Archive for October, 2011

Dimanche à la Montagne de Bueren, Liège

Oh look, it's me.

At the bottom of the 374 steps. Look at the beautiful colours on the right.

On the way up, I spotted a sign in a window written in Walloons (local dialect). Not entirely sure what it says, though - although the fact it's written in what has become a relatively obscure tongue may mean they only want those who still speak it to understand.


Concerts, Couchsurfing and Belgian Politics

As a contrast to all that negativity I described in that last post, I thought I would write about something good and exciting, just to reassure you that not everything is hopeless.

Going to shows of bands and artists I like is something I do pretty often. Maybe that’s why I’d been feeling so down – I need a good concert once in a while to reassure me that there is meaning in life. Just as I found out that I’d be in Belgium this semester, I started to look for things to go to. Bon Iver had announced a show in Brussels, and tickets were going to go on sale in a few days. I woke up to order them specially – noting that 10am in Belgium would be 9am in the UK – and I was very lucky, because within five minutes they were all sold out.

I’d kind of forgotten about it all until about a week before. I realised that I needed to find somewhere to stay the night, because it wasn’t certain there’d be trains going back to Liège after the show finished. All the hostels I checked out were expensive – if not too far away from the venue to contemplate walking alone to at night. I then remembered a website I’d heard about, called Couchsurfing. In a nutshell, it’s a network of travellers all around the world who are willing to open their homes to accommodate people for a night or two, who are visiting the city. It is completely safe, as members can vouch for other members and give references when they’ve met them. All it costs is company and conversation – I mean, I sure wouldn’t want to invite someone into my home without feeling like I could at least learn a little something about their lives.

I arrived in Brussels in the evening. Getting to my host’s house from the train station was not at all complicated, as I had feared. However, she was not there when I arrived, but had helpfully left a note outside the building saying that the key was with her neighbour.

The concert itself was fantastic, all that I would have hoped for from seeing Bon Iver. The audience seemed to consist almost exclusively of Flemish people – in fact, once I entered the venue, I don’t think I heard a word of French.

I came home and finally met my host – a middle-aged lady dedicated to green issues and socialism. I was very tired so went to bed. The cat kept coming into my room even when I shut the door – he would push it open with his paws! He wasn’t supposed to come in, as he wasn’t toilet trained. I must admit, I’d never thought my year abroad would come to standing up in my sleeping bag and whispering to a cat in French to get out…

The next day, my host and I had coffee, and she was able to teach me some things about Belgian politics. I did already know that the Wallonia (French) region was much poorer and had more unemployment problems than Flanders (Flemish). In the 19th century when Belgium was founded, the bourgeoisie were all French speakers, and the Flemish had little to no voting rights. Wallonia boomed industrially, while the more agriculturally-inclined Flanders lagged behind. However, during the Second World War, it was mainly Wallonia which was destroyed, leaving the economy in ruins – and despite many efforts, it still hasn’t really recovered over sixty years later.

However, I did not know that the situation was similar to the way Germany is bailing out Greece right now. Wallonians are keen to learn Dutch so that they can get jobs in a part of the country where they will earn more, but of course, the case is not vice versa; thus the two regions of Belgium are severely imbalanced. Not to mention that of course, there are a variety of parties in each language region, causing problems with efficient voting, and disputes about who should get which seat. This means that building up a government is very hard – I don’t know if I mentioned it before, but at the time I write this, this country has technically been in anarchy for 450 days.

It’s a very complicated issue, and I hope to learn more about it first-hand in my time here. But that’s the basics.

Coincidentally, in a newsagent later that morning, I found a French-language parody newspaper, similar to the British Private Eye, I guess. It made for a very interesting complement to the conversation we had; it was interesting that they could make fun of their identity crisis and political crisis.

One more thing. When I was waiting for the train to leave in Brussels, it said we’d be stopping in a place called Borgworm. We never did. By chance, I just found out now that a place we did stop in, signposted as Waremme, is called Borgworm in Dutch. I still can’t get over how drastically different some of the place names are. Here are a few more examples:

French: Mons
Dutch: Bergen

French: Lille (France)
Dutch: Rijsel

French: Jodoigne
Dutch: Geldenaken

So, before you come to Belgium make sure you look up the varying town names in the area, whether you’re driving, or using public transport!

