Thursday, September 30, 2010

Wed 29 Sept - Quick, strike!

A wildcat strike by air traffic controllers closed down all of Belgium's airports today. The reason? To protest against the jobs of "two" (that's two) members of staff being relocated from one city to another. This what I read anyway. And out of solidarity the country's airspace closes. Apparently, the unions never supported this action. Now there's a first.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mon 20 Sept - Sat 25 Sept: Oslo, rip-off capital of the world?

Time for an entry away from the comfort of Wallonia and to a week spent in Oslo. As C was here for work, I decided to take advantage of the swanky hotel and other perks and join her. My previous visit to Scandinavia was to Copenhagen a couple of years ago. I left distinctly unimpressed. Clean, safe, efficient...dull. I came away wondering what you're actually supposed to do in Copenhagen.

A lot of this certainly applies to Oslo too, except I enjoyed myself here far more. The main boulevard in the centre of the city, Karl Johans Gate, is very grand indeed, lined with expensive looking restaurants, and ornate cafés. Although there is also a Hard Rock Café and a TGI Friday so it's not that posh.

Oslo is the second smallest Scandinavian capital city, after Reykjavik, although trying to actually find the definitive answer to what actually constitutes Scandinavia is not altogether that simple. I've read that it includes: Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. Others seem to include Iceland, and even Greenland. Our travel companion guide book, Rick Steve, even mentions Estonia, which is bizarre considering it was part of the Soviet Union. Who knows.

One thing I never knew, simply because I've never really paid much attention to Scandinavia when I'm staring at maps of the world, is that Norway actually borders Russia, as well as Sweden. The country hugs itself around Sweden and the further north you get, the more it bends to the right, until it dips down again and touches Russia. Apparently and unsurprisingly, the border crossing isn't the easiest to negotiate. You can imagine being met by some very stern and angry looking Russians as you get within touching distance.

My initial impression of Oslo was that it's not a particularly pretty city. There are some very salubrious areas and lots of small or larger parks (the park attached to the palace was my favourite. Very atmospheric when lit up at night) which adds greenery to the place. But, the main shopping district and the area around the docks are actually quite ugly. You get a good perspective of the city when you walk to the top of the newly renovated Opera House (which I really liked. Extremely white and extremely bright. Must be blinding in the snow). It's one of those funky designs that allows you to walk on the actual building by means of huge ramps that soar up from the ground. From a distance, it looks a bit like an iceberg.

The view out to sea would have been even more spectacular had it not been overcast. There are several little islands within view. You can actually travel by ferry all the way to Germany from Oslo, which I found impressive. And on the metro map there is a route which takes you all the way to Stockholm. I guess all these things just have added resonance when you're from a little island, cut off from mainland Europe.

During the day I had time alone to wander and get a good feel for the place. I think it's only when I was out and about with C that actually started to like Oslo. But, I managed to see the Resistance Museum which I really enjoyed and which chronicles Norway and most of its peoples' refusal to surrender and side with the Nazis, even though the country itself was occupied for most of the war. Throughout this time, its King and many members of his government fled to Britain where they operated as a government-in-exile. In fact, Britain had a significant influence over military tactics employed by Norway throughout this period, with the good ol' BBC using its reach to communicate with resistance groups.

Back in Norway, in the absence of the king, a man by the name of Vidkun Quisling had set up his own governing party, Norway's very own Nazi party, and hoped to rally the country round the invading army, but to little avail, both to his and the Nazi's immense frustrations. In fact, 'The Resistance' is also testament to the Norwegians' refusal to be dictated to by the Quisling government. The museum itself was small and compact and managed to fit in plenty of information. There were also displays to look at where they have intricately recreated some of the main battle scenes using toy soliders and other props. I particularly liked the way they showed billowing smoke coming from bombed buildings: lots of blackened and dirty bits of cotton wool spreadout everywhere. Overall, a really inspiring little place to visit.

On the Tuesday, the only day of really good weather, I spent the morning in the Vigeland Sculpture Park. An enormous place adorned with over 200 bronze and granite sculptures. The work of the Norwegian Sculptor, Gustav Vigeland. Almost all (in fact, it might be all) of the them are of people in various poses: man lifting up woman, man comforting crying woman, man holding up children. You get the picture. Not bad, not bad. The deep blue sky made for some cracking photos.

