Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Uccle, again

The sun turns my corner of Uccle into an outpost of Twin Peaks. Weird, dislocated happenings. A faint air of menace. Even early in the morning, the parc du caca simmers with a hot haze of bioeffluent as the fat black staffie with jaws wider than its shoulders drags its diminutive owner round the bare patchy grass, her sandals catching on the pebbles of the path, Glen Hoddle perm bobbing. An early rising toddler is lurching forcefully around the fenced off play area with a stick, watched by a hunched shouldered, pinched faced parent, slumped on the seesaw in exhaustion. Somewhere, someone has already started drilling. Every part of the commune is being implacably dug up for reasons that no one can identify with any certainty. Escaped parakeets screech from the chestnut trees and a semi-feral cat in a cardboard box on the corner shop windowsill is shifting, economically, to catch the sun right on the sweet spot on its scrubby back.

In the street, Monsieur Cambier (85), in his summer outfit of promotional baseball cap c1984, promotional Leffe t-shirt c1979, shorts and ancient New Balance trainers, is jogging effortlessly up from his home to the corner shop to meet the delivery lorry, skinny white legs pumping. He unloads 25 palettes of Jupiler (a week's supply) and a single box of iceberg lettuces.  The hairdresser - 'Coiffeur Masculin' reads the sign, just in case there were any scope for doubt, which there isn't - is readjusting his window display (still set to 'spring' - balding flock bunnies, green crêpe paper, faded butterflies, dessicated twigs) and unabashedly scoping out the neighbours, collecting incidents, twitching his curtains.

Later, I walk down to the "shopping" street. Both ice cream parlours - twenty yards apart - are chaotic with ice cream seekers.

The opticians has opted for a window display of a reclining nude male mannequin, on which it they have placed a variety of pairs of sunglasses, in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Manet's Olympia. I end up walking behind a man who is pulling a veritable train of small wheeled carts, filled with rubbish.

In Colruyt, a little further away, chaos reigns. There is a three for two offer on packs of 24 cans of Jupiler and the word has got around. The queue stretches right back to the frozen food section and every trolley looks like this:

(I don't know how these photos have ended up stuck together, but I can't get them unstuck. I'm going to pretend it's deliberate and artistique, like)

Back home, dusk is gathering, still stiflingly warm and dusty and the skinny boys with falling down trousers and muscular dogs on strings head to the parc du caca to ostentatiously smoke microscopic quantities of cannabis. The Reclusive Neighbour, owner of the Bench of Crazy, has moved out into the middle of the (fairly busy, poor visibility) street. He is holding a tennis racket in one hand and fiddling with something on the floor. I slow right down to get a good (discreet) look. The thing on the floor is a sort of brick with a hole in it, and there is a length of string attached to it. At the other end is a tennis ball: has built his own swingball set. He stands, swinging at it hopelessly in the sunset - it is on the ground. The string is not elastic. There is no hope - and I wonder, yet again, quite cheerfully, how the fuck I have ended up here.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Belgium Pt 98765

"Chers voyageurs, votre train à destination d’Anvers accuse un retard indéterminé en raison d’une collision avec un poney. (Pause) C’est un petit cheval."

This, the best announcements by Belgian railway guards, is the funniest thing I have read for MONTHS. French speakers only. I mentioned it on Twitter a few days ago, but I still love it. It encapsulates everything about Belgium that amuses and delights me.

What else is happening in Belgium, I hear you ask in your ones and occasionally twos?

1. The chip figurine I have been trying to photograph for months is still not out, though there is a nice mural of him on the front of the chip shop. I think they are scared I'll steal him, which is actually wrong, because I'd be scared to touch him. He is definitely some kind of sex pest.


2. I was furiously to learn from one of my neighbours that whilst we were in London, the incredibly grumpy hairdresser with the incredibly retro window decorations in our street was filmed for a Renault commercial. Apparently there was a chase scene in the street and everything! HOW can this have happened while I was away? The only exciting thing to happen in Uccle since the Napoleonic wars, and I missed it. I am left to try, hopelessly, to imagine the scene, and also wonder how much they paid him (I bet it was a lot, he is a miserable bastard and would not do it for love). Coming soon to a screen near you: my miserable bastard hairdresser neighbour and possibly my house en arrière plan. Fame, at last.

3. I am collecting 'StreetStyle Uccle' subjects, gradually. Today I added 'woman in a back fastening hospital gown at the bank' to my collection. A bold choice. The sun has also brought out Reclusive Neighbour and his Special Bench Of Crazy.

Special Bench of Crazy features:

Health and Safety outlawed nest of cables hooked up to CD player playing chamber music!

Reflective feet!

Sandpaper scratching/smoothing post!

Spare pencils neatly lined up its grooves!

Cache of batteries and sheath of mystery papers hidden under science magazines!

Rear view mirror!

I am considering stealing the design, making my own and selling them on QVC. Buy now while stocks last, ie. before Reclusive Neighbour takes it back inside with him. Which he does. Every night.

