Archived entries for Belgium

The customer is always…

Ah, customer service in Belgium. We meet again.

The first was trying to replace a faulty Blackberry. The man in the shop was all too happy to replace it…with a cheaper model.

“Not a problem, sir. I can give you a Blackberry 9360 instead. Free of charge.”
“…but that model is about 200 euros cheaper, with fewer features and no touchscreen.”
“It’s a very reliable device, sir, we’ve had to order some more of these models due to the big demand from our customers. It’s your lucky day, though, sir, because I’ve just got a new delivery in. Today, in fact.”
“…great, but it’s not the model I’m looking for. I’m actually looking for the one that’s the same as the Blackberry I’ve got at the moment.”
“Which model is that then, sir?”
“The 9790, as I said at the beginning of this phone call.”
“If you’d like to come into our shop sir, I can replace that model for you, no problem.”
“Thank you. Is three o’clock this afternoon convenient?”
“Perfect, sir. See you then!”
“Just to confirm…you do have the 9790 in stock?”
“Let me just check sir….no, sir, sorry, we’ve got none of those models left I’m afraid. I was expecting more to arrive, today, in fact. Can you call back next week?”

Picking up a parcel here can also be equally trying. I’d been left one of those “We Called In But You Were Out” pieces of paper, which instructed me to go to the post office after a certain time on a certain date and my post would be waiting. So off I went.

“I’m sorry, sir. Your parcel isn’t here.”
“But it says on this piece of paper that it will be ready to collect after 11am today.”
“Have you checked the date properly?”
“Well, my diary’s usually pretty spot-on at telling me the correct date. That’s it’s killer feature, you see. Never lets me down. So yes, that’s today’s date.”
“I’ll just check my calendar…yes, you’re right, it’s the fourteenth.”
“Well, I’m glad we’ve got our dates aligned. What about my post?”
“I have no idea. Maybe the postman forgot to drop it off this morning…it could be that, couldn’t it?”
“I don’t know! I don’t work here, you do!”
“Can you call in at the same time tomorrow?”

Need an authorised technician to fix your TV?

“Hi, is that the Sony Service Centre?”
“Yes.” (No immediate offer to help, then.)
“I’ve got a Sony flat screen TV which needs looking at, would it be possible to request an appointment with one of your engineers?”
“Yes.”
“…OK, thanks. Would he be able to come here on Friday morning, say ten o’clock?”
“We only carry out service repairs at the Service Centre.”
“So you don’t send technicians out to fix things? I have to bring the TV to you?”
“Yes.”
“Slight problem there…it’s massive, this TV. It’s not like I can just pick it up and waltz over with it.”
“We only carry out service repairs at the Service Centre.”
“OK, thanks for being so flexible. Goodbye.”

How about you? How’s the customer service where you live?

6 years and counting

Yesterday was a special day for me because it marked 6 years since I first arrived in Belgium. I’d had a fantastic weekend with friends in London en route, and then I took the Eurostar, for the first time, to Brussels.

Upon arriving, I’d arranged to meet my landlady in advance of moving in so I could store my things in the house. Being completely new to the city, I showed a taxi driver the address, which he looked at and nodded in a confident manner before proceeding to drive off in completely the wrong direction.

“Can I just check…was it the Avenue Albert Jonnart in Ixelles you were after, mate? Or the other one? No, hang on, No…I was thinking you were wanting the other Avenue Albert, the big one – no worries, I’ll just turn around right here in the middle of this lane and put my foot down even harder, and we’ll be there in no time!”

Unfamiliar streets whizzed past and I found myself at the door of what was to be my new accomodatiom for the next 6 months. Dropping my stuff at the house was brief, because I only had with me what I could carry, and then it was just a me, a rucksack to take with me to the Youth Hostel – no, really – and the rain.

I sat in Pain Quotidian to dry out, ordered a coffee, and wondered what on earth I’d let myself in for.

