santa Claus and ho-ho-ho and mistletoe and presents for pretty girls (quoting Lucy from A Charlie Brown Christmas), and almost all the streets, all the houses, all the businesses are dressed up in garlands and lights. In the weeks before Christmas you can feel the anticipation and the excitement for the upcoming holiday. Here, it's a lot lower-key-- there are not tons of parties and concerts and celebrations--even in Brussels, a big city, you don't see the craziness of the Christmas season like you would in, say, Chicago. There are decorations--quite nice decorations, in fact-- there's a big Christmas tree in the Grand Place and lights over the streets-- but they just have a different feeling. It's a feeling very hard to describe....I guess the best way to describe it would be just more...European (I know you're thinking "like, duh," but it's the best I can do). Here, I guess you could say, the celebration of Christmas seems to be something much quieter--a day to spend with the entire family, give gifts but not tons, enjoy oneself but not necessarily make a huge production of everything. Really, a critic of the American way could say that Christmas here focuses less on consumerism and food, and more on family togetherness and quiet celebration. But really, I think the best way to describe it is as AFS told us before we left: "It's not good or bad, just different."

I guess the thing is, being an exchange student isn't only about seeing castles and becoming fluent in a new language. It also means spending a year-- Christmas too-- away from home and things familiar. And it means finding the differences-- not only the differences in food and sizes of cars, but in the subtleties of the culture like the attitudes about a holiday as well. As I left, I was ready to start in on that--in fact, that was one of my main motivations for becoming an exchange student-- to learn about and connect to a new and different culture. But it's a different perspective to be inside and experiencing that-- discovering a new culture and missing the familiar one at the same time.  But as I'm doing this, I feel myself developing new perspectives-- new perspectives on how to celebrate a holiday and new perspectives on both the culture of Belgium/Europe and of America.


However, in the midst of this cultural experience, I've found myself whistling/singing "Let it Snow," in all its jazzy style. It's worked, too--it has snowed like crazy. My host parents say they've never seen snow like this in their lives, and the commune of Uccle has run out of salt to clear the roads, which means there are no buses, and cars are sliding all over the place. For a Coloradoan, it's rather funny to watch someone with a squeegee or a broom trying to clear four inches of snow from their driveway. But oh well-- in extreme circumstances like this, I mustn't laugh.

Finally, back to the theme of multiculturalism, on the giant Christmas tree in the Grand Place, there are bunches of little star-shaped papers with Christmas/Holiday messages on them that visitors have written. Yesterday I took some pictures--

And, the buses even wish happy holidays. 

I'm going to try to post more holiday-type pictures tomorrow, but I'm not sure if I'll have the time. If not, I wish happy and peaceful holidays and joyeux et heureuse noël to everyone! 

December 21, 2010

Four months... about

Each time there's a landmark date for my time in Belgium, it's always hard to figure out which day to mark. Do I mark four months after the day I left Cortez? Or four months from the day I and the other American AFS students left New York? Or four months after the day we landed in Belgium (which still screws me up because of the eight-hour time difference)? Or do I mark four months since the day that I first came to my host family? And, somewhat strangely for me, it's hard to remember which days were which-- my state of mind was so weird at that time.

So, in short, all I know is that this week marks that, four months ago, my life changed.  

And where am I, after four months? I'll write down everything I can think of right now. Though it might not be very deep or very well explained, I feel it needs to be said:

Four months later, I:  
--ride buses and trams around brussels and know what I'm doing
--can get lost in a large European city without freaking out
--wander around a city where almost everything's written in two non-English languages
--can walk outside and estimate the temperature in Celsius
--know about how long it takes to walk a kilometer
--ask for directions in French, and understand them too
--dream in Franglish
--complete full streams of conscious thought in French
--think in Franglish (in general--it's weird, I'll talk more about Franglish/Franglais in later posts)
--read books in French, and understand maybe 85-90 percent of the language (I've read Le passeur [Lois Lowry's The giver, translated into French] and Les justes, by Albert Camus)
--can make it to other cities in Belgium by train
--understand mostly everything on French-speaking television
--understand a tiny bit of Dutch
--say "I am Austin" and "I speak English" in Dutch
--want to learn more Dutch
--can hold a conversation in Frenchd, though not without mistakes on my part
--can finish an essay in French (even though it contains many mistakes)
--can type on an AZERTY keyboard as fast (or faster, in the case of accented letters) as I could on a QWERTY
--accidentally type the character µ when I chat online with people (it's right next to the enter key)
--understand the content (not everything, but the jist) of a lesson in school
--can hold philosophical discussions in French
--can have conversations with some people better in French than in English
--take runs around my town and don't get lost
--wear a scarf to school
--no longer love the rain as much as I did
--eat dinner in the European style, with my fork in my left hand and knife in my right
--eat raw meat (filet américain préparé!)  and not worry about poisoning myself (I'll explain that one later)
--know the difference between waffles of Brussels and waffles of Liège
--know about speculoos
--eat Nutella on bread for breakfast
--put chocolate sprinkles or chocolate spread on pistolets
--participate in conversations at the table with my host family
--can walk across a major border in Belgium-- between the Flemish region and the Brussels-Capital region
--make stupid little mistakes when I write in English (and hopefully correct them)
--sometimes accidentally insert French words into an English conversation
--unconsiciously make my writing in English long and complicated
--have participated in a flash mob (one of my dreams)
--am beginning to know about Belgian political issues
-- am great friends with people who, four months ago, I never knew existed.
--am great friends with people from places I had never heard of (the Faroe Islands, for example).
--am living just outside of a city that, four years ago, the only thing I knew about it was that Brussels sprouts were named after it
--am part of a school play
--can go to the theater and understand what's going on in the play
-- meet many people who don't know where Colorado is
--have met people from all over the world and discovered that we laugh about the same things