4. The Belgian candidate, Iris, has, with wearying inevitability, been eliminated from Eurovision at an early round. Would You? No, apparently we wouldn't. Reduced to two nationalities to choose from, we hesitate. Anggun, or Engelbert? La peste ou le choléra? I was rooting for the greasy, funk menace of Rambo Amadeus, but he too has been eliminated.

5. I am experiencing yet again the strangeness of having only one child around. So quiet! So easy! And yet so odd. I forget about not having Fingers around for huge swathes of time (well, you know, they are usually at school), and then suddenly remember and am filled with disquiet and miss his strange, insistent whispered messages in extremely precise, accented English. The big one is pretty nice though. Tonight we went and ate bad pizzas on a swing, then he read me a selection of disgusting extracts from the Grand Livre de L'Incroyable, which is a sort of extra-vulgar Guinness Book of Records substitute. I know a lot about freakish extra limbed creatures and hideous deformities now. In return I forced him to watch an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine which used to terrify him, and which now made him laugh like a drain. Better still, we discovered there is a whole vein of appalling fan homage videos recreating Thomas's Greatest Catastrophes. WHO does this? We watched a slightly balding tennis ball menace some Brio trains until we nearly cried laughing. I can't find it now, but frankly, it was quite an acquired taste so I don't think you're missing out too badly.

I am trying to appreciate every second, having read this lovely post about big boys, which set off lots of echoes. Soon, Fingers will have harvested enough barley at the collective farm to be allowed home and this tiny special hiatus of leisurely rat feeding and admiring photos of people who are half-mollusc will be gone again.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Cemetery Displacing Filler

"You need to get rid of that cemetery" says M. "Too depressing".

"I KNOW, but I have had literally no time. None. No time. I have had to correct about 500000000 lines of dense Wronglish*. And write about nightclubs. And look at some seven figure reference numbers on some documents until I thought my eyeballs would start bleeding. And that's before we even mention my disastrous double trip to the bank".


"It's true! Anyway, when did YOU last update your blog anyway, hmmm?"

"The day before yesterday".


So here I am, taking that cemetery off the top of my blog, because I am nothing if not scared of my brain twin.

We have been to London! It was fraught! And then less fraught, and then more fraught again when Lashes started vomiting in the middle of the night and so on until we were all so exhausted we fell into a fugue state in front of the magazine racks at St Pancras WH Smith and nearly didn't make it home at all. However, once the vomiting started we recalibrated our ambitious programme down to "try and stay alive and not get covered in sick" and applying those metrics, our weekend was highly successful.

High points according to children (not necessarily in order):

1. The crystal skull in the British Museum that features in their Enormous Book of Freaky Shit And Lies.

2. Throwing water bombs in Green Park with some very very very posh boys.

3. The bit - also in Green Park - when we saw an alabatross sized seagull creep up to a group of pigeons on tiptoes, and try and seize one and carry it away. The pigeon escaped, just, and the bloody-beaked alba-gull had to fall back on some pre-dismembered pigeon bits.

"I see the seagull" said Fingers walking back towards where I had more or less passed out on a bench "Wiz the pigeon 'ead".

"Lovely darling".

High points according to me:

1. Staying in the same hotel as Kim Kardashian, although we did not see her. I have decided this is because she is in fact invisible to the naked eye and can only be detected using a large lens. So, basically, I DID see Kim Kardashian. Probably. The entrance was constantly surrounded by misguided teenagers autograph hunters and grumpy men with long lenses and black anoraks. I had some difficulty explaining Kim Kardashian to the children, though "She's this really tiny lady who married an incredibly tall man" seemed to satisfy them.

2. Acquisition of Hilary Mantel, Dan Rhodes and two Peanut Butter Chunky KitKats. THE PBCKKs are still absurdly rare. I cannot decide if this Soviet style scarcity is imposed on Nestlé by some kind of anti-obesity Quango, or if they are managing supply in the manner of war profiteers. Either way, it is deplorable. Set the PBCKKs free!

3. Extended Nostalgia Tour, taking in Spitalfields (our old neighbour told me breezily I was looking a lot fatter than when I lived there, which whilst indisputable, was not massively welcome), Soho and Bloomsbury, saying things like 'this is where you learned to walk' and 'we used to come here every time it rained' and 'that is the sheep you used to be terrified of' (I am sure it was the same sheep, it was the same colour and had the same world weary look in its slotty eye). Avoided saying other things like 'I remember standing on this traffic island and crying so much an old lady had to help me cross the road when you were six weeks old'.

I think I have finally accepted we will probably never live in London again. My children are plainly not Londoners, they cling to me, fearful and awed in crowds, they stand on the wrong side of the escalator and dawdle into the path of buses. Frankly neither am I any more: I kept saying 'merci' when anyone held open a door for me (this was not helped by the truly vast numbers of French people in the city over the weekend, which confused my ailing brain still further) and even though I find my way around without conscious thought, know which buses go where, it's been too long for me really to claim it as mine any more. I'm not sure I can imagine living there again - which is not to say that I wouldn't want to, I would, absolutely, just.. how? When? With the largesse of which kindly billionaire benefactor? Hmm. I don't really know what to do with that thought, I just observe it to be the case. We are anglo-franco-belgo-confused. How modern.

