Saturday, 11 December 2010

Catch-up post

I haven't written anything for ages and ages and ages. So here's a quick résumé of the week, just to prove to you that I didn't get eaten by crocodiles in the Congo (are there crocodiles in the Congo? I didn't like to dive in and check) or succumb to Dengue fever or traveller's tummy or something equally awful. Photos to come...

Monday: flying into a snow-dusted Belgium via Rome, Addis Ababa and a gratuitously long, hot and stuffy sojourn in the Salon Business at Kinshasa airport. I realise I've lost the little red slip from La Poste that would have enabled me to pick up a package waiting for me at Porte de Namur. Now I'll never know what it was...

Tuesday: getting back to work in Brussels is a bit of a culture shock. I calmly inform my listeners that there are more than five million villages in Morocco. No-one bats an eyelid.

Wednesday: starting to get used to the temperature again. Unfortunately not enough to remember the need for sensible footwear. I nearly stack it several times running down the hill to work and have a couple of near-misses cutting through an iced-over Jardin de Maelbeek. In Other Business, I've also re-discovered the gym. There is a painful bruise on my hip-bone from where I stepped off the cross-trainer, slightly stunned, and staggered into the wall.

Thursday: an afternoon off! Bliss! Choir practice is one hundred per cent Rutter from now until January. In the morning, no-one notices when I tell them that Victor Hugo - in an impressive feat of longevity - managed to attend a summit in 1948. The meeting ends with a rousing chorus of Ode to Joy and everyone standing to attention. This is exactly how I imagined working for the European Union would be.

Friday: Work lasts well into the darkening afternoon. Lights go off one by one in the other booths as delegates slope off to catch their planes. Eventually it's only us and the French left. The chair finally calls it a day. We manage to track down some mulled wine in the Hairy Canary and the rest of the evening is a bit of a blur.

Polski update: oh gosh... I haven't spoken Polish for ages. I'm forgetting important words and expressions (I had to look up 'mam kaca'). I carried an increasingly battered copy of Wprost around Kinshasa for a week - which was lucky because I forgot my sunhat and it came in really handy keeping the sun off my face by the pool. I've been trying to finish Gra na wielu bębenkach for almost six months. Worst of all, I can no longer take my Tantanka. I need a trip to Kraków, and fast!

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Far from home in a hotel room

I'm on mission again, which is a direct calque from the French and which sounds a lot more exciting in English than in the original. Although I suppose if it were really exciting then I wouldn't be able to blog about it. No-one else is here yet and the conference doesn't start til Tuesday, so I'm at a loose end, not doing anything except sitting in the hotel room not catching up on sleep and blogging.

I travelled here on Ethiopian Airlines. For a child of the 80s, Ethiopia means Band Aid, Bob Geldof and 'eat your carrots, there are starving children in...'. At the time, I could never understand why my Mum wouldn't agree to physically send the carrots where they might be appreciated a bit more. Imagine my consternation when the cabin crew came round to collect the dinner trays. I almost apologised over the tell-tale carrots lying sheepishly uneaten in the gravy.
On landing, we were treated to tantalisingly spectacular views over the plains and mountains surrounding Addis Ababa. Unfortunately the rest of my Ethiopian experience consisted of dozing in the business lounge, in spite of the interest piqued by leaflets depicting pyramids, markets and ancient ruins.

And now here I am, in a rather different country that is not Ethiopia. I have inadvertently managed to do more or less everything I need to do to catch malaria: opening the windows on arriving in the hotel room (it's an automatic reflex, I just wanted to see the view), walking outside by the pool, sitting by the pool after dark eating pizza (because that's where the hotel bar food was). There's a winged insect that looks like a fly in my bathroom. I hope it is a fly. In a few weeks' time I expect I will know whether it was or not. And I accidentally drank from a glass of coke with ice, before I'd really had time to think about it, so I'm clearly well on the way to a nice bout of tummy trouble, if not full-blown cholera.

If I manage to survive all that, I may even take some photos...

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Winter chills

I still have a good twenty-eight or so posts to get through by the end of the year. This is going to be tough. I feel a lot of photos coming on.

It's starting to get really cold in Brussels now. Not just ordinary cold, but damp, foggy cold that chills you through and through. The radiator in my bedroom doesn't work. I've heard that you need to bleed radiators. This sounds like one of those rather disgusting but secretly fun things - like picking scabs or pulling out hangnails - that you do as a child sitting cross-legged on a rather dusty floor waiting for assembly to start. I realise that's probably a rather over-detailed simile but I have a very, very clear image in my mind here of the boredom and the floating dust mites and those disgusting curtains decorated in a fetching pattern resembling psychodelic spools of Marmite. Once, I unzipped my summer dress all the way down the front and couldn't zip it up again. I was marched out of assembly and had to change into an abandoned dress from the spare clothes cupboard. My Mum never dressed me in zips again. What do you expect, giving a seven-year old easy access to zippable fashions?

I did tell the landlord about the faulty radiator and he sent round a plumber. When I say 'plumber', obviously I mean the landlord's sister's cousin's brother-in-law who's a bit handy with a spanner and used to watch Home Improvement quite a lot. The plumber stuck a little Allen key or something in the corner of the radiator, there was a loud, satisfying hiss and some water dripped out. I'm sure it's something I could do myself...

I also need to put blinds in upstairs. My flat has attic rooms with beautiful, big skylights, perfect for lying back on a snow-white cotton duvet and dreaming that you're floating on a cloud. Unfortunately, at three in the morning when there's a full moon they're not so good. Yesterday I snapped awake and lay in the chilly moonlight, trying to sink back into a lovely dream where I was catching up with an old friend who's recently moved back from Australia. The only thing is, it's not my flat. And I resent investing in something that I'm going to have to take down and paint over in three years time. The flat is definitely my home, but I still feel that I'm camping to some extent. The kitchen especially doesn't feel like mine (although it's miles better than the old place, which looked like this:


The new one is a definite improvement in that it has actual work surfaces. And more than two hobs (which I never use because I am lazy and useless and don't have a dining table yet and haven't found my local veggie market). And no cockroaches whatsoever. 
Note the tasteful tiling in my old kitchen. I have to admit I probably failed to appreciate its full splendour, largely because I was utterly bedazzled by the subtle charms of the bathroom:

Now, I've commented on the weather, written something vaguely amusing about my childhood, given you an update on the flat and some photos of real estate failures past. That's my blogging duty over for the day, bonne nuit!

Oh wait. Polski update. Uh. I have one lesson a week with a very patient Polish lady and we are going through a fascinating textbook on economics. I am also trying - and failing - to remember the difference between siedzieć komuś na głowie and zawracać komuś głowę, and many other such expressions, also from a textbook. 

On a fairly regular basis, I bump into a Polish person at a party and have a long and apparently fluent conversation with them which in reality probably consists of:
- oh wow, you speak such great Polish!
- thanks, I make lots mistakes. I live in Kraków two year.
- How did you learn?
- I go language school and then UJ, Cen-tre foooorrrr Po-lish langu-age and cul-ture iiiiin theeee world (I have to say that very carefully otherwise I get the endings wrong)

...etc, etc, for another half-hour or so. But it all sounds a lot better after vodka.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

One in three

I have to admit I'm strangely, uncharacteristically fascinated by the royal engagement. Normally my interest in the royal family is limited at the best of times - probably largely due to sheer rage at the Daily Express crowd.

HRH hit the scene in my second year at St Andrews and the atmosphere there changed dramatically. Suddenly, the nicest bars in town (and it's a small old town) were packed with expensively-highlighted American girls in fitted rugby shirts and pink pashminas, while security was tightened to within an inch of its life. Woe betide the student who tried to get into the Union (or even the library) on a Friday night without an ID card. After second year, he moved out of halls and the hoo-hah died down a bit. Or maybe it's just that I moved to France for a year, returned briefly for the first semester of third year and then absconded to Italy for spaghetti, spritz and snowboarding. I definitely passed WW a couple of times on the street but couldn't distinguish him from the other posh boys wearing navy baseball caps over floppy blond hair. At least until someone hissed - 'but wasn't that...???', forcing me to admit my ignorance. My sub-standard celebrity spotting skills make me glad I'm not a gossip columnist.

But what interests me isn't the romance, or the dress, or the media circus, or even KM's lack of career (these days, who's really managed to achieve anything by 28? I certainly hadn't got very far). It's the reality. It's hard for a relationship to survive the first tough years after graduation. They've been together eight years. What keeps two fast-changing young people together that long, throughout their turbulent early twenties? How did they cope with separation? Why did they split and what brought them back together? Are they really 'in love' or just good mates who fancy each other and get on ok? What does in love mean after eight years? Is the spark still there?

They both seem so modern and normal - insofar as a prince and the daughter of millionaires can be. They look and sound just like the other posh boys and girls I know. What makes their relationship a success? Do they have a real bond or is it just PR?

One in three St Andrews graduates marries another St Andrews graduate. A sign of a small, inbred community or of salt-soaked romance on the bracing Fife coast?

By all appearances, this is not a whirlwind romance, but a tough, tried-and-tested bond, with the battlescars and laughter lines of eight years to prove it. Does this mean there's some hope for the rest of us?

