Thursday, 16 February 2017

Brief, sunny


Spring is here, A Sa Pa Ring is here.


(ssssh, I'm going to scare it away)

We've had two days of the most exquisite sunshine and warmth and I have enjoyed one of my top five favourite (and rare in Belgium) things: watching the menagerie in the sun. I LOVE chickens lying down in the sun, scaly legs and wings extended for maximum vitamin D, utterly peaceful for a few minutes out of their busy schedule of SCRATCHING THE SHIT OUT OF WHAT USED TO BE MY GRASS, ARGH HILLARY or the dog seeking out a warm patch on the floor, then lowering himself carefully onto it. The tortoises, who are currently in our bathroom, are just out of hibernation and mainly concentrating on eating everything in sight, but that is also pleasing to watch.

There have, however, been some problems, most notable among them being my face. You may recall that a few posts ago I was giving it all this "I've stopped using any kind of beauty product and it's made absolutely no difference," in a slightly smug way. It turns out that what was in fact happening was the winter, when the ambient light levels in our house hover somewhere between stygian gloom and pitch dark. The arrival of the sun has unfortunately revealed a starker truth: FUCK. I look like a disappointed camel. Or possibly something Lord Canarvon dug up in the Valley of the Kings, but didn't bother bringing home because it was too degraded. It's bad: blotchy, scaly, lumpy, spotty, dusty, all the bad words that end in "y". I had an actual work meeting with an actual person outside my home on Wednesday and was forced to confront the hideous truth in the process of attempting to look like a human woman you might ask to do copywriting. It involved a lot of 6 year old concealer and some light whimpering.

Any suggestions? Yes, I know I used to write a beauty blog, but that was years ago and indeed, I am still using the dregs of products I was given free 5 years ago. What can I use that (i) does not cost €1000, (ii) will not give me spots (iii) has some chance of de-Ramses-ing me?

3. Sabotaged by own child
Vignette from Belgian family life:
Accompany F to town hall to get his ID card done (a year late, what's a year between friends, eh). Lady on desk refuses his photos and sends us to get new ones done. Knowing the town hall photo machine, I set off on a mad dash around nearby shops to try and assemble the necessary €6. Get back. Queue up for machine. Finally get in. Machine cash option is BROKEN and it now has a new, shiny card option which it never had on any of my 413 previous visits. Curse. Complete administrative drudgery, return home, tell T about photo machine saga, whilst handing over unnecessary sweets purchased for change. T, in mild amusement, "oh yeah, my mate broke that machine this lunchtime trying to get my ten cents coin out of it." Gngngnngngngngn. Basically, I have been screwed over by MY OWN MONEY.

This entirely pointless post merely to say: I have put the December reading up. I done it quick, loike, because otherwise it would never have got done, so don't be expecting any insights. It wasn't a great month, intellectually speaking. I think I spent most of it sick or asleep. I also have January ready, but since that will require creating a whole new page and last year that process nearly gave me a nervous breakdown, let's all enjoy December for a few days. Remember December, when we thought that 2016 was the biggest pile of rat shit imaginable? A time of innocence, my friends. Any reading recommendations from you chaps?

(nb. I have added up and I read 87 books in 2016, of which 28 (32%) were by men. I don't know why I think this is interesting, but apparently I do. I suspect that's a higher percentage of men than usual (checked, yes, 22% in 2014 and 27.5% in 2015. DAMN YOU, PATRIARCHY))

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

I do some stuff Pt II

Manneken Paradise

I owe you the Manneken. You hunger for the Manneken. DO NOT DESPAIR. HE IS HERE.

Here are some lovely Manneken outfits I discovered at the new Mannekmuseum (that is not its name).

Interesting foreign outfits

Pope chic

Terrifying Belgian ones


Excuse me, you have a church on your head

Indescribably sinister

Pared down Céline style chic courtesy of Estonia

And Ireland? Really? Is this the best you can do? 

Manneken Daniel O'Donnell

I also got to meet the man who is the Official City of Brussels Manneken Pis Dresser. He is the thirteenth official to hold this office and, quite surprisingly to me, he was a normal human man. The Manneken Pis has a Manneken Pis Dresser outfit, which is meta, but also pleasing. 

Here are some other Manneken Pis outfits that are not all on display: urologist, condom, welder, donkey wrangler, Japanese firefighter, chimney sweep, Romanian shepherd, cleaning lady and pêcheur de crevettes à cheval. God, I love this country. 

Condom (crocheted) might be my favourite, btw: 

Further protest

The need to protest is sadly undiminished so we went again this weekend. I got L on banner making duty:

My friend P's banner was excellent: 

But I think these guys stole my heart: 

Yes, indeed. 