Now we are back and Fingers has gone off for the week on a special Green Gulag somewhere in a field in the Ardennes. I am not sure what he is doing but it requires a ludicrous number of towels. Answers on a postcard. Lashes and I are trying to entice the rats to engage with us. The friendlier one deigns to accept the odd Cheerio. The unfriendly one sits in the middle of its tube where it is completely inaccessible and sulks. I think it ought to work with me a little more. I will take any rat training tips you have.

This is all I have, but at least I have displaced the cemetery. That might be my new expression for being shamed into updating your weblog after an unconscionably long time.

*More on my daily battle with Wronglish anon, when I, and my plugging force are stronger.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Mother's Day

York Cemetery in spring

(Mother's Day in Belgium. I did not get my promised "pony egg", but I have a thermometer, and Smurf box file decorated with farting dragons. Here's something vaguely relevant (from my Paris/cake project) about the weeks following my youngest son's birth.) 

It was a short labour in a quiet hospital and at seven in the evening, there he was, a boy. The baby my mother had been planning to buy clothes for on the day she died, angular and long fingered and entirely himself.

We look quite happy in the few pictures I have from the hospital, quite peaceful. We're huddled together, my body is distorted in a post-partum sag of exhaustion, but I am smiling and our scrunched red bundle is asleep in his father's arms in his hospital issue cap, peaky, shrewish nose to the fore. I had worried that giving birth, losing my  insulated status as incubator, might open the floodgates of grief, but holding him, very little seemed to have changed. I was both relieved, and slightly disappointed. People came to visit us, sent their congratulations with a sort of exaggerated jollity and relief, like we were the long-awaited redemptive twist in a dreadful story.

I don't remember much about those early weeks, but I know the sun shone, unexpectedly for March. I would walk around the Bloomsbury squares with the baby in his pram and look at the drifting cheery blossom and enjoy the faint blush of spring warmth on my back and feel, on occasion, surprisingly happy. I was astonished by how easily I loved him: he was beady and easily comforted, deliciously soft and velvety. When I fed him, I could feel, with a hand on his back, when he was reaching satiety, could feel the air bubbles that formed in his tiny digestive tract and needed to be massaged out. The outpouring of uncontainable, savage emotion I had expected seemed to have been - at least temporarily - supplanted by a quite simple contentment.

A few weeks later, days before we left for Paris,  I remember taking the train up to York with the baby sleeping on my chest, sparse downy hair wild with static. Leaving the station, it was cooler in York than it had been in London and the spring morning felt a harsher kind of proposition: brighter sunshine, bouncing cotton wool clouds with a grey edge, a chill in the air and just a hint of chip fat crossing Lendal Bridge over the River Ouse, swollen and grey, threatening to break out of its banks, yet again. The grass slopes under the city walls were vivid with daffodils, bobbing in the breeze, that perpetual signifier of a Yorkshire spring. Down Cemetery Road, in the meandering lanes of the cemetery where I had last been in October in a scuffing, persistent drizzle, spring had also arrived: the grass was long and the alleys full of tangled flowering briars.

There was no one around as we walked down a maze of overgrown paths, into a small clearing ringed by bent willows heavy with catkins, past uneven rows of lichen green headstones. I wasn’t quite sure I was in the right place, but yes, here it was: I recognised the neighboring tombs. We had chosen the plot because the two nearest graves were dashingly named First World War officer casualties. We thought she would have liked the idea of a perpetual escort of handsome young men in uniform. My mother’s grave was now a small hillock covered in short, springy heath grass, nothing like the narrow, astroturfed hole of the previous autumn, with the shockingly small coffin being lowered into it. I sat down on the grass next to the grave and unstrapped the baby, still dozing on my chest, lying him down next to me on my jacket. His eyes snapped open suspiciously and he began to kick and wriggle experimentally, deciding whether to cry.

“So here he is” I said to the hillock, feeling idiotic. “I brought him to see you”. I paused: there was nothing to hear but bird song. The cemetery was empty and so was I: I wasn’t at all sure what I was doing, wasn't sure that this lump of earth or my trip to see it had any kind of significance. My own grief still eluded me: it was not a thing I recognised as grief at all, this mixture of weariness and anxiety and outbreaks of quite mundane contentment. Even so, the trip had seemed like something that needed to be done before we left: it was the kind of thing, certainly, that she would have done, and that seemed like reason enough. I sat for a while longer.

It was sheltered in the clearing and the grass was warm and only slightly damp in the sun. The baby had not gone back to sleep, but was kicking his legs, decidedly, at high speed, his grey eyes wide open and focussed on something, or nothing, in the middle distance, beyond my mother’s grave. He was a funny little thing:  quite tightly coiled, alert, and yet also astonishingly cheerful most of the time. He really wasn't a difficult baby, but even so, I struggled to imagine what made him tick, what governed the Yorkshire spring rapid moods that shifted and animated his long limbs. Babies that new are so peculiar: unfathomable small mammals we love without understanding. It’s why seeing them emerge into people, with decided ideas and emotions, is such a strange, delightful, intermittently confounding process. My mother, I thought, would have enjoyed the puzzle of him. It seemed extraordinarily unfair that she couldn’t. I cried for a little while and it felt terrible and insufficient and good, all at once.

