Saturday, October 30, 2010

Sat 30 Oct/Sun 31 Oct - Halloween

Wasn't sure whether Halloween was observed/celebrated in Belgium. Certainly didn't see anyone 'trick or treating.' But, there were an awful lot of kiddies dressed in witches outfits, carrying wands. Even some adults. Although they might just have been goths. The strange thing was that on the actual day of Halloween most of the costumes disappeared.

Nevertheless, a lot of the shops in Mons had decorated themselves for the occasion days before and after: fake bits of cobwebs, giant pumpkins, little witch and wizard figures in the windows. Les Montois certainly like to make the most of every kind of event, no matter how small. And good on them for that.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mon 18 Oct

As expected, full nationwide strike today so no work. Went out and had some Pommes Frites (in a cone, my preferred way of eating them) for my nutritious lunch, from one of the dozens of 'friteries' around town and ate them in the sunshine on the Grand Place. And, they were the best frites I've had so far in Belgium. Just that right combination of nice and crunchy on the outside, soft in the middle. Delicious. When you ask for your sauce, they squeeze out a huge dollop which engulfs almost every chip on the top. They manage to do it so that there's plenty of sauce to last you almost until the end. By which time you're stuffed and can't manage anymore. A skill indeed.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mon 11 Oct - Blocked in

Ahead of next Monday's official general strike on Belgian's trains, some swines decided to block anything going in to or out of the Charleroi area, the same direction my train heads to when I go to work. So, straight back home again. Taking into account next Monday's strike, these disruptions will lose me about €200 in teaching work. The reason for the strikes have been put down to disagreements over the transportion of cargo trains or something to do with that. Some union guys were left unimpressed after meetings with the top brass. To be honest, the explanations given in the national press are pretty vague. And so they've decided to bring the whole train network to a standstill. One word: bastards. Four words: get back to work.

I've always been, and will remain, a firm supporter of peoples' right to strike, especially public sector workers. But, the reasons have to be (in my view, anyway) valid. The reasons for the recent action in Belgium have been pathetic, needless and completely self-serving. Some would argue, aren't all strikes self-serving? Unions will claim to be working to protect the quality and sanctity of public services, whereas what many really believe is that they're merely interested in preserving their own jobs and couldn't give a damn about the public.

Whatever you may think, they don't give in without a fight in countries like Belgium, France or Spain. Unlike apathetic, moaning but do very little, Britain, if they feel they have a grievance in continental Europe, they take to the streets and fight for what they believe in. That's something I admire. It's one of the reasons their public services are so much better than ours and why we are seemingly happy to settle for the most expensive train network in Europe, poor state schools and a health service, whilst a hell of a lot better than it used to be, that's still short of the quality it should be. So, whilst I'm pissed off about losing money, that's part and parcel of life around these parts.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sat 9 Oct - Champagne in Champagne

Went on a tour of the Champagne region of France today. Began with a visit to the city of Reims (pronounced as if you were saying the word 'rinse') and the home of Taittinger. We had a tour of their cellars where the temperature must remain at either 10 or 12 degrees at all times. As it was such a beautifully sunny day outside, none of us were suitably dressed and it was rather chilly down there. They store about 95 million bottles of champagne.

After the explanation of how it's made, its consistency, and how the weather determines whether it'll be a vintage year or not, we got to have a drink of the stuff. I was expecting a bit of a tasting. Maybe of about 3 or 4 different varieties. And as I'd only recently watched Sideways for the 4th or 5th time, I was really looking forward to this bit. But, disappointingly, we were only given 1 glass to drink. No vivid explanation, no champagne-induced lingo, no beautiful alliteration. Still, it was fantastic stuff. Definitely the best champagne I'd ever drunk. Far less fizzy than the plonk I'm used to and extremely smooth.

We then had a couple of hours for lunch where we both had the usual typically crap meal I've come to expect in France. C's steak was far too fatty and tasted like something you'd get in a gastro pub in England. The chips were anaemic and tasteless. You can't beat a Belgian steak-frites. But, the sun shone and it was lovely to be in short sleeves in the second week of October.

Our tour then took us to Hautvillers, birth and deathplace of one Dom PĂ©rignon. An absolutely adorable and quintessentially French little village with stunning views in all directions. Nothing like a tour party and their huge noisy coach to spoil the tranquility.

We ended with a tour of the cellars of Mercier in the town of Epernay. This time our tour took place on an electrically powered little train. The kind of thing you see kids riding on in theme parks. Again, no tasting, but a glass of Mercier instead. We bought 3 bottles of the stuff. Half the price of Taittinger and not as sweet.

The tour whetted my appetite for future excursions in France. I just love the place.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Fri 8 Oct

We were out having a drink this evening on the Grand Place when a procession of about a hundred or so people joined us. They were carrying flaming torches, some dressed in red or black costumes, with strange pointy masks covering their faces, and one person carrying an enormous wooden cross, upside down. Surely the Ku Klux Klan don't operate in Mons?

They then stopped and gathered around the steps of the town hall and began chanting and singing. Some swayed from side to side and waved their hands backwards and forwards. Maybe it was some kind of amateur dramatics performance. C persuaded me to go and ask one of the policeman who was watching what the hell was going on. He mentioned the words 'architecture students', ' new level', 'celebrating' and 'university.' And so put together: "they're architecture students who are celebrating passing their recent exams and so are now able to progress to the next level at university." Probably.

There's always something going on in Mons. One of the reasons it's such a nice place to live in.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Sun 3 Oct - Sunday Opening

So why is Sunday 3 October 2010 such a noteworthy date I hear you ask? Well, it's the first time that 'Match', my favourite supermarket (!), will be opening on a Sunday. Yup, rampant consumerism, 'I want it here and I want it now' culture, has finally come to Wallonia. Sort of. I've always been a fan of Sunday trading, simply because most people work during the week and it gives them more time to do all their chores, rather than cramming everything in to one day.

Went and it was as busy, and slow, as ever. I have never spent so long queueing as I do everytime I visit this place. Nothing happens quickly in Mons. Smiley, friendly, but painfully slow service. Still, bit of progress in my mind.