Archive for September, 2011

Maastricht (Netherlands)

Today I made my first crossing of the Belgian border, into the Netherlands! It only cost 5,60 for a return train ticket from Liège to Maastricht, and the journey took about 30 minutes, maybe even less. No passports or anything needed, which is the beauty of the EU. Liège probably actually has more in common with Maastricht than with the other cities of Wallonia. For one thing, Liège is much nearer to Maastricht; moreover, both of them are actually part of one province, called Limburg, which is divided between the two countries. Did I ever mention that it was actually only in 1839 that Belgium became the country as we know it today?

This was, in fact, my first ever visit to the Netherlands, and my first impressions were almost certainly helped by the fact it was very sunny, maybe even the sunniest day I have experienced here. It was bizarre to have accustomed myself to one foreign language, and then suddenly face reading signs in yet another one. Nevertheless, it was pleasing to hear people speaking Dutch as I walked by. I even had a go at speaking it very simplistically in a shop, until the person said something I didn’t understand. But I feel glad that I tried.

The most important and most famous thing is that the Maastricht Treaty was signed there, and thus the EU was born. It was also, therefore, where the Euro currency was created. I found some paving slabs that commemorate this:


Maastricht is also home to quite a good university, although I suspect that at weekends, the students get out of town – I didn’t see that many walking around today, it was mostly middle-aged people. Since it’s so pretty, I almost found myself wishing that I’d been able to take Dutch at university so I could spend a semester here. Or even that I didn’t study languages at all, because then I could come here and take classes taught in English. However, I soon came to the conclusion that while very nice and historic, it wouldn’t really be “gritty city” enough for me. Maybe I’d retire here, but it’s not really somewhere I’d want to live as a student.

One thing I must say to anyone who’s about to visit for the first time is: BEWARE OF THE BIKES! They are probably more dangerous traffic than cars. From what I’ve gathered from speaking to Dutch friends who have laughed at me for being such a perennial pedestrian, it seems that bikes are so ingrained into the culture that people are brought up to know cycling protocol by example, not by words. I was extremely impressed at how efficient they make life seem. People pack a week’s worth of groceries into huge satchels attached to their bikes, there are seats for their kids to sit on, and then they just cycle home like it’s nothing. It seems that a bike is appropriate for every occasion, not to mention a necessity for survival.

It’s also pretty necessary for me to comment on a language thing. I found it really nice that on many street signs, the name was given not only in Dutch (at the top), but also in the “Limburgish” dialect, which doesn’t get used anymore, as far as I know:

I think I have written all I can. I didn’t particularly “do” anything in Maastricht today because I think most of the attractions lie just outside of the town. But it was definitely a charming day out, and certainly very lovely to walk around. The architecture is great, both the old and the new aspects. I will just leave you with a photo of the riverside now. (Putting lots and lots of pictures up doesn’t really work on here, but I did take many more that collectively represent the town quite well!)

P.S. When a lot of people think of the Netherlands, they think of the “coffee shops” – and yes, there were quite a few. Their names were quite funny, such as “Laid-Back Coffee Shop”. There were rumours recently that they were going to stop letting non-Dutch citizens in… but in fact, all you have to do is prove you’re 18+.

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Liège

Well, I’ve been talking about this city and I haven’t really introduced it to give you some context.

Its population is 194,000 – that is, about 100,000 less than that of Leicester. Liège is the largest city in Wallonia (the name of the French-speaking half of Belgium). However, it is not the capital – that’s Namur. And the most populous Wallonian city is Charleroi.

One of the reasons I chose to go here was that it’s very near the border of other countries – for example it costs only 5 euro, return, to get the train to Maastricht, in the Netherlands. Germany’s also pretty close, which makes me happy. Luxembourg is still quite a way away, but for some reason in travel guides it’s always lumped together with Belgium so there you go.

There are also lots of pertinent historical aspects to Liège, I believe, but I won’t try and write about them yet as I don’t know much about them. Here are some photos from around where I live.

Et au bon côté…

My last post was very negative – it was an angry wall of text and I’d forgive anyone for not wanting to read it. However, I won’t apologise for my feelings. After I made it, though, as if by some kind of miracle – also known as “life”, I suppose – things got better all of a sudden.