Then I picked the baby up and walked back through the lunchtime bustle of York town centre, weaving through tourist and shoppers, my feet taking their own route without conscious thought: Aldwark, the soaring white arches and flapping scaffolding covers of the Minster, King's Square, the compost smell and cobbles of the market. Finally, I stopped at Betty’s and bought myself three fondant fancies, two yellow and one pink.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Happy Schuman Day

Fuck, I forgot to wish you all a Happy Schuman Day yesterday (the EU celebrates Schuman Day rather than the 8th May VE day, so as not to ruffle any German feathers). Obviously, I could not, because I was shut up in my attic in silent contemplation of the joyous events of March 1957. Happy Belated Schuman day, then, readers. May all your mergers be passed without commitments under the simplified procedure, may all your regulations have direct effect, may all your legislation be adopted under the co-decision procedure and approved at first reading. May .. no, sorry. I've bored myself catatonic. How I managed to do this stuff for so many years is a perpetual mystery to me.

I am not sure how Schuman Day is really celebrated in the European Institutions since, as only a semi-Eurodrone initiate I was never allowed to witness its arcane mysteries. This means that I now nourish elaborate fantasies about 'Dress as your favourite Commissioner' competitions and party games based on spotting the difference between the various language versions of texts of Treaty articles. Maybe themed blue/star snacks. Actually, of course, nothing probably happens because it is a holiday. Ah, well.

Today I:

- only started crying at 11:45 when I had predicted 11:00, so a minor triumph, right there.

- went to review the wrong restaurant at lunchtime, which is excellent, because obviously I can afford to eat €30 of my own idiocy (bad, bad noodles).

- Got my jeans turned up in TWO HOURS. This is a revelation. I thought garment adjustments had to take ten days, by some sort law of the natural universe, or union imposed working conditions. I will be getting everything I own adjusted to test whether this was a one off.

- Ordered a plush Doraemon toy (no, me neither) for one of my children on the internet thanks to the beauty of European Union sanctioned free movement of goods even though neither of my children have got to grips with the concept of additional charges for postage and packing yet, and I am perpetually out of pocket acting as their agent.

Oh yes. It has been all go in Uccle this evening. I am sure Robert Schuman, resistance hero and founder of the European Union had exactly this kind of amazing development in commerce and consumer welfare in mind when he forged the essential architecture of the Treaty of Rome and post-war stability and so on. I am going to try and learn to play Ode to Joy on the youngest's 'Ukelele de Mer' now and dress as Siim Kallas, who I have now trained myself not to refer to as 'Slim Kallas' even though it is a way better name.

Do you have any obscure public holidays where you live that other unluckier nations do not get to celebrate? Please share with the rest of the group.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012


I always complain about Wednesdays, partly because I complain like I breathe, but partly because they are genuinely often a bit shit, what with the idiotic insistence of the Belgian education system on releasing children into the wild at lunchtime, whereupon you are supposed to drive them around to Improving Activities, or die of guilt and condemn your children to a life of echec scolaire and delinquency and NO possibility of ever wearing tweed, or a sweater casually tied around their necks, or driving an Audi or having a chocolate brown labrador or working for the European institutions, ever.

Today wasn't awful, but it was terribly, terribly damp and unproductive. Viz:

Wake with head like a pumpkin that a careless horse has stamped on (continued, mutating summer cold). Bad tempered early-morning rush to cash machine with dog to feed last minute demands from insatiable gulag maw. €28 'end of year outing', €4 'bricolages'. Dog insists on stopping to lick, pervily, insistently, mortifyingly, at every patch of canine urine between house and cash machine. On return, household stand off about whose turn it is to fetch milk. Conclusion: not mine.


1000 words on Paris/cake as last ditch attempt to emerge from past week (ha, week? Month! YEAR) of deep career despair. Confidence currently teetering around 'maybe I could still get a job in a really crap law firm that hasn't discovered the internet yet?', and answering my own question in the negative. Many words added simply to pad self-imposed word count. Deletion tomorrow almost certain.


Tram. TICKET CHECK. Second in a month, which is unheard of. I went through all of 2010 and 2011 without a single check. What gives, Brussels, what is with this unprecedented erosion of the Belgian public transport 'honour' (ahem) system?


Tram into town to a presentation I am in two minds about going to. The anti-social mind is proved right this time (unusually. If it were proved right often, I would never go anywhere). Hailed suspiciously in doorway and quizzed on credentials as if likely to try and steal everything and stuff in handbag. Stand around like spare part for ten minutes, leave.

Rain. Like this hoarding, on way to buy a sandwich.

Buy a sandwich. See Greenwich has reopened! Whoop! Hide from rain in Greenwich for ten minutes. Bliss. Take inexplicably wonky photographs of same.


