Sunday, January 24, 2010

Fri 22 Jan - Sun 24 Jan: Luxembourg

Spent the weekend in Luxembourg to celebrate C's birthday. Not a country I ever thought I'd see, but when you only live a few hours away and can get two return train tickets there for as little as 59 Euros, it doesn't seem like a bad option after all. 1 hour from Mons to Namur, then a very quick change, and then another 2 hours to Luxembourg. It probably should be a lot quicker but this route doesn't appear to be served by any high speed trains.

Before I went I knew absolutely nothing about Luxembourg. Now I'm back can't say I know much more. I had always thought it had a population of around 1-2 million, but in fact it's less than half a million. And the capital (where we stayed), originally called Luxembourg City, has only around 90,000 inhabitants which is the same as glorious Mons. It was a founding member of the EU, NATO and the UN. No idea how a country so tiny and so utterly insignificant seems to have been at the top table when some of the world's most important institutions were being set up. Maybe because it's rich. Stinkingly so, according to the OECD.

Naturally, it's also listed very high up in some of those great 'world quality of life' surveys that come out every year, which never make any mention of whether a place is: 'vibrant,' 'exciting,' 'cutting edge,' or 'diverse.' It seems as long as you have a perfectly functioning transport system, spotless streets and little crime, you do pretty well. All of which of course is very nice and am sure very well appreciated by the people that live there, but this isn't really what entices tourists to visit and then return, or make them recommend the place to their friends.

Which is how I felt about Luxembourg. Very clean, beautiful people, some spectacular views, but that's about all. Even the art galleries aren't that praised in the guides. We did do a walk which takes you right down in to the valley of the city, where you almost feel completely cut off from the old city above you. You come across a couple of small communities that have seen better days and a scattering of shops.

Even had a coffee at an Irish pub where smoking is still allowed (it seems to be allowed in all pubs/bars but not restaurants or cafes. Similar to the laws in Belgium), much to my annoyance. It was a little strange walking into a pub deep in the bowels of Luxembourg to be greeted with a: "Hiya, what can I get cha?" Luxembourg is after all another one of those trilingual countries where French, German and Luxembourgish are the official languages. The name of the latter sounds as if it were made up.

And I think most of the people I could hear in the streets and in restaurants spoke it. At first it sounds German, but the more you hear it, the more you realise it doesn't sound as harsh on the ear or as aggressive.

What did strike me as odd was how empty the place seemed. Of course it's a very small place but even on a Friday and Saturday evening, save for a few bars, it felt extremely quiet. Maybe the weather was keeping people indoors. It was bitterly cold during our stay. I did really notice that Mons is a good 4 or 5 degrees warmer once we'd returned. And that's saying something.

It was still an enjoyable weekend; exploring new places can never really be described as dull, even if the places are. I found Luxembourg different from any country I'd ever been to. Very hard to describe, except to say that it felt more Germanic than somewhere also officially part of the French-speaking world. I did also keep hearing a lot of Portuguese and discovered once I got home that this is because over 1 in 10 people living there are immigrants from Portugal. Not sure why they chose to settle in Luxembourg.

I also noticed an abundance of Indian restaurants which I put down to the numerous sectors of the EU that are based here, bringing with them a number of Brits. Or maybe Luxembourg folk just like curry. Of course we went out for a curry on Saturday night: poppadoms, dips, vegetable samosas, chicken biryani. Delicious, although the biryani was a lot spiceier than the ones you'd find in England. What a bonus!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Come Dine With Me: Belgian Style!

The Belgian version of Britain's "Come Dine With Me," is known as, "Un Dîner Presque Parfait," which literally translates as 'An almost perfect dinner.' Vitually the same format as the UK show, except in typically Francophone style they award marks for 'presentation,' (of the dinner table and meal itself) as well as the actual meal and general ambiance of the evening.

You can get the gist of the show (it's not exactly taxing viewing!) without fully understanding about 75% of what is said. It's also great practice for picking up useful bits of slang that they just don't teach you at school; different ways to praise and trash someone's efforts in the kitchen.

Watching TV definitely has its merits for trying to improve my French. You do begin to pick up words and the odd phrase if you're lucky, but too often the French is spoken too quickly for you to understand most of what is said. The same applies to the radio, but I've found this even harder to learn things. It takes immense concentration. You can't just put it on and go and do something else and have it as background noise. If you want to learn anything you need to sit near it for a while. And after about 10mins or so my mind begins to wander.

