Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Last day of the holidays

I love this.

It was yesterday morning. They both ended up sleeping in my bed, calling in some fevered promise I had made to them on our 18th hour in the traffic jam to end all traffic jams (except that one in China). With pointy limbs in all directions, I gave up and slept in a bunk bed with a dinosaur duvet and 83 plush Pokémons poking into my spine. When I hobbled downstairs in the morning, his big brother had already got up to prowl the house and examine his crystal growing kit (newsflash: it's rubbish) and there he was, upside down, curled up, in a shaft of sunlight, very small in a very big bed.

Do you remember what it felt like to be a small person in a big bed? I remember you usually got put there when your parent (s) were out at someone's house late at night and the bed felt enormous, and it smelt strange and the sheets were probably purple but you were so, so hyped up and exhausted you just zonked out anyway. While downstairs the discussions of the Female Eunuch, reified societies and where to buy tofu in the north east continued. I never seem to have those kinds of parties.

Reasons I do not have lengthy houseparties featuring weed and Joni Mitchell and red wine and dissing the Patriarchy:

1. It is not 1978.

2. I am not an academic in a provincial town campus university.

3. I seem to have ceded almost all my friends with children as part of the separation. Friends with children, Marcel Wanders Skygarden light fitting, juicer, various pieces of art, Fatima the best-connected cleaning lady in Brussels, etc, etc.

4. I am sociopathic and unable to relax in company, making people uneasy and unlikely to stay and suggest wife-swapping and joints. It is not relaxing to have me sitting, twitching and looking bug-eyed at you, semi-surreptitiously looking at my watch as you try to discuss Derrida. That's why I have to go to other people's parties instead.

Part of me regrets this, but part of me realises how ill-equipped I am to be any kind of hostess, what with my pathological inability to relax. If memory serves, none of these parties of my childhood were at my mum's house anyway, so it might be genetic. As a result, the only children sleeping in my bed are mine. And I like this one, he's lovely. I shared a bed with him for most of the holidays, which was hugely comforting. I liked the way he thrashed and flailed at me, if I tried to give him a kiss in the night, like a wild animal.

And now the holidays are over and the late nights and bed-hopping and my plaintive appeals for a "grasse matinée" are all done and noone will jump on my head in the morning while I try and sleep. Instead, I will have to poke them four hundred times with gradually increasing intensity while they snarl at me without even opening their eyes and refuse to get up. I had better go to bed now, actually, we have an audience with the hedgehog at 7 and I have seventeen sacks of school supplies to assemble and transport, including a Bunsen Burner and forty three spare compass points and an abacus made from fragments of the true cross. Hmmm. I wonder if anyone has crept in there?

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Comfort Meme

Oh dear, I've been better, really I have. I got sick last night, and then I woke up with a bad case of onoes teh sunday despairz i can haz xanax.

But rather than dwell on it, I am going to do this meme that Christina has most kindly set me. It's a comfort food kind of a meme, pleasantly distracting to do, possibly terribly dull to read ( I enjoyed hers a great deal, but then her blog - life! - is full of glorious glamour. There is no discussion of missing strimmer wires or discount supermarkets).

Favourite time of day

About nine in the morning, before it all goes to shit. Ideally the conditions are as follows:

Wintry sunshine
In London
Not working
Walking through my old Fitzrovia hangouts, chest swelling with slightly melancholy but pleasurable nostalgia.
Heading out for breakfast somewhere I love. Russell Square maybe, with the leaves turning and shafts of sunlight filtering through the trees and that very particular smell of London winters, diesel and leaf mulch and coffee, and a note of something indefinable that says home. Fuck, I just made myself cry. I am desperately homesick for London, or possibly just for the time I lived in that part of it.

But I'll settle for anywhere when it's vaguely bright and I can go and sit in a café with a cup of coffee and the paper for 20 minutes.

Where and when did you meet the love of your life?

On the internet, a little over a year ago.

We can't be together right now, we probably never will be, but I'll always love him. He said it was ok if I talked about him. He's intensely private, but we discussed it, and he says it's ok if I mention him sometimes.

You're intrigued now, aren't you?

Look, here he is.


What three words would your friends from outside the blogging world use to describe you?

Scary. Flaky. Awkward.

What country would you like to visit and why?

Ok, this is shameful, but I've never even been to the States. So there.

What's your favourite dish to cook?

I hate cooking, can't be arsed, I'd rather bake. But I can make pasta with béchamel and spinach au gratin in my sleep, because back in the day when I was responsible for cooking once a week at home in York (I really need to institute this here soon. I mean 8? He's nearly ready for burny, boily stuff, surely?), I always, but ALWAYS, made that, or cauliflower cheese. If you made cauliflower cheese, then Prog Rock couldn't appropriate the cauliflower and make it into the dreaded cauliflower curry.

Alternatively, my friend Bath Bun gave me a brilliant recipe for overnight bread no knead bread that gives you a delicious glow of smugness for zero effort, which I will give you:

"7g dry yeast

500 ml warm water

600g flour (any kind, and you can add seeds or nuts or whatever you wish)

2 tsp salt

Put the dry ingredients in a bowl and mix. Add water, then mix to a firm slop. Cover with clingfilm or a damp cloth and put in fridge overnight. Next day, shape balls of dough with wet hands, dust with flour, cook at 230° for 20 minutes".