Monday, 15 November 2010


Leave the lights on in your flat. Put your coat on, go downstairs and sit out in the square under the trees and look up at the warm glow in your own windows. Imagine it's not your house but that some other girl lives there. Think about that girl - does she live alone? She must have some kind of wonderful job to live in that big flat by herself. Maybe she worked hard to get there but I bet she loves it, doing what she always dreamed of. Perhaps she gets to travel to exciting places and see things she'd never even imagined. A girl like that is clever, good at what she does: she never doubts herself for a moment.

She'll have a sweet boyfriend who is crazy about her: he'll come around on his day off and help her fix pictures to the walls of the new apartment and together they'll buy a huge rug from some hippy shop in St Gilles and carry it home on the metro, giggling and beaming at each other. The warmth streaming from the windows carries with it the growing warmth of the flat as it slowly becomes a home. Another armchair, a tall plant in a ceramic pot, a dining room table. A Sunday afternoon spent drinking coffee after coffee on Place St Boniface or the Parvis de St Gilles, stealing kisses and pretending to be shy when nobody really notices them at all. They'll take pictures of each other and make silly faces and laugh at how goofy they are. Secretly they'll both imagine tottering infants with ginger hair and huge dark eyes and a dewy garden in the spring sunshine some time in the hazy future. Their lives spread before them full of love and laughter and everything looks perfect.

And there you are, sitting out alone in the square in the cold and the dark, pretending.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010


Standing by the printer, on Thursday evening. Work (or at least this part of it) closes at midday on a Friday. I have a meeting starting at 9am. The whole of Belgium will be closed on Monday and Tuesday. I leave on mission on Wednesday morning.

- So... says the guy from the office, conversationally - when are you flying out?
me - Wednesday morning
- oh! *sudden face of doom* But you'll be far too late - the bus leaves the hotel an hour after your plane lands. You need to change that flight. We're all going on Tuesday evening.
me (turning pale) - are you sure I won't make it? Even if I get a taxi or something?
- I think you need to change it.
- But... but... on Tuesday I'm in London renewing my passport...

The next two hours were a blurred mess of running from office to office, shedding e-ticket printouts in great paper sheaves in my wake, trying to find the right person to authorise my flight change, trying very hard not to burst into tears and spending a puzzling fifteen minutes looking for a lift that would take me to level 2 (apparently there are several which pass it by altogether).

Tomorrow starts at quarter to six and ends at ten in the evening and includes an ambitious itinerary of changeovers so nail-bitingly tight they would produce grey hairs in a skeleton luge driver.

Wish me luck.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Kryzys tozsamosci

It's been ages since I wrote anything. So I should write. Since I live in a francophonic country - or at least a francophonic region of a tri(at least)lingual country, it should have distinct existential leanings.

Ever since I left Poland - the first time around - I've been looking for an angle for the blog. It's clearly not about a British expat learning Polish in Poland any more. It's about a British expat, who is (still) learning Polish, but in a different and equally strange country. But should it be about learning Polish? Or about coping with the surreal/endearing/at times utterly frustrating experience that is life in Belgium? Or about being a - more or less most of the time - single woman in her (very) early thirties (Bridget Jones-stylie)?

Someone I spend a lot of time with recently quoted at me: 'I don't want to be a character in a movie of your life'. But that's not why I write. It's not supposed to be a blow-by-blow description of my rather dull existence. I write a blog because I like to write, because I feel that I might be good at it, if I did it enough, and because I do a job which is challenging and interesting but - in theory - not creative and I want to be able to form something which is my own, and writing a blog is a series of exercises preparing for what one day might be an article, or a short story, or even a very modest novel. Maybe. One day.

But maybe it is all just vanity. Maybe this is just one more thing that I'm not good at - except that there's no-one around to tell me to pull my socks up.

It's October, so there is a lot of work, and for this I am grateful. I am living by the skin of my teeth: running to work in the mornings usually almost late (or almost on time), with messy hair and smudged mascara, looking like a cross between a dressed-up schoolgirl and a nervous breakdown waiting to happen. On days when I'm not working, I sprint across Brussels trying to organise appointments and administration and learning of various sorts. My fridge is more or less permanently empty and I need to borrow an electric drill to fix a mirror, a row of coat pegs and a Japanese print to the wall. My flat still looks as though I moved in yesterday and I still haven't bought a bed, or a dining table. Through the bathroom skylight, I can watch the sun rise while I shower in the morning. Occasionally my hormones short-circuit my brain and I spend the whole day thinking about babies, although I'm nowhere near responsible enough to look after one. I've managed to divide all my paperwork into 'in' and 'out', in two big piles on the coffee table. I'm secretly pleased my boyfriend is away at the moment, because I will be able to spend the whole weekend asleep, or being quietly and unashamedly crazy by myself, or out with friends, hoping to forget everything.

I love late autumn and winter for no reason: for the coolness and freshness and crispness of everything, even in the city. I'm happy to change my life for three months and run in the dark and drink mulled wine in the kitchen instead of cold beer on a terrace.

There we go. A whole post of 'I'. Selfish? Indulgent? And wrong for these reasons? You decide.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Rainy days and Mondays

I must have written a post with this title before. I'm sure I have. It's actually not rainy at all but brilliantly sunny, and has been for the past few days.

Here are some random observations about Monday, in no particular order.

- today I sat in a meeting almost entirely in English, German and - a surprise late entry - Polish, which I am fortunately not yet qualified to do. I switched the microphone on a grand total of once and thus escaped a quality control report due to scarcity of evidence.

- the fates were clearly on my side with the quality control thing because I had finally rolled into bed the night before at about 2am. Please don't think that this is because I had anything particularly exciting to do: I've simply discovered that having to climb up stairs to go to bed when you are even only slightly tired is hardly worth it when you could just doze on the sofa in front of BBC3. My evenings involve messing about on the interweb, tinkling away at the piano, flipping channels, occasionally doing something vaguely productive like reading a book or writing a blog post (rarely).

- I ran around the park three times instead of two (in the dark you can be tricked into thinking you haven't run as far) and had a bath for the first time in over a year. Please note that I have washed myself by other methods in the meantime. I reckon that since I'm here on my own and I've already cleaned the bath at least twice since I moved in* it's probably relatively hygienic. Also, I finally have a bathroom which has a window. I've always found it singularly dreary to sit in four inches of tepid, scummy water in a windowless box room, but the fact of being able to lie back and look up at the sunset reflecting off the clouds through the skylight is somehow much more appealing.

- I bought shoes. I can't decide whether I like them or not. I am fed up with the ubiquitous ballet pump slipping off my feet all the time so I bought some rather flimsy tan leather plimsoll-type things - as unlike a trainer as I could possibly find without risking toe cramps. I have not yet paid my accountant. Accountants, since I actually have two, one in Belgium and one in the UK. I owe money to both, but not as much as I would owe to the respective revenue and customs services if I did not pay an accountant to do it all for me.

- I am unable to organise a piss-up. It's meant to be at my home, not in a brewery, but since I live in Belgium I'm sure there must be a suitable brewery relatively near by. This is partly social ineptness, more than partly shyness and a large helping of anxiety, plus I don't really understand how these things work. Do people really want to come and drink wine at my flat? Do I have enough chairs? I certainly don't have enough wine glasses. If people don't have fun, is it my fault?

- I am in the throes of a crise sentimentale, which pretty unclear to both of us. I think at the moment it is back on, largely due to the soothing influence of gorgeous autumn sunshine for the whole weekend and a long, slightly hungover romantic walk in the woods. Maybe Belgium and its meteorology are on my side after all.

- I keep forgetting to water the plant. He gave it to me. I only have to water it once a week. The designated watering day is Wednesday and I keep missing it (Wednesday is an easy day to overlook, with all those other things going on to distract you, like Tuesday and Thursday). He says that this is ironically symbolic, or symbolically ironic, or something like that.

Right. Time to tackle those stairs.

*nearly two months ago, so not so good after all.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Evensong blues II

Singing today, I realised what it is that gives evensong its melancholy edge. The dimly-lit chapel late on a Wednesday afternoon, the shadows drawing closer, the few hardy members of the austere Scottish congregation hugging their winter coats around them as the dark falls ever earlier and we slip into the gloomy tunnel that is November. The wind howls around the stone walls and sheets of rain dash against the windows.

Turn not thy servants empty away, for we have thee as our only hope

Defend us from all perils and dangers of this night

Save us, O Lord, while waking and guard us while sleeping

The night creeps closer and the candles flicker and sputter in the draft - an echo of the gale whipping up the waves outside.

Bare branches rattle against the panes, trees are stripped and contorted as though with grief.

At this time of year, we are alone - deep in the night we listen to breath coming in gasps and cannot reach out to comfort the sleeper. We are the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time and the dark is all around and winter is coming.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Sofa, so good

The sofa has become the central focus of my indoor life. It's a good place to flop down and pass out after work, it's the best place to sit and eat breakfast in front of the BBC (actually the only place, since I don't have a proper dining table yet) and it also doubles as a handy filing cabinet and coat stand.

As you can see, there's still a little way to go on furnishing the flat. Currently life is full of boring adult responsibilities, such as trying to work out how to do last year's UK tax return. Since I'm not very responsible and have trouble remembering that I'm supposed to be an adult, this has been a bit difficult to take on board.

