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?

Monday, 12 April 2010

By lamplight

My love affair with all things Polish began in 2005, on a university choir tour to Kraków. Actually it was around the beginning of April 2005. The weekend after Easter. I wouldn't normally remember the date of a student trip, only this one was a little different, and not just because we brought winter vomiting flu to Luton airport (that, I feel, is a story for another time).
While we were in Kraków, at the end of March 2005, an elderly Polish gentleman (whose parents are buried in the Rakowicki cemetary in Kraków) lay dying in hospital. This elderly Polish gentleman was also known as Pope John Paul II, and, while we were enjoying the bright spring sunshine in the Planty, all of Poland (or at least all of Kraków) was out in the streets keeping watch for him and lighting candles. There are a lot of things about Polish Catholicism that make me uncomfortable, but one thing that I find striking in a positive way is its emotional side. That week in spring 2005, I and several other of the choir's excitable Catholics (and non-Catholics) went to kneel in Kościół Mariacki at one o'clock in the morning, stood outside what I now know to be the famous window on ul. Franciszkańska, lit candles and held hands with Polish strangers in the middle of the night and listened to them singing with tears streaming down their faces.

I was enchanted by a people that would go out on the streets to pay their respects to a man they may never have met, but who none the less was a son of their city. Leaving aside a budding fascination (or at least the sense of a challenge) with the language, my lasting impression was of a beautiful city flooded with cool, sharp sunshine and, by night, of people keeping watch and praying in the street.

Strangely - and possibly hypocritically - I feel cynical about patriotism and public displays of emotion in the UK, while in Poland I find it moving.

On the eve of All Saint's Day in 2007, I visited the Rakowicki cemetery and saw the lamps crowding the memorials and lighting up the darkness of the graveyard. I learnt that even empty plots are sometimes given lamps because no grave should be left out and it's a collective responsibility to make sure that no-one is forgotten.
When I was home for Easter last weekend, my Mum told me that she went to look for her father's grave and was upset that she couldn't find it: more plots had been added and the landscape had changed. Maybe we just have other ways to remember people and to pay our respects. Maybe not. I would like there to be lamps though.

By Saturday afternoon there were already flowers and candles outside the Polish Embassy. When I came back later in the evening, lamps were burning and there was a crowd of people standing outside keeping vigil. More flowers were there today.
Politically I was not a big fan of Kaczyński but no-one deserves to go like this; a lot of people died in the plane crash and it's especially awful that among them were representatives of the Katyń families, who have already suffered more than enough.
Incidentally, there are books of condolence at the Embassy if you live in Brussels and want to pay your respects. The doors are open from 9am until 5pm, until Saturday.

Not a great photo because I felt a little disrespectful taking pictures, but Polish mourners were (very discreetly) snapping away as well so I thought it was probably ok.

Saturday, 10 April 2010


This morning the Polish presidential plane crashed near Smolensk in Russia, on the way to a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Katyń massacre. It is estimated that 96 people were on the plane, none of whom survived. Passengers included Polish President Lech Kaczyński and his wife as well as MPs, senators, commanders of the armed forces and the head of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance.
A whole swathe of major figures in Polish public life was killed, with bitterly poignant timing. On Polish blogs and news sites, the 'comments' boxes teem with conspiracy theories: old tensions with Russia are easily reawakened. Questions have also been raised about the age and condition of the presidential aircraft and the wisdom of transporting so many important people in the same aeroplane.
Now is not the time for speculation though. Now is a time to offer deepest sympathies and condolences to Poland and its people and to all who lost family or friends in this tragic accident.

BBC Article

Gazeta Wyborcza

Monday, 5 April 2010

Why I am such a rubbish blogger at the moment

Many things. The last post that I wrote - and have not yet published - was about being attacked in the town centre last Friday, and I decided that it was too angry a post to actually publish. I am toning it down, but I want it out there so that other ex-pats are aware that the Belgian police are not necessarily on your side.