Tram. The busker with the half-trumpet, half-violin is on board. This is rarely a good omen. Back home. Have lunch of stale lemon drizzle cake. Change shoes. Pick up Fingers and take him to parental-guilt-appeasing art class (re-tram). Attempt to leave art class, however:


Wait for slight easing of tempest. Get soaked, nevertheless, since brain now calibrates non-tempest levels of rain at 'dry'.

Go to Commune to resolve administrative snarl-up. Take a ticket. Queue up for 20 minutes. Get told I have the wrong type of ticket. Take another ticket. Queue up for another 20 minutes. Get told I do not have the necessary access code to do what I am supposed to. Pay €5 to obtain new access codes (available in 'not under 12 days'). Leave Commune thwarted, if entirely unsurprised.

RE-TEMPEST. Get wet again. Regret changing into cream shoes. Remember that weather last Wednesday was identical.

Go home. Inject Lemsip into eyeballs.

Test Lashes on endless epic poem about a flea and a piano until we are both bleeding from the ears (basic story: flea sits on piano, stings pianist, thus inventing jazz, but stretched over 40 odd lines). This is the longest Gulag Epic Poem yet, I confidently predict that by the time he leaves, we will be forced to memorise the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, or obscure franco-belge equivalent.

(Note excellent mark)

Learn how to say 'My younger brother Hugo is still at university, studying' in Dutch. Which is useful. Collect Fingers. Test Fingers on the life cycle of the butterfly.

Wrangle wrats, sorry, rats. God, the rats. Rat training is a slow business. We are sticking to a strict programme of gradual socialisation, which involves sitting in the bathroom holding out treats as the rats wander around trying to stay as far away from us as possible. There is some progress with The Fat White One, but precious little with The Sly Grey One Who Hates Us (they still don't have names). The SGOWHU escaped yesterday and made a nest in a drawer, where he shredded his way efficiently through several Nerf darts and crapped pretty much everywhere. It took me twenty minutes to catch the little bastard and I was nearly in tears by the end of it. I can't say I'm warming to him. Yet.


Make dinner. Listen to poem again. Deal with unfortunate kicking in nose incident. Read story. Listen to poem for final time. Speculate how much useful brain space for 'knowing where codes for the Commune are' is now taken up with gulag poetry. Fail to reach clear conclusion due to flea/butterfly/Hugo/piano confusion in Lemsip addled brain. Deal with unfortunate kicking over of board game incident. Send everyone to bed.

I will be tiptoeing round the rest of Wednesday in a conciliatory fashion, maybe offering it a rat sacrifice or two.

How was yours?

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Despatches from the foothills of the EU Fail Mountain

So I didn't win an award, but thank you so much for wrestling with the demented voting system on my behalf, I am really very grateful, truly. You are very, very kind and patient. I give you an award as nicest blog readers with a high tolerance of ornothological and equine trivia and complaining. Your prize is a further helping of mithering.

I wish I could be standing in front of you delirious with triumph and waving a small perspex cube, but instead I slapped several inches of concealer on my gigantic red nose of pestilence, went to an industrial estate on the fringes of Brussels and stood in a corner feeling like a decrepit, socially inept idiot in a room full of 23 year old bloggers, all for naught. Failure is supposed to be good for you, apparently, and a force for creativity, which is excellent news since I seem to have a dramatic surplus of it at the moment. I am the guardian of the EU failure mountain; its sherpa, if you will. I could pretend I don't care, but it would be a big fat lie. I was hoping for a shred of shiny win in this cold, wet spring of bleurgh and quasi-bankruptcy and now I am going to have to find it somewhere else, possibly in this family sized lemon drizzle cake by my elbow, or in a puffin cam set to a soundtrack of, I think, Radio Shetland. I just turned it on and they were saying:

"And we have trees. Which we are massively proud of".

"Yes, because Shetland has very few trees".

The last time I listened it was wall to wall Scottish country dancing music. Amazing.

Anyway, I am massively bored of the contents of my own head (sinus gunk, self-flagellation, distraction, sulking, whyyyyyyyyy) and I should just be grateful I don't work in a Nigerian sawmill, so let's talk about something else shall we? Ideally something funny.

Here are a few things that have cheered me today:

Marc Jacobs' Met Ball outfit. Brilliant. I can't begin to imagine the thought process. 'I just didn't wanna wear a tuxedo and be boring', he's quoted as saying, which is an entirely admirable sentiment and I do not think anyone could argue that he has absolutely achieved his stated aim.

Katyboo's description of an awful avant-garde play she recently endured. "Everyone got undressed to the sound of random break beats operated by a guy with a Mac squatting at the back of the stage ... finally scrotum boar head got dressed".

Calming Manatees.

Some incredibly stupid conversations with M, including one where we tried to form a hip hop duo, Phoolish and Fukkedoff and another where she tried to get me to use the phrase 'goat nads' as a motivational mantra and a third where we explored the possibility of writing a frightening French children's book about Satan's death (which continues to haunt my dreams), in the manner of these, collated by Jenny Colgan. Provisional title 'La Dernière Carotte'.