Instead, I've been exploring the various procrastination options. Such as cooking.

Here's my recipe for vegetable soup. Don't thank me now.

- scrape together all the leftover vegetables from the bottom of your fridge.
- cut and/or peel off the slimy bits.
- heat some oil in a pan and add garlic and lots of chilli (to hide the taste of the vegetables)
- add veg and pour stock over the top - preferably Oxo veggie stock, for that authentic Pot Noodle flavour
- turn up the heat, and go and watch ER on Vijf TV until you hear the saucepan lid rattling as the stock boils over.
- turn down the heat and leave to simmer until vegetables have lost all shape and consistency or until the Flemish news comes on
- turn the heat off, get out hand-held blender, and blitz until mushy.
- add a bit more stock to make it look more like soup and less like baby food
- add generous helpings of strong cheese.


Monday, 27 September 2010

Aux petits riens

An ambivalent weekend full of showers and flashes of sunshine. In Schaerbeek last night there was a huge explosion that demolished three houses and killed three people. My first thought was 'but for the grace of God', and my fear of leaving the gas on is back with a vengeance, even though I've lived with electric cookers for over a year now. The iron is also a serious cause for concern.

I'm more or less settled in the new flat now. It finally has a sofa (after a very long Saturday afternoon in Ikea with the new boy, culminating in a desperate stress-binge on Swedish cinnamon rolls), as well as television, wifi and a tumble dryer. My happiness is complete. I can look forward to long afternoons spent sprawled across my sofa in front of Grey's Anatomy on Vijf tv, with the blogosphere at my fingertips and the sweet scent of freshly-tumbled towels in the air.

However, I should probably get some grown-up furniture. By grown-up, I mean sensible things that you can store stuff in. Store as in 'put away in a tidy manner' as opposed to 'leave in the box it came in and pretend it doesn't exist let alone need to be filed'. Specfically a sideboard, a chest of drawers and a dining table with chairs. With this in mind, I set out towards Porte de Namur as soon as the rain held off for a few moments and was very quickly distracted by shoe shops and Fnac.

Eventually I managed to steer myself down Avenue Louise, past Place du Châtelain and onto Rue Américaine.  This is home to Les Petits Riens - essentially a five-storey jumble sale.
Now, I always thought that St Andrews was the undisputed capital of charity shops: all those rich kids casting off last season's Armani or last term's ball dress translates into some serious bargains. But Petits Riens is on another scale entirely. Once I'd wandered around two floors of furniture and got bored I found myself climbing up to the top floor: crockery, old toys and electrical equipment among other things. It's like my parents' loft on speed.
You can browse through shelves and shelves of highly useful objects, such as...

... Irish coffee glasses ...
 ... elderly (and therefore extremely romantic but highly unsuitable for blogging) typewriters...
 ... record players like my Mum and Dad used to have in the eighties...
... and things like this that I can't even identify.

It even has a book store section. All it needs now is for Costa coffee to move in and the rainy Saturday afternoon experience will be complete...

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Evensong blues

Apart from the fact that it can be typo-d into 'evensnog', which is intrinsically, childishly amusing, autumn evensong (nearly did it again) is a melancholy time of day.
Late September to early October is a time for sitting in church organ lofts, watching specks of dust suspended in the fading rays of the autumn sun. It's a minor key time, slipping back into the vaguely-familiar cadences of liturgy and response, soft notes glowing faintly like the cooling embers of the dying year. Outside, the waves break unseen against the rocks in the dark and we huddle in the empty chapel, cold shivers mimicking a frisson of anticipation: for what? The cool touch of salt-soaked grey stone, the scent of old oak, distant woodsmoke and freezing mist. Darkness falls and the sea cradles the town in huge grey oblivion.
The cycle ride downhill in the blackness, no lights, no helmet, slicing through the searing air to burst into the house tingling in the sudden warmth.
It will be several weeks before Christmas music begins, and the perils of this night are still all too real. And yet - somehow - you wake with a feeling of boundless possibility: a hot shower, a walk to lectures in the fresh, early morning air. You are not yet set in stone, you stand poised to ride whatever wave may carry you: life is a vast ocean of limitless potential.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010


This month, I have two houses (and so far no plague on either of them - the intervention anti-cafards seems to be holding plagues at bay for the moment).
I'm moving endless boxes and cases between them via a combination of borrowed parental cars and a half-walk, half-scurry through Parc Leopold. From tomorrow onwards, I will be able to use car-sharing (technical term 'Cambio'). This means I will be officially able to drive in Belgium, whenever I like*. I suggest staying off the roads tomorrow.
The new place has the advantage of space, a bigger bathroom and (as of yesterday) my own duvet. On the other hand, the old flat has a sofa, hot and cold running Telenet and a washing machine (I have one coming in the new flat but not for another two weeks). There's also rather a lot of useless clutter silting up the old place: I've been contemplating it in despair and wondering just how much I can get away with simply throwing in the bin**.

Moving, proszę państwa, is apparently a learning experience, helping you to develop many useful skillz which can transferred to other areas of your life. In terms of numerical reasoning, I've learnt - for example - that it takes more than two people to lift an electric piano up six flights of stairs where the console of said piano weighs more than one of those two people. Regarding cultural diversity, I have discovered that buying frites in Brussels after nightfall during Ramadan is a task that requires a great deal of patience, good local knowledge and a fast car.

Teambuilding is another valuable competence often learnt in house-moving. Especially where this involves the lifting of heavy objects.
We all know about teamwork: we all use our skills to communicate effectively whilst at the same time taking time to listen to others; we are all highly motivated and welcome the opportunity to pass on our enthusiasm to others; we are all able to cooperate but not afraid to take a leading role and convince others of the plausibility of our ideas. On paper anyway.
I recently discovered what role I really take on when trying to solve a complex problem - such as extracting a 160 x 200 cm sprung mattress from its position wedged in a tiny attic stairwell. I play a very important part: in fact I'm the one collapsed in the corner, giggling helplessly, liable to say things like: 'ok never mind, let's try Ben's idea now', 'yep, that sounds good to me' or 'does anyone want another beer?' I see it as a motivating, cheering role. In other words, largely useless...

*Subject to availability, terms and conditions apply.
** note to self, file glossaries before going away for the summer, while I can still remember the name of the meeting.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Home again

I am back in Brussels now - swimming against the tide as usual, since everyone else has just finally downed headsets and skipped off to warmer climes.
Ah Poland: once again the meat counter defeated me and I ended up ordering three hundred grammes of szynka wiejska when actually I wanted 3 decas. Or indeed 13. 130 grams, dammit. About half as much as I eventually got anyway.

Pino: proszę 3 deka szynki wiejskiej
Pani sprzedawczyni: Co?!
Pino: proszę 3 deka szynki
Pani: ...?
Pino: ok proszę trzysta gramów szynki...
(Pino's friend: who on earth buys 13 dekas of ham?! That's just weird)

In any case, now I'm back in Brussels. Trouble started on the Eurostar when my seat was occupied by a teenage French brat:
- but weee wanteed to seet togezzer...
I tried to calmly blag an upgrade from the train manager, but she was having none of it. I suspect that had I been a forty-something businessman in a grey suit she would have granted my request.
Every time I get the Eurostar I can feel the tension rising as I anticipate having to fight to keep the seat I've already paid to reserve. Possession is nine tenths of the law, and once someone else's bum is firmly planted on your seat, you're in a lose-lose situation: give in and you have to find yourself another space, which you then risk losing at the next French Deluge getting on at Lille. Insist on having your original seat, and you expose yourself to awkward, resentful silence from your neighbour after having ousted her indignant friend. I never have this problem on any other route so the only logical conclusion is to blame it on the French. Disclaimer: the author of this blog has nothing against francophonic persons and insists that Some of her Best Friends Are French. Honestly.
Fellow Eurostar travellers! If you really must sit together then jolly well book your tickets together and sit in the seat you've been assigned to. And that way you will help prevent frustration and high blood pressure disorders in otherwise mild-mannered conflict-averse persons like me.

Miraculously, no-one broke into the flat while I was away, the internet still works, my taxi got from Midi to My Place in a record ten euros and I found a whole can of beer in the fridge. There were a few other items in the fridge as well. One of them may have been a tomato, but resembled a very tiny, mouldy round of goat's cheese. My unwashed coffee cup in the sink sported an interesting fungal structure that steamed when I ran the tap into it.

Tomorrow will be a day for opening bills and paying bills and checking bank accounts and getting keys to new flats.

Better get a good night's sleep then.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Wszystko gra

I went to meet New Boy off the night train at Warsaw Central. We decided to spend the day in Warsaw and leave his bags at the station.
The przechowalnia was run by a rotund, middle-aged Polish man, who persisted in staring into the middle distance somewhere past my right shoulder so that I couldn't tell whether he was talking to me or to the guy behind me.

Pino: Dzień dobry proszę Pana, czy możemy zostawić bagaż tu?
Man (speaking to somewhere vaguely beyond P's shoulder): Ile sztuk?
Pino: dwa
Man (realising P is not Polish): Ah. Two!
Pino: tak, dwa.  
Man: yes! Two!
Pino: (takes out purse) Ile to będzie?
Man: No! Pay after. After!
Pino: ok, dziękuję bardzo
Man: Please! Thank you.

