Thursday, March 31, 2011

Thursday 31 March - The Official, Official World Record

And now that really is a new World Record. Today, Belgium surpasses Iraq's record and has now been without a government for 290 days. This momentous day has come and gone with barely a whimper. The odd murmur in the press, the odd grumble from the public, and the odd 'quelle surprise,' that anyone's surprised anymore. Or even cares for that matter. I think they did the grand celebrations back on February 18th and wore themselves out. So, that's that. Next target: June 13 2011, exactly one year since last year's election. Don't think you'd get much change out of a quid for that one down the bookies.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Thursday 17 March - Hospital Time (Part 3)

And so onto the day of the surgery: today. I had to be at the hospital for 6.30am as I was scheduled to be the first appointment of the day. Lucky me. He'll still be half asleep when he does it. As it happened, I was put back to the second appointment which meant a 4 hour wait.

In this time I had my blood pressure taken (twice). Yes, it's very high, I'm nervous. Got asked various questions from the nurses (again, bear in mind this is all being done in French. My vocabularly doesn't extend to all things medical) which resulted in the first of many misunderstandings. I opened my mouth as the nurse pointed a thermometer in my direction. She laughed. Why? Oh, it was to be put under my armpit, not in my mouth.

Then she asked me something about how much salt I had taken. At least that's the word I recognised. I couldn't answer, she seemed surprised. With a little more explanation, and a quick consultation of my dictionary, I realised she was asking me whether I'd passed stools today. 'Passed stools!' How the hell am I meant to know that word in French? It would have been a lot easier if she'd just acted it out. And the word 'selles' (stools) sounds just like the word for salt, 'sel,' so I'm forgiven for that one. Although when are you ever asked how much salt you've taken?

Then came the humiliation: the shaving. I'd actually forgotten all about this part. Along came a nurse with a razor, ordering me to take my pants off. I made sure I'd understood this bit correctly (visions flashing back to that episode of Only Fools and Horses). Thank god it was an electric razor. I couldn't bear to watch. C found the whole thing hilarious. Yup, I was being shaved down below in preparation for my surgery.

The only thing I kept thinking was, 'please don't nick me.' I felt like a sheep being shaved in time for Spring. At the end of it, I merely resembled a plucked chicken. Oh, the dignity.

It was then off for a shower with an anti-bacterial gel and time to put on one of those lovely hospital gowns, which have been cleverly designed to come loose at the back, thus regularly exposing your bum to the outside world. They'd obviously read the anaesthetist's report, as I was given a 'calming pill,' shortly before the operation, to be 'zen,' as the nurse brilliantly put it in French.

I think the moment immediately before my operation was one of the most nerve-wracking I have ever experienced. Legs shaking uncontrollably, lying on my bed, waiting to be wheeled in to theatre. From my bed, I could see various surgeons (or their assistants) walking from room to room, chatting to each other along the way, looking relaxed. Someone making a bed, another person filling up a bottle with liquid. It's those big bright lights above you that make you think of all those hospital dramas you've ever seen. And just before I was due to go in I could hear the opening rifts of 'Scar Tissue,' by The Red Hot Chilli Peppers playing in the background. I smiled.

The next few hours were mostly a blur. Once finally into theatre I was greeted by the anaesthetist and his strikingly beautiful assistant. Before I knew it I was being injected, made to breathe into an oxygen mask, and then gone.

Not too sure what time I finally came round but I was groaning and complaining of pain once I did. To be fair, it just felt really sore, but the offer of morphine was too much to resist. Every now and again a nurse would ask me to rate my pain on a scale of 1 to 10 (they do this in England too. I find it really helpful). I kept saying 7. They kept on administering more morphine. Eventually they got me down to a 6 and a half, but by then had refused to give me any more. I think they also stopped believing that I was in that much pain. I wasn't really, but the morphine felt good!! I also noticed that I had various drips stuck in my arm, and something stuck up my nose. The latter was oxygen.

I found myself back on my ward by 3pm, sharing it with two other guys. I was dying of thirst but still wasn't allowed to drink or eat. I hadn't touched a thing since 7pm the previous evening. I was also given a bottle to pee in. I was told that I wouldn't be allowed out of my bed until the following morning, and just to ensure that I didn't try to get up, they'd put up the safety bars on either side of my bed.

Needless to say, I barely got much sleep. Spent most of the night being woken up by the old guy opposite, who needed rather a lot of bowel attention. All I kept hearing from him was "ooh la la, ooh la la." It doesn't matter how good my French is, I don't think I'll ever be able to utter these words and keep a straight face.

