Sunday, June 19, 2011

Thurs 16 June - Sun 19 June: Re-doing Le Doudou

It's that time of year again. Time for the streets of Mons to become one, big, outdoor party, with food and drink stalls, music blaring from every direction, marching bands, men chanting and dancing arm-in-arm, torch processions, live bands in the Grand Place, followed by Sunday's main event: the slaying of the dragon by St George.

This year we managed to persuade a couple of friends to join us for the occasion and to experience first hand the partying and sheer craziness of this ancient festival, and to witness how Belgians "do" carnival.

Like last year, it was just as much fun with well over 100,000 people flocking to the city to enjoy the long weekend. I won't describe it all again as it was pretty much the same goings-on as last time. Highlights this year included dancing in the street to a mixture of French and Arabic music whilst drinking champagne, and on more than one occasion dodging the many showers that dogged, but didn't spoil, the weekend.

It was good to see it though through the eyes of non-honorary Belgians. It really is one of those things that has to be seen in order to be understood. For me, a year on into my Belgian adventure, it just makes perfect sense. People outside, together, knowing how to have a good time, not really taking anything too seriously. The latter is certainly true of life here in Belgium.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Wed 15 June - Lazy-Arsed Flemings

The headline in today's Metro proclaims that, contrary to popular belief, it is in fact Walloons who are harder workers than the Flemings. According to a study published in two Flemish newspapers no less, Walloons have more of a work-ethic, attach less importance to their families and hobbies, and believe that the possibilities of finding 'personal development' through their work is far more important to them than taking time off.

The study of around 1500 people, and carried out between April and July 2009, helps to undermine the stereotype of the 'hard-working and conscientious Fleming,' versus the 'lazy, welfare-dependent' Walloon. Well, at least it will in Wallonia. Some 95% of Walloons said that work was important to them, against 93% of Bruxellois and only 85% of Flemings. Even more shocking...the Walloons believed far more that they had a moral obligation to work, and took pleasure in it, not merely as something to do in order to earn money.

Flemings commented that work was merely a means to an ends. A means to be able to spend time enjoying themselves and time with their families. Mr Van der Linden, a psychologist quoted in the newspaper, doubts that just one finding will do much to dispel the long-held stereotypes the north have of the south. The fact that the papers felt the need to print such a story, and made it front page news, shows you how ingrained attitudes are in the two regions.

Whatever the study reveals, the facts tell a different story with regards to who is actually in work. It is Walloons who are more likely to be unemployed and in receipt of state benefits than the Flemings. One reason commonly mentioned is that unemployment is mainly cyclical in Flanders, but structural in Wallonia. And not having a government is surely going to harm the south more.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tues 14 June - Music Quotas

The Brussels metro is soon to have music quotas so as not to piss off the Flemish, whilst also hoping to keep French-speakers (i.e. the majority of Brussels' residents) happy. As I've mentioned before, it's not uncommon to hear music being played on the platforms of the Brussels metro. I really like the idea. This was first introduced in 2005, but the music played was limited to the instrumental (and bland) variety.

Commuters were then given a mixture of predominantly English, but also Spanish and Italian music. A few months ago, and knowing it was probably going to be controversial, they started playing French language music. "Quelle horreur," the Flemish screamed (I'm sure they didn't, but it would have been wonderful if they did). "How dare you play French music in a Flemish city (even though over 80% of people here are French-speakers)?"

Actually, the point of their anger was the lack of Dutch-language songs. And so now the latter are soon to be gracing the platforms of the metro. It does only seem logical that in such a multi-lingual and multicultural city, a whole variety of music is played. Even if Brussels' commuters are now going to have to endure Dutch as well as French language music. Something tells me their grievance had nothing to do with music.

Mon 13 June - 1 Year

So, the one year anniversary came and went. I'm not sure even the politicians themselves thought they could be this inept, but there you have it. Exactly one year to the day since last year's general election and still no end in sight. Yves Leterme, the "outgoing" prime minister (they stopped using the word 'outgoing' long ago) doesn't think things will be resolved any time soon. October time has now been mooted as a possible date for a positive outcome. I don't think he really has a clue and is just saying something for the sake of it. What odds on it being a glorious second anniversary? Pretty short I'd say.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Mon 6 June - Tidbits

It's only when you live somewhere that you notice that the trivial, seemingly insignificant, things can in some cases serve as a good microcosm of society at large. The following may help to illustrate this:

1. There have been problems with Mons' ATMs for several months now. Specifically, the Fortis bank and its disputes with the company that delivers money to its machines. This has meant that withdrawing money isn't as straightforward as it should be. For now, they seem to be dispensing money as normal, but I read that the problem may well reoccur again.

2. I mentioned a few months back that my local supermarket, Match, had installed four self-service checkout machines. What I forgot to say was that in typical, make things as toruously slow as possible, Belgian-style, you are only allowed to pack your things after you have scanned all of your items and then paid for them. Doing so beforehand (I have tried), i.e. after each item, only messes everything up, and risks being told off by the staff.

3. Smoking is technically banned at Belgian train stations, yet this doesn't stop people having a puff on the platforms. Even the SNCB (the ones who run the trains) staff (ticket inspectors, maybe even the drivers!) like to get in on the act and have a drag at the odd stop.

4. After being severely delayed on two occasions on the train over the last few months, we did what any self-respecting English person did: filled in a form, hoping to get some form of compensation. Have we heard anything from them? Have we bollocks. Even though we are actually entitled to some sort of refund.

5. Belgians can't stand waiting. They don't understand the concept of queuing. They push and shove their way on and off trains. Two locals even had the temerity to push in front of me at Match! As I was standing in line, I bent down and went to get something out of my bag, which the person behind me used as an invitation to sneak past me. I stood my ground on the second occasion as someone else, even more blatantly, decided that me being in front of him didn't in any way mean that I should be next in line.

So, what do all these things have in common? Well, not much, except that when they do happen, I tend to sigh and tut and think to myself: 'oh, how very Belgian.'