And when you're busy looking up a word in the dictionary they've gone on to the next piece of the conversation. Still, I'm reassuringly informed that fully understanding another language on the TV or radio takes far longer to master than engaging in general chit chat with people and I'd more than settle for the latter.

I was also told (and I really hope this is the case) by a language teacher of some 30years, that French gets easier the more you learn of it, whereas the opposite is true for English.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Grappling with Belgian Bureaucracy - Tues 19 Jan

Today I decided to get things done. Two things that I really need to sort out which will make my life in Belgian easier: try and find out how much longer I need to wait for my Belgian id card, and register as an 'indepedent/freelancer.'

I'd started with the latter by ringing up Securex (a large company who deal with exactly this) yesterday and (once I'd negotiated the recorded message repeated in 4 languages) chatting to various people in attempt to set up a meeting with someone at their Mons branch. Not easy when none of them spoke a word of English, and this is really the kind of thing I just can't do with my level of French.

Amazingly, I managed to do just this and went to see someone this morning. Even better, someone working there did actually speak a bit of English and acted as my very own translator as I tried to explain to the other member of staff my tax situation in Belgium. The conclusion? Come back later with the right documents. I hadn't thought of bringing along my GCSE, A-Level, and degree certificates.

In between my second Securex meeting I popped into the local commune who I'd seen right at the very beginning of my time here. Again, not the kind of thing that can be done using my level of French, but I did work out that until I had fully registered with Securex as an 'independent' I wouldn't be getting my id card. That chat was short and sweet.

So, back to Securex for my second meeting of the day with them. They didn't seem to be particularly interested in any of my school or university certificates, and only wanted to see my certificates for passing English and Maths, HR, Business, and other 'life skills' during my time at uni. When I explained that we only study for our degree and don't do these other things at uni they seemed shocked. I even felt a little shocked such was their amazement. Maybe we should start to. After all, endless business groups are always telling us how they're having to 're-educate' the graduates they employ as many of them lack decent levels of literacy and numeracy. Along with oodles of common sense, but that's just a society thing!

They did however quite like the look of my PGCE certificate and its detailing of all the various components I had passed, making me suitable enough for teaching. Basically, before anything is issued here, the authorities need to see that I'm mentally fit and able to work and that I have the right kind of qualifications.

Well, they took copies of everything and said they'd be in touch after they'd sent all my paperwork to some government department who would then either allow me to start working here legally (the fact that I've already been working here for over 2 months seems irrelevant) or consign me to Belgian's black market. The two people I delt with were however extremely helpful and very friendly.

3 meetings: some (slow) progress made.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Sun 17 Jan

Spent the day in Brussels, (blue sky and sunshine. Miracles do happen!) and went to the excellent Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Bozar gallery (not to be confused with the Palais des Beaux Arts gallery, which to my English ear sounds the same when pronounced).

I'd never really given her much thought until I saw the film 'Frida,' which really does give a magnificent portrayal of the woman and the artist. A real inspiration who, as the gallery explains, became an artist 'literally by accident,' after the bus she was on in Mexico collided with a trolley car and almost paralysed her for life. Before which she had never harboured any ambitions of becoming a painter.

The accident left her in considerable pain for the rest of her life, and it is this pain that one sees in her paintings, many of which are self-portraits. She famously said: "I never painted dreams, I painted my own reality." She is also widely praised by those on the Left for staying true to her Communist roots until the day she died and refusing to compromise her views in exchange for wider (global) acceptance.

Of course I have no idea how much of the film is completely accurate, but what is undeniable is that she had a pretty torrid and difficult life, and that, in my mind, some of her paintings are truly wonderful. A real feminist icon if ever there was one.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sat 16 Jan

Went round to an ex-student of mine's house for dinner this evening. I'd only taught him a handful of times and, despite the language barrier, we seem to have got on really well. So, we've decided to continue meeting up for language practice, but in the meantime I got an invite to spend Saturday evening with him and his family. I was extremely touched by this considering we'd only really met in a work capacity, and how unlikely this would have been replicated in England.

I even got a lift to and from his place by his sister who happens to live only a short walk from my house. It felt rather embarrassing accepting a lift from someone I'd never met, and I was extremely relieved to find that the sister was also invited round for dinner and hadn't merely been my driver for the evening.

And a really enjoyable evening it was too: nibbles, champagne, dinner, wine, cake, tea, cheese and biscuits. Very touching indeed. It was also wonderful French practice as we spent virtually the whole evening chatting in French. I was under the impression that we'd also spend some time chatting in English as part of the deal with O, but he seemed more than happy to only speak in French.

