Saturday, August 28, 2010

Fri 27 Aug - Sun 29 August: Back to Antwerp

Spent the weekend in Antwerp with our good friends to celebrate both their birthdays. Our second visit here. Liked the place as much as I did the first time round. Just has that feel of a place that's comfortable and satisfied with itself. And so it should be. Whenever I see somewhere new I always like to ask myself: "would I be happy living here?" And, for Antwerp, I certainly would. We took our friends out to the same Indian we'd been to last time. Not quite the standard of curry you'd get in England, but still pretty damn good. Although god knows what they'd done to the onion bhajis. They'd been coloured light red and flattened. Tasted nothing like a bhaji. For a start, there was no crunch factor as you bit into them.

So, 2 visits to Ghent, 2 to Antwerp. And the winner is...Ghent! I like my cities pretty do I, without being prissy. Ghent is just a lot tidier, but not overly so, and better laid out. But, it is a lot smaller than Antwerp. I'm sure I'll be back to both a couple more times yet.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Mon 16 August

"Day 64 in the 'Mess' that is Belgian Politics and still no government." I wouldn't worry though. The last coalition government only took 284 days to form so there's plenty of time left!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Tues 10 August

As mentioned previously, the place I travel to twice a week because of teaching (Jemeppe-Sur-Sambre) has a rather bare and run down train station. When catching the train home, I'm usually the only person on my side of the platform heading back towards Mons. I'd always wondered what would happen if there were any long delays as there is no electronic information board, and a ticket office which never appears to open. However, recently, someone somewhere, has been starting to make train announcements. I therefore feel in the rather privileged position of seemingly having the announcements made solely for my benefit. Now, if I could track down the person who was making them, maybe they could start personalising the announcements: "Salut Ben. Ça va? Donc, ton train est à l'heure. Super, eh? Bonne journée et à jeudi, Ben!" That would be nice wouldn't it?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Thurs 5 Aug - 9 Months in Belgium

And so, a round up of how things have been in Belgium, 9 months on.

As back in February, I can proudly say that I'm still thoroughly enjoying my time in Mons. I've now experienced the famous 'Doudou,' and well and truly had my fill of coffee sur La Grand Place during the glorious Spring and early Summer weeks we've had. Everything really does look and feel better when the sun comes out and you finally stop shivvering for another few months.

The Grand Place looks wonderful when it's packed (not uncommon this during the working week here!), and even better at night when lit up and people are out late for dinner or just out for a drink and dessert. It is worth saying that without the Grand Place my experience of Mons wouldn't be nearly as good. It really is the focal point; its pièce de résistance. Without it, the city would have few redeeming features. But, it does and it makes me and thousands of other locals and honorary locals very happy indeed.

And so, to revist my 3 themes from 6 months ago: language, work and general society.

My French continues to improve. A lot better than it was 6 months ago, and unrecognisable from the day I arrived. The language paranoia thing ("I'm sure they're all talking about me") is way behind me now. I've even given directions to people in the street. Why oh why do people still persist in asking me for directions? I'm useless trying to give them in English, let alone French.

I'm at the stage now where I can go out with a local for coffee and spend 1 or 2 hours chatting in French, and able to understand a good two-thirds of what is said to me. Maybe sometimes half on a bad day. I still have to concentrate incredibly hard and after an hour or so I feel exhausted, but it's invaluable practice, and has always been, in my mind, the best way I was going to make real progress. I've so far shied away from the chance to have structured French lessons in favour of basically teaching myself, whether that be via one-to-one chats with Belgians (who have since become friends), watching a bit of anything on TV, or even a whole film, clips from the internet, to reading the Metro, which has been and remains a godsend in widening my vocab.

Watching TV or listening to the radio is a fascinating exercise. I've got to the stage now where I can recognise the words but it takes me a while to convert these words into sentences. It's almost as if my brain is lagging behind. I have a jigsaw of jumbled up words in my head but I need to be able to put them together, in the right order, quick enough to form whole sentences. And by the time I manage this the conversation will be 4 of 5 sentences ahead of me and I've missed out chunks. It's a very different, and harder, experience to chatting to someone, and I'm reassuringly informed by my wife that it's the one area she struggled with in her year living in Madrid, even though her Spanish was virtually fluent at the time.

There are also the occasions when I'm not having a relaxed chat with someone over a coffee, but have to for whatever reason chat with strangers. This is when my French really gets tested. Often I will have to say 'pardon' because they've either just spoken too quickly or I just want to double-check that I've heard what I think I've heard. I often end up feeling hurried and flap a little and give a mumbled and confused response. I know what I want to say but it just takes a while to say it. And then once the exchange is over I curse myself for not saying what I know I can and should have said. Speaking under pressure is a great barometer of progress in my eyes.

