Tuesday, March 29, 2011

La Semaine Sociale

The week after Carnaval, I did my Social Week, a requirement for my AFS program. As the idea of this "Semaine Sociale" was to branch out and become more a part of my community, I decided to work in Beckerich, where I live with my host family. As I go to school in Arlon, I never really spent much time in the village, and I only just started to learn my way around. I took a few walks earlier in the year, but this Social Week gave me the opportunity to learn about my community by working as part of it.

Day 1: The Tour

Although the village of Beckerich is quite small (about 600 inhabitants), the Commune of Beckerich includes several small surrounding villages (around 2300 inhabitants in all). Despite our size, the commune tries to keep up the small population by securing jobs in the area. One of our main claims to fame is that Beckerich is on the way to Energy autonomy, meaning that we are trying to use green energy in hopes of eventually becoming energetically independent. We also have very clean natural springs in the village, so we have a factory for bottling the water, which is then sold throughout southern Belgium.

So, that first day, I woke up a little later than I usually do on Mondays and I headed down to d'Millen, an old renovated mill in the village that currently serves as a restaurant and meeting place. We had a powerpoint presentation about the renewable energy here and we spent the day seeing them. First, we took a short walk to see three different types of photovoltaic and solar panels on a few of the homes in Beckerich, we visited the biogas center (which smelled quite strongly) and learned about the heating of homes throughout the commune, and we visited the building next door that houses the wood chips we burn to provide additional heating (the biogas doesn't produce enough heat to provide for the whole commune). We also took a tour of the water plant and went outdoors to see some of the open springs.

So I spent my first day learning about Beckerich.

Here's a shot from the water plant:

Day 2: The Office

On Tuesday, I went to the office of ASBL Millen at 9...and I was the first one there. I spent the morning translating the guided tour that I took on Monday into English, and then in the afternoon I went with Isabelle (not my host mom, one of the women I was working with) to take pictures of the mill, since it was a beautiful day. Afterwards, I did some work in the office.

Here's the office. Soon they will be moving their office to the mill itself, so they won't have to go between the two (the mill is on the other side of Beckerich).

This is a pond, but on the far left (behind the trees) is one of the open springs. And the buildings on the right are parts of the old mill, which is in the process of being renovated (though part of it is already done).
Day 3:

First, I worked on the translation for a little while:

If there was ever any doubt that this was not a good fit for me, one look at this wall would have gotten rid of that. A poster of Rosie the Riveter right next to a frog that says "It's easy being green" ? Perfect.

More office work.

Folders for the guided tour. These include descriptions of our heating system, biogas, photovoltaic and solar panels system, and water plant.

Day 4: Journée de l'eau

The day of water! I spent this day at the mill. I helped to set up the exhibition hall and prepare food for the opening in the evening. Since everything was water-themed, I took a little creativity with the napkins...
Getting set up...
All ready! There are three parts to the exhibit: the children's paintings, the paintings done by local artist Nathalie Clément, and the book about water by Isabelle and Olmic.

Here is Isabelle explaining the steps taken to publish her book about water. She worked with Olmic (a local illustrator) to create it, though it hasn't been published yet. When it is, it will be available in French and in Luxembourgish. Isabelle is in the blue scarf on the right. And the second person from the left (in the back) is the mayor of Beckerich.

Here are some of the water-themed paintings done by children in Beckerich.

This one is of the estuary of the St. Lawrence River, from when the artist visited Canada.

That evening, there was the opening of the exhibit and also an activity for children. They made little wish boats with sticks and leaves found near the small pond, and when it was dark out, they lit candles on top and set them afloat in the water. I played photographer for the evening with the d'Millen camera, so I don't have many pictures myself.

Day 5: The English

On my last day, we had another group visit. The group consisted of three people from England, on from Germany, one from Croatia, and two from Luxembourg. For the morning, they used one of the rooms in the mill as a reunion room. They had a meeting to share the ideas of their respective organizations. The main one was ECOVAST, but each organization dealt with green energy and localization. The entire thing was in English...and I got to sit in and listen.