Voila...I've written as many things as I can think of right now. I know it's not all that well explained and not all that detailed, but you get the idea. Another time, when my frame of mind is a little more analytical, I'll try to discuss some of these things in a deeper way

Finally, here's a picture of me and my host brothers taken yesterday in the snow:

I've heard it hasn't snowed this much here at this time of year since the 1920s. Crazy... 

December 18, 2010

La Neige!

Well, this past week it has snowed again. Compared to the Colorado mountains, it's not a whole lot (no more than two inches), but I've heard that for this time of year it's not very common to have snow on the ground.

Yesterday I went into the center of Brussels and wandered around, and I took some pictures. The weather stayed BEAUTIFUL the entire day--clear and cold-- something rather rare. So I took advantage of it for photography's sake.

With these pictures, I'm not going to run much of a commentary like I've done with a lot of other sets-- most of them are pretty self-explanatory. Pretty trees, pretty sun, pretty houses, etc...

Each bold heading refers to the pictures below it. 

My back yard in Linkebeek


Grand Place, Bruxelles

Cathédral St. Michel, Bruxelles 

Parc Royal, Bruxelles

Tour de Wim Delvoye, on the roof of the Palais de Beaux-Arts, Bruxelles


Voila--a little bit of winter in Belgium. 

December 11, 2010

A discussion of pop culture

This past Thursday, we had two hours of English class, and it was basically free time. Some people plugged into their MP3 players and studied, but some people talked.

During this time, I had a great conversation in Franglais with some of  my friends, Alba, Ava, and Odille (Odille declined the photo...).

We got on the subject of TV-- and it really started to overwhelm me. Throughout my life, I hardly ever watch TV-- compared to a lot of my friends I'm very disconnected from the world of television. I wouldn't say I'm against watching TV-- apart from the commercials which bother me, I don't have huge problems with it. But generally, television has never been a huge interest of mine. At any rate, I am familiar with the names of the more popular television shows, and for some I can even describe what they're about. But in general, I'm quite disconnected.

Having this conversation in English class, however, was crazy. Seriously-- people here, in a foreign country, know TONS more American TV shows than I've even heard of.

After a while of saying, "non, je connais pas," or in English, "never heard of it," I decided to start writing them down. I pulled out my notebook, and had them list every American TV show they knew.

Check this out--these are what they came up with-- and there were maybe six people who all contributed-- by the way, I got a picture of Tom and Steve, too, who joined in the conversation partway through.

 It doesn't mean that my friends love every single one of the shows below, just that they have seen them before:

  • Fringe
  • Dexter
  • How I met your mother
  • Friends
  • Six feet under
  • Niptuck
  • Gossip Girl
  • Glee
  • Beverly Hills 90210
  • Twin Peaks
  • Blue Mountain State
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Smallville
  • CSI (called Les Experts here)
  • Gray's Anatomy
  • Breaking Bad
  • Chuck
  • Misfits
  • Heroes
  • One Tree Hill 
  • Prison Break
  • Steins 
  • Flash Forward
  • The Mentalist
  • Dr. House 
  • True Blood
  • Cougar Town
  • Californication
  • The Big Bang Theory
  • Everybody Hates Chris
  • Hard Times of Archie Berger
  • Dr. Who
  • Newport Beach
  • That 70's Show
  • Supernatural
  • Gilmore Girls
  • Dawson
  • Weeds
  • Pretty Little Liar
  • Degrassi 
  • Hannah Montana
  • Drake & Josh
  • Ned Bigby
  • Queer as Folk USA
  • Desperate Housewives
  • 24 (Called 24-H Chrono here)
  • The Simpsons (Les Simpson) 
  • American Dad
  • Futurama 
  • Family Guy
  • South Park
  • Greek
  • The Shield
  • Madmen
  • Soprano
  • Rome
  • Sex and the City
  • Seven Heaven
  • Chips
  • Starsky and Hutch
  • Dream on 
Seriously, for me it was strange-- I'm an American, but I've never even heard of some of these shows, let alone watched them. 

