Saturday, July 30, 2011

Sat 30 July

You can find out a lot about a place just by spending time waiting for a bus. In a 10 minute period I managed to see the usual bottleneck of traffic on the road of my favourite supermarket. The cause? A man getting out of his car in the middle of the road to have a chat with his friend in the car behind him. I also saw a big group of girl guides marching past and a young girl carrying what looked like a baby fox in her arms.

This carrying animals in their arms is a big thing here. You often see people walking around cradling their dogs, obviously oblivious to the fact that a dog can actually walk on its own.

But my favourite observation on this miserable, grey, damp Saturday afternoon, was the sight of two men tying rope around an armchair, which was then hoisted up in the air by just one guy in the flat above. As is the way in Mons when moving furniture in and out of buildings not on the ground floor, the window to the room in the flat had been taken out. The fact that the rope could have broken, resulting in an armchair toppling onto a passerby on this busy street, was obviously not uppermost on their minds.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Thurs 28 July

Belgians are currently being quizzed on the radio about their knowledge of French grammar. That nasty subjunctive tense is catching most of them out. Nobody seems to have a clue how to use the past anterior, future subjunctive, or even the past historic tenses. Probably because they're rarely used anymore in everyday conversation, and because French grammar takes an age to master.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Thurs 21 July - Happy Belgium Day!

Today, it's Belgium's National Day, marking 181 years since Belgium gained independence in 1830. However, King Albert, its current king, is not happy. The king used his traditional speech to express his grave concern at the fact that this current bunch of politicians couldn't organise a piss up in a brewery. Okay, he didn't really say that, but he may as well have.

He emphasised, once again, the fundamental importance of all parties working and negotiating together, and coming up with a workable solution for forming a government, a mere 404 days since the general election.

Bart de Wever's N-VA, the Flemish separatists, (although the media seem to conflate 'nationalist' with 'separatist') backed this time by the Flemish Christian Democrats, have once again proved the biggest obstacle in reaching any sort of agreement. On 7th July, it seemed that a compromise had finally been reached between Elio Di Rupo, leader of the Wallonian Socialist party, mayor of Mons, and most crucially, the man charged with forming a government, and all 9 (yes, 9!) political parties.

But, De Wever objected to several points in this 'compromise text.' For example, he found fault with the fact that Belgium would attempt to cut its deficit by increasing taxes (it already has some of the highest in Europe), whilst simultaneously barely cutting public spending. He complained that the text ignored many of the economic reforms recommended to it by bodies such as the IMF and OECD. He was also unhappy with many of the proposed structural reforms, in particular their effects on Brussels.

In short, we're back, once again, to where we've been for well over a year. Many have accused De Wever of being deliberately instransigent, playing to the Flemish nationalist lobby, and never having the whole nation's interests at heart. Just to remind you, his party were the biggest winners in Flanders in last year's elections, yet his behaviour hasn't impacted on his support up there, because recent polls indicate that he is more popular than ever.

What De Wever wants is increased autonomy for Flanders in everything from foreign policy to having its own judiciary. Separation is his ultimate goal, but he has been fairly quiet on this in recent months, knowing that no party is ever going to agree on this. Yet.

Six months after the general election, he caused a stir by proclaiming in an interview with Der Spiegel, a German weekly news publication, that "Belgium has no future." This is well worth reading, if only to further emphasise how difficult it's going to be to find a way out if this political impasse. The opening exhange gives you a flavour:

SPIEGEL: Mr. De Wever, how much longer do you think Belgium will last?

De Wever: I'm not a revolutionary, and I'm not working toward the immediate end of Belgium. And I don't have to do that, either, because Belgium will eventually evaporate of its own accord. What we Flemish want is to be able to control our own judiciary, as well as our fiscal and social policy. We feel that foreign policy is in better hands with the European Union. But the nation of Belgium has no future in the long run. It is too small for greater political ambitions, and it's too heterogeneous for smaller things like taxes and social issues.

The latest news is that the Flemish Christian Democrats, the CD&V, have returned to the negotiating table after Di Rupo agreed to a compromise in his 'compromise text' (well, if you choose to name it as such). So, we're now back to 8 of the parties at the table. The Francophones: socialists (PS), liberals (MR), Christian democrats (CDH), and greens (ecolo). And the Flemish: Christian democrats (CD&V), liberals (Open VLD), socialists (SP.A), and the greens (Groen!), with the N-VA grumpily sitting in the corner, refusing to take part.

I particularly like the wonderful use of punctuation in the names of some of these parties. We've got full stops, an & symbol, and even an exclamation mark.

But, none of this can happen just yet. King Albert has very thoughtfully told all parties to take a 3 week holiday after the draining exercise of not forming a government. They can then come back, refreshed, re-energised, and ready to not form a government for another 12 months.

