Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Macawrong.

I went to a macaron class yesterday, mainly because I am stupid and accessorily because I thought it might be useful for the 'book', which I am trying not to lose faith in after my ambivalent, but not wholly negative, partridge slaying meeting last week (the basic tenor of which - kindly delivered - was 'yeah, it's quite interesting, there's some good writing in there, but WHAT THE FUCK IS IT?' I am not seeing gigantic pound signs in my near future). I don't actually have any aspiration to make macarons - the effort reward ratio is plainly skewed against them and frankly, I'm not even that crazy about the taste - which is probably a good thing, because on the strength of last night, I am more likely to grow a third arm.

It was quite a peculiar experience, not least the getting there which took me only slightly less than all my natural life. The 'there' was an unmarked office block on the wrong side of Waterloo (by which I mean 'the further away side', I don't think Waterloo has badlands) and I was navigating using only my still-somewhat-temperamental-after-its-soaking iPhone and running late before I even started. The journey involved half a dozen roadside stops in out of town shopping centre car parks and a rising level of crazy and by the time I found my way to the some kind of new age spa (?) round the back of the office block where the lesson was happening, I was nearly half an hour late and not particularly kindly inclined towards the whole enterprise as I edged my way, shamefully, through the ranks of deadly silent macaron-thusiasts. Thankfully, they gave you wine. They also, mystifyingly, gave you a peculiar tiny salad composed of cubes of cheese, thinly sliced ham, crumbled walnut and chicory. Perhaps this is the kind of thing you like: I don't mind any of the elements in isolation, but the whole 'salad with cubes of cheese in' thing gives me the heebie jeebies.

"I am NOT eating that" said the very camp man opposite me, decidedly. He was a welcome voice of mild dissent in the chorus of macaron-zombies, who were all taking copious notes (whenever something important was mentioned he would gesture imperiously at the girl accompanying him and hiss "Write it DOWN!", which I admired enormously). "Mademoiselle? I am not eating this". And he handed it smartly back. Later we got two tiny fish balls on a skewer. I ate those without complaint.

Anyway, I am far from sure I learnt anything at all because it was a resolutely hands off kind of class, where you are taught at from the front ("welcome to the French education system", said M when I complained to her). This seems to me quite unlikely to work with something so .. manual. Surely this isn't the norm in cookery classes? Shouldn't you, you know, get to cook? It was only my second ever, so I am an innocent in such matters. I should say at this point in the interests of fairness that the chef was charming, if somewhat serious, and that I actually think his patisserie is very fabulous indeed, and I had a lot of sympathy for him, because it seemed like a pretty dreary evening for him all round, basically doing his day job for an extra three hours watched by a crowd of gimlet eyed women asking him searching questions about the relative merits of silicone and baking parchment. Also, the problem here was definitely me, not the class. However. It was very odd.

The part where he was demonstrating "macaronnage", where you beat your meringue/almond mixture in a strangely precise way until it reaches a strangely precise degree of looseness was when I lost any faith I would ever be able to reproduce what I was watching. I can't even get crème pâtissière right, and this involved all sorts of fancy arm action, followed by dropping a rubber spatula of mixture back in your bowl in three dollops, and if the first dollop had disappeared by the time you dropped the third, it was ready, which strikes me as a loopy way to decide anything. Surely there should be some kind of science involved in something so delicate? No, apparently we must watch the way the blobs fall, like prehistoric seers divining stuff from toad entrails. I expected better of my cake. People took reverent photographs and indeed, in one case, video footage of him piping his macarons, but I was still traumatised by the macaronnage. 

