Sunday, 28 August 2011

Gloomy (with consolation owls)

(I started this on Sunday and ran into a wave of indolence, but I can't be bothered to change it. Here, have an owl).



We are back home from our northern coastal mini break. In order to ease our acclimatisation, Brussels is under several inches of water, and the post has fallen out of the letterbox with an ominous flop, where I am ignoring it. Repeated messages from my accountant, "Mr Fox", tell me not only that I owe him five hundred yuros, but also that the third quarter VAT return (a shameful heap of scrap paper in a brown envelope) is due, joyous news. For the last few hours, Fingers has been telling me jokes while I try to rebuild a broken light fitting with 800 removable parts that keep falling, like heavy perspex confetti, on my head as I try to secure them. It is Sunday. Belgian Sundays are very .. Sunday at the best of times. They are like the Sundays of my childhood, with afternoons that stretch out grey and featureless in front of you, to the horizon and beyond, with nothing but Songs of Praise to look forward to. In August, the Sunday feeling is multiplied by a hundred,because four houses in five are empty and shuttered, their inhabitants living it up on the Belgian "riviera", at Knokke La Zoute, St Tropez of the North Sea, immortalised in the Jacques Brel song, and already quoted on these pages. It bears quoting again however:

Ce soir il pleut à Knokke La Zoute
Ce soir comme tous les soirs
Je me rentre chez moi le coeur en déroute
Et la bite sous l'bras

Tonight, it's raining in Knokke La Zoute
Tonight, like every night
I'm going home with my heart defeated
And my cock under my arm.


Quite.


I have reached the point in the school holidays where I am waving a white flag - a dirty, crumpled white flag that someone has wiped their nose on, probably - but no one has even noticed. It seems to me that the children entirely stopped hearing the sound of my voice some weeks ago; they have simply tuned out whatever frequency I broadcast my constant litany of martyrdom, complaints and occasional outbreaks of maddened, incoherent shouting on. I have become invisible, presumably because I am ALWAYS HERE. Over here, bitterly picking up the Lego zombie I have just trodden on. Over there, colour coding the felt tips like a mental and muttering to myself about Pritt Stick lids. In the kitchen staring blankly into the fridge.


I should say, that in very many ways, it has been a total, and rare, treat spending five solid weeks with my offspring. It really has. They have been, in the main and in defiance of my attempts to portray them otherwise, a delight. On Thursday, they spent a whole (mercifully dry) afternoon sitting on the beach in absolute peace and absorption, making an elaborate sand monster and accompanying man trap. There was no thumping, no gratuitous provocation or meanness. They have been generally enthusiastic about the ridiculous activities we have been involved in. Last night, they were so touchingly excited about the frankly rubbish "European Night of the Bat" walk in the industrial wilderness of Anderlecht, I could have cried. I could have cried anyway, after the minutely detailed explanation of the foraging habits of all five types of bat native to the Brussels region but passons.


But oh, in other ways, it has been very very tricky. Here we all are, every day, all day, annoying each other in a circular fashion, like a nuclear neanderthal tribe, confined to our cave (with the exception of the demented outings described in the previous post. These have slowed to a trickle, and I am stretching "a trip to the opticians" into a whole day's activity tomorrow). Meanwhile, there are things I should be doing - boring, but necessary things that require the correct set of pieces of paper, quiet time, a brain - that I simply haven't done, must do, will get into more trouble if I don't do very soon. There are things that I must do for money. There are things that I would like to be doing - writing, for fuck's sake, the only way I can see of ever getting myself out of the career mess I am in - that I haven't been able to do either, because they are there, here, all the time and what do you say when a delightful (and easily crushed) seven year old asks if you want to play Uno with him again? You say yes, of course you do and you feel very thankful he still wants to do anything with you when you are such a screeching harpy most of the time. And it's fun. But it's not paying the bills, so I lie awake when they finally go to bed and wonder how on earth I'll ever emerge from this unproductive fug, whether I'll ever leave the house, or wear clean clothes again. Or I channel the anxiety into small, futile attempts to try and impose order on the chaos, usually involving the minute categorisation of toys.

