Monday, July 12, 2010

Sun 11 July - The World Cup, Hooting and an Identity Crisis

For the past 4 weeks, since the World Cup began, we've been occasionally treated to the sound of various car drivers racing round and round the outer Mons ringroad, hooting their horns and waving their flags in celebration of their respective teams' victories. This has only really been noticeable when there have been victories for Spain, Germany, and to a lesser extent, the Netherlands. In particular, Spain. After each and every victory, always seeming to come around 10.30 at night, hordes of Spain supporters (I won't call them Spaniards. Will explain why in a bit) get in their cars within minutes of the full time whistle and seem to take great pleasure in driving around and honking their horns for a good hour. Or until the whole of Mons has got the message.

As Spain progressed further and further in the tournament, the hooting has got louder as the number of Spain supporters has increased. It's almost as if they've been picking people up on the way. What's been bizarre has been trying to work out why there has been such strong support for the Spanish team. There are Spaniards in Mons, thanks to the presence of a certain international military organisation here, but many live outside the city. I've also never heard a single Spanish voice in all the time I've been living here.

What's even more puzzling is that it's actually Italy who would understandibly be getting a huge amount of support from Les Montois, due in small part to the fact that about 41% of foreigners who live in Mons are of Italian origin, as a result of the steady influx who were invited to come after the war to find work in Wallonia's booming coal industry. Unfortunately for them, Italy fared even worse in the World Cup than England. No mean feat.

Instead, it seems that the residents of Mons have adpoted Spain as their 'home nation.' This was no more evident than in tonight's final against the Netherlands. We went to the Grand Place to watch the final on the many (small) screens that had been erected outside several restaurants/bars. There were hundreds and hundreds of people there, crowded around the screens, decked out in Spanish football tops and draped in Spanish flags. Almost everyone was wearing something in the colours of Spain.

And then you move around from vantage point to vantage point, and continue listening, and quickly realise that you can't hear a single Spanish voice. Not even someone speaking English with a Spanish accent. Everyone was a French speaker, probably from Mons. I've asked a few people to try and explain the reasons for this. A Belgian friend who also lives in Mons told me that she thinks it might be partly down to the fact that thousands of Belgians flock to the Spanish coast every summer and therefore have a real affinity with the country. Or it might also do with the fact that Belgium failed to qualify for this tournament and the locals have decided to pick someone else to follow. Admittedly, the rise in support seems to have been based solely on the good fortunes of the team. Hardly genuine fans eh?

But, another explanation (from my good wife, C), and one that I find the most plausible, if only because it's a rather political and ever so slightly controversial slant, is that it's no surprise to find, in a country that suffers from an identity problem (to say the least), so many people more than happy to throw their weight behind another nation. And not just half-hearted support, but deep and fervent support. When Spain scored and eventually won, you could be forgiven for thinking you were actually in Spain.

I found this slightly bizarre, a little irritating (how the hell can you cheer on another nation??) but also poignant at the same time. Especially as Spain itself is hardly a country basking in national unity. This kind of thing just would not happen in England. You'd never get a huge number of English people getting behind another team and cheering them on with such passion. And we also have an identity problem of sorts!

The behaviour of the locals during the World Cup does also perhaps back up what C has started to believe about the character and people of Mons. At first, I always used to think, naturally, I was in France. But, the more you observe, the more people you speak to, the more you realise that Les Montois remind you more of the Spanish than the French. Of course, it is worth stating that Belgium used to be ruled by the Spanish in the sixteeth century. Although I'm sure that that no longer has too much of an influence on its present inhabitants!

The number of festivals in the region echoes the Spanish love for them. Like the Spanish, the Walloons like to party. They also seem to take great pride in being as loud as possible when celebrating big occasions, such as a wedding, or a hen/stag do (where they ritually humiliate the future bride or groom in public by making them dress up in the most outrageous costumes possible. In the case of the men, some are forced to sit down whilst their 'friends' hurl food and other things at them.). The hooting of the horns takes place after a wedding as a convoy of cars drives through the centre. I guess, (without wanting to fall into generalisations, but hey it's necessary for my argument to stand up!) the unreliability we've found with many people, and the 'manana' attitude to most things could also be factors. Who knows. Just loose theories for now.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Fri 9 July - Sun 11 July: Ghent Revisited

Second trip to Ghent. Love the city even more this time around. I'm now desperate to go back to Antwerp as I have to decide which one I prefer. "Why can't you just really like both?", C wonders. Like both? Yes, I do, very much, but there must be a favourite. One I can proudly proclaim to be the best city in Belgium. It's in my DNA to have a best (and worst) of everything!