Also, the choice of flavours made me cry, because I am no kind of macaron sophisticate and only really want salted caramel and, at a pinch, lemon. Instead, the only macaron we were allowed to taste in class (the 'here's one I prepared earlier' macaron) was ... carrot and cumin. YES. LIKE A SOUP. A soup-filled macaron. I would really rather not, thank you. The flavours he made during the class were slightly more conventional  not a great improvement: there was mango and white chocolate (blargh, so so sweet), chocolate (fine for most, but not for me) and ... WHITE TRUFFLE. Oh dear. Just because Pierre Hermé in his infinite, sad Tellytubby cake genius wisdom does something, it does not mean mortals should attempt it, and frankly, even when Saint Peter of Hermé made a white truffle macaron I felt absolutely no desire to go within ten feet of the blighter. I have one downstairs now, festering in clingfilm, waiting for one of the children to be sufficiently naughty that I will offer it to them (shouldn't be long now).  I could not really arrange my features into a suitable expression of reverent approval during the preparation of the white truffle crème mousseline, because: IT IS AN ABOMINATION. Instead, I shook my head involuntarily for a full ten minutes while there was discussion of such peversities as adding a slice of chilled foie gras to your macaron and dusting it with toasted pain d'épice and making a macaron with TOMATO JUICE or WASABI. I am sorry about all the capitals here, but it has been a rude shock, discovering this nest of patisserie deviance, like something off Cupcake Wars, except here in my own back yard (if my backyard stretched all the way to sodding Waterloo).

We were despatched home with two violet macarons he had prepared before we arrived, one chocolate, one mango, and a white truffle one hermetically sealed in a layer of clingfilm to avoid contamination, and strict instructions not to taste until the next morning. The wait did not trouble me unduly, I am afraid, because a late night snack of white truffle crème mousseline is not a key part of my bedtime routine. Indeed now, 24 hours later, there is still only one sad, tiny bite out of the white truffle monstrosity (Fingers) and a half of each of the mango and violet have been eaten. Not a roaring success. I am in two minds whether I could ever give up three hours (well, honestly it would probably take me five at least) of my life to do this, but if I ever do, I might try his recipe for salted caramel which included alarming instructions like "wait for the blue smoke" and "there will be some spitting" and "ensure there are no children in the house". If you're going to do a thing, might as well do it in a cloud of blue, and possibly truffle scented, smoke.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Sunday Supplement

Why buy a Sunday paper when you could read MINE, assembled using the internet equivalent of a Letraset printing set and a Pritt Stick?

Shopping/Stuff/How to Spent It In Van Den Borre Which Is A Bit Like Currys

This weekend we have purchased a NooNoo, you know, a Roomba: one of those ridiculous automatic hoover thingies like the hoover from the Tellytubbies, except without eyes and a trunk, for people too effete and pathetic to hoover themselves, ie. me (I once notoriously told someone our hoover was "broken" when the truth was I did not know how to turn it on). We used to have one about 8 years ago, a first generation NooNoo that lurched around our flat noisily like a Glaswegian drunk, picking fights with pieces of furniture. For entertainment (a scant commodity in those difficult days), we would place a biscuit on top and make Fingers - then learning to walk - stagger after it. Most mornings you would find it revving angrily in the kitchen, having ingested half a tea towel in an act of insane vacuum cleaner hubris. We would perform delicate reconstructive surgery on it, removing the chewed strands of fabric, pound coins and lengths of cable from its tangled intestines, and restoring it to full health, only for it to go off and get itself into a similar mess the next day. I loved that thing.

This new version is faster and sleeker but still awe-inspiringly aggressive. It is like a hideous, flattened monomaniacal Dalek, repeatedly infuriated by its own limitations. It has already made a drone accurate beeline for me several times while I was sitting minding my own business, trying to drink a cup of tea, placing itself under my chair and bashing into the legs in a violently repetitive manner, as if in the throes of a murderous cleaning frenzy. The dog, predictably, is terrified. Having introduced the two of them (rolling eyes, look of blank panic, skittish jumps, retreat to farthest corner of sofa) and retired to bed, I found myself wondering what kind of scene might await us in the morning. Oscar's approach to things he fears and detests is generally to eat them during the night (would that we could all do that). Recently, he has eaten his most loathed tormentor, the model helicopter, depositing the mangled pieces under a blanket where he hoped we wouldn't notice. I have hidden NooNoo under a cupboard for its own safety. I want many years of angry, overreaching cleaning action, or at least as many as the limited Van Den Borre guarantee is likely to cover, before it gets retired to the Roomba graveyard, which I imagine to be extremely like Asylum of the Daleks, but more compact, especially if you stack the rogue ones.