Because I have no brain, none, it is broken. I think the various fragments of it have spent so long chasing each other round my skull cavity in crazed anxiety that they are exhausted and are having a lie down. So there is no blogging, there are no clever, or funny, or lucrative ideas, and I am not keeping up with current developments in any sphere except the biscuit aisle at Colruyt, and Pokemon evolutions. On top of that, two of my very best friends left Brussels over the summer and I am feeling a bit bereft. Bleurgh.

HOWEVER.

I do finally have more photographs from the horticultural show earlier this month. Are they worth the wait? Hmm, I will leave it up to you to decide.

Actually - and not entirely surprisingly - I mainly have photos of owls. I will save Oscar's triumph for another post. There is only one fuzzy photograph of it, and I think it requires more building up than I am capable of today.



Owls. Expressing disdain for you since time immemorial.



This is Holly.

Displeased

Holly could not have given a shit about my puny problems. She bit me several times when I mistakenly touched her whiskers.

"Whiskers, bite. Whiskers, bite" the man from 'Owls Galore' explained to me patiently, demonstrating, but I kept getting distracted by her great beauty, and touching the forbidden beak whiskers, to the amusement of many watching children.

I could easily have got into an abusive relationship with Holly. She can bite my finger any time she wants.


Whiskers, bite.

Fingers chose an owl that looks like it was designed by Nintendo.


Anime-owl

Contemplative
(contemplating clawing your face off)

Lashes chose one called Oscar.


In no way like a weepette.
Could probably eat a weepette if so inclined.


There were not only owls, of course. There was also woodlouse racing. Lashes won 50p on 'that pale one that's really fast'.



And hamster roulette ("catch us before the RSPCA do!"). We weren't as good at that. The hamsters were wildly unpredictable, the devious little bastards.



Also, you will note there is evidence here of the sun. It rained intermittently, but I am glad my owl memories are bathed in misleading, but entirely appropriate, British sun. We have had some very very funny times these holidays, and this is a good reminder of them. It was an alright summer really, a sweet, quiet, relatively uneventful summer: if only I knew how to relax and enjoy it, everything would be FINE.

How has your summer been? Are you good at relaxing, or do you harass the Pritt Sticks like me? Do you think you could fit a Little Owl into your pocket? Tell me all.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Stuff what I done to amuse my offspring this summer

(or Supine Parental Abnegation, the summer edition)

1. Dressed up in an outsized canvas sumo suit and "fought" their father (a minute of self-conscious, feeble 'amuser les enfants' shoving, then we both got a taste for it and started really laying into each other).

2. Had my hand hammered by a plastic mallet by a man in a woad tunic in a place called Neder Over Hembeek.

3. Fought a Dutch grandmother with a polystyrene sword. On one leg. Lost. Still in Neder Over Hembeek.

4. Driven to an obscure corner of Vlaams Brabant, put on a swimming costume (otherwise known as The Ultimate Sacrifice) and sat in a tepid soup of human effluent, patrolled by uniformed security guards WITH DOGS.

5. Been to 5 Science Museums: London, Bristol, Mechelen, Paris and That Shitty One In Bourse Metro Station With The Strobe Lit Mannekin Pis. Seen enough optical illusions to induce a year's worth of migraines.

6. Played 29 games of dominoes, 17 Cluedo, and two of some shitty German thing called Suleika that none of us understand, featuring complex Germanic rules, tiny carpets and a missing dice.

7. Played 35 games of Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, the answer to 34 of which was "champignon atomique" (mushroom cloud).

8. But only played one round of terrible game based on a manga invented by Lashes, as it was so extravagantly boring, none of us could be arsed.

9. Confronted 5 groups of goats with consequent goat inflicted injuries to property and person. Petted: a snake. A giraffe. Seven chicks. 3 rabbits.

10. Seen The Smurfs. In 3D. As if two dimensions weren't enough.

11. Listened to 14 monologues about Bonsai trees, 23 monologues about Plants Vs Zombies, 800 monologues about various mangas.

12. Refereed 814,000 arguments. By "refereed", I mean snapped "I DON'T CARE WHO STARTED IT, THIS IS BORING, COME BACK WHEN ONE OF YOU IS MISSING A LIMB. OR NOT. AS YOU WISH. ARE YOU DEAD? NO? THEN WHY ARE YOU STILL HERE".