Salt or sugar?

Both together at the same time, please. And can you add some butter too? And cream? Then boil them up for a little while to a thick, gloopy consistency? And serve with a pancake and a small ball of vanilla ice cream? Thanks.

(I think on balance that's sweet)

What are your favourite make up and beauty items?

I have a whole blog for this shit, admittedly moribund for the moment as the two of us fight our way through the ravages 2010 is throwing our way. But I could manage with only: Chanel Coco Mademoiselle lipstick, Bobbi Brown gel eyeliner, Laura Mercier tinted moisturiser, Armani blush, Origins Ginger Scrub.

What are your favourite flowers?

Hyacinths. Blue or white ones, the pink are vile. I love freesias too, the flowers my mum always put by my bed on special occasions, or when I came home in adulthood.

What are your worst vices?

Oh god, too many to list. How about a dreary tendency to excessive self-flagellation? It's boring. But also laziness, envy, impracticality, shyness, and being a total WIMP. Yeah, that. That's the thing that pisses me off the most, actually. My lack of courage.

At what time of your life were you happiest and why?

Maybe when I first started writing this blog. Suddenly all these funny, compassionate people who liked sculpting vegetables and discussing capybaras and who had the kind of black, but hopeful outlook on life that made me want to go round to every one of their houses for cups of tea erupted in my life. And it was amazing. It still is, but at the moment I am trudging through a trench of crapness in various parts of my life that put a dampener on my joy. But I could never, ever regret starting writing this blog because of precisely that - the people I have met, talk to online, may never meet but who have given me vast amounts of pleasure and solace and laughs.

1997 was good too. It was the year we moved to London, the bastard Tories had been vanquished and everything seemed to carry a slightly magical sheen of optimism.

Would anyone like to do this in the comments? I'd love to read it.

Friday, 27 August 2010

In which I get overwrought about chicory

I haven't left the house for two days except to walk the dog, it's like some creepy social experiment. Please, someone take me out somewhere, or I'm going to have to obey M's order to visit the Plasticarium. M is obsessed with the Plasticarium, a Brussels attraction so obscure that no Belgians I have ever spoken to have heard of it.

I imagine it would be right up there with the so-discreet-as-to-be-invisible charms of the Cartoon Museum (tested, barely survived), or the Museum of Radiology (as yet untested, but who could resist?).

I have just found this list of Brussels Museums and look! There is a CHICORY MUSEUM. Do you dare me to go?

We have skirted round the issue of chicory on these pages many times. Perhaps we should delve a little deeper (look. I haven't left the house for 2 days, you aren't going to get any reports of scintillating social interaction. It's this or a photo of the dog looking mournful).

Chicory Facts*

Here's a chicory squirrel I made earlier (like, in 2008, but ssssh):


1. Belgium has a love of chicory which defies understanding. They braise it, bake it, gratin in and call bars after it . I imagine they feel about it a little like the British feel about a plain digestive biscuit, a sort of meagre but satisfying pleasure. The phlegmish for chicory is witloof. White leaf. A very literal language, phlegmish. I could probably find out why they like it so much, surely? Hang on, that's what the interwebs are for ...

No. There appears to be no good answer to this question in all the vast resources of la toile except that they "invented" it, apparently in 1830, when a peasant decided to grow his .... well, his whatever-they-had-before-they-had-modern-chicory, in a dark cellar (I have reluctantly redacted a poor taste Belgian joke here, which you may now guess). Incidentally, when you put 'pourquoi les belges' into Google and allow it to finish your sentence you get a vast sequence of Belgian jokes.

Why do Belgians, suggests Google:

- go to mass with a bucket of water?
- wear pyjamas to ride a motorbike?
- take their glasses off to get breathalysed?

Among many others. None of these jokes translates, so do not ask me the punchlines. If you speak French you can probably guess them anyway, they are all awful.

2. Chicory is the flesh eating zombie of the vegetable world; eerie and impossible to kill. It has a shelf life equivalent to the half life of a radioactive strontium B isotope. The one I used to make this penguin (today! This very morning!):


had been in the fridge since 1987.

3. You may think that carving chicory is an easy and amusing activity for a housebound neurotic, but actually, it is surprisingly irritating and liable to induce feelings of worthlessness.

I call this one "Fire Tornado hits Uccle".

(it is an expression of my not-so-suppressed desire that a fire tornado indeed hit Uccle. Fire tornadoes are dominating my thoughts since B sent me this link with a suggestion we try and start one in the Parc Royale with my office fan and a large box of matches).

4. It looks very peculiar with the root on, look:

(yup, I'm struggling. Stay with me)

5. If you have lived in Belgium for long enough, you find yourself just buying them, automatically, regardless of whether you like, or eat them. I think the purchase of chicory forms part of the fiscal regime of the Belgian state. I like to think that my witloof tax is contributing to vital Belgian activities like, oh, I don't know, those public information campaigns explaining to the general public why trams are likely to kill them, or the music in the metro.

(Enough chicory facts - Ed).