French for me is still something that requires a lot of effort and concentration. But, it brings me a lot of pleasure. In fact, I love it. Nothing quite beats the satisfaction of being able to understand another language. There is always the temptation to ask people to slow down when they speak, but this just isn't realistic or how life works. And in not doing so, the satisfaction of understanding is that much greater. I have a feeling that eventually my understanding will soon be better than my spoken French. I'm still making loads of grammatical errors and running out of the necessary vocab when I speak. When you hear it, you're hearing it without these problems. Or so you think!

The next part is to work even harder on my pronunciation. I used to think my French accent was quite good, but again, speak under pressure and it goes to pot. And it really is key to whether people can understand you. The thing that really distinguishes the natives from everyone else are the little flourishes, what I'd call the decorations, the extra bit, that gets added to the end of their sentences. Often the intonation of their voice goes up as at the end, a little bit like the way Australians, or every teenager, now sounds, but far less irritating.

Ah yes, work. What does one do when one isn't drinking endless cups of coffee and people watching all day? Well, I'm still working as a freelance English teacher. I see a few students for one-to-one classes twice a week at the same company I've been going to since mid-March. It's been decent, regular work. Not nearly enough for what I want but at least I've been able to do something.

I've also started to take on a few other students who work nearby and hope that there'll be more to come once new enrolments begin for language courses in September. A few months ago I also placed an advert on a handful of Belgian websites that a friend had told me about. I've had a fairly decent response but trying to get hold of people again once they've sent you a speculative email asking about your qualifications and availability has proved rather elusive. I've become rather accustomed to Belgians and their wonderful unreliability. I must have replied to over 20 people via email or phone call and only one person ever got back to me. To say that he'd now found another teacher.

Still, as things stand I've actually got my first couple of students coming to see me next week, thanks to these websites. There is hope yet!

The working in Politics in Brussels option, the thing I really want to be doing, seems a long way off. I soon discovered that even trying to get an internship is nigh on impossible. There seem to be well over a hundred applicants for every post, no matter how dull. Trying to get anywhere near the offices of the European Commission is another herculean task. Open applications take place once a year, where I'm told this year, over 45,000 people applied for only 100odd posts. This is a process which involves submitting your application form then, if successful, sitting 4 tests in things such as numeracy and verbal reasoning (all to be done in your second language), then more interviews, group exercises etc. etc. Nope, I didn't bother applying. The language barrier has been far more of a problem than I was lead to believe. 'Oh you're a native English speaker. Everyone's desperate for native speakers.' Nonsense. Speaking English and French fluently is a must, with German and sometimes Dutch also required. I blame the British education system. "No, who needs to bother learning another language. Let's no longer make languages compulsory in our schools." (The Labour Government, 2004).

I've met various contacts for advice on other work, such as working for think-tanks and NGOs, but nothing has come of it. Without a network of contacts and someone in the know it really is extremely difficult. Still, I really am not that bothered anymore. I enjoy my teaching, a lot. I get to meet people which I love doing. I have a laugh with my students. I teach them English, they teach me the odd bit of French. Everyone's happy!

General Society:
There's not much more to add to what I've already said about living in Mons. The pace of life here... hang on! There is no pace of life here. It's all done at a very gentle stroll. No one's in a rush, people say bonjour to you in the street, customer service is excellent. It's a very easy life here. Well, easy for an outsider. Probably not that easy for the 27% of people who are unemployed. Although the rather generous state handouts must certainly ease the pain.

I think there's a general politeness and civility about Belgians in general. Even the hoodies, and people we'd definitely signal out as chavs, are courteous and respectful. The trips back home only emphasise the difference between how we speak to each other in England and here. I've always wondered whether the fact they have two words for you, 'tu' and 'vous,' depending on who you speak to, serves to accentuate this respect for one another. Strangers, speaking to someone older than you who is not a friend or family member, anyone in authority, will all be spoken to using the 'vous' form. Everyone is greeted with a 'sir' or 'madam' in shops or restaurants or anywhere you go. I guess in England we've settled on the informal 'guys' which is used when addressing pretty much anyone, and which I just hate.

When going out for a meal, I'll usually settle for steak frites. Have what they do best. Their desserts are divine wherever you go and the beers the best I've ever had. Yup, the things they're famous for are worth their fame.