13. Oh god, I nearly forgot. Went to the Museum of All Despair (And Some Old Comics) and sat in the BD "Reading Room" repository of all the teen angst and sexual frustration OF THE WORLD. Or at least of Belgium. Lashes enjoyed this very much. Fingers was faintly appalled and kept flitting over to me to whisper loudly and indiscreetly "C'est nul, quand est-ce qu'on peut partir?" (It's rubbish, when can we leave).

14. Bought an intricate, expensive mountain of school supplies, including the specified brand of set square, because one must accept no cheap generic imitations of a flimsy plastic triangle, for lo, that way anarchy lies.

15. Encountered sand. Repeatedly (also known as The Other Ultimate Sacrifice. I have massive sensory issues with sand).

And now, we are in Le Touquet, in the very north of France, on a short break. There is a very great deal of sand. We are staying in a Novotel on the beach that resembles a decaying Soviet bunker intended for a small city in the Urals. The sky is the colour of lead and bruises and the wind is sufficient to cause small dogs (of which there are a great number) to take flight. I have seen the following on the seafront:

(a) Pop art horses


(b) The most frightening window display of stuffed kittens in the history of stuffed kitten window displays:



Gangs of errant children roam feral through the hotel armed with entrenching tools and packets of Carambars, as their parents hide in dark corners of the bar, furtively lining up garish cocktails (yesterday's "Bond Martini" featured watermelon liqueur and a pink plastic stirring stick thing). Everyone fears a three year old called "Adrien" who has the balanced, peace loving personality of Attila the Hun, and very sharp nails. The only thing that can rival him for savagery is the seagulls, larger than ponies, who whizz past every few minutes, fangs to the wind, to see if they can make off with an infant, or a jumbo moules-frites. Every few hours the dog goes quietly into a corner to vomit a pile of sand it has ingested through sheer stupidity. We are mainly staring at the sea from a respectful distance and eating chips. Oh, I made an intricate shell fish today. The children ran the gamut of reactions from lukewarm, to indifferent, to embarassed for me, in the hour it took to construct.


(Stage 3: Shame)

It's great, actually (the holiday, not the fish. Obviously). I could pretend it's terrible, but that would be a big fat lie. However, I think I - and they - will be ready for school to start again in 8 days (counting? No, definitely not counting). I might even be ready for a "Bond Martini".

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Holiday Funtimes continue

I have had a minor revelation today. The reason I spend the holidays in a state of chest constricting anxiety and high alert is because of having been, to all intents and purposes, an only child. I do have siblings, but the age gap between us is so great we never had the opportunity to spend long, absorbed months honing new forms of psychological torture for each other, or even experienced the simple pleasure of thwacking one another over the head with coal shovels. It's sad, really.

Thus, the current sounds of riotous, what I can only assume is "fun" from downstairs just alarm me. To my untrained only child ears, sibling interaction always sounds dangerous, messy, and liable to end in tears. Possibly tears of blood. Supervising sibling interaction seems to me very like being a UN peacekeeper in a highly volatile, complex regional conflict: you don't know when to intervene and when to keep your distance, you don't know, and can't possibly guess at the rights and wrongs, or origins, of any given flare up, and whatever you do decide to do will be greeted with universal fury.

I imagine that if you were raised with siblings of a similar age to your own, as opposed to a coven of highly evolved hippy-slash-academics and a stack of age inappropriate reading matter, you would view these kinds of shenanigans with a sort of benevolent indifference. I do not know, I can only speculate. I would like to feel benevolent indifference. Mainly I feel flooded with cortisol. I can't regret my tranquil childhood in the tweedy embrace of Dorothy L Sayers and P.D. James, but it's doing me no good right now. The basic problem is that I would like them all to be reading and occasionally playing clock patience, and they would like to be sitting on each other's heads and calling each other "minus" with occasional breaks to kill some zombies.