New Boy (casually): Wszystko gra?
Man: (with broad smile of manly recognition): Taaak, wszystko gra!

Pino: Fine. From now on you can do the talking.

Friday, 30 July 2010

And another thing

I forgot - there's one more thing you can do in Poland in the rain.

12/ Go and buy ice-cream from the legendary lodziarnia on Starowiślna. Take advantage of the fact that almost nobody else but you will be crazy enough to eat ice-cream in this weather, and get your ice-cream fix without having to queue in the street for half an hour.

I recommend chocolate, borówkowe, poziomkowe...

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Things to do in Poland in the rain

After two weeks of complaints about the oppressive heat, Poland has finally answered all of our prayers: on Sunday the heavens opened and rain has been pouring down ever since. It's dark, everything feels permanently damp, and I am constantly chilled to the bone, having packed only flimsy summer clothes and shoes.

For the umpteenth time, I appreciate what inspired the Slavs to invent vodka.

But before I drown my sorrows in apple Redds and chocolate, I'll share a little list I've been mentally compiling, of Things To Do In Poland In The Rain.

Here goes:

1/ Complain about the weather. It's a well-known fact that complaining (narzekanie) is a national sport in Poland. Roll up your sleeves and get stuck in.

2/ Drink. I think this needs no further explanation. There's nothing like a few shots of ice-cold Wyborowa to make the world feel like a better, warmer, altogether more glowy place.

3/ Eat. Especially stodgy food, like pierogi, bigos, and other things that contain lard. This is to coat yourself with a nice layer of fat in preparation for a long, long, hard winter.

4/ Pretend your pop-out umbrella is She-Ra's sword. By the Power of Greyskull! Sword to Shield! (Na potęgę Posępnego Czerepu, mocy przybywaj! - ok not exactly the same thing, but the only one I could find on Wikipedia)

5/ Do your Polish homework. Brush up your biernik. Dust off your dopelniacz. Polish your Polszczyzna. No, you're right... I'm sure we can think of something else to do before it gets to this stage.

6/ Go to a museum. Poland's history is a long krwawy kalendarz of violence and tragedy. This has had a significant impact on present-day Poland... notably in the form of lots of cool museums. Try the Galicia Museum in Kazimierz or the Warsaw Uprising Museum in Warsaw for a start.

7/ Go to the optician, have your hearing tested, make an appointment at the dentist. It's cheaper here than in the UK or Belgium, and you get to learn new vocabulary for free. What's not to love?!

8/ Watch the entire first series of Teraz albo Nigdy on Onet video on demand. Or Magda M. Or Kasia i Tomek... you get the idea.

9/ Go and watch a pessimistic Polish film. You probably won't enjoy it as much as Teraz albo Nigdy, but you will feel more virtuous.

10/ Hide in the back room of Massolit, drink coffee, and read books you have absolutely no intention of buying, from sections you would never normally dream of checking out, like World Religions, or

11/ Sit at home and listen to Coldplay. Pour another shot of vodka...

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Moving on up

I think I've written about Polish yuppies before. A couple of years ago maybe.

I just spent the weekend in Warsaw, visiting my old flatmate* and hanging out with some of her friends. My flatmate moved to Warsaw to work for a consulting company and she rents a studio of a rather similar size and layout to the one I rent in Brussels.

We took the tram out to her friends' place in the suburbs. The sky was overcast, rain threatened, blocks loomed grey and relentless out of the dusk. Then, after about twenty minutes, the blocks thinned out and started to look tidier. Some of them were painted in pastel colours. Sloping gables were added and frosted-glass balconies.

We stepped off the tram and scuttled across the road after waiting several minutes in vain for a green light at the pedestrian crossing. The directions led alongside one of the blocks. There were no pavements alongside the roads, only - in some places - gravel edging rather weedy land which may or may not have been destined for landscaping or lawns at a later date. This was not a place for pedestrians. On the ground floor of the block we passed two banks, a hairdresser, a sushi restaurant, a dental surgery. We crossed another road and walked alongside another block (this one so new that some of the flats still had tape on the windows) until we reached the furthest entrance.

Inside, the block of flats resembled nothing so much as a smart hotel. The concierge was seated behind a smooth, gunmetal grey desk. We called the lifts which - in stark contrast - were still lined with chipboard (my flatmate's friend later explained that this was because people were still moving in heavy items of furniture and they didn't want to damage the inside of the lift).

Inside the apartment was immaculate (although the owners and their kitten had moved in only a week or so before), pre-furnished, fully equipped. We were awestruck.

We ate courgettes with mozzarella, fried chicken, garlic bread. Washed down with Polish beer of course. The conversation touched on the housing market, flat pack furniture, Warsaw, work. The same things that young professionals in London and Brussels talk about. Although in London there's now an undercurrent of tension - young people work long hours, everyone is concerned for their job, their mortgage, their student loans.

Why did this strike me so much? I suppose because in London no-one I know can afford a fully-equipped new build: in London, even half an hour from the city centre is still more or less in the city centre and therefore too close to be affordable. Also all the old-fashioned stereotypes about Poland: that people live in tiny apartments, earn peanuts, are strict Catholics who would never dream of getting a mortgage with someone without the social and moral security of a wedding ring apiece first. Oh and the firm conviction that all young professionals have, that determination and hard work are enough to get you a good job and a comfortable lifestyle and that anyone who can't manage this is just lazy. Rather like the French, back in 2007...

I'm not so sure on this last point. I feel that I'm very lucky finally to be able to do what I've wanted to do at least since leaving university.
- yes, said my flatmate - but you did work hard to get there.

Yes, I did, but I was also born in Sevenoaks, in a country where women are free to get an education, leave the house unaccompanied, wear whatever we like. In a region where there was decent state education in the form of grammar schools. Lucky, right?

* warning: it's in Hungarian. Frustratingly, Google Translate is no use at all...

Monday, 26 July 2010

The modern young woman's guide to dealing with emergencies. Part V...

... the noisy children's toy.

I think we can all agree that nothing is quite so appealing as a Toy That Makes A Noise. Better still - a Book That Makes A Noise. Especially the kind that Really Annoys Grown-Ups...

Let's imagine for a moment that our pioneering young heroine is subletting a nice apartment from friends of friends who happen to be away for the summer. Naturally she is extremely careful to keep it clean and tidy and barely dares to open a kitchen drawer for fear of breaking something. However, in spite of all her good intentions...

- Early evening. Our enterprising young woman returns from classes and tandems and coffees, throws her bags to the floor and flops onto the bed.
- dust clears.
- strange wheezing sound becomes apparent
- did I break the vacuum cleaner?!
- tries to locate source of strange wheezing noise
- it's coming from the hallway
- noise resembles a sort of Clanger-like in and out wheeze, starting from a low pitch, whooshing up high and then swooping down low again.
- traces noise to bookshelves in hallway
- what on earth is going on?!
- carefully draws out one book, then another
- noise continues
- throws caution to the winds and pulls out whole handfuls of books at random

- finally!!

- a toddlers board book about a baby aeroplane...
... with a round metal sound-effect button on the front.

- relieved, pushes button to make it stop

- wheezing continues

- pushes button again. Maybe it's stuck.

- wheeze continues

- tinkers around with metal button for a while. No dice.
- gets fork. Pokes around to try and dislodge sound circuit. Noise stops...

... and then starts again.

- Time to go out to dinner. Surely book will have worn itself out by the time she gets back?

several hours later...

- opens door...

- wheezing sound.
- picks up book and - very, very cautiously, holds it under the kitchen tap. Lets a couple of droplets drip directly onto the noise mechanism of the book, careful not to cause any actual damage to the book itself...

... wheeze continues.

- opens tap a little further. Water gushes onto book. Cardboard begins to swell. Noise weakens...

... but doesn't stop.

- opens patio door. Puts book on back step. Shuts door...

... wheezing still very audible.

- takes hairbrush. End of hairbrush handle is roughly the size of the noise mechanism on the book.
- steady-handed, and with a precision worthy of a bomb squad, raises hairbrush and hammers it down on the mechanism...
... nothing.
- hammers again, a little less carefully.
- nothing.
- hammers harder, twice in quick succession. Book is starting to look a little dented.
- Wait! ... blessed silence.
- Goes to bed.

 Three days later

- wakes to wheezing noise. It is one in the morning.
- hits book twice with hairbrush and shuts it in the tumble drier.

- promises self that she will buy the family a replacement book before she leaves...

*see parts 1-4 on gas leaks, getting locked out, moving house and losing bus tickets...

Saturday, 17 July 2010

One week

A week! It's been a week! And sadly my brain power is so zapped by five times four hours of Polish interpreting (not to mention language classes, tandem, cinema and plain old day-to-day survival) that I have been incapable of crafting the witty missives that I so hoped Kraków would inspire in me.

Instead, I've compiled an A-Z (well, roughly) of this week. Probably not even in alphabetical order...