It also made me realise what a difference it makes when people speak to you slowly and clearly, and you are relaxed enough to be able to tell them to repeat something. All very different when out coping with everyday scenarios. There were of course several occasions where I didn't follow the whole conversation and just smiled and nodded at the appropriate places, but I did understand the gist of about two-thirds of what was said that evening.

A completely new experience for me, and one that I'm sure did me the world of good.

Had one slightly unnerving moment on the drive back. The sister had drunk a couple of glasses of wine and was probably still under the limit, when we suddendly came face to face with a huge line of police cars on the side of the road busy carrying out their pre and post-Christmas crackdown on drink-driving, widely advertised in Belgium as their 'Bob campaign,' with the slogan: "Pas de fête, sans Bob." In Belgium, 'Bob' is the fictional name given to a driver, with the message being: "don't party (especially around Christmas time) without a Bob." In other words, have someone who could drive you home at the end of the night.

Not the first time I've encountered dozens and dozens of police on the side of the roads randomly breathalysing people. And, they did seem to signal for us to pull over, but she just seemed to carry on driving, and amazingly that was it. They didn't come after us, so maybe they weren't asking us to stop after all, but it did look that way to me. Phew! Again, especially since I didn't have my passport on me or any other form of id.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mon 11 Jan - Fri 15 Jan

Spent the week in Brussels on a training course for English language teachers. This is to train me in the "methodology" of this particular language centre, in the hope that I'll be 'employable,' according to their standards. My other qualifications count for nowt. I could moan about it and refuse to do it, but that'd be pig-headed and stupid, and mean they definitely wouldn't employ me.

This also meant I got to get a feel of what it would be like commuting everyday from Mons to Brussels by train. And, it was actually a rather easy and pleasant experience. I always pick up a copy of the Metro and try and read as many articles as I can in the 40-55 mins journey (all bar one train this week ran on time. 5-10mins late seems to be the norm).

It's definitely a sign of my improvement in reading French that I can get through more than four article in this time, whereas only two months ago I was struggling to finish just one. It's not easy when there are just so many words that you don't understand. My rule of thumb is to only look up a word if it: a) appears more than once, and b) seems to affect the understanding of the actual sentence. Otherwise, I'd be spending most of my time looking up every few words and my memory for remembering vocab is so bad that I tend to forget its meaning within a few minutes. It's only when I come across a word 4 or 5 times that I finally begin to remember what it means.

The trains were also, with one exception, never really full. I travelled during peak time too. Most of the trains to and from Brussels from Mons tend to be anything from 8-12 carriages long, and many are those great double-decker ones, which helps to keep overcrowding down. I've yet to see anyone standing on a train. But, I guess this is also down to the fact that Mons (and the Wallonia region in general) isn't a particularly wealthy part of the country and unemployment is way above the European average. Then again, it can't be down to train costs because if you work in the public sector, you get virtually your whole season ticket paid for you by your employer.

Once you arrive in Brussels you really are in a different world. Of course, all the notices and annoucements are in French and Dutch. You often hear English being spoken on the Metro. They also have both French (in green) and Dutch (in blue) copies of the Metro. I always noticed that there were usually blue copies still there at the end of the day, whereas the green ones had all disappeared. This is hardly surprising though as French speakers far outnumber Dutch ones in the capital.

In the subway heading towards the metro I always walked past the same assortment of beggars and homeless folk: a man and his 3 dogs (one of which seems permanently on his back, legs akimbo) and...a rabbit! Quite bizarre. I don't think I've ever seen a beggar with a rabbit before. There was also the same elderly woman, probably in her late 70s/early 80s, who I recognised from my few days here in November. Always sitting on a rug, always reading something, looking perfectly content. As well as the 3 men playing on their accordions and harmoncias, singing and dancing, trying to bring some cheer to the morning commuters.

I found it fascinating to read the main story in Tuesday's Metro about the STIB (who run the Brussels metro) being reprimanded for not carrying enough passengers on its lines. Can you ever imagine the Tube "failing to carry enough people?" If only. Again, I guess comparisons are rather unfair, taking into account the size and population of both cities. It does show just how overcrowded London is though. The metro in Brussels is extremely quick, with most stops only a matter of 30 seconds (if that) apart.

I had the surreal experience of being asked if I spoke English (in French) whilst waiting for my train home one day. I think the two women were from Ireland and wanted directions to the metro. It was the first time I was fully able to understand someone since I'd moved to Belgium!