Fortunately, I didn’t need to sit there contemplating my next move for too long. Thanks to some contacts at BBC Wales where I’d recently done a work placement, I had found out about a Welsh reception held in Brussels every year to mark St David’s Day. So I went along, grateful to be somewhere that was a bit “home from home” on my first night in a new city abroad. I’ve been going to the Gwyl Dydd Dewi reception every year, a sort of annual marker of my time here. See below a photo from this year’s event.

Carwyn-Jones-St-Davids-Day-2013

First Minister of Wales Carwyn Jones opening the reception

St-Davids-Day-reception-2013

People enjoying the Welsh lamb, cheese and beer in the grand surroundings of the Bibliotheque Solvay

A refreshing glass of ale from the Ardennes

Last night I sat down with a refreshing glass of La Chouffe, which as well as being a delicious, award-winning Belgian ale reminds me of visiting the Ardennes.

It was our second trip down to rural Wallonia, and we were staying with friends in a nice little farmhouse gite near Houffalize. You could walk straight from the house along a path to a nice forest, a river, fields with horses and some great views. A fairly steep climb up to the viewpoint and then a leisurely descent down into the valley.

Ardennes trees Stream in Ardennes

The first time we did this walk, we got close to where we thought we were supposed to be going but, in typical Belgian style, there was a complete absence of signs, no halfway maps or anything. We asked some locals who were having morning coffee in their garden, who reassured us that yes, we did indeed need to keep walking in the direction of the dark forest road that looked as if led to nowhere in particular.

Sure enough, we carried on for only a couple more minutes and there it was, nestled snugly at the foot of the valley, surrounded on all sides by trees: the Chouffe brewery.

La Chouffe

Outside right now, there’s still snow on the ground and the temperature remains at a level that can only be described as Cold Enough To Freeze Your Nuts Off. It’s nice to drink a glass of Chouffe and to look forward to more weekend adventures in Wallonia.

Icicles in Waterloo

One word, two syllables

How to mime a root vegetable? Recently, I’ve been doing our regular Sunday market shop by myself, armed with a list, written by Zoe, of all the fresh fruit and veg for the week ahead.

Now, most of what’s on the list is perfectly legible, but sometimes there’ll be a word which looks like it’s written in a certain way but is in fact spelt and pronounced slightly differently. Oh, and it’s all in French, of course.

So there I am, at the market fruit and veg stall, and because I’m on autopilot I’ll just be asking for things directly from this list. Which is fine until we get to the point where the word written down as I read it…makes no sense to the man – let’s call him Bernard – on the market stall:

“I’ll have some…parnasse as well, please.”
(A confused silence.)
“Parnasse?”
“Yep, just a small one.”
“Parnasse? What’s that?”
“You know, parnasse, it’s er, quite small and yellow and…”

How on earth do I describe it?

“…and you put it with carrots as a side dish.”

Now I’m miming chopping a vegetable.

Does it work? Of course not, it could be any vegetable I’m miming. I don’t consider myself to be that bad an actor but he’s looking at me as if I’d just pretended it’s something I need to add to get the lawnmower started.

In fact, it’s starting to get a bit embarrassing as he turns to his fellow stall holder:

“Eh! Georges! What’s parnasse? This lad’s asking for some…”
“Never heard of it…oi, mate, can you see it anywhere here?”
(It’s at this point that I’m suddenly all too aware that a delighted audience has been watching our little drama. Why didn’t I just say something else quickly?)

“Er…”

Got it. After what feels like several weeks I finally spot what I need, and point it out to Georges, Bernard and the rest of the people waiting in the queue.

“Ah! Panais!” declares Bernard, triumphantly.

What I was after was a parsnip. I had in fact been asking the poor man at the market if I could have a Nineteenth Century French literary tradition.

Waterloo market

The Sunday market at Waterloo

From outside toilets to origami

It’s been a busy few months, which for the most part were spent helping to organise a conference and all the associated chaos therein. There were no major disasters, fortunately. The exhibition stand didn’t fall on anyone, nobody got agressive during the debate and there were no paper-cut injuries from delegates rushing to pick up a report still warm from the printer (“My apologies, sir, we’ll get you a bandage; it looks like you’ve cut yourself on ‘Preventing Injuries at Work’.”).

