Sunday, 28 March 2010

bad punnage

I am watching The Politics Show and wondering just who are all these Poles who are apparently in favour of David Cameron?

'polls', geddit? oh please yourselves...

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

very dull summing-up post

I suppose you want to know what I've been up to.

Maybe you don't. Maybe all three pinolona readers have long since sloped off to look at something more interesting.

I would like to write something, I really would. However, my brain is ever so slightly more or less short-circuited at the moment, meaning I'm not really able to string a sentence together, let alone pen the witty yet perspicacious missives to which you have become accustomed.

Yesterday, I fell down a rabbit hole and up three lifts and across possibly two bridges as far as I remember and worked in a New Place. I think it merits a decent blog codename. We're talking about a highly-complex, self-contained anthill, with its own food supply, retail outlets, hair stylists, border-control system... a little like that huge thing in Star Wars. Oh wait, isn't that the Death Star? I can't call it the Death Star. I'd rather like them to ask me back.

*** long pause while author looks up more appropriate Star Wars reference. It is a revelatory but fruitless search***

We could call it Wonderland for the moment, and ignore the naughty little voice in the back of my mind whispering 'Death Star, Death Star, Death Star'.
A lot of the day was spent being shown around. At the end of it, I was none the wiser. For example:
- This is the XXX building, but it's known by the acronym XYZ. Here's the main XXX bar, but everyone calls it the 'xxx' bar, because of the XXXX.

- To get to X room, go up in the lift to floor 3, then take another lift to floor 5, then go down one floor on the fire escape, and so on and so forth ad infinitum.

Oh gosh, being discreet about work makes for boring writing. Maybe I should go underground, close pinolona, and open a Truly Secret Blog. 
Frighteningly, I have discovered that colleagues often know who I am before I have met them. Similarly, I also 'know of' people that I do not yet actually know. The world seems to have suddenly become very, very small, and I am terrified of speaking to anyone in case I say something inappropriate and everybody hears about it.

In fact, I'm just generally terrified. Let's change the subject.

What else is new? I have yet to go back to the Commune. I do however have a new Special Piece of Paper at my disposal, and I am quietly hoping that this is the key document that they will want. With luck, I will hand over my new attestation, all the pieces will fall into place, the sunlight of common sense will break through the eternal cloud of Belgian public administration and all will be well with the world.

Who am I kidding?!

This morning, I slept through my alarm for the first time in years. Last time my body pulled this particular trick I had just come back from a week in New York and was properly jetlagged. 

It is Tuesday. This does not bode well.

Any other items?

Oh yes: I'm taking a break from the Slavic to learn a little Icelandic... in a musical context of course. It's quite cool actually. What is it about? Your guess is as good as mine:

Monday, 15 March 2010

Music, underground, continued.

I've just realised I entirely missed the point of my last post.

What I meant to write was a systematic analysis of the economic interest behind accordion-playing on the metro, given that the accordion player in question is generally greeted only by dismayed faces and desperate, vain door-banging on the part of anguished commuters trying to escape the cacophony.

Surely the persistence of accordionists on the underground rails of Brussels points to an underlying demand for accordion music? If so, who are these lovers of squeezy, wheezy folk music? Just who is paying the piper? I have never in my whole entire six months (ahem, I mean two-and-a-half weeks Mr Belgian VAT Man) in Brussels seen anyone give them money. Not even to stop. Perhaps there is some fabulously wealthy Euro-millionaire who regularly buys peace and quiet on the way home with a fat euro-cheque, but I very much doubt it (surely these people would have drivers?).

And if nobody is paying them, then why continue? Is it a highly-sophisticated distraction technique, intended to leave the poor commuter hunched in pain while the accordionist's child accomplice pinches their wallet? Or is there some other profit of which I am unaware?

I would be very interested to know who or what creates a demand for such a product in such a location.

Is it you?

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Music, underground.

I found Brussels metro surprisingly tranquil for the first few months after my arrival. However, it seems that the little accordion guys have found a way to sneak the bastards on board: you can tell an accordionist by the suspicious bundle, carried at chest height and sheathed in black plastic bags or a large black cloth. No sooner have the doors swooshed shut then, with a triumphant grin, they whip off the cover and start to force a wheezy caterwaul out of the poor battered instrument.

As soon as you see the smile spread across his little face, your heart sinks and you try to get as far away from the awful noise as possible. It is bad enough that your ears are already assaulted by canned music at each metro stop without also having to sacrifice the relative peace of the train carriage.

