Wednesday, 30 December 2009


I know there's a fair amount of melancholy on these pages but really, it's not too bad and most of it is all in the name of comedy anyway. No, really my default setting is 'life's not that brilliant but - ooh look over there at the pretty sunshine!' Not so much positive thinking, more enjoying the distractions as they come.

Work is not always brilliant but then again I only started out a year ago, so logically things must still be on an upward curve. As for la vie sentimentale, well, the only way is up really. I mean, it certainly can't get any worse. So the future at least has potential.

However when I'm back in the UK I'm beset with doom-mongering on all sides. This is not helped by the old copies of the Daily Express lying in headline-screaming piles all around my parents' house. There's something about the British press that is peculiarly, sensationally pessimistic.

The latest one is that within ten years the entire Thames valley will have flooded and London and much of Kent will be under water. Now I know this is a fairly standard 'effects of global warming' scenario, but surely if a submerged City were a mere ten years away the financial industry would already have started moving out of... oh wait a minute.

When I'm in Brussels or Kraków, my outlook is relatively (and I mean relatively) sunny, but when I come back to the UK, I suddenly become convinced that I have no chance of getting a pension or health insurance, I'll be living in a bedsit for the rest of my life and my dotage will be spent rocking spasmodically in a corner of the orange-painted EasyNursingHome or - worse still - my arthritic fingers piecing together components in a European-outsourced Chinese munitions factory.

If only it would stop raining.

Mid-holiday challenge: what's the worst apocalytic scenario you can find in a British tabloid today? Answers on a postcard (or in the comments box) please...

Monday, 28 December 2009

The Christmas riddle

[continued from previous - very previous]

World-famous eminent demonic symbololo-ologist, Dr Roberto Kowalski, chewed his lower lip, his hands trembling.
The tension in the room was palpable. You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife, thrown it in the blender and made eggnog.

Across the table his opponent, icily beautiful and clearly - like all the bad girls he ran into these days - attracted to him in spite of herself, twirled the fragile paper clue between long, lazy fingers, a mocking smile playing around her lips.

Debris from the explosion littered the tablecloth in flashes of coloured metallic paper. The acrid scent of gunpowder hung in the air like sage and onion reflux the morning after a roast turkey dinner.

All the codes he had ever learnt flashed through his mind in mere seconds. But none fit the puzzle this time. His maverick American brain grappled with the riddle and yet...

Could it be?

Surely not?!

And yet the solution hovered elusively just out of his grasp.

A bead of sweat trickled down the Doctor's pulsating temple. He felt the tissue paper hat slip down over one greying, yet somehow still irresistibly attractive brow.

It was no good. The game was over. This was one riddle that was beyond even his vast crime-solving experience.

- I give up... he breathed... tell me...

... what IS the difference between a viola and a trampoline?

Sunday, 20 December 2009

French word of the day: neige

This can be a noun, as in 'aeroport de Bruxelles fermé a cause de fortes chutes de neige'. Or the third person singular of the verb 'neiger' as in 'bordel je reste bloquée a Bruxelles et je ne sais pas rentrer chez moi pour les fetes de Noel parce que ce f***u neige ne cesse pas de tomber!' Actually I didn't use the verb there, did I? Well spotted. Ummm how about 'Il neige', tout court. There we go, nothing like stating the obvious.

Yesterday, there was Bach. There was Bach for two hours and an amazing bass soloist and gorgeous cor anglais and French horn and a sold-out Palais des Beaux Arts and it was fabulous.

My parents were supposed to come and watch and listen to said Bach, and I was to return with them to England via the Eurotunnel. Last time they came to visit I insisted that they use the ferry (because I like slot machines and Nescafé and I like my wipe-clean lounge chairs to come with a lovely sheen of chip grease. oh and those vacuum-flush loos.), so this time it was their turn to choose (my Dad gets seasick).
I'm sure you've all heard about the Eurostars that broke down in the tunnel because the sudden change of temperature between snowed-under France and the warm dark tunnel made the electronics crash or something like that. And the evacuations and the lack of water and electric light and the overflowing loos and so on.
Anyway the upshot is that my parents couldn't get on a shuttle and they had to go home, and I am now joining the mad rush to get out of Brussels before Christmas.

Ooh it isn't half dramatic. We do love a bit of drama here at Pinolona.

And this all seems somehow awfully familiar.

I'm left with a choice (here comes the interactive part!).
I could book a flight back for a couple of days time, trusting in the Belgian Météo; and hoping that Brussels international airport will reopen tomorrow and that amazing and lovely British Airways will get me home in time for Christmas Eve (I also need to book a flight back come to think of it).

I could get on a ferry somewhere as a foot passenger - this is a slightly risky strategy. It's certainly possible to get to Calais but it's a lengthy process. Trains are still running though so we could be on to a winner here. I could try and sail from Oostende, which has the advantage of being much more reachable by train (and doesn't involve going to France, for extra bonus points). However, TransEuropa Ferries calmly informed me that they don't take foot passengers, for insurance reasons. So I would have to count on being able to make friends with a British (or Polish) truck driver and hitching a lift onto the boat. A risky strategy.

I could try Eurolines, but their website doesn't specify whether they go via ferry or tunnel. Again a risky strategy.

I could hitch hike...

Or... I could stay in Brussels over Christmas, watch the Pasterka on TVP Polonia and brew up some of the barszcz recipe that The Polish Chick sent me. I have hot chocolate, I have a duvet, I have over 200 cable tv channels in at least four different languages and I have an emergency bottle of Absolut in the freezer compartment. Joyeuses Fetes indeed.

What do you reckon?

ps, here's my balcony snowman. It doesn't even compare to Laura's but I was a bit pressed for time. Will try again this afternoon. Wait. It is afternoon. Later this afternoon.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Seems familiar

Rattling old trams, snow in the park at night, people speaking Polish in the metro... this all seems strangely... familiar...


Bach's Mass in B Minor is a dark, brooding work of enormous depth and myriad layers. It is a work you sing maybe once in a lifetime, if you are a lucky amateur. It lasts a whopping two hours (topping even the highest of the high Anglicans for stamina in church) and builds from a quite literally spine-tingling opening Kyrie, trips joyfully over the Gloria, through a complex, emotional Credo and sweepingly majestic Sanctus to finish with a quiet, simple heavenward plea - Dona nobis pace.
Bach well understood the human condition: the despair of the Crucifixus is all too human and the closing Dona Nobis is a humble expression of hope.
The Mass soars and swoops from ecstatic to destitute to elated, as do we all.

I recommend finding somewhere to listen to it, maybe this weekend.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

"Madame, Monsieur...

Votre technicien Telenet vous a rendu visite le [handwritten] 16/12/09 a [unspecified] heures

afin de...

[cocher s'il vous plait]

[X] desactiver votre télévision"

So no more free digital TV for me, thanks Telenet. When I called them, I didn't even recognise the tenant's name that they gave: clearly my predecessor had managed to blag free telly for the whole duration of his residence.

The good news is my new contract has TVP Polonia on it! (and TVP2)

The bad news is I have to pay extra to get a special box in order to receive this gem of Polish broadcasting quality* (not to mention -finally - Italian channels which Are Not Rai Uno, mamma mia ma che sciocchezze...).

Sadly my beloved Mobistar is the one telecoms provider in Belgium that does not offer TV in its communications package, meaning I'm possibly the only person in Belgium to have separate TV and internet and this is Almost Certainly more expensive. It must all be Belgacom's fault. Since they're the dominant market operator and former monopolist, I'm pretty certain I can open infringement proceedings against them for passing on the administrative burden to the end user.

Take that, Belgacom!

*very poor English, do not use this for work.

still here

I am still here, honest. I haven't thrown myself into the... well into a big vat of Chimay brune yet.

Although that's not such a bad idea.

I'm just busy...

If you feel like a little relaxation, why not take a trip to the Palais des Beaux-Arts this weekend? Just, well, just in case. You never know who you might bump into.