In fact, it's always strange for me to have pop culture discussions with people here. Honestly, Belgians know much more about American pop culture in general than I do. They ask a lot about movies I've seen, whether I've watched such-and-such movie or know such-and-such actor. There are some movies that I've seen, and some actors who I'm familar with, but a lot that I don't know at all. True, a lot of it is just me-- I don't watch  a broad spectum of movies or keep up on which actor plays in which movie, but at the same time it's pretty strange-- someone who has never even been in the United States knows more actors and movies than I do. 

Also, bands. Probably 65-70 percent of the music you hear on pop radio stations is American, and another 10 percent on top of that is British. Personally, I listen to a lot of different music, but much of it is very random, very eclectic-- the type of music that will probably never make it overseas. So when I talk about music with people here, they're really surprised when they mention an American band I haven't heard of. 
"But..." they'll say, looking confused, "it's American, isn't it?" 
"Yeah," I'll say, "but there're lots of bands that are American."

And it's true. Think about it-- is there a way to be familiar with every band/singer in the United States? There are tons of American bands, and generally each person listens to a relatively small fraction of them. But here, people expect that since I'm an American, I automatically know all American music.

The thing is, there are very few popular Belgian bands or singers. It's a pretty small country compared to the United States--less than 11 million people in the entire country, and they speak two different languages at that. So when I ask about Belgian bands, people say-- "well, we Belgians really don't have a whole lot of bands..." As I've been writing this, I asked my host brothers to name some Belgian music off the top of their heads, and they said that all the popular Belgian artists "are all dead." 

However, Toots Thielemans-- a harmonica player-- is Belgian, and pretty awesome. If you're interested, look 
him up. And there's a couple other songs I've heard that I haven't yet caught the names/artists yet. But when I do, I'll share them. 

December 10, 2010

Château de Beersel

A few weeks ago, I visited the Château de Beersel with Frederick, my host dad. It's an old medieval castle, and it's located around 5 kilometers-- a twenty minute or so bike ride-- away from where I live.

I want to share some picures of it-- it was pretty incredible. The weather was very "Belgian"-- misty and gray, which gave the scene a great, if a little creepy, ambience. The castle was built in the early 1300s as a defense castle-- the classic castle you think of when you think of the middle ages. Throughout the years it changed hands repeatedly-- the story is always complicated. At any rate, it was built for war-- built for keeping attackers out and peasants, their livestock, and the noble family safe. Here's some pictures-- they were taken a little bit earlier in the year, which is why things are still really green. It's frosted (and snowed!) a few times already, so now the grass is no longer green like it is in these pictures.

Anyway, here we go...


First of all, I took some pictures of the countryside on the ride to the castle. It was very pretty-- classic European, if you ask me.

Entered into the limits of Beersel, another commune like Linkebeek, located in the little strip of the Flemish region of Belgium between Brabant-Wallon and the Brussels capital region.

This is the first look you have at the castle. You can see the moat under the drawbridge, and straight ahead is the entrance into the courtyard. During the period when this castle was in use, drawbridges like this were built to be burnt if attackers came. That made it much harder (obviously) to get access to the castle.

In the courtyard.
Notice how it's not the old stone castle that you might think of when you think of medieval castles. In fact, you see lots of stone castles in England, but not around here. Here, in the Benelux area, bricks were much easier to make.

We climbed a narrow staircase, and my blurry photo captures somewhat of the creepy feeling-- not quite like a horror movie, but it could be if you think about it too much. Actually, more than anything, it's blurry because there just wasn't very much light, and I avoid using the flash when I can.

We came out onto one of the outside walls. 

We descended a staircase (a lot of them looked like this-- narrow)...

 ...and came into one of the rooms-- you can probably make a guess what went on here.

Yes, it is the torture chamber. This is not at all a castle of prince charming. Take a look at the hooks on the ceiling. Nice, huh?

 We went into one of the three towers-- this is where someone could

Shoot arrows

Or keep watch.

We went back down the stairs, which spiral always in a counter-clockwise direction, so the (right handed) person coming down the stairs can swing his sword freely, while the person going up the stairs has a much harder time.

La toilette. Sympa? 
I'm sure it was a little bit more developed back when it was in use, but still probably not all that comfortable.

You can see that some of the windows still have a little glass left in them. In fact, it was inhabited (and used) up until the mid 1700s.

The view from one of the other towers. The round turrets and stair-stepped roof were built in the early 1700s, if I understood correctly. It was the style back then-- it makes it look a little bit bigger than it actually is, and adds a bit of decoration.

Picture of a staircase without a flash. Pretty dark

Back on the outside, you can get a good view of the full castle.

Notice it only has three towers-- there were four, but the fourth one was built entirely out of wood, and it fell down after the castle was abandoned.

The castle was restored starting in the early 1900s, and today is now controlled by the Koninklijke Vereniging der Historische Woonsteden en Tuinen van België. Catch that? In English it's the "Royal Association of Historic Residences and Gardens in Belgium." They have lights around it and inside it which they turn on in the evenings, making it look a little bit more home-y. 

After a chilly bike ride home, we came home to freshly cooked waffles, cooked by my host mom Aude. It made me happy to not have to live in the 1400s in a drafty castle.