Sunday, 28 February 2010

Are Belgians shy?

I haven't actually had the pleasure of meeting all that many Belgians, now you come to mention it. I've chatted to several at parties, I've met a few in various choirs, but I really haven't actually got to know all that many.

This could be my fault. I am - when not outright shy - at least reserved, in a bordering-on-the-reclusive old-fashioned British way.

But I don't think so. I mean, in Kraków I certainly met plenty of Polish people...

And, now I come to think of it, I probably know more Polish people here than Belgians. Even the slightly scary lady who sells the newspapers on the ground floor at work is Polish (sort of makes sense, doesn't it?). It's rather comforting actually, but that's beside the point. I've been here for almost six months and I only have two Real Belgians in my telephone directory.

I mentioned this to my friend in Antwerp, who has been here a bit longer than me.

- oh yeah, she said, Belgians are really shy.

I have to admit that the Belgians of my acquaintance have not struck me as particularly shy.
Especially the new Belgian friend with whom I hitched a ride back to the UK, across snow-covered Belgium and ice-bound northern France, after I missed my train home for Christmas. Note that she was just popping over to the UK to do a spot of shopping. And made it back - through fresh snowfall - within forty-eight hours. I have a lot of respect for Belgian women now.

However, my Antwerp-dwelling ex-pat friend described the awkward silences in the lift at work, the lack of eye-contact reminiscent of Monday morning on the Tube. One day, she said, two Dutch members of the management decided to play a joke on their shyer netherlandophone colleagues, by putting up posters encouraging employees to greet each other and make conversation in the lift.

The awkwardness must have been excruciating.

At least in Britain there's always the weather to fall back on.

Are Belgians really shy? What do you think?

Sunday, 21 February 2010

oh gosh... (again)

I am Working tomorrow, like, properly working, outside, with other people!
This means I have to:

- have a bath
- get dressed before midday
- put make-up on
- leave the flat

On the other hand, it also means that I must not:

- talk to myself
- check the blog during office hours
- take shoes off
- eat hair/pick nose/pick toenails* at desk
- get up every ten minutes to make tea
- mention Poland/my dog every other sentence.

oh gosh... it's going to be hard.

*not that I actually do any of those disgusting things, who me? What were you thinking?!

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Freelancing pour les nuls

A friend recently dived off the solid rock of in-house employment into the icy (often shark-infested) waters of the freelance market.

We were discussing the various aspects of working from home, cancelled contracts, weekends spent hunched over a hot laptop, a slave driver of a boss who has you up at all hours to meet a deadline (psst - by the way, that boss is You).

- But doesn't it drive you a bit nuts working from home on your own??
- No it's fine, really. I only ever go two or three days at the most without speaking to anyone.
- Two or three days?!
- It might be a good idea to get a television...

I've been going it alone for about a year and a half now, but only then did I suddenly realise how horrifying it all sounds.

Fortunately, I've found this helpful - if rather patronising - brief guide on how to be a freelancer. All you need to know on how to work from home... and not go utterly nuts.

1/ Make sure you eat properly. Properly means high-fibre breakfast cereal, lean proteins and green vegetables. You will be a lean, mean translating machine. It does not include Liegois waffles, Leffe brune or Nutella.
Eat at a table or - if no table is available - in front of the television. Munching over the computer keyboard (especially while Skyping) is strictly disgusting and we would never dream of doing such a thing.

2/ Leave the house once a day. Checking your letterbox does not count. Good excuses for leaving the house include: running out of milk, buying European Voice (I know you can read it online, but just pretend), visiting the Bureau des Etrangers, going jogging. If you are having trouble getting out of the house to do exercise, try buying new sports shoes or a high-tech sweat-absorbing hat. The prospect of sport is far more enticing when it involves outfits.

3/ Speak to at least one (real) person a day. This can be the lady at the Post Office, the bloke behind the counter at the 24-hour corner shop, the customer services staff at Mobistar, etc. NB Skype chat absolutely does not count.

4/ Maintain your sartorial elegance. Try to be out of your pyjamas by noon. Make sure you own more than one pair of sweatpants. So that you can wash them at least once a week. Remember where you left your hairbrush. Compensate for lack of grooming by wearing very girly earrings.
If you find yourself pulling on a pair of old comfy jeans every day... well done. You still haven't hit the bottom. Real home-workers find jeans formal and restrictive and are longing to ease them off and hang out in baggy tracksuit bottoms.

5/ Try to moderate time spent sitting in front of the computer screen. Do not on any account spend your evenings checking Facebook, scrawling on Twitter or writing blog posts. That is what office hours are for.

6/ Build up a good network of colleagues. You can then meet for regular lunch and coffee breaks. This is an excellent procrastination strategy as it will take you at least twenty minutes to get to the meeting point and back. Plus it counts as work (especially if you speak in foreign).

7/ Build up a good network of other layabouts people who like to drink during the week. This is a lot more important than you would think: Monday morning deadlines are pretty common, which tends to put a damper on your weekend. Then, when you get to Wednesday and are gasping for a G&T, you have someone to call on. This network may include other freelancers, students, the long-term unemployed, musicians, British people.