The year abroad blues

I’m so sorry that I haven’t updated for such a long time. Things have been very busy – and also very hard. I’ve almost hit the two month mark, and I am practically counting the days til I can finally go back and have a break. I’m going to bullet-point the problems to keep it concise. At any rate, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one to have faced these things.

  • I still haven’t sorted out my learning agreement.
    That’s right. It’s still all up in the air. After making many changes, which met the 30-credit requirement exactly, I thought I could finally sit back and relax. I emailed my tutor in the UK with my choices, and he said that since two of them weighed 7 credits, and were “too irrelevant” to my degree as a whole, I had to drop one of them and replace it with two classes in French language or culture. No way was I going to give up Hebrew – I’m enjoying it too much, and I’ve sought out the obscure book and everything (which, let me tell you, was not cheap).  But now, I have to absolutely bust a gut trying to find classes that not only fit my current timetable, but that are available for just this semester. It’s honestly like trying to find a needle in a haystack. The biggest problem is, I need to let Liège know what classes I’m finally doing by this Friday. This is just awful.
  • I am struggling very much with lectures and work.
    I don’t think the content is really any harder than what I’d be doing if I was back home. But, of course, since it’s taught in French, it’s very difficult. I listen for the first five minutes or so, then I find that concentrating is so exhausting that I just begin to daydream. By the time I “wake up”, I have no clue what the lecturer’s on about. I come out of the lesson with the bare bones of the topic – meaning I need to go and do my own research on the internet when I get back. The worst thing is, virtually none of them make use of the whiteboard, or even PowerPoint presentations, so it’s not like I have some sort of visual aid. I know this is something I should probably go and talk to them about, but I can’t imagine them modifying their whole teaching style just to accommodate the poor little foreigner. Anyway – going into shops and speaking French is fine. Having conversations one-on-one is fine. Having to actually pay attention to someone speaking it for two hours straight? Not so easy. No.
  • I am having a few social problems within the house.
    And it makes me feel very tense, since it’s in the place I have to call home. I was on the brink of moving out because I was so depressed. I was going to view a few places – but when I consulted the manager of where I currently live, he said that I couldn’t, unless I found somebody to replace me. So I guess I am just going to have to stick it out. I’ve devised a few methods of how I’m going to do that, which I really hope will work out and will make Christmas come quickly – as well as helping me have a somewhat good time in between.
  • I don’t feel “busy” enough.
    I know that sounds odd, because I’ve just expressed how much work I have to do. But obviously, non-academic activities are necessary so that you don’t go insane. I just can’t find anything student-run that I’m interested in. I’ve tried political groups, even things like cinema club, but nothing seems to be really “alive” and there’s no way to contact them. It is extremely frustrating, to say the least. If nothing else, it means I have no source of meeting like-minded people. It is so hard to go from being passionate about presenting a radio show each week with a friend and meeting people through that, to not having anything like that at all, and not knowing how you could possibly meet those sorts of people in a new place. My social life feels so drab.

That’s enough. I know that in the long run this will probably make me a stronger person – or whatever it is that people tell you to try and make you feel better – but in the meantime, it’s pretty painful. I’m facing the biggest test of independence yet.

Le moisiversaire c’est super!

Tomorrow marks one month of my being in Liège, so I thought I would make a post while I’m in the mood!

The time that has passed since I last posted here has been quite a rough ride. Firstly, I contracted some sort of extreme cold (in its midst I thought it was flu) that had me stuck in bed for the best part of a week. Obviously this had large repercussions on my general morale and enthusiasm for being in a foreign country, and all I wanted was to go back home. Secondly, I was having a few financial difficulties that worried me very much. For example, I was running out of money despite living very modestly – I was literally living off a few coins in my purse and couldn’t really eat. But now, my loan has finally arrived, and so I think I can live quite comfortably now, especially since my ERASMUS bursary will also be arriving in due course. Another thing relating to money: I’m still in two minds about whether I should actually open a bank account here. From what I have heard from others, it is easier said than done; apparently involving all sorts of complicated documents I’m not entirely sure I have. I suppose if I did it I would feel a huge sense of achievement regarding using French in a “formal” situation.

Lastly, my courses. This has caused me so much grief. But I said that I would give details about it, and I know you’ve been on the edge of your seat. Well, even after three weeks here, I’m still not 100% certain which ones I am actually doing. This is because the process of organising it has been much, much more complicated that I could have ever imagined.