Happy Belgium Day!!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Mon 11 July - The Accountant

Try and find an accountant in Mons who speaks a modicum of English. Go on, I dare you. I tried, and failed. I worked my way through the phone book, spoke to dozens of secretaries, was promised that an accountant would call back later in the day (of course they didn't. They never do, and I didn't expect them to). In the end, I managed to get an email address, and the hope that this one spoke English.

As I've experienced several times, when people here say they speak English, they usually don't. Or if they do, they can understand far more than they can say, or just don't have the confidence to say very much. My French is usually a lot better than their English, so we end up chatting in French.

Which is exactly what I did with my accountant. Something I was hoping to avoid. Again, for things that are important, a bit technical, I just don't feel comfortable doing them in French. But, needs must.

It was one of those occasions where I could feel my whole body tensing up because I was concentrating so hard, trying to understand him. Here's a tip - I found repeating back to him what he'd just said rather handy. Something you can't really do in most everyday scenarios, but when you're paying for a service, why the hell not.

So far I've had two meetings with him, and all seems to have gone well. He'll sort out my tax returns and other relevant paperwork, find as many things I can avoid paying in tax, and I can now stop stressing whenever I receive a thick envelope every May with the incomprehensible tax return forms. To be honest, even if this was all in English, I'd still probably be clueless.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Sat 9 July

On 1st July, Belgium extended its smoking ban to cover all bars, restaurants, cafés and clubs, irrespective of whether they served food or not. Obviously, I'm delighted. If I became dictator for the day (which is very possible), I'd ban smoking pretty much everywhere, especially where restaurants have an outdoors. You'd be hard pushed to find a public space where you could light up in my kingdom.

The wife and I decided to celebrate this by going back to the Cuban-themed bar, "Q Bar," we'd been to several months ago. How we felt smug and self-satisfied as smoker after smoker had to get up and leave his/her chair and traipse outside for a fag, returning looking shivvery and a little put out. You'd never guess it was July at the moment.

And then, two guys sitting by a table near us started smoking. So there we were, incredulous, making all sorts of disapproving noises. To ourselves of course. We muttered and cursed. Under our breath. We then did all we could to attract the attention of the barmen. Not by actually signalling for them, but by continually staring at them, and then staring at the two guys, hoping that they'd follow our eyes and work out what the hell we were doing.

We even ordered another round of drinks, and again in doing so, turned to face the guys. Another barmen even took their empty bottles away and returned with new drinks. And did nothing. Didn't say a word to them.

It's here that you're confronted with that most modern day dilemma: "should I say something?" You weigh up the pros and cons. For a scenario like this, do they look tough? And will they smack me in the gob if I say something? One of them was slightly mean-looking. He even had a tattoo! That settled in then. I chose to keep it schtum.

But, on leaving, C felt as if she had to say something, and so to one of the barmen she sarcastically said: "smoking's still allowed then?!!" Barman: "No." C: "but those two guys are smoking." Barman: "I know."

And that was that. I'm telling you, this place is anarchic.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Wed 6 July

A couple of months ago, I was asked to fill in a questionnaire by Expatica, the website that has already published a couple of my blog entries. Every now and again they feature an expat and attach his/her answers online.

Far be it from me to have given them the dull, bland, inoffensive answers they were probably hoping for. And so they never published my responses. Swines. Therefore, for your own enjoyment, you can now see what they missed out on:


1.What was your first impression of Belgium?

That I was in France.

2. What do you think of the food?

A bit samey. Streak, frites, mussels. Not enough variety, and certainly not enough vegetarian options (I’m not one, but like vegetarian food). Then again, I think only Britain caters well for vegetarians in Europe. The desserts are great though. I do love my Crepe Mikado. But the coffee is dreadful, pretty much everywhere. Cream on everything! Belgians need to spend time in Italy and Spain to learn how to make a good coffee.

3. What do you think of the shopping in Belgium?

Better in Flanders in my experience. Find more of the kind of shops you’d get in England. Not much of it in Mons, but that’s not really a problem for me.

4. What do you appreciate about living in Belgium?

The pace of life. The general friendliness about people, the civility towards one another. The lack of a ‘yob culture.’ I also think Belgians have a very similar sense of humour to the English: very self-deprecating. I also like being in such close proximity to the rest of Europe. A 2 or 3 hour train hour journey and you could be in one of four different countries. Britain is so cut off from the rest of Europe, both physically and metaphorically.

5. What do you find most frustrating about living in Belgium?

It’s one big out of control bureaucracy. I have to say, at times, I think I feel like I’ve gone back in time. My feelings in Wallonia are very different to my views in Flanders. Wallonia is a region that feels like it’s stuck in the 1970s. What’s frustrating though overall? The fact that the arguments over whether Belgium should split are almost irrelevant. Belgium may as well already be two separate countries. A trip to Flanders and then Wallonia will highlight the enormous differences.