Then, because things weren't peculiar enough, we bought a mushroom "farm" at a farm open day fête today, in one of those fits of misguided enthusiasm that come over people when confronted with a jolly bucolic scenes of honest yeomen selling root vegetables and chickens pecking at beer cans and taciturn men in leather hats selling "artisanal" saucisson that they bought in Carrefour. The "farm" consists, essentially, of a cardboard box of horseshit that you put in your cellar and hope for the best. The children are wildly enthused despite neither of them ever having eaten a mushroom consciously in their short lives. It already smells of decomposition, and the advice included not at all alarming things like "if you find you get a fly infestation, get rid of it" and "when the mushrooms turn black, your crop is over". Yes, one can see it might be.

Food

- Recipe for relaxed Sunday lunch

Send children to Quick with their father. Eat Marks and Spencer dark chocolate ginger biscuits on your own, in bed, with Hilary Mantel.

- Recipe for a nervous breakdown

Attempt to replicate the recipes you learnt in your choux pastry class with your younger son. Fuck up your crème patissière twice. Ensure all your choux have holes in them for the filling to leak out of. Smear yourself liberally in every half-assed preparation involved in the whole sorry process. Fingers pointed out a short time ago that I even have choux pastry ON MY BACK. Everything in the kitchen is coated in a thin film of butter and defeat. The dog is crunching egg shells furtively behind the bins. We should have just stopped at chouquettes. We were winning with the chouquettes.


Food Shopping and time required to do it

Still warm, soft, sourdough from Charli (queue time: five minutes).

Phénix cake (cassis mousse and pistachio genoise, amazing) from Saint Aulaye bakery, newly arrived ten minutes down the road from me, and adding approximately a kilo a week to my rear (queue time: twenty minutes, with the dog outside the door keening mournfully). Does not contain phoenixes.

Wild mushroom omelette from a gang of hippies in a field (queue time: fifteen minutes during most of which time a wild eyed man in baggy trousers was meticulously burning it to a crisp whilst staring into the middle distance. Still good though).

Pheasant pâté from Fonteyne (queue time: THIRTY FIVE GODALMIGHTY MINUTES while a woman discussed every fucking detail of her ambassadorial reception, shut up shut up shut up and let me buy a chicken in the name of all that is holy).


Culture

I am halfway through Bring up the Bodies as inexpertly photographed in the sidebar. Unlike Wolf Hall, which took me approximately the duration of Henry VIII's reign (though, I should say, in a pleasurable way), I'm completely desperate to read on in every spare moment: maybe because there's a sort of remorseless momentum to events. Gorgeous anyway. I want to crawl inside and live in it, but with modern dentistry and antibiotics, obviously.


Reading something utterly peculiar on the Kindle recommended by someone here, about a medium. Bonkers. No idea what it is. Oh! Having searched back and looked it up, I now know the name of the book (Heidi Julavits, The Vanishers) and that it was Margaret. Thank you for the suggestion, Margaret. Odd, and not at all my usual, but alluring and also, importantly, funny. 


I also went to see The Vaccines on Friday night, which was perfectly enjoyable, yet hmm. I don't know. It's all so stupidly catchy, but I feel sort of manipulated and faintly ashamed when I enjoy their idiot two minute flatpack indie geetar pop tunes, like I am basically revealing myself to be a musical moron (I am). The show was fast and efficient and well-behaved and a bit ersatz, somehow, like a band composed by focus group; nothing messy, nothing spontaneous, all over by 10:15 (which did at least leave time for a half and half - ghastly but compelling Brussels concoction of sweet white wine and cheap fizz - at Le Cirio, my favourite bar in Brussels, which is never, ever a bad thing).

There is this terrible French song that is earworming the life out of me at the moment and I have to share the pain. It's like the 80s threw up in my head and Etienne Daho stood and watched. Bastard, bastard, catchy bastard song. The only thing currently able to displace is is Pokemon (which never fails, it is the earworm displacer to end all earworms. Do not listen to it if you value your sanity "Pokemon! Attrapez-les, c'est notre histoire/Ensemble pour la victoire/Rien ne nous arrêtera/Notre amitié triomphera").

Cutting edge review section there, eh. Erudite. Well-informed. Cogent.