For a start, despite my lack of money, I did decide to spend 16,50 on a pair of earrings. But they were really some of the most beautiful and original I have seen. They were from an adorable little shop called Bijoux Fantaisie de Création, which sells handmade, unique jewellery. Even though it was expensive, I had a really nice chat with the lady in there, who gave me a discount card for next time. Naturally, it also felt great to support an independent artist. These are the ones I bought. The words in them are cut from a 1960s newspaper! And of course, there are few things I love more than 1960s French pop culture, so it was love at first sight.

I also decided to join the public library. It cost me 4 euro – it was the first time I’d had to pay for joining the library – but I think it’s worth it. For a start, it actually contains a lot of the types of books I will require for my courses. Secondly, it’s just nice to have that freedom to go and find a book to read. Thirdly, it will make me less tempted, I hope, to spend money on books (a terrible habit I have). Not least because it’s expensive, but it will also create more things to carry when I go back home… which seems like such a long way off! Right now I am reading L’élégance du hérisson (The Elegance of the Hedgehog) by Muriel Barbery. I read it in English a few years ago and really enjoyed it, but obviously now I want to get the richness of the original text.

And the other good thing, and probably the best thing that happened, was that I was finally able to talk about my feelings and anxieties about socialising. Two of my friends and I had had a bit to drink, and we were sitting on my bed, and so I guess that made me feel it was the perfect time to be honest. They completely understood how I felt, which was a massive relief. I feel so much more at ease now, and I think that has really cemented our friendship.

Today we also went to the market, which is every Sunday, and it takes place at the side of the River Meuse. It had some really great bargains for fruit and veg – we got a crate of grapes to share between the three of us very cheaply. It was huge! And hopefully I won’t need to shop for those things until the market comes round again.
One thing I hated, though, was a very cruel treatment of animals, that is in fact illegal in the UK. They were selling birds and rabbits in tiny, cramped cages, and I could have just cried there and then. I had to walk very fast past them to try and keep my composure. There were even swans, it was just awful and disgusting. There were probably about 4 such stalls in total, all spread completely randomly, so I had to at least glimpse at it to know that I needed to avoid looking at it.

But today, I am going to try and keep being positive. Even though all the shops are shut. I am excited because my classes begin tomorrow! This week is just a “trial week” – that is, testing out all the classes you chose in advance, to see if you actually like them. I have to do about eight overall. However, I may have to drop some of the ones I really wanted to do. We’ll see.

A bonus picture – my typical breakfast! It’s strange how much time I take making it and eating it here. Maybe because I’m not stressing out with university yet, or something.

Some frustrations.

Things aren’t fabulous. I’m sure they will get better as time goes on, but I’m finding dealing with certain things a bit of a challenge.

Being asked “Do you speak French?” is a source of stress, one that I have only actually realised since coming here. If you say yes, and then the person talks to you in French, and then you indicate you don’t understand (they might be talking too fast, or have an accent you’re unfamiliar with, for example), they just kind of give up. Which for me is really disheartening. I hate speaking English here. I feel like I am letting myself down when I do it. I just want to keep pushing on as that is the only way I will improve my confidence in, and knowledge of, French. That’s another thing I’ve learnt, even though it sounds obvious: Talking in a foreign language to a native speaker really is a two-way street that requires patience and effort from both parties.

This indeed leads me to probably my main criticism of the ERASMUS programme. Encouraging people to spend a semester or a year in another country obviously has many benefits. But what I cannot understand is the attitude of some of the people who apply for this. Why would you come to another country and make absolutely no effort to learn the language? And then complain when people around you talk in that language, so you either resort to English, or just go and hang out only with people from your own country? I don’t know if that makes any sense written down, even though the concept is clear in my head. All it does is make a little commune of people from _______ who all happen to be in Belgium. Not everyone on ERASMUS is a language student who is obliged to do it. So, if you were going to go to all the trouble to apply for it, why wouldn’t you at least try to brush up on some French before you went, if at all possible? And if not, take advantage of the free language classes offered here? Wouldn’t it just make living here much, much easier, for one thing? Really, it works in your favour…

I’m not really sure how much of that last paragraph is what I actually think, and how much of it is just me having a personal rant. Because I definitely have someone in mind. But this kind of situation appears to be really common, and it’s genuinely making me wonder why they’re here, apart from the fact they view it as a sponsored trip abroad with a bit of exams on the side. That is really the only thing I can think of.

Another thing that frustrates me is that this money I am getting to do all of this is yet to arrive. Please do not assume I am a spoilt brat. Buying all the essentials in this first week, as well as trying to balance that with being sufficiently sociable, has really zapped up all my money, and it is making me miserable. Not least because all I want to do is go to some other cities in the area. But until this money comes in, things like food and washing my clothes have priority.