I'm even starting to get used to the price of everything. I'll still never get over paying to use the toilet in so many public places but then if I did I'd have nothing to moan about. And that wouldn't be very English would it?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Wed 4 August - 9 Months

Just got back from a week in England to see family. And back in time to celebrate 9 months of living in Belgium. I already did a summary of my time here at the 3 month stage, and will briefly return to some of these points to see how things have changed 6 months on. But before then, I think it's time I wrote about the things I've missed and still miss from back home since living out here (excluding the obvious, such as friends and family.).

I think it's probably fair to say that my life isn't exactly poorer for not having these things, and not having them (for the most part) hasn't in any way made me unhappy. Nevertheless, I'd rather I had them in my life than not. Some of these are rather trivial things, others less so. The list below is not in any particular order.

1. BBC Radio 5 Live.
Now I know I can listen to it online, and sometimes I do (although rarely), but it's just not the same as having it on my radio. I love this station. It's always on when I'm home, even in the background when I'm not particularly paying any attention to it. But, in particular, I miss the live sports coverage, notably the football. Due to certain rights issues, whenever live sport is broadcast on 5Live, its online coverage (outside the UK) cuts out and replays old shows instead.

I followed virtually the whole of last season's football through the BBC's online text commentary, as well as via the reports in the papers online. Now, as I support Bristol City, there would be very few, if any, instances of their matches being broadcast on 5Live. But, I still take an interest in the Premiership and have always loved 5Live Sport on a Saturday afternoon. I grew up listening to it and it's usually on to this day almost every Saturday during the season. The same goes for the midweek games.

2. My digital radio.
Completely redundant in Begium. Unless you enjoy round the clock coverage of the Tour de France and the goings on of the Belgian football Championship. I don't. Almost as bad as having to cope with Scottish football.

Again, I could listen to various digital stations online, but it's just not the same for me. I'm a traditionalist (okay, some would say philistine). Having a laptop has obviously made it easier, but I still prefer to listen to the radio, on the radio. For a start, it's far louder! And I think the sound's better too.

Luckily, I own a very old radio which was given to me by my uncle on my 10th or 11th birthday, I think. And it has longwave. This means I still get to listen to my other radio love: Radio 4. And it really has made a huge difference to me. Not only do I get my morning fill of the Today programme, but I still get to listen to all of my other favourite shows (You and Yours, Start the Week, The Culture Show etc...). And of course, Test Match Special. Where on earth would I be without Aggers and Co. and the live commentary and banter of Test Cricket?

3. The Sunday Times
I love Sundays in the UK. I love the tradition of millions of people buying their Sunday paper and settling down over breakfast or brunch, or when out in cafés or parks, and rifling through (or binning) the endless (useless) supplements, the news that often sets the agenda for the week ahead, the TV guide (where we can moan at there still being nothing worth watching on TV). Now I know I shouldn't really buy The Sunday Times, being a Murdoch paper and all, and me being a bit of a Lefty, but I do, and I like it.

You can buy your Sundays over here, but in Brussels not Mons. And without the glossy supplements. Not the same. C can't be doing without her Style section! In fact, half the paper is missing. You would have thought that considering there must be well over a million Britons living in Europe, they would publish it in full in various capital cities.

Again, reading it all online just isn't the same. Reading the free guide to the forthcoming season online isn't quite as good as having it all in your hands.

4. Breakfast Cereals
That don't cost 2 or 3 times as much for half of what you get. No, I'm not bitter (still).

5. Walkers Crisps
They're obsessed with paprika flavoured crisps. Now, I don't mind them, but give me a bag of Salt 'n' Vinegar or Cheese and Onion any day of the week. They don't do the same flavours. Ketchup or Bolognaise flavour??

6. Corner Shops
They have similar type shops, but I've yet to find one when you can buy your paper, crisps, milk, chocolate bars in the same place. Often, these kind of shops are also found towards the town centre amongst the other shops, rather than isolated in the middle of residential streets. They also have ones with mini-deli counters. Far too posh for a corner shop.

7. Curry
Probably in my top 3 of things I miss the most. God, how much do I love my curry? Rather a lot is the answer. There's nothing like being a Brit abroad and becoming a complete curry snob. They just don't do curry the way it's done in its home country! Has no one told these people that a Chicken Bhuna should cost between £4-£7? Not €15-€20. And samosas and bhajis are snacks that cost about £2.50, not €10.

