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.