We’ve been settling into our new flat, helped greatly by Zoe’s parents, who came over for a few days and transformed the place from a rather disorganised, space full of boxes and clothes to a welcoming living quarter with pictures on the walls, proper kitchen tools and even homemade curtains.

They’ve even cleaned up the outside toilet on our balcony. Outside toilets have always for me been dark and scary places. I had an outside toilet in the house I grew up in, and I’d regarded it as the sort of unappealing place to which I might go only if I really, really needed to. Even then, shivering from the cold wind blowing all around, it was all but impossible to get anything constructive done. You’d need to go in there with the sort of reckless urgency which is usually followed by a white-knuckled gripping of the toilet seat and at least one return journey.

The toilet on our balcony is now so clean and sparkly, people will be queuing to use it.

Even the spare room is looking warm and inviting, now with curtains and a bookshelf. This is a good start, because in most houses, the spare room often falls into the same category as the outside toilet: one of The Lonely Places. It’s the sort of place you go into, and don’t quite know what to do once you’re in there. You put your bag on the bed, maybe take your jacket off, and then…what? Wander over to the window, perhaps. Look at the bed. Have a peek into the cupboad (“Yep. Empty.”).

Maybe there are a few books in there, but you can almost guarantee that they’re not going to be the thrilling page-turners you’re hoping for. Try as you might, ‘Adventures in Origami’ just doesn’t keep you gripped until the last page. In fact, by the time you get to ‘Crouching Frog’ the book’s back on the shelf, and you’re starting to inspect the cupboard in the manner of the quietly insane.

Then, of course, someone calls you down for tea, or a glass of wine, and you’re reminded once more of what makes a house a home: The smells in the kitchen, the photos, the alarming crashing sound as Grandad trips over the cat again.

We’d like to forget the Forty-Seven Laws of Paper Folding and concentrate on the sort of charm and character that makes places feel like home. We’re getting there.

 

 

 

 

Frites and Ferocity

feb_sunrise.jpg

Maybe someone just got out of bed the wrong side that morning. On reflection, though, it was worth the verbal abuse for the unforgettable taste of those chips. I’d stood in the queue, in the freezing cold, for the best part of 25 minutes, this had to be something special. The woman being served in front of me was clearly at pains to stress the point that it was a paper cornet of chips she wanted, Monsieur, a cornet of chips, yes? Cor. Net. Of. Chips.
Well this was all too much for Monsieur Frites. He looked tired and emotional, in that I’ve-been-working-all-day-inside-this-tiny-Fritemobile way. He’d spent hours serving the hundreds of people out and about on this sunny weekend.

leuven_crowd.jpg

Along comes this fussy customer with her demands, asking for a cornet as if it is she, not I, who knows more about chips. His pride was hurt. In short, he had every right to snap.”Yes, madam, I fully understood, the first time, that it was a cornet of chips you wanted! Alright?! Now who’s next? Who is next? Come on!” he yelled, sternly, from the Fritemobile.
It felt as if we were back in school uniforms and had just been caught by Monsieur (“Old Fritesy”) kicking a ball through his window. A silence fell upon the crowd. Everyone stared at the floor, terrified to move. Shoes were scuffed, appetites vanished. I was next in line. One word out of place and that bottle of mustard wouldn’t stay on the counter for much longer.
“I…just..if it’s no bother…a p-p-portion of chips, please, your Friteness. Nothing extra, honestly, that’s all, sir. Thanks.”
Damn, they were good chips. No, really, I’m not just saying that. If you’re in Brussels, go to Place Flagey and try them yourself. Just remember your manners.

