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.
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.
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.
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.