I'm in Sevenoaks at the moment and I don't use the computer as much here, mostly because there are Real People to talk to, dogs to walk, etc.

Things (in no particular order)

Easter - Easter at home is all about daffodils and roast dinners and going to church a lot. I don't attend church in Brussels: there's something about francophone Catholicism that I find hugely uninspiring. Probably the fact that people go in, listen and stare with glazed eyes for an hour, take Communion and then flee the scene. There is no participation, no sense of connection or enthusiasm and worst of all No Music, apart from the usual nasal chanter leading responses that no-one joins in.
On the other hand, I am loath to go to one of those suspiciously friendly ex-pat churches, where well-meaning but overbearing parishioners zoom in on unsuspecting newcomers like hawks and before you know it you are on the coffee rota and attending evening songs of praise and signed up to goodness knows what else.
I am just starting my third decade on the planet, I have grey hairs (only two) and lines on my forehead and am increasingly wondering what it will be like to die. If I am going to be religious, I need it to engage me on an intellectual level, because at the moment I'm afraid Dawkins and the like have a pretty strong rational argument.
In the church that my parents attend, there are intelligent, professional people, whom I admire, and who have very strong beliefs, and I want to know where it all comes from. What do they know that I don't?

Katyń: I rented the DVD and finally saw this film, monopolising my parents' television and lounge for a good couple of hours (by the time I'd got 36 minutes into the Andrzej Wajda interview at the end I think they had had more or less enough).
I'm not a film critic and I tend to get emotionally involved in films, rather than making a detached analysis. I do however watch films set during this period with a great deal of caution, knowing how easy it is to be carried along and to become incensed about an issue which is not my battle.
One thing I will say is that the English subtitles on my rented DVD were appalling. Obviously my Polish isn't good enough for me to be able to catch everything on a film soundtrack (nor for that matter are my French and Italian, sometimes, if the accent is difficult, the dialogue fast and the background music loud). So I wasn't checking the translation. In any case, there's a fair amount of Russian and German dialogue in the film. And I'm not a trained subtitler, although I'm aware that there are certain time and space restrictions.
But: every time I looked down, the quality of the English was poor. It had clearly never even been checked by a native speaker. Subtitles are a way for foreigners, in this case English speakers, to access a film and a story that they would never otherwise have heard. What a betrayal of Wajda and of his subject matter to use such bad quality subtitling! Why, for the umpteenth time, is no-one prepared to pay for decent Polish to English translation?!

The Other Dog is very old and grumpy now and almost completely blind. He was diagnosed with diabetes some time last year and in the time it took to get it under control he lost his sight. He also has liver failure and is still not putting on weight, for no apparent reason. My parents have had him insured from the outset, which is lucky because the tests and consultations and overnight stays at the specialist vet's have already run to thousands of pounds. He seems perfectly happy, although he walks into cupboards a lot and occasionally trips over bumps if we forget to say 'step!'. He still eats and enjoys going for short walks and snarls at us if we tread on his tail. His ears prick up when you call him and he trots along with his tail in the air like a flag. My theory is that if he's still bright enough to try and raid the kitchen bin then he's far from ready to go yet. But I'm sad for all the people who have to put down pets which are still relatively healthy because they simply can't afford the vet's bills.

Things: my parents' house is full of things. Things they have collected over more than thirty years of marriage, things their grown-up children have left behind, things they have inherited from elderly relatives who have moved on in any sense. Some of the things are interesting: the tub chair my paternal grandmother used to sit in to have her hair set, a mysterious pastel portrait known only as 'Mrs Harford', boxes and boxes of old slides and photos. But all the interesting things are smothered in piles of linen and papers and old clothes and crumbling plastic bags full of ancient children's toys.
When somebody visits, they have to rearrange the things to make room for the extra person.

When I stay here, I feel as though I am suffocating under the weight of all the old things.