Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Back in jug agane

Over a hundred books moved to create an rat-proof barrier.

Two and a half hours sitting motionless in the (empty) bath in the dark.

A small saucer of yoghurt.

A three person pincer movement.

Some frantic, Matrix style leaping.

A few aggrieved squeaks.

A second escape inches from the cage.

And finally, FINALLY, that is defeat you read in those beady eyes. Not permanently, I fear, and not without a hell of a fight. I had to transport him back to Lashes' bedroom in a plastic box with a towel over the top and he still kept launching his determined little body at me, trying to find an exit. He has tasted freedom. He will not renounce it easily.

We have gone to London and left him and his co-conspirator to think about their behaviour.

Now my Samurai mission is over, I have been able to sleep for more than four consecutive hours and just conceivably, I may be able to move on to non-rat based topics. I imagine we all hope for that.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The High Point...

... Of last night's 50% successful rat hunt was when, around midnight, I went to plug my computer in a matter of some three metres from the remaining rat's bathroom hang out. You will recall that my eldest son's two rats have taken up residence in the inacessible exterior casing of the bath. I had managed to catch the first rat, Peanut, fairly easily, with a little yoghurt and stealth and near-unhinged desperation. The second, Houdini, is both more intelligent and more UNBELIEVABLY MADDENING. By this time I had already spent several hours sitting on the floor with one finger tipped in raspberry Petit Filous tube in a vain attempt to lure him out, trying to write about Liège nightclubs with the other hand, without success.

I plugged the computer in. I sat on the bed for a few weary seconds and stared into space, debating my ill-advised life choices until I was raised from my reverie by a strange, dragging sound from the bathroom. Very slowly, very carefully, I got up from the bed and tiptoed over to the bathroom doorway. In the darkness, something was indeed moving. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I saw that the rat was in the process of dragging the raspberry Petit Filous tube I had left on the floor over to its bath hideout. The tube was about as long as the rat but it was making brisk, determined progress. I stepped gingerly forward, hoping to head it off before it disappeared. A floorboard creaked underfoot, giving me away. The rat turned, and stared at me with impassive, beady, 'fuck you' eyes. Then it continued on its way, Petit Filous tube trailing in its wake. It scrambled neatly up into the bath with its cargo and disappeared. Silence. I waited for another hour, lying on the bathroom floor, but it did not emerge again. Eventually, at half one, I gave up for the night.

I am sure that was not laughter I heard a few minutes later. It was probably the sound of all the brain cells in my head popping like soap bubbles.

I have a new plan for tonight. It cannot fail. By which I mean, it cannot fail or else I will be sectioned.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Amuse your children, the gallo-roman and sawdust way

So on Saturday we went to Liège, home of the people who bury ham bones whilst waving sticks of celery at them. It was 35°C. I made the children visit some very extensive gallo-roman religious remains, which they enjoyed enormously as you can imagine (actually, that is unfair, they were very game, considering it was basically a dark corridor with some old dusty bricks in). We also saw the world's largest post-it picture, which I cannot pretend has left an indelible impression. It was some bikes, I think.

I took only 3 photographs: one of a café liegeois:

(It was very good indeed. Franchi's gelateria opened in 1890, fact fans, and even though they have been going twice as long as my local, Zizi, the staff aren't nearly as hatchet faced and world-weary)

one of the eldest with his hand on Georges Simenon's thigh (he asked me to take this):

 and one of some people queueing to buy ham:

(No, no idea. It made perfect sense at the time)

 I think the heat got to me. This is going to be the best city guide ever, ahem.

Then yesterday was doomily predicted to be the second hottest day on record in Brussels (I believe the hottest was the day we moved in in 2006, which was a delight) so we barely moved at all. We cancelled tentative plans to go to the open air swimming pool which is patrolled by a man in jack boots with an Alsatian and instead took the dog to Belga and made him wear a silly hat:

(Sensitive Skin)

For the remainder of the day the children mainly amused themselves inflating, then sitting on water balloons. It was nicely peaceful, if messy. This is the kind of thing children are supposed to do, isn't it? Mine tend to want to stay very, very close to me at the moment, clawing with their sweaty, gnarled fingerclaws and asking whimsical questions about death and echidnas. Yes, I know I will miss this dreadfully in a few years, but well, you know.

Anyway, I am now paying for this brief interlude of peace, big time. After very limited sleep due to furious, hotness-induced wee-small-hours angsting, I have been trying to finish two pieces of work which are due today, whilst optimistically hoping that the children might see fit to "amuse themselves". They must have been out of water balloons, because their amusement has consisted of filling seven cardboard boxes with a mixture of ripped tissues and sawdust, the spreading the contents across the bathroom and letting the rats loose.

The rats promptly found a tiny gap in the exterior cladding of the bath and ensconced themselves in there. There they remain. There has been weeping (Lashes'). There has been swearing (mine). There has been taunting (the rats) and stupidity (also the rats). There have been death threats (mine again). There is no scope to even put into action the Chief Scientific Advisor's hamster catching technique perfected in my childhood, as it requires the ability to dig a hole in the floor. As I write, I am about to go and take up my nighttime vigil in the bathroom, guide to Liège half-written and wholly incoherent, Petit Filous Tube in hand to try and coax them out, and rodenticide in my heart. Of such things are the school holidays made.