8/ Remember what time of day it is. This is trickier than you might think. Investing in an alarm clock is probably a good idea. If you can, try and remember the days of the week. It's nice to have an Actual Paper Diary, with little paper corners you can tear off. When things become chronologically distressing, it gives you something comforting to hold on to.

9/ Remember that none of the following are abnormal: talking to yourself, talking to the television, jumping when the phone rings, giving names to household appliances.

That's about it.

Thank goodness for that.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010


I am currently in a paradoxical position. I'm about to start the job that I've always dreamed of (not that I would ever do anything so sentimental as dream, but let's pretend). Or in any case that I've dreamed of since that amusing little game in French conversation class where one lectrice pretends not to speak English and the other not to speak French and it's all terribly jolly.
The contradiction is that I'm absolutely terrified. My first day won't be for a little while yet and I'm avoiding all work-type buildings as far as possible. When I do go in (usually to fill in forms) I find myself unthinkingly edging along the corridors, close to the walls, as if I'm in some bizarre Eurothriller, with gun-toting enemies waiting around the corner. I end up standing in the front corner of the lift, nearest the door, not making eye contact with anyone and hoping no-one with heart trouble steps in on the next floor. I peer around doors before entering. I wish I could become invisible.
I am also frightened of colleagues. Even (especially) the lady who sells newspapers on the ground floor. I can just about manage consecutive practice with a Polish colleague. Meeting with English colleagues is slightly fraught but not impossible (all text and email correspondence is edited repeatedly: some people eat under stress - I correct grammar). I am Absolutely Petrified of the boss - quite irrationally because he is actually very nice.

The other day I got what appeared to be a medical bill written in Flemish. It took me a little while to work out what it was and then I remembered.
In about my second week here, I went on a date in Antwerp. I don't often go on dates, for fear of causing harm to myself and to other people.
Some time in the early evening on this date, I begin to feel a slight ache in my stomach. I had skipped lunch (because I was a/ nervous and b/ late for my train) and drunk a beer on an empty stomach, so this was not entirely out of the ordinary. We decided to go and get something to eat, and found a table at a rather posh Thai restaurant.
The food arrived. I ate a little. The stomach ache got worse.
- This is really great, said my date, 'you should try some'
I shook my head.
- Mmm, yours is really good too! He reached over with the fork and speared several chunks of chicken and cashew nuts, while I turned a fetching shade of pale green.
 - I think I need to go home. I said.
We paid up and headed for the station.
The pain got worse.
I started to drag my feet.
- Maybe you should see a doctor?
- No, I'm fine, really, I just need to go home. Sorry.
We moved on, me hunched over and shuffling.
- Just give me a second... I said, and sank to my heels for a few moments.
And then the guy decided to play knight-in-shining-armour.
- I'm taking you to the hospital. Come on, we're getting a taxi.

I wasn't going to argue, and it was a huge relief to sink into the back seat of the taxi.

So that was how I ended up spending half a night in the emergency room of Antwerp hospital. Nothing was wrong with me. When I get nervous, my guts play up. And I was nervous, because I liked the guy.
They bundled me into an x-ray machine, asked me at least fifty times whether I was pregnant and whether I was sure I wasn't pregnant, and then gave me some horrible purgative thing, and I felt worse. It was far from dignified. I missed my last train back to Brussels and had to throw my contact lenses down the sink and stumble home half-blind the next morning (afternoon).

Needless to say, there was no second date.

And now - four months later - a hospital bill for seventy euros, reminding me of what an idiot I am, reminding me that I need to sort out my health insurance and transfer some money into my Belgian account, reminding me that I should really simply not date, at all, for the health and well-being of everyone.

And that fear and nerves have a way of sabotaging everything.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Just when you thought it was safe...

I was going to publish a half-written post about a very eerie trip to the British Consulate, but in the meantime, I woke up yesterday morning to scenes rather like this:

Yeah, I know. Again.

Normally I'm a big fan of snow, and the incontestable fact is that Brussels under snow is a far prettier and less doleful place than Brussels under drizzle, but this is starting to get ridiculous.

Yesterday morning I went to see a man about a pension policy (I know!!).
- oh you managed to get here all right then?
I must have looked surprised because he added:
- all the buses are cancelled.

Welcome to Belgium.

Last night I went out for a quiet, mid-week beer with a couple of friends. That is, I tried to go out for a quiet mid-week beer. The place looked easy enough to find: follow the big road from the station and then turn right.

Only... somewhere along the line I took the wrong road.

The pub was less than ten minutes from Central Station and I managed to arrive there via an impressive detour which took in the Bozar, the Palais de Justice, the lift at the Palais de Justice, Brussels Chapelle station and the Eglise des Minimes.

On the way back I missed the last metro and fell over twice on the packed snow slipping and sliding my way home down Rue de la Loi.

Enough snow now. Thank you. Mamy dość zimy!