*Not facts at all

Wednesday, 25 August 2010


There is little to report from Belgiana, which is sunk deep in premature winter. Since this means opaque tights and an end to the tyranny of the garden, I am broadly in favour. I plan to spend the rest of the week closeted with words. Lots of words. Probably some KitKat too. I have discovered that Hema - which might be suitable for another Belgian Shopping Guide, it's a sort of Dutch sub-Woolworths - stocks these giant pimped KitKats, double normal size. Sadly the chocolate is not quite the echt British cheap n' nasty, but it'll pass.

Speaking of words, I particularly enjoyed these phrases that arose in various contexts in the last 24 hours. I wish to embroider them on a sampler, or possibly weave them into an epic poem. If I were still at Quaker school we could probably turn them into inept tableaux vivants.

"Unicorn coma"

"Generic anger, envy and despair, coated in a thick, luxurious layer of can't be arsed".

"Just think 'abusive babysitter', it worked before, n'est ce pas?"

"Chitty chitty trojan weepette".

"Contraband hedgehog grooming"

"Laburnum muesli"

Other things I have loved recently:

This was very beautiful. I like the whole blog actually, but this is very carefully, movingly written. It reminds me of a poem. Eventually I will remember which one.

This is very very funny and makes me snort. Can I recommend the instant messaging posts, and also The Hobbit?

This is on repeat, though I suspect you have to be a very particular kind of English person of a very specific age to like it. Also, possibly, a high tolerance of the ukelele is preferable.

Consider the aye-aye. If someone asked me to draw my inner child (and frankly, I'm disappointed noone ever does), it would look like an aye-aye. Bedraggled. Gripping knuckles. Those eyes.

Of course, the hungover owls, internet favourites, du moment. My particular favourite is actually not a real one. It is this one. Squirrel Nutkin is indescribably sinister, I mean, already, squirrels, brrrrr. And then, Beatrix Potter was a twisted, dark old bird wasn't she? Samuel Whiskers rolled in pastry, his panicky kitten face sticking out the top. (after typing that I had to go up 4 flights of stairs to locate and read Samuel Whiskers. Yup, still terrifying).

The CFO has acquired a hedgehog. This amuses me immeasurably, particularly as Team Sudoku, his parents, imported it for him to order from the Vendée. They are hedgehog smugglers. I love how they did not question his need (? desire) for a hedgehog. The man has 6 tortoises, of which one is blind, and now a stinking hedgehog. I texted him to ask if I could go and get a book. He replied 'Oui, mais ne dérange pas l'hérisson' (yes, but don't disturb the hedgehog), since he knows me far too well. Of course, I did, but only to peep. It is very large and very sleepy and it smells bad. He wants it to eat his slugs. What if it doesn't like slugs? He said it has already capsized several tortoises too, lumbering around the garden (he tracks it with a torch late at night). Oh, this reminds me that reptile lovers can weep freely along to this clip of tortoise altruism.

Wearing shorts. Obviously the premature winter has put paid to it now, but where have you been all my life, shorts? When did you get so good? By next year my knees won't be up to shorts, so I am making the most of it. They're not really up to it now, if I am brutally honest with myself, but they can just about pass in dim lighting. That's the only kind we have in Brussels right now, so it's FINE.

Look, here's a shitty photo:

Gap shorts, in black or grey lightweight wool, now on sale for thirty odd of your British quids oh, and now they're online too! Joy. No, of course noone paid me to say that or gave me free shorts, are you 'avin a larf, I never get anything free, ever, and more's the pity. The top is Cos. Everything is Cos now. The shoes date from the legendary era When I Used to Earn A Decent Wage, and are Ferragamo. There won't be any more of that kind of thing round the Salmon Palace for a while, I fear. I keep all my shoes on the stairs here, and as I walk up and down them, on particularly fiscally trying days, it's hard not to calculate in my head how many months rent they add up to (three, easy). Is it worth me putting ads on here, do you think? I mean, obviously it's a single New Look shoe for three years worth of adverts for ethically dubious products, but times are hard, and I budget like a ferret on crystal meth, to quote Prong Two, above. Or any alternative money making schemes? I have no skills, but also no standards. There must be something, surely?

Commenters, I feel you need some direction today. I'd like you to do one of the following:

1. Suggest a means for me to make some money.

2. Tell me what story terrified you as a child.

3. Tell me what creature on ZooBorns your inner child looks like.

4. Link to something you've enjoyed recently on the interwebz. If it features a tortoise chasing a tomato or similar, all the better.

5. Give me your phrase of the moment. Etymology optional.

Allez, zoup. Au boulot.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Colruyt: A User's Guide

I've made myself promise to stop being so dreary. It'll be a challenge, particularly when you see we're starting with a guided tour of a Belgian discount supermarket. Oh yeah.

Not only that, but I've already written about this. This is the enhanced version with PHOTOS.

You're going to thank me, honest. Stick with it.

Look, here's a trolley AND now you know how to say, "please bring me back to the trolley shelter" in two languages. I mean, that, right there, is ineffably useful in Belgium. I've lost count of the number of times I've wished someone would just take me back to the trolley shelter.

I think I might actually write that on my forehead in marker pen the next time I am unwise enough to try and go out drinking in Brussels. Just tidy me away with the other trolleys and see if you can get me to spit 50 centimes out of my mouth.