Now, I am not against accordion music per se: I rather admire the Ukrainian accordionists who play on the Kraków Rynek (although they have a repertoire of three - Mozart's Turkish Rondo, Bach's Toccata in Hammer Horror minor and I forget the other one. Maybe there isn't a third one). But what I appreciate most is the choice: stop and listen, or walk on by. I do not like being stuck in a tin box hurtling down a tunnel, crammed into a corner with a bloody accordionist for heavens' sake, and no 'mute' button.

The selection of platform muzak at Brussels' metro stations is eclectic to say the least. I have heard - regularly, uncensored, at Arts-Loi - a sweet little ditty from Lily Allen's latest album, entitled 'Bless you'. Well, something like that anyway. Put it this way, BBC Radio 1 can't play it: there would be no lyrics left in.

Are you kidding, Brussels? Does nobody at STIB/MIVB actually speak English?! And even if they don't, surely the One English Word that everybody knows (apart from 'ok' and 'coca cola') is precisely that one?!

In any case, at around six in the evening (at least at the weekend), the piped pop is replaced by soothing classical music: presumably to ward off the Belgian equivalent of hoodies. The classical selection is actually not too bad. Sometimes it's better than Klara Continuo (maybe it is Klara Continuo).

One of the best things about living in a pedantic country like Belgium is the sense of triumph you get when you finally find a way of undermining the system. Stand up for your rights! Refuse to submit to metro muzak! Fight fire with fire...

 ... by singing along. We wouldn't judge you.

(altogether now...

Va pensieeeero! sull'ali dora-a-a-te!

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

I HATE Belgium

I HATE Belgium. Officially. I HATE the constant summons to the Commune, to be snubbed by some fat, pea-brained Belgian local government pen-pusher with a large salary and no sense of initiative*. I HATE being asked to provide a different document each time and then when I arrive being told that it's the wrong one and I am late and I should have brought Annex X blah blah blah.

I HATE that I have to pay over two thousand euros in social security per year - effectively paying the salaries and child benefits of the fat, brainless local government penpushers - when I have absolutely no intention of retiring here or withdrawing a Belgian state pension.

I HATE the look of simple contempt I got from the fat local government penpusher this morning, simply for being a foreign woman who dared to speak up to him in his own language.

P: Here, my declaration of revenue for last year. Hands over tax declaration.
Fat official: That's no good. I need a monthly declaration.
P: Divide it by twelve! It's a valid declaration of my earnings.
Fat official: It doesn't count. You need a monthly declaration.

Please note, that the Fat, Stupid Official simply kept repeating the same words, over and over, without attempting to explain or justify anything. Because when your salary and social security contributions are guaranteed for life by the Belgian government, you don't have to be polite to people or to think outside the box. No-one is going to fire him, it's too difficult. All he has to do is slump like a fat dollop of stoemp in front of his computer all day and be obnoxious to foreign girls.

See what I mean?! Fat and stupid, all of them. I spend my hard-earned euros here, in their country, paying their extortionate sales VAT rate, and there they are, treating me like a piece of dirt on the bottom of their shoes!

I HATE that - although I have every right to be here, as a European citizen with freedom of movement - they decide to make it as difficult as possible for me to function here. Why do I need to register anyway? I pay my rent, I have enough to eat, why do I need one of your silly little identity cards when I have a perfectly good British passport thank you? And what makes you think I'm so desperate to be a Belgian resident anyway? I would love it if work were located in London and I could simply bypass all this ridiculous bureaucracy altogether. Believe me, I am not here for fun!

I HATE that the 'Capital of Europe' has to be this bureaucratically pedantic little city, when it could be in Paris, Florence, London, Kraków, Berlin... Europe has so many beautiful and lively cities. Why does it have to be hateful Belgium?!

I HATE Belgium!

*what did you think I was going to say?!


Finally, I got to look around Ghent. At least, I almost did.

For some reason, temperatures in Brussels have once again plummeted. After finishing work I went to meet up with a friend. Ghent is known for being pretty and cool and for having canals. We tried to walk along the canal towards the main square. Icy winds whipped our coats open and our hair around our faces.

- Let's go for coffee. Somewhere indoors.

We found a great café, somewhere that used to be a Socialist Cultural Centre, and stayed there for two hours. Then my friend had to go. I tried hard to visit the centre of Ghent, I really did, but I was dressed to sit in front of a microphone and not to battle with the elements.

The final sign that it was destined not to be came on the threshold of the cathedral. Resolving to do Something Cultural before escaping with relief on the next tram to the station, I decided to go in and have a look around. There were two or three shallow steps up to the main doors. A wedge of rather splintery plywood formed a makeshift disabled access ramp. To one side sat a stout Roma lady with a begging bowl.

You can see where this is going, can't you?