Getting the message

I shop for herbal teas bilingually. Don’t worry, it’s not one of my chat-up lines; I can’t begin to imagine an appropriate response to such a declaration (“Really? I get my fruit and veg in Hebrew, myself”).
No, it’s just that in the health food shop near where I live, one of the girls working there is Francophone, and the other comes from the Flemish part of the country, and so it’s easier for her if we speak in English. So it’s often the case that I end up saying things twice, once in French and then once again in English. It’s one of the charming aspects of life in Belgium which, I think, brings a bit of variety to everyday life. Obviously another reason I support bilingualism is that I’m from Wales, where we live life in Welsh and English all the time. Even the sheep are bilingual.

welsh-sheep.jpg

Getting the message across in another language can, though, cause more confusion that one might have bargained for. Translation’s not always easy, even for the European parliament, with it’s army of interpreters for the 23 official languages of the EU. When Yulia Tymoshenko (below), prime minister of Ukraine, came to visit yesterday, they had to resort to the stop-start method of waiting for an interpretation to be read from English to Ukranian and vice-versa.

It causes a bit of trouble at the individual level, too. I should know, I nearly found out the hard way. Last week I had quite a nasty cold, and so I left work a bit early and went to the pharmacy. I started speaking in French, trying to explain that I was blocked up and that I’d like something to relax my lungs. There’s a tightness in my chest, I explained, and I’d like to ease it a bit.
So after a bit of thought, the pharmacist asked if it was asthma that I was talking about, because I’d have to get an inhaler from the doctor, she couldn’t give me one just like that. I said no, sorry, I wasn’t being clear; it wasn’t asthma, I’ve got things for that. We discussed a bit more what it might be that I was after; me trying to explain that I wanted something to clear and relax my lungs, her trying her best to understand. On reflection, perhaps I used the word “relax” with too much emphasis. Eventually the pharmacist asked me my maternal language. As it happened, she was actually Flemish, and found English easier than French. Thank heavens we managed to reach an understanding. Instead of wanting a simple flu remedy, the pharmacist thought that I had been asking for muscle relaxant.

Settling down

brussels-christmas.jpg

Ah, the chaos of Christmas. It’s going to be good to go back to Wales for a short while, though. It’s been an intense couple of months, I’m slowly getting used to the fast-paced and often unpredictable nature of my work (today, for example, I was still in the office at 8pm writing up a press conference on aviation emissions) and I’ve also grown to like Brussels a lot more. Yes, it’s freezing cold here right now and probably will be until late March, I recently had a daunting lecture on the Belgian tax system for freelance journalists and the whole place is currently a bit chaotic as the country’s only just agreed to have an interim government after 192 days of not having one at all. Yet last weekend I was in the Christmas markets at Flagey, they had the brass band playing (see above), and everyone was in good spirits. I had some vin chaud and the Région de Bruxelles-Capitale local authority gave me a free, beautifully made wooden yo-yo. Last night I went to watch a local choir perform some Christmas songs, and it was a very local affair, with a handful of friends and relatives in the audience, babies trying to join in and the odd choir member dashing in at the last minute so as not to be left out. The singing was fantastic, though, and it was a shame that Zoe and I had to leave because they were all really friendly and offered us drinks and snacks after the concert. We met a lad from Nigeria who wanted to play the piano for us, right there and then, and, when we said we couldn’t stay, asked if we’d like to listen to him some other time, let’s keep in touch.
It’ll also be interesting to have a break because this time I’ll be going home from a relatively settled position. The last time I went home for any real length of time, I was in an interim period between work experience and finding a job. This time, I’m more of a resident here. I have a local pub, a local park where I go jogging, a boulangerie for croissants on Sundays and am beginning to get to grips with the merits of the thousands of different beers on offer (Particular favourties which spring to mind are the deceptively strong “Westmalle“, the let’s-have-a-proper-chat “Chimay Bleu” and the delighful innuendo of “Bush“, the latter involving amusing requests towards attractive female bar staff…suggestions on a postcard please). Armed with tales of beer, trips to the boulangerie and le boulot (French slang for work), I’m actually quite excited about seeing old friends again, some of whom I haven’t seen for almost a year, and revealing that there’s actually a lot more to life in Belgium than they might expect.



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