But come! Step into the magical kingdom that is Colruyt. Colruyt, regular readers will recall, is a luxuriant palace of discount joy in the Belgian style (that is, bewildering and unfriendly, but ultimately verrrry useful).

You'll need to let your eyes adjust to the gloom. They don't waste money on luxuries like lights.

Oh, I should have mentioned that the photos are terrible. I was terrified I was going to get arrested for industrial espionage. Especially around the meat counter. That shit is CLASSFIED.

Here's the entrance. You can tell, because it says 'Entrance' on it in two languages. I told you it was worth persisting with this, didn't I?

You might not be able to tell, but Colruyt nails its colours to the mast right from the entrance, as the very - and I mean very - first thing you reach on going in in giant litre bottles of cheap spirits.

The booze aisle goes on for mile after ill-lit mile. It is filled with bargains in outsized packaging. I bought lots of them.

Also, and this is very characteristic of Belgium more generally, beer has its own aisle. I don't think beer is classified as alcohol. It's more, I don't know, a refreshing health food? They have beer on the tables of the meeting rooms in my office and they sell beer in all manner of places you wouldn't expect to see alcohol. I mean, McDonalds, sure, but also, I don't know, children's fêtes, or vending machines in the airport.

(Belgians, or rather Belgians by adoption, since I imagine native Belgians do not find beer incongruous in any setting, where is the strangest place you have seen beer sold? )

If you're in Colruyt and you're buying beer, you better not be the kind of pussy who buys less than a crate at a time. That would be a bit pathetic.

Ok, brace yourselves, I'm going to tell you about meat.

The meat in Colruyt is behind a glass window, just in case anyone should get overcome with unstoppable MEAT LUST and try and shove it all into their mouths, raw.

Like this man:

Look at him. Look at the longing way he is staring at the giblets. And what giblets! They are probably the finest breadcrumbed offal pieces in the whole of Europe!

Is it only me who finds this whole, meat behind a window, thing a bit red light district? Harsh unnatural light, flesh on display? Just me then. MOVING ON.

Colruyt is widely - indeed universally -reputed to be the finest purveyor of meat in Belgium. Dioxin free! Belgians will tell you reverently.

And such meat, well. You can't just stick out your ignorant, grasping, carnivorous paw and help yourself. Oh no. You have to deserve it.

And by 'deserve it' I mean fill in a lengthy questionnaire detailing the meat you want, what you intend to do with it and your cooking qualifications. The form is filled with pornographically detailed pictures of meat in saturated technicolour. I love it.

You fill in the form and hand it in. Then you wait for your name to be called over the tannoy. Your meat may be ready, or the severe meat operatives at the counter may just wish to quiz you on your intentions.

Like this lady:

She is trying to explain why she isn't going to sear the lambs gizzards. That dude in the hairnet is giving her a very hard time about it. I doubt she'll be going home with what she ordered. He'll give her a couple of chipolatas and let her off with a stern talking to, if she's lucky. If not, lifetime ban from the window of plenty.

Onwards! Remember that if you want to try and drive that violent, unpredictable trolley, the advice I received on my last visit was to always look straight ahead of you, never to left or right. Yes, this makes shopping tricky, but just seize everything that you can reach. It'll all work out somehow. So what if you don't have a cat? You can probably barter the bags of litter for more litres of gin at the till. You'll be waiting in the queue there for all eternity anyway. Maybe it's edible?

Can you see what this is?

No, because the photo is spectacularly bad. But it's the chiller section. The chiller section of Colruyt is WALK IN. It's like something out of a bad horror film, except I don't see how you could get trapped and freeze to death in there, what with the plastic curtain. Anyway. You stay in there for as long as you can bear, collecting food. If you are an Antarctic explorer, you can probably amass enough stuff to feed your family for a week. If you are a southern European nancy used to temperate climates, you'll probably give up before you have time to pick up a packet of Herta Knacki Hot Dogs.

You can warm up by trying to lift vast packets of cornflakes.

Quick! Over to the tills before you get hypothermia!

So pretty, the tills.

There is no way of knowing where to queue.

I asked Jeremy, but he was unable to shed any light on the matter. This is Jeremy:

Jeremy is 19 but some people think he is 22. He told me this defensively when I burst out laughing when he tried to ID me buying whisky.

Peculiar Colruyt exchange:

Jeremy: Vous avez plus de 18 ans? (are you over 18)

Me: Hahahhhahaha. J'en ai 35. (Hahahhahahahahha. I am 35)

Jeremy (horrified): Non! Je n'ai pas besoin de connaître votre age! (No! I don't need to know your age!)

Jeremy takes all your shopping out of one trolley and puts it in another as he scans it. Don't ask me why, none of it makes any sense. Then he wheels the new trolley forward to the till. No, still completely incomprehensible. Then you and your NEW trolley - not the one you've spent half an hour getting to know, gaining the trust of, but a new, feral trolley with bloodlust in its heart and a half-formed plan of escape in its head - stagger into the car park. It won't end well. Look straight ahead and hope for the best. If the worst comes to the worst, jettison a couple of litres of gin to placate the metal tyrant. They probably only cost you 2p.

So there you have it. How to shop in a Belgian discount outlet. I could go back to being melancholy tomorrow if you prefer?