Aaanyway. Today's 'deflect the children from killing each other' activities kicked off with a trip to Belgium's most inauspiciously sited attraction. Can I even say that? I am suddenly lacking confidence in this broad statement, there may be others I am still to discover. It's a science, erm, exhibit, located in the bowels - actually it smells more like the bladder - of one of Brussels's less salubrious Metro stations, Bourse. Bourse metro, where I have shared a platform with so many disturbed individuals, stalkery pervs and stag parties over the years that I now enter it with a sort of shiver of dread. One particular dickhead followed me all the way home from there, and on another occasion I got within a nanosecond of punching someone. All in all, the perfect place for a child friendly science activity centre! Another Belgian civic planning triumph.

Look, here is an extremely wobbly photograph of the entrance. Charming, no? Not at all like a still from a disaster movie set in a post-apocalyptic ex-Soviet state.




I can't actually be too mean about it. It looks like the exhibits were made by an occupational therapy group in the mid '80s, but (a) the girl working there was utterly charming and kind and did a ridiculous mirror image routine where she "made a stick come out of her nose" purely for my children's entertainment; (b) it was almost empty which was a mercy (if not entirely a surprise); and (c) my children, children of the Nintendo age, children who have been to four high tech, glossy, amazing science parks in the last 2 months, were MAD FOR IT. I was not allowed to sit down for a minute, as they marched me from exhibit to charmingly decrepit exhibit, exclaiming with touching enthusiasm at the shonky optical illusions.


The absolute highlight for me was this replica Manneken Pis in a shower cubicle. Once every three minutes, you could add 5 seconds of strobe lighting to the tableau.


Epic. I am sorry this is so dark. That is because it is very dark in there, what with it being, oh yes, in a windowless bunker in a metro station.

I think that's enough excitement for the day. I'll save our (return! Thereby breaching my solemn promise to my offspring never to make them go back there) trip to the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée for another time. Soon you'll be begging me to go back to pictures of shonky vegetable sculpture.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Holidays, part 2

Belgium is not really on best behaviour this week. We are on our fourth day of unrelenting rain, the dog is sporting a fine layer of mildew, as are the children, who are intent on finding new and exciting ways to kill/cause irrevocable psychological damage to each other. We have played 14,000 games of Cluedo, which they SUCK at, and watched too much TV, Fingers has perfected his flouncy teenage "Oh nooooooon, pas ça" at any suggested activity and I have had no time to do anything except sweep dust into small piles on the floor and shout, occasionally. By the time evening crawls around, I am only fit for watching gloomy Danish drama in bed. I am slightly worried that my sleep routines are now entirely dependent on the soothing sounds and muted palette of The Killing, which usually lulls me into a deep state of somnolence around the 45 minute mark. God knows how I will cope when I finish watching it. Anyway, I would like to do blogging, and, you know, earning MONEY and shit, but I have no childcare organised for the next two weeks, no new work coming in, and no plans, so please pray for me, hard. Or babysit. Or give me a job. Or send me a cake.

In the brief hour of free time I have whilst the children are at the foul swimming pool, hopefully exorcising some of their vast reserves of natural aggression, I think what we really need is a heart warming tale of triumph over adversity, with cute (if neurotic) animals. A story like Weepette's (SPOILER) cinematic triumph against overwhelming odds and a dastardly professional Afghan in the Cherington show. Sadly, I can't give us one. I can't tell you that story yet, because I don't have the pictures, and without the pictures, it is as nothing. Nor do I have the photos of the woodlouse racing, the hamster roulette, or my attempt to secrete a selection of owls in my handbag. Soon, I promise.

In the meantime, I can at least tell you about the vegetable animals. As you may know, I have previous with vegetable sculpture myself. Before this blog collapsed into, well, whatever it is now, we used to have vegetable sculpting competitions and everything. Who can forget the Angler Fish? Or the grape bee? Ah, happy, innocent days.

Keen to recapture the sense of unalloyed achievement that comes from ineptly hacking a vegetable around with a blunt knife for absolutely no valid reason, then adding 800,000 pointless and ineffectual cocktail sticks, I was insistent all the children entered the veg animal competition at the fête. They were relatively willing to humour me, possibly to escape further chores on the grandparental work camp. By this stage in the week, they had already experienced the 18 hour power cut, which had gone some way to breaking their spirit, and I had successfully compounded their gloom by droning on about my own childhood holidays, sitting in a hollowed out lightning blasted tree in a cagoule with a slice of Lyles Ginger Cake and seven books by Josephine Pullein Thompson. All in all, they were ready for some low-tech entertainment.