Here is Fingers drinking out of a hip-flask belonging to my father in the park, presumably in training for his future as a hobo. We blame the parents.

How would you amuse these children tomorrow? Or alternatively, how would you remove two semi-feral, delinquent teenage rats from a hole in the plumbing?

Friday, 17 August 2012

What I read on my holidays

Well, I am finding this brief foray into factual 'lifestyle blogging' (cough) marvellously refreshing. You just witter on about nice stuff, with no self-evisceration or paralysing fear of internet opprobrium. Of course, no one in the world will want to read it. NEVERMIND. Onwards!

(I don't know where this newfound enthusiasm is coming from, and suspect it is related to lack of progress in other areas, but let's not scrutinise it too closely)

 Some Books I Have Read This Summer:

Emile Zola - La Bête Humaine

Ah, Zola. Who would want to be a character in a Zola book? The likelihood of ending up horribly dead/maimed or otherwise ruined is even higher than in Scandinavian crime drama, or in the village of Midsomer and there is no prospect of escape or redemption, because Zola, like Lady Gaga, or Jean Calvin, believes you are Born This Way.

In La Bête Humaine (spoiler alert) there is: endless domestic violence, stabbing, graphic train crashes, people throwing themselves under trains and falling to their death whilst fighting on a train, which then runs away, out of control, across the countryside to Certain Disaster. The moral of the story is, surely: do not take trains. It is all a metaphor for the Second Empire though, so that's ok. I actually really love La Bête Humaine, partly because at both ends of the train track it follows, it's set around places I know, partly because it feels really modern with all the death 'n' shagging and also because it has some great suspense filled passages about guilt and the impulse to confess and your fate being in someone else's hands. There's a really brilliant bit in a tiny flat near St Lazare in the depths of winter where the fire burns down and dawn starts to break as one character confesses something to another who is entertaining uncontrollable thoughts of slitting her throat, which still kept me slightly breathless on this reading, even though I know how it ends. Also: let us not ignore the faint, smug holiday superiority that comes with rereading a 'classic'. LOOK AT ME, BEACH PEOPLE. NO TASTELESS DREARO-PORN FOR ME, OH NO, BRAINS I HAZ EM.

Leanne Shapston - Swimming Studies

I am a bit worried that this one will turn out to be the kind of thing I  inadvertently soak up like a sponge and reproduce in style, if not content, in everything I write in the next few weeks. Lists. Lots of slightly edgy, present tense descriptions. Elegant, careful descriptions of very prosaic things. Apart from that wholly narcissistic concern, it's great: Shapston writes about her relationship with swimming, from her teenage years as an Olympic hopeful and professional, to the present day, and whether and how it's possible to build a different relationship with water and swimming, away from the imperatives of faster, better, stronger. She is a really very good writer and even though it is quite a slight subject, it's beautifully described. I read it and thought 'fuck, this is a bit like how I inchoately hoped my cake book would be, but really, really isn't'. Yes, it's all about me. It is a very beautiful object, this book, too because Shapston became an artist and illustrator (yes, she is annoyingly multi-talented) and there are lots of her painting in it, as well as things like photographs of many of the swimming costumes she has worn in her life, which is odd, but rather fascinating.

Chris Cleave - Gold

Oh look, two books about 'sport' (ish), how almost topical. This is absolutely the book to read if you are missing the Olympics, because it is about, well, the Olympics. And cycling. And rivalry and the pressures of professional sport and also about having a sick child. It is quite gripping, and I defy you not to be imagining Victoria Pendleton and Anna Meares in the main roles. It is not as breathtakingly, must-keep-reading, as Cleave's last two, I thought, but he always tells a great story in a hugely engaging way.

If Wishes Were Horses - Susannah Forrest

You won't, I think, enjoy this if you aren't (or weren't at some point) into things equine, but if you are, it's really rather great: a scholarly, but also personal, look at why girls and women are so drawn to horses, stuffed with history and field trips and reminiscences. I especially liked the description of looking out of car windows at fields and imagining you were on the back of a horse, galloping across them, jumping each hedge as it rushes past, because of course I did that when I was little and still occasionally do, if someone else is driving. I didn't realise how universal it was until I read this book. There was a really interesting bit about fear and danger too, and - like the Shapston - it's really good on that theme of drifting away from something, giving up, letting go, but still having unfinished business with it. We could almost count that as three sports books. It is a veritable literary Olympiad. Quick, let's have some food, with: 

Ian Kelly - Antonin Carême, the First Celebrity Chef

This was for research purposes, because Carême is the godfather of fancy, vertiginously piled French patisserie. I estimate that two thirds of the books is composed of lists of foodstuffs and menus. They are great foodstuffs though and they make your lunch of pitta bread and turkey look a bit flaccid and lacking in ambition. 'Where' I find myself thinking as I stare balefully at yet another tin of tuna 'Is my LIFESIZED VENETIAN GONDOLA CAKE? WHERE IS MY SWAN FRITTER?' I am not sure I learned much about Carême as a person, and it rushes pretty much straight into the bit where he's already famous when I wanted to know more about how he got there, but I suppose you can't do much if you just don't have the material, which I think must have been the case.