My task for this day was mainly to make conversation. In my mother language.

So, for the morning, I listened to the meeting. The only time I really had to converse was during the breaks, and then during lunch. We ate in the mill attic, which isn't really much of an attic. For the moment, it is being used for the water exhibit, so we ate surrounded by the paintings of water. I sat across from an older English gentleman who talked to me about going abroad and my plans for the future.

I translated for Isabelle once, and then we cleaned up the lunch table while the group went on the guided visit. It was a really nice way to end a wonderful week.

Plus, I got to share the leftovers.

Friday, March 18, 2011

A Very Belgian Birthday


For most American teenagers, this would mean that I can buy cigarettes and vote. However, since I don't smoke and I currently do not live in the country of which I am a citizen, neither of these is going to happen anytime soon. In Belgium, 18 usually means learning how to drive (that was 16 for me), the right to vote (not in this country!), and the right to buy hard alcohol.


So, basically, not much changed with my age. I still can't drive here and prefer the train anyway, can't vote, and probably still won't take up smoking or hard drinking. I mostly just gained a new mindset- even though it is highly unlikely that I'm going to start partying hard, I know that I could if I wanted to. It's nice to have power.

Oh, and I can sign my own permission forms now.


Anyway, I didn't really have a celebration for my birthday. Instead, I went to Ghent, to visit my friend Mathilde, who is the one person in Belgium who knew me before last August. It was quite interesting to hear her français québécois and be able to understand it for the first time, something I've wanted to be able to do for nine years.

This is Ghent. And Mathilde.

I absolutely love the architecture in Flanders. It's just so...pretty. Maybe it's just because I'm used to Arlon, but it seems like the buildings in Wallonia are so plain and modern.

Ghent has three towers, all of which probably give a great view of the city, particularly on a day like this. There are two in the first picture, and the third one is below.

There were a few statues in the square...

Where is this guy pointing?

Mathilde wants to know too...

Mathilde brought me to see a giant 15th century cannon that is situated just next to the canal. There is even a street named after it!

They had to cover the opening so people wouldn't climb inside.

It was a gorgeous day...it must have been lovely to be on a boat in the canal.

In the background of the photo above, you can just see the flags of this castle, the Gravensteen, which is right in the middle of the city. It is over 800 years old and apparently offers a lovely view of the city.

That evening, Mathilde's host parents (who are Flemish, but spoke to me in French) brought us to a concert by a musician who was very popular a few decades ago. It was in Dutch, so I didn't understand any of the lyrics, but the music was quite enjoyable.

The next day, we all went to Brussels for an exposition showing the relationship between Europe and America, especially the United States.

L'Amérique, C'est Aussi Notre Histore!
Amerika, Dit Is Ook Onze Geschiedenis!
America, It's Also Our History!

The exposition had four parts, showing the development of America as it separated from Europe and became and independent nation and later a superpower. It began with "European America" as the European colonists from the Mayflower met with Native Americans, continued with "American America" as the United States became its own country and struggled with slavery and the Civil War, then moved into "American Europe" as the world faced two world wars and the Cold War, but countries also began to try to understand each other. Finally, there was "Europe and America" as we look back at the last twenty years and towards a future together.

There was something very familiar in the World War room...

...and again when we walked through the 1960s room.

It was wonderful to see and recognize the beginnings of AFS. I basically owe this organization my life, what with my three AFS siblings, and now my host family and exchange student friends from all over the world. Not to mention this entire year...

Best not to let me rant.


It was probably the best birthday I've ever had.

And I toasted it with my host family when I got home, then went to Beckerich's grand feu to say goodbye to winter and welcome the spring.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


After seeing Stromae in concert on Saturday, running a cross-country meet in Bastogne on Sunday, and then working for two days straight on scholarship applications and French homework, Wednesday I took a break in the form of a trip to Maastricht with my host mom.

