Friday, February 26, 2010

Thurs 25 Feb - Marks and Sparks

It's been reported in the Belgian press today that M&S may well be returning to Belgium after a 9 year absence. For some reason this story made me very pleased indeed. Even though the only things I ever buy from there anymore are their vine leaves and sun dried tomatoes. And maybe their mini filo pastries. Their curries are damn good too. Always been a sucker for their chocolate tea cakes.

I can never find anything I like in their clothes section, but I don't think M&S has ever really been for young, trendy guys like me. Basically, I like M&S because it's just so quintessentially English. And, I think I miss the familiarity of the typical English department store. I'm intrigued to know whether everything will be priced in line with things in England, or whether we'll have to pay Belgian prices, i.e. everything two or three times as expensive. I don't think the Euro had been introduced when M&S was last here.

I'd also like to see a 'Boots' in Belgium.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Fri 19 Feb - I'm Famous!

Sort of. Had an entry of this blog published on a great website dedicated to expats in countries such as France, Luxembourg and good ol' Belgium. They went with my last experience at the hairdressers and have wittily entitled it: "Cutting it fine in Mons." Genius!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tues 16 Feb - Fri 19 Feb: Travel

...so we arrived at Mons train station nice and early and hoping to get the first Eurostar train we could from Lille, only to discover that the train departure board was blank, the platforms were dark, because Belgian trains were on strike. I guessed it had something to do with yesterday's crash, and I couldn't really complain considering they had a damn good reason for going on strike, but it did mean that we were left with no idea as to how to get to Lille.

We tried, in vain, to buy a ticket for the high speed (which it isn't) Thalys train which travels directly from Mons to Paris every morning. Usually, unless you've booked in advance you have no chance of boarding it. However, C didn't have to say too much to the train manager to convince him to let us on, but "you don't sit in first class." Mate, we'll sit in the toilets the whole way if it means getting to Paris. Yup, next option was train to Paris and then board the Eurostar to London from there.

We didn't leave Mons for a good 30mins though due to train workers at the station staging an impromptu strike of their own by standing on the tracks in front of the train, with 2 large red flags stuck in to the ground (I guess the colour isn't a coincidence?!) You've got to love 'em. Can you ever, ever, imagine in a million years this kind of thing happening in England? No is the answer, and that's why we get the public services we do. Don't get me started.

Anyway, €126 lighter, we finally arrived in Paris, jumped on a Eurostar service within 20mins and spent the next hour travelling past the same scenery we had just passed on our Thalys journey. In the end we didn't arrive in Sussex much later than we had envisaged this time yesterday.

The journey back on Friday was fine, until we got off at Lille. Eurostar services to Brussels were still disrupted due to extensive damage to the track caused by the crash. At Lille, the plan was again to take the direct train back to Mons. Except nobody at Lille seemed to know what was happening, or which train to catch. They were all severely delayed and none seemed to go anywhere near where we wanted.

For most of the journey back I couldn't really tell whether we were travelling in France or Belgium. The station names or local language hardly gave you a clue. In the end, a 45mins journey took over 3 hours, via 3 different trains. And so far I've taken 4 Eurostar trains since I've moved to Belgium and have yet been on the one I was booked on.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mon 15 Feb - My Birthday!

Tomorrow we were due to head back to England for a few days to celebrate the magnificent milestone of it being the 100th birthday of C's grandma. So the plan for today was revel in it being my birthday, smile a lot and get rather excited, as I tend to do on this day every year, pack, and look forward to a meal out tonight. (Main present: Bruges in mid-March!).

Happened to check the Eurostar website this morning as I'd been doing quite regularly just to see if all was running well, only to be confronted by the message that services to and from Brussels to London were currently suspended due to an incident involving Belgium's domestic train services. First reaction: Aggghhhhh! This was of course tempered when I actually found out what had happened. Spent the next couple of hours watching Euronews and discovered the full horrors of the crash just outside Brussels.

Felt rather funny when I discovered that I could well have been on one of the trains from Mons that had collided with the others. I was hoping to have started teaching in Brussels from today, but that never materialised due to the sham that is the previously mentioned "language school," who of course will still remain anonymous.