Laura Lippman - The Innocents

I used to read all Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan books, because (i) I love a half-decent detective series with characters you can care about (ii) Especially if the detective talks about food a lot; and (iii) There is a nice strong sense of place (Baltimore here), cf Donna Leon, Camilleri, Dibdin (why are they all Italian?). If you can recommend any more of these, I am highly in favour. Incidentally, I have long been convinced that there would totally be scope for creating a lovely new Brussels one, some kind of nice-though-troubled Américain and Half and Half loving, grizzled old detective, bringing bent Eurocrats and dodgy Molenbeek drug kingpins to justice, whilst regularly stopping to eat good meals and drink good beer and have a shitty private life. I cannot do important things like: plot, so I don't think I can do it, but I wish someone would.

Anyway, I had sort of forgotten about Lippman for a few years, then I read an article about her and how she's married to Him What Made The Wire and went and found a new one. It is not a Tess Monaghan story, it is one of those stories about kids who did something awful when they were little. Or didn't. But might have. And how it turns out afterwards. There are a lot of those around, aren't there? See also: The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood which was heavily recommended by lots of people earlier this year and is indeed very gripping on a similar subject.

I actually think this is better than the Tess Monaghan books (in fact, TM has a tiny cameo near the end): it's full of carefully drawn, compelling characters and the grisly incident at the heart of the story is kept really nicely elusive, shifting, with a sort of weird, undefined second person narrator in some sections so you don't quite know who is telling the story and whether you can trust it. It is distinctly lacking in feel-good, however, and packed with rather sad, lost people.

It also reminded me of:

Gillian Flynn - Sharp Objects

Flynn's Gone Girl is another one of those Books of the Summer that everyone has recommended, and I did really enjoy it: it's an ingenious, twisty, noir thriller, no question. I read this one afterwards, in my enthusiasm and it's another - very - dark story about a girl going back home to a small town and re-engaging with nasty stuff from the past, like the Lippman. It gets a bit baroquely loony towards the end and the younger sister character is batshit implausible, but not enough to stop it being highly entertaining.

There have been others. I have forgotten them or they were so pulpy I am pretending to have forgotten them. What has been your best book of the summer so far?

(Incidentally, I find Alex Heminsley's Pinterest board an excellent - if ruinous - place for new book recommendations)

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Matthew the Bone-us post

Today was a day of travel guide writing. These days usually make me irritable and headachy and never want to leave the house again. It's one of those jobs that is much easier if you are methodical and structured and keep good notes of what you've done in the past and what might be useful in the future. My current reference document looks like this:

At least I have one, I suppose.

One of the tasks involved is choosing 4 areas of Brussels and selecting shops/hotels/restaurants/cultural stuff/nightclubs (yes, this is my favourite) in each. I realise it is hardly a Nigerian sawmill type of task in hardship terms, but it does have its challenges. Today, for instance, I chose to write about one area, did lots of research and writing about it, then stalled because the only shops I could find in the whole postcode were Lidl and Speedy Pneus. I lost some time idly composing travelguidespeak recommendations for them.

"With its unapologetically bright frontage, Forest Pneus draws the rubber enthusiast in off the street. Inside, there's a vast range of artisan moulded tyres at surprisingly affordable prices, and warm, personal service from knowledgeable staff".

"Gourmet hangout Lidl has bright aisles of covetable foodie treats, from horse mince to Czech yoghurt".

Then I wanted to punch myself in the face. This kind of thing happens a lot. I also got rather too involved in checking upcoming gig listings at Forest National. October brings the twin joys of Katie Melua and Nicky Minaj, whilst November  promises an audacious mix of Johnny Hallyday and the Worldwide Wrestling Federation Smackdown. If only they were on together, I could get behind that combo.


I can do no better, I think, today, than to translate to you from Wikipedia what is going on in Liège this week, Liège being the other guide subject on my list currently (I have not actually been there, well I might have been once years ago, but I forget. I am going this weekend, and now that I know the kind of thing that awaits me, I will board the train with considerable trepidation):

"The burial of Mati l'Ohé (Mathieu the bone in Walloon) is a burlesque ceremony which brings to a close the 15th August festivities in Liège ... Mathieu the Bone is a ham bone, as his .. name suggests. The ceremony is accompanied by the lamentations of numerous female mourners, who wave sticks of celery in the place of bouquets ... Guy Reynaerts has been the official carrier of Mathieu the Bone since 1981".

You can watch a video of it here, if your mental fortitude is the face of Belgian folklore is particularly robust.