At 7am the next morning I was greeted by a very young looking nurse, a student nurse as it happens. She had a bowl, a towel and various bottles of things in her hands. I couldn't work out whether I was now supposed to wash myself, or whether she was going to wash me. To be honest, I didn't want a wash. Smelling was the last of my concerns. She left me with everything, wondering what to do. How on earth was I meant to wash myself? For a start, the water would go everywhere and I'd just end up soaking the bed. The drips in my arm also hindered my mobility, as did the pain in my groin.

When she returned it became obvious that I was feeling pretty fed up and a little bit helpless. So, she ended up washing me. More humiliation. I know, I know, being washed by a student nurse, every guy's dream. Not really. You just sit there feeling like you're being treated like a kid and looking like an idiot. The experience wasn't helped by her telling me that I might have to stay an extra night depending on what the doctor said. I wasn't happy. I told her I wanted to leave later today and that I felt like I was being kept in a prison by not being able to leave my bed. She smiled politely.

At this stage I was feeling thoroughly miserable but also determined that this really should be a one night stay only. I had mentally prepared myself for one night. Reassuringly, my surgeon came along to see me a couple of hours later to say that if I felt ready to leave, I could. Equally, if I wanted to stay another night I could. My face lit up. In between all this it made me think of my treatment here, and how it would probably have differed on the NHS.

Throughout my stay I had excellent care and was looked after round the clock. I know from my own reading that this type of surgery is usually an out patient thing in England. Here they were willing to give me 2 nights, maybe more. They seem to be far more cautious in the way they treat people, quite conservative in fact, but also a lot more thorough. So, whilst I was texting C and moaning that they still wouldn't let me drink or leave my bed, she was telling me to appreciate being looked after so attentively, and reflecting on the fact that this is what the NHS probably used to be like 30 or 40 years ago: where a new mum could expect to spend several days in hospital after giving birth. Where the nurses had much more time for you. And before this followed years of chronic under-investment and sapping morale in our health service.

It was this that got me through my last few hours before I was discharged at around 3pm. I spent my last couple of hours trying to get out of bed and dress myself. Not an easy task. My first steps were like the ones of a new born deer: all wobbly and unsteady on my feet. It felt like I was having to teach myself to walk again. It was great to finally be able to move (relatively)freely again, and once again pee into a proper toilet.

Thursday 17 March - Hospital Time (Part 2)

As usual I disgraced myself. A blood test which should take a matter of minutes resulted in me sweating profusely and on the verge of fainting. Don't know what happens to me. All I know is that, at the moment, I just can't seem to control myself, and anything to do with blood and veins just doesn't go down well.

I did all the right things leading up to it: made sure I was really hydrated, and kept telling myself to relax and breathe in and out and think of something else. This being me, I kept thinking of all the brave anti-government protesters in Egypt, and comparing their struggle for freedom with my struggle to avoid passing out. Alas, my feelings of solidarity were obviously not strong enough.

I did manage to avoid fainting, but only just. And only after I had FOUR nurses fussing over me. One holding my hand, one wiping my face with a damp cloth, and the other two to wonder whether all 32 year old English men react like this when having blood taken. All I kept hearing them say was that they'd never experienced a reaction like this before. What utter rubbish. They must have done.

All the while this is going on, I'm having to explain to them (in French) how I'm feeling, apologise for being such a wimp, and get one of them to open that damn window so I can stop sweating.

After I stumbled out of there (I looked back to see the 4 nurses looking at me, almost sighing in sympathy), I made my way downstairs to have an ECG. This was, thankfully, nice and drama-free; just lots of wires and various things stuck to my chest to measure whatever it measures.

My trip to see the anaesthetist a week later was merely a quick appointment to find out my height, weight, and general health. I told her to make a note on my file ahead of the surgery: "doesn't like needles, or anything to do with veins. Handle with care. (May need to be comforted by lots of nurses)."

Thursday 17 March - Hospital Time (Part 1)

After a few weeks of intermittent pain, I decided it was time to see my doctor and find out if it was, as I suspected, a hernia that was troubling me. As he wasn't 100% certain, I was referred to see a surgeon at my local hospital. I immediately found this odd. Not quite sure whether you'd see a surgeon at this stage in England for something as relatively minor as a hernia.

At the hospital you need to take a ticket, wait for your number to appear, and then go and see someone at the front desk. Makes you feel like you're waiting at the post office. I always have to go through the usual procedure of explaining to the puzzled receptionist that I don't have, or need, a Belgian Social Security card.

After a ridiculously long wait (1 hour and 30mins) to see my surgeon, he confirms that the Ultrasound scan I had taken the previous week confirmed the presence of a very small hernia in my groin. The fact that this was only going to get bigger over time meant that surgery would represent the most sensible option. This meant a general anaesthetic, surgery, and at least one night's stay in hospital. Not something I was particularly relishing doing. Even more strange for me was working out a suitable date with the surgeon, there and then. No letter in the post jobby.