There's a lot to do. And not enough hours in the day to do it. I think we are going to need a montage. (Even Rocky had a montage).
Listen to the music and then fast forward to next week.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

happy post! (about obwarzanki)

oh gosh, I don't want the sad post to be the last thing I wrote! At the same time, I'm too busy to write another one.

Tell me happy things!

Or listen to the Belgian Song again.

... as I'm walking down the street, eating mayonnaise and frites...

Talking of street food...

One thing you may have noticed if you've been on board since The Poland Days is how much obwarzanki form an integral part of the Kraków diet. Especially as a student, with only fifteen minutes to eat between classes: just about time to run out to the pretzel stand and to queue by the coffee machine. I miss Kraków.
An Obwarzanek (the Kraków type, not the dessicated little pretzel-rings you get on strings in Warsaw. And indeed Brussels) is a big round bread twist, about the same size as a bagel, but without the heavy chewiness or sugary coating. It's crusty on the outside like bread and dipped in either poppy seeds (z makiem), sesame seeds (z sezamem) or big salt crystals (z solem) like a German pretzel. Some obwarzanki sellers offer versions with melted cheese (z serem), cayenne pepper (pikantny) or pizza herbs and tomato (pizzowy). I've also seen a rye version (ciemny) with oats on top, yummy.
I want one. They are stomach-filling (and possibly also bowel-stopping, since they consist exclusively of refined carbohydrates) and good.

Yesterday I plucked up the courage to ask the Pani in Kuchnia Polska on Avenue d'Auderghem, taking care to specify 'Krakowskie obwarzanki'.

- excuse me, she said, but what do you mean by 'krakowskie' obwarzanki?
- you know, the big ones, I explained.
- oh no, I'm sorry: they're like bread, they'd be awful the next day. You'd probably have to order them specially.

Proszę Panstwa, to jest dramat.

I am going to have to call the Polish Embassy...

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Sunday 6am life assessment

As you may have guessed, Sw. Mikołai did not visit my flat to grant my wishes this year (I blame lack of chimney).

I can't sleep, and since it's Sunday morning, I have at least 24 hours before I can do anything pro-active.

I do not want to spend another six months translating at home in Brussels.

It's not that I don't like the city. I actually feel pretty at home here. And please don't tell me I'm just being negative. I am not a negative person. I have been an ex-pat on and off since 2002 and I know the Happy Strategies: I go running, I exercise regularly, I play music, I listen to music, I joined a choir, I take the scary or miserable parts of my life and I fashion them into amusing little blog posts to make myself laugh at things that would otherwise probably have me cowering under my desk in despair. I look at the tiny things, the leaves and the sunshine in the park and I think how lucky I am to be here. I hate it when people who have easy jobs and have never moved out of their home town talk about how they can't stand 'negative people'. Everyone is sad sometimes and that's human.

But: I don't want to sit here alone, waiting for the possibility of a hypothetical exam.

I'm not the most extroverted person, but I am a human being and I like contact with people. I like solitude but I am not happy that it has become the norm for me to go for whole days without speaking to anyone. I can't do this for another six months. It feels wrong, it feels as though I am fighting against the current and I don't know what to do.

I know that I am lonely and unhappy and I can't bear the thought of another six months of the same.

There is no shame in admitting that things are not going to plan.

Since I can't call my parents at this time of the morning, I am turning to you, O oracle of the internet: tell me what to do!

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Belgian Weird, part deux

I totally forgot Speculoos!

Not something scary wielded by your gynaecologist but rather a type of caramelised, cinnamony biscuit served with coffee. You know, the free ones that people in other countries just ignore.

Belgians are obsessed by them! To be honest, I've never seen a Belgian person actually go out and actively buy speculoos to dunk in their tea, but this may be because I live in Brussels and have rarely seen a Belgian person do.. well... anything.

It is traditionally eaten on St Nicolas' day (i.e. NOW) and the supermarkets sell it in big festive slabs.

But that's not where the obsession ends: speculoos crops up in desserts, ice-cream flavours, even a sort of speculoos-nutella.

Speculoos on Wikipedia

Gosh, isn't it great to be a Belgian?

The Belgian Song

Friday, 4 December 2009

Year end pre-report

I'm going to do it: I'm going to use my blog as a big soggy pillow and have a good cry over all of your operating systems (or Blackberries, or iPhones, or whatever you technologically-advanced folks have nowadays).

To cut a long story short, there have been peaks and troughs at both professional and personal level, resulting in a marked slump for PinoCorp at the start of this festive season, and a general ambience of Pino Grigio. We are considering restructuring in early 2010, potentially sending the majority of the workforce on extended leave in the UK and keeping only an (exo-)skeleton staff on in Brussels (under the sink, until the next intervention anti-cafards).

Plus invoices are late this month and it hasn't stopped raining for a week.

Our short-term recovery plan involves duvets, ice-cold vodka-tonic and Friday Night with Jonathan Ross.

But we all know what happens when we make plans.

Which is why I will - instead of cowering under the duvet (or indeed making up for translation time lost to admin this week) - be singing 'This little light of mine' in the basement of the local Church of Scotland.** I am not entirely sure how this happened but it is almost certainly a combination of my pathological inability to say 'no' and the effects of a half-finished biere brune. Without a doubt it is all that I deserve for daring to venture out on a school night.

It is a small comfort to me that my pitiful existance serves to provide mirth and good cheer to so many in these otherwise dull and unforgiving times.
Normal service will - probably - resume on Saturday.

**EDIT: It was actually pretty cool...

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

List do Swiętego Mikołaja

Szanowny Panie Święty Mikołaju!

Proszę Pana bardzo... ja na Mikołajki chciałabym dostać zaproszenia na egzamin akreditacyjny.
Byłam przez (prawie) cały rok grzeczna; poza tym, ćwiczę codziennie konsekutywki, czytam Economista i Monde Diplomatique i śpiję z książką o notatkach Jean-Francois Rozan'a pod poduszką. Rzadko piję wódkę (bez soku) i (prawie) nigdy nie chodzę tańczyć w klubach czy gadać z chłopakami (nawet nie pamiętam, co jest 'chłopak').

Jeżeli Pan nie jest w stanie pryzchylić się do mojej prośby, byłabym również zachwycona stażem przez trybunał sprawiedliwości, lub kucykiem.

Dziękuję uprzejmie (chociaż rozpaczliwie) i serdecznie pozdrawiam,

P, tłumacz z Krakowa...

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Sto lat!

On 29 November, 1909, my Granny was born in a small mining town in North Wales.
One hundred years ago and an entirely different universe, she was fourth in a family of six: four sisters and a brother. Their mother died while she was still a child and their father was injured in a mining accident and left unable to work. The two littlest girls were fostered by other families in the village while the others stayed behind and were looked after by the eldest daughter, a slight thirteen-year old.
Her childhood was spent in a culture wholly different to that of my own: milk was a precious commodity, English was a foreign language learnt at school and leeks were pinned to fronts on St David's Day*.
At the age of fifteen, after finishing school, my grandmother and one of her elder sisters moved to the foreign lands of darkest Tunbridge Wells to go into service at a maternity hospital.
(Several years ago, after I ran away - desperately unhappy - from an awful summer job working as a live-in barmaid at an Italian hotel, she looked at me knowingly: I knew you wouldn't like it, she said, it's hard, I know that. I was twenty-one though and it was only a summer job.)

It's hard to imagine one hundred years: as a young girl growing up in Wales, could she ever have dreamed up television, aeroplanes, the internet, whole symphony orchestras stored on a pen drive and instant communication with family living halfway across the globe? Of miraculous drugs that might have saved her mother, her husband? What if I live to be one hundred? What unimaginable wonders will humanity have produced by then? How fast will the time fly by?

Happy birthday Granny (for yesterday) - here's to the next one.

*Although I suspect that she may be having us on about this one.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009


Kryzys, la crise, la crisi, whatever you want to call it.

No, not that one. In the self-absorbed world of the western twenty-something there is only One Great Crisis and that is THIRTY.

It has recently occurred to me that I am twenty-nine.