I have started my new advanced Dutch class. Almost in the class is better than me and one girl is so good I don't even understand why she's taking lessons. Obviously, this is making me absolutely furious and determined to keep up. We have been talking about child rearing (opvoeding) for two weeks and there is one really dark, funny woman who keeps telling us how awful her children are in broken Dutch. I want her to be my friend. 

Even though it was terrifying, I made chocolate chip brioches with my 10 kilos of chocolate chips (not all of them, that would be silly) at the weekend. The dough was a thing of utter terror and would not rise or do anything a dough should, nevertheless, it did somehow become brioche, eventually. I have bought fresh yeast and watched Richard Bertinet do dough magic and I am ready to try again this weekend with a better recipe, because apparently I need to get even fatter. 

I don't think I have anything else to relate, except that I accidentally drank a Korean alcopop on Saturday night and am still regretting it. I really will update the reading page soon, that is a (craven, empty) promise. 

Did you read Zoe Williams on dogs? It really made me laugh. I bet the comments are a fright. 


30% still dressed like a mime
15% nose spots
15% super late payment rage
10% Working my way through an amazing care package of Dairy Milk and Walkers Cheese & Onion
10% on a minor administrative roll
10% THE SUN! WARMTH! Oh, it's gone now
10% Literally henpecked


Monday, 6 February 2017

I do some stuff Pt 1

It has been so long that I have had time to DO STUFF. Yes. Stuff. You heard me. Brace for primary school style "what I have been doing" realness. I mean, don't expect excitement or anything, I haven't been undercover in a drug cartel or learning parkour and this is not high quality blogging, but I'm trying to get back into it. With that in mind, let us proceed.

1. I protested

The Brussels President Garbage Fire protest was non-ambulatory. We all just stood outside the opera house while some drumming ladies did drumming and held some candles and shuffled around in a "down with this sort of thing" kind of way. However, the minute I arrived I started crying at the mere fact that people had turned up and were standing around together, making a stand, old hippies, students, children, middle aged woman, etc etc. People are mainly excellent. I'm holding onto that. Apparently we're doing it all again on Sunday (I might make a sign this time).

2. I attended two - two! - exhibitions
Lovely street photography from William Klein, marred by the fact that there had been some kind of classic Brussels fuckery at the ticket office, which meant that the sole employee was on the phone and ignoring the giant queue. Cue near-anarchy/riot/total breakdown of queue discipline, well-heeled bruxellois making a run for the unmanned exhibition door.

The second exhibition was the amazing, amazing Icons of Modern Art at the Fondation Vuitton, as a late birthday present of sorts. Lord, it was beautiful, the room full of All The Matisse is worth the ticket price alone, it's bloody ravishing (Julian Barnes in LRB wrote a really good interesting review of it) Packed though. The roof was the only almost calm spot and a number of small spats broke out over the lavatory queue and other matters.

The chaotic timed entry system also meant we had to spend 2 hours wandering the Jardin d'Acclimatation, a good contender for Most Depressing Attraction in Paris (Especially On A Rainy Week Day).

Welcome to your terminal decline which will cost you €38 and your will to live

As well as many closed fairground rides in garish colours, wholly unchanged in the 12 years since I last went, they had about 7 pissed off hens, a gang of feral peacocks, hanging around thuggishly:

and, sorrow of sorrows, a BEAR, still. When I went there regularly with my tiny children when we lived in Paris they had a bear and it seemed like a mad 19th century throwback even then. Poor bear. We had to drink a great deal of consolatory wine in a bad Jardins d'Acclimatation restaurant that smelled of drains.

Despite the fact we went all the way to Paris, I had no time whatsoever to buy any decent cakes, and had to make do with a very ordinary flan. We did witness two thoroughly Parisian engueulades (street shouting matches) though, so I knew I was in Paris. On the way back, my husband, who is wired 100% differently to me, made us run through the security screening and illicitly sneak onto the train before the one we were booked on, meaning I spent 1h30 writhing in an agony of IN THE WRONG SEAT and DOING A WRONG THING Britishness.

3. I failed to save a rabbit
"Oh look, a baby rabbit," I thought to myself, heading to the metro last week and took a picture, then, only about 20 minutes later, did I think that perhaps a shitty little patch of scrub ground by the metro was not the greatest spot for a baby rabbit. I went back with a shoe box and lurked around for half an hour in the dog shit like a mad person trying to find it, but failed. Poor rabbit. I am sorry I was too dozy to save you. I hope someone else did.