Yesterday - stupid, boiling hot, itchy, midweek European public holiday when I had UK deadlines - was greatly redeemed by discovering a cake shop I did not know existed, and which was - gasp - open. I can't pretend it's new, because apparently it's been open 7 months, but yay. WELCOME, Nicolas.

(Hmm, now I wish I had had the foresight to do this in the manner of a dweeby fanboy unboxing video, but I was too busy filling my face with cake)

God knows, we need you, cake guy. There are very few good bakeries in Brussels. I am sorry Brussels, but you know what I say is true. There is the Saint Aulaye (run by French people). There is Charli (run by a French person). There is Fabrice Collignon, who I believe may actually even be Belgian. There is Wittamer, I suppose, but who wants to pay eleventy thousand euros for a microscopic mousse even if it is by royal appointment*?

(Gloriously, whilst trying to link to Wittamer, I discovered they did an Olympic range of cakes. AMAZING. I especially like the lightning bolt "Eclair Olympique". I am sure Monsieur Bolt eats a heap of passionfruit pastry)

Ditto, Pierre Marcolini. You are truly excellent at chocolate, M. Marcolini, and also slightly frightening so I do not want to get on the wrong side of you, and your vanilla eclairs are ze bombe. However. You are only one man, swimming against a tide of stodgy wrongness. Also, you are amazingly dear. Please don't hurt me.

Whilst Belgium does loads of food things very, very right, there are some bakery things that Belgium does very badly indeed. Baguettes, for one. The supermarket ones are better than bakery ones, which is a sad state of affairs. Flan, (the French set custard tart) too, which comes in Belgium with a brown, spongy, leathery skin of wrongness on top and a floury, dense texture reminiscent of those sachets of chalk they give you when you have an upset stomach.  Croissants. Brrrrr. Belgian croissants are an abomination, and do not tell me to try your couques au beurre, because they are even worse. Also, that thing you call a 'bolus', that charred ball of raisin studded wrongness that looks like an internal organ? WHY. What has the honest pain au raisin, with its soft, yielding, custardy centre ever done to you, Belgium? Do not try and fob me off with your "couque suisse", that is just a dry, angry danish pastry, with all the fun removed. It would probably make good loft insulation.

It's not that everything is bad. Some of the bread is very good, and Pain Quotidien does some ok bits and pieces, but WHERE IS THE CAKE? I am waiting to be proved wrong. I am dying to be proved wrong. Send me to some good bakeries, please.

Anyway, Nicolas Audard.

The dog was not particularly impressed by the Fraisier. He is a harsh judge of patisserie.

I thought it was slightly too sweet, but basically pretty good. It is supposed to have poppyseed syrup, but that was subtle to the point of wholly elusive. That top layer was a bit too gelatinous for my liking, as if it might develop consciousness in the manner of Bob from Monsters v Aliens and ingurgitate me before I had the chance to kill it with a fork.

Then there was this lurid green number. The dog looks ever more pained at this one. I think it offends his aesthetic sensibilities, he is more of a classicist in matters pastry-related. Possibly it was because he had stolen and eaten a chausson aux pommes and was feeling bilious.

It is called "Mr Smith". I don't know why a cake should need an assumed name as if it were checking into a hotel with a person who was not its wife, but there we have it. "Mr Smith", is a sort of apple mousse, with a cassis-violet centre. The cassis centre was excellently, lip-smackingly tart and there was no trace of the violet because the cassis had stamped all over it, laughing cruelly. The apple tasted a bit like synthetic apple sweeties. Not a total win then, but I ate it in approximately four seconds, so I can hardly get snotty about the 'balance' or whatever. Look, here is a hideously graphic picture of it all demolished and bleeding, OH GOD NO I CAN'T LOOK.

Ha.  That is so unappealing. Try and Instagram THAT. Listen, it was hot, ok?

Drawing a veil over this green slimy carnage, most excitingly of all, they do petits choux which are quite the thing at the moment, and very much the new macaron.

Also, they call them Choux de Bruxelles which is amusing (because it means Brussels sprouts). Approved. This one is raspberry and violet.

It had a nice moussey texture but it didn't taste of much. There were a couple of caramel ones too. There aren't anymore, because I had the last one for breakfast, having hidden it in the crisper basket in the fridge to protect it from marauding infants. They didn't taste of much either, and I think they are slightly too big, really, but hey, choux buns hit Brussels, I am not going to split hairs, do you know how long it took us to get bagels? DECADES, my friends. I had to learn to make my own and everything.

I will return, to buy more cakes, and place my face into them. I advise you, with caution, to do the same. Now I must go and lie in the dark and clutch my stomach for a while.

Nicolas Audard, 93 Rue Americaine, (0) 2544 0985

*Me, usually

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Le Domaine de l'Ardoisière

Well. The 16 hours of travel, featuring a massive pile up on the M25, a man trying to throw himself off a bridge over the A34, my credit card getting pinched in a service station of despair near Bruges, causing me to make my eldest son cry inconsolably with my shouting and panic, followed by the now traditional Attempting To Get Back To Brussels ''This Defies All Sense Where The Fuck Have You All Come From There Are Not This Many People In The Whole of Belgium' Traffic Jam, were perhaps sub-optimal, particular since the dog got up in a panic and put its balls in my face every time we slowed, but otherwise our weekend at Tetanus Manor was a delight.