The actual training course? Well, at times I felt like I was back in England. Led by two English women who had moved over here almost 30 years ago, we were subject to lecture after lecture of what we need to do to develop into good teachers, how things are done in this centre, and how we're supposed to interact with our students. All complete with endless mumbo-jumbo, using words and phrases that they'd clearly learnt on another training course. It's so sad when even education begins to sound like just another cog in the corporate or marketing world, used by so-called 'educationalists' to spread their own (not so flexible) ideas of how and what students should be taught. Everything is ascribed new and bland labels, and every effort must be taken so as not to give offence (no matter how unintentionally) to anything or anyone. Tis' the way of the world now isn't it?

Amongst the garbage being spewed out: "we are trainers (not teachers) and they are learners (not students)," "listen to their eyes," and my favourite, "we teach the learners first, and the language second." I just wanted to burst out laughing when I heard that last one. There were plenty other bits of nonsense they kept subjecting us to but I've banished most of them to a far away place. I think I got more fed up with the constant smiling, and false enthusiasm (okay, I think it's false, but that's just how I see things!) of the trainers more than anything else.

The other trainees were a mixture of Flemish Belgians (now there's an oxymoron guaranteed to get me lynched in Flanders) hoping to teach Dutch, and English speakers from places as far as Canada and Australia. I was always somewhat in awe by how the Flemish trainees managed to so effortlessly switch from speaking Dutch, to French and English, as and when required. Gave me even more incentive than I already have of wanting to speak French by the time we leave Mons.

They were a decent and friendly bunch of people and I got to chat to the Dutch speakers about life in Belgian, its politics, their backgrounds and their hopes for teaching in the future. The social aspect of the week was probably the hardest for me. I'm not particularly adept at the art of making small talk, especially when you're put in situations which means you have no choice but to strike up coversations with different people.

Still, the week wasn't as bad as I'm making out. Mumbo-jumbo aside, I did learn a lot useful techniques and picked up some good ideas for teaching. All of which of course could have been taught in 2 days!

Ended the week meeting C's mum and friend off the Eurostar. Previous to this I had sat in a cafe at Midi station, eating a barbequed chicken baguette, reading a bit of the Metro, whilst stopping every few minutes for some people-watching, and thinking how lucky I am to be living abroad, with the best opportunity I will ever have to finally learn another language.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sat 9 Jan

Have found a favourite haunt in Mons for coffee and cake. They always give you a little taster of something with your drink, even if you haven't ordered any food, which is a nice touch. The kind of thing that makes you want to go back. And I like drinking coffee in mugs without handles. Makes me feel more sophistimicated.

Went back to the local cinema and this time saw a rather bad film: "Away We Go." Absolute pretentious, middle-class tosh. Damn these middle classes and their mundane hang-ups! A couple who are expecting a baby take a trip around America (and Canada) to revisit old friends to test where they should end up relocating. Of course they're all a hugely unlikeable bunch with a range of "issues," which succeeds in making the main couple quite likeable. Which they're not really, in my opinion. Anyway, not one I'd recommend.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Mon 4 Jan

Returned to teaching today. Sat in a very, very cold classroom, giving one-to-one tuition, whilst wearing my coat and scarf the whole time. Where's the 'elf 'n' safety' brigade when you need them?

It's damn cold outside. Lots of ice everywhere, making it take ages to walk anywhere.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sat 2 Jan

Went to our local cinema again. They show films in their original language with French (and Dutch) subtitles at the bottom of the screen. Very handy for French practice though. Especially, when trying to see how they translate our swear words. The cinema is very similar in purpose and idea to Bristol's wonderful Watershed. They showcase mainly independent, non-blockbuster films in a nice, comfortable, middle-class setting. My kind of place. These places are treasures in my eyes.

Anyway, saw a 'rom-com:' "500 days of Summer," which I (to my amazement) really enjoyed. This does seem to be a pattern with me. I go into something expecting not to like it, and end up being pleasantly surprised. Oh the joys of being a 'glass is half empty' kind of guy!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Fri 1 Jan 2010

Happy New Year, all!!

Spent today eating our (emergency) Christmas dinner. Bought in case we couldn't get home. Further demonstration of the fine quality of Belgian meat/poultry. Definitely a huge plus: succulent, tender and very tasty. Even their supermarket stuff is good.

Had a short wander around Mons afterwards and the streets were virtually deserted. A few places were open though which surprised me.