As a feminist I also feel it is necessary to comment on how there are some noticeable differences in how women are treated here. There are times where here in Liège, a reasonably-sized city, I have felt far less safe walking down an average street in broad daylight wearing quite “ordinary” clothes, than I have in an empty underground station in Berlin at 4am in a short skirt (alone in both cases). I am not suggesting that Berlin is immune to crime or anything like that – that would be insulting to everyone who has been attacked, and it is a capital city with its problems, after all. But I guess it’s about the “attitudes” that people in different countries may be brought up with.
I know that making this comparison might seem unfair, but it has come as a bit of a shock. Especially because I always saw Belgium as a progressive country (for example, it was the second country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage, in 2003).
As is the case with most women who have experienced things in public like being whistled at, having dirty comments shouted at them, even being touched, I have become somewhat desensitised to it. Because sadly, it happens pretty much everywhere and there’s no magic way to protect yourself from it. But here, it’s on a whole new level… it’s difficult to explain, and I don’t want to go too off-topic here.

I am sure that anyone reading this is convinced I’m having a terrible time, and they will probably jump to the conclusion that it’s because I’m not making enough of an effort, or something equally ridiculous. Well, even the smallest daily tasks are like moving a mountain when you have to do them in another country or language. I have to keep reminding myself that I’ve only been here a week, and of course I’m not going to feel 100%.  It’s quite hard to know whether I’m worrying too much and just putting unnecessary pressure on myself, or if things truly are taking their toll on me. I feel like I am lacking emotional support that I really need right now, from people I knew before I came here. Do some people just feel like they no longer need to talk to me because they presume I’m having the time of my life? I’m not. This isn’t a holiday, this is real life. I am definitely coming off as bitter right now, but I don’t care, because I want to document this as honestly as I can.

Plus ça change…

After being here for 5 days, there are some things that have got better – but, since it has indeed only been 5 days, there are still quite a few difficulties. One improvement is that now I’ve been to enough of a variety of supermarkets, I know which stocks a considerably greater range of products and which also has a nicer general atmosphere. Luckily, I have now bought all the kitchen utensils I need, but even that is to a bare minimum. No chopping knives, and no frying pan, and a lot of other things I am lacking, I guess.

Furthermore, I don’t find myself getting lost in the centre of Liège anymore. I explored several streets near where I live, and was delighted to find myself going “Oh! It leads here!”. For example, it turned out I took an absolutely enormous detour during the duvet-buying incident, which was a very annoying discovery, but at least I know that if I want to go back there again I can do so quite quickly.

As well as improvising methods of cooking, I am also having to change my diet quite a lot:

  • I need to come to terms with the fact that they do not sell chilled milk in Belgium! That’s right, I had to buy a pack of six bottles, to keep in the cupboard and then stick in the fridge once I’ve opened them. I suppose it saves fridge space, but this morning I poured some warm milk over my muesli, and I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that. Comfortingly, many never do – this may be an urban myth, but several have told me that people here cross the border into the Netherlands, or Germany, just to buy chilled milk!
  • I’ve realised how much I relied on baked beans, not least as a source of protein. I am not going to claim I am in any way accomplished when it comes to cooking. (Kind of dreading the moment when someone suggests we all take it turns to cook everyone a traditional meal from our home country.) Often, when I had an essay due, I would live pretty much on beans on toast – and pasta, if I really wanted to push the boat out. It’s just the perfect thing when you’re hungry but don’t have time! But here, I’m really having to make an effort to prepare a nutritious meal, let alone one that only takes a few minutes.
  • Tea. They only really sell flavoured tea here. Aaaah, come back to me. I have coffee… but sometimes you just need a good cup of tea, you know?

Some other cultural differences:

  • Nothing is open on Sundays. Nothing. And this pretty much goes for all of continental Europe (that I’ve visited, anyway). In the UK, a lot of places – be they shops or museums – are open for at least a few hours before they close in the afternoon. Last Sunday was very miserable, as a result. Guess I am just going to have to find a way around that.
  • The fact that people drive on the right here! I know that in this case we’re the exception! But it does mean I need to keep my wits about me even more than usual. I believe that something that marks you out as a foreigner is your attitude when you are crossing the road in a different country. At home, because I am confident of the direction from which the traffic is coming, I will walk through red lights, etc. But here, I just don’t always know what to expect, so I am prudent and obedient, waiting until the pedestrian light is green, and it is painfully obvious to any onlooker that I am, specifically, British!
  • It is highly frowned upon if you forget to bring your own carrier bag to the supermarket – and you have to pay for a reusable, quality one, that shouldn’t cost more than 1 Euro. When I did my shopping for the first time, obviously I didn’t have one. The look the cashier gave me was venomous, as if I were single-handedly responsible for the demise of the environment.