Shouty, opinionated column part

I think here I was planning to write an impassioned defence of cake, in reaction to Tanya Gold and Helen Rumbelow's both interesting, thoughtful pieces saying baking is essentially a reactionary, repressive force at a time when there are Bigger Issues than getting an even rise on your genoise, but it's time for Homeland, so it'll have to be tomorrow, I suppose. Tsk. I also still need to formulate some kind of coherent argument rather than just having a vague sense that it's 'not quite fair'.


Letters to the editor, or section contributions, in the comments.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Good bits



I have been to London, fought a partridge, drunk gin, got lost in Westfield, dealt with a flaccid mushroom and returned with 8 tonnes of Halloween tat and a chocolate Swiss roll. That makes it sound wrongly heroic, like Odysseus or something. SING TO ME MUSE, THE SONG OF EMMA, WHO HAS FACED THE PARTRIDGE AND THE MUSHROOM AND BROUGHT HOME THE ORANGE PLASTIC SPOILS. It was not like a Homeric quest at all. Mainly I sat in bed at my dad's and caught up with TV I had missed, and now I am back and the rats need cleaning out and no one has any clean socks, but I am not planning on any revenge slaying.

In my absence, Fingers has acquired an opera folder, featuring an angry looking stick character gesticulating in front of a volcano (see above. Guess the opera, I haven't got a clue) and instructions to go to 'opera day' every week with a towel (again, no clue). He was sent home sick this morning - despite being in apparent rude health, eating with the gusto of a young Henry VIII, climbing scaffolding and playing with matches whenever my back was turned - and at one point I came in to find him looking at the computer.

"No games if you're sick" I said sternly, trying desperately to make a grey Thursday afternoon in front of the fire with a sleepy dog, Come Dine With Me and a pack of Tunnocks teacakes not look like complete heaven.

"I'm not playing games" he said "I'm watching Verdi".

And so he was. He was watching plasticine, well, for want of a better expression, cake fillings, perform La Traviata (here, utterly odd and rather lovely and oh my god, the YouTube comments. I wondered why an admittedly charming, but surely minority interest, bit of classical music animation had nearly 2 million views and the comments reveal it is because it features in Fifty Shades of Arse).

Later, he sidled up to me, laser pointer grasped tightly in his fist. Laser pointers are the dernier cri in boy fashions presently.

"La Donna e mobile rhymes in French too".

"Oh? I don't know any of the words. Apart from, you know, la donna e mobile, whatever that means. The woman is mobile? Flexible?"

So he sang, slightly self-consciously, laser pointer bobbing in 3:4 time:

"La femme change tout le temps

Comme une plume dans le vent". 

(I like too how the translated English version I found online sounds like a Victorian doctor, or Daily Mail headline: "Woman is unstable")

Apart from the predictable ideological unsoundness of 19th century opera lyrics, I am rather enjoying this whole thing, and it is forcing me to up my game significantly, in cultural terms, thus tonight instead of watching chef-based cruelty on French Masterchef, I am listening to Verdi's Requiem, so that I know what it sounds like (oh, it's that! The dog is hating it, he would rather watch Frédéric Anton insult someone's gougères). Thank you, gulag, for your forcible programme of family cultural improvement. It makes me want to join a choir again though, so now I am back furtively googling and wondering if my fragile (= pathetic) psyche can take a sight reading test. I would love to go back to singing.

Apart from that, I am feeling strangely gleeful about impending winter at the moment: huge books and camphor scented baths and fires and cooking of things involving brassicas and béchamel (not together). Is reverse SAD a thing? The last two summers I have been quite, quite loopy with anxiety and then winter comes and the world does not end and I can feel busy and purposeful, like some kind of unfortunate looking Beatrix Potter creature (I don't think a naked mole rat ever featured, an oversight on Miss P's part, I feel), beetling away and laying down stores and fixing things (until a large rat comes and wraps me in pastry, presumably) and generally glorying in the hygge-ness of it all. Cashmere. Tea. Wood smoke. Pies. Some kind of hideous fictional murder to enjoy.

Of course it will not last - it is not actually cold yet, and I have not had to walk the dog in December sleet and the boiler is currently functional and the fact that my boots have wholly disintegrated is not yet critical - but I am conscious that I am always the very first to say loudly if EVERYTHING IS AWFUL and you know, right now, everything is not.

