Friday, April 30, 2010

Fri 30 April - Getting things Done

I now have a Belgian ID card. Well, an 'e-card' relevant to 'les entrangers.' Only took me 6 months. Even had a little joke about it at the local commune where I went to collect it. This was met with a stony silence. Need to work on my 'Belgian humour.' Still, well worth the €22 it cost me. It's now safely tucked away in wallet where I will never have to show it to anyone for the rest of my time here. I actually read that it's against the law for Belgian police to stop you and ask for ID unless they have 'just cause.' Whatever that means. Another reason I am against ID cards on principle. The police have enough power as it is.

Also managed to take my wedding suit trousers into a shop to be resized. Whereas 4 or 5 months ago I would have been rather intimidated and nervous by this, I now quite relish the opportunity to use my French in a variety of places.

Had to frantically find a place with a fax machine before the afternoon after Louis had emailed to say that he couldn't open the attachments I'd sent him yesterday. Went to the bother of scanning and emailing them, only for him to lack the technology to open such a thing. That guy really gets on my wick.

Ended the day buying a rake. Nothing like learning some useless vocab.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Wed 7 April - Salsa II

Went back again, for our second helping. Always nice to be greeted by a kiss from your teachers as you enter the room. Marco was stretching in front of a mirror, wearing what can only be described as his gym outfit: tracksuit bottoms, t-shirt and trainers. I expected that he'd pop out at any moment and get changed, but no, this was his attire for teaching tonight's salsa class. Nothing like looking the part, eh?

A much better lesson than last week. In fact, it was great fun. The routine was a lot easier and didn't take long to pick up. Spending about half an hour consolidating what we'd learnt was also really useful. Several nods and grins of approval from our teachers meant I was doing something right. At only an hour, the time does actually fly by. Again, we stayed with our partner the whole time, so it's obviously how they do things here.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Tues 6 April - Louis, again

After trying to resolve further problems with Louis via text and phone whilst I was away in Antwerp, I decided it'd be a lot easier, for a quiet life anyway, to go and see him at his office in Brussels. Wasn't too sure what kind of reaction to expect but he seemed okay, although he kept yawning a lot and saying, 'ai, ai, ai.' He also did his usual thing of reading his emails, taking phone calls and generally not paying much attention to me, as I sat there twiddling my thumbs.

Noticed that the little "Smile, Happy Boss!" sign on his desk from last November, had now been replaced by a more sinister (and more true to life!) one, saying: "Danger, Explosive Boss!" Either that, or he had simply turned the sign round the other way. Crazy man.

It only took about 20mins to sort out all the 'misunderstandings.' I made sure I took notes and repeated everything he had said back to him, to which he greeted each point with a smile and a 'voila.' So much easier face-to-face. Almost worth paying the train fare for. Felt like I should add this to my expenses but didn't want to push it.

Spent the afternoon having lunch at the flat of a French friend called L. And a fine lunch it was too. Taught me a few new useful French phrases and sayings, and I taught him the word 'nibbles.' The Entente-cordiale was alive and well at a sixth floor flat in Brussels.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Fri 2 April - Sun 4 April: Antwerp/Antwerpen/Anvers

My favourite place in Belgium so far. And this despite the weather still being cold and damp, with the limited sunshine made irrelevent by the strong wind. Antwerp is so northern it's virtually in the Netherlands. In fact, for 15 years in the first part of the 19th century, it actually was. It's Belgium's second largest city with a population of just over 470,000, of which 15,000 are Jewish, most identifying themselves as orthodox Jews. This doesn't surprise me since I saw over a dozen Hasidic Jews (a branch of orthodox Judaism) and their families when out about. It's actually the first time I've seen Hasidic Jews outside of London. The area near the impressive train station is sometimes known as 'Jewish Antwerp,' because of the concentration of Jewish people living there. Historically, this was down to the fact that it was near the diamond bourse, where a large number of Jews used to work. The present day Jewish community was established in the city from about 1816. The current number living there is half what it used to be before the Holocaust.

The main Central train station is a museum in its own right. A quite incredible landmark that greets you as you get off the train. I had to stand still every now and again just to marvel at its beauty and enormity.

Our time was spent doing the usual wandering, taking in as much of the city as we could see. Every street, every square, every alley made me warm to the city more and more. Parts of it reminded me of the Le Marais in Paris. It had the cobbles, the stylish shops, endless cosy looking cafés and small restaurants. It also has a tram network, which when I create my own 'fantasy city' in my head, is a must. It also has lots of Dutch speakers, naturally. And the more I get to know, and speak to, the more I realise how wonderful the people are in this part of the world. Maybe it's their flawless English that seduces me. Or maybe it's because they just remind me so much of the British, and I'm a big fan of the latter!

