Archived entries for Locals

The Battle of…where?

You’d think it’d be easy to talk about where you live.

What happens though if you can’t even pronounce the name? We’ve been living in Waterloo now for a year and a half, and we still have conversations (in French, it’s not a problem in English) that go like this:

“So, where do you live?”

“We’re out in Waterloo, actually.”

“Where?” “Waterloo.”

“Water…Watermal?”

“No, Waterloo…Wah…TER…loo. Wah..TER..LOO. You know, with the lion.”

“Ah! Waterloo!”

It’s to do with the way the locals pronounce the name, with a particular emphasis on the “r” in the middle which is difficult for a non-native speaker of Belgian French to get exactly right. You don’t pronounce the first syllable “water” (as in, “tap water”) as you would in English, but instead in French it’s “wah-terr”. So we end up trying three or four different variations, with each one resulting in the person to whom we’re speaking looking as if we’re actually just making it up.

One day, I’ll be able to say where I live without repetition, hesitation or deviation. Until then, when people ask me it’ll probably be quicker to just point to a picture of Napoleon.

Bonaparte Crossing the Grand Saint-Bernard Pass by Jacques-Louis David

Bonaparte Crossing the Grand Saint-Bernard Pass by Jacques-Louis David

Image: Wikipedia/Google Cultural Institute

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

“The next tune to arrive on platform three….”

It’s been great to be back in the UK for a little while over Christmas, catching up with family and friends. A couple of memorable moments included:

Seren being too quick for us and falling down the stairs at my parents’ house. “I’m going downstai-” Thud thud thud crash. Luckily the stairs were carpeted and she was fully dressed with jeans on so she was fine.

From a young Dad and friend of ours, listening to an absolutely hilarious blow-by-blow account of childbirth, told at lightning speed, on the way home from the pub, with both my brothers looking horrified with every extra bit of detail they really didn’t want to hear.

Sharing recommendations about local ales in a tiny pub – I didn’t spend all my time drinking, honest – with a random chap at the bar. “It’s a very consistent ale, that one. You can go anywhere in the country and if they have that ale, it’ll always taste the same.”

Golden Pippin

[Image: http://www.copperdragon.uk.com]

Drinking whisky – honestly, I was sober for some of the time – while watching a fantastic adaptation of William Boyd’s novel Restless on the BBC.

Zoe and I watching a stunning sunset across a Hampshire field, while getting soaked with rain. Some very impressive dawn skies too.

Hampshire sunset

Hampshire sunrise

Hampshire sunrise

 

Listening to a stranger playing some pieces by Ludovico Einaudi on the free pianos that have been installed in St Pancras station in London. A lad was just walking by with his girlfriend, spotted the piano sitting there and started to play. A beautiful, spontaneous moment which had Seren and I enthralled for a good 20 minutes. Possibly the first and last time I will hear live, classical piano mixed with loudspeaker announcements about the next train.

New Year in London

I spent New Year’s Eve in London this time. Not in some super-expensive, dance-till-collapse club where they charge you loads to get in for the treat of paying £15 a shot (“I’ll have…Christ, give me half a shot of orange juice, please”) but at my girlfriend’s friend’s house party. It was great, an interesting location and a varied mix of people and just the right amount. I met someone who works as an architect specialising in sliding roofs (why not?) and had a chat with a gardener about power tools. I didn’t come close to having to listen to some high-rising financial player bore me to tears about how awfully exciting it was to be finally closing the multi-billion-pound deal with the American firm. I also didn’t expect to find myself within walking distance from the Canary Wharf Tower; Zoe used to live in London and was used to it. I, on the other hand, was stopping every five minutes to proclaim something really touristy: “Hey look! It’s the headquarters of Reuters! No, look, the real thing! It’s even got a…where’s she..? Hey, wait for me!”

london.jpg

London’s an interesting place, for me I never feel like I’m in the heart of the UK because it’s just so different from anywhere else, it’s on another scale altogether in so many ways. Perhaps I felt the difference more this time because as part of my Christmas trip I also visited Hampshire, where Zoe comes from, and that really does feel like proper England. It’s got the rolling hills, the country barns and pubs, and Winchester, especially with its famous catherdral and narrow, cobbled streets, really felt like quite a timeless place (it could have been 1407 if it wasn’t for some of the high street shops) but very English all the same.

winchester.jpg

Maybe international capital cities, such as London, Washington DC, Buenos Aires and so on, should be separate (e.g. London being the “international capital” of the UK, for example) and at the same time perhaps we should establish “national capitals” which better represent the national character. As seems to be the way of things in 2008, to get people interested, a national vote could be held on TV, with people phoning in to nominate different cities; I hope the ideas people at ITV are reading this.

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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