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!
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?