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 GazetaPraca.pl.
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... )