Friday, June 25, 2010

Fri 25 June - Tax Office

Been away the last week and a bit. To get married. But anyway, today was the day I'd earmarked for going along to the tax office, merely a few hundred yards from where I live, with my end of year tax return form to ask for advice. Preferably for them to fill it in for me. The Belgian tax year runs from January to December and everyone has until 30 June of the following year to submit their forms.

I was clearly not the only one in need of help. There were already about 50 odd people queuing outside at 9am. Everyone clutching hold of their forms. I assumed this was the queue I wanted to be in so I joined it and listened in on peoples' conversations so see how much French I could understand. Apparently, the forms this year have been the hardest yet to complete. Few people could understand them. Their family couldn't even help them with it. They had no choice but to come to the tax office. "Bof, what else am I meant to do on a Friday morning? Work? Please!"

I eventually got to the entrance to be given a ticket like everyone else. I asked the young guy handing them out if anyone spoke English inside as this kind of thing was far too technical to manage at my level of French. Yes, of course he said. Absolutely. Of course there wasn't.

I followed some people who (seemed to) know what they were doing up some stairs, to be greeted by another queue. Once I got to the front, a woman took my form, took out all of the additional sections from it, the how to fill in your form bit, binned them and told me sit and wait outside one of the offices. This procedure was done for everyone.

I quickly learnt that the tickets did in no way correspond to an order for who is to be seen when. It really was a free for all. So, it was a question of let the people I thought were in front of me go in first, then follow them afterwards. When it was eventually my turn (probably) I looked around me, got a couple of nods of approval, which I took as my lead to go in, and entered an office with two people, one of whom was playing patience on his computer.

After waiting for a few minutes a woman came and spoke to me and after realising that I was in Belgium working as an independent/freelancer, told me I was in the wrong office and directed me to another one. Luckily, there was only one person in front of me so it was easy to work out who was next. Even for Belgians. Over the last couple of months I've been mentally compiling a list of things that I believe are imperative as part of a 'civilised society.' Queuing, British-style, is definitely one of them. The Belgians struggle with this.

My chat with the very friendly and smiley woman in the tax office lasted a matter of minutes. She quickly worked out that I had been posted the wrong form all those many weeks ago, saw the invoices I had received for the very little work I actually did in Belgium in 2009, filled in the correct form for me on her computer, and I was on my way. Easy. They may not be able to queue, but they're a damn friendly and helpful bunch these Walloons.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Thurs 10 June

The radio stations keep playing an advert promoting the fact that Prince is coming to Belgium sometime this year. In the background you hear segments of various Prince tracks, one of them being 'Sexy MF.' Except, they're not playing the radio edited version, but the full album one with swear word intact. Brilliant. I wonder if English swear words really have the same shock value in the French-speaking part of the world, though? I know I can say the few French swear words I know and not think they have much impact because they don't really mean much to me.

The Metro's main story today leads with a study by a Belgian academic that an independent Flanders is unrealistic. In his analysis, Vincent Laborderie explored three possible scenarios leading to independence: an armed conflict (highly, highly unlikely. In fact, so unlikely, god knows why he wasted his time even entertaining such a prospect.), an amicable separation, or a unilateral declaration of independence.

The second scenario is also dismissed because Loborderie doesn't believe it would ever be sanctioned by Brussels. It would also saddle Wallonia with enormous debt, which it would never be able to pay off. Therefore, Wallonia is never likely to agree to it. The third option is also ruled out as it would be strongly opposed by many EU states, pointing to the example of Kosovo. In other words, many member states would fail to recognise Flanders as a state in its own right. And without much international support, Flanders' dynamic and open economy would suffer.

He ends by saying that the majority of Flemish people are also opposed to independence. I'd like to see other studies and surveys to see if this can be backed up. I'm not so sure. The impression I get from what I've read and seen is that a rather large number of Flemish people favour separation. Who knows. More will be revealed after this Sunday's general election, especially if Vlaams Belang, the Flemish separatists, win a significant proportion of the vote at the polls.

By the way, the Belgian political system is as complicated and baffling as it gets and will be explained another time. When I've fully understood it myself. Just to note, the populations of Wallonia and Flanders have their own parliaments and so vote for completely different parties. And they still maintain they're one country!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Thurs 3 June - Drunk Man in Subway...Almost.

We were both looking out of the kitchen window and having a good laugh at a very drunk man on the other side of the ringroad, stumbling and falling all over the place. But, when he then tripped, and fell down the stairs leading to the subway I knew this wasn't good. My vivid imagination and knowledge of this kind of thing, coming only from watching various TV programmes, meant that I now associate falling down the stairs with being something potentially fatal. Well, it often is in the movies, anyway. Man and woman have argument at the top of stairs. Man grabs woman's arm, woman loses her balance, falls, and dies.

We both raced out of the house and across the road to see if he was okay. Or dead. He had actually only, miraculously, fallen down the first four stairs and was still breathing. He was clearly absolutely plastered. He had also, impressively, managed to prostrate himself on his front, spread across all four steps, so that he had his feet, legs and arms all on different steps. The kind of thing that you'd probably fail to recreate when you're sober. He was face down, and barely moving. His huge nose looked like it had the texture of plasticine and was squished against a step. It didn't looked like it was broken. In fact, I couldn't see any blood or scratches on him at all.

I gave him a good shake and slapped his back a few times but he didn't stir. C meanwhile tried getting help from the neighbours but nobody appeared to be in. Instead, she then flagged down a car and asked for help from a young couple. All done in French of course, but she said her French somewhat failed her at this time of emergency. What she said translated as something like this: "Please. There is a problem with a man. In tunnel. Over there. He is fallen down. Can you call an ambulance?"

Within 10mins an ambulance and another car had arrived and 5 people were helping to pick him up and load him in. He didn't really seem to know what had happened and just kept repeating the words "je suis tombé." Yup, you certainly did. Before they left, I made sure the crew didn't forget the crucial accessory that had fallen out of his pocket: his packet of fags.

And so, conclusive proof that we have what language experts would call 'survival French.'