"You should write it. I will illustrate. It will be about the inevitability of death. And carrots. 32 pages. GO ON".

"NO. This is not a good use of my time".

"I beg to differ".

A trip to the Van Buren museum to see some sculpture. Ok, that one isn't even slightly funny, but the Van Buren museum was deliciously soothing. It is a perfectly preserved art deco villa, with stained glass windows and hand stitched soft furnishings, and it smells of the dust of ages and furniture polish and bourgeois comfort.

I took some fairly awful pictures. If you live in Brussels and you haven't been, you really should. It is far better than any picture of mine could convey.

Iffy photo of the interior, but gives an idea of the soft, dark patina of the place:

Detail of the curtains, apparently hand restored by a single craftswoman somewhere in the depths of Flanders:

Parts of the exhibition, ineptly photographed:

(It was pissing down which did not help in the slightest, but look how amazing the gardens are, in the middle of Brussels!)

Tomorrow Man's buttocks:

There is a lovely video of Tomorrow Man's twin, who lives on the sea front at Knokke, on the artist, Catherine François's website, here, below a great video of the installation of this exhibition, which gives you a slightly clearer look at the gardens.

This article about doing whatever the Internet tells you to for a day also amused me. If I did that today, I would:

- Stay in a teepee in Limburg

- Listen to someone called Brad Oberhofer (no, nor me)

- Watch a film on "le mystère musicale coréen"

- Go hiking in Norway

- Buy some chickens and Clarks Women's Flats.

You know, I am not even sure the Internet is wrong.

What does the internet want YOU to do today?

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Cookery class

So, we went to a cookery class this morning and my defining emotion about the whole business was a sort of gradually dawning realisation that I really wished I hadn't drunk so much wine the night before.

However, it was moderately fun, in as much as my eyeballs and temples were in any state to have 'fun' and very relaxed. We made:

Tomato and mozzarella tarte tatins

Children's verdict: ok if you remove the tomatoes and the mozarella and just eat the denuded circle of puff pastry.

My verdict: Nice. But remind me, why are we having our lunch at eleven fifteen? This is just like when I used to work in that school for delinquents in Normandy and we had to go to the canteen before the children, at half eleven, every day.  Stew and tongue and mashed potato, mid morning. What's that? I can have wine if I like? I am miraculously reconciled to this.

Smoked salmon, courgette and goat's cheese clafoutis

Children's verdict: An emphatic no.

My verdict: Also a no: too many ingredients, spookily bland. Making my gut contract as if in thrall to one of those 1990s Slendertone belts. Eggs: the kill or cure of hungover stomachs.

Meatballs with carrot and spring onion

Children's verdict: 'Trop bon'.

My verdict: Perfectly pleasant, but you know what would go really well with this? Nurofen.

Strawberry tiramisu. 

Children's verdict: L rolled around in ecstasy and begged for spares, Fingers just sort of looked at it with blank disappointment.

My verdict: I would actually like to make this myself. Actually, I could imagine that it might be quite nice to rest my forehead in a cool vat of it.

Raspberry clafoutis

The verdict: None of us have actually eaten this, because humanity can only stand so much egg based nourishment, but our houseguests said it was very nice.

I cannot pretend I learned many culinary skillz, because: oh hai, ready made supermarket puff pastry in a roll, I believe we've met, pretty much weekly, when I use you to wrap Herta Horses Hooves Frankenfurters and call them 'sausage rolls' while all of the North of England writhes in visceral disapproval. However since we were on meatball duty the children were allowed to take on tasks involving sharp knives AND heat, so I think they can now be declared fit and proper persons to prepare me a plate of tea and toast. Which is achievement enough for a Saturday morning.

Later, I must tell you about the climax of our 'Come Dine With Me' week, but if I try and describe any more food right now something terrible will happen and if I try and look at the necessary illustrative photos, something even more terrible will happen. 

Friday, 4 May 2012

Brasseries Georges

I'm a bit hopeless this week.  Actually, scratch that, I'm completely hopeless. I calculated that I've earned the grand total of €50 and I've spent more than that on butter alone, I reckon. Lashes' birthday involved a vein of deep and unexpected melancholy (ten years! It's been such a turbulent decade, and last night it made me very sad to think about my mum not being around for nine of those years to see how that furiously determined baby she adored turned out), industrial quantities of buttercream and some slightly fraught rat training. He has acquired two, a grey one and a piebald one. So far they are called 'Shit, grab him, he's getting behind the radiator' and 'Where's the other one gone?' They are not exactly pro-human yet. They are very good at shitting and escape, but thankfully quite puny at biting.

I also have a revolting summer cold that has reduced my brain to a sort of angry, self-pitying porridge and then Satan died today, which, if not unexpected (he was ancient), was rather sad. Brilliant, mean, enormous, fearless Satan. I miss him already. I keep glancing out in the back garden and expecting to see his vast dark shadow loom against the back door, blocking out the light and bashing on the glass with his giant greying paws and threatening all perennials within a five mile radius. I was glad to note this afternoon that he completely finished off the hostas and the Solomon's seal before dying. You go, old lad.