Sunday, 22 August 2010


I am cleaning the house, trying to hoover and scrub away the panic. Again. Maybe I can tidy the panic away into the basement with the 24 kitchen rolls and 4 giant boxes of dishwasher tablets and endless bottles of bleach from my trip to Colruyt? It's huge, there'd be room for all manner of irrational and rational terrors, which is handy since I have plenty of both. I'm still riddled with anxiety; the end of summer, impending professional doom, the absence of concrete achievements of any kind this year, the need for a plumber, the weakness of my book, the Belgian tax authorities, Electrabel calling the bailiffs for a bill I've already paid. That kind of thing.

With two smallish children, getting to the end of the weekend with everyone present, more or less healthy and fed and broadly contented seems like an achievement in itself. Take them away, and I'm left with a nagging sense of inadequacy that won't let me relax, sit in the garden with a book, have a nap. There should be more words written, more papers tidied, more washing done, nags my uptight bastard brain. It's not enough. It's never enough. So I'm cleaning. It's hard, boring, mindless, punitive and horribly necessary. Perfect. I'm trying not to let myself just do the gratifying bits, like rearranging the kitchen cupboards, and concentrating on the really dull, backbreaking bits, like scrubbing at obscure stains on the horrible textured kitchen walls.

So far I have found:

A spider the size of a family estate car hiding under my suitcase. It's spider season, isn't it? You could put a saddle on this one and ride it around the park. Good thing I am completely indifferent to them.

An extended family of spiders living in a box of cornflakes. Well, I am guessing from the pretty web decorations on the box, and the tiny spiderlets frolicking around the cereal cupboard. I did not open the cornflake box; it was oddly, sinisterly heavy. I wonder if there was a dead mouse in there too.

A leak under the kitchen sink that has spread black spotted mildew through three cupboards.

Seven rolls of yellow recycling bags. If the apocalypse comes and is characterised by a lack of paper recycling amenities, I will be ok. There's some comfort in that, I suppose.

A dragonfly which came in as I was trying fruitlessly to disperse the smell of mildew. I thought it was a bird, it was so large. It lurched around, crashing into things, completely graceless and jerky out of its normal environment and finally, after bashing into the window repeatedly, found its way out.

The house, never pristine, looks filthy to me. Coming from a gleamingly new and perfect holiday let has skewed my perception. Cruelly, unfairly, my kitchen is not filled with the soft sheen of brushed steel and forgiving, warm flooring. It is filled with cheap formica crap from the mid 1980s. The 'Competence Trophy' oven predates the discovery of fire by prehistoric man, the dishwasher does not wash dishes and the tiles manage to be both ugly AND impractical. They show every grubby mark with forensic clarity. I hate them. I think of myself as liking nice things, beautiful things, and yet this house is not a beautiful thing, not now, not in this state (not ever for as long as the orange paintwork remains, indeed). It's puzzling. And then, the house is too big, too ambitious. I found it in a hurry, needed to find somewhere quickly, and I liked it, loved the neighbourhood. I still do. But now what? It's HUGE. I feel out of my depth, not up to keeping everything functioning and clean. I can barely keep myself and the children functioning and clean most of the time, so what hope is there? I remember first moving in here and how intoxicatingly empty it was, how free of the sometimes oppressive, sometimes comforting clutter of daily life. Now I am writing this at a table on which, without even moving my head, I can see the following:

5 bills (I have just opened them in a fit of conscience. Electrabel are still trying to take me to court, obtuse bastards).

Half a pint of milk

Bulging make up bag

Empty coffee cup

2 novels, 4 magazines

A melon

A dirty paring knife

2 pairs of headphones

An empty CD case

An ice cube tray

A plush dolphin

A piece of obscure yellow plastic toy

A box of matches

A 'Plumping lip glaze' still in its packaging (I am scared of it. M has told me frightening things about it)

A cooling rack

A plastic dog from Burger King

Three varieties of plug and adaptor

A Playdoh dentist's drill

An empty Compeed packet

A Dexter Series Three DVD out of its packaging

An empty yoghurt pot

3 shark's teeth in a small plastic bag

A large screw, use and origins unknown

Tom Ford lipstick

2 sets of keys

A packet of green paper napkins


Various other things I can't identify without angling my head to the left.

It's impressive how fast the layers of domestic detritus are laid down. In the right frame of mind that could seem comforting, a sign that this house has become more homely. I can't quite see it like that at the moment. I feel overwhelmed; the Augean stables have nothing on the kitchen table. I want to go and live in a pristine white box like the miserable modernists where I don't have to be confronted with the evidence of my own incompetence every time I sit down. A virtual snail shell. Wrapped in this.