Add to this, the Thali cafés in Bristol that serve superb vegetarian curries, or Masala Zone in London. Both adhere to the idea that curries need not always be heavy and unhealthy. They serve their curries on large metal trays which are divided into several small sections. Each section contains a different kind of curry (meat and/or vegetarian), as well as the rice, naans and chutneys. I'm salivating just writing this.

8. Vegetarian Options in Restaurants
What is it with mainland Europe and its aversion to all things vegetarian? They seem to confuse vegetarian with vegetables/anything's that's green. "You want vegetarian? Of course, here's a plate of cold carrots and green beans." A starter I had when we first moved here.

It's all just meat, meat and more meat. Basically, when you go out for a meal in Belgium, you order steak. Order anything else and you're just asking for trouble.

9. Bristol City
I know, number 9, but if this list was in order, it'd be number 1. Listening to the matches online doesn't come close to watching this shower up close. Yes, we lose more than we win. Yes, we have no creativity in midfield whatsoever, and no clue in attack, and we're unlikely ever to reach the Promised Land of egos, bling and overpaid wankers. But, you just can't beat an away trip to Plymouth on a wet, wet, night in January. It's just so frustrating, and quite upsetting, to be following the mighty Robins from afar. If we return to Bristol in 15 or 27 months time, renewing my season ticket will be one of the first things I do. That and finding a job of course!

10. General chit chat
My French is certainly a lot better than it was 9 months ago, but still not good enough to be able to engage in general lighthearted conversation, be it with strangers waiting for a bus, in a queue at a supermarket, or even waiters in a restaurant. So much of British culture revolves around witty banter, having a good ol' moan with your fellow Brit, making the odd sarcastic remark about the state of our public services. Basically, almost everything can be and is made into a joke in Britain. Note to foreigners: understand this, and you'll understand what it means to be British. For further reading, please see: "Watching the English," by Kate Fox. Bit wordy, a bit academic, but great fun and deadly accurate.

The other day, we were round some Belgian friends' flat for the evening and the guy made a joke (in French of course) which went completely over my head. I interpreted what he'd said so literally, rather than seeing his comment it for what it was, a joke. When I'm listening to French, I'm concentrating so hard that any comedy will always be lost on me.

11. The City of Bristol
A wonderful, beautiful, trendy, city. It took a while, but Bristol now feels like home to me.

12. Supermarkets
Just generally prefer the things they stock in England. Much more variety. And (of course) at reasonable prices.

13. Bargains/cheap things in general
Yup, back to money again. Belgians wouldn't know a bargain, a 2 for 1, if it landed on their moules frites. I'm sorry, but things are just so much cheaper in the UK.

14. The Pound
Which I guess links in to my next point. There's nothing quite like living in mainland Europe (I always keep wanting to just say Europe, conveniently, or not, neglecting to realise that Britain is in fact also in Europe. Damn our eurosceptism) and using the Euro to make you support the keeping of the Pound. Probably forever. Before we came out, I was all for joining the Euro. Now, after seeing how much everything costs, forget it.

15. The Smoking Ban
Possibly the finest piece of legislation to be passed in the last 100 years. Maybe. They like a smoke do the Belgians. Fortunately, it's not allowed in places that serve food, but everywhere else is fine. Including train stations (nothing quite beats the waft of cigarette smoke at 8 in the morning), and hairdressers. Yes, my barber likes a fag before cutting my hair. Lovely.

16. The English
I like the English. We're a damn fine bunch in my opinion. Bit too introverted and ever so slightly aggressive when we drink for my liking, but still a great people.

17. Fish 'n' Chips
Farrows, on the Wells Road in Bristol. The best place I've ever had fish and chips.

I think in general I like the variety of food you find in British restaurants, pubs, cafés. There is usually something for most. We do choice very well. Here, you want variety, go to a Moroccan, or a Chinese restaurant. Somewhere 'foreign.' They don't mix and match. I think Britain has been great at adopting the foods of immigrants and making them staples in our everyday diets.

That's all I can think of for now. I'm sure there are plenty of others which I will add as and when I can think of them.

I guess, in the name of fairness, very briefly:
Things I don't miss about England:
Gastropubs, price of public transport, British TV (not that I watched much of it), yobs on Friday and Saturday nights making Bristol city centre a not particularly nice place to be, general lack of respect/civility to our fellow man/woman, lack of places to sit outside and drink coffee (cafés on the side of main roads don't count), and the lack of beautiful squares in which to do it, customer (mis)service.

I'll end it there for fear of this being a grumpy old man post, and that's not my main purpose.

So, there you have it. As this has been a pretty long entry, I'll save my summary of how things have been in Begium, 9 months on, for later in the week.