Sunday, September 18, 2011

Saturday 17 September - More Footy

Not content with finally seeing my first bit of live football in Belgium, I decided it was right that I go along and cheer on my local team: RAEC Mons. They were playing the Flemish outfit, Yellow-Red KV Mechelen. I mean, what a name! And the who hell came up with  it? Try getting that all into a chant!

Mons are bit of a yo-yo team in that they often find themselves in Belgium's top division one year, only to be relegated to the second division a year later. This season they're back in the big time.

Another good game of football, and another superb atmosphere. Les Montois behind the goal made an absolute racket for the full 90mins, with a wide repertoire of songs. As in England, they were all stood up, in spite of there being seats, which they used to stand on instead. This would never be allowed in England.

Mechelen also brought with them a healthy number of fans, several hundred, which is good for Belgium. I think their songs were sung in Dutch but it was impossible to tell.

What I looked forward to was the dynamic between the two sets of fans: the Walloons vs. the Flemish. Surely, there'd be lots of anti-Walloon and anti-Flemish chanting? My lack of fluent French and non-existent Dutch meant that this was hard for me to know. There was the odd bit of banter between the fans but it all seemed in very good nature.

A regular at Mons told me that their supporters are extremely well behaved and in particular tend to show a lot of respect when the big teams come.

Bizarrely, or not, you're not allowed to take food into the ground, but have to eat the stuff from the vendors outside before you take your seat. However, you can buy alcohol in the ground, and even though it's not permitted, several people were smoking. Again, the over-zealous stewards in England would come down on them like a ton of bricks, but this is Belgium we're talking about. Remember, rules are not made to be followed.

Fine evening's entertainment: Mons stuffed em' 5-1.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Thursday 15 September - Off to the Footy

I have finally been to see a football match in Belgium. Shocking that it's taken me so long, but there you have it. The offer, from someone who works at the same place as C, of a free ticket in the press box to see Anderlecht vs. AEK Athens was just too good an offer to turn down.

Okay, so it was only a Europa League match, a competition English teams reluctantly take part in, but it was a cracking evening.

I've always been intrigued by football in Belgium. For example, Anderlecht, a team who plays in a Brussels suburb, a bilingual city, with a very Flemish-sounding name: would the supporters be French or Dutch-speakers, or a mixture of both? Which language would the chants be in? What would the quality of the football be like?

We arrived just over an hour before kick-off and headed towards the stadium. Just outside it, the usual mingling of fans, congregating by bars and downing several plastic cups' worth of Jupiler. I guess it makes sense not to serve the really strong stuff to a load of football supporters.

There were also several burger vans and even more friterie vans. If frites were ever designed to be eaten at a social occasion, a football match would certainly be it. Breaking with tradition, I had a couple of beers, and then had to satisfy the munchies with a portion of frites, absolutely smothered in ketchup, and against my better judgement, a burger.

Not the kind of thing I would ever normally eat, but I was feeling pretty peckish and the meat looked meaty enough to me. Wasn't too bad, actually.

As "press," we were of course entitled to go to the press room, where there were complimentary baguettes, soft drinks and coffee. Everyone got a press pack, which contained all the facts and figures about the two teams, and the head-to-head stats. We also got the team sheet printed out.

The room had a door which led straight out onto the press box: two long rows designated solely for journalists with space for them to put their laptops on, sockets, and free wifi. It was funny seeing rows of laptops with different journalists from various media outlets tapping away during the match. Reminded me that, for a while, this was the job I wanted to do. Until I realised that it'd take away my enjoyment from actually watching the match. Or until I realised that politics was far more interesting!

I have to say, it was one of the coolest ways to spend the evening. It was so much fun, especially as I was the only one not doing any work, and breaking protocol by secretly taking photos everytime a club official's back was turned. No photos allowed for the written media. Seemed a bit bizarre to me. And you know me, not one to follow stupidly made rules.

The match itself was a pretty decent game: 4-1 to Anderlecht. The Greeks were never really in it, and they didn't do justice to their several hundred fans, housed in one of the top tiers, and who sang continuously the whole evening. The homes fans also made a good bit of noise too.

