Sunday, September 15, 2013

A Dash to Wallonia

In looking around for what might be going on during the time Emily was visiting, I read about the 15 August festival in Liège. I figured it might be fun to see, and also it would get us to Wallonia, so that she (and Morgan and I) could experience the French-speaking part of Belgium.

Digression about Belgium and its 3 national languages: It is true that Belgium officially has 3 national languages: Dutch, French and German. You may also hear Belgian Dutch and Belgian French referred to as Flemish and Walloon; these are dialects used in Belgium. If you come from somewhere that doesn't have multiple national languages, you might think having several means that the country operates bilingually. In the case of Belgium, you'd be very wrong. Instead, in Flanders, everything is in Dutch. People in stores speak Dutch, signs are in Dutch, etc. If you came here without knowing that there were other national languages, you'd have no reason to think there were. If you go to Liège, on the other hand, everything will be in French. You'll get "bon jour" instead of "goede morgen," "merci" instead of "dank u," and all signs are in French. (Presumably it's the same in the German-speaking area, although that's a tiny amount of the country and apparently fading fast, being consumed by the French speakers.)

We got a late start on the day, and there aren't that many trains that stop in Liège, so we were in a bit of a rush when we got to the station. We were trying to figure out which train we had to take, but couldn't find it listed on any of the routes. After a bit of going back and forth, we found the station name (Guillemins), and realized we hadn't seen it because it was listed with the Dutch version of the name - Luik. (Yes, even the city names are different, and although you can often tell which is which (Oostende in Dutch is Ostend in French, Gent is Gand, Brussel is Bruxelles, etc.), sometimes you can't, as with Luik/Liège or in an extreme case - Bergen/Mons.

The Liège train station made me feel like we were
arriving in an episode of "The Jetsons."

We made the train, though, and shortly arrived in Liège. Now we just had to make our way to the appropriate part of the city for the festival. Morgan found an information desk, and she told us which bus to take. When we got on the bus, he asked the driver for confirmation that the bus was going to the festival. The driver seemed to speak no English at all, so, unable to cobble together anything intelligible in French, we just had to hope for the best. After going what seemed like a long way on the bus, we found an area where a lot of pedestrians seemed to be headed in one direction, so we followed them.

We came upon a carnival along the street and started looking for something to eat, since it was a little past lunchtime. The streets were lined with cafes, but they mostly seemed to be for drinking only. We happened upon a little stand with a couple of guys selling samosas, so we got those. Morgan talked to the guy for a while; they had been in Belgium for a couple of years and were broke, so they thought they'd try to take advantage of the festival and set up a stand outside the convenience store. The samosas were very good!

Then we saw that people were lining up in preparation for a parade. Who doesn't love a parade? Information about the festival mentioned "the giants of Liège" as being part of the festival, but I didn't know what they were talking about until they appeared.

You can see the little window for the operator in
her apron if you look closely.
They're really fun, and range from humorous to amazingly realistic to terrifying in a second-grade-craft-project sort of way. They're worn by someone who is inside a wicker frame, and looks out of a window in the crotch area of the giant (sorry there's not a more delicate way to put that). One of the qualifications seems to be an imperviousness to getting dizzy, since whenever the parade comes to a stop (which seems to happen a lot), the giant will dance and spin in circles to give the crowd a good view of it.

The guy operating the knight in particular had
strong inner ears. He spun around until I got dizzy,
but he never seemed in danger of falling over.
In that last photo, you can see that they all have a group of handlers, presumably to keep them on the parade track since visibility isn't very good, I imagine. Also, they probably have to keep them from rampaging through the crowds causing mayhem if they start to believe they really are giants.

The rest of the parade was relatively standard - dancers, bands of various sorts, human marionettes ... all the usual.

Oh, and this guy. He was nearly my favorite.
The best part, though, was when this came through:

I had no idea what these people were, but I said to Emily as soon as I saw
them, "Hm, watch out for these guys!"
They were masked witches, carrying brooms and wearing wigs of hay. They also wore clogs, which they used like skates; they'd run and then slide on them directly at the crowd. Once they're right in front of you, they take a handful of rice from the bag around their waist and drop it over your head. Or in my case, down your shirt. They also throw rice generally over the crowd as they pass. Emily and I got pretty well riced, since we were in the very front of the crowd. We left feeling like we'd had a real cultural experience, though who knows what its significance was.

Okay, I had to break down and look it up. Apparently they're called "macrales" in Walloon, and they appear at various festivals. They're blamed for a number of woes, including the onset of winter.  Here's a video of some different (and considerably more subdued) ones at a parade somewhere else in Wallonia.

We finished off our time in Liège with some croustillons, which were freshly-fried, sort of donut-hole-type things that were absolutely drowning in powdered sugar. We had been joking that we gave Emily a tour of the unhealthiest food options everywhere we went, and Liège was no exception. Satisfied with our outing, we headed back home to Gent.

In the next installment: more French.

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