Sunday, 28 November 2010

Far from home in a hotel room

I'm on mission again, which is a direct calque from the French and which sounds a lot more exciting in English than in the original. Although I suppose if it were really exciting then I wouldn't be able to blog about it. No-one else is here yet and the conference doesn't start til Tuesday, so I'm at a loose end, not doing anything except sitting in the hotel room not catching up on sleep and blogging.

I travelled here on Ethiopian Airlines. For a child of the 80s, Ethiopia means Band Aid, Bob Geldof and 'eat your carrots, there are starving children in...'. At the time, I could never understand why my Mum wouldn't agree to physically send the carrots where they might be appreciated a bit more. Imagine my consternation when the cabin crew came round to collect the dinner trays. I almost apologised over the tell-tale carrots lying sheepishly uneaten in the gravy.
On landing, we were treated to tantalisingly spectacular views over the plains and mountains surrounding Addis Ababa. Unfortunately the rest of my Ethiopian experience consisted of dozing in the business lounge, in spite of the interest piqued by leaflets depicting pyramids, markets and ancient ruins.

And now here I am, in a rather different country that is not Ethiopia. I have inadvertently managed to do more or less everything I need to do to catch malaria: opening the windows on arriving in the hotel room (it's an automatic reflex, I just wanted to see the view), walking outside by the pool, sitting by the pool after dark eating pizza (because that's where the hotel bar food was). There's a winged insect that looks like a fly in my bathroom. I hope it is a fly. In a few weeks' time I expect I will know whether it was or not. And I accidentally drank from a glass of coke with ice, before I'd really had time to think about it, so I'm clearly well on the way to a nice bout of tummy trouble, if not full-blown cholera.

If I manage to survive all that, I may even take some photos...

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Winter chills

I still have a good twenty-eight or so posts to get through by the end of the year. This is going to be tough. I feel a lot of photos coming on.

It's starting to get really cold in Brussels now. Not just ordinary cold, but damp, foggy cold that chills you through and through. The radiator in my bedroom doesn't work. I've heard that you need to bleed radiators. This sounds like one of those rather disgusting but secretly fun things - like picking scabs or pulling out hangnails - that you do as a child sitting cross-legged on a rather dusty floor waiting for assembly to start. I realise that's probably a rather over-detailed simile but I have a very, very clear image in my mind here of the boredom and the floating dust mites and those disgusting curtains decorated in a fetching pattern resembling psychodelic spools of Marmite. Once, I unzipped my summer dress all the way down the front and couldn't zip it up again. I was marched out of assembly and had to change into an abandoned dress from the spare clothes cupboard. My Mum never dressed me in zips again. What do you expect, giving a seven-year old easy access to zippable fashions?

I did tell the landlord about the faulty radiator and he sent round a plumber. When I say 'plumber', obviously I mean the landlord's sister's cousin's brother-in-law who's a bit handy with a spanner and used to watch Home Improvement quite a lot. The plumber stuck a little Allen key or something in the corner of the radiator, there was a loud, satisfying hiss and some water dripped out. I'm sure it's something I could do myself...

I also need to put blinds in upstairs. My flat has attic rooms with beautiful, big skylights, perfect for lying back on a snow-white cotton duvet and dreaming that you're floating on a cloud. Unfortunately, at three in the morning when there's a full moon they're not so good. Yesterday I snapped awake and lay in the chilly moonlight, trying to sink back into a lovely dream where I was catching up with an old friend who's recently moved back from Australia. The only thing is, it's not my flat. And I resent investing in something that I'm going to have to take down and paint over in three years time. The flat is definitely my home, but I still feel that I'm camping to some extent. The kitchen especially doesn't feel like mine (although it's miles better than the old place, which looked like this:


The new one is a definite improvement in that it has actual work surfaces. And more than two hobs (which I never use because I am lazy and useless and don't have a dining table yet and haven't found my local veggie market). And no cockroaches whatsoever. 
Note the tasteful tiling in my old kitchen. I have to admit I probably failed to appreciate its full splendour, largely because I was utterly bedazzled by the subtle charms of the bathroom:

Now, I've commented on the weather, written something vaguely amusing about my childhood, given you an update on the flat and some photos of real estate failures past. That's my blogging duty over for the day, bonne nuit!

Oh wait. Polski update. Uh. I have one lesson a week with a very patient Polish lady and we are going through a fascinating textbook on economics. I am also trying - and failing - to remember the difference between siedzieć komuś na głowie and zawracać komuś głowę, and many other such expressions, also from a textbook. 

On a fairly regular basis, I bump into a Polish person at a party and have a long and apparently fluent conversation with them which in reality probably consists of:
- oh wow, you speak such great Polish!
- thanks, I make lots mistakes. I live in Kraków two year.
- How did you learn?
- I go language school and then UJ, Cen-tre foooorrrr Po-lish langu-age and cul-ture iiiiin theeee world (I have to say that very carefully otherwise I get the endings wrong)

...etc, etc, for another half-hour or so. But it all sounds a lot better after vodka.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

One in three

I have to admit I'm strangely, uncharacteristically fascinated by the royal engagement. Normally my interest in the royal family is limited at the best of times - probably largely due to sheer rage at the Daily Express crowd.

HRH hit the scene in my second year at St Andrews and the atmosphere there changed dramatically. Suddenly, the nicest bars in town (and it's a small old town) were packed with expensively-highlighted American girls in fitted rugby shirts and pink pashminas, while security was tightened to within an inch of its life. Woe betide the student who tried to get into the Union (or even the library) on a Friday night without an ID card. After second year, he moved out of halls and the hoo-hah died down a bit. Or maybe it's just that I moved to France for a year, returned briefly for the first semester of third year and then absconded to Italy for spaghetti, spritz and snowboarding. I definitely passed WW a couple of times on the street but couldn't distinguish him from the other posh boys wearing navy baseball caps over floppy blond hair. At least until someone hissed - 'but wasn't that...???', forcing me to admit my ignorance. My sub-standard celebrity spotting skills make me glad I'm not a gossip columnist.

But what interests me isn't the romance, or the dress, or the media circus, or even KM's lack of career (these days, who's really managed to achieve anything by 28? I certainly hadn't got very far). It's the reality. It's hard for a relationship to survive the first tough years after graduation. They've been together eight years. What keeps two fast-changing young people together that long, throughout their turbulent early twenties? How did they cope with separation? Why did they split and what brought them back together? Are they really 'in love' or just good mates who fancy each other and get on ok? What does in love mean after eight years? Is the spark still there?

They both seem so modern and normal - insofar as a prince and the daughter of millionaires can be. They look and sound just like the other posh boys and girls I know. What makes their relationship a success? Do they have a real bond or is it just PR?

One in three St Andrews graduates marries another St Andrews graduate. A sign of a small, inbred community or of salt-soaked romance on the bracing Fife coast?

By all appearances, this is not a whirlwind romance, but a tough, tried-and-tested bond, with the battlescars and laughter lines of eight years to prove it. Does this mean there's some hope for the rest of us?

Monday, 15 November 2010


Leave the lights on in your flat. Put your coat on, go downstairs and sit out in the square under the trees and look up at the warm glow in your own windows. Imagine it's not your house but that some other girl lives there. Think about that girl - does she live alone? She must have some kind of wonderful job to live in that big flat by herself. Maybe she worked hard to get there but I bet she loves it, doing what she always dreamed of. Perhaps she gets to travel to exciting places and see things she'd never even imagined. A girl like that is clever, good at what she does: she never doubts herself for a moment.

She'll have a sweet boyfriend who is crazy about her: he'll come around on his day off and help her fix pictures to the walls of the new apartment and together they'll buy a huge rug from some hippy shop in St Gilles and carry it home on the metro, giggling and beaming at each other. The warmth streaming from the windows carries with it the growing warmth of the flat as it slowly becomes a home. Another armchair, a tall plant in a ceramic pot, a dining room table. A Sunday afternoon spent drinking coffee after coffee on Place St Boniface or the Parvis de St Gilles, stealing kisses and pretending to be shy when nobody really notices them at all. They'll take pictures of each other and make silly faces and laugh at how goofy they are. Secretly they'll both imagine tottering infants with ginger hair and huge dark eyes and a dewy garden in the spring sunshine some time in the hazy future. Their lives spread before them full of love and laughter and everything looks perfect.

And there you are, sitting out alone in the square in the cold and the dark, pretending.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010


Standing by the printer, on Thursday evening. Work (or at least this part of it) closes at midday on a Friday. I have a meeting starting at 9am. The whole of Belgium will be closed on Monday and Tuesday. I leave on mission on Wednesday morning.

- So... says the guy from the office, conversationally - when are you flying out?
me - Wednesday morning
- oh! *sudden face of doom* But you'll be far too late - the bus leaves the hotel an hour after your plane lands. You need to change that flight. We're all going on Tuesday evening.
me (turning pale) - are you sure I won't make it? Even if I get a taxi or something?
- I think you need to change it.
- But... but... on Tuesday I'm in London renewing my passport...

The next two hours were a blurred mess of running from office to office, shedding e-ticket printouts in great paper sheaves in my wake, trying to find the right person to authorise my flight change, trying very hard not to burst into tears and spending a puzzling fifteen minutes looking for a lift that would take me to level 2 (apparently there are several which pass it by altogether).

Tomorrow starts at quarter to six and ends at ten in the evening and includes an ambitious itinerary of changeovers so nail-bitingly tight they would produce grey hairs in a skeleton luge driver.

Wish me luck.