To be honest, it happened not long ago and I managed to cheat myself into overlooking the whole thing by conveniently having the same birthday as that of another friend who is four years younger. Effectively this meant I ended up celebrating the last birthday of my third decade by getting inelegantly wasted with a very large number of very young students (many of them Polish).

Classily done.

So, since it's Tuesday night and we have nothing better to do than practice our note-taking skills and proofread Italian legal translation, let's take a cheerful moment to reflect on all the things we didn't achieve. All those 'When I grow up's that never made it past the drawing board. All those trips round the world we forgot to book, novels that we never started, flat deposits that we really on reflection oughtn't to have frittered away on kir petillante and crepes nutella on the rue St André des Arts...

All the things we thought we might have been...

... but aren't.

I'll start the ball rolling.

I thought by now I'd be...

1/ At the height of my professional career. I had little inkling, ten years ago, of what that professional career was to have been, but it would have been exciting. Something like a spy, or an investment banker* or an ambassador in the Foreign Office. In any case, it would have involved expensive tailored suits and wine-bar lunches.

2/ Living in a nice apartment. Possibly on the Lamarck-Caulaincourt side of Montmartre. There would have been a Very Deep Bath that you could swim in, plus a terrace (I do have a balcony actually but since I live in Belgium it's too cold to use it).
I was never clear on the specifics but one thing is certain: it would not have involved a 'lit-mezzanine'.

3/Gorgeous. Seriously: I never thought I'd have any use for benzoyl peroxide cream past the age of twenty two. I mean, who gets spots and wrinkles? Ok, I don't actually have wrinkles: I have three lines on my forehead and That Is All. But spots? Oh and how. And let's not mention the uncontrollable hair, the wonky glasses, the fact that I can't wear office clothes without looking like the temp waitress...

3-bis/ In possession of a generous set of assets. Up until the age of about twenty-three I still believed that one day I might wake up to find that they just appeared overnight. I genuinely thought I'd magically grow up to have a knockout figure, and that chicken fillets would be items that belonged in the fridge and not at the bottom of a B-cup. Dads of the world! This is what happens if you watch Baywatch with your daughters on a Saturday afternoon. Switch It Off.

4/ Able to cope with guys. Somehow I thought I'd have worked it out by now: how to be just the right degree of cool, rather than careening wildly from Desperate to Ice Queen; how to slouch seductively in a figure-hugging black dress, long blonde(ish) hair swinging - instead of twisting from one foot to the other, chewing my nails and talking at a good four hundred times my normal rate. Oh and I never predicted Twitter, G-talk, Skype, text messaging, Facebook... all simply a big digital mass of potential misunderstanding.
I would also have learnt to let Mr Wrong know the score in a grown up way, from the word go, instead of telling myself, with no small degree of cowardice, that just one more drink won't hurt and maybe he just wants to be friends after all.

4-bis/ A lesbian. As a teenager I was pretty certain that I would end up living a sedate and highly PC life devoted to intellectual pursuits and novel writing in a cottage near Cambridge with a female companion of a similar disposition. I read Orlando and Colette's Claudine novels and dreamed of a tweedy, steamy, forbidden existence.
But somewhere around 2001, in the vicinity of St Andrews University Students' Association Bar, something went horribly wrong.
I blame the intrusion of heterosexuality (and possibly also modern languages) for my failure to publish any great works of literature so far.

5/ Confident. I mean really - not aggressive, not obnoxious, just calmly assertive. Able to mingle. Well-versed in the school of Good Chat. Self-assured. Not plagued by the nagging suspicion that any minute now someone will suddenly Find You Out and tell everyone that you are Faking It and banish you back to the hot damp little corner of the pot wash where you belong.
If anyone knows the secret to this one, do let me know.

So... what did you think you'd be by now?

Answers in the comments box, please!

*my Dad used to work in the City and travelled to exciting parts of Africa a lot so I grew up thinking that this was the height of sophistication. I remember being asked in church once what I wanted to be when I grew up and replying 'I want to work in a bank like Daddy'. Oh Mrs Thatcher, what have you done?

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Belgian weird

I suppose it's about time for one of those '101 bizarre things about living in Belgium/Poland/a cardboard box under Pont Neuf/etc.' posts.

Here we go then.

1/ Proton: I still haven't worked out what this means. It appears to be some kind of monetary transaction management company, like Visa. Although it could just as easily be a brand of washing powder or a bodybuilding supplement. You can use it in shops which display the 'Proton' logo. I did try once: - no no - said the cashier - you haven't got any money on your Proton. You have to put money on it first. Lo and behold, next time I put my Belgian card in the cashpoint there was an option to withdraw cash to my Proton account. From there, you use the cash in your 'Proton account' to pay with your bank card. I don't understand. Why not just get the cash out straight away? Or pay directly with the bank card?
It makes no sense.
Only In Belgium.

2/ Madame Pipi: In most European countries there's a small charge to use the powder room and this may be more or less widespread in proportion to the publicness/relative cleanliness of said facility. For example, in the UK you normally only pay to pee in railway stations.
In Belgium, I discovered, there's no such thing as a free wee. In a country which produces over 8000 varieties of beer (thanks Wikipedia), this defies logic. My first encounter with Madame Pipi was in a bar near Antwerp Central Station. I tripped down the stairs to the loo, only to find a wizened little old lady sitting at a table with a tray.
- 50 cents please.
- What? oh no, you've got me wrong, I'm a customer (because normally customers can use the loo without paying, right?)
- That's not my problem. I don't work for them. Pay up. Or cross your legs: up to you.

3/ Labels: When you move to Belgium, you have to go to the commune and declare your residence. I inadvertently bypassed epic queues and frustration by ringing up and being given an appointment (albeit several weeks later, but who's counting? I'm quite happy to put off the evil hour where administrative procedure is concerned).
Once you've showed up, handed over your passport, and fielded the inevitable awkward questions about your source of income, lack of social security number and so forth, it all passes relatively quickly until they get to the

- and then the Police will come and visit you

- But I haven't done anything!
- No no, they just have to check you actually live there.
- Excuse me?!
- It's ok, you just have to make sure you have your name on the letterbox and by the doorbell, otherwise you'll never be able to register. (I have yet to work out why this would be a disadvantage)
I eventually tracked down some sticky labels in the far aisle at Carrefour, and now both my doorbell and my letterbox have crappy peeling stickers by them with my name on.
Sure enough, two days later there was a knock at the door. I opened it in my pyjamas (so what?! I'm a freelancer. 'Dressed' is a highly culturally-subjective concept), handed over my passport and resumed normal 'slumped at desk' working attitude.

4/ Bilingualism: Go to any concert or public event in Belgium and there will be two MCs. Obviously: one in French and one in Flemish. Inevitably, the French speaker will be playing the straight man while the version Flamande will have everyone in the auditorium helpless with mirth and weeping gently into their popcorn.
Everyone except you, the foreigner, because you didn't bother to learn Dutch, did you? Thought you could get away with a mere postgraduate degree in French?! Hah!
- uhhh il a dit quoi en effet?
- heheheheh mais il est dingue ce type!
- mais qu'est-ce qu'il a dit??
- mmmph *hic!* c'est trop marrant...

It's a conspiracy, I'm sure of it.

5/More labels: Belgium doesn't actually have two official languages.
It has three*.
For this reason, standard regulatory labels on food and everything really are Simply Enormous.
This must seriously cramp the style of Belgian marketing execs, who have to find room for all that text somewhere.


Only five things?! Maybe Belgium isn't as weird as I thought. Must try harder...

*German! Back of the class, go on.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Language etc.

I changed my mind: I don't want to learn the art of mating with Europeans. I'm getting old now, and I remembered that normally mid-way through an evening out I find myself making uncomfortable small talk and wishing I were at home watching Strictly Come Dancing with an enormous gin and tonic.

Instead, let's learn some Dutch. Namely from the Belgacom advert.