Arbuz - watermelon. Essential for keeping cool in Polish heatwave. And definitely not from French* (which explains the bewildered looks at the fruit stand in Brussels when I asked for 'une arbouse s'il vous plait')

blada - look, by my standards this constitues a tan, ok?!

kabina - a hot little soundproof box where you put on a pair of headphones and try to piece together
something plausible out of the spider's web that constitutes Polish syntax.

kamieniołom - quarry, especially abandoned quarries formed into a beautiful, clear-blue lake in the middle of the city, surrounded by steep cliffs. It is absolutely forbidden to climb down the cliffs and swim and none of us would ever dream of doing such a thing...

lącz - meal eaten in the middle of the day, after classes.

Magda M - ok, ok, I gave in and bought series 4 from Empik.

piwo - something I can't drink anymore without getting migraines in the heat

upał - it's too bloody hot. When I visited in January, the thermometer on the wall showed minus 15 degrees and I had to go out and buy extra woolly socks to stop my poor toes freezing off. Now the temperature is in the 30s and I've just spent most of my Saturday languishing on the sofa with a packet of frozen spinach pressed melodramatically to my forehead. When I finally managed to stagger out to the pharmacy - swaying a little under the sheer weight of the warm air - I noticed a teenage boy loitering about on the street corner, dressed only in knee-length shorts, playing Polish rap** from his mobile phone. On my return, about twenty minutes later, he was still there, pacing about aimlessly, skipping between rap tracks, pale torso baking in the heat.
As I passed, I realised that he was probably trying to sunbathe...

*it's pasteque in French. I always forget this because I've never been in a French-speaking country in hot weather. I never, ever forget the Italian or Polish versions.
** plosive-heavy Polish consonants are perfect for spitting out angry rap lyrics: I can't believe this idea hasn't taken off more widely. The music is terrible, of course.

Friday, 9 July 2010

You know you're in Poland when...

... guys you don't even know carry your bag up the steps at the train station. With no prompting on your part.

I could get used to this...

Thursday, 8 July 2010

So very Sevenoaks

An apparently normal scene: a child refuses to hold Mummy's hand and stomps away, hot, furious tears splashing his cheeks. Yet another frustrating blow to his fragile four-year-old dignity.

NO, Mummy! I want SUSHI!!

I don't think we're in Kraków any more...

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

A lot of faffing about

It's hot in Kent. Since I came back, many beautiful things have happened. There was a gorgeous fairytale wedding. There was a radiant sister and her new husband glowing with happiness and looking every bit as besotted with each other as the day they met*. There was a centenarian grandmother miraculously fished out of the gloom of dementia for one lovely wedding day. There was a New Boy who bought the last seat (first class) on the Eurostar to make it in time for the last two hours of the gorgeous fairytale wedding reception. There were gloriously sunny, cloud-free skies and one black and white springer spaniel utterly delighted at having so many strange new guests to play ball with.

And now?

Now I am at home, in Kent, listening to birdsong in the fading evening light, trying desperately to get through my To-Do list before skipping up the orange-painted easy-boarding-steps on Friday morning, racking my brains (and the for two to three speeches per day for the next three weeks.

I have visited a grandmother, drunk wine with friends in London (pretending not to be able to smell the stinking brown Thames lapping sluttily below the terrace), gone shopping far more than my work schedule (which is empty until September) allows, admired a fit-to-burst baby bump, gone for long, sunny, ravenous walks to country pubs (with closed kitchens) and subjected a New Boy (who is admittedly still far too new for this sort of thing) to a veritable legion of curious friends and relatives.

I feel calm here. My trip is organised, my flat is - mostly - organised, and now I just have to let things roll along as they should (apart from a few last-minute items on the To-Do list oh help).

I'm ready for you, summer.

Bring it on...

*obviously I wasn't there that day: it's a quote from the best man's speech.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010


Seen on the back of a cubicle door in the ladies' loos of the Thameside Inn, near London Bridge:

'Staśka Rzondzi'

I was about to get out my correcting pen when I started to wonder. Is this really a case of dysortografia, or is it a deliberate mistake for stylistic effect: a sort of Polish 'I woz 'ere'...

... any ideas?

Sunday, 20 June 2010

On being Grown Up

I just lost an entire Saturday to a hangover, something which hasn't happened to me since at least... um.. well, since I left Poland anyway. As far as I can tell, I have a critical mass point where alcohol, lack of sleep and proper food are combined, and after which a full-blown vomiting migraine is guaranteed, regardless of how much I have actually drunk. On days like these, I can feel my brain swelling against the inside of my skull and I can't even keep down water. When I was a child, I used to get these attacks without the help of alcohol at all, so, looking on the bright side, at least these days I get to do something fun to deserve it first.

- but I didn't think you drank that much last night...
- *writhing* It's not really about how much.
- can I use your coffee machine?
- do whatever you like (but stop talking to me)
- would you like some baguette?
- *starts to retch*
- it's really fresh. mmm...

 I am sure that by now I should know better. I should be able to listen to my instincts, and refuse that last pintje. I should eat sensibly, go jogging in the morning instead of last thing at night, and pay my bills As Soon As They Arrive, and not three days after the deadline (guilty). My life should be organised in all departments: but it's not...

- Work: I should go to bed at 10pm on a school night. I should file my glossaries Straight After The Meeting, and not three weeks later, when I'm looking for something else altogether, and when I can't remember which stray page belonged to which working group. I should not be flying down the hill at 9.50 am, with my hair only half-dry and make-up smeared on haphazardly, scattering a trail of scarves and documents and access badges behind me.
It is not grown-up to be childishly excited about working in the Parliament, which feels overwhelmingly like Darth Vadar's Death Star, or on the secret top floor of the Commission, which resembles nothing so much as the command bridge of the Starship Enterprise, poised to launch itself out over a - probably largely apathetic - Brussels. I resolve also to develop greater lift management skills. There must have been trainee Storm Troopers who leaned against the alarm button in the Death Star lifts on their second day and were startled by a disembodied voice saying 'Deespatcheeng bonjour?'. Fortunately the lift stopped at my floor before they had a chance to come and dispatch me and I left my fellow traveller explaining that 'oui, c'etait une erreur, il y avait une dame qui...'

- Housework: I am officially a slattern. I don't think I've vaccuumed the flat since before my sister's hen party in Edinburgh. The bath has a greasy grey scum ring around the plughole. I've run out of shelf space for books, so any new acquisitions (which are frequent) are piled up next to the sofa. I can't put down my keys or glasses on any surface because I won't be able to find them again. I am fielding gentle hints like: 'that bin looks ready to take itself out' and 'you know, it's so much nicer when things are tidy'. A lot of colleagues have cleaning ladies (mostly Polish), but I'm too embarrassed to admit that I can't keep fifteen square metres of studio clean all by myself. Plus I'd never tidy the flat in time for her arrival. And I seem - however improbably - to have inherited some hugely misplaced working class pride from somewhere. Possibly from my mother, who would have got it from her mother who spent most of her life as a maid, companion, dinner lady, etc. I'm faintly ashamed at the thought of someone else coming in and scrubbing my loo (in any case I would do it better: bordering on the obsessive).

- Luurve: uuf. I should be able to play it cool, instead of ... um... holding hands on the second date. I should not send drunk text messages. My mobile phone (and facebook) should come equipped with breathalysing devices. I must learn not to break out in a cold sweat or to visibly shudder at the sound of the words 'boyfriend', 'girlfriend', 'relationship' or 'children'. Eek.

- Food: I will finish a lettuce before it goes all slimy in the bottom of my fridge. I will do the washing up properly, and not leave it out until brackish dishwater stains the plates and I have to wash them all over again. I will eat fruit. Every day.
In my Masters year at Bath, things got a little competitive, and even the lunch table was not exempt from the madness. We would sit down together, sneak furtive glances across at our dining companions, and then whip open our lunchboxes. Out would come neat sticks of celery, chunks of cucumber, carrot batons. At particularly stressful moments, I would take a wholemeal pitta stuffed with lettuce, sliced tomatoes and the most fragile of reduced-fat cheddar shards scraped from the edge of the block. Mineral water was the order of the day, and there was a fierce contest to see who could get their full five-a-day into their packed lunch.
Oh, and the following do not constitute a healthy breakfast: chocolate cereal, waffles, Speculoos spread, leftover pizza.

Summer: I must organise a) my Poland trip b) a place to live in September. Before I leave in two weeks...

I will also go to the dentist, some time, definitely. Oh crap, and pay my social security.

Above all, I must stop splashing in puddles when it rains. Which after all in Brussels is pretty much all the time.

You see my problem?! Are you grown-up yet? Would you be afraid of your cleaning lady?

Friday, 18 June 2010

New entries in the Uxbridge English dictionary

cohesion - heasing for two

harmonisation - doing it Harriet's way

sustainable... but don't bother feeding the cows

implement - sung by a sad pixie

Presidency - kind of like a Presidence

Polish - a little bit like a pole

Leuven - Brummie romance

Parliament - supposed to go in the parlour

ramification - ovine cardinal sin

strategy - multi-level pony

CAP reform - shaped like a goat...

On the move again

I am planning to move house. Not far, this time. Although the thought that I may well stay in one place - and not just any place, but Brussels - for more than a year at a time scares me more than the Polish Pani in the ground floor newspaper shop.