The sun shone. There was cake. I saw neither children nor dog for most of the time we were there, since they were busy respectively chasing balls and looking for dead stuff/re-enacting 1970s public information films in rivers under the ahem, watchful eye of my father. Easter's dead stoat (or ferret, pace Elsa who is scary when it comes to long bodied, rodenty things) had long decomposed, but there were a few compensatory dead rabbits.

Here is one of my children in my dad's vegetable garden, which was looking amazing:

Do not write and tell me that none of those things are vegetables. You may well be right. As far as I am concerned vegetables come pre-trimmed in cellophane wrapped packages from Marks and Spencer and I do not need anyone to spoil that magic. The children ate lots of the nasturtiums, anyway, so I am sure that counts.

Now the children are at their enviable zoo activity week, where they get to wash giant tortoises and cut lemurs' toenails and the like, leaving me sweating jealously in my bra in the attic and catching up with all the work I have been putting off; whilst ignoring the various looming administrative menaces that hang over my head.

Things to do in a hot attic: stay very still. Fiddle with the shutters. Spray Caudalie Eau de Beauté regularly. Moan to M on gchat. Stand in front of small fan. Things not to do in a hot attic: look for important missing pieces of paper whilst feeling sick with panic. It is really very hot up here, several degrees hotter than anywhere else in the house and there is a phantom smell of burnt toast that I really hope isn't come from my brain. I am not ruling it out.

Anyway, I have been doing various bits of Belgian lifestyle (HA) writing and I thought I could fill the small number of you who actually live in Belgium in on Good Stuff I Have Seen or Done Recently. This may take a couple of posts.  Sssh. It won't take long. Go away and come back in a few weeks if you have never had any desire to go to Belgium and have no interest in hearing about it. There is no stigma attached to that. I am totally fine with it.

All gone? Good.


First: The best place to stay in the whole of Belgium ever, honestly. I promise, it is even better than that hotel in Spa I told you about ages ago, and that was pretty bloody amazing. I am not being paid to say this or anything, I just thought it was the loveliest place I had ever been. I stayed for free for a magazine piece I was writing, but I am going back there in November with my own money, if I can ever locate any. Sssh, don't tell them I haven't got any money. I'll sell something if necessary. I can't even send the owners a link to this post and hope for a freebie because the first three paragraphs are about sweating and traffic jams and dog testicles. I am so great at this lifestyle blogging lark, jah, jah.

It is called the Domaine de l'Ardoisière; and ok, this place is not for you if you are really allergic to the country. I am fairly allergic to the country, as well-documented on these pages, but sling a few horses into the picture and I am easily swayed. I am a sucker for a velvety muzzle and some sturdy hooves.

The Domaine de l'Ardoisière which is about a million Belgian Miles* from anywhere in the middle of a remote bit of Ardennes forest scored very highly on this score because as we drove into the the driveway, this is the sight that greeted us:

These? Oh, these are just a few of the owner's beautiful CAMARGUE HORSES AND THEIR FOALS.

I realise this is only exciting for me and a handful of others, but I am unrepentant. FOALS. FOALS ON TAP. Once I had been forcibly prised away from the horses, this is what it looked like from the front:

And this is what it looked like when you sat on your terrace and drank wine and ate charcuterie, which is what you do most of the time:

And this, my friends, is what it looked like from the BATH. Oh yes.

It is beautiful. Stupidly, stupidly beautiful. Ludicrously, fairytale grotto beautiful. I am desperate to go in autumn and see and smell all the leafy, autumnal, bosky gorgeousness. Jesus, I am concerned I may be starting to like the country.

Anyway, there are five suitey, cottage type things and they sleep up to 7 people. Everything in them is new and beautiful and white and stylish, but not so much that you are scared of leaving dirty fingerprints, and all the bedrooms have cleverly placed windows so you get a massive eyeful of beautiful forest. Look, like this:

(Our suite was 'Hamptons', hence the flag. They are all 'themed', which is the kind of thing that strikes terror into the hearts of all right-thinking people, but the theming was really quite light. There were a few plaid cushions and the loos were papered with amusing vintage American magazines. No one force-fed you Ralph Lauren. I might think twice about 'Wonderland' which is a bit loopy and has a bubble gum pink kitchen, but the others were all just beautiful).

They are all shiny and well-equipped and they have wifi and coffee machines and Molton Brown stuff in the bathrooms and masses of fluffy towels and all that kind of thing. They have a TV too, but it only shows the FR2 série de l'été, as far as I could ascertain, which is not something anyone should ever have to watch, even if they are French. You should, if you ever go, disdain the TV and concentrate on sitting on the terrace and drinking wine and eating your aperitif which is delivered to you by an angel (in the form of what appears to be a mute Belgian cowboy). It looked like this, and nearly made me cry hot tears of grateful joy:

The Ardennes are very good at sausage and sausage like things. There was also smoked duck and black pudding and that thing at the back is a sort of delectably flaky puff pastry pizza, a bit like a Thomas the Bakers "Yorkshire Pizza", but BETTER. The green thing was a cold soup made from local herbs. It was all stupidly delicious.