I don't really understand this, but whenever I'm in Antwerp I feel like the guy speaking 'English'...
My friend wrote a funny post about how Dutch is English spoken by LOLcats.
My interpretation is that it's more like Yorkshire English spoken with a Somerset accent by Sean Connery. Anyway. That is all for today.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Of birds and bees

They say that were it not for alcohol there would be no British people. And I am coming to realise just how ill-prepared my British upbringing has left me for the world of dating outside the UK.

For those of you not in the know, the traditional courting ritual of the British mating pair involves nervously avoiding each other for anything from one week up to six months (in rare cases this phase of the mating cycle may last for years), a wary circling which sooner or later culminates in one frenzied night of passion, largely fuelled by any one or combination of the following:

- Stella tops
- Bombay Sapphire and Tonic
- Snakebite and Black (students only)
- Sainsbury's Valpolicella


After fleeing the scene - normally within twelve hours of copulation, and often in haste leaving behind appendages of varying degrees of essentiality (shoes, bras, contact lenses - known as 'Cinderella syndrome') - Phase Two, or Sub-phase One, 'secondary avoidance', begins. The tension begins to build again, eventually reaching its climax - excuse the terminology - in a second night of liquid-laced activity. At this point, the couple in question is generally no longer able to fend off probing questions from members of their social circle, and - somewhat sheepishly - a relationship begins.

As the relationship progresses, the volume of alcohol required prior to mating may vary in either direct or indirect proportion to its duration.

Typical mating calls of the Anglo-Saxon female may include:
- God, I'm so wasted!

***And they all lived happily ever after***

It has become clear that this method ceases to be effective across the Channel.

Now in Belgium, the avoidance and booze technique is simply getting me nowhere. Ultimately it results in my sitting at home in front of Spooks with a bottle of Cotes de Rhone, inadvertently avoiding more or less everyone.

I wouldn't mind all that much (I'm starting to get into the new series, and 75cl of Carrefour red is an awful lot cheaper than going halves on a candlelit dinner for two), only the effects are starting to show in other areas, namely that I tend to channel pent-up - ahem - physical energy into feverish yet futile mental activity.

I have two degrees, speak Polish and play the organ and can't believe it's taken me this long to work that one out.

So, to save my neighbours from the inevitable insanity that can only come from frequent repetition of pages three and four* of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody on organ setting; to prevent my floor becoming completely lost under a pile of old copies of Polityka and to stop me missing most of Grey's Anatomy by trying to read the Dutch subtitles, I'm enlisting your help. Teach me how to date in Europe! That's all I ask.

In return, I'll avoid you for a month and then come round with a bathtub full of snakebite and black...

*the only two pages that I can play.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Autumn leaves

I've always loved autumn: it's always been my favourite season. La rentrée, back to school, whatever you call it. Autumn is where the air tastes fresher and the leaves are crispy underfoot. Couples walk hand in hand and giggle like teenagers and cheeks are rosy and steps springy. Autumn is full of hope and new starts: schools, universities, new jobs, new friendship, new love...
Trees crowd together in excitement, merging, laughing, in a cloud of russet and gold.

Then suddenly November comes, and night falls and with it silence and the trees stand stark and bare of leaves and twisted in grief, their branches not even touching.

Monday, 9 November 2009


I've been using Mobistar for my mobile phone (including mobile internet) and home broadband - both essential for my business - since I got here, and it is the least reliable telephone company I have ever had the misfortune to be involved with. (Incidentally Mobistar is part of Orange, or the France Telecom Group and I have to admit that Orange UK are slightly better: this is to neutralise the fact that the pedants among you will probably point out that they are one and the same thing and therefore it can't be the worst company I've ever used, etc.)

For starters, the internet connection quality is rubbish. The speed of streaming at home is appalling: you can't listen video speeches in any language and YouTube is a write-off.

On the mobile, I can only connect to the web via 'Orange World', which is constantly on the blink, meaning my mobile internet service is unreliable to say the least.

And finally you simply can't get through to Customer Service. I've actually got up during a Mobistar call, walked to the Mobistar shop on Rue de Tongres, and still been on hold on arrival (although that's only about ten minutes).

Bizarrely, every so often someone from Mobistar will call me, for some unfathomable reason, with some totally irrelevant question about how I am enjoying my subscription. I tell them it's pants, and they inform me that a customer service representative will call me back in a few days.

They never do.

Mobistar, your service is crap. Call me.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Mąż do wynajęcia!

Or rather 'Husband for hire!'

Not the desperate cry of a frustrated housewife, but the name of a new agency recently set up in Warsaw and featured in
Yep, in a bid to beat the recession, ordinary Polish guys are renting themselves out to put up shelves, deal with spiders, accompany single thirtysomethings to awkward family dinners, explain the off-side rule and generally make themselves useful. The owner of the firm, one Massymiliano Boscaro, is quick to add that more intimate services are most definitely off the cards.

Apparently the agency is popular with women who feel let down by their own less-than-perfect spouses as well as single over-thirties whom Mr Right has passed by. Sometimes even men call in.

Unlike real husbands, according to the author, these professionals actually clean up after themselves.

Poland never fails to surprise me.

Link to the article here.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009


I crossed the river (or canal? in any case, water) and followed the usual impulse to wander down a side alley.
Bad move.
Step straight out of the station away from the main streets and you find yourself slap bang (quite literally in some cases) in the famous Red Light district.
Not so much sexy or forbidden as bawdy, seedy, despair-inducing, the place was full (at two in the afternoon) of well-refreshed gentlemen with very short hair roving the narrow streets in gangs. It is likely that many of them were British. Red and green tube lights assailed the peripheral vision, brash against the soft grey of the sky, the streets, the water... familiar wafts of a pungent sweetness ebbed and flowed from open doorways. I stumbled down another alley and past a huge prostitute standing mockingly in a doorway, handfuls of flesh spilling over the top of her corset.

After about fifteen minutes of pure revulsion I came to the Dam (the main square). The greyness and overcrowding was relentless. I wanted to curl up in a corner against the grey stone and sob my heart out for this horrible, horrible city.

But I didn't. I walked down one of the main streets and bought a cup of coffee.

- Why is this city so awful?
I asked the - decent enough - guy behind the bar (I'm not known for my diplomatic skills)
- It's not that bad.
he answered. Go down that street, straight ahead, walk around the canals, where there are fewer people. Look around and see.

And that is what I did:

Oh and I bought two new kinds of tea.

(I should also mention that I stayed with some Am*dam couchsurfers and they were absolutely awesome, really good people. Liking the Netherlands more than Belgium all the time... )

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Local trip

So, to jolt myself out of my Brussels rut I'm thinking of allowing myself a local trip this weekend (assuming no extra work comes up).

Because we at the Pinolona editorial office aim to please, we will make it a photo reconnaissance trip (read 'easy post'), so pick the one you would be least indifferent to seeing pictures of:

- Ghent................. 30 mins
- Bruges................about an hour
- Amsterdam.......2 hours ish (read 'I don't really know but if you forget to get off at Antwerp that's where you end up')

... or should I simply stay here and take pictures of la belle Bruxelles (is Bruxelles plural? Or even feminine? If only I cared enough to look it up) en automne?

Gosh I do love the blog. It's like the yes-no-maybe ball all over again...

Monday, 26 October 2009


Before I left the UK, tea came in two kinds: Earl Grey (if you were trying to be posh) and Tetley (if you were trying not to be)*.
It normally came in bags, except when I was very very little (before my parents gave up on that sort of thing altogether) when there would always be a lot of soggy tea leaves in the plughole of the kitchen sink at breakfast time. Ideally it would be made in a pot, but then again any port in a storm.

If you asked for it without milk, you were considered a bit weird (even those who took it without sugar were living dangerously close to the edge).

Society was divided between those who put the milk in the cup first, and those who put it in afterwards. There are some highly valid and very scientific arguments for and against both stances, into which we will not go today.

Herbal tea was what Peter Rabbit was given as a punishment for breaking into Mr McGregor's garden.

Outside England tea is a different matter entirely.

It's actually ironic that we are considered to be the most tea-fussy nation in Europe, when British tea rituals are quite literally sloppy compared to those of - um let's think - the Poles.