But, before this I had to go and see someone else in order to make appointments for a blood test, an ECG, and a trip to see an anaesthetist.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Mon 14 March - If you thought Belgian politics was complicated...

...just wait until I try and explain to you how their top division in football works! In England, Spain, Italy, just about in almost every main football league in the world, the team who finishes the season top of the table, wins the championship. Exactly how it should be. You play your 34 or 38 matches, have more points that the team in second, you're the champions.

Except, this is Belgium we're talking about. They like to over-complicate things. Make things as baffling as possible. Make things so convoluted and complex, that it induces a sense of despair, and ultimately, apathy, amongst the general population. The result: many Belgian football fans don't even understand their own league.

In their wisdom, the powers that be in the Belgian FA decided to alter the format of their top league (known as the "Jupiler Pro League" - Jupiler being a lager. The only lager I've tasted here that reminds me of the fizzy piss we're accustomed to in England. The one you see all the oddballs drinking in the street), in time for the 2009/10 season. The division was reduced from 18 to 16 teams. Okay, great. Less teams, less matches, possibly more competitive, more exciting, more time to devote to the national team. Yes? No. Instead the format has been designed so that the teams actually play more, not less, matches.

The Belgian FA had the national team uppermost in their minds when they introduced this new format. Belgium aren't a great football team (ranked 57 in the world as of now), and their inability to qualify for either the World Cup or European Championships since 2002 (i.e. missing out on the last 4 tournaments), was something that, naturally, rankled with the sport's governing body.

So what do we have? Well this how you 'win' the Pro League title:

1. There are 16 teams in the division.
2. They each play each other home and play, thus playing 30 matches. So far, so simple, and so normal.
3. Then, the 'play-offs' take over.

Play-off 1:

4. Play-off 1: consisting of the top 6 teams (after the 30 matches have been played). The top 6 then enter their own mini-league where they play each other (again) home and away.
5. And they take with them half of all points won over the course of the regular season. That's right, they then divide all their points in half. So, if you finished top, with 70pts, you begin the play-offs with 35 pts. If the team in 2nd had 60pts (i.e. were 10 pts behind the leaders), they start on 30pts, now only 5 pts behind.
6. The team who finishes top after this play-off league are finally crowned Belgian champions. After having played 40 matches in total, not 30.

That's play-off 1. Not a great way to become Belgian champions, distinctly underwhelming if you ask me, and utterly ridiculous for so many reasons.

Anyway, one assumes that's that then? Nope. Not content with mucking around with the top 6, the Belgian FA thought that it was only fair to mess around with the rest of the league. Ladies and Gentleman, I give you...Play-off 2

Play-off 2:

1. Whilst play-off 1 is going on, play-off 2 takes place.
2. Teams who finished 7-14 (after their 30 matches) during the regular season make up the 2nd play-off. Rather than entering one mini-league, they enter two.
3. Teams who finished 7th, 9th, 12th and 14th (even that just seems to have been selected at random) become Group A. 8th, 10th,11th and 13th placed teams are Group B. None of the teams carry over any points won over the course of the normal season with them.

I hope you're all following this. All of this was brilliantly explained to me by one of my students. It is one of the funniest things I have ever heard.

4. Teams in each group play each other twice.
5. The winner of each group plays each other (over TWO legs) to determine the winner of play-off 2.

Please tell me that that's play-off 1 and 2 done and dusted then (I hear you ask)? Afraid not. We've already complicated the league so much up to now, the odd tweak here or there can't hurt (so said the very wise men running Belgian's top football league).

6. The winner of play-off 2 then plays (home and away) either the team who finished 4th or 5th in play-off 1. (You can just hear them shouting, "leave us alone. Please, just leave us be. Please, don't make us play any more matches.). This match is to determine who enters the 'Europa League.'

For those not in the know, it's the crap Other European cup competition that no one cares about, as opposed to its big older brother: the brash and glitzy and overpopulated 'Champions League.').

7. The opponent for the play-off 2 winner depends on whether the winner of the Belgian Cup (another domestic competition) also finished in the top 4 of play-off 1. In other words, if you won the Belgian Cup and finished 4th in play-off 1, you have already qualified for the Europa League. Therefore, the 5th placed team will play the winner of play-off 2 in the two-legged final to see who wins the final Europa League place. If you finished 4th in play-off 1 and didn't win the Belgian Cup, you contest this match.

Just to make this clear: if you finished 14th (out of 16) in the league, there is still the possibility that you could be playing football in the Europa League next season.