There is probably a whole lot of other stuff that’s making me feel strange, that I just haven’t picked up on yet. I’ve got to admit I didn’t expect to feel like this at all, considering only a little sea separates this country from mine.

I have also started the induction week for international students. I’m still not confident that I have actually registered with the university, because I don’t have my student card. But this feeling of being thrown into events where you’re supposed to meet and get to know people is not the most comfortable situation for me:

  • I’m not exactly the most extroverted person.
  • People seem to be reluctant to leave groups of those who speak their mother tongue. And I am definitely guilty of this. But I did meet a Spanish girl who much rather wanted to speak French than English (she said that hearing English spoken by a native speaker made it harder to understand!) which was nice. I look forward to starting my actual classes as I will be able to meet native Belgians and get on with furthering my maîtrise du français. I think that doing that will integrate me into the country quicker, and make me feel less like someone who is just somewhere they don’t entirely fit in.
  • I don’t really like doing stuff in groups – campus tours, for example. I know it’s somewhat useful… but it just feels impersonal and I always find it hard to pay attention in those situations, for some reason. I would much rather learn by practice – going there myself, and asking people if I have a problem.

I’m now going to read the newspaper, and then maybe part of a novel (which, incidentally, is about a Belgian woman who goes to do an internship in Japan!). And then I need to go to yet another induction day tomorrow. Hopefully when I next update this, I will have more photos of the city, and will also be able to give details of my classes!

First impressions

I got up very early to get the Eurostar from London to Brussels. It was pretty taxing, and I kept falling asleep. I think I couldn’t quite believe I was starting my year abroad yet. When I got off the train at Brussels, I had around 10 minutes to catch the train to Liège. However, I encountered some problems – well, they weren’t really problems, because I managed it, but I found it a bit surprising. When checking which platform I had to go to, there were no signs in French. Or if there were, they were very hidden. Luckily I knew that Liège’s name in Dutch is Luik. So that was okay and I found where I needed to go.

But when I was sitting on the train I started thinking about something. If Brussels is supposedly the French-speaking blob in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium (see picture), then how on earth are you meant to know what to speak there? When I was there a couple of years ago everything seemed to be in French. But this thing at the station yesterday has left me a little confused. If you ask someone for help there, do you start with “Parlez-vous français?”, and if they don’t, just go into English, because if you’re a tourist you’re unlikely to speak Dutch? Or should you just try English the first time (which is something I feel uneasy about)? I mean, if you’re in either region, it’s obvious which you should use, but this? I hope I can get some sort of answer before I leave.

Anyway, my accommodation is very fancy – I have my own bathroom and my own TV (but I don’t know how to work it yet). The storage space isn’t exactly in abundance, but it’ll do. The kitchen is also very good. I think there are eight people on my floor (including me), but so far, I have only met two girls from Canada. They seem nice, and they made me soup last night.

Last night I slept in a sleeping bag, as it was easier to fit in my suitcase. And it was terrible. So today I set off to Médiacité, which is a shopping centre right on the other side of the two rivers that run through the middle of Liège, to buy some bedding. I had wanted to go to Ikea, but couldn’t be bothered finding the right bus to take – and besides, why not walk and see the city! It took me about 30-40 minutes to walk there, which was okay. But the way back was awful, and took perhaps 90 minutes. My arms were full with the stuff I bought. I got lost many times. It was raining. I was nursing a headache and achey joints from my uncomfortable night. Luckily, people were generally friendly and willing to help when I asked them for directions. But this one lady who looked really posh and not particularly in a hurry, just completely ignored me. Maybe, since I was carrying pillows, she thought I was homeless and going to ask her for money? It’s a shame that people like that exist.

I’m not really sure how I feel right now – just not very good at all, for sure. I know it won’t be like this forever; but while I’m finding my bearings and doing mundane things like buying “essentials” which will just inhale all my money, things don’t seem fantastic.

Oh well, have a picture of a nice park I saw today: