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.