We selected vegetables and sat down at the table outside in only a light drizzle to sculpt. My father hovered, ominously, commenting on the profligacy of our unnecessary marrow sacrifice. I was, of course, forced to reign in my control freakery.

"Don't you think it might be better if...? No, sorry, ignore me".

"How about .. ? No? Really? Ok. If you think that's best".

"I don't think that will work darl .. oh? Fine. Give it a try".

"Would you like me to do that? You wouldn't? Oh. Ok".

If I had had my way, I would have been intricately carving dung beetle antennae at midnight, but thankfully, no one would let me have my way. Instead, they came up with these:


Lashes went with this artichoke "tortoise" (?):




It caused me considerable angst in the leg department in transport, and required in situ corrective surgery. You can see that one of its forepaws is listing dangerously in this picture, but it managed to limp through the judging intact.


My niece did a sheep:


I liked the sheep a lot. The carrot leaf wool pleases me greatly.


Fingers, I must relate with sadness but very little surprise, was profoundly indifferent to the whole activity, but finally deigned to make this "hedgehog":



It would have just been a featureless artichoke/potato combo if he had had his way, but I put my foot down and insisted on legs, at least. He submitted with the resigned demeanour of one who is forced to humour a mad woman. He's getting very good at that.

Finally, whilst I was upstairs sacrificing a goat to British Telecom, my nephew was executing his audaciously brilliant "Rattlesnake and sea urchin" combo:



After a tense overnight stay in the fridge (tense for me, not the vegetables), we transported our, sorry, their work product to the show ground, and after some last minute UHU action, we left, to wait out the judges' verdict eating "Mr Whippet" ice creams (Lashes really believes this is what they are called) and humiliating the dog in new and exciting ways.


When we were finally allowed back into the produce tent, where to our delight and amazement the rattlesnake/sea urchin combo had triumphed.




Look, here we are, marvelling. I was too over-excited at this point to take a decent, photo, but if you look closely, you can see it has a red card thingy, which I believe entitled my nephew to the princely sum of ONE POUND. Possibly one pound fifty.

We won! Sorry. He won. We celebrated with pint glasses of Pimms, and tat from the car boot sale and more Mr Whippets all round.

The end.

Here are my children staring into a barrel. They were discussing whether they could transport the sheep carcass home in it, but sadly, the car was still convalescing from its catastrophic gasket injury in Woodstock, so it was impossible, which was very sad. Ahem.



When I was young this, in and of itself, would have constituted a whole day's holiday activity (etc etc etc, continue until whole audience unconscious)...

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Holiday, Part 1

While the world has been spiralling into irrevocable chaos and doom, I have been in the Cotswolds, with my beloved offspring, Lytton Strachey




and, er... James Herriot?

Making his own entertainment

It's ok, global economy. Mummy is back. You can relax now. Yes, I have finally returned to Belgium, and the clammy embrace of masonry dust, official envelopes and an ominous wet black patch on the wall, which has destroyed my limited edition Rob Ryan bird print. I have never been sadder to leave the primitive, dangerous weirdness of the countryside (yes, the Cotswolds. Shut up, it is dangerous. You could get flattened by a pristine Range Rover, or a wheel of artisan cheese at any time). Either:

1. I am getting old; or

2. I am homesick for a place where bagels are (relatively) freely available (if you get to the Co-op early) and milk does not come in long life UHT containers; or

3. Everything here is so chaotic, I would rather take my chances with the badgers (incidentally, Fingers seemed uncharacteristically scared at my father's cheery assurance that his garden was regularly raided by a gang of ASBO badgers. It turned out that Fingers had not realised that the European badger and the Honey Badger are not the same creature. He was expecting cobra head ripping off action every time he left the house).