For example, before leaving England, I never gave a second thought to tea brewing. You swirled the teabag around, gave it a bit of squeeze on the side of the cup and then flicked it into the bin (best done Dennis the Menace-style on the end of a teaspoon from the other side of someone else's kitchen).
What a fool I was. Now I know that you must drop the teabag (or tea leaf dongle thingy, or tea sock - don't ask, they look terrible) into a glass of boiling water, place the saucer delicately over the top and leave for five minutes. Five minutes, incidentally, is just enough time for the saucer to become very, very hot, and for you to burn your fingers.
Afterwards, you may add sugar, and/or a slice of lemon. You may drink it with milk, but only if you are pregnant or - apparently - an old-school Communist. In winter, the addition of raspberry syrup is compulsory. In the first language school I attended in Kraków, they never served it any other way. Requests for water were greeted with blank looks and confusion.

When you visit a friend, you will always be offered tea. And here the competitive streak kicks in.
- Thanks, what do you have?
you might innocently reply.
- Well... not much: English breakfast, Earl Grey, fruit tea, green tea, peppermint tea, Yogi Tea, Pu-Erh, Sencha, czarna porzeczka and something strange in a brown bag that came from that tea shop on Jozefa that closed recently - the one with the funny smell next to what used to be the Shisha place.

If you are sensible, you will pick English breakfast. Almost all of the others will be in leaf form, and then the ritual begins.
The safest way to brew leaf tea is in a pot, clearly. But, it can be done in a cup: various devices exist to assist this process.
Firstly, the springy thingy.
This looks like two tea strainers clasped together in a sort of scissors arrangement.
In theory the mechanics is good, but beware: having sprinkled that last gram of dry tea into one half of the strainer, take care not to snap the pincers shut Too Fast: tea leaves will be sprayed everywhere and will probably end up floating on the surface of your tanninate beverage.

Secondly, the Tea Sock.
Like the springy thingy, this looks fairly innocent when it's new and clean: it's a sort of long sack, in natural cotton, like the end of a pair of tights. Warning! After two or three uses, the Tea Sock will be stained an appetizing shade of tannin brown, looking for all the world like a very mangy pair of saggy cotton Y-fronts.

The worst part of it all is that eventually you start to feel ashamed of your own pathetic tea shelf offering. You find yourself unable to resist the siren waft of the tea merchant: that fragrance draws you in, you begin to collect teas too. My parents despair because their larder is filled with Ginger Spice digestive tea, Twinings Peppermint and Camomile (tea shelf staples), Taylor and Harrogate Green tea and something weird we found at the back of Grandma's kitchen cupboard.

However, unless you're buying it in loose leaves by the ounce and taking it home in a brown paper bag, you're not doing it properly. I'm safe for the moment. But how long will it last?

to be continued...

*come to think of it, this actually sums up British class attitudes pretty well.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Three posts in one

Gosh, it's really dark at half past six in the evening now, isn't it?!

I have three thoughts in mind, none of which are quite big enough in themselves to merit a separate post.

Re the last post - I've changed my mind about democracy and the BBC. I don't think people like Nick Griffin should be allowed to speak on Question Time. The whole thing descended into a shouting match and was no use whatsoever in terms of scrutiny. There were a lot of angry voices in the crowd from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds all wanting to know - and quite justifiably so - how an educated man from their country could possibly logically come out with the kind of statements that Nick Griffin has about race, the Holocaust, Islam.

But that's not what Question Time is for. There's something incredibly distasteful about an angry mob baying for blood, even crazy, racist, extremist blood. That's not what democratic scrutiny is all about. It's as though we need someone to shout at, and finally we've found the socially-acceptable solution.

Apart from anything else, it was a gift to the other participants on the panel (Jack Straw, Conservative MP Baroness Warsi, Lib Dem Chris Huhne and Bonnie Greer) who couldn't help but sound like the voice of reason in comparison with their extreme-right colleague.
In fact, all but the final question were BNP-centred, meaning the other panellists effectively escaped scrutiny. Nice work, BBC.

This is why Question Time is not the best platform for this type of speaker.

2/ (since when did I become a political blogger anyway?!)
A couple of long-awaited payments finally came through this week and my thoughts turned to the fripperies of the high street (I'm not a fashion blogger either).
Autumn is the only time I like to buy clothes. Reflecting the falling leaves, the shops are full of russets, chestnuts, ochre - all colours that I can actually carry off with relative lack of failure (the only Real Colours I can wear are red and green, and I refuse to resemble a poinsettia).
It's not only the warm autumnal colours that make me want to buy; textures are great in autumn: chunky knits, velvety cords, cosy woolly tights and leggings (yes I do translate fashion blurb). All the things that make you want to curl up on the sofa in front of the fire (failing that, the television) with a big cup of tea and some Marmite on toast.

It's all so much more civilised than summer (acid colours, not enough coverage, too many wispy synthetics), winter (no desire to buy next season's spring clothes when the outside world is full of sludge and slurry) and spring (too early to even be thinking about a bikini wax).

So yes, receiving two relatively weighty payments mid-autumn is dangerous for me. Think saving for taxes, saving for taxes.

Panic! What was the third thing?!
Oh yes.
I don't care if I never have a boyfriend again, if I never pass that accreditation test, if I never finish my touchingly humorous yet handsomely-crafted novel about the life of a brave, intelligent young language professional swimming against the tide during two years living and working in post-accession Poland...

What I want is to be able to play Whatever I Like on the piano, like this guy:

(or like Jamie Cullum, who was also on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross).

I have started practising. I'm working from a full photocopy (generously provided by a family friend, from my parents' church choir, who is well-versed in the techniques of trad jazz) of Lee Sims Piano Method (Jazz) - A Complete instructor in the new American style of "orchestral effect" piano playing and modern harmony
As far as I can tell, this involves turning everything into ragtime.

Great, I can manage that.

Currently, I'm having enormous fun adding inappropriate stride bass arrangements to just about anything really.

My favourites so far are Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen, not GF Handel) and I Need A Hero.

Any other suggestions are welcome (please send chords).

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Freedom of speech

Interesting times. Tonight, Nick Griffin of the BNP is a guest on BBC1's Question Time, and - since I have the lovely lovely BBC at home - I'm staying up to watch. I'm getting out the beer and popcorn.
OK, no popcorn.

Now, for non-Brits, the BNP tends to swing to the right somewhat, with rather less-than-friendly policies on immigrants and an inconvenient habit of denying the Holocaust.

This is all very exciting. There have been protests all day. They even broke into the BBC. There are previews on the BBC news as we speak and people are even booing him on. Excellent.
Protesters have complained that it's equivalent to putting Hitler on TV.

Now hang on a minute.

The very fact that people are breaking into the BBC, the fact that there is so much protest, so much news coverage, surely shows that this is absolutely nothing of the sort. We are well aware of what the BNP represents, we have a vague idea of Nick Griffin's policies (well... at least regarding immigration) and we are treating him with the necessary caution. Yes, Britain has been racked by recession, but that doesn't mean we're looking for an extremist to beat us into an economically-successful future. We're letting a known extremist speak on the television, but we know what we're letting ourselves in for. People, the press, public figures are talking about it: the debate is open, and a jolly good thing too.

Let's not forget that we are talking about an elected party: the BNP - however wrong or right this may be - do have seats in the European Parliament (*shudders*). As such, we need a platform to interrogate them. Question Time is not for the faint-hearted: excerpts are flashing past on the news at the moment and let me tell you it's no picnic. He's not in an enviable position.
And quite right too: politicians should be held to account. I'm curious: I want to know whether what I've heard about the BNP is correct - and what their other policies might be.

So I'm glad this guy is going to be on the TV tonight. I know it's much easier to trot out that tired old Voltaire line than actually to look at free speech and decide where to draw a line before the truly unacceptable but nonetheless I stick by it.

Apart from anything else, it should be good entertainment value.

As an aside, the one thing that concerns me is that ordinary middle-class, Daily Express-reading Brits like my parents may listen and say - you know what, his other policies are actually pretty reasonable...