If you insist on doing something other than sitting eating sausage until your face bursts, you can do all manner of outdoors type stuff if you so insist. Cycling. Walking. Canoeing or Kayaking or something, as if I would know the difference. I went for a ride on one of those beautiful Camargue horses. It was the first time I had been on a horse since my accident 2 years ago and a very kind, very patient horse called Anouble and I went for an extremely slow amble through the forest and across the bracken moors. Here is Anouble, My Lovely Horse:

There is even a swimming pool at the Domaine, with barking mad 1970s mythological murals, clearly painted by someone who had picked the wrong kind of mushrooms one autumn:

The prices are scary when you first look - a two night weekend stay is €625 - but think about it: that's €300 a night for SEVEN PEOPLE, which works out at something like 44 quid per person per night. Go! GO! Or don't go. Let me go instead. I'd cheerfully move in there forever and get grotesquely fat on charcuterie until none of the horses could carry me any more.

Oh, you can go and look at it here (no, I do not know what "schist rocks" are. Ask a geologist), if you wish.

(*Belgium is so small it requires its own unit of distance measurement)

Friday, 10 August 2012


(Written whilst crouched on the bathroom floor, having told children I am 'having a wash'. Number of interruptions, nevertheless, during attempted writing of post: around 70. May consequently bear indications of galloping psychosis)

So, you tell the internet in a weedy fashion how much you are missing your precious cheeldreenne and their soft downy cheeks and general delightfulness and then they only go and COME BACK, don't they, thus confronting you with (loud, oh so loud) reality.

Even whilst they are turning the corner into the street and depositing twenty seven bags of sand and Ninjago spinners and dog-eared copies of Picsou magazine and single discarded socks in the corridor and leaving a trail of biscuit wrappers and empty sticker sachets in their wake that you realise that you have made a colossal error relating to the dates of their various activities, leaving you with a gaping maw of empty childcare free time in August, which you cannot even begin to resolve because they are already clamouring at you to look up the latest video reviews of Mario Bros 2 3DS (not as good as Super Mario 3D Land, apparently), or where you can get a sleeping bag that makes you look like you are being eaten by a shark (America for two hundred nicker, gor blimey guvnor), and where Guam is (er, Asia?) and what cassowaries eat (dunno). And because it's the holidays they get to go to bed really late. Also, they have now realised they can read English, so they have taken to leaning over your shoulder when you check your email and reading what you are up to, which has already led to all sorts of interesting conversations. So it's a good thing you've missed them, isn't it?

And I have. I have missed them. I am very glad they are back. I feel, literally, more grounded: I'm physically down on the ground floor playing cards or proffering food or refereeing arguments instead of hidden away in my silent attic of despair. It gives a lovely, reassuring gloss of purpose to things. The little one is very brown and fair now, after all those weeks in the Normandy, er, 'sun'.  He seems to have toenails that have come from one of those Bronze Age corpses they find in bogs, but it can doubtless be resolved somehow. The big one comes up to the bottom of my nose now and he's touchingly pleased to see me: he's everywhere, his arms around me, kissing and holding my hand and reading me extracts from a pile of magazines his grandmother has bought him, most of which date from the early '90s.

"Those are the Twin Towers, aren't they?" he asked me curiously, half an hour ago, brandishing some long-defunct magazine, that probably recommends pipe smoking for the under twelves, then "Who won out of George W. Bush and Al Gore?"

Just, they are quite all consuming: they have swallowed what was left of my brain. I quite like it actually, because I can use it to absolve me of any credible attempt to work for a couple of days. We have been wandering aimlessly around Brussels instead: bookshop, cinema, orthodontist, vet, TV, picnic, ice cream. Mainly TV. Everything has slowed to a dawdle: no one gets dressed much before midday, if they bother at all. Meals are scavenged affairs: half a packet of crisps, a mango, peanut M&Ms for protein. Bedtime is delayed by escaping rats and Olympic highlights. Sadly I failed to convince them that we should be allowed to spend the day watching horses dance to Richard Clayderman and instrumental versions of pop "classics". The Olympics do not seem to have awakened either their French or English patriotism. They are stateless in the face of televised sports, radiating equal opportunities ennui at anything short of Usain Bolt. I just asked Fingers if dressage was the most boring thing he had ever seen, and he said it was, flicking a disdainful eye towards the television from his spot on a cushion on the floor, riven to his DS.

"Je suis un peu d'accord. If they Moonwalked" added Lashes, watching sloth videos on my phone (he writes this 'sloff', when he is laboriously checking YouTube with one finger) "it would be funnier".

In this dreamy, aimless state, I find myself having woolly ideas at around midnight, being too lazy and tired to write them down, then forgetting by morning or finding cryptic notes that no longer make sense. "Talk about language". "Facial expression" "The coffee thing - more". What? WHO WROTE THAT AND WHAT ON EARTH DID THEY MEAN?