Dinner at a local Italian was fine, safe in the knowledge by this stage that Eurostar were going to run services to London from Lille instead of Brussels. This doesn't really put us out in any way as we live equidistant from the two cities and it's probably easier to travel from Lille...

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sun 14 Feb - Binche Carnival

Went to my first Belgian carnival in the town of Binche. It takes place here every year at the same time and has done so since the 14th century. Belgium is meant to rival Spain in terms of its festivals and large outdoor gatherings. I bet they have better weather during the ones in Spain. Wandered around the streets of Binche in the freezing cold, getting sporadically covered in the odd snow shower. This was day 1 of 3 of the carnival. It involved cheering on a procession of various groups of people all dressed in differing costumes. We had "Team Williams:" several men dressed as one of the Williams sisters, in full tennis outfits, despite the cold, with their faces painted black. Not sure the pc lobby would have approved.

There were also children wearing multi-coloured tutus, two brilliantly dressed as a bunch of grapes, four men looking like The Beatles from their Sgt Pepper heyday, and my personal favourite, the René Magritte impersonators, bringing to life his 'Le Fils de l'homme' piece; man in black suit and bowler hat with a green apple covering his face, for all you philistines. Genius.

The whole day mostly consists of these processions, lots of marching, lots of drumming and people waving flags and singing. The main day of the carnival takes place on the Tuesday (always before Ash Wednesday) where the "Gilles" are let loose on the streets of Binche. Men clad in enormous costumes and wearing wax masks, all done to ward off evil spirits, supposedly.

It was actually a lot of fun. And you have to admire the locals. I find it hard to be overly happy when it's close to freezing and I can hardly feel my feet, but they've been doing this for centuries and it clearly means a lot to them. It was good to be part of an important aspect of Belgian society.

Highlight of the day? My first real portion of pommes frites from a proper Friterie! And yes they are fantastic. Served in a large cone, they're much crispier than your British chips. Extremely tasty with a huge dollop of ketchup (or another sauce of your choice. Although how you can have something other than ketchup with chips beats me) on top.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Sat 6 Feb - There's Somebody at the Door

So far we've had a number of people come to our front door: postman (or sometimes woman) delivering a parcel, someone delivering a bouquet of flowers (alas, not for me), 2 women I think trying to raise money, for what I don't know. One of them was deaf and communicated to me in sign language. Yet another language I don't understand!

We've also had 3 visits from the jolley Jehovah's Witnesses, my favourite people. Most of them spoke in English and were intrigued by what I thought of Richard Dawkins, England and the Catholic Church. I could only give them two positive responses.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Fri 5 Feb - 3 months in Belgium!

It's now been 3 months since I moved to Belgium so think it's time for a summary of what life abroad has been like so far.

Overall, it's been a damn fine experience to date. In some ways harder than I'd imagined, but not really in a bad way, just different. My time here can probably be divided up into 3 sections: language, work and general society.

Language:
My French has definitely improved, 'sans aucun doute!' My vocabularly is steadily increasing, to the extent that I'd say I've more than doubled the amount of words I knew before I left England. I'm also picking up useful expressions and the odd idiom. I feel confident (although not always) speaking French when in cafés, restaurants, or with Belgians I've met over the last few months.

But, I've barely touched the surface and am miles off being able to say that I am a French speaker. Mainly because I have huge problems in understanding it. I can pick up words and the odd sentence on the radio, a little more on the TV (although it helps when you know the subject matter being spoken about). The best practice is face to face, but my opportunities have been somewhat limited. Meeting people here for French conversation practice is proving rather tricky. I've been in touch with almost a dozen people now and have met all of them at least once, but arranging regular language exchanges just isn't that easy, partly because of not living in the same city, or because people have their own lives and why should they spend a few hours a week chatting to me in English and French. Basically, I need them more than they need me.

So, some progress made, but until I can get regular exchanges going with French speakers it's going to be a struggle. That doesn't mean my French still won't get better. Reading French is great for new vocab and phrases which you then hear on the radio or people say in conversation. And, watching English speaking programmes with French subtitles is extremely useful. Obviously, the opposite to what I'm used to as we normally watch French films with English subtitles. Both are useful, but the former more so, in my experience. The next task is watching something French with French subtitles.