(I did laugh, however, when B asked me whether I had considered facial moulding of the departed, and opined that taxidermy, although superficially tempting, might have been a difficult task in view of Satan's vast bulk)

So, for comfort and solace and to take my mind off everything, we went to Brasseries Georges for lunch. Brasseries Georges is one of my Brussels happy places. There was a terrible rumour that its lease had expired and it might shut, but thankfully it seems to have come to nothing. It's the kind of place you can't imagine ever closing down, or changing. I hope to still be going there when I'm a hundred.

Which is about the average age of customers, coincidentally.

At Christmas and New Year, they set up a sort of satellite tent for selling industrial quantities of plateaux de fruits de mer outside. I have never bought one, mainly because I tend to spend Christmas in a state of borderline mental collapse, or with vegetarians. One day.

Lots of solo diners at Brasseries Georges, some with dogs. Lots of tweed. Lots of sweaters worn around shoulders. Lots of small pill boxes on the table, and carefully set, fluffy white hair. Lots of sedately delivered gossip.

I love how all the pictures come out sort of sepia. Brasseries Georges is sepia. It bathes you in a soft, golden, forgiving light that smells of riesling and excellent frites and possibly some light adultery and definitely some heavy tax evasion. It smells of Belgium, basically.

I had ultra rare araignée (the cut of meat rather than an actual spider) and chips and a glass of wine. And when we got back I was ready to remember how it's all ok, really, and how nice our enormous child is.

Happy birthday, enormous boy.


Thursday, 3 May 2012

A Year in Texts from Prog Rock

Whenever I feel homesick for York, and childhood, and for the person I used to be and the life I lived there, I read my stepfather's texts for comfort. This is the last year's worth.

'Mulberry House kitchen sale have a thirty percent sale. Anything you looking for?'

'Lovely leaf shears, shall use incessantly. Say goodbye to brown lettuce woe. xx'

'In pub in Pock. Leeds score v Man Utd! xxx'

'Still much snow lying? Smooth soled shoes or walking boots? xx'

In Betty's - but where are you?'

'Pouring down in Cologne too'.

'Set off in 15 minutes. Dog got a decent walk. xx'

'Bootham reunion 14-16 May. Rush you details? x'

'Chocolate! And so many moustaches! Thank you xx'

'In passing: curtain rings on top hall landing'

'Might buy Officium by the Hillyard Ensemble for O birthday. Or did I already buy it for you?'

'Saw C. Moore in town, he asked kindly after you. A stoop to his spine, it's true'.

'17.33 into midi'.

'You know there's ten minutes of Noggin the Nog on BBC2 tonight?'

'Have kids got the DK picture dictionary? If not, might buy for one or another'.

'Not even Chaos Theory will help you. Ok.'

'Gary Speed died today, aff.. The football radio professionals now are being unprofessional, being human in the face of death. xx'

'Nice nice to see you. Soon maybe. xx'

'Bought two Advent calendars. Shall I send?'

'Delighting in the word 'sottisier' in a polemic piece in the LRB. Does it exist in your actual French?'

'Actual rubric was less explicit, just 'edible', leaving reader to interrogate its silences. This read aloud would be unequivocal. xx'

'A book buying fit so 70s cartoon book to your house. Yours if wished, I'll see it there. Maybe stuff to your taste later'.

'Bought not yet read Nathan Englander and now reading seriously bad review. Bugger. Don't want to read it now. You like it? xxx'

'York Football Stadium Mystery - will not spoil this placard by finding out the story. x' 

'Giant from Sumatra .. Argh'. 

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Cake, Pt 7465

I have made a fairly dreadful - and faintly alarming - cake. There were no giant jelly snakes in Belgium (perhaps St Gudule drove them out), so I couldn't do the "Snakes on a Cake" theme requested. Instead I had to make do with: 2 jelly caterpillars, 4 jelly rats and 3 jelly frogs. I'm calling it "Sewer".

The rats are sitting on brownie .. what? Silt? Let's not make it any worse than it has to be, eh.

(On some previous display of cake crime on these pages someone commented on the incongruous doily use so I feel it incumbent upon me to explain that this is actually a melanine doily, and part of the plate).

I haven't put the requested strawberries on the top yet, nor indeed, do I have the faintest idea WHERE to put them. A problem for tomorrow, that one. I have also made thirty fairly shoddy fairy cakes for school. Fingers sidled in and stared at them half an hour ago and said, disapprovingly

"Mais, tu sais étaler mieux que ça".

(you can ice better than that)

I sent him to bed.

This is all I have tonight. I am empty of everything but buttercream. I have been poured on, got stuck in the Colruyt doorway with three very garulous elderly ladies, had an extremely detailed and naturalistic dream about 'my' agent (we have not actually spoken for nearly a year, since I am too ashamed of the state of my non-novel and she is busy with actual clients who actually write books) telling me that my non-fiction project idea was shit, and earned about fourteen pence writing about hotels. The television is offering me the French presidential candidates debate or 'Blood Diamond'. I am very ready for a day of rat wrangling and having a TEN YEAR OLD, holy mother of Pokemon.