Also visited the Viking Museum, which has the world's best preserved Viking ships. As a friend rightly pointed out, the words 'raped and pillaged' are synonymous whenever anybody happens to mention the Vikings.

Oslo also has a fine array of free, yes that's right free, museums and galleries. These include the Design museum which showed various chairs, phones, computers etc. through the ages. The contemporary art gallery is well worth a visit. But, the real treat is the city's national gallery, home to Edvard Munch and his Scream. There is a whole room dedicated to some of his work and I, uniquely for me, loved each and every one of them. The Scream's not even his best. Not even in the top 5 of this one room. It's funny how some works of art have become so famous whilst others never do. I wonder how this happens. It's clearly not based on quality.

There were also other really wonderful paintings to admire by artists such as Picasso, Matisse, a typically brilliant Modigliani, and a whole other selection of Norwegian artists, one of my favourites being Christian Krohg. Knew absolutely zilch about Norwegian art until I came to Oslo and I left being extremely impressed.

And so to (one of) my favourite pastimes, whinging about the cost of everything. You've not experienced expensive until you've been to Oslo. First things first, Norway isn't in the EU and of course not in the Euro either. That aside, when it comes to ripping you off, this city does it in style. A small glass of wine or a beer £9-£10, a main course at a café (not even a restaurant) £20-£25, a single bus ticket for a 15 minute journey, £5. I could go on, you know I could, but you get the idea.

The place is so dear that not even the locals can afford to go out and have more than one glass of wine. Most people prefer to drink at home first and then go out and nurse a solitary drink for the whole evening. Something I struggled with was finding somewhere cheap(ish) to go for lunch. It seems that what most people do is just buy snacks from the numerous '7 Elevens' or similar type places. Everywhere are signs advertising calzones, wraps, noodles, for only £6 each!

The most common sign is a McDonald's (which are everywhere) one. Only 10 kroners for a cheeseburger, which is about £1.20. The city is in the grip of a cheeseburger obsession. Wherever you look, someone is eating one. Some were even eating two. Heck, why not just buy five and call it dinner? I was hoping to find somewhere offering lunctime deals or similar. In the end, I settled on chicken and noodles from a takeaway place (£8, bland, tasteless), a calzone (same), and even more noodles from a corner shop (£6, tiny portion). Unsurprisingly, there was a huge queue outside said shop where they were offering free samples of a new range of a thai chicken and rice dish they were selling. Of course the queue was enormous. Full of starving tourists like me, wondering where our next meal was going to come from. I went back 3 times for my samples, bowl in hand.

What I don't understand, in relation to their pubs (many have that same warm and cosy feel you find in traditional English boozers. They're certainly well set up for somewhere with their kind of climate) and bars, is how they manage to stay open. Yet, incredibly, I've read somewhere that there's still a problem with binge drinking, and even alcohol-related violence. How is that possible? To be honest, the cost of pratically everything in Oslo really does leave a sour taste in your mouth. One of the things I love to do wherever I am abroad is find a nice café, get a drink and people-watch for a couple of hours. Just didn't happen in Oslo. £4.50 was the cheapest I could find for a coffee. At least it was a decent cup.

Norwegians are also a ridiculously beautiful bunch. Too much so, if that's possible. Just a sea of blonde wherever you go. Not a hair out of place. Much more in the way of blonde as opposed to the fair types you see in Flanders and also Copenhagen. They're also dressed so elegantly and tastefully that you'll rarely much in the way of exposed flesh, although I guess the weather puts paid to that. Not that that's ever stopped our lasses in England. And I've been out in the Bigg Market on a Saturday night in Newcastle. In December. Not a coat or jumper in sight.

It's unlikely I'd ever return to Oslo, and were it not for my wife being desperate to see the Fjords in the north, as well as the elusive Northern Lights, that'd probably be it for Norway. Definitely a nicer place than Copenhagen, but if you don't find yourself at some point screaching "how much?," you're a far more tolerant person than I am.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tues 14 Sept - La conversation avec un gosse!

So there I was, minding my own business, reading my Metro on the way back home from work, when a kid (must have been about 11 or 12) from the seat in front of me, gets up and pokes his head over, stares at me and then begins chatting. And grinning. And laughing. I just do what any normal, self-respecting English person would do. I ignore him and continue to read my paper. In fact, I pretend not to see or hear him and start listening to my iPod. Not that he gets the message. So, all I can see now is some Belgian kid miming and pointing in my direction.