6. What puzzles you about Belgium and what do you miss since you’ve moved here?

Again, as I’ve said above. The political situation is fascinating if you love politics (which I do), but an absolute scandal for ordinary Belgians. The current crop of politicians are not fit for purpose. None of them.

Also, Belgians seem very polite and respectful, until they get behind the wheel of a car!! They’re crazy, dangerous drivers. All of them!

I miss certain types of food that I can’t really get in Belgium: Indian food (it’s just not the same here), good fish and chips, different flavour crisps (that aren’t paprika), being able to listen to live sports commentary from the UK. Being able to understand and take part in general day to day humour. My French isn’t good enough for this yet, although it’s getting there.

7. How does the quality of life in Belgium compare to the quality of life in other countries that you’ve lived in?

Have only lived in England. I think people in Wallonia seem happier than in England. Less obsessed with material things, buy less, want less, and don’t need as much. Belgians in general know how to enjoy themselves. Without the need to get totally drunk to do it. Life in England (whilst I love the country) isn’t always very relaxing.

8. If you could change anything about Belgium, what would it be?

Force every child from the age of zero to learn French and Dutch. Force both communities to mix, talk to each other, get to know each other. Just have one parliament. Failing all this, split the country up!

9. What advice would you give to a newcomer?

Don’t get annoyed when things take ages to get done. They’re not going to change, you have to. Enjoy the festivals, and for godsake, learn some French.

There was a 10th question but it was optional and asked if I wanted to add 'anything else,' which I didn't.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Mon 4 July - We're all going on a...Summer Holiday...

Literally. They've all gone away. That's right, Belgians have packed their bags and left. This is, traditionally, the month everyone chooses to have off. Not just for a couple of weeks, but the whole month. Half of my students are away, and the other half will be taking all of August off.

It's not uncommon to wander around Mons and see shops, hairdressers, restaurants, with signs saying they are closed for a 2, 3, or 4 week period.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Tues 21 June - Sat 2 July: France and Belgium: Price Comparisons

You often hear and read that everything is a rip off in the south of France: the food, the accommodation, the transport, even the beaches. Well, after spending 12 days there (my first visit to the south after having wanted to go for some time), I can refute most of these claims. And then qualify them by saying, "yeah, but I live in Belgium."

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in eating out. So, yes, there are pricey restaurants out there, but more often than not, I found deals wherever I went. Offers that you'd expect to see in England: "3 courses for €25", or even just €18 in a couple of places. The price distinction between a starter and a main was, on the whole, respected. I rarely encountered €18 for a starter and the same for a main.

It's not just the prices of the food that impressed but the quality. I have to say I've always been distinctly underwhelmed by French cuisine: meat and potato heavy with few vegetables. But, I was on the Cote D'Azur and thankfully a Mediterranean diet dominates. Plenty of vegetables, lots of pasta, well seasoned but simply cooked fresh fish, huge salads, with bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar on every table. And free tap water!! Everywhere you went, une carafe d'eau was given to you without even having to ask. In fact, they regularly topped them up.

In Belgium? No free tap water, plain, white fish smothered in sauce, with everything else either too heavy or too rich. I got pretty bored of Belgian food a while ago. It was also a relief to see that the famed French cuisine does really exist. But, then you do need to almost be in Italy to sample it!

The other notable differences in price included free public toilets (although not everywhere) and only €1 for a bus ticket on any journey throughout the region (amazing value).

Again, Wallonia is one of the poorest regions in Western Europe, so why is it more expensive to eat out here than in one of the most touristy, overcrowded spots in Europe? I am, and always will be, at a loss to explain why. It can't be the high taxes, they're pretty high in France too.

As for the actual holiday? Well, it was wonderful. Nice was used as a base for a few days to explore places such as Antibes (which I really liked, felt classy and stylish), Juan-Les-Pins (tacky, faded glory, so I'm told), Menton (last town before Italy, with a stunning old quarter which had the colours and smells of Rome) and Villefranche (my favourite: small beaches, an old army barracks which provides great walks, with dozens of cafés and restaurants buried in the old town which sits high up on a slope and looks out to sea).

The next leg of the trip took us further inland and to Vence for a week, which also has a beautiful old town, with the kind of windy and narrow streets giving way to small, intimate squares, which I just adore. Managed to also squeeze in day trips to St-Paul de Vence (could have been in Tuscany, very twee looking, but delightful), Grasse (where they make lots of perfume) and Tourettes-sur-loup, which if it had been in England would have been packed with day tippers. However, as there are so many little villages like this in France, it was relatively quiet.

It also provided one of the highlights of the stay: a pot of tea and the best lemon tart I have ever tasted, whilst sat outside a café under a huge tree, in a small square. It was just heaven.

The south of France was everything I wanted from it. I'm already having cravings to go back.