But yes, Ghent was wonderful again. We had 30 degree plus weather the whole weekend (save for the Saturday evening thunderstorm) so sweated and baked, rather than be forced to make the most of the 2 hour window of measly sunshine we had back in December. At night it looks magical, with all the buildings lit up and seen again through their reflections in the canals. Wherever you are you always seem to be able to hear the sounds of the bells of the tram. Ah, the tram. The presence of a tram system most certainly makes it into my 'civilised society' list.

Spent our first night here getting slowly, but unintentionally, sozzled at a gay bar. We had no idea what kind of bar it was until we went in, but were attracted to it by the tiny balcony it had which overlooked the canal. We were on the opposite side of the canal when we noticed a couple leaving and quickly dashed across to grab the free table. There were only 2 tables on the balcony, such was its size. The disco music that they played all night was naturally camp and dreadful. And not even in an ironic way.

Part of our visit here was to attend the Saturday night at the jazz festival which I'd mentioned last year. Unfortunately it turned out to be a distinctly underwhelming evening. The site with which it is held was much smaller than I had expected, but actually nice and compact. There were large marquee/gazebo type things dotted all around the site, which was handy considering it decided to bucket it down for most of the evening.

It cost €30 each for a ticket in advance, but that didn't stop the organisers charging you 50 cents everytime you wanted to use the toilet. I know, I know, I could moan about this all day and night, but it really does piss me off. A lot. It happens all over the country and people obviously think it's okay to have to pay to use the loo, whether it be at a bar, outdoor event, sometimes a restaurant. Just crazy. Charging to use the loo, anywhere, should be illegal. So that annoyed me right from the word go. The food was also overpriced, tasteless garbage. Had the worst, and most bland Thai chicken curry I have ever tasted.

There were 3 acts on over the course of the evening. Each given about an hour and a quarter. The first was not my kind of jazz at all. Too much showboating for my liking. No idea what kind of jazz they call it. 'Nu-jazz??' I guess I'm used to seeing very traditional, let me see either a saxophone or trumpet but preferably both on stage, and not forgetting that sultry female singer, kind of jazz. The second act were a lot better, especially when they were playing their up-tempo stuff. The female Japanese pianist, with the cool name of Hiroma, was superb and strange at the same time.

I mean, all of the most talented folk have something odd about them don't they?
What is it with jazz musicians and the faces they pull when they're performing? I guess they're just feeling and being at one with the music, and all that.

We didn't bother staying for the final, and main, act. We thought we'd take advantage of the fact that it had finally stopped raining and head back to our B&B, but not before we had taken another stroll along the canals, pausing every so often to admire the diners and drinkers who looked rather splendid as they sat outside one of the dozens of restaurants, on candle lit tables, looking at us, looking at them.

Quick correction from my comment about Ghent last time. The menus can be in English, and many are. They do not have to only be in Dutch. And they still haven't finished rebuilding their main city squares. Something that doesn't need correcting: the women are still ravishingly beautiful, elegant and stylish.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Sat 3 July - Oostende/Ostend

Took a trip with friends to the Belgian seaside today, Ostend, in Flanders. We managed to have picked the only day in the last few weeks when it was overcast and then wet by the afternoon. Still, I'm not sure Ostend would look any better in the sun. God, it's ugly. Reminded me of a tacky, run down resort in England. The buildings on the promenade were tall and imposing and clearly designed at the height of Communist fashion (possibly the biggest oxymoron in history?). The shops around them sold the kind of tat you expect to see at the seaside. The beach itself is enormous but not particularly beautiful. Functional more than inviting. Does the job it was meant to. The sea was really warm though which was nice. Well, warm in comparison to the sea on the Isles of Scilly.

Before we left Bristol and moved to Belgium, and after years of saying we must go there, we finally succumbed and visited its nearest seaside resort: Weston Super-Mare. Ostend had a bit of a resemblence to Weston in my view. Couldn't see any crazy golf though. Or any Bristol City tops.