Instead of which I am going to go and fill another one of my many yellow plastic bags, grinding my teeth gently in a soothing rhythm until felled by Cif fumes. Make me feel better, tell me what's on your table that has absolutely no place being there.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Return of the Semi-native

Well. We got home, eventually. I only fully appreciated how stressful the journey was half an hour ago when I tried to bite into a baguette and nearly fell over with jaw pain. I obviously kept mine either clenched or grinding for most of the last 24 hours. The car looks like a landfill site and the dog has the haunted expression of one who has seen terrible things and will never be the same again. Admittedly, he always wears that expression and slept angelically the whole time, but you know, artistic licence and all. After the fourth hour stationary in Erpe-Mère, exit 18 of the E40, last night, it was hard not to feel a little slighted by Belgium. 'Welcome back, sucker, now sit in this traffic jam we have cleverly created by deciding to do elaborate, credulity-defyingly slow roadworks on a busy Friday night in August. Alstublieft". It's not personal though, Belgium just doesn't like to be too welcoming for fear of being overrun by chicory lovers. I get that. And let me momentarily focus on my achievements: I did not get lost ONCE for the whole journey. And the only time I cried was entirely incidental to the fear/driving/lunacy/traffic jams. It was only bloody Joni Mitchell. That devious hippy bitch is always ambushing me.

The spawn are with their father and I am trying to focus on the peace, and the potential for small naps and large drinks, rather than the lack of small warm bodies to hold onto. I should probably deal with the house. It's .. well. It's indescribable. To say the floor needs washing is a bit like saying the Forth Bridge might need a lick of paint now and then. There's something in a glass that might once have been a lemon that's terrifying me and the whole place smells of cheap cleaning fluid, damp and dead things. It needs about a week of tidying. So do I actually. I looked in the mirror this morning and found I had a piece of melted chocolate the size of a 5p piece stuck to my forehead. It had probably been there for days. And the freckles! Fuck. I've just had a look, and they're horrific, I look like I have some kind of Biblical dreaded skin disease. I'm not anti-freckle on the right face. My sister, the Space Cadette wears a freckle (I feel it needs the fashion singular) with great aplomb. But mine is not the right face. I might not be able to leave the house for a few months, which would, conveniently, be about the right amount of time to restore the house to something that won't attract the attention of social services. The 'garden' might take longer. I think it's developed consciousness in my absence and it's coming to get me. I really must tackle it. My shopping list includes things like giant extension leads and special strimmer string. It's not a life I ever thought I'd have, I must say, but I'm making what I can of it.

I am going to try and kickstart one of my micro-phases of relentless positivity after the weeping and terror of the holidays, starting with the reasons it is good to be back in Belgiana:

1. It is 27°C today and tomorrow. I can perch on the rickety stool in the shade in the "garden" fearfully shunning the fiery ball (the words shut, stable door, horse, bolted come unbidden to mind).

2. My quartier really does have the best food shops imaginable. I have become quite sniffy about Belgian food, what with the crap croissants and the mysterious variants on grey meat in fritkots, but if you can be arsed with raw ingredients (as you are well aware, I most certainly can't be 99% of the time), they are really excellent. I went out and bought a chèvre frais (the cheese rather than the actual goat, sadly), a sourdough baguette, a bunch of muscat grapes, two mutant 'cornu' tomatoes, a Charentais melon, some San Daniele and a stuffed pepper, all within two minutes of my house. I didn't even venture as far as the superlative deli or the butchers. Wow, imagine how slappably smug I would be if I actually gave a toss about food. I kind of hate myself already.

3. I have the car for a couple more weeks so I can go to my favourite place in the whole of Belgiana, the Parc Paradisio with its celebrated (by me) escaping capybaras. Or I could go to Animals Express, Belgium's most ethically dodgy retail outlet, and buy myself an owl. Or a wallaby.

4. It looks like bow-tied, ideologically sound fop, Elio di Rupo may manage to form a government. I am being premature, obviously. A speck of dust may fly the wrong way around the Flemish parliament casting everything back into chaos.

5. Erm. Look how busy the park is today!

That's midday. On a sunny Saturday. Looks like Belgium's policy of discouraging visitors through the medium of lane closures is working. If you look very closely you can see the weepette about to roll in fox shit, then lie in a fetid pool of mud, thus making my day extra special.

6. No, there is one more good thing. I am on my way to Colruyt, the supermarket of Belgo discount weirdness, and I am planning to prepare a photo tour. If you have particular questions on how to shop in a Belgian discount store famed for its bureaucratic meat counter, please place them in the comments.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Low Expectations

The holidays are nearly over and I haven't crashed the car or been eaten by an oversized crustacean or barricaded myself in a cupboard rocking and keening like a Romanian orphan. All these things may still come, but for now, we are exploring the wet weather options of the Isle of Wight.

Look, here we are sheltering from the rain in a strange, ancient wasteland of fibreglass cowboys and ravenous slot machines. Lashes is dicing unwisely with some kind of 4p offal tube, Fingers is more prudently sticking to crisps. I had a KitKat. I am 53% cheap chocolate, 39% tea and 8% galloping neurosis.

But it's ok. I'm a Butlins vet now. It takes more than a sadistically calibrated, pound a go grabber claw to push me over the edge. A broken forklift driving ride that swallows 6 quid and just sits there, mocking you with faint engine revving noises? A giant pirate themed machine that squirts glacial water into your ears? Whatever, bring it on. I've been to Plopsaland several times, and Plopsaland has a soundtrack of Flemish rock muzak. This was surprisingly entertaining in comparison, even when we had to go round the wonky house four times during a particularly persistent period of drizzle.

And better still, rainy, crap amusement parks teach me the essential truth about my children: they may only speak French, may have perfected an impeccably indifferent gallic shrug and ask me questions like "c'est quoi, un 'scone'?", but dammit, at heart they are English. Low expectations of fun run through their veins like weak tea.