By this stage, the Belgian FA were having so much fun, they just couldn't resist involving the bottom two teams in the end of season play-off finale. Nobody was allowed to miss out on their new play thing.

Play-off 3:

1. Teams ranked 15th and 16h (after 30 matches) enter 'the relegation play-off.'
2. They play each other 5 times. But, 15th placed team begins the play-offs with 3pts. 16th team with 0. And just when you thought the final league placings were irrelevant.
3. The loser of the relegation play-off is relegated to the second division. Bet they couldn't wait to get the hell out of there.
4. The winner then enters (I really am not making this up. I wish I was. I really do)...play-off 4.

Play off 4:

1. This play-off is also known as 'The Belgian Second Division Final Round.' It consists of the winner of play-off 3 and 3 teams from the Belgian Second Division.
2. These 3 teams are determined by...god, I don't even know if I have the energy to explain this. It's just so farcical, you really don't know whether to laugh or cry, or hunt down every member of the Belgian FA and demand that they, with a straight face, explain their rationale behind this nonsense.
3. The 3 teams chosen from division 2 are those 3 who have finished top of each "period." What they do in division 2 is divide their league season into segments. They break up the league and after every 10, 11 and then 13 matches (they have 18 teams who play 34 games a season in this league) they take stock. They reward a team who has most points after each period. Anyway, I've almost lost the will to live now, so let's just say, these 3 teams in division 2 enter play-off 4 with the winner of play-off 3.
4. They play each other home and away. The winner gets promoted (or remains) to the Pro-League.

And that's about it. If you followed half of that, give yourself a pat on the back. I for one (after I'd finally stopped laughing so hard it was beginning to hurt) was pretty much left dumbfounded when this was all explained to me. Of course I went straight home to look it up and see if it really is as my student says it is.

Alas, it is. And I thought the English FA were a bunch of incompetent wastes of space. And only a few weeks ago, Belgians top 4 most influential football clubs have voted to extend this format for a further 3 seasons. They believe they are benefiting from all the extra revenue the additional matches are providing. And of course the Belgian FA are only happy to oblige. Many other clubs are fiercely opposed to this. I'd love to know what Belgian football fans think of it.

So there you have it. How to take a very simple format, dismantle it, and rebuild it so it undermines the very nature of a football league season. Not content with their politics being the laughing stock of Europe, Belgium's football leagues can now more than adequately provide it with some company.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Tues 8 March

Back to one of my favourite topics: kissing. I was told today that the tradition of men greeting each other with a kiss, is in fact a relatively new thing in Belgium. Apparently, it only started about 5-10 years ago. Teenagers have now always done it, but their parents and grandparents never did.

I wonder how all this comes about. When did a Belgian man first greet his male friend with a kiss? And what was his reaction? Did it start in a small village or town? And how did it then spread? Fascinating, the way that cultural mores begin and evolve; how some continue and are passed on, whilst others end gradually or even abruptly.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Mon 7 March - Faire du Ski

It's carnival week throughout Belgium. Both Flemings and Walloons have just spent the weekend, and will spend the coming week, partying and drinking, dressed up in costumes of all shapes, sizes and colours, with events and parades taking place to mark the beginning of Lent. It's been just over a year since I sampled one of the most famous, in Binche, which this year, took place yesterday.

And for those who aren't off celebrating, they're off skiing. The schools and universities are shut for the week. Some will spend the week 'doing carnival,' others will be off skiing in France or Switzerland. In fact, judging by my work, most will be off doing one thing or the other. According to my students, most of the workers where I teach have taken to the mountains. The car park was probably only about a third full today. And this tradition will be replicated throughout Wallonia. Everyone takes the week off work, packs up, and heads for the slopes.

Now, we of course have half-term, where the kids are off school, and of course the teachers have a week off too. But, I just can't imagine a situation where for one week a year, office workers and factory workers alike, together, take time off, at the same time, and "go skiing." Something tells me they like to enjoy themselves round here; make the most of life.

My students can't seem to understand why I find this so surprising. Everyone I speak to knows someone who has gone skiing. Luckily for me, only some, but not all, of my students have joined them. Who says the Walloons are work-shy??

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Thurs 3 March - Home Delivery

They do home delivery. That is, my favourite supermarket, Delhaize (certainly not sodding Match), does home delivery. Or at least I thought they did. Until I read their website a little more carefully. What they actually do is allow you to go through the whole palava of ordering all your items online, where you then have to...go to the shop yourself and collect them. Brilliant. And they charge you €4.50 for the privilege.

Ooh, it's a long, tortuous process, as Belgium shuffles its way towards the demands of the twenty-first century. But, they'll get there. At some point.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tues 1 March

261 days.

But, who's counting?