The more approaches I can take the better. And, I also really like speaking French. I've always wanted to, and if nothing else I want to leave Belgium in the next 2 or 3 years and be able to say that I can speak (and understand) French. The fluent bit is probably unlikely for now.

Work:
The depressing bit. Apart from a few hours a week teaching at a language school in Mons from November to Christmas time, it's all been quiet on the language teaching front. Have signed up with several schools but so far there's not a huge amount of work available. The school I wasted 1 week of my life training with in Brussels back in early January have offered me nowt so far.

In fact, from what I can see, they're a complete sham. That's not so say they're not genuine or kosher (always wanted to use that word!), but that their aim seems to be to get as many teachers on their books as possible so that they are always covered if a regular teacher is ill or away. In other words, you're a permanent supply teacher, waiting and waiting. I would love to name them and post a link to their homepage, but of course I'm not that daft, and don't fancy ending up in court. I wonder what language court cases are conducted in Brussels??

Politically speaking, it's also been a damp squib. Contacts, contacts and more contacts in this game. I always wonder why it's still so hard trying to get a job in politics when everyone is supposed to hate it and find politicians so loathsome. I only agree with the latter! So, I'm working on expanding my rather thin contacts book.

General Society:
It's taken me a while but I've stopped thinking I'm living in France. I've certainly started to feel an affiliation with all things Belgian. Been rooting for their sportsmen and women, especially Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters. Shame they're so useless at football, and I'm still yet to see the mighty RAEC Mons.

I very much like living in Mons. Yes, there's not a huge amount to do here and despite being one of the poorest regions in Europe, everything in the shops is still extortionate. In fact, I've become desensitised to the cost of things when out food shopping (my number 1 favourite pastime!). Wow, only €2 for 2 bulbs of garlic or €6 for a bottle of water in a restaurant. Still shell shocked to see that their fajita kits are over €6 here compared to over £2 in England.

And, the ultimate insult: the cost of a Big Mac! Many years ago The Economist came up with the 'Burgernomics' theory, which looked to test the value of different currencies against the Dollar by comparing the cost of buying a Big Mac in America to the other 100 odd countries that sell it. The idea being that this could reveal how over or under-valued other currencies were. It was only ever done in a light-hearted way but has been used by many to compare and contrast other currencies' worth against the Dollar.

And so, whilst a Big Mac costs around $3.58 in the US (as of Jan 2010), in the Euro zone it'll set you back an average €4.84 . Except in Mons (and Brussels), you'll pay a whopp(er)ing €5.95!! Which I hope gives you some indication of the cost of food here. It also shows you how overvalued the Euro is against the Dollar.

Mons does have that community feel you'd expect to find in most Francophone places. The food and clothes markets are around at least twice a week and there's always something going on in the Grand Place, not least their efforts to market Mons' battle to be one of Europe's Capitals of Culture for 2015. Although when you read about it it does all seem a little odd. One Belgium city is guaranteed this post and Mons are the only one to have bid for the title. All that needs to happen now is for this to be formally approved by the EU Council of Ministers in a meeting this November. So, they've pretty much won the title and are just waiting for the rubber stamp. None of this is very obvious when you read the various websites about the nominations.

The people seem friendly enough and rarely snigger at my attempts to speak French, which does wonders for your confidence.

It's small enough to wander around and seems as safe a place as any. No signs of "hoodies" or gangs anywhere, and many bars and clubs are busy on weekends, but the streets are spared the endless trails of broken glass, blood and vomit that populate virtually every city in England during weekends. Civilised drinkers round here. It's nice to be able to pop along to a café or bar at 11pm and have a coffee (and dessert), whilst others can drink if they wish.

As mentioned before, the quality of their meat, whether from the supermarkets or in a restaurant really is superb. I've yet to have a bad piece of steak or lamb.


The one thing though that does sum up my time here (although this has diminished slightly) is a real sense of vulnerability. This relates back to the language and not really understanding it. You wander past people and you hear voices, you go into a shop and hear people chatting, but you never know what they're saying. It's just background noise to me. It's a strange feeling when you're in a very small minority. For my first few weeks here I used to walk along the streets or go into a supermarket and dread someone saying something to me, simply because I wouldn't have a clue what they were saying.