They are astonishingly good at being entertained with rubbish, rubbish stuff. Broken fibreglass dinosaur carcass? Joyous!

(yes, it has an apple core in its mouth, this in and of itself created whole minutes of hilarity)

Cruelly lengthy forced march along a shingle beach on a fruitless fossil hunt? An ill-lit Nissen hut filled with dusty bones? Again, again!

Give them a querulous goat to poke and they are serenely content. So am I, actually, so possibly that's genetics rather than national identity. Goats are brilliant, aren't they? Essential malevolence barely concealed behind their expressionless slotty eyes, heads accessorised with sharpened offensive weapons. I love goats. They'll have your eye out, eat your mobile phone, maim your first born and wander away mildly bored if you let them.

The youngest, for whom indifference and requests to leave any form of entertainment (including cinema, circus, boat trips, laser gun fights) prematurely come as naturally as breathing, declared a sodden visit to Carisbrooke Castle to watch a handful of bearded enthusiasts in felt tunics bash each other vigorously with blunt broadswords and to queue in the rain to watch a donkey plod round an outsized hamster wheel "plutôt chouette" (pretty great).

On the strength of this, I think the programme for the last two days of our holiday should be something like:

Wednesday: Search the back garden for caterpillars. Visit Owl and Monkey rescue (I was going to say something waspish about this, since it looks like a crap pebbledashed hut peopled by a handful of grumpy Barn Owls on the leaflet, but then I googled it and it's for owls abandoned by Harry Potter fans! Now I am caught up in sadness of it all and want to visit it FOR REAL. Possibly move in there).

Thursday: Sit on the end of the pier in the rain with a pile of pebbles and a bag of chips.

I bet they'd love it. I'll teach them to love a scone yet.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010


You would be entirely within your rights to think I have fallen into an open slurry pit or been abducted and held to ransom by a WI organised crime syndicate, since the last you heard of me I was somewhere on my way to The Country, many many days ago. Neither of those things happened. The Country was much as ever, filled with live things and even more dead things and tiny chicks being squeezed terrifyingly tight in the Boden clad arms of a thousand holidaying city kids and coldness. We have emerged miraculously unscathed despite the best efforts of an army of zombie goats hell bent on masticating our clothing, my frankly shite driving and having to confess to eating my father's last chocolate Brazil nut.

Now, after a regrettable navigation incident which saw us circle several times around Stonehenge, leaving me to think dark thoughts about Tess of the D'Urbervilles lying down on the altar stone pre-execution and the dog to cower under the front seat waiting for the sobbing to stop, we are on the Isle of Wight on our proper holidays. This is our third summer holiday in 1958 and my pitiful navigating is greatly assisted by there only being one, or possibly two roads I need to remember. They all begin with a 3, anyway, and if the worst comes to the worst, it would only take me a couple of hours to get back to my starting point, which is an improvement on many of my other getting lost incidents. It is good, the Isle of Wight. It is holidays from the Ladybird Book of the Seashore, with thirty three varieties of bucket and spade, coloured sand in jars and sponge cake, and not a decent cup of coffee to be had for love nor money. (I am exaggerating, obviously, because it is more fun like that). The 'I Spy' book for the Isle of Wight would include the following:

1. Brooding, heavy cloud cover, shading into heavy mist at times.

2. Union Jack flags in gardens.

3. Slow moving coach parties of pensioners walking four abreast down roads with no pavements.

4. Toddlers on elaborately decorated reins like something Prince Philip would use for his coach and four at Blenheim.

5. Devious elderly fraudsters, straight from 'salty seadog' central casting, in charge of deckchair hire. "Oh, that was a twenty was it? My eyes aren't what they were, you know".

6. Pleasingly crap museums with four fossilised crisp packets to reduce your children to catatonic despair within seconds.

7. Terrifyingly narrow roads for me to swerve around whimpering, whilst failing to appreciate the beautiful coastal views.

8. The repetitive sound of me muttering "I HATE this" as I try and negotiate #3 and #7 in a large car with no spatial awareness while indifferent children shove empty crisp packets down my t-shirt.

9. Me and my children being the least appropriately dressed people for the British summer in a twenty mile radius. This is incomprehensible - I spent most of my childhood in a cagoule in a dense Highland fog, walking, blinded by rain, spurred only by the - often spurious - promise of a tea room. Yet I seem to have conveniently edited that part of the holiday experience out of my mind and all of us are equipped with nothing sturdier than the odd pair of shorts.

10. Horrifying quantities of freckles on my face, condemning me to another year of being told I have shit skin by evil dermatologists and their Heath Robinson machines. (Only visited for Facegoop purposes. Obviously, I can't afford to see a dermatologist for real, much as I would love to).