I don't know whether it's some kind of in-bred peasant superstition or the dread of looking smug or being one of those femmes qui changent tout le temps, or just how boring it is to read about contentment or some combination of all of them, but I always feel peculiar drawing attention to the moments when things are really quite nice. It seems a shame. I finally managed to download 400 photos that had been stuck on my phone for the past year yesterday and watching them flash on screen for a second each, I was struck by how many of them made me smile. Ok, a disproportionate number were of hairy legged donkeys, but there were also children in false moustaches and with long tanned limbs wrapped in towels, Satan, skiing (not Satan skiing), M in the Jardin des Plantes, bizarre handwritten signs in our neighbours' windows and lots of incredible hotels I got to go to for FREE and lunatic Belgians on horseback jousting in the middle of car parks and a really, really, hilariously terrible piece of craft that Fingers made that looks like a glittery poo in a box. Have I showed you that? Look:


(I also realise that every time I drive past the Pet Funerary Transport shop, I take a shit picture of it, but that is by the by.



There are 53 identical ones in my pictures folder)

What I mean is, there are lots of really, really good bits, and acknowledging them, really enjoying them, doesn't mean they will all vanish in a puff of acrid smoke. Anxious as the thought makes me, I think perhaps I should embrace, celebrate the good bits a little more.

OH GOD I FEEL NERVOUS NOW. Is that a volcano I can hear behind me?

Monday, 15 October 2012

Weekend

On Friday I had a patisserie class in Paris from the man in charge of pastry at the Jules Verne at the Eiffel Tower. It is part of my attempt to fill in what I can only describe as "the shit bits" of my cake oeuvre (since I am in the process of picking it apart at the seams, I can't call it a book, even with inverted commas) with slapstick scenes in which I try to make complex cakes. I am doing a macaron class on Monday, and I can't imagine that's going to end well, is it. Thermometers make me nervous.

Anyway. Le Chef Patissier man was intimidatingly handsome as well as brilliant, the kind of handsome that makes you feel apologetic and self-conscious about your misshapen, ferrety form, missing buttons and smudged glasses. He stood in front of us and did impressive things with piping bags, and then we made chouquettes, and vine peach and verveine mini eclairs, and apricot and caramel Paris-Brests. Everything was beautiful and delicious, mainly because it wasn't a very hands-on class and the devastatingly handsome chef did all the work, after briefly curling a perfect lip at my handling of a piping bag. Then we had champagne and ate our creations, which looked like THIS:


See the unearthly perfection? Everything about those neatly aligned leaves and that symmetry and the judicious dusting of icing sugar says "Emma did not really make us". I will never be able to recreate anything like this, ever again. Sigh.

Paris was initially very rainy, but in a dramatic, elegant way, then there was very fetching wintry sun and I sat and read a book on the Thalys whilst eating mini eclairs, head still slightly woozy from lunchtime champagne. Glorious. Predictably, Saturday was something of a come-down after that.

*

First, I receive a message from the children's science club.

Samedi .. nous allons dans la forêt, au lieu-dit "Les Etangs des Enfants Noyés". 

"On Saturday ... we will be going to the part of the forest known as the Drowned Children's Ponds".

I swear this is true.

I go and collect them from Drowned Children's Pond after three hours of what I assume are improving, science related pursuits, but could frankly be fire-setting or glue-sniffing for all I know, in fairly insistent rain. Sometimes it has lightened up to a bare drizzle for as much as ten minutes at a time, but mainly it has chucked it down with apocalyptic intensity. I have wondered a couple of times, as I sit cosy in my bed during the afternoon, how they are getting on. I remember afternoons of my own in similar conditions: the Duke of Edinburgh trip where we had to wear binbags for protection. Woodcraft Folk Camps is sodden fields. Virtually all holidays with both my parents throughout the whole of the 1980s. When I arrive, they are all huddled under a tree not far from the car park, all wearing oversized fluorescent tabards. The man in charge has fat drops of rain clinging to the tendrils of his ginger beard, which has sprung into corkscrew curls. The uninitiated observer would deduce that they must have all been engaged in an intensive study of the tactile properties of mud. Lashes is as grey as his coat and extravagantly miserable. "He's been sulking all afternoon" says another damp small child. Lashes looks at me, huge eyes full of mute reproach, much like the weepette when I tie him to a lamppost outside the bakery.