... and that I think is where the danger lies.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Red Belgium

First I started a humorous post about the disastrous city of Antwerp. Then I wrote a draft about friendly bus drivers in Ghent. There was even another in the oft-deleted 'How to flirt with a feminist' series.

But what you're actually going to get today is another Rant.

I just spent the morning flitting among the crowded cubicles of PartenaMut. This is a health insurance entity which seems to sort out all sorts of things like social security for freelancers, health care, etc, etc. I just want to be able to go to the doctor, basically.

Now at the moment my business is registered in the UK, since that's been my home/business address for the past year or so. I have a tax ID there, I pay National Insurance, I even have an accountant of sorts (at least, I have a contact at Tax Assist, which is sort of the tax return equivalent of Easyjet). I'm not registered for VAT, because my business is literally worth about twelve grand a year and because my overheads barely reach a thousand pounds, so it would be an expensive and largely useless gesture which would result in my losing clients.

I fully intend to register myself in Belgium, but not before I have to.

Here's the thing: to interpret in Belgium, I have to have an address in Belgium, otherwise clients are obliged to pay my travel expenses to avoid unfair competition (and I'm in favour of this, since I think interpreters should have their travel expenses paid and this is all very right and good).
However, if I have an address in Belgium, that means that I have to live in Belgium (the police already came around to check) and subsequently pay taxes in Belgium. Since I'm already going to have to pay taxes this year in the UK, I'll end up in the kind of double-taxation situation that the good old U of E is supposed to prevent.

Social security, now there's an interesting concept. I am fed up with paying extortionate social security contributions in other European Union Member States when there's not even the faintest likelihood of my drawing a pension there (not that I'd want to, in Poland OAPs' weekly incomes are minute). Since I graduated in 2006 I've paid contributions in both France and Poland and it looks likely that I'll now have to pay in Belgium as well, and all for what exactly? I still have to pay into a mutual fund to get my prescriptions reimbursed. Call me when there's a pan-European transferable pension scheme and I'll be happy to pay you upwards of 600 Euros per quarter.

Because, yes, that's the lowest social security contribution here.

As a self-employed person in the UK, I currently pay around 30 GBP per quarter in National Insurance. And I can visit the doctor there without taking my credit card or a wad of cash.

In Belgium, the lowest income bracket (11,824.38 per year, don't ask me how they came to this figure), net of income tax, which corresponds roughly to my situation, pays 631.45 euros of social security per quarter - that's four times a year! That would leave that person with 92,98.58 euros in their pocket (have we already subtracted VAT?)!

I'm giving up work altogether. Why on earth do I bother working like stink and learning difficult Slavic languages and quite possibly incubating stress-related heart disease to emerge in my forties, when I might as well sit at home on my derrière and claim 900 euros a month in unemployment benefit? I could spend my days reading Polityka on the sofa, uninterrupted by phonecalls from tiresome translation companies!

I have never lived in a country less favourable to private enterprise (apart from France).

I see a twofold choice ahead of me: I move back to my parents' house and get a job in McDonalds (pray tell me, why did I take out a fortune in loans for an education that has turned out to be largely useless?) or... I move back to Krakow, continue working under my UK registered company and simply pay for cheap private healthcare in zloty...

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

101 things to do on a Sunday afternoon: #001


The scene:
Friday morning, London bus to Camden.

Pinolona's brother (bearded, sensitive type, good bone structure, encyclopaedic knowledge of contemporary music) and Pinolona's dad (Conservative councillor, pensioner, very little hair, propensity to sing Lehar).

A pretty girl squeezes onto the bus, struggling to control an enormous circus whip.

Being well-schooled in the Art of Good Chat, Dad offers to help, strikes up a conversation and within about ten minutes has discovered that the girl is a dresser, the whip is for a photo shoot and she's trying to build up a professional portfolio to further her career.

Brother is awestruck.

Some time later, Dad and Brother step off the bus at Camden Market.

Dad: Well? Didn't you get her number? No?! Do I have to do everything for you?

Strolls away humming 'Lolo, Dodo, Jou-jou... Frou-frou, Clo-clo, Margot...'

Friday, 9 October 2009

Friday night musical

Because life should be like an old musical.

Time to find myself a Belgian salsa class...

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Are you being served?

One - pretty important - thing I haven't mentioned yet is Belgian Customer Service.

Now please, bear in mind I've just spent the past two years (more or less) living in a former Eastern Bloc country. While cities such as Kraków are very modern and Central European and sophisticated, they still have their fair share of grumpy old Panie Nie Ma, glaring protectively over their hoards of small change in those little post-Communist Sklepy Spożywcze with the green bars on the windows.

I really thought that Belgium, with its Mutualités and its cycle lanes and 'journées sans voitures' and general touchy-feelyness might be a little different.

What a fool I was. Let's not mention the pharmacies that insist on selling you a packet of ten capsules when all you need is one (without social security- still waiting - that's pretty steep). Or the Belgacom shopkeeper whose sales pitch I had to draw out of him, step by painful step (- no, I mean, couldn't you tell me the advantages of Belgacom over Clearwire? Is it more... uh... reliable, for example? Yes?).

No, I'm afraid this last episode has finally convinced me that Belgian customer service is officially The Worst In Europe.

I needed an ironing board.
Perhaps it is not entirely to my credit that it has taken me over a month to come to this conclusion.

Not having an awful lot of time at my disposal, I preferred not to waste it tramping the desolate backstreets of Etterbeek during daytime tv hours, so I looked up the number of the big(ger) Carrefour online.

- Bonjour, c'est bien Carrefour St Michel?
- Ouais.
- Est-ce que vous auriez par hazard des planches à repasser?
- Attendez j'en sais rien, faut que je vous passe...
Music. For several minutes. And then a flat dialling tone.

I would clearly have to leave the flat after all.

I braved the drizzle and stepped out into the greyness...

This was a much bigger Carrefour than the little local round the corner, full of exciting things (toasters made in China, shiny plastic kettles from Romania). After some effort, I found the domestic appliances section.

No ironing boards. The price tag was still on the shelf though.

I made my way to the customer services desk, where a stout woman in an overall was slumped on a high chair at one of those supervisor stations.

- Excuse me... there aren't any ironing boards on the shelf - do you have any in stock?
The woman raised her eyes - not without some effort - from her magazine.
- If it's not on the shelf, then we don't have it.
I tried again.
- Couldn't you ask? Please?
Sighing, she picked up the phone.
- He's coming.
She said, and - sitting back dismissively - opened her magazine, leaving me standing there speechless in front of her.

If I had dared to pull that trick as a sixth-former on a summer job in Sainsbury's, they'd have flayed me alive.

I faked a text message and took a picture:

My phone let out a resounding 'click', but if Pani Sprzedawczyni noticed, she gave no sign of caring.

So here it is ladies and gentlemen: pictorial evidence that Belgian Customer Service is officially The Worst In Europe.

For the record, a guy in overalls then appeared from the warehouse, led me back to the rayon planches a repasser and - very kindly - went back into the warehouse to check whether the new delivery had arrived yet. It had, and as a result I had a lot of fun trying to manoeuvre my new purchase to the self-scan checkout without upsetting any pyramids of baked beans (here? as if!) or braining any under-fives.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

One month

It's October already. How did that happen? I've 'settled in', as they say; I've even paid the rent for this month (at least I hope I have: my online banking is automatically set to English and I'm not sure I trust the translation).

I'm currently working hard and not doing anything interesting so - rather than writing anything of my own - I've been catching up with the blog written by my former flatmate in Kraków. I hope your Hungarian is better than mine, otherwise that link won't be much use to you. Google Translate is not a lot of help either.