How was your Wednesday?

Tuesday, 1 May 2012


I was going to do some economical post with a nice picture of some sweet peas today, since my brain is a dark, soup of despair today with various half-eaten dead things poking out of it (this also sounds like much of my culinary repertoire), but of course iPhoto is choosing not to comply, so you're going to have to make do with the shit, uncropped version and some bleak ravings. Them's the breaks, internet. Your flowers are uncropped today and there may be some light whining. Lodge a complaint with the weblog ombudsman, perhaps.

See? It is not the same. Anyway, these poorly framed sweet peas are from the lovely Sunday flower stall at the Sablon, which always has the most beautiful things, for the kind of life I do not actually lead. There were vast branches of lilac and forget me nots and green and white, crinkly parrot tulips and all sorts this week. When I am rich (so: never) I will go every Sunday and buy vast armfuls, then sit on the terrasse at the Vieux Saint Martin drinking €5 cappucinos and smoking sobranies, whilst my - new model, vastly obedient, brindled and beautiful - whippet dozes at my feet, occasionally accepting a crumb of palmier biscuit.

As it was, I put my nose in the sweet peas all the way to my friend's flat, when I forced myself to hand them over, with some difficulty (I was offered an obese mouse in return but declined). I first went to this stall about 12 years ago on one of my previous episodes of living in Brussels and it seems hardly to have changed at all since, which is both greatly comforting and no surprise whatsoever, knowing Belgium. I remember when we moved here I went on a wander round the neighbourhood and washed up in a pretty square with a nice sit in bakery which I gradually realised I had been to once before many, many, many years before during a bizarre internship in a cupboard, when someone sent me to the Ukrainian embassy to collect a visa. It had not changed a shred, except I was less lost and did not have to take six buses back to my cupboard where I was working on various things to do with firearms lobbying and gas pipelines I did not understand for approximately no money. Ah, happy days.

Welcome, then, May, with your wildcat public holidays commemorating things I cannot possibly be expected to remember, many of which may be religious. Today is the only one I was remotely sure about, but wishing my friend F a happy fête du travail today, she told me that in America this happens in September. How can this possibly be? How will international communism EVER succeed without a single day for singing l'Internationale and waving flags and making cakes in the shape of Trotsky? There are no lily of the valley in this house this year either, as Satan ate them down to their roots several months ago. The mid-week holiday has had its usual effect of making today feel like Sunday which would go some way to explaining the fetid brain soup if it hadn't been even worse the previous day. It is probably at least partially  'why am I no longer in a boutique hotel on the Côte d'Azur' related, so I should probably give myself a swift kick, followed by a throat punch.

Some cheery things:

1. My sister came to visit, which is always a bit like having some kind of shy, beautiful woodland creature in the house, one that sheds clothing and papers and nail varnish everywhere. And makes cups of tea and walks the dog. It was lovely to see her and not just because she walks the dog, honestly. I miss her when she goes. She reminds me who I am, on some level, some of the parts of myself I tend to forget. Jesus, that's a bit deep. Moving on!

2. Tomorrow, I think the whole of the neighbourhood's lilac will burst into flower and it will be the start of that magical week where the quartier smells of lilac instead of cooking oil from the Henri IV Deep Fried Meat Restaurant of Torment, dog shit and Jupiler beer. (What the fuck is this post? Gardener's World Goes Emo? I do apologise, it won't happen again)

3.  We are doing a cookery class at the weekend! It's here, at this place what I wrote about for the Yurostar which I totally love because of their lovely plates and 'eat as much as you want buffet' attitude to catering. It is quite dear, and I fear great humiliation as the children reveal to the nice ladies that everything I cook features either lardons marinaded in carcinogenic sulphides or breadcrumbs, but it must be done. We are doing a sort of 'Come Dine With Me' activity at home this week (more on this at a later stage it has been a spooling loop of hilarity since we came up with the TERRIBLE idea), and one person who will remain nameless has proffered a meal of oven chips, Hula Hoops and cucumber slices. The culinary ante must be upped, somehow. Trish was also teaching me how to cook, until I did something terrible to some pork with miso and had to stop in shame. I will get there, somehow.

4. Only 4 more days of blanket French presidential election coverage to endure. I have read a lot of dreadful but compelling detective fiction (the current one involves DEATH BY SNAKE and is amusing me no end) and had lots of baths, to avoid knowing any more about it. I don't think this counts as self-improvement, quite, but it's definitely self-preservation.

5. The fact that I wrote an article about a small Belgian town has made the news in the local paper of said small Belgian town, which tickled me no end. Now I have written about being written about writing about something, I have surely fallen into a bottomless pit of self-referential, circular nonsense from which there is no escape. This is a definite career high, possibly outdoing the time that I delayed an important merger filing by calculating the exchange rates backwards.

6. I thought I could manage six, but I'm going to let myself off enforced jollity and go and read about someone else being killed by a snake.

What's cheering you today, if anything? Or what kind of animal would you use as a fictional murder weapon?