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.