When I arrived in Brussels in September last year, everything was uncertain. I had no money, knew literally three people, and had no idea what work would be like and whether I would be able to support myself in spite of the Belgian tax monolith. My house-hunt took in studios, garrets and even one or two cramped 'kots d'etudiant' (one was more or less a corridor with a single bed down one side, above a Thai restaurant on rue Dansaert).
I eventually plumped for a small studio next to the park, about five minutes walk from work. It is largely dominated by a huge 'lit mezzanine' - basically a double bunk bed. Without a lower bunk. So exactly like a bunk bed then. It's very sturdy actually and withstands - um - all kinds of testing. On the outside wall is a huge sliding patio door overlooking a garden (where no-one goes except the guy with the lawnmower and - once - a strange gentlemen with a large black poodle) and leading out onto a long balcony. It faces south, so when the sun shines it feels bright and airy (even though in reality it's small and poky).

However, now I have what I can hazily pass off as a Real Job, I want a bit more. I'd like a separate room so that my guests and I don't trip over each other in the morning when I have visitors to stay. I'd also like space to put a sofa, a dining table, maybe a larger desk... space to dance in.

I'm tired of living with a stranger's smelly old furniture: I have decided to take the plunge and go unfurnished. It's amazing how much clutter can silt up your house in just a few months: my tiny studio is overflowing with old electricity bills, piles of used notebooks filled with the incomprehensible scrawl that passes for note-taking in my world, scuffed shoes and endless cardigans worn once and big binders full of printed-out glossaries that I don't have anywhere else to keep.

I have seen three empty flats in the past two days. Each time, I climb to the top of the stairs, step through the door and marvel at the light and space and freedom of a flat without furniture. I want to spin with my arms out and fly across the floor in a string of extremely wobbly foutté turns and not-so-grande jetés.

But usually I have no desire to frighten the nice agency lady.

It's so exciting and overwhelming. Each empty space I can imagine as my new home: in my mind I fill it with sofas and a piano and friends and loaded wineglasses, and I trace my steps around the quartier, look to see which would be my local shop, which my favourite café. I can barely believe I might be able to afford a Whole Flat to myself. It is terrifying, after years of living for the next invoice to come through. I am afraid that someone will come along with a big clipboard and say: 'Stop! Who do you think you are? Who said you could live in a Real Apartment all of your own? Don't you know there's Super Tax to pay?! Go directly to Jail, do no pass Go.'

Can I really do it?

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Shoes and pain

I love summer. I love wearing skirts and feeling the sun on my legs (always a novelty experience for a British person) and I love the way the heat makes you slow down as you walk, sinking back into the sweltering air, slowing your breath and relaxing into the cushioning warmth.

I hate wearing socks and tights and anything clingy or elasticated.

This means that in the morning I slip my bare feet into pretty high-heeled sandals and in the evening I have to coax my bruised toes out of them again, the skin all cut to ribbons by straps and rubbing leather.

It hurts.

I first discovered summer sandal pain at the age of about seven or eight.
I have very oddly-shaped feet: narrow at the heels and ankles, high arches, broad at the toes. I always thought this was extraordinarily shameful and ugly until I first bought blocked ballet shoes and discovered that my feet best suited Freed shoes, which had the nicest (to my taste) satin colour (more salmony and not too pink).
Trips to the shoe shop were a nightmare: I would slip my foot reluctantly into the slide measure and wait for them to pull the tape around my toes, hoping and praying that my toes had suddenly got miraculously slimmer... but no - I always took the second-biggest width.
The sales assistant would then pick out the ugliest, roundest, most sensible shoes she could find for me to try on. I remember looking down and seeing a pair of round, navy, clomping school shoes that made my feet look like they wouldn't be out of place on a baby elephant.
Remember that this was in the late eighties, when pointy shoes were all the rage.

At a certain point, I rebelled and refused to wear anything but sandals. It was a good compromise: they were usually open enough not to squash my hated toes, and pretty enough to satisfy my vanity.

One day, in the summer holidays, we went on a day trip. Probably to Bodiam Castle but I don't really remember. Bodiam Castle was by far our favourite place to go: it's a ruined twelfth-century castle with spiral staircases and crumbling walls that are perfect for climbing onto and jumping off. For obvious reasons, clambering about on the castle walls is strictly prohibited, but we saw this as a mere formality. Besides which, there were three of us, and only one Mum. She never stood a chance.

I remember buckling on a shiny brand-new pair of pink leather sandals with great pride, before setting about scrambling around the castle. It was a hot day, and socks were for sissies.

By the afternoon, all the knuckles of my toes were skinned raw. I distinctly remember crawling out of the end of a large concrete pipe (don't ask), peeling back the sandal strap and seeing red, broken, weeping blisters.

Nothing has changed. I refuse to wear tights in the summer, I can't bear those awful shoe-protector insert things: they crumple and stick out and look disgusting, and socks are simply not an option.

So for now, I'm persisting, walking to work in trainers, wearing Birkenstocks wherever possible in the evenings, and buying all the shares I can in Compeed...

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Out of Office

Thank you for your message. I am currently out of the office. Please leave a number and I will get back to you...

Saturday, 5 June 2010

All you need

We were just leaving my sister's flat: my sister, her fiance, her best friend/bridesmaid and me, when suddenly she stopped short:

- I've forgotten my phone!

- So what? said her friend: You don't actually need it. Everybody is here.

'Everybody is here'.

What do you think: who counts as 'everybody'? Who are the people that you really need the phone for?

So you had a bad day

After quite literally inventing a twenty-minute presentation on macro-economic recovery* read at breakneck speed by an excitable Italian economist, I was more than ready to slink off at lunch time and commit Hara Kiri in a neighbouring spare booth**.

I gained the lift and to my horror, just as the doors were closing one of the meeting's co-chairs slipped in behind me.
- what did you think? he asked
Desperate to disguise my terrible French, I replied simply that it was interesting.
- what do you do?
- I'm an interpreter, I mumbled sheepishly, hoping he'd been listening to our French colleagues.
- Ah. Well, I thought it was formidable! Brilliant!
- Merci, I smiled automatically and then suddenly realised my mistake.
He got out at the third floor and the other woman in the lift turned to me - Nice to get compliments, no?
- Umm... I said... I think actually he was talking about the speakers...

*It may not have been about macro-economic recovery actually. I'm not really sure what it was about.
** For reasons of prudence, it is not recommended to perform ritual disembowelment in your own booth as this tends to upset relationships with colleagues. Plus it makes a terrible mess of the carpet.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Ceci n'est pas une Hen Night.

We know all about hen nights (or at least Stag Nights) in Kraków. They involve large herds of British males or females (almost always exclusively same-sex groupings) roaming around the streets after dark, drinking beer, wine and/or vodka by the litre. Normally, individuals in the group will display similar characteristic markings, often in the form of white T-shirts bearing slogans or L-plates. It is thought that these markings have some significance in the mating process, but it is not understood exactly how.

My sister is getting married in about a month, which is utterly brilliant in every way. If it just so happened that several of her closest friends were - quite by coincidence - to find themselves all in Edinburgh on the same weekend, all booked into the same hotel, all with dinner reservations at the same Extremely Posh Venue (hen parties strictly prohibited, of course), you couldn't really call it a hen night, now could you?

Hen Party?? Who, us, officer?!

Just to make the difference perfectly clear, I thought I would write some instructions on how to be definitely not having a Hen Party. Just to make sure, you know.

- Afternoon, Day One: Go with bride-to-be to Tesco to stock up on food and booze. Wear hair down and no make-up. Have checkout lady ask both of you for proof of age. Walk on clouds for rest of afternoon.
- Evening, Day One: Attempt to get a table for dinner when Sex and the City II is on preview in the cinema next door. Fail and go for a drink. Be refused entry into pub for failure to produce proof of age. Feel even more thrilled and continue to neighbouring pub with rather less scrupulous bouncers.

Day Two:
- attend surprise cheerleading workshop. Help bride-to-be pretend she didn't find out the secret content of the hen-night very sophisticated accidental gathering a month ago. Find cheerleader pom-poms strangely comfortable and start to wonder about your hypothetical position in the American high school popularity tree.
- return to bride-to-be's flat for wine, make-up and hair straightening. Groom-to-be is waiting by the door with golf clubs.
- Try to understand the principle behind hair straighteners and fail utterly. Feel old.
- Groom-to-be slopes off to the driving range.
- Drink a lot of pink wine and marvel at the prettiness of everybody's shoes. Especially your shoes.
- Order taxis to Very Posh Venue. Try very hard not to act like a hen party. Suggest alternative themes such as 'early retirement' and 'baby shower', both vetoed by bride-to-be.
- Drink more pink wine, take photos and fail to finish pudding course. Attempt to totter to loo wearing very high (but beautiful) high heels without skittering on Very Polished Floor. Try to maintain an air of decorum appropriate for a drunken hen party very sedate gathering.
- Start to lose track of the evening. Forget that you swapped your Belgian SIM card into an empty phone with no contacts, and commence drunken text roulette with unknown numbers. Paranoia ensues.

The morning after:
- Eat large Scottish breakfast (this includes haggis) and sleep on sofa.

- Give bride-to-be a big, big hug for actually organising quite a lot of it herself not to mention ferrying people to and from airports...

