Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Wed 31 March - Salsa!

Why oh why do I put myself through this? This evening we went salsa dancing in Mons, in a small, smart studio above one of the bars on the Grand Place. I've only ever done salsa dancing once before, about 9 years ago, and I was hopeless at it. It's the hips thing. Comes far more naturally to women. Having said that, since then I've done Tango and Le Roc (Jive), and once I get going, I'm not too bad on the ol' dancefloor. Not a complete embarrassment at any rate.

This really was what you'd call blindly immersing yourself in another country. Although, it's such a visual thing and not understanding all the instructions isn't such a hindrance. There were about 8 couples in the class. Unusually, we stayed with the same partner the whole lesson. Normally, this would bother me a little as I believe you learn far more when dancing with a whole range of people, but on this occasion, for my first class, I was slightly relieved. At least I wouldn't have to bore everyone by repeating the 'sorry, but I'm a complete beginner, and I really don't speak much French so there's no point you talking to me,' mantra.

The class was led by a glamorous, slim woman and her, shall we say, rather portly, short, camp, male dance partner. We introduced ourselves at the start and they told us not to worry about not understanding everything. In fact, they were both very encouraging and extremely friendly, always making sure we were following everything okay. And also devoting a large amount of time to showing us specifically where we (I) were going wrong. The male teacher, let's call him Marco, would shout out the intructions in a mixture of English, French and Spanish. Luckily, the latter was only really done when counting. There were several occasions when I only understood a fraction of what he was saying. I'll blame the loud salsa music for that. The most imporant words for the routine were simply: "poussez, tirez, bloquez." I'm not sure the last is really a French word. They certainly pepper their French with a lot of Englishisms do the Belgians.

It took me ages to master the 'basic steps,' but I definitely got the hang of it by the end. I actually found the whole experience hilarious, and nerve-wracking, at the same time. Must have sweated about a pint before we even got started. I'm glad we did it though. We had found ourselves a really good jive class in Bristol and it was a shame to have stopped dancing for so long. Good for the health is dancing, so they say.

I think for me, I'd compare dancing to eating fish. Initially, I never really want to do it, but I know I should, and once I have, I usually feel a lot better, healthier and pleased with myself and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Everyone left the class by kissing both teachers and I thought I should follow suit. I've definitely got the hang of this kissing for hellos and goodbyes malarky.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Fri 26 March - 'Q Bar.'

As in Cuba, geddit? Tonight was my first outing to a bar in Belgium. And everyone's still allowed to smoke. I think it's the first time in years that I've been in a bar and seen the air filled with the familiar haze of cigarette smoke. It's also the first time I've been shown to a table on entering one. Although, this might have been more to do with my confused look when I walked in.

The bar itself was reminiscent of many in Bristol: in a small, narrow, basement, in the shape of a tunnel. A nice change was the number of older people in it. When I say older, I mean over the age of 50, I'm guessing. There was music, as you'd expect, but it wasn't so loud that you couldn't hear yourself think and were able to chat without having to virtually shout. God, what an old git thing to say!

And as usual when getting home from a place smelling of cigarette smoke, there's the familiar feeling of all the clothes you're wearing reeking, your hair, hands and everything else, the soreness I always get in my eyes. And the feeling as if I've just smoked a packet myself. What a lovely habit.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Thurs 18 March - Let there be lights...

...and there were none. How many men does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer, 6. Or 6 when they're trying to find out why the lights in our lounge/dining room don't work. We must have had about 6 or 7 visits from various folk trying to figure out why our lights won't work. All I ever seem to witness when they come round are a lot of animated discussions, lots of puzzled looks and furrowed brows, and plenty of Gallic shrugging of shoulders. I even got taught how to find out if a battery is dead or not: put the metal bit against your tongue. If you get an electronic shock, it still works. Many thanks to the electrician for teaching me that trick. Much appreciated.

Anyway, several weeks later, all the lights upstairs finally work.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Wed 17 March - Thurs 18 March

Have begun teaching in a place called Jemeppe-sur-Sambre. It's an hour train ride from Mons and takes in some of the most industrial parts of this region, including Charleroi and Tamines. Salubrious it ain't. The journey is dominated by power plants, slag heaps and smoke billowing from numerous towers. Don't ask me what they're making. Just don't make me breathe it in.

When you arrive at JSS's train station you are greeted by what looks like an incomplete platform. In fact, none of the station looks finished. The ground is made up of messy gravel and there are a few, tiny, waiting huts which look as if they were constructed in 5 minutes using a variety of different materials and boards, none of which match. There is a waiting room and area to buy tickets but it closes at 2pm everyday. This means that if my train home is ever delayed I will never know by how long. I'll never know if all trains are cancelled for the day. There are no electronic departure boards. It does feel like being in the middle of nowhere.

Except, the whole area is dwarfed by the enormous power plant that stares at you just as you get off the train. All you can hear are the sounds of industry, for this is where Solvay, a company specialising in chemicals and plastics, has a base.