"Ok?" I say, breezy to the point of brutality.

"Cold" he intones, funereally, then turns to trudge towards the car, arms held out stiffly from his body, zombie style.

Fingers, on the other hand, when I identify him in the mêlée of damp boy, seems astonishingly cheerful, clutching a sodden picture of a woodlouse and happily chatting. Possibly because his coat has proved to be waterproof.

"This" I tell them, with a tiny note of gloating, as I drive away down the bumpy cobbled lane, the windscreen steaming up, "This is how ALL MY CHILDHOOD went. Forced dampness in a non-urban setting. That's it. You've experienced my childhood now. Cagoules! Dubbin! Slivers of Mars Bar doled out parsimoniously by my father every 2 miles! My brother asking what the signs of stage two hypothermia are halfway up a mountain!"  I am ignored, rightly.

The rest of the weekend is taken up with questions about laser pointers (no, me neither) and watching terrible cookery shows, of which a special mention for the hideous, lunatic weirdness of "Sweet Genius", where people have to make puddings at high speed under really bad lighting while some kind of Swiss Nosferatu figure tries to make them incorporate frozen waffles and Fabergé eggs and twigs and hoof oil into their "creations", then sneers as they fail; and "Cupcake Wars" which is just proof that we are living in the end times, with its "chocolate and caviar" and "pickle and peanut butter" and "salmon and caramel" flavourings (I have not invented any of those). I dread to think what the steely chef would think.

How was your weekend?

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Jobs I Have Considered Today

The Brussels job market is a thrilling creature. There are organisations out there, and people within them, doing things that you never imagined in your wildest dreams of multinational bureaucracy (and mine are pretty wild) existed. Most days, I browse a site called EuroBrussels, in search of the perfect opportunity to get myself out of the financial black hole into which my own stupidity and indolence has cast me, and most days I am distracted by a raft of bewildering job offers. There are people, people I walk past on the street and sit with on the tram and tut at in supermarket queues, who do these things. I salute them, from a wary distance. Below is the current crop of situations vacant that have given me serious pause for thought.


Technical Analyst for Fertilizers Europe

Hmm. I imagine this might involve some chemistry, but that should be fine because I have a GCSE from 1990. Also, in my lawyering days, I did once work for two frightening red-faced gropey slapstick German men on "Crop Protection" matters. Actually they complained about us, but I can gloss over that bit in my application whilst emphasising my extensive fertilizer smarts.


Communications Officer for the Nickel Institute

Nickel gets an undeservedly bad press* (*I have made that up, but I intend to say it very convincingly at interview). I could turn that around. I'll be getting Nickel on Twitter posting pictures of monkeys hugging teacup pigs. In my hands, nickel will become synonymous with PG rated fun, good times and LOLcats.


EU Timber Regulation Lawyer

I am already a lawyer! Well, I used to be. And I know what wood looks like. My feelings towards it are broadly positive. That's enough, right?


Public Affairs Manager for The European Container Glass Federation. 

Container Glass. Presumably that's glass you use for containers, like Nutella jars and maybe even gin bottles. Container glass! What would we do without you? We would have to drink gin out of those boxes with taps on they use for wine (ok, we can possibly survive this particular domesday scenario) and eat Nutella out of those hopelessly tiny individual plastic serving pods you get in chain hotels. Container glass? I am ready to stand up and fight for your interests. I do not know what your interests are, but as your Public Affairs Manager I promise to fight for them like a mother weasel on crack fights for its young. As long as it doesn't involve any of the following: confrontation, talking to strangers, spreadsheets, Powerpoint, the telephone. I can't see any problem with this.


Communication Clerk, International Vine and Wine Organisation

I have a slight concern this role may not stretch me sufficiently, but I can certainly bring a wealth of experience to the organisation. There are "the red ones" and "the white ones" and "the fizzy ones". For you, International Vine and Wine Organisation, I am a safe pair of hands. Hold your own grape-stained ones out to me, and together we shall go far.