Sunday, 23 May 2010

In the park

Hallelujah! Finally the sun has come to Brussels. I wandered out to the park with book and iPod and settled down with my back against a tree to read a little and daydream a lot.
After about half an hour, I heard 'Excusez-moi' from over my left shoulder.
- Excuse me, said the guy, 'can I sit down with you? Maybe we could talk for a bit?'

I got up hurriedly, gabbled that I had to meet someone and rushed away.

But... as I was walking away, I wondered why I was so reluctant to talk to the guy. He was perfectly polite, he seemed clean and didn't look particularly odd in any way. He had tanned skin, dark hair and a strong accent: perhaps it was a case of a deep-seated racism I was hardly aware of? I slowed my pace and started to think it through. If the guy had had blonde hair, would I have talked to him? Had I ever dated a guy who was not a white European? If I had been approached in the same way by a woman, would I have found her as threatening?

I thought about how many intriguing conversations with fascinating people I was missing out on by refusing to speak to strangers in the park (on the train, in a cafe, etc). After all, isn't that how most romantic comedies start? Boy bumps into girl at random and conversation starts?

A few years ago, I went on an Erasmus exchange to Trento in Italy. I remember, six months earlier, having returned from a worthwhile but often disappointing assistantship at a small town in Brittany and I was determined to do it better this time around. As I strode out of baggage reclaim, chin held high, I decided that this time, I would be completely open to new experiences: I would talk to everyone.
I struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me on the airport bus (clearly a backpacker). It didn't hurt one bit. I was encouraged.

I only spent five months in Trento, but in those five months I learnt to ice-skate, snowboard and read mediaeval musical notation. I ate Melinda apples in the Val di Non; drank Fragolino in Verona; bought fresh pastries from the bakery window before dawn on the way home from a night out; accepted lifts to concerts on impulse; spent long, lazy afternoons sunbathing with my flatmate in the park behind the flat and long, lazy evenings cooking huge, slow pots of pasta with friends and drinking litres of red vino da tavola. I gained a few kilos and near-fluency in Italian (both of which I subsequently set about losing).

What do you think? Do you talk to strangers? Where do you draw the line between a harmless conversation on the train and something more threatening? When would you stay and talk, and when would you up sticks and leave?

I'm curious: just how far should I trust my instincts?

Friday, 21 May 2010

Common language

Last night, after the concert,* we went en masse to a nearby Irish pub to celebrate. Since we were such a big group, the manager came over and started moving tables.
- something something something... tafel
...he muttered.

I turned questioningly to a Belgian friend and then said to the guy 'I'm sorry, I don't speak Flemish'

- I'm Irish.

... said the bar manager.

Things were so much simpler when everyone just stuck to Polish.

*There's another one tomorrow, I gave you the link, what are you complaining about?!

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Back seat driver

I love Kent, it's ever so pretty. We have a family wedding coming up (not guilty) so Mum and I decided to hit the shops, in our case Bluewater. The trouble is, I don't drive all that often, so Mum normally takes the wheel.
Kent - as I said earlier: a pretty place. Full of narrow little lanes, lined with pretty hedges. Some of them pretty tall too. Tall enough to hide - say - a tractor.
Mum was just describing her friend's new living room when:

Car cuts around blind corner, swerves to avoid oncoming Transit van.

Pino (gripping the door handle): Mum!! Don't cut corners when you can't see around them!
Mum: Yes, yes, I saw him!

Later, the red tops of two huge delivery lorries loomed into view above the hedgetops on a turn up ahead.
Sure enough, after a few moments we met the first of the two very abruptly on another blind corner.

Mum: Ooh gosh, what's that doing here?!
Pino (eyes closed, knuckles white on the door handle): Did you not see that before?!!
Mum: All under control...

Kent has a big problem in that it is located squarely between the South East coast and London. This makes it fair game for Central European GPS systems possessed by Czech and Polish lorry drivers everywhere. And we all know how GPS systems work. The minute that commanding female voice rings out we are helpless: we have to obey. All logic is swept aside as we trundle across fields, swerve into slip roads, cut across lanes - unthinkingly following the order to 'Turn Left!', with clear disregard for our own sense of reason.

We survived the journey and carried out extensive research into the effectiveness of retail therapy before heading back to the twisty Kentish lanes. In any case, tonight I will be checking for stress-induced grey hairs...

Sunday, 16 May 2010


This: an English springer spaniel.

And this:

... is me.

I've been thinking about this theory that people are like their pets. And I've come to the conclusion that the spaniel and I actually have quite a lot in common.

For example, we both like to work. The spaniel came from a gun dog breeder in Kent, and she likes nothing more than to play endless, pointless games of fetch. She is at her happiest when hunting some pesky tennis ball out of big bed of stinging nettles. When she is too tired to play, she carries the ball or the toy in her mouth and chews it until she has got her breath back. If there is no-one to play with, she takes the ball to the top of my parents' sloping front drive, drops it under the car, and runs around to catch it as it rolls out on the other side. I have a really great video of this but it has my sister's voice on it so I will post it as soon as I've worked out how to remove the sound.
The dog is obsessed with tennis balls and bouncy toys, and I am obsessed with pens, highlighters, glossaries and my laptop. When there is no-one around to play with, I will happily make notes in the margin of Polityka, or listen to clips on Repubblica TV.

Also, we are both a bit shy. The spaniel is scared of strangers and often growls at people who just want to be friends with her. I can definitely see where she is coming from, but fortunately human social protocol does not admit that sort of behaviour.

We don't like it when people shout. When my Dad knocks over a big tray of paint on the hall carpet, or when I stub my toe on a chair, the spaniel slinks away to hide with her tail between her legs. She also has a horror of the vacuum cleaner, which I think is very reasonable.

And lastly, we are both easy to please: a long walk in the woods on a Kentish spring day will bring a smile to both our faces

Are you similar to your pets? How?

Thursday, 13 May 2010


I stumbled home from work at about 5.15 pm, climbed into bed, read half the Financial Times and about two pages of my Italian detective novel and fell asleep for two hours. Finally I have found a job that mops up all the excess brain activity and leaves me with no energy to write. On the one hand, I love the job, I'm thrilled to finally be doing what I've wanted to do for - ok - the last maybe only two or three years. But on the other hand, I'm aware that I'm spending all day voicing someone else's opinion, trying to concentrate on a meeting that I knew nothing about yesterday and that will mean nothing to me tomorrow.

My - admittedly rather rather boring, 'let's please everyone' nice girl - personality wants to assert itself. I want to do something for ME. I sing an awful lot*, but the one activity where I really feel creative and feel proud of myself is writing - even when it's just a silly little blog post.

It's funny: I arrived in Krakow over three years ago, in April 2007, and there was almost too much to write: I couldn't cram it all in. I was grappling with an impossible language (and still am for that matter), a Slavic, Catholic culture that was largely unfamiliar and my first full-time job in a very different country. Every day I was presented with situations that could be either terrifying and discouraging or utterly hilarious. I chose the latter option. And I got there by writing about it. Had I not taken all my terrifying experiences with banks and Urzędy Skarbowe and the genitive case and Bad Obwarzanki Ladies and made them sound all cute and quirky and funny, I would have thrown myself into the Wisła after the first couple of months.

Here in Brussels, things are a little more familiar. Yes, the bureaucracy is a pain in the arse. Yes, customer service is if anything worse than in Poland. Yes, there are weird traditions (peeing statues, the Zinneke parade, a Kriek & Frites festival that resembled nothing so much as a family wedding in the country), but I tend not to get so involved in them. I find myself less inclined to take sneaky photos. I hang out with other ex-pats and have little contact with the locals. Language is not a problem: I speak fairly craptastic but at least serviceable French and have no intention - for the moment - of learning Dutch because languages are work now and do you have any idea how many Polish words I still have to learn?! One thing at a time, people!

So, for the moment my posts are cursory, summary, lacking in creative flair.

Here's a quick round up of the headlines, just in case you were wondering:

- Election: I'm so pleased that there's a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. Apart from anything else, I couldn't decide who to vote for. And DC and Clegg look so cute together...

- Ash cloud: I have a couple of flights planned over the next two months so I'm really hoping it stays away from Brussels. Besides which, I blame it for the freezing weather that Belgium is currently 'enjoying'. I swear I could see my breath condensing in front of me as I walked past the park this morning.

- Polish update: I've been branching out into detective novels and just finished Tęczowy Cocktail by Helena Sekuła (thanks Peixote). I'm at the stage where there are still a lot of words I don't know, but this doesn't prevent my following the story. This means that I carry on reading and probably miss essential details of the plot. I put this down to sheer laziness - but on the other hand, if you spend too long looking up words, you lose concentration and your understanding of the whole sentence is affected. In any case, I have a Polish dictionary on my phone and use it whenever... well, whenever I'm not too lazy.

Talking of too lazy, I think it's bedtime.

Oh - and a resolution: I will try and find just one little thing to comment on each day - even if it's only a few lines. One tiny, quirky or interesting thing about Brussels, Belgium, languages, Polish culture, and all the other the things we like to mull over here. (By we I mean me and people who comment - I'm not giving myself the royal 'we' yet, far from it...)

*  among other things

Friday, 7 May 2010

Election 2010

Fun fact: in Poland you are not allowed to write about elections for a certain number of days before and after the election. This is to stop people being influenced by the press. Can you even imagine this happening in the UK?! (see 'it was the Sun wot done it', 1992)

The first time I got excited about a General Election result was in 1992 when I was eleven.