As I approached the door and started up the steps, the Roma lady called out to me. I turned to look at her and at the same time quickened my step...
...causing me to lose my balance and trip on the disabled access ramp. I sprawled forward, one shoe flying off and one knee smashing down hard onto the stone step.
The Roma lady began to chatter urgently. I snatched back my lost shoe and lurched hastily and dramatically into the cathedral, giving what must have been a pretty fair impression of the hunchback of Notre Dame.

I hate to say it but I'm a coward with injuries, especially my own, and once inside my head began to spin and colours flashed in front of my eyes. Relinquishing my last shreds of dignity, I sank onto the floor with my head between my knees, looking for all the world like a four o'clock homeless drunk.
The church floor was cool and smooth and the air dry and clean. The spinning began to subside... and then along came the Sacristan and shooed out me and the other tourists and vagrants so he could close the church.

I gave up and headed for the nearest tram stop.

I promise to go back and take pretty photos of Ghent, some other time. Preferably once Belgium stops behaving like the Siberian steppes and the sun comes out again.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

VAT actually

After several months of wavering between one side of the Channel and the other, I finally bit the bullet and joined the dark side. I am taking the plunge and becoming a Resident here. This means I have to pay VAT, even though my turnover is laughably low.

To pay VAT, you first need a VAT number (stay with me, this gets better, I promise). And indeed you have to pay to receive this magic number (why? Do they calculate it by rolling some kind of solid gold dice?), at a place called the Carrefour d'Entreprises. In practice this means your mutualité. Probably.

I went to the counter and took a ticket. It read 520. The number on the display was 739.

- Excuse me... excuse me!
The receptionist glared at me.
- I don't understand: this says 520 but the counter is already at 739.
- There are different series. Yours starts with 5.
explained the receptionist, as if this were obvious.

My turn came, about half a Tok FM podcast later.

The guy behind the counter was a smiley sort of Belgian. He smiled hello, did a double take and smiled again.
I explained my situation and he started tapping away at the computer.

- You seem tracassée
He observed, oozing charm, smiling some more.

- uhhh non, non, pas tellement...
To be honest, I was pretty damn tracassée. I was about - voluntarily - to sign up for significantly higher social security payments (largely due to a state pension that I will never receive, plus child benefits that everyone in Belgium pays, for everyone else's snot-nosed offspring), with no hope of a rebate for the first three years, not to mention all the administrative burden of a quarterly VAT return. And - thanks to major delays from the last French translation company I worked for* - I didn't even have the 75€ in my Belgian account to pay for the bloody VAT number.
I was coming out of the woodwork, while all my instincts were telling me just to lie low and hope no-one at the Comune came round to check. Here I was, volunteering to pay major extra tax, willingly moving from a small-business friendly economy to a bloody-unfriendly-let's-be-frank-here one. Just the thought of it brought me out in a cold sweat.

The guy was very smiley indeed. He took my passport, copied it, clocked that it was British and came back talking in English. I think they may be trained to do this. I certainly don't mind, and if I then rattle off at  lightening pace in my native tongue, dropping in some juicy idioms on the way, is it my fault if they don't understand me? You want to speak English? Bring it on**.

Suddenly, to my great alarm, I realised that Smiley Belgian Guy was actually flirting with me.

He started to go through the social security form. Name, Surname, Place of Birth... oh no.
I could see what was coming.

- Are you married?
- Oh gosh no.
- Ah ha! slightly too-loud laugh, coquettishly raised eyebrow 'So you are all alone?'

No! No, I have a really, really tall boyfriend who works out a lot.

- Well, yes, I mean, I have a dog.
more laughter
- not here, obviously, at my parents' house. I can't bring her here, she doesn't have a passport. Can you go over this social security thing for me again please?

And - get this - now the guy calls to his colleague: 'Hey, how's your English? Can you come over here a minute?' Even though we had been speaking in French up until the moment I handed over my passport.

- Mais il n'y a aucun soucije parle français!
- Vous parlez français?! (why does he seem so surprised?!)
- Je suis interprète quand même ...

This is a phrase I find myself using relatively often; I'm never quite sure how rude it sounds to a francophone... but it normally sorts out the English-speaking problem. He did look a bit affronted though.

- Sign here.

All this above-board business was starting to get to me. A twitch had developed in my left eyelid and the pen felt slippery in my hand.

- Anything else I have to do?
- Just e-mail me your diploma*** and pay for the VAT number.
- And where exactly should I email the diploma to?
- Oh yes... another smile - here's my card.

Very smooth.

* I came this close to adding a hyperlink to their website, but now is not the time nor the place.
** Although I realise I should be practising my French while I'm here. I find a foolproof method for being spoken to in French is very blatantly to read a very large book with a very obviously Polish title.
*** In Belgium you're not allowed to be a self-employed professional unless you can prove you're qualified for it.