(I confess also to a degree of relief, because Satan II is the last thing this household needs right now. Hillary the hen remains impossible to contain in any kind of hen house and spends her days scratching the last pitiful remnants of grass off our scrubby back yard, shouting at me and shitting luxuriantly on my back step. The tortoises have been de-fridged and are in the bathroom scrabbling like fuck. The dog is, well. The dog is just the dog and disapproves of everything, as usual and is wishing fervently we would all fuck off and die).

4. I passed my Dutch exam
94% schriftelijk, 98% mondeling, this at least means I can legitimately nag my children about their Dutch results, not that I need any enabling to nag. As of today I swapped to intensief which means 4 hours of Dutch each time. Four hours! We talked about: hangovers and awful children, both subjects I know something about.

M: Are you a Master of Dutch now? You will live forever in a Renaissance penumbra. When are you coming home?

E: BRB once I've forced my way through the tram door with this MASSIVE RUFF and these brocade pantaloons.

I was sufficiently emboldened to ask for tickets to the botanic garden and give my post code in Dutch yesterday (oh yes, we also went to a botanic garden, it's all go round here). The problem with learning Dutch is that all Dutch speakers are so fucking brilliant at other languages they don't need to put up with your pitiful, stumbling attempts at their language, so this was the first time i had gone beyond 2 words. I managed a full SIX words without the man on the till reverting to another language.

5. I bought 10kg of chocolate chips from Colruyt 
I'll be honest, I didn't really think this through. I have been looking for good choc chips for a while, for brioche roll/cookie purposes and a bloke told me you could get Callebaut ones in Colruyt, the legendary Belgian discount supermarket. I did not realise they would be in such vast quantities, or that it is horribly easy just to take a fistful on one's way down to empty the washing machine and that soon you become fat and spotty and have to dress like a plump mime (today's outfit). Whilst buying the chocolate chips, I dislodged an avalanche of 5 kg bags on my own head, giving myself a split lip which I consider a strong candidate for Most Belgian Injury of 2017.

6. I am "Kinshasa Production Crew"

Obviously (and sadly), this did not mean I went to Kinshasa. However my translation client won an award for his fantastic video and I made my whole family watch the awards show SHOUTING "I KNOW HIM I WORKED ON THIS" despite my contribution being, frankly, ridiculous. I grab any shred of kudos where I can.

7. Other
I have also unblocked the toilet 700000 times (the road safety armadillo toy is still causing havoc with our cistern).
I read many books, but failed to update the reading list. This will be speedily rectified.
I have written many things to order, none of them very impressive or glamorous. I did write a guide to explaining Brexit to young children, which I quite enjoyed. My own children found it painfully, tragically unfunny.
I have enrolled in a proper research library (in the hope of eventually writing something else)! It was like being back at Oxford in my first year when I was so scared of not knowing where to go or what to do and being shamed that I just sat paralysed in my room until lovely William showed me where I could obtain books. There was no lovely William this time, just some really dusty index cards and long dark corridors and an immensely complex system involving exchanging various plastic disks and a flashing light. I have made some progress in 22 years, because I was able to go up to the desk and declare my total ignorance and ask for an explanation. No one was particularly helpful, but it felt like progress anyway.

Most excitingly, I visited the brand new Manneken Pis wardrobe museum. More of this in my next post. With pictures, oh yes.

You? Any excitement? As you can see from the foregoing, the bar is low, so low.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Adulthood audit

So I have been forty two for a while now. The big stuff is as ever: I have nothing you could realistically call a career and not a whisper of a pension, except whatever it is I pay €360 a quarter to some emanation of the Belgian state for (unknown, but it says "pension" on it, I can't see this translating into regular aperitifs with a small dog on my lap in the bar of my choice in 30 years, but I live in hope).

I had a book published which in some secret part of my soul I thought would change my life, but it did not do so in any way other than to make me even more grateful for my kind friends who bought it and reassured me it wasn't totally shit and pointless. Also, it didn't change my life for the worse which might have been the case, so I'm basically ok with it all.

I have played some role in ensuring my children are still alive and in possession of a full complement of limbs, though apparently not the ability to leave their socks anywhere other than on the table. Hillary the Hen has escaped from every prison I have devised for her and the dog still hates me. Bilan mitigé, as they say in French.

What, then, of the small stuff?