Considering this was only the opening match of the competition, the atmosphere was amazing: almost non-stop chanting. Most of the Anderlecht songs were indeed sung in English. Nice. Find a happy medium. Avoid offending either French or Dutch-speaking supporters and stick to English. We after all do have all the best chants.

Announcements over the tannoy were however made in both French and Dutch. What a pain having to do that all the time. Before and after the game I tried to listen to what language was being spoken by the fans, and it was probably a 50-50 French-Dutch split.

You see, sport brings everyone together.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Thursday 15 September - A Breakthrough

It had to happen eventually. Elio Di Rupo has announced that the eight parties (excluding De Wever's N-VA) have finally reached some agreement over the formation of the national government, a mere 15 months after the General Election.

One of the main issues had been a dispute over Bruxelles-Hal-Vilvorde (BHV), a district which is uniquely bilingual, rather than French or Dutch-speaking. I won't go over the controversies again as I've already done so before. This, however, is only one of several issues to be resolved.

This comes off the back that, hilariously, the out-going (although he never went anywhere), PM, Yves Leterme announced this week that he had got himself a new job at the OECD. Clearly bored with waiting and waiting, he's cheekily been applying for work, and finally landed himself a plum job in Paris.

This breakthrough is a start. A very good one, but there are still other issues to be wrangled over before everyone can finally see in a new government for Belgium.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Thurs 1 Sept - Mon 5 Sept: Bordeaux

Yet another fabulous French city. I've wanted to go to Bordeaux for ages. Had heard great things about it. Also wanted to see how south west France compared to south west England, and of course my home city, Brizzle. And quite simply because I like the sound of its name, and of course its wine.

Bordeaux is stylish, chic, elegant, with wonderfully wide and grand boulevards. Because it's such a flat and spacious city, there are cyclists and cycle paths everywhere. Something you still don't find as often as you should. There's just no excuse not to have them in cities and towns. It's only a lack of political will, the irritating and pesky petrol-head lobby, and downright short-sightedness that stops them proliferating.

Apparently, as recently as a decade ago, Bordeaux was not much to look at, which is hard to believe when you see it in all its present day glory. The buildings all look beautifully preserved, and the main centre (which has had the most work done to it - not so much 'old Bordeaux' anymore, as new-old Bordeaux) is just terrific.

Mini square upon mini square dominate, filled with the prerequisite, numerous caf├ęs and eateries. Each square had something special about it, and we spent many an afternoon/evening in at least one of them.

Because of the huge number of students there, it has a very youthful and lively feel to it. It's also full of some seriously attractive people. Rivals to those Flemish folk. So, you have the dark, sexy types of Bordeaux vs. the fair, wholesome, north Europeans of Flanders, or the blonde supermodels of Oslo. Tough choice. There's an academic study in there somewhere.

The food was mixed. Not a patch on the Cote D'Azur, although found something in common with Mons: poor, painfully slow, service. We did discover a great Asian street food place, serving the kind of stuff you can easily find all over England, but which is severely lacking in Wallonia. The "waiters" were those 'too cool for school' types, who are more interested in dancing to the funky beats that blare out across the restaurant, than in actually serving customers.

I also discovered white Bordeaux wine, which I didn't even know existed. The best white vino I have ever tasted: smooth, dry, and without that warm and sometimes sickly aftertaste that I often find with white wine.

Did a tour of a couple of the vineyards, which is a must in this region. Unfortunately, it wasn't a particularly good tour. The guide never shut up for almost the entire journey there. You're trying to admire the scenery around you, when all you can hear is her blathering away about something or other: the history, why the land is the way it is, who ruled the area.

We only got to sample three different types of wines, and nobody ever told us how to taste the wine, what to look out for, what flavours to expect. Surely, this is a must for a wine tour? In future, what I want is a tour which just deals with the wine, and involves sampling a (preferably) large number of wines, with explanations of what we should be looking out for as we taste it. I really don't care how wine is made. This was pretty much what the tour was about. I'm such a philistine!

In summary, Bordeaux just felt like somewhere that has a high quality of life. It's only 3 hours away from Paris, direct, on the high-speed TVG but, without a high-speed link to Nice, a 9 hour night train journey away from the French Riviera. Either way, I'd have no qualms about living there.