Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Wednesday 23 November - Pampered in Brussels

To celebrate our ten-year anniversary (the one where we first got together that is), we decided to take the day off work and head to Brussels for some pampering. Not wanting to trust something like this in Mons, we booked ourselves a day in a spa right at the heart of Brussels' EU quarter.

And a fine way to spend a day it was too. Not cheap (surely, you can guess what I'd write here?!), but well worth it. Access to all the usual facilities: pool, sauna, steam room, jacuzzi, and then we both treated ourselves to an hour massage, which was just heaven.

There was a great spa place we used to go to in Bristol, in Clifton, so this was a little taster of what we've been missing.

Finished off the day meeting our friend, who was over in Brussels for a few days doing academic-type work, for dinner at a good Morrocan place. Raved about on Tripadvisor, but not half as good as our little place in Mons.

See, it's not all bad here!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Friday 4 November - 2 Years!

And that's 2 years done.

Amazing to think that I've been living in Belgium, in Mons, for exactly two years. Before I began to write this post, I decided to re-read my previous summaries of my time here. After 3 months, 9 months, 1 year, and then 18 months.

It's funny looking back at them. They were so happy and optimistic and chirpy, almost innocently so. Most of the comments are the sort you'd expect someone to make who's new to a place, new to a country. And I stand by every word I wrote back then.

But, that doesn't mean my views have remained static. It's fair to say that whilst the gloss of living abroad remains intact, and the opportunities for travel that have come with it, my feelings about Mons and Belgium and Belgians have definitely shifted.

Whereas I used to enjoy not being rushed in a cafe or restaurant, with the waiters happy for you to take your time, in return for them to take their time in serving you, now it just annoys me.

I still like being able to spend a couple of hours sipping a lait russe, and like the nice little touch of a piece of chocolate or biscuit that accompanies it, but it does wind me up always having to wait so long to find someone to get the bill from, only to then wait another 10-15 minutes for it to arrive, and then a further 10 for your change to be returned.

But, mainly, it's the poor customer service that greets you when you enter somewhere. Or doesn't. You might get a nod or a grunt in your direction, but I've lost count of the number of times I've sat there waiting and waiting to be served. On a couple of occasions, me and C have just got up and gone elsewhere.

This also extends to the shops. I rarely find people working in them helpful or friendly. The service reminds me of all the things I used to loathe about customer service in England: the fact that you think you're putting someone out by asking for anything, or having to stand there and wait whilst they continue to chat with a colleague or friend.

The shops sell what I can only describe using a wonderful Yiddish word: schmatta. Basically, tat. Bits and bobs of nothing particularly useful. But, if you want your hair cut, or want to gorge on waffles, you're fine.

There's something quite socially inept about Belgians. They don't do day to day politeness.

I've mentioned this before but the lack of a thank you when you hold the door open for somebody, the not waiting until people have got off the train until you barge your way on, or the lack of apology if someone bumps into to you, whether deliberately or not, the inability to queue and then stay in one. All these things do grate, and maybe it's because I'm English and we're just so very different, but that's just how I feel.

I often think Belgians spend half their time with their head in the clouds. Almost slightly stoned, or just very vacant. They're the most placid people I've ever come across. Nothing seems to bother them. I'm not sure whether this is a good or a bad thing. They're champions at doing nothing. I guess with such a calibre of politicians for role models, who can blame them.

I still quite like Mons. It has character and charm, but there's very little to do here. And with winter round the corner, the sitting outside in the grand place routine will have to wait for a while.

I can't help but feel that a city like Mons in England would be far less shabby, better preserved, better kept. Some of the architecture is fabulous, but so much of it looks worse for wear.

The lack of culture is also difficult to contend with. I yearn for a trip to the theatre to see a play or a musical, or some live music.

A couple of months ago we actually went to see a friend of a friend's band play at a local bar. They were really good, but I just got irritated at having to find a table, where we were crammed in, and then having to wait about 20 minutes before someone took our order, and then who knows how long for it to arrive.

Something as simple as going to bar and getting a drink shouldn't be that difficult, but even the most basic of tasks seems beyond les Montois. This was certainly the night that I pined for a few drinks at a good ol' English pub, where you go to the bar and order. Save the table service for restaurants. You don't need it in a bar.

It's this kind of thing that wears you down eventually. I often ask myself: why is everything always so difficult?

I grew tired of Belgian food long ago. I came to the conclusion recently that it lacks finesse. There's nothing subtle about a diet which serves cream with everything. At least there are two places that do very good food, neither of them Belgian: the Moroccan and the Chinese. The former is actually a terrific restaurant, to which I've been numerous times.

And then there are the prices. I've got used to them, but that doesn't stop me having a grumble every now and then. I mean, how can you charge €18 for a starter, and then €20 for a main?

I think with every trip back to England, the more apparent the differences between the two countries become. I've now started to joke that when we visit another country, it's like re-entering civilisation.

Mons and Wallonia really are stuck in a 1970s time warp. Another year until I'm transported back to the future!.