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.