I have to go now. There is an eery silence that I do not trust. I will return when I can. We are heading to Château Tetanus shortly for a brief weekend of badger corpse inspecting and other bucolic pastimes. My father will put us all to work on the Beddington collective farm. The dog will get spooked by pheasants and lose his mind, tearing round in freaked out circles trying to remember his own name. The children might find a dead mouse in the drain if they are lucky. There will be plentiful booze and sitting around time. What more could you ask for?

Monday, 6 August 2012

Photo post with bonus maths

I have been looking at our holiday photos and getting amused all over again at the Scooby Doo Creepy Arcade.

This makes it look sort of romantic, which is entirely inaccurate.

This is a bit more like it.

I have two of them, because I liked it so much.

I especially liked the "Attractions Modernes" cabin.

Also, I am reminded looking at these pictures of our holidays, how much I am missing the cheeldrenne, who return tomorrow after an extended absence doing le camping, chiz. Rather them than me. I saw the campsite. It has hole in the ground loos and strutting men who walk around in extremely short shorts and do pull ups on door frames. They, predictably, have loved every minute. Apparently they spend their days with a gang of like-minded Mario and Pokémon enthusiasts riding their bikes round in circles and lurking on the playground, practising looking as if they are filled with ennui. It sounds like perfect preparation for adolescence.

I like on this picture how Lashes still has a phantom plump, babyish curve to his cheek. He doesn't really look like that any more, but I do still remember when he did.

Whereas Fingers doesn't normally look this big.

Who is that enormous leaping child? Apparently it is mine. I have heard very little from either of them in the last two weeks and telephone calls run to the monosyllabic. "Are you having a nice time?" "Yes". Fin. If pushed, they occasional come out with one of the following questions:

1. "Do the rats miss me?"

Answer: are you a dried banana? If the answer to that question is 'no', then no.

2. "What is your favourite reptile maman?"

Well, son, that depends on whether you are planning to bring it home in a bucket for me. If so, the mighty anaconda. Why are you asking?

3. "Did you watch Fort Boyard?"

In your absence, I have absolved myself of that particular pleasure, my darlings. There is a better class of person running around in Lycra on my television at the moment. Also: ENDLESS HORSES.

Enough of that, let us play "Market Maths".

If Emma smugly buys one melon for €1,50 nine mangoes for €3 and 6 avocados for €2 on Sunday:

And on Monday she is obliged to put two of the mangoes in the bin because they have gone completely black, observes that three are growing a crop of ominous, plague-like black spots whilst another 3 are hard as riven steel, and eats the only one that is ripe, whilst 5/6 avocadoes have turned to putrid black pulp what is the probability that Emma is an idiot? What percentage of the melon do you estimate will be edible based on your calculations? 

For a bonus mark, how is your answer affected if she has also purchased two bunches of mint at €0,25 each and left them in a glass to go all crispy and dry, whilst allowing a bunch of coriander (€0,25) to go a bit slimy in the sink before using a few springs half heartedly in a stir fry? Show your working. Or not. 

What fruit and vegetable bastards have no middle ground between adamantine and rotten for you? And what bargains just .. aren't? 

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Best laid plans and so on

What, what?


The donkeys and caramel are all over and I am back in Belgium. I have been attempting to make progress on this stupid, stupid cake themed thing I am trying to write since returning from holidays and had foresworn blogging (and pitching for paying work) as part of this process, intending to finish my draft by September and to return, triumphantly to the blog with a new sense of purpose. Ha! I am an idiot. It has been an unmitigated disaster.

Astonishingly, and I am sure you will find this as surprising as I did, sitting on your own day after day, barely speaking to other humans or leaving the house for weeks on end, writing about one of the darkest periods in your life for precisely no money is not conducive to good cheer. Who could have guessed such a thing? Apparently not me.

Thus the last few weeks can be summarised as follows: sitting in the attic in a variety of weathers (too hot, rain, hail, heavy shifting columns of ominous clouds) that I have had ample opportunity to observe because I have mainly been staring into space. I am surprised I do not have pressure sores from the hours of slumping, motionless in front of a screen; I have certainly picked at every single one of my many insect bites several times over. I have gone off on eighty million tangents, each more fruitless to the last. I have second-guessed the crapness, self-indulgence and non-saleability of what I am writing so much my head has threatened to explode. I have "restructured". I have read more Zola than can possibly be necessary or desirable. I have, as an unrelated side issue, become embroiled in a complex incompetence-derived situation involving various bank accounts and child benefit, which has required me to face my demons partially (ie. open some envelopes). It is still not resolved. I have woken up most mornings and had a little cry at my continuing inability to do anything right. I have also watched far too much esoteric, frequently horse-based, sports. I make no apology for this last one. Everyone is doing it, right?