Not speaking the language makes you paranoid and hyper-sensitive. This has definitely eased off though and as long as I have enough time to get someone to repeat something (slower) I can usually cope. My encounters at the train station are definitely my hardest. The fact that I have to speak loudly through the holes in a plastic screen, as well as compete with the loud station announcements on the tannoy, doesn't help.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Thurs 4 Feb - (Trying) to Meet the Locals

Went back to a nearby café for the 3rd time. This is the kind of place where people drink tea, read and socialise with friends and strangers. I had a conversation with the very friendly owner about how long he had run this place, where he came from and what he thought of Mons. Lots of small talk; not easy in a different language, and for me, as you'll know, not even easy in English. But, he made it very easy for me and spoke slowly and I got the gist of most of what he was saying.

Ended up also having a long chat with a student about why he wanted to learn English, what he was studying and why he knew the names of dozens of English rock bands but couldn't name a single Belgian one. A very worthwhile couple of hours, chatting with whoever had the patience to chat with me. And most people are really very accommodating and encouraging when you speak to them. Many of them do actually speak quite a bit of English but seem reluctant to do so. And, when we do lapse into English I soon make sure we're speaking in French again. My aim is to speak as little English in Mons as possible.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Wed 3 Feb: They Cut Me

Went for my second Belgian haircut today. A different bloke did it and it took me a while to try and explain to him that I wanted the same cut as before. He didn't understand my French. Or my English. Luckily, the guy that had cut it last time was busy next to me cutting someone else's hair and was able to help out.

This wasn't the best haircut I'd ever had. For a start, when he was shaving the back the clippers kept getting caught and started nipping and pulling at my hair. For several minutes it felt as if someone was trying to yank big clumps of my hair out. I just remained silent. It's not as if he would have understood had I said anything. Then, whilst shaving around my ear he accidentally nicked the top of it. At first, as it didn't hurt, I assumed it might have been his finger grazing against me and it was also hard to see much without my glasses and not being too near the mirror.

But, every few minutes he kept getting some soft material (maybe cotton wool) and dabbing my ear. Then he soaked it a bit. He didn't apologise and I wasn't too concerned.

As we reached what I thought was the end of my haircut, he started to have a heated discussion with the other barber next to me, showing him my ear and the yellow (now slightly blood stained) towel he was using to patch me up. I was all ready to get up and pay when the other hairdresser told me to sit in his chair and then proceeded to continue cutting what was left of my hair. He also then went to work at trying to clean the (now probably dry) blood away from my ear. At this point I started to feel slightly queasy. Those who know me well will know that me and blood aren't happy bedfellows. It's not so much the sight of it that I don't particularly like, it's what it does to my overactive imagination that's the problem.

The feeling of him constantly rubbing my ear made me feel rather nauseous and faint. I could feel myself sweating profusely. The t-shirt underneath my jumper felt soaked. I just wanted to get the hell out of there and get some air. It didn't help that the sheet wrapped around me stopping hair falling onto my clothes was done up rather tightly around my neck.

I'm not sure whether he could tell that I felt unwell, but I guess the sight of my eyes struggling to stay open and my head and body falling sideways gave him a clue. I was also trying my damndest to say 'I feel pretty faint, I need to get up before I collapse,' in French. In the end, I think he understood something I mumbled and said he had finished.

He apologised profusely on behalf of his assistant (who had since been banished from the shop to god knows where) and we had a short chat. I tried to explain to him how unwell I felt and how I didn't really like the sight of blood but I'm not really sure he understood. He was more concerned with how things like this are bad for business, and when I said not to worry, these things happen (really wanted a French equivalent for 'shit happens') he looked extremely relieved and shook my hand continuously. I think he was also having a pop at his colleague, saying how unfit he was for this job.

So, no idea if I made a complete fool of myself, or if he ever knew how I felt, or if I'd inadvertently got someone the sack (although he wasn't very good at his job), but in the end I walked out having had my hair cut, twice, and my ear cut and fondled several times. I think I need to find another hairdresser.