The countryside was relatively well-behaved (ie. I was allowed several trips to the Co-op in Shipston on Stour and even more trips to the pub). My father refrained from suggesting any trips to see rotting carcasses, being more concerned to put his descendants to work tilling the land and so on (he is a pioneer of the 'Summer Sodium Adventures' residential salt mine camp school of holiday parenting). I think he felt additional corpse action was unnecessary, as a sheep had kindly died just outside the house, presumably for our vacation entertainment (see above). My children came racing to see me the morning after Sheep Carcass Fiesta,as I was skulking behind some marrows trying to avoid detection.

"We kicked the head off!"

"I see".

"It's in the garden now! Fingers held the spine down, and I kicked the skull, then we rolled it up the hill".

"I do hope you didn't use your hands"

"No, we kicked it ALL THE WAY". Proud looks. I glanced at their open toed sandals, mired in the by-products of ovine decay.

"Lovely. I'm delighted for you".

"So can we keep it? It's only got a tiny bit of skin on the scalp. I've already tried to scrape it off with a stick, I reckon we can shift it".

"....."

"Weepette is going mad for it. Maybe he can eat the scalp off? He keeps peeing on it though".

"Awww, he must think he killed it himself" said my sister in law later, laughing, as the dog sat, feebly exhausted in the only comfy chair in the kitchen looking as mournful as ever. "He thinks he's a brilliant hunter". Instinct got the better of Weepette once or twice, and he chased a few rabbits, only to catch them up, hover apologetically around them with an expression of faintly agonised social awkwardness as they went to ground, then trot back, looking defeated.

Otherwise, the danger levels were sadly reduced, since the Tetanus Dreamland Castle was out of bounds due to some dangerous bale stacking. We did not even see any badgers. Any deficiencies in wildlife outside, however, were entirely remedied by the fauna in the shower. My ablutions every morning was like this scene out of Snow White:




... except my companions were a happy band of spiders the size of house cats, giant fighting moths with wings missing, dozy wasps, a selection of no longer attached legs, mandibles and other detritus and on one occasion an astonishingly frisky earwig. They would draw close to listen to my enchanting song, which went something like:

"OH THE FUCK WILL YOU EVER FUCK OFF OUT OF MY SHOWER GEL, WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU, EWWWWWWWWW".

Catchy.

Apart from that the holiday was distinguished by:

- an 18 hour power cut. "This is like ALL my holidays when I was little", I kept telling the children, who plainly did not give a shit as long as my iphone battery held out and no one was making them go to bed. "Except then it was FAR COLDER, and granddad locked me and your uncle in an outhouse because we were annoying him" (true).

- An amazing triple village show triumph extravaganza which I will save for another post when I have the photos, which include me trying to sneak a little owl from the "Owls Galore" display away in my pocket, and a woodlouse race.

- Many games of Cluedo, or "Cluédo" as my peculiar children called it. Cluedo has gone terribly nouveau, and appears to be set in Champneys, distressingly. There is a "Spa", "Theatre" and "Swimming Pool" now, and the lead piping has been replaced with a dumbbell and a "trophy", which looks like something you might get if you were BBC personality of the year or similar. Sad times.

- Quizzing my stepmother extensively on the neighbours, to check for any stealth celebrities, what with Chipping Norton being revealed to be a sort of Mayfair on the Wold in recent months. The best she could come up with was:

- a man who takes his rabbit to the post office on a lead

- a woman who walks her dogs wearing a scuba mask; and

- a man who enters all twenty classes each year in the village show and turns up on the day with his hair in pigtails and blue eyeshadow, whilst still in his regulation tweed jacket and cord trousers.

- The mortal wounding of the car, leading to many gloomy trips to bring it grapes at a garage in Woodstock while it languished, between life, death and several thousand quid of repairs. Something unspeakable happened to it involving a head gasket, or something equally sordid, with the net result that we have had to leave it in intensive care in Woodstock. The message is clear: I should never be allowed to go on any motorised holiday, ever.

- A trip to Aardman in Bristol to draw germs.




I imagine this is exactly what a sheep's head looks like when you get close enough. Actually, scratch that, I KNOW that's exactly what my kitchen looks like when you get close enough.

All in all, a full and frank holiday. Tell me how yours are if you have been on any. If you haven't, tell me what it was like in civilisation, before it got broken.