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.


  1. I hear you on the curries and the veg. foods. Toronto has a panopoly of these and I never really realized exactly *how* spoiled I was until I left.

    The french will get there, mine finally is at the point where I get and can even joke back with most... the fact that you're noticing (even if it's a little late,) the jokes means you're on the right track. :)

  2. I always hear good things about food in Canada. You also have a high proportion of Indian and Pakistani immigrants I think, so I guess that explains the good curry. Curry is pretty much England's national dish.

    I'm not even a vegetarian, but every now and again a bit of variety wouldn't go amiss.

    The French is all self-taught so I guess it's still going to take another good year or so before I can say I speak French(ish). Not that they teach you anything useful at school.