When I was little, the world was ruled by two powerful women with very similar haircuts. I found it hard to tell the difference between the two but it was clear that women with granny perms ruled the world. This was right and good and exactly as things should be (I have already selected the colour for my purple rinse).

By 1992, everybody thought Mrs Thatcher was crazy and there were cartoons of John Major in all the papers wearing grey underpants over his trousers.
I was terribly concerned that Labour might win the election, because I had taken the eleven-plus exam* and was desperate to go to the local grammar school. If you didn't get into the grammar school, you would go to the secondary modern, where your head would be flushed in the toilet and nasty big girls would threaten you with knives in the playground. Other girls from my primary school who had visited the secondary modern on an open day said that you got to make pizzas there, but I was still suspicious. It sounded like a ruse to me.
Labour were the dark demons of socialism who would abolish the eleven-plus exam and insist on comprehensive head-flushing for all.
My friend's Dad wrote for the Independent and she had explained to me that the Liberal Democrats were the real good guys. When we played 'Members of Parliament' in the school playground, she was always Paddy Ashdown.
But that was a side issue: as far as I could see, only a Conservative victory could save me from a life of head-flushing and knife crime.

On the morning after the election, my Dad woke me up and said 'grammar schools are safe'. My desperate eleven-year-old soul was flooded with relief. My head would stay dry and my ticket to a university education was in the bag.

I have never found myself quite as excited about politics since.

* an exam kids take to decide whether they go to a more academic school or an ostensibly 'more vocational' school.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

May Day! May Day!

Summer has come to Brussels. I have discovered that my work capsule wardrobe of about three jersey dresses plus opaque tights is woefully not up to the job. It's been a sticky few days. My one skirt suit and three cotton shirts are looking sadly inadequate now. Shopping in Brussels is not that great either: there's a choice between rue Neuve, to the north of the city centre. Classy it is not: think Bromley high street on a Saturday and you're pretty close. The pedestrianised street itself is always heavily packed, even on a Monday. You'd think unemployed people would have better things to do with their time than go shopping. However on closer inspection it's just the street that is crowded: if you slip into one of the shops (not counting H&M or Hema - a sort of Belgian Woolworths) it tends to be fairly empty. Sisley (an Italian high-street brand related to Benetton) do cute blouses and suits that are slightly nicer than Next's rather boxy offerings, so I may have to venture back there and stock up. French chain Promod are ok for pretty skirts and cardigans. But I still haven't found a decent place to buy shoes. I arrived in September with one pair of black flats, one black heels, running shoes, trainers, hiking boots, birkenstocks and slippers. I have since been home and collected knee-high brown boots, black evening sandals and a pair of pink ballet-style heels that I love.
Clearly though this is still not enough.

The second shopping area in Brussels is Avenue Louise. Avenue Louise is broad, posh and lined with boutiques. I am somewhat afraid to go there, plus it's on the wrong metro line (here you are either on 2 and 6 or 1 and 5). I wonder though whether it may hold the key to my shoe worries...

Gosh what a boring post! Let's publish it, get it out of the way and move on. 

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The Other Dog

On Sunday, my Dad Skyped me to say that The Other Dog was suddenly very much worse than before. On Sunday night, the vet rang to say that the kindest thing would be to put him out of his misery. My parents waited until their usual vet came in on Monday morning and by the afternoon it was all over and The Other Dog had slipped away to raid the Big Kitchen Bin in the Sky.

The Big Kitchen Bin in the Sky is a great place for dogs like The Other Dog. In this happy place, it is permanently lunchtime and there are always builders sitting outside the house, eating sandwiches. It is a place where children eat biscuits and drop A Lot of crumbs. This place has a big back garden with plenty of gaps in the fence to escape through. The kitchen door is never shut and dustbins have ill-fitting lids which are never quite securely on. For a dog that likes to lie in wait under the breakfast table, a real treat is in store: no-one ever wears slippers in the morning and deliciously cheesy feet poke in under the tablecloth. Nobody complains or squeals when a warm, slobbery doggy tongue slurps between their toes. The Postman visits four times a day.

The words 'No', 'Sit!', 'Drop it!' and 'Diet' do not exist there.

He was a very lovely, friendly dog and good with children and elderly people (coincidentally also the two demographic groups most likely to spill food). With the rest of us, he was a grumpy git who stole other people's sandwiches and hid behind the sofa at the sound of the word 'walkies' after dusk, but still we loved him lots and we miss him terribly.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Things to do...

... when all your work has been cancelled due to the ash cloud.

- First up, know your enemy. Learn to pronounce its name. That's 'Eyjafjallajokull'. Tip: Icelanders pronounce 'll' as 'tl'. I know, it seems odd. But the French pronounce 'll' as 'y' (sometimes - I've never quite worked out when). Not so weird now, right?
Alternatively, laugh at other people trying to pronounce it:
(see, I told you Icelandic would be useful!)

- Lose track of time (the clocks going back has really thrown me: how can the sun still be shining at 8pm?) Take your watch off. Read a book. Forget to go to bed. Turn the alarm off and roll over. Set your email to  'out of office'. Be late. Sit on the Grand Place and watch the stranded tourists. What day is it again?

- Practice your Polish: altogether now: 'Poproszę trzy razy Zywiec z sokiem imbirowym. Dziękuję bardzo'. Was that so hard?

- Forget to do basic household tasks. Ignore that ironing pile. Who needs clean socks anyway? The sun is shining (through the ash)! There are terraces to sit on! What are you still doing here?!

- Brave the Belgian pharmacy. Somehow, there are three or four Belgian pharmacies on every street. I am not sure how they make a profit but I suspect heavy subsidisation. In any case, most of them have a tiny pharmacy counter at the back, and a cavernous front section packed with shelf upon shelf of expensive skincare products. What they are all for is a mystery to me. I am a relatively girly girl, but as far as I'm concerned, skincare consists of a decent cleanser, make-up remover, moisturiser and spot cream. It was going to buy this last that led to my downfall.
I went to a pharmacy I've visited before, one where there is a bustling, overtly-discreet middle-aged lady behind the counter. The type who revels in embarrassing problems. Go in for pre-holiday Immodium and she practically rubs her hands with glee.
- I need something for blemishes please. I said, hoping for something strong and medical.
Mme Pharmacist puffed out her chest in delight... 'I have just the thing....' she said in a loud stage whisper, and bustled out to the front of the pharmacy, towards all the expensive beauty products, before I could stop her.
- This is the best cream. And you must get this as well. And you'll need this for the daytime, this lotion for the night... If you get two products you'll get five euros off now and then they'll send you a third free, so I recommend you get this, this and this and then order this one...
I was overwhelmed. I let myself be carried along by it all.
- And now I just need a second address, it can be anyone: your sister, your aunt...
- But my aunt lives in...
I gave in, wrote my UK address, paid and found myself standing on the pavement, almost out of breath, with a neat little paper bag full of Vichy face-potions.
It all happened so fast...

- Do your accounts. This involves a lot of long phonecalls to the Ministry of Finance, a lot of being passed around between different departments, a lot of 'Je vous entend tres mal!' and more than enough bad hold music. All before midday, which is when the Belgian Ministry of Finance closes. And they wonder why there's a constitutional crisis...

- Become a drunk. The prerogative of people in 'stressful' professions everywhere. And the only thing to do on a Wednesday night when you don't have to go in to work the next morning. I've noticed however that Belgium is the only place where I get disapproving looks for tottering home late at night on my own. I'm starting to get a little paranoid. Hmm, maybe I'll have a little gin and tonic to help with the stress. Make that a double...

Monday, 19 April 2010

... and it's Monday again...

... how did that happen?

The żałoba for the presidential air crash is over (although Gazeta Wyborcza is still in black and white). I watched some of the funeral, cried a bit (mostly because of the fantastic music and footage of lovely Kraków in mourning, not to mention Jarosław Kaczyński looking pale and sad on his own - it must be awful to lose a twin) and wondered who was providing the interpretation. Burial at Wawel castle is a bit of a controversial issue, since this is an honour reserved for Polish kings and heroes. I think the generally accepted view is that burying the Kaczynscy on Wawel hill symbolises all the victims of the crash and by extension the memory of the victims of Katyń. In any case, emotions have been running high: reactions from the Krakowian side have been largely anti-Wawel, not least because the President preferred Warsaw as a city anyway. In any case, it's done now.

Ash cloud: I can't see any sign of the ash cloud. There have been clear blue skies over Brussels for at least four days now, all the more so for the lack of vapour trails. The balcony door has been open all day and the sunshine is flooding in. It's weird, for Brussels, but I'm not complaining...

I would, however, like to book trips to a) Kraków - for the blogmeet and b) Italy, somewhere, anywhere, for a few days of linguistic and cultural immersion and a reminder of why I love it all. So please, ash cloud, disperse yourself! I promise to study my Icelandic pronunciation diligently (for strictly musical, not professional purposes).

And lastly: I genuinely thought that by the age of twenty-nine my Clearasil days would be far behind me. Sadly not. Sigh. What's the French for Benzoyl Peroxide?