Since it was my first time in the Netherlands, that brings my country count up to 9.

We left Beckerich under a blue sky, but by the time we arrived in Maastricht, the sky had turned grey. It was the day after the Carnaval celebrations, so there were decorations and confetti all over, though not as many people as I'm sure were there the day before. It was quite calm.

We left the car in a parking garage in the center of town and walked around for a while. This church with it's red tower was intriguing, so we went in, only to discover that it is a bascilica containing the "Treasure of St-Servais."

By treasure, they mostly mean bits of dead saints. There were several halls with gilded or ivory ornaments and relics, ancient silks, and even a crypt downstairs.

This is a gilded statue of a saint containing his actual teeth in a glass case on the chest of the statue. Some of the other relics contained a full set of teeth like this one, or perhaps bits of bone or hair. It seems an odd way to remember people, and one would imagine the Church wouldn't exactly condone the act of chopping up their saints. Then again, the history of the Church isn't exactly clean (think Spanish Inquisition), so I suppose it's not all that surprising. Just as long as they don't continue with that behavior now...

The most famous relic at St-Servais is this silver arm which apparently contains the arm bone of the disciple Thomas.

This is the crypt, which is empty. Odd, the one place where you would actually expect there to be bones, there is nothing.

Moving upstairs, check out this doorway as we enter the church itself. That must have taken quite a long time to carve...

...and even the floor is dizzyingly intricate.

Here's part of the bascilica, as seen from the garden.

And here is the red tower (which you can see in the far left of the second picture), making a nice contrast to the grey sky.

After leaving the bascilica, we crossed the river into the older part of the city. It was nice to see a river, but this one has nothing on the St. Lawrence.

On the way over, we met this little statue...and tried unsuccessfully to take what he's offering.

Later on, we met this man, but we decided to let him keep his hat.

We walked all the way to the train station in Old Maastricht before turning around and heading back to the other side of the river.

You can definitely tell you're in the Netherlands...look at all those bicycles! It's normal in Flanders and relatively common in Brussels to have a bicycle (in Flanders, it's weird if you don't), but it's rarer in Wallonia. There are more hills in the south, which makes it more difficult for biking. But it is so common in the north that bicyclists have their own lanes and traffic lights.

It started to rain as we got to the center of town, so we didn't stay long.

Still, it was a nice first trip to the Netherlands. Hopefully, next time it won't rain...

If you would like to see all my photos from the day, you can just click here.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Kitchen Time.

As my life has been a little crazy of late, I decided to take some time to myself. So, Friday night, I turned down an invitation to a birthday party (I didn't even know the kid, anyway) and opted out of seeing a movie with my host mom and sister, and headed off to the nearby Pall Center to buy ingredients for something very American...Original Toll House Chocolate Chip cookies.

We had about half of the ingredients, so I just bought butter, sugar, brown sugar, and chocolate. I have never seen chocolate chips here, so I got a 400g box of Côte d'Or semisweet chocolate instead.

Then, I took the bus back home, briefly checked my email (and found out I got into Nazareth College with quite a good scholarship), put on my apron, and got to work.

Martha Stewart, much?

It was wonderfully familiar to be in the kitchen...it's something I do far too rarely here. So I savored it, taking time to taste the mixture of melted butter, sugar, brown sugar, and vanilla extract before mixing in the dry ingredients. And then, it was time for the chocolate. I started out with two of these:

Broke the bars into pieces...

...and entertained myself by chopping them into pieces small enough to be considered "chips."

Then, of course, mixed it into the batter. At this point, my host mother came in and told me that "Ça a l'air d'être bon."

Since we don't have normal baking sheets, I took out the liner from the oven, washed it, and then used parchment paper. It worked out perfectly...

...as did the cookies. And oh, did the house smell great.

I need to cook more.