Every Wednesday and Thursday, for the next few months at least, this is where I will come to do my teaching. It's the kind of place where without helpful instructions from a previous teacher here, I would have never found the main entrance. It's only a 5mins walk from the station but try finding the reception when all you're faced with is tower after tower. The teaching itself takes place in an annex which apparently houses some of the people who work here. From the outside it looks like a large abandoned building. From the inside, it's only slightly better.

Everyday, before I can leave the premises I must key in my own personal code before exiting via the electronic gates. I've heard of needing a code to get in to places, but never before needing one to leave. Still, as always, the people I'm teaching are very friendly and keen to learn, and the train journeys allow me to catch up on some French reading.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Fri 12 March - Sun 14 March: In Bruges

I couldn't really call this entry anything else could I? Spent the weekend there as part of my birthday treat. We thought we'd go a few weeks after my birthday to ensure it was warmer. It was, but only just. Still two jumpers, scarf and gloves weather. But, thankfully it stayed dry the whole weekend.

Bruges is the one real touristy place in Belgium. In fact, pretty much the only place people come to visit from the UK. And I heard British voices constantly, wherever we went. It was rather comforting and (stupidly) nostalgic to hear accents from the south or north of England. Think I even heard some Bristolian. The place itself is as beautiful and splendid as people make out, although not as magical or even fairytale like as I was expecting. My only previous knowledge or sighting of the place came from the film.

I think it's too clean, or too polished, basically too northern European, to be classified as being magical. It's often referred to as the 'Venice of the North' (as is Amsterdam. It's the canal thing), but it didn't really remind me of Venice at all. Felt very Flemish, which of course it is, and also somewhat Scandanavian, but there is a noticeable crossover in architecture and style between Flanders and Scandanavia. Venice is, well, Venice. Bruges lacked the smell or dirt or ruggedness or sounds of Venice. In my view, all of these things give a place character and realism. And I'm not sure there's anywhere in the world like Venice.

I think I was expecting Bruges' canals to be more noticeable but there aren't nearly as many as Venice, simply because it's not as big. It was a good time of year to go. Not really crowded at all, and all the tourist hot spots were often quite empty. Its size made it easy to wander around and get a very quick feel of the place. We'd decided in advance to avoid doing museums and galleries for once, and because C had a bad cold we kept popping in and out of cafés, where I discovered that a 'lait russe' is the Belgian answer to a latte. Might have to be my coffee of choice here as I don't think I can manage another capuccino with whipped cream.

The B&B we stayed in was fabulous. The lounge looks like it could be a room in a museum, filled with paintings, books and antiques. In fact, the French actress who appeared in the film 'In Bruges' stayed in our room during the filming. Very chic looking with lots of golds and browns. The room, not the actress. She's merely a bit of a fox!

On the Friday, because we came across an Indian restaurant we felt like we had to eat there. Bit of a mistake. The portions were small, especially by Belgian standards, and I paid the ridiculous price of €19 for a lamb rogan josh. Without rice. Why oh why is Belgium so damn expensive?

On the Saturday we did a lot better and even discovered a vegetarian, yes that's vegetarian, restaurant where they served a set lunch of varying sizes. Great food, filling and reasonably priced. And very healthy too. There's only so much steak frites you can eat in your life.

We spent our last few hours in Bruges on a tour of its only functioning brewery. Naturally, the tour ends with a (complimentary) beer. They do produce a lot of beers do those Belgians. Several thousand in fact. Also tasted pommes frites from a friterie for the 3rd time. The one in Binche still wins.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Wed 10 March - New Barbers

Had a short walk around Mons before deciding on a new barbers just off the Grand Place. This one had a nice, stale cigarette smell to it. God, really don't fancy someone smoking as they're cutting my hair. In the end, it was a actually a decent haircut, devoid of any blood or drama. Had a natter to the barber, who is originally from Milan and came to Mons in the 60s. He says he rarely goes back because Mons is his real home and he doesn't ever miss Italy. How can you not miss Italy?? Although he did say that he wouldn't recommend a single Italian restaurant here as they're all 'average.' You can take the man out of Italy...

There is actually quite a sizeable Italian population in Mons and all of Belgium for that matter. Almost 250,000 to be precise, of which 75% live in Wallonia.

It later transpired that I was lucky enough to have my hair cut there and then as the owner usually operates by an appointment system only. I've never made an appointment in my life to see the hairdressers. Still, for the sake of an easy life and a proper haircut I'll happily book in advance.

Tues 9 March - Belgian Trains

Another day, another incident involving one of Belgian's trains. This time nothing as serious as the awful collision 3 weeks ago just outside Brussels, but it's now the 3rd time since I've moved here that something has happened to a train either at, or one that has travelled from, Mons train station. The first happened within my first few days here. So, not only can they not drive their cars, it also seems they can't drive their trains either.

Some of Belgian's recent problems on its railways are being blamed at the EU for not enforcing tough safety standards on all its trains. Apparently, Belgian trains are yet to be fitted with an emergency break system, and having such a thing, it is argued, may have prevented the crash on 15 February, but I guess that's merely conjecture at the moment. Doesn't fill me with the greatest deal of confidence considering I travel to and from Brussels quite often and rely on the trains for my work.

