I arrived in Mons on a hot and sunny 95-degree day, what locals consider exceptionnel, and to which they exclaim “35° (Celsius)? Mon Dieu!” from their air condition-less apartments. Having been delayed in the states for two weeks, I was so excited to be in Belgium to start my practicum at NATO that I didn’t immediately notice the stifling heat. It was more than apparent, however, after I dragged my four maximum capacity suitcases up narrow cobblestone streets only to arrive at my room to find that the elevator was temporarily out of service, and that there would be no air conditioning, ever. It was my turn to say it, Mon Dieu! The situation was further complicated by the fact that my suitcases barely fit into the tiny, dark room that was supposed to be my home for the next 5 months.
Frustrated, perspiring, and jetlagged, I decided that avoidance was the best way forward. I left for a walk and ended up at La Grand Place, the central square in Mons, which cheered me up in all its Gothic glory. I sat down for a Leffe, one of my favourite Belgian beers, and formulated a plan to escape the tiny room, which amounted to: walk around Mons until you find a new apartment.
Now in my fourth week at NATO, I’ve been told time and time again that it’s impossible to find a decent apartment in Mons with a contract for less than a year, and so I count myself lucky. That first night in Mons, inspired by the Leffe and determined to locate the perfect Belgian abode, I found an apartment with a 5-month lease, just steps from La Grand Place. The story of how I happened upon it is slightly curious, but it shows that sometimes, foreigners, even SHAPIANS*, are welcomed in new places with open arms:
My current landlord saw me peering into windows displaying à louer (for rent) signs and approached me in the street with a friendly, “Hey, are you looking for an apartment?” I was taken aback both because someone was speaking to me in English in an almost exclusively French-speaking town, and because it was late at night and I had wandered down a back alley. Undeterred, I went to see the apartment (spacious, new), signed the contract, and moved in a couple days later. He later told me that I looked like a preferable tenant because I “seemed” like I probably had a job. At the time I remember thinking: such exacting standards.
Since those first uncharacteristically hot days, the transition from New York City to Mons has been less fraught with the exceptionnel. I quite enjoy the cobblestone streets and jagged rooftops, and the variety of Belgian food and beer on offer in La Grand Place. Mons is a place unto itself, seemingly untouched by the busier, modernizing world. I often marvel at the aspects of life here that defy the conventional. The late opening and early closing hours of most shops and cafes leave me pondering the “Mons business model” as I walk down the empty, shuttered streets before and after work. The motley crew of Mons inhabitants makes for interesting people watching in the main square; there are young people with tattoos and mangy dogs on leashes, small groups of European tourists, a smattering of students, and the occasional man or woman in a suit or military uniform, most likely headed to the NATO base where I work.
With 95,000 inhabitants and a nearly 30% unemployment rate, Mons has a small town feel, and can be a little rough around the edges. But it has its virtues too. As always, I find myself slowly adjusting to the less demanding flow of life here in Europe, and I welcome the change. Quaint Mons is in rather stark contrast to frenetic New York. There is no grey-suited, briefcase-laden Midtown migration here, only a few early risers hurrying to the bus stop. In the evening, “rush hour” is more of a parade of cars than a traffic jam, and the bus, though rarely on time, is never full. Mons is small and European; what feels foreign is hustling to the bus stop at 7:30am and coming home when the shops are closed and most of the city has turned in for the night.
Once outside the city limits, I enter another world unto itself – the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE). I am very much looking forward to my 5 months as a legal extern there, and am so thankful to St. John’s for providing me with this opportunity. The first four weeks have been exciting and busy, and I will surely have more to report on the work we’re doing at the NATO SACT SEE office, and life at a military HQ next time.
Until then, Jessica
*The term used for people who work at SHAPE