I decide to try and talk to him and figure out what the hell he's saying. We exchange pleasantries. I mean, what are you supposed to talk about to any young kid, albeit in French or English? I ask him the dull stuff about school (and why he's not there. Says he's off ill. We both smile. A knowing smile. Neither of us are that stupid. Although he looks too young to have bunked). When he finds out I'm English all he can say is "Mr Benn, Mr Benn!!!" Which he finds hilarious. He meant Mr Bean. Either he's saying I look like him (it has been said), or it's the first thing that he can think of when he thinks of England.

He looks shocked, almost mortified, when I tell him that Mr Bean isn't the actor's real name. Another child's imagination shattered. He must have used some great slang, some I picked up, but most of it was beyond me. Still, it's all useful innit? He got off about 15 minutes later. I'm not sure what else we would have spoken about for the rest of my journey.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Thurs 9 Sept - More Politics

Because it's necessary and absolutely fascinating in a country like Belgium, especially for a political animal such as myself.

A few stories that caught my eye in the papers this week. The first was a short article proclaiming that despite all the political differences in the north and south, both Walloons and Flemish still maintain a healthy respect for each other. Unsurprisingly, the Walloons are far more likely to express an attachment to the state of Belgium.

A study has found that Wallonia would actually cope rather well, rather than implode, if Belgium ever was to split up. The biggest economic obstacle would be in tackling its stubbornly high rates of unemployment. But, the report finds that there exists good levels of productivity and innovation amongst current and up and coming businesses and companies. Wallonia also has a much younger population than Flanders, which places a lesser burden on things such as state pension, and means a potentially more active workforce, in relation to its size.

Meanwhile a French politician, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, has said that his country must show solidarity with its cousins from across the border, and be prepared to welcome its compatriotes from Wallonia and Brussels. The articles doesn't expand on this or say what the reaction amongst the French to this would be. But, you can probably guess! Either way, I found his comments to be very poignant.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Tues 7 Sept - The "Divide" up close and personal

Evidence of the political divide in Belgium translating itself into the behaviour of the ordinary man and woman on the street can be found in a lengthy and animated conversation I had today with a French-speaking Belgian. Because of everything's that's gone on, and because of the attitude of Flemish politicians, he now refuses to set foot in Flanders. In fact, he told me that he hasn't visited the region for more than a year.

And it's not just him, but many of his colleagues, and friends and family, who have made a similar decision and are staging their very own mini-boycott of the north. If he wants to go to the beach, he travels to France. Various reasons were offered for this, notably the refusal of staff in restaurants and cafés to respond to him when he's spoken in French. He says he does actually speak a little Dutch and makes the effort when he can, but his Dutch isn't good enough to get into anything beyond pleasantries or ordering food. So, when he wants to ask for something else, naturally, he switches to French.

Throughout this conversation I felt slightly amazed to be hearing what I did. Someone with a real genuine dislike of anything Flemish-related. Hard to tell how widespread this view is, especially when recent reports say things to the contrary and point to supposedly decent relations between the two communities. Crazy, just crazy, but not particularly surprising either. When you hear stories like this, you really do end up despising politicians. Some make a living out of pitting one group against the other, and then sit back and watch whilst their grand vision unfurls in front of their eyes.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Sat 4 Sept - Leuven/Louvain

Took a trip to the Flemish university city of Leuven today. A very vibrant and lovely place it is too. Beautiful squares, endless array of restaurants and trendy looking cafés and bars. And a general sense of orderliness and elegance. Something I always find when visiting Flanders. God, I've said it before and I'll continue to say it, it really does always feel like being in another country. As far as I'm concerned, it virtually is.

I know it's very hard to compare the two because Wallonia is so much poorer, but not everything is about money. It's an attitude, a culture. Why, for example, is there is so much less dog crap in the north (to return to a favourite topic of mine!)? The choice of shops is also far more impressive. It's like going from the developing to the developed world. I know that probably sounds harsh, but if you can't immediately spot the glaring differences between the two regions in Belgium, you're either blind, not particularly perceptive or just being stubborn. Or probably a Walloon politician.