So. Having declared this strategy an abject failure, I am going to man up in various ways and this includes trying to blog much more frequently. I don't know if there are finite number of words available to me in a day as I have thought previously , but even if there are, the ones I was writing about cake were shit, so it is no great loss. These might not be better, but at least they will feature less extraneous material about heavily bearded French authors. Also, I am going to try and rediscover 'amusing'. I have forgotten what amusing looks like, it escaped so long ago but maybe if I creep up on it, I can recapture some. Funny! Come back! I have some dried fruit if you like that the rats have disdained!

(For clarity, I am not abandoning the cake writing. Just, letting myself of the 'no writing but that writing' hook, because it is plainly insane, and I have too many chins to make a good, aesthetically pleasing fist of suffering in a garret)



1. Brussels is eerily empty in August, which has made it difficult to do any restaurant research for one of my few extant paying jobs, since they are all shut. I speak as someone who would ALWAYS rather eat out than in, but it has been challenging. I have:

- tried to go to a far-flung pop up restaurant which did not appear to exist.

- gone to three places supposedly for breakfast which have turned out, either not to exist or, contrary to their own literature, not to be open for breakfast.

- Stood lamely in front of many, many closed shutters, trying to peer through the gaps at dark, empty dining rooms.

- taken a long, optimistic walk to a sandwich bar and failed to find it (because I was in the wrong street).

- taken a long, optimistic walk to a wine bar which turned out to be run by a hobo and his dog, selling a side plate of ham and some cheese so old it had developed consciousness for €19 a pop.

"This one's a bit strong", we said, poking a cautious fork at a festering pile of angry dairy produce. "What is it?"

"Ricotta" said the hobo, with unblinking defiance.

Then we ran away. In the rain.

It has not all been bad news in the world of Brussels restaurants, not by a long way, but I have to keep the good news for the paying job. Good things I have eaten this week: the "vegetable trolley" at La Paix, with teeny weeny courgettes barely bigger than matchsticks and baby artichokes and vivid green shelled mini broad beans and a stupidly delicious potato purée so soft and buttery it was more of a sauce (that website has dreadful, alarming music, you are warned). Moroccan crêpes with honey and mint tea at the Midi market. A vanilla éclair from Charli and a raspberry éclair from Gaudron. Yes, my post-holiday bitter herbs and steamed sustainable fish régime is going swimmingly. When I am not banging my head against my desk, I am mainly sitting curled like a python on the sofa, digesting, whilst watching amazing, muscular, beautiful men and women performing feats of credibility straining athleticism. This seems like a good division of labour: me digesting, them running and jumping.

2. I have been to Namur, which is, fact lovers, the capital of Wallonia (and, I also know from Lashes' geography revision, the capital of the province of Namur, confusingly). Every time I told M I was going she said:

"What is Namur?"

and then:

"Wallonia is not a real place".

I have proved her wrong, however. I know a lot* about Namur now (*almost nothing). It has several rivers and a belfry and a surprising profusion of museums. It was mostly shut on my visit there, due to "summer". I particularly liked this snail sculpture, though it seems rather poignant (I initially typed "pignant", which should definitely be a word):

A sachet of Namur's finest traditional Biétrumé caramels (missing two, they weren't very nice) to anyone who can tell me what is going on.

3. On the continuing theme of mysterious manifestations in the towns of Belgium, I marvelled at this lot, spotted in central Brussels yesterday in large numbers:

No one has thus far been able to tell me what on earth is going on. Suggestions included: "the Luxembourg Olympic synchronised witch-hunting team" and "Mr and Mrs Childcatcher on holiday in Europe". I crave enlightenment. I especially like 'sensible drag sash guy' and his bag which contains a plush rabbit. There were several of his ilk, except some of them were actually women. Once more, I ask you: what the fuck.

4. Wondered what exactly the car parked nearby is advertising:

Is this a spectator sport? An offer to shear your sheep for you? An offer for YOU to go and shear sheep for HIM? For some reason it made me laugh uncontrollably last night. As reported earlier in this post, I do not get out much, if at all, and I had had a watery mojito, which is enough to make me lose my mind. Tonte de moutons should be an Olympic sport.

5. Last night I saw a woman with a ferret in her handbag get turned away from Bruxelles-les-Bains (Brussels' slightly half-arsed version of Paris Plage, mainly composed of 27 identical watery mojito (yes, see 4 above) bars, a teenage rapper trying to get approximately 7 pensioners to put their arms in the air and some sinister gentlemen toting bags of dripping, bloody raw chicken wings for reasons that I would prefer to remain opaque). This was a high point; though not because I am against access for ferrets to municipal events, far from it. Raw part defrosted chicken wings good, live ferrets bad? Not in my world, Ville de Bruxelles. Ferret toting, also a strong candidate to become an Olympic sport.

(Incidentally, it now costs €23 to take your ferret on Eurotunnel. If you do not have a ferret you can take a world-weary whippet with a Cherington Flower and Produce Show "Dog the Judge Would Most Like To Take Home" title to defend for the same price. Bargain! )

Just imagine, I am planning to write this kind of stuff more regularly. I cannot imagine how exciting this is for you.