Monday, 8 February 2010


It strikes me that I am extraordinarily lucky. Firstly, to have been born and to be concious and thinking and existing at all. I mean - what are the chances of that?
Not only to have been born but to have been born in a country where there is solid infrastructure and relative wealth and freedom in a relatively well-off family in an area with decent state schools, before it became utterly impossible to get into one.
And however much I worry and complain that I am going to run out of work and out of money and be unable to pay the rent, so far everything has been fine. I am not living in a cardboard box. I - miraculously and by some incredible fluke that I still don't really understand - have a work situation which will continue to get better (unless I go deaf or get tinnitus or lose my voice completely or have a premature stroke or get permanent tonsillitis - oh my goodness the list is endless).
Come to think of it, the Student Loans company has been ominously quiet recently. And I haven't started saving for tax this year yet. Plus I have yet to get my full electricity bill for the year... so there's still time for everything to part en couilles.
I and my immediate family all seem to be more or less ok health-wise: I mean, any one of us could be hit by a bus or catch swine flu or be frazzled to a crisp in an electrical fire or discover a terrible underlying illness any day now but... all right, all right, this isn't helping.

What I mean is that there are very few places in the world where a woman can live alone and support herself and be free to go where she likes, drive what she likes (bank manager allowing - so in my case a pair of rollerblades) and not have to get married or be forced into domestic or sexual slavery.

I am very, very lucky.

I am terrified that one day it will all go horribly wrong...

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Kraków in winter

Perhaps you are wondering why on earth someone would be crazy enough to go to Poland in January.
Well, it's actually rather pretty.

Here are some pictures:

Snowy saints outside the church of St Peter and Paul on Grodzka

The Wisła was totally frozen, how cool is that?!

Not actually a concentration camp, but leftovers from the film set of Schindler's List
Although Wikipedia says there was a labour camp here during the Second World War.

Interesting obwarzanki-based hanging decorations in Nowa Prowincja. Incidentally Polish Christmas decorations stay up long past Epiphany and were very much in evidence around town.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

... and we're back.

I'm sitting at the laptop, trying to puzzle out a long letter with a lot of information on it. I see documents to procure and send and photographs to scan and passwords to confirm and online forms that have moved to another web address.
In about ten minutes I will print it out so I can see the whole thing at once, and then I will ignore all the extra words and extract the bits that constitute things I actually have to do and write them down in a nice long list like the tasks of Hercules and lastly I will put numbers on them in order of urgency from 'could be put off until tomorrow next week August' to 'oh holy crap should have done this yesterday last weekend shortly after graduation' with a special priority boarding category for 'oh help will not get paid EVER unless I do this!'.

Aren't lists great? The worst thing about lists is ignoring them until eleven o'clock in the evening when it's too late to do anything about them, and then panicking all night. The best thing about lists is that feeling of satisfaction when you can strike something off, done, finished, accomplished! The most frustratingly common thing about lists is coming to the bottom of the page, taking all the items which are still not crossed off and copying them onto the new list on the next page.

My lists usually start like this:

'To Do - Monday Tues Thurs Sat SUNDAY'

It would help if I could think a bit more clearly but unfortunately I've been sitting on public transport since six minutes past six this morning.

Shortly after I had boarded the Wizz Air Party Bus and snuggled into a warm corner of the back row, a group of young, largely fair-haired guys stumbled into the bus and squeezed into the remaining back seats. The flight after mine was to Eindhoven (which - comfortingly in the event of missed check-in - is probably not all that much further away than bloody Charleroi), so I guessed where they came from. The young blond guy next to me turned, wafting a distinctive odour of stale brewery my way.
- Sorry for the stink! he said carefully 'but I have an excuse... it's my last night in Kraków'
- Mine too. I replied. 'but I didn't drink anything*'
It was 6.20 in the morning. Witty replies were not forthcoming, certainly not on my side. He turned back and after about five minutes on the road fell asleep and spent the next hour and fifty minutes slowly slumping further into my lap.

I suspect I am thoroughly cured of Dutch guys.

* a shameful lie, I had one mug of grzaniec.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Encounter on Szewska

Walking down ul Szewska, face turned down against the cold, I was accosted by a man in a navy blue uniform.

- Zapraszam do rece i nogi!

-Excuse me?!

I pushed back the hood of my ski jacket and nudged my hat up a fraction so I could pull the headphone out of one ear.

- Zapraszam do rece i nogi!

- Przepraszam?!
My interlocuteur was wearing a heavy navy blue outdoor jacket and matching trousers, with stripes on the shoulders in the style of one of the many private security firms working in the city centre. He could well have been part of the Straz Miejska - a civil order service in the city. Was he inviting me to hit the floor? Was I about to be subject to a strip search?!

- Zapraszam do rece i nogi, repeated the guy, a little exasperated: 'do klubu!'

Finally the penny dropped: he was trying to advertise a club, on ul. Szewska, well known for being a party street. 'Rece i nogi' was the name.

I declined and moved on, wondering a little: nothing about the man's outfit or general attitude did anything to evoke the party atmosphere. And why on earth accost a lone girl (even that doubtful from a distance, given my thick winter clothing), wearing a ski jacket, jeans and hiking boots and listening - although he could not have known this - to Mozart. What on earth was he thinking?!