I went to Antwerp yesterday for Argentinian beef and the first actual girly high-street shopping I've managed in a long time (I didn't actually buy anything - what with the recession and the exchange rate I'm much better off doing my shopping back in the UK at the end of this week*) Antwerp is very different to Brussels: it's a more centred city, without the agglomerated village feel of Brussels (and indeed London come to think of it). This makes it less diverse, but much more navigable, especially if you're looking for something in particular, like Argentinian steak (who'd have thought there would be two Argentinian restaurants within a hundred yards of each other), or an autumn-weight coat (it's taking me a while to get used to intermediate seasons again).

Oh and then there's the fact that everything there is written in Dutch only (Dutch, and not Flemish - I stand corrected, they are in fact the same language). Up until about five months ago when Katy moved there I thought Antwerp actually was in the Netherlands. In French the name is Anvers. Anvers! I always thought that was just the Metro stop before Abbesses...

It's strange: for the first time I'm in another country and I have absolutely no intention of actively trying to fit in with the local culture. For a start, wedged between Euroland and the shire of Polonia formerly known as Etterbeek, I'm not convinced that there actually is a culture that could be described as 'local', at least not one that might be accessible to an ex-pat like me.

I did meet a Belgian once, several weekends ago. Clocking his accent, I asked if he was French.
- *deeply offended* no! I'm Belgian!!
(my fellow ex-pat friend) - Oh! which city are you from?
- From Brussels!!

We were awestruck. An Actual Belgian, Actually from Brussels. I glanced over my shoulder half-expecting to see a portal back into my own universe.

It's got to the point where I'm not even upset if people answer my (by now very dodgy) French in English. This time, the move is motivated by pure pragmatism, not a psycho-linguistic experiment. Learning Flemish (oops - Dutch) is not really an option either: for work it's spectacularly impractical, and I simply can't face the idea of grappling with another grammar system, even if it is the closest language (apart from American) to English.

To satisfy my linguistic cravings, I'm just going to have to stick it out with Polish (and maybe get some practice down at the local Biedronka store round the corner. Or up the road at the Polish Embassy. Or just about everywhere really).

Back to the books...

*I tell a lie: I bought socks. Sometimes it's hard to live at this speed.

Friday, 25 September 2009


I write a lot about languages here but I generally avoid talking about the big elephant crouching silently on the dining room table: my own native language, English.

And I'm not going to talk about it now: I'm cheating. Strictly Come Dancing finished, I have no plans tonight and I'm still awake, so I decided to flick through the Ted talks (disappointingly, all in English), which is something I've been meaning to do for a while. Running the mouse over inventions, philosophy, neuroscience, finally I came to a section on words.

The result is a short video that describes learning English as a mania.
I concur. My entire living is based on the fact that English is my mother tongue. As a translator, interpreter, proofreader, my added value is the fact that I do this automatically: I have natural style, linguistic grace: when I do it, it just sounds right. At least most of the time. Better still, I am British, and that holds an added premium (although most people's cultural contact with English is of the US variety, I believe the majority of schools - at least in Europe - are still teaching Received Pronunciation phonetics and therefore it carries a certain prestige).

Just think of the flood of capital pouring into the coffers of anglophone states simply from the export of TEFL teachers, interpreters, translators, copywriters and multilingual ex-pat Brits who are hired for good client relations. I read an article on this - it took me ages to find it - but unfortunately it's old enough to require an Economist on-line subscription to actually read the thing.

Personally I'm disappointed when everyone speaks English. However frustrating it is - and believe me I know - to have those moments when you simply can't say what you want to say and when the waitress for heavens' sake gives you that withering look as if you were an illiterate child, I still think it's fun to mix it up, I still like learning, I love the complexities, the similarities, the beautiful broken jigsaw puzzle of it all. I love borrowings, calques, sound shifts - all ghostly traces of long-forgotten human migrations.

I will never speak a foreign language with perfect confidence and fluency: I started learning far too late for that. But I love to try, to play, to dip my toe into the deep well labelled 'foreign'.*
I think that's important, don't you? I think we - anglophones - are becoming too complacent about our silent pachydermatous companion perched on the table top, and we're letting opportunities pass us by (see this article, also from the Economist - sorry).

Where was I? Oh yes. Here's the talk:

*Pinolona's theory of adult language acquisition (and a jolly good excuse for using Polish words in Italian): language is a deep, dark well of words. The human brain recognises two such wells: mother tongue and foreign. The most recent foreign language bobs closest to the surface of the well, and when the right word is lacking, you plunge in and fish out a word from another, deeper down. (Disclaimer: the language professional known by Pinolona's real name never fishes at work and she always knows the Right Word. She just may not pronounce it correctly. Especially if it happens to be French.)

Sunday, 20 September 2009


In 'A Year in the Merde' * the author goes to a Parisian café on a Sunday afternoon and attempts to order coffee with milk.
Thinking logically, he orders 'un café avec du lait'.
The waitress immediately picks him out as an outsider and charges him the whopping tourist price. As he is reeling in horror at the bill, the chilled-out American at the next table leans over and lets him in on the Big Secret. When in a foreign country, it's not enough to speak a bit of the language. You have to Know the Code. French people who like their coffee with a touch of milk order 'un crème'. This doesn't mean that the coffee has cream in it but - as my French colleague pointed out in St Brieuc all those years ago - if you use that particular code, they'll bring you a nice warm milky coffee in a neat cup and saucer with a little chocolate on the side.

Wouldn't it be nice if francophones the world over used the same code?

The Belgian equivalent is 'lait russe', which still takes me slightly by surprise as I can't understand how a beverage described as Russian can possibly fail to contain a single drop of vodka.

In addition, they have all the usual Italian palaver - cappuccino, latte, ristretto, ecc. - to the extent that sometimes it's hard to tell one cup of coffee from another.

Visiting a local coffee bar this weekend, my friend ordered caffè latte while I - trotting out my best Belgian like a good girl - asked for a lait russe.

The machine hissed and thundered, steam filled the air, the clink of china was heard and the clouds dispersed to reveal our order: one tall glass and one squat little cup sitting roundly in its saucer...

... containing two identical warm milky coffees.

*a dull book in which a rather ordinary English bloke in Paris describes his attempts to get into the knickers of several frighteningly stereotypical Frenchwomen.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Nie ma Pani drobnych?

What better way to spend a Saturday morning than watching Polish economic news reports?

According to TVN 24, the Polish mint says it's not inconceivable that the issue of 1 and 2 grosze bits (that's those tiny irritating pennies that get lost in the bottom of your handbag) will cease in 2011.

It would seem that it costs 0.05 gr to produce a single grosz/2 grosze coin. That means that the Polish national bank spent 24, 400, 000 PLN on pennies last year.

If that's the case, why are they waiting until 2011? Why not stop production now, and improve the country's productivity by slashing lunchtime queuing times in Kefirek...

Link to the report here.

Thursday, 17 September 2009


Finally autumn feels like autumn again: I envy my friends the balmy złota jesień they are enjoying in Kraków right now, but still in Poland the change of season is too abrupt for me. I like the clean crispness of the air fresh on my skin and of the leaves underfoot; I like being blinded by the low sun flashing gold through sheaves of foliage; I like unpacking my handbag and finding at least six conkers* from the seasonal kernel kleptomania that sees me unwittingly but systematically stooping down to collect the satiny chestnut gems like some kind of misguided magpie.

I like being able to go out in just a sweater for heavens' sake, rather than having to choose between spaghetti straps and a full ski jacket and boots.

However, when we were rushing out of the house with suitcases at nine o'clock that Thursday morning and I reached for my coat to find nothing resembling mine on the coatstand, it might perhaps, just maybe, have been a good idea to backtrack, to say 'wait, hang on, I'll see if there's anything upstairs' or 'I'll just check the laundry' (futile, we never wash coats in my family) or even 'Mum, have you got one I can borrow?'. But no. I was on the cusp of a new start, nothing was to encumber me in my new life...

- Screw it, let's go!

I may have to make a trip to Promod before the month is out.

Finally my internet is connected! It's been just over two weeks, but now I have a gently winking lajvboxe perched on top of my desk and a superfast connection so I can download Polish news til it comes out of my ears... Better still, I can work without having to go to the wifi cafe. I can accept all the last-minute jobs I want. Um. Thanks Mobistar.