Adult behaviour

I think I now have a “signature style”, of sorts. Basically, it involves dressing like a 40+ heterosexual man. Shirt, usually. Jumper, always (today I received my newest purchase which is an actual man's jumper, black, fine gauge cashmere and it is the plainest, most perfect thing in the world). Jeans/plain comfortable trousers. Trainers/flat shoes. The end. I also have a 40+ heterosexual man’s grooming regime, ie. no grooming whatsoever, beyond basic hygiene necessities. My skin looks exactly the same as it did when caressed lovingly with snake oil unguents 2 x daily. I don’t really know what to think of this.

Also (this cannot be included under "style") I own a high performance, expensive waterproof garment and wear it with pride in appropriate circumstances, which are numerous in Belgium.

Exception to grooming, above: I also have a "signature scent": Frédéric Malle Portrait of Lady (crème de corps, not actual scent) in winter, Terre d'Hermès Eau Très Fraîche in summer.

I indulge in regular non-disastrous baking, including with yeast. For instance, I made salted caramel brownies yesterday. God knows why, I have an exam on Thursday and a limited grasp of how to use passive sentence forms in Dutch, there were clearly better things I could have been doing. The recipe was stupid but they tasted ok. You can’t really go wrong with that much fat and sugar.

I always have the following in the house: scissors (5 pairs, 3 large, 2 small), envelopes of three different sizes, a selection of greetings cards, both European and Belgian stamps (my stamp profligacy is legendary), packets of tissues, dog shit bags, nail clippers.

I know where all the important paperwork (passports, birth certificates, health insurance docs) is and I’m not telling anyone else in case they move it.

I go to the dentist regularly (only because of a recurrent stain on one of my front teeth that needs to be removed at least once a year to avoid descent into Shane McGowan territory, but nevertheless, I'm adding it to the positives list).

Haven't lost a mobile phone for 2.5 years and a wallet for 4.

Learnt how to darn properly.

Non-adult behaviour

Have not applied darning skills to any of my mothbastard eaten jumpers since learning, instead preferring to just put them in the freezer and hope for the best, removing as required to wear,  avec holes.

There is something in a small dish covered with silver foil in the door of our fridge that has been there for, ooh, at least six months and I am too scared to look inside. I will probably end up just throwing the dish out without taking the tinfoil off.

This post-it note has been on the landing for months:

(isn't that wallpaper good though. It wasn't even very dear)

These are the Christmas decorations in the corner of the sitting room and I have lost the will to do anything about them. Whatever. *limp shrug*

We still eat off robot motif melamine plates dating from our gigantic children’s infancy.

House still smells of fish, from the time I accidentally melted a fish oil capsule on our toaster approx a month ago.

Home first aid kit/pharmacy consists of following: 800000 Nurofen, 18 long-expired French remedies for long-forgotten gastric ailments, some dried up worming syrup, my tiny, beloved, extremely well-hidden stash of Xanax dating from my summer 2015 mental health crisis and a bottle of Reptoboost (tortoise vitamins).

Still only cook 6 things (pasta with peas, spring onions and lardons, pork fillet with mustard and pilau rice, dhal, pasta with béchamel and spinach, pasta bolognese, old el paso). 3 takeaways a week, every week.

I would still far rather my life partner intuit my needs and desires from tiny body language cues, passive aggression and talking to him inside my head rather than actually expressing said needs/desires out loud. Obviously.

3 years late getting a mammogram.

Repeatedly overdrawn. Only consult online banking in extremis. All non-interesting post still sits in pile at bottom of attic stairs until I get angry or anxious and hide it in my desk drawer.

Signed up for some kind of stupid heating insurance thing last month because the woman kept calling and I couldn't work out how to say no.

Still using the same towels that were pensioned out of my dad’s holiday cottage business as too worn in 1997.

Found out I was paying for a safe deposit box (don’t ask) unused since 2008 last week.

How are you doing, adulthood-wise? What do you consider your greatest adulting achievements and failures? 

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Rat apocalypse

Happy New Year! The world is a roiling pit of terror and awfulness. However, here are a few things that are ok over here. I very much hope you have some too.

1. I have a new salad spinner after years of fighting with a really shit, broken one and it is a thing of wonder. You pull a string and it’s a total sensual pleasure, what, shut up, that is a fully legitimate source of pleasure and anyone who says otherwise is kink-shaming.

2. My children also purchased some new kitchen scales for me for Christmas (no, they did not come up with that on their own) and there is great joy to be found is scales that:

(i) do not switch themselves off arbitrarily when you are halfway through measuring something
(ii) have a non cracked bowl (actually, they don't have a bowl at all, that is the modern way, apparently)
(ii) have not been used to weigh tortoises (everyone is still hibernating in the fridge, bodyweight loss is stable at an acceptable 2%, so I am not getting my crisper back anytime soon).