So yes. It is the holidays, hence, my absence from the interwebs. There is, actually, perfectly serviceable broadband in the house (this house, which is lavishly well-equipped and, I am certain, nicer than any house I will ever live in) but I am signally failing to write anything, possibly because every time I open my laptop one of my children perpetrates an act of vile aggression on the other. Hopefully the sun will come out eventually and they can throw seaweed at each other and poke invertebrates and drop ice creams until they are exhausted. If not, you might not hear much from me. Which is probably a mercy.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010


I am heading to the countryside. As we know, I fear the countryside and view it as a dark, violent place full of decomposing creatures, limited shopping opportunities and incest. See here, where I serenaded it in the style of Dr Seuss. Or last year's dead newt and rotting carcass extravaganza. Not to mention the cruel absence of broadband. But go I must, to rescue my children from their continued enslavement in my father's vegetable garden, their tiny fingers worn down with carrot picking (or something. For all I know carrots run around the fields kicking up their tiny carrot legs and grazing on, I dunno, silage or something). God only knows what has happened to the dog, it is probably catatonic with terror after accidentally sighting a sheep and certainly catatonic with terror after spending 2 days with my father, who I once saw pour a pint of beer over a cat that was annoying him, and who used to keep his chickens in a potato sack when they were being naughty.

"It's sort of drizzling" warns my stepmother. Forgetting entirely what a British summer involves and fresh from the tropical paradise that is Belgium, I have sent the children away with nothing but shorts and t-shirts. I myself have nothing warmer or more practical than a pair of Fitflops and I sense a trip to the dizzying retail paradise that is Shipston on Stour coming on (the Coop, Somerfield, and a gigantic hardware shop filled with exciting multi-purpose chemicals for killing both weeds and all your immediate family). Usually within hours of arrival I have reverted to my fourteen year old self, sullenly curled up on a window ledge with a family sized sponge cake, refusing all attempts to make me leave the house, but maybe I can persuade the children to go to the Cotswold Wildlife Park where last year a goat tried to eat my whole face. You get your entertainment where you can in the countryside, especially if you can't afford the version Lady Bamford is trying to sell you (I think she has custody of the only espresso machine in Gloucestershire, but short of selling her a child, I can't afford to test it out).

I will be back on Saturday at the latest, possibly before then if I can construct an internet connection out of twigs and baby badger corpses. In the meantime I would like you all to think positive thoughts of gambolling lambs and spring flowers (I have a suspicion this is not seasonally appropriate, but what would I know) rather than spilled entrails and dung.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Some Things

Some things have happened. Actually, this is a lie, nothing has actually happened at all, but there is no coherent theme to the following, it is just Some Things. Eh, it's August. You can't go expecting Proust, innit.

1. I have managed to import livestock into the UK without incident. My puny triumph is redoubled having borne children and canine across the Channel unharmed, bar a little light anglo-saxon vocabulary when it all went to shit on the Hammersmith Road. The livestock was relatively well behaved. The children were silent as the grave thanks to modern electronics. Papa Waffle has taken them off to the country for 2 days to poke dead things and fall into open sewers, and I note, unfortunately for him, that Fingers has left his Nintendo behind. I hope there are some really interesting dead things to poke. It was a real wrench to see them disappear just after getting them back and I am a bit bewildered by the whole thing, and by the summer in general. I am sure they are fine, and it is only two days while I finish up at work, but I find myself a bit dislocated and aching again tonight. I have applied a poultice of fried foods and Sherlock to the sensation. It is not really helping.

2. I had to listen to Radio 1 for HOURS over the last 3 days. I attribute my three day migraine largely to this, well Radio 1 and motorway terror. This may sound like generic old lady 'It's not music it's just noise' type whining but actually I rather craved noise, what I couldn't stand was the generic nasal west coast vocal/phrasing hideosity and all round dreariness. The absolute worst bit of it was the news coverage - I found it strange and obscene to hear a military campaign described like a sporting fixture "they face a tough opponent", "they'll be facing IEDs, that's homemade bombs". Hideous. It must be my Quaker (hem hem, smelly hippy rather) upbringing. Also, Katy Perry. It sort of hurts my fingers when I type that.

3. I have to have my face rescanned tomorrow. The initial face scanning was discussed here. Since then, I have been half-heartedly trying to apply the trial cream, which smells terrible, but seems to be better than, say, anointing your face in fag ash and lard. I have been less than assiduous though so I am terrified there will be no improvement. I really, REALLY hate to fail an exam, even a skincare exam. Sadly, there is no such thing as last minute revision for a face exam, bar sleeping twelve hours and I'm already too late for that. I might go and try and resurface my face with some kind of house cleaning product. Maybe I will pay a teenager to go in my place?

4. I had the ultimate middle class tragedy tonight when the remains of a bottle of pink champagne Papa Waffle left for me in his Notting Hill fridge turned out to be entirely flat. My pink champagne is flat! Is life worth living? (I would like the record to state that this is the only pink champagne in my life in living memory, and needless to say, I drank it, but this does not make me any less slappable).

5. Keywords tonight include "polish my papa shoeses and my mama sandle", which pleases me, the puzzling "lotion roofies" (how would that work? you stealthily massage someone with it?), "story tale breast expanding expansion male/female magic wizard conjuror" and "Belgian yellow coticules in Brussels". Noone needs to know about capybara mating for a change, which is a shame as I believe myself to be a world expert on that subject. Other things in which I am expert according to most frequent keyword searches: "how to look French", the frequently discussed and very unfortunate "blue waffle infection" and Kate O'Mara's feet. It's not much to be proud of, but it's something.

Go on, tell me Some Things.