I arrived in Mons on a hot and sunny 95-degree day, what locals consider exceptionnel, and to which they exclaim “35°? Mon Dieu!” from their air condition-less apartments. The heat was stifling, and I struggled with four maximum capacity suitcases up narrow cobblestone streets only to arrive at my apartment building to find that the elevator was temporarily out of service. 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 the Grand Place, the central square in Mons, which cheered me up a little 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 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. As I was peering into windows displaying à louer signs, my current landlord approached me on the street with a friendly and only slightly French-tinged English greeting, "Hey, are you looking for an apartment?" The place was spacious and new - so new it wasn't fully finished - and I ended up signing a contract on the spot for an apartment with a 5 month lease just steps from the Grand Place. My landlord later told me that I looked like a preferable tenant because I “seemed” like I had a job. At the time I remember thinking that people in Mons had 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 and around the 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 here, and am so thankful to St. John’s Law 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.
This post was originally written for my law school's International Correspondents blog. See more photos from my six months in Belgium here.