Sunday, 12 December 2010

Falling foul of Le Nettoyeur

I am currently in correspondence with some sort of intermediary who sorts out your social security payments. He was provided by the notoriously cunning Accountant to le Tout Bruxelles I have engaged, who I will call "Jean-Yves". If you live in Brussels, he's probably your accountant too. Jean-Yves, a slight man with a fondness for beige and brown suiting, has a web of contacts so wide and complex, that if he were ever to, I don't know, fall foul of the authorities for instance, the whole expat community would crumble into a financial black hole of sub-prime crisis proportions, dragging Belgium down with it. Jean-Yves knows everyone and everything, which is simultaneously unnerving and rather reassuring. He nodded in bored acknowledgment as I listed my employers, as if to indicate that yes, of course, he already KNEW that, and made spot-on comments about their payment practices.

Anyway. Patrick is an outpost of the Jean-Yves empire. Jean-Yves gave me to understand that Patrick was a monomaniacal zealot in dealing with the esoteric outer reaches of Belgian administration, to be handled with respect and some caution. I imagined him a bit like the Jean Réno character in Nikita, but without corpses.

"You don't pay Patrick" he said, obliquely, waving a beige-clad arm in a dismissive gesture. "We deal with that". That's how you roll with Jean-Yves. Things just .. happen. Jail time possibly. Who knows? I have placed my faith in Jean-Yves as one might in a Boeing 747. One admits one's ignorance, places one's critical faculties on stand by and hopes for the best.

Patrick came round on Friday to explain things to me. I cleaned the kitchen table for him and everything and searched through my filing cabinet - yes, I have a filing cabinet, shut up - for documentary offerings to place in front of him. I only came up with my P45 and passport, both of which he disdained, but at least I felt I'd showed willing. He did not look like Jean Réno and had an alarming squint which left me wondering if I had left some unfortunate item of underwear drying on the radiator behind me, his gaze was drawn there so frequently. Every two minutes his phone would ring, and he would bark "ik ben met klant" (I'm with a client) and hang up. Social security is a serious business.

Obviously, I understood about 4% of what he told me, the rest being made up of the kinds of whistles and clicks that schools of dolphins might make to one another. There was a diagram, but I think one of the children turned it into a paper aeroplane. I know very little, but I know that bills will start arriving eventually and my job is to pay them. This I can do (well, sort of). The rest is just ambient dolphin music as far as I am concerned. I made him a cup of coffee, signed a piece of paper, and listened as he listed all the lawyers he knew in Belgium. Job done.


Patrick emailed me this evening. I have had a difficult weekend. This Christmas has blind-sided me with the emotions it has been stirring up, and all manner of deferred sadness keeps surfacing, inconveniently. I collected my tree ornaments from the CFO on Friday and several of them were missing or broken (his mother had used them last year, watch me rise above that with zen calm. Breathe, breathe. In, out. Silver, gold. I am caaaalm). I am pining for them and on top of that, we had a sad accident with my much-loved tiny glass Christmas tree last night as we tried to decorate our actual tree (which was incidentally eyeball bleedingly dear. It cost far more than I imagine a human child of approximately the same size would on the black market). We bought more decorations in a rush last night, and as a result the tree looks like Liberace vomited on it. There is an LED colour changing star on the top that makes me feel physically ill and the whole thing is bristling with alarming coloured tinsel. Where are my sweet Danish birds? Where is my pewter SEAHORSE, dammit?

I have had a bad week for work too; a week when I can't see any viable future, which I hope is festive gloom rather than prescience. Who knows? As my wonderfully consoling friend F said today in a similar fit of Yuleschmerz (I suppose it would be Weinachtschmerz, but Yuleschmerz sounds nicer. Weinachtsangst? I digress) "I thought I was the kind of person who would be fine, and I am undone so much of the time". And it's that. Precisely that.

So tonight Patrick helpfully emailed me with this query:

"Etes-vous affiliée à une organisation professionelle de journalistes? Avez-vous une carte de presse?"
(Are you a member of a professional association of journalists? Do you have a press card?)

Er, no. No. I am entirely without professional credentials. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. For the remainder of this calendar year (so, 19 days) I am still a solicitor admitted in England and Wales, though. Do I get any points for that? No? Oh. Excuse me while I breathe into this paper bag.

After a brief pause, he followed up with "Alors Madame, Pouvez-vous me donner une description de vos activités?"
(Then, Madam, can you give me a description of your activities?)

Maybe I am just projecting the scepticism I sense emanating from this message, but it's as if even the social security man knows I am a fraud. You do not have a job, Emma! You are just PRETENDING. Patrick, Google Adsense, the insistent voices in my head.. It's not good.

Erm. What can I tell him? I have cobbled something factually accurate together but it does change the real, enormous insecurity I feel at the moment.

"I thought I was the kind of person who would be fine". I'm sure losing that assurance is good for my soul, but it's bloody terrifying too. Brrrrrr. Is Jean Réno coming to terminate me for past acts of hubris?

Here, here's something cheerier. A picture of a gorgeously cheeky Fabiola inspired fashion shoot and an endive under a glass dome:

You can see a few more pics from this spread if you go here and click on the picture. It made me very very happy.


Anonymous said...

Dear Emma,
I have been treating my (also unexpected) Christmas blues with amaretto coffees at the local (Leuven) Christmas Market. They seem to be almost entirely amaretto with a whiff of coffee waved over them.
This is probably not such a "good" thing to suggest, however, at this point in time & state of mind, fuggit, it's working!
As for your "Leon" accountant, MAKE IT UP. Tell him you have been cited in Wikileaks as a....(& the Belgian ambassador said...).

Pat (in Belgium)

wv: wizat (don't "they" mean whazzat? a variation on "wassup?")