Seriously though, now I have t'interweb** at home, I need never leave the flat again. I even have the Pages Jaunes so I can order pizza. No wait - Pages d'Or in Belgian.

Rather than become a total recluse though I've devised a series of strategies to force myself into the pathway of other human beings (think rabbit, think headlights) at least once a day.

- Go jogging: I live next to a park so there's no excuse. To keep it exciting, try changing direction (more people seem to run counter-clockwise than clockwise: maybe it has something to do with driving on the right). Even when you get too tired to jog yourself, watching other joggers on the other side of the fence - like they're in a cage - provides hours of mindless fun. More on that later.

- Use services. For example, open a bank account. Or three. Declare yourself at the local comune (uh... eventually). Stay at home to let the Belgacom man in. Get a X-ray. More on that later. Maybe.

- Chat to the lady at the vegetable shop (there's a vegetable shop and a cheese shop. My dzielnica is really cute: I need to adjust my time/money balance so I can bunk off work and spend the whole day shopping) Be very flattered when she thinks you are a student. (Yes! Yes! Yes!).

By far the most important connection right now however involves my head and a nice deep Ikea pillow.

*Chataigne in French, kastanje in Flemish, now we have three official languages donchyaknow...
** did you know that in Flemish they also abbreviate one of the definite articles to 't? It's basically English as spoken in Yorkshire.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Week 1

Some facts and figures about Brussels:*

- no of nights P has now spent in the tak zwany Capital Of Europe: 8

- no of weeks it will take for her internet to be connected: 2 (two!!! that's fourteen days! to bardzo niecywilizowany kraj)

- no of people P has heard talking in Polish on the phone in local wifi cafe: only 2. maybe three

(- no of hours P has spent in her local wifi cafe: A Lot.)

- minutes P lives from the Polish Embassy: max 5. Uhh... thanks for the info, Simplus GSM...

- no of bank accounts P has inadvertently opened in Belgium: 3. I think. They're all kind of attached.

- no of trees slaughtered in the making of said bank accounts: several thousand.

- no of nights spent in youth hostel while looking for flat: 3 (which is not that bad!!)

- waffle count (Liègois. Yeah there's a difference): 4. I think. Maybe five.

- beer count... uh divide Pi by seven, multiply by ten... oh look over there, a squirrel!

- number of megabytes of internet stolen from neighbours....many, guilt, guilt, guilt...

- number of times spoken Polish: none!! none, none, none. Smutno mi.

- number of peeing statues in central Brussels: 3, apparently: a boy, a girl and a dog. All that beer's gotta go somewhere.

- factor by which P's flat here is more expensive than her flat in Kraków: a zillion! an Actual Zillion...

- total laps of Parc Cinquantenaire jogged so far: 4. Honest! That's approximately half a lap per night so far.

- number of times P has missed Kraków, wished she were back in Kraków, fantasized about booking a flight back to Kraków...

Brussels is not quite so quirky as Kraków. But it has its moments. We'll see how this pans out. I'll keep you posted...

[ps: if anyone can post me the second part of Katarzyna Grochola's Anioły i żaby trilogy, I'd be very grateful... yes it's chick lit. I dobrze mi z tym!]

*the capital of Belgium, not the small green cruciferous vegetables

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Passport control

10.30 am, Ebbsfleet International station:

(admittedly not unattractive) French border guard:
- Mais... c'est bien vous ça??

I really have to do something about that fringe.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Sempre chiuso

I did mean to post a couple more Italy photos.
This lot starts halfway through the week in Bologna. Last time I went to visit Bologna was in between my exams when I was studying as an Erasmus student in Trento. It was afternoon, exam season in a student city, and all I remember are empty arcades, closed facades, and an all-pervading dusty orange-red haze.
I don't know anyone in Bologna, so I wrote to a very nice chap on Couchsurfing who agreed to host me, and I hoped that I would finally get to know the city a bit. I've heard good things.

I got a lovely air-conditioned intercity train from Florence at lunchtime.

On arrival in Bologna, all quiet and red. No reply from my couchsurfer, but then it was siesta hour.

I left my backpack at the station and set to wandering the streets aimlessly and waiting for gelato time. Most of the shop fronts were masked by heavy metal blinds, paper notes fluttering, bearing variations on 'Closed for the holidays'. I took some pictures of the deserted arcades and settled down with my giallo to wait for the bookstores to re-open.

No word from couchsurfer guy.

At around six, having successfully raided the bookshop and gelateria and picked up my bag from the station, and after continued silence from Couchsurfer Guy, I decided to check into the youth hostel. There is only one youth hostel in Bologna, and you have to take the 94 bus from Via Marconi.

Guess what? It turns out that the Via Marconi bus stop is podwójny. Actually there were about six different bus stops labelled Via Marconi, and only two of them were actually on the street in question.
Two bus drivers were leaning on an empty parked bus, smoking. I approached them and asked for the youth hostel.

Frowning and scratching of heads.

In August, in Italy, the buses run at one an hour. At least I think that's how it works. According to the timetable, services marked with a letter 'a' run as Saturday service, those marked with an 's' run as on Sunday, those marked with a 'z' run as if on a bank holiday and anything else apparently doesn't run at all.

- Can't I just walk there? I asked.

Snorts of laughter.

Eventually they advised me to get number 20 from the stop two streets up.
I started walking, saw the bus overtake me, and started to run, backpack, Italian August heat and all.

Ahead of me I saw my one bus an hour start to pull away from the stop.... and then halt at the traffic lights.

I gained the front doors and banged on them furiously. They opened and I leapt on, gasping like a fish out of water.

- To the youth hostel?? I spluttered.
- First say thank you.
Said the bus driver.
- What?!
- Say thank you! For stopping the bus for you!
- Oh. Sure! Thanks, grazie mille! Now about that youth hostel...

Unfortunately the youth hostel was one of those wholesome International Hostelling Association ones. You know the type: capacity for at least 700 scouts, board games in the common room, table tennis outside, complete and utter lack of alcoholic beverages.
In the middle of absolutely nowhere.
The bus stopped three stops before and I had to walk the rest of the way, along the main road, in the heat and dust, with my backpack. No-one offered me a lift.

- Is there anywhere I can get something to eat here? I asked the girl at reception.
- Well... she said ... there's a supermarket three bus stops away, but you've just missed the bus. You could walk...
Seeing my dark look she moved swiftly on.
- Unfortunately the restaurant next door is closed for the holidays. But you could always order pizza.
I took the menu.
- Do you want me to call for you from here? she asked.
- Don't worry about it.
- No, really, I want to ask them something too.
I listened to her on the telephone:
- ... and... I don't suppose there's a tobacconist near you? There is?! Oh... closed for the holidays. I see. Never mind.
Poor woman, stuck in the middle of nowhere, not even a cigarette break in sight...

At 10.30pm, Couchsurfer Guy called...

Not a soul...

Where is everybody?

Gets about a bit, this Mickiewicz chap

Wait! Is that... a pedestrian?!

No-one for lunch today

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Chiuso per ferie

My first proper holiday in quite a while and I really don't know where to start.

Let's do it in two parts, shall we?

The trouble with Italy is that it's not simply one country but rather a cluster of separate little universes, each with its own distinctive character and culture.
Italians - most unhelpfully - don't even actually speak Italian. They speak Fiorentino, or Romano, or Napoletano, or Siciliano, or Nonès, or Sardo, e cosi via. Some of them even speak German, just to keep us guessing. According to Lepschy and Lepschy, the only word they can all agree on is espresso.
I tend to be easily bored, so perhaps that's why I love visiting Italy so much.

I only had a week to spare so I made a whistle-stop tour of some old haunts in the central and northern regions of the country. We'll start with the centre and then I'll post the other half domani, domani...

Plenty of other things to see in Pisa

Look, it's all kind of wonky

Tower? No towers here...


Rooftop terraces

The Duomo, playing hide and seek

The Porcellino protects his merchandise

A quiet moment in a side street

Ponte Vecchio

Sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo

Florence by night