Thursday, December 22, 2011

Thursday 22 December

Had the usual palava trying to get home for Christmas. Thanks to a general strike in Belgium today there were no Eurostar trains running from Brussels, so had to rely on a friend to drive us to Lille, where we were able to catch a train (where they were all now starting) from there.

Actually, it wasn't really that much of a hassle. More of an irritation. I think this must be the 4th or 5th time, I've lost track, I or we, have experienced some sort of disruption trying to get home. Travelling around Christmas time should always be avoided where possible.

The strike itself was in protest against government plans to reform public sector pensions. However, even though the strike was scheduled for today, public transport had been affected since Tuesday, with wildcat, impromptu strikes, bringing parts of the network to a standstill for about four days.

Luckily, I was able to get to work on the Tuesday, but wasn't so lucky yesterday, with all train services in Wallonia being cancelled. I'm really not sure you'd be able to get away with wildcat strikes in England. Not the first time I've been on the receiving end.

The Eurostar train itself was virtually empty, with most people, I guess, opting to travel tomorrow.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Fri 9 Dec - Sat 10 Dec: Maastricht

This was supposed to have been a two night stay, but due to being put in the wrong room (had to lump it once we got there, and couldn't be arsed to look for another B&B), which overlooked a noisy street (loads of very loud students all chatting in English, with foreign accents. The city's university is very popular with foreigners), and after a night of virtually no sleep, it turned into a one night stay.

Still, Maastricht, at night, all lit up and Christmassy was great. The Christmas markets (naturally) are meant to be the focal point at this time of year. Gave them a quick peak. The one in Mons was much better.

Another one of those small, compact, cobbled towns, lined with the cosiest and most inviting bars and restaurants you could hope for.

It's funny how close you are to the Belgian border: about a 15mins train journey away.

Had a superb Thai meal on the Friday night (Dutch food is about as appealing to me as Belgian food. You can add German food to that as well.): sushi to start, followed by the best Pad Thai I've ever tasted. I'm finally getting in to my sushi. Have always dismissed it in the past, but it's starting to really grow on me: so clean and fresh.

Our B&B owner was very laid back about us opting to leave a night early, and kindly gave us some money back from our first night, and didn't charge us for the second. I wouldn't have paid anyway, even if she had.

In the end, we only really missed out on an evening out, as we were planning on coming back straight after breakfast the next day. And being so easy to get home meant we virtually had two days here, anyway.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Thursday 8 December

Went along to the Bruges Snow and Ice Sculpture festival today. Every year, in one huge room, they choose a theme, and let loose a load of ice sculpturers to do their thing.

This year Disneyland Paris was the theme. Lots of characters from well known films and animations carved out in ice, an ice slide, and even an ice bar, filled the room. The slide was my favourite bit. It was, naturally, rather chilly in there, not helped by the fact that it was also cold outside. Good, clean, fun for all the family.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tuesday 6 December - We have a government!

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you....a new government! 541 days it took.

Here, they've labelled it "un gouvernement papillon" (a "bow tie government"), because it's what Elio Di Rupo, the new PM and mayor of Mons, is always seen in public wearing. Usually, a red one. Although I did spot him wearing a rather fetching burgundy-coloured one recently.

What more is there to say. Except, hallelujah!

Now, time to make himself instantly unpopular by implementing a raft of  much-delayed austerity measures.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Saturday 3 December - Day trip to Germany

Went on a day trip to Germany today, thanks to one of the many tours C's work organises. The morning and early afternoon was spent in Monschau, and the rest of the day in Aachen.

The trip was billed as a chance to marvel at some of Europe's finest (ubiquitous) Christmas markets. Because me and C are so damn contrary, but more because we really have seen quite a lot of Christmas markets now, and to be honest, they're all much of a muchness, and sell the usual array of nothing particularly useful, we spent the whole day doing what we do best: wandering around, and stopping every now and again for food and drink.

Monschau is tiny and adorable, and seems to have been built specifically for tourists in mind, which of course it wasn't. It just feels like that. The weather was a shocker all day - heavy wind and driving rain, nice. - so we tried to limit outdoor time, and ducked into cafés more than even we would have liked to.

It was a bit like a fairytale kind of village: river running below, mini bridges, narrow side streets, inviting-looking cafés.

Enjoyed having a huge flapjack (surprisingly tasteless, even though it looked like it should have been delicious. Too dry) and coffee, whilst having a good natter with a group of middle-aged English women, sitting on the table next to us.

In the past, whenever I was away and heard English voices, I'd usually walk in the opposite direction. Since living abroad, I've begun to find the sound comforting and reassuring.

It was one of those very typical English conversations: lots of humour, lots of sarcasm, the odd bit of innuendo, a bit of a moan about the weather and how expensive things are in Europe (!), and how great it is to get away for a few days. All done without any kind of introductions, or any exchange of names or details about each other. Wonderful!

Aarchen was a lot easier to wander about in the rain, because it's an actual city and there was far more to see. The market was also quite big and actually had some good food stools.

The main cathedral was spectacular, sort of a mini version of the St Mark's Basilica in Venice. Really wasn't expecting something so impressive from the outside.

After having a decent meal at a trendy wine bar/upmarket bistro/restaurant (I always find it hard to categorise eateries in Europe) we went for a little wander in the cobbled centre (the rain had finally ceased), where we came across a small group of guys singing Christmas carols, in English and German. It was simply delightful, and one of those great moments that really make a day. I would happily have stood there and listened to them sing all evening, but after about 20 minutes they were done, packed up, and left. 

It was also during this hour or so, before our coach was due to set off back to Mons, that we realised how much we were both beginning to miss England. More accurately, how much living in Belgium was making us miss England.

As I mentioned in my November 4th post, whenever we go away now, we feel like we're "re-entering civilisation."

C's new boss has said that he'd happily let us extend our stay (again) for a further year, and thus not return until December 2013, but we've pretty much made up our minds, and want to be home this time next year.

We want our culture back.