We found ourselves in a terrific, non-smoking (not an easy thing to find) bar on the Friday night, just as the heavens had opened. I just loved it in there. A nice, long, beer menu, a jukebox in the corner playing anything from Motown to 1950s and 60s rock 'n' roll music, good looking bar staff, and a mixed crowd of old and young folk. The kind of place where the men walked in to the bar wearing the kind of hats men used to wear. We returned the following night, perched ourselves on the last free stools at the bar, and watched the staff get progressively more drunk as they chatted and sang along with the customers.

We even got talking to a handsome young chap after he had noticed that I had drunk one of the foulest, and most bitter beers I'd ever tasted. Apparently, it was meant to be drunk with something sweet, or topped with something sweet. Couldn't quite work this out. He had never been to England, yet his English was immaculate. He was flattered when we told him how much we liked his city. He said that people who live here are very proud of their city and never want to leave and I can see why. He also provided yet more anecdotal evidence of the cultural apartheid that exists in this country by admitting to have never visited Wallonia. And, if I'm being brutally frank, if you came from Flanders, why would you ever want to. Although, the south is home to the Ardennes which is still to be visited.

Saw the main cathedral, home to several Rubens, and paid €5 for the privilege. Also used the trip to take advantage of Antwerp's reputation for jewellers and find ourselves our wedding rings. But, in 'rip-off Belgium,' a bog standard gold wedding band will set you back well over €1000. Another thing I won't be buying here.

We spent our final morning in one of the Zuid (South) districts of the city which allowed us to see more of the 'real' Antwerp, but it still felt rather hip and trendy. Food wise we ate out at a very good Thai place on the Friday, and an Indian on the Saturday. Much cheaper than the Indian in Bruges, but still small portions. I don't want to leave a curry house not feeling bloated or slightly sick. They just don't make em' like they do back home.

Antwerp is somewhere I definitely want to return to and get to know even better. Preferably, when the weather finally gets warmer and I can sit and drink coffee and beer outside at one of the many inviting spots the city has to offer.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Thurs 1 April - Louis

So, there I was, sitting at the deserted train station (it always is), eating my sarnies, basking in the sun after having finished another day's teaching at Jemeppe-sur-Sambre, with only the sounds of the work towers and cargo trains speeding past me for company, when I get a phone call from a rather irate and frantic Louis. "What did I tell you before?" Why you not listen to me? What are you trying to do to me?" Basically, I hadn't sent him my timesheets in time, meaning I wouldn't be paid for this month's work. There was also a bit about him "looking stupid" and lots of high pitched yelling and other things I couldn't make out, with him drifting in and out of French every now and again as he tends to do.

I then had the joy of having to continue this conversation on a very quiet train carriage. It all just came down to a case of miscommunication. On his part. The problem is that his written and spoken English isn't good enough to explain to me what I need to do at the end of every month with regards to timesheets, travel expenses etc. And, whenever I try and explain things to him in English or French, he just ignores me. "Donc, you listen me and I make the conclusions, because you are making problems with me," he continued, as I sat there being told what I was supposed to have done.

Still, thanks to some quick handy work from C involving a scanner, I was able to send him the relevant details in time, ensuring I got paid for March's teaching, but not before he rang me again to to tell me that I had been buying the wrong type of train ticket for my journeys from Mons to JSS, and to change it from now on or lose being paid expenses.

All said in a rather unpleasant tone. Not really how you speak to someone, twice. But, you just have to bite your lip and I need the teaching.

Once I'd arrived back in Mons I had to deal with another case of miscommunication. Earlier in the week I had had a phone call from someone working as an intern at the Mons language school I've been doing teaching work for. In pigeon English I was told that they no longer wished to keep me on as they had found someone else who could work for them full time. I followed this up with an email in French to M, the secretary there, asking her to confirm this. As I hadn't heard back from her I decided to pop in on my way home. "No. We want that you stay in here, Benjemin. Mais, oui, bien-sûr." So, you do want to keep me on your books then?? Yes, no, probably. Who knows anymore.

Oh, and 'April Fools' Day' is known as 'Le Poisson d'avril,' where the joke is to stick a picture of a fish on someone's back. That explains the cut out fishes I saw this morning stuck to various seats on the train. By the end of the day I was in no mood to have any poissons stuck to my back.