Others have argued that the problems with Belgium's trains are merely another symptom of a deeper malaise running through its society. There have been quite animated concerns voiced about the state of its education system, adequacy of its police service, and a general worry about the 'over-generosity' of its welfare state. If you add the huge linguistic and cultural divide to the pot, you can see that Belgium is just like any other country grappling with the kind of issues that afflict so many other European states.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Mon 8 March - Belgian Kissing

I met up for a coffee with a fellow blogger today and found out that, shock horror, her husband had also been cut by the same barbers who cut me. It's a scandal. A local scandal I tell you. Confirmed my pressing need to pluck up the courage and find a new barbers in Mons. It's only been a few weeks but my hair already looks a mess. And they can't cut for toffee either!

As mentioned in an earlier post Belgians greet each other with one kiss only (again, 3 for special occasions). This also applies when men see each other. Now, I know this happens all over Europe, in France, Italy etc, and you only notice it when you come from a country where the only time (heterosexual) men kiss each other is usually when they're pissed out of their minds and falling all over the place.

I guess it's the novelty factor that still makes me aware of it. You can spot the butchest, bulkiest characters walking towards one another and then greet the other with a single, delicate kiss on the cheek, as if it's the most natural thing in the world. Which in Belgium it is. Whenever I see it I always wonder whether it could ever take off in Britain. What a threat to so many mens' masculinity. We're so used to the usual firm shake of the hands, or playful punch on the arm or shoulder, or even a pat on the back. I wonder if it'd make us less angry.

I think it'd make us British men all less awkward. A shake of the hand is such a cold and dismissive way of greeting your friends. Maybe I'll rebel when I next see them. Still, I'm on kissing terms with all the men I've met in Belgium so far. Nothing wrong with it. Quite nice actually!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Sat 6 March - "Would you like to go to a Concert?"

That sounds great, why not. We were both invited to meet up with N again, our first language exchanger in Belgium, who we hadn't seen in almost 3 months. Through our various emails to each other it was hard to actually establish what kind of concert we were going to see, what kind of venue it would be at, and how long we planned on being there for. Even when emailing in English and French you are still left none the wiser. Your French isn't good enough for her to understand everything and the same for her English.

We were being picked up by N at Nivelles, a town about an hour away from Mons via 2 trains, and headed somewhere. N asked us if we'd like some dessert. Yes please! "What did we like?" Not too fussy, as long as it's sweet and filling. We then pulled up in a supermarket car park. "Let's get some sugary dessert," she said. So, are we going to a café for some, a bar, or...no, the supermarket. Eh?

Oh, we were buying dessert to take away. To take away where I had no idea. N also asked us what drink we wanted. Again, when will we be drinking? "Will there be a bar at the concert venue?" I wondered. "Yes, of course," N cheerfully replied. Okay, so for some reason I just bought one of those of awful, add only boiling water to, packets of (decaffinated) capuccino. I'd never in a million years buy the stuff but didn't want to seem rude and offend her by buying nothing.

We ended up wolfing down our dessert (tiramisu, the same one you get in every supermarket in England. Delicious.) and capuccino at someone's flat, but not hers.

We finally arrived at the concert venue, which turned out to be in someone's rather enormous and extremely flash apartment in an area right on the border of Flanders. The concert was in fact a gig and was the first performance by 5 friends who had invited along about 50 of their own pals to witness them cover a whole range of rock songs.

The gig was then followed by a party where everyone, naturally, spoke French. N introduced us to several of her friends who seemed only happy to practise out their English and then have to listen as we made the best use of our pigeon French. Actually, it was a very useful evening for French practice as N preferred chatting in French as she didn't feel confident enough speaking English.

The evening was actually great fun. Luckily, there were free drinks. I knew I should have bought some wine at the supermarket. I had a feeling this was the kind of concert she meant.

N also insisted on driving us all the way back to Mons (about 45mins away), only for her to have to come all the way back as she was currently staying at the flat we had eaten dessert in, her boyfriend's place. It all eventually made sense.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Mon 1 March - Café Culture

This is what it's all about. I've been waiting almost 4 months for this. The chance to finally look all sophisticated and European (because being British means inhabiting another continent altogether. Not sure which one) and drink coffee, outside, in the Grand Place of Mons. A glorious, sun-drenched late winter/(very)early spring's day.

The Grand Place looked splendid, bathed in sunshine against the deep azure sky, and the sound of people chatting and drinking coffee and beer outside for probably the first time since October. In fact, only one café had its tables and chairs out, and for that it was doing a roaring trade. Couldn't quite understand why the others hadn't followed suit. Still, a great way to spend a few hours: reading and speaking French to my 'language exchange partner.' I say exchange, but it's more of a one way thing with S more than happy to only speak in French, which suits me fine.

Everyone was still well wrapped up in coats and scarves though as we still haven't quite reached double figures yet.

I could get very used to this. And I plan to.