Had a terrific and rather filling lunch of Coq au van, frites, champers and beer. Felt uncomfortably stuffed for the rest of the day. But, the food was so good I had to eat the lot. A nice, easy day trip, which can be reached in 90mins direct on the train from Mons.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Thurs 2 Sept - The Political Impasse

The more you learn and read about Belgian politics, the more you realise how utterly dysfunctional it is. The system is bankrupt. Stalled. The country pulled in different directions: the Socialists of Wallonia who want to preserve Belgium as it is: complete with its generous welfare system, overwhelmingly state-funded public services, and a desire to keep Belgium together as one country. Although I'm not sure even they believe they can transfer this north of Brussels in the minds of the Flemish electorate, but they still like to put the case for a united Belgium. And then you have the nationalists of Flanders. Desperate for more and more powers so that Flanders becomes an even more autonomous region. It is argued that they won't yet brazenly shout the case for the separation of the country this instant because they know many in Flanders are still hesistant and uneasy about this, with the South outrightly opposed. But, the long term goal of most parties in Flanders is the end of Belgium.

As far as the Flemish nationalists are concerned, a disproportionate amount of their taxes goes towards funding the work-shy, benefit-happy south, of which roughly 14% are unemployed. Although this figure is actually rather low when compared to some parts of Wallonia where it's not uncommon to find unemployment rates of up to 30% in some towns and cities. I've always been told that in Mons the figure stands at between 25-27%, and remember, Mons is one of the more desirable places in the south.

In comparison, unemployment in Flanders is about half what it is Wallonia. The Walloon politicians will counteract this argument about the south living off the north, by saying that there are more pensioners in the north who require a larger slice of state aid in helping to pay for their pensions. I'm not sure I particularly buy this argument. The pensioners are most likely people who have worked their whole life, paid their taxes, and are therefore entitled to receive their pensions. Spending years on state benefits, whether justified or not, doesn't exactly help the public purse.

In Wallonia, there is a generation of people out of work who remain so because it's far too easy to. But the rebuttal would go something along the lines of: isn't it the job of society as a whole to care for its most vulnerable and needy? For those who are either too sick to work, or unable to find any. And this help is equally available to those in the north. Personally, I'm not sure it's either physically or mentally healthy to be able to shun work so easily, knowing that the state will always come to your aid. Of course state benefits don't last forever, and there are steps taken to get people back into work, but there are also those who will have, valid or not, excuses as to why they can't work, long term.

This is of course without even getting into the lingusitic divide which I've mentioned before: the Dutch-speaking north and the French-speaking south. I still find it confusing as to know whether it's right to say the north speak Dutch or Flemish. Flemish is officially a dialect of Dutch and some people tell me that the two have many differences, whilst others say that they're virtually indistinguishable. I'm going to stick with saying they speak Dutch.

The main reason for the general election back on June 13th centres around strong disagreements over the functions of a Brussels district, Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde. Like all parts of Brussels, it is officially bilingual. But, the local Flemish authorities want to split it into two, along lingustic lines. They have also started to refuse publishing their own local government material (whether in written pamphlets or on the web) in French. And now some landlords in the Flemish area have refused to allow non-Dutch speakers the right to rent or buy property there. Sounds like discrimination to me. This naturally had an impact on politics at the centre, with the liberal (and Flemish) Open VLD party quitting the coalition government in protest at its inability (for which, read incompetence) to resolve the issue. Merely, a microcosm of something bigger.

And so after Elio Di Rupo, leader of the victorious la Parti Socaliste in the south (and mayor of Mons) and Bart de Wever (what a great name), leader of the Flemish N-VA, a separatist party, and most successful party in the north, emerged as the 'winners' in their respective regions after the general election, they were charged with coming together to form a coalition government, involving several other parties from across the two regions. This was back on June 13th (a great piece in The Economist, from its previous European correspondant, neatly sums up the ramifications of the election result).

And today, after weeks of wrangling, political bidding and supposed compromises, Di Rupo, the man given the (thankless) task of bringing a new government together (they call him Le Préformateur, which I'm told is a term unique to Belgium, presumably meaning 'chief negotiator' or mediator) told the King of Belgium that he had failed in his role and that a new government for Belgium is still a long way off.

Naturally, the Francophone parties blamed the Flemish ones for refusing to agree to their 'generous' terms of compromise, and the Flemish ones in turn responded by saying that the Francophones just don't understand their northern counterparts, both literally and metaphorically, I would guess.

And so, it's now up to two new politicans to try and sort this mess out.