3. The degree of gratification I experienced when our Alpine Air BnB lady wrote “appartement laissé en très bon état” is… well, quite honestly it’s a little disturbing, but I’ll own it.

4. We all got on relatively well in a tiny confined space in a snow-bereft ski resort over New Year with no feasting on spinal fluid, which is little short of a miracle. Although I feel bad for the people who like skiing, I myself, as a ski refusenik, was perfectly content with walks in the mountains (we saw chamois! And put up a black grouse! According to the mountain guide, a genial man who did not stop talking for five solid hours, god help us all, if that happens twice in really cold weather, the black grouse DIES, because it no longer has the energy to fly and just gives up and expires #teamblackgrouse), reading, goggling at the profusion of terrifying fur garments, testing various types of tarte aux myrtilles, etc. Here is my elder son totally enjoying that five hour hike for which he was not bribed with the offer of actual money, no that definitely did not happen.

This walk was organised by, I dunno, the Megève tourist board or something and there was only one other participant: A FOURTEEN YEAR OLD BOY. ON HIS OWN. I keep trying to imagine my children volunteering for a five hour hike with strangers, participating cheerfully whilst asking questions on local flora and fauna, then choking on my own tongue laughing.

5. My sister gave me the perfect woolly hat (large, soft, plain, colour “bramble”) for Christmas and it fills me with love and makes my head cosy without giving me the full Benny from Crossroads vibe.

6. Brussels, in its wisdom, has given us a fourth colour of rubbish bag which we are instructed to fill with a mystifying selection of household waste. As a person wholly committed to slavishly following arbitrary instructions to the very letter, my new orange bag is filling me with joy. Who knew, before the orange bag, how much kitchen roll we use? No one. And now I do. And no one else wants to hear about it, but never mind. (So much. So much kitchen roll)

7. No Offence is so great. I hadn't realised it was back and am thrilled.

8. I have totally mastered making proper, fluffy, delicious cinnamon rolls, even though the dough (Felicity Cloake) is a right sticky, ornery bastard and terrifies me. My freezer is now full of cinnamon rolls, individually shrouded in blue bags. When I get anxious and have no recycling to sort obsessively, I can open the freezer and count cinnamon rolls. I am flooded with calm and satisfaction. It is good. Here are my cinnamon rolls pre-freezing:

(ndlr: no one else in this house likes cinnamon rolls, they are mine all mine)

9. Having been hideously sick over New Year (réveillon meal: 1 stick of chewing gum, 1 cup of tea, half a plain yoghurt) and thus missing out on four days of good eating and drinking, I feel fully justified in eating cinnamon rolls whenever the mood takes me.

10. Belgium is its usual insane self, as poorly represented by this random selection of pictures I have taken recently:

(I also have a picture of a man on my tram talking on the phone to someone listed in his phone as "Pigeon", but sadly "Pigeon" was illegible in my stealth pic)

My New Year's resolution is to engage more deeply with Belgian culture. Let's see what that brings.

You? What tiny bright spots are softening the rat apocalpyse for you?

(PS - What can I do about all the fucking witch doctor spam comments? Z is being driven mad by them, but I can't see any option to allow anonymous comments yet still banish witch doctor testimonials. Help!)

Friday, 16 December 2016

Reading (and York) update

A further Christmas in York update from my sister:

"There has been a turning on of the second fridge which is 'full' of 4 jars of mincemeat. this is the only sign of crimbo my dad is full on bah humbug every time the doorbell rings he is shouting FUCK OFF haha and every time i ask to put my crib up he goes very thin lipped. I had to strong arm him into letting me open his christmas cards which he did last year in January."

And a picture of Oxford Street yesterday, which looked completely beautiful while actually, on the granular level, being seventeen simultaneous cycles of hell. I got very sweaty and anxious and failed to buy anything until I ran away to the Japan Centre which was a joyous wonderland of mad sweets and excellent packaging and I am really REALLY regretting not buying myself a matcha panettone because MATCHA PANETTONE.

Also, this, which travellled from Marble Arch to Notting Hill Gate with me on the bus, to my amusement:

Finally, this post is an excuse to say I have finally added a (brief, it was a month of falling asleep with my Kindle on face) November reading list, long overdue. Though of course, you should all buy your cake, France, Zola, tragedy, romantic disaster and Belgium LOLS loving family members MY BOOK if you are stuck for a last minute gift, hem hem.

I'm going to lie on the sofa now because I only got 4 hours sleep and the typhus stew of the overheated Central Line has given me a deathcold. What are you reading? Would my dad like it? So far I've only got him a bottle of "Belgian Owl" whisky and that only because the name amused me...