Anonymous said...

same here: COMPLETELY undone by Christmas. Wish I could sleep it through, and wake up early February.


Em said...

For a start, look at what you achieve as a slightly unofficial Belgian Ambassador. You bring Fabiola and her high hair to the world! I thank you for that.

Please tell your Jean-Yves that you write. Because that is exactly what you are doing and you are doing it very well.

As for Christmas... it will be over soon. Sorry, that's the best I've got x

That's Not My Age said...

The emotions do play up at Christmas/ birthdays and such like, it's a fact. And the situation is made a whole lot worse when someone steals your tree decorations! Please email me your address and I will send you some lovely felt decorations to throw onto Liberace's vomit.

Fabiola's hair is fab.

Xtreme English said...

nice. you are indeed a writer--a fine one at that. that patrick to put that in his endive and smoke it!!

Margaret said...

What kind of job description does he expect you to give him? You're a freelance writer--is that not a proper job description in Endiveland? Because you cannot swing a MacBook Air without hitting a freelance writer here. (But please don't hit them because they have no health insurance.)

By the way, you ARE the kind of person who will be fine. Just because you aren't right now doesn't mean you won't be.

Anonymous said...

1) i may need jean-yves at some point in the near-middle future. he sounds like a man for me.
2) look up NUJ membership. if i remember correctly they have a sort of expat category that you might fit into. they definitely have a Brussels branch.

soleils said...

And are there no freelancers in Belgium? Is the red tape mentality even worse than in France that one's activity has to fit neatly in a little box? I have been a freelance in the UK for nearly 20 years, with ups and downs, sure, but that's what I am and the authoritahs seem fine with that. As long as I pay my taxes on the rare occasions that my income requires it...
You are most definitely a writer, that goes without saying, a self-employed writer. If J.-Y. can't get his square head around that, it's really his problem.
You WILL be fine. Christmas has a habit of brining all sort of crap up, but you WILL be fine.

soleils said...

bringing, not brining... weird typo.

Jeremy said...

Emma, I'm afraid I don't know you well enough to comment on some of the other things, but I just wanted to let you know that you shouldn't doubt your status as a writer. I never had Jean-Yves or any other accountant in Belgium. I have one now, but she's my sister-in-law. I worked as a journalist for seven years in Brussels, and never got round to joining any journalistic organizations. I never got a press card, either - I vaguely remember discussions about it, but it just seemed too much hassle, there were always other things to do, and nobody ever asked me to show my press card. I still write articles for newspapers sometimes, and my company description includes journalism in my field of work. And I feel comfortable calling myself a journalist. The payments from newspapers and magazines for words I've written are proof of it. You're a writer: a journalist and a novelist. (Judging by your writing here, I expect you're brilliant at both.) You can easily get a press card or join an organization if you need to prove you are these things legally - but you shouldn't doubt you are these things.

pinolona said...

Oh gosh, working freelance in Belgium is overwhelming. Is it too late to sign up in the UK instead and just pretend?
I felt something very similar last year though re the social security and all that jazz and everything does work out fine, one way or another...

Laurel said...

Agreed with Margaret and soleils--you're definitely a real-life writer but, from all that you have written of Belgium, it appears to be a place where one's status is defined very much by forms and bureaucracy; so between not having a press card and doing a good amount of writing on this newfangled medium called the internet, you are confusing the people whose business it is to work primarily with the official channels. But we all affirm that you DO exist as a writer, so there! However it seems like the freelance press card might be a nice way to satisfy TPTB. (Perhaps then you could also gain entry to interesting events about which you could write?)

Elsie Anderton said...

I am completely with Jeremy on this, you ARE a proper writer. Your posts make me howl with laughter or ugly-cry, sometimes simultaneously. You are my blog-idol *stalker face*

Alison Cross said...

You're a proper writer; we just need to sort out the money.

Honestly, try e-lance for translation work and writing jobs. They do start off paying very little, but if you are good, the client wants to keep you and you can earn more - even writing blogs for people. Honestly.

Every post you write either has me peeing with laughter or weeping into my keyboard - either way, you're one of the very few people can make me emit body fluids :-)


Ali x

Anonymous said...

I worked as a freelance writer (okay, for educational materials) in the Netherlands and here any freelance contract/bills/emails about freelance assignments that you have count as much as a press card or any other possible "proof" of being a writer. Maybe that would help?

Oh and I agree with Pat: go for the special coffees. They'll make your day so much better (I like mine with whipped cream and chocolate flakes).

- Marjolein

Anonymous said...

I have a comment regarding an earlier post - have you tried using nappy cream on your face? - This is not intended as an insult :) Sudafed is good in this weather - solves all known winter skin afflictions,with added bonus of making you look seriously pale and interesting - a bit like a Japanese No actor between scenes...

Anonymous said...

Poor Waffle,

Hope you are feeling better. Here, have a baby bongo as a Christmas present:

Anonymous said...

David Baileys wife swears by bepanthen cream and if its good enough for her its good enough for mere mortals re flaking scaly yukky thing

kath said...

look the feather rabbit ears are on sale! i am v tempted.

Anonymous said...

Re. the google ads: what can we do to make them profitable for you? Do we have to click on them and wait for them to load, the more often the better? Or do they only pay you for one viewing per computer at any given time?

Unknown said...

Here's hoping you are leaving those xmas blues behind you and as for the accountant I'm with Extreme English.....

nice to meet your blog, pop over to bigwords if you need a giggle x

screamish said...


breathe deep for those ornaments...ergh....

remember Bernard in Black Books (his accountant meeting, where his filing system was the pockets of his big dusty black coat).

Mine is a Pampers nappy box and several bits of coloured paper...


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