The past two weeks have been a stressful flurry of the following:

  • Waiting half an hour in a classroom with other international students, only for the tutor never to show up, because apparently we were meant to telepathically know that this particular course commenced three weeks into the term.
  • Intending to go to a foreign language class at beginners’ level, only to stumble upon a group of masters students, and to be told the class for me was two hours earlier, despite what the website told me.
  • Frantically rushing around the campus trying to find a room whose name is totally illogical to its location.
  • Getting onto the university website when I got home each day after these blunders, and revising my choice of courses – now that they were at unexpected times, there was now no way I could attend some of them.
  • Tutors not replying to emails.

The case has been similar for most international students I’ve talked to here (ones from the Anglophone world, admittedly), as well as all of my friends on their year abroad in France. The only possible reason I can think of for the faculty’s lack of involvement and, well, total insouciance, is how poorly funded universities are in this part of Europe. The French are well-known for their strikes, especially in the education sector. I know that this is Belgium, not France; but being a neighbouring country, and having the same language and therefore having absorbed some of the same traditions, this could well be an explanation. I don’t know. At any rate, I definitely won’t be complaining about anything admin-related when I come back to Leicester for final year.

Anyway, it is definitely the biggest hurdle I’ve encountered so far, but hopefully I have got the worst of it out of the way. I have to send off a form back to my home university confirming my class choices, and they have to “approve” it. Basically we have to choose courses on a few conditions:

  • They have to all add up to 30 credits, even though we are only going to be assessed on 15 credits (it’s pretty confusing and I hope I won’t have to be the one to sort this out because I am not known for my mathematical brain).
  • They have to be taught in French.
  • We have to do at least one that focuses on the French language – such as linguistics or grammar – and one content module focusing on a French-speaking part of the world.
  • They have to be running only for the premier quadrimestre, so that we can actually take the exam in January (don’t really fancy coming back in June to do it). It was so frustrating each time I found an interesting-looking class, only to be confronted by the dreaded words toute l’année.

So, after some painstaking changes, the ones I’ve actually settled on so far – i.e. the ones I’ve actually been able to attend – are language and literature of Quebec, French linguistics, and Hebrew / history of Israel. This isn’t enough and so I know I’m going to have to begrudgingly pick a few more that I’ll hate. I wouldn’t wish this messy system on my worst enemy. I know this sounds ridiculous since it’s now October and I’ve been here a month, but this is just how it’s turned out. I did go to an Art History lecture for a couple of weeks, but since it was for people who have been studying that for three years already, it was really difficult. Plus the lecturer talked really quietly in a big theatre and so I had to concentrate not only on what I was being “taught” but also whether I could actually hear and understand what he was saying. For these upcoming classes, I am a little bit scared – I’ve heard things like there are no notes available if you missed the class. And that if you’re late, you’re actually denied entry to the lecture…

On a non-academic note, last weekend was the Nuit des Coteaux. This happens on the first Saturday of each October, I think, and the hills around Liège are lit up with candles, and the streets, too. It was really nice, since it happened in a part of the city I hadn’t been to yet – the “old” part, which has some buildings that must look really lovely in the daylight. There was a very strange atmosphere… at one point we went up an alleyway into a sort of garden courtyard where people lived in expensive but arty houses that reminded me of England for some reason, it was just like a summer night. In the street there were stalls selling waffles and interestingly-flavoured shots, and also street entertainment. For some reason we thought it would be a good idea to follow a flood of people up a foresty mountain, Montagne de Bueren, which was totally dark except for being lit by candles. It was extremely dangerous… there were people with dogs and with children in pushchairs and I felt nervous, especially since I hadn’t anticipated doing this and so was wearing unsuitable shoes. It felt like it took about three hours to get up there. The atmosphere was just extremely bizarre and dreamlike – it was like some sort of cult and when we got to the top we would all be killed or something. We finally reached the top, but there was nothing there. So then we had to trudge down with the crowds of people, which possibly took even longer than the way up. When we got down and watched the fireworks, it turned out the whole of vieux Liège was the “citadel”. Here are a couple of photos – I know they’re poor quality, but still.

The view of the city when we finally reached the top of that mountain...

I have decided I am also going to do a top five French words of the day in each post from now on. So, to start off:

le moisiversaire = month anniversary

époustouflant = mind-blowing

être aux aguets = to be on the lookout

une aubaine = a godsend

avoir tort = to be in the wrong