Policy Office, Council of European Dentists

I can't decide if the Council of European Dentists modus operandi is likely to be: well-flossed bacchanals at five star hotels at the expense of Unilever, or rather grimly bureaucratic examinations of European plaque patterns over 240 page position papers. Either way, I am not surprised you need your policy sorted out, Council. I would even go as far as to suggest you have an image problem and I can sort that out for you with my many creative policy ideas. First: there should be more and better drugs administered using methods other than "needle through the gums". Perhaps you could put the water coolers in waiting rooms to better use by filling them with some kind of peppily flavoured Novocaine punch? Second: warm up the water in those squooshy tube things. Third: where there is bad news to be conveyed, just lie. None of us actually like that 'informed consent' bollocks. Just do the necessary while using Magic Circle approved redirection techniques. "This? Oh, it's just a speck of dust. Just hold the special petting rabbit (this is my fourth policy recommendation) while I, er, dust it for you. Ooh! Look! A flying pony!". See? POLICY. 



LEII Vice Consul

I have absolutely no idea what the LEII bit means, but how cool does "Vice Consul" sound? "What do you do for a living?" "Oh, I'm the Vice Consul". I bet you get a special hat to wear. Or maybe I am confusing it with "Grand Vizier".  No matter. I believe this role is genuinely a bit like being mother to an entire community of British people on holiday or living or working in Belgium. I can do this. "Have you remembered your keys?" "Put the can of lager down". "No, that's not your passport, it's a joke book that looks a bit like a passport". "Say sorry to the policeman". 'That's dangerous, don't do it". "You need to have a drink of water and a sit down now". I have been a mother, of sorts, for ten and a half years now. I can do this shit in my sleep. No one has been seriously injured on my watch, or caused any sort of major diplomatic incident. I will call this a "proven track record" in my letter of motivation.



What is the least likely job you have ever been tempted to apply for? And what, secretly, do you think you'd be really good at if only they would give you a chance?

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Gran Dio! Morir Si Giovene

Oh god, yesterday was a disaster. The sum total of my achievements: painted my nails (Chanel April, already chipping at the edges, such is my great manicure skill) and went to the supermarket (but forgot loo roll, the reason I went). I also shifted a few sections of text around, but since I don't think it was an improvement, I am not including that in the list. I realise being unable to work unless you have a deadline snapping at your heels is a relatively common flaw, but the attendant self-loathing and imminent ruin is just too much for me, and the rot must be stopped. I am attacking today with new resolve: no social media until after sunset, no dawdling around newspaper websites, no desultory blog reading or daytime cake. Ok, it is Wednesday, so I only have approximately three hours in which to do, well, anything, but no matter.

I have mentioned in passing on Twitter that my younger son - 8 - is currently involved in an admirable opera related project at school. Representatives from La Monnaie, Brussels' excellent, lively opera company, who you may recall are basically responsible for the creation of Belgium, are coming into school to teach classes of 8 year olds about opera. It is all good and un-gulaglike (the gulag being a normal state school, if frighteningly strict and also rather keen on '80s disco numbers for school performances), and thoroughly laudible and I'm especially tickled, because I used to go the opera lots in my teens, being a colossal dweeb. But. I confess I am also quite inappropriately entertained by the choice of opera they are teaching, which is La Traviata. I am sorry but THIS IS HILARIOUS.

You remember La Traviata, the internet? Dumas' La Dame aux Camélias set to music, a tale of tuberculosis, courtesans, self-sacrifice and DEATH of course, lingering, operatic death. Here is La Monnaie's own description, from the programme:


"What better to represent desire, fragility and secrecy, the three themes around which the season’s artistic project is constructed, than the tragic story of Violetta and Alfredo? If one of Verdi’s most beautiful heroines, based on Alexandre Dumas’s character Marguerite Gautier, finally dies of tuberculosis, other forces militate against her passionate love for a young man from whom she hides her illness until the end: prejudice, morality and conventions. The Lady of the Camellias should not only be seen as a highclass prostitute. Her reputation is as dangerous as the syphilis that worries the bourgeoisie that frequent the brothels. Following Kát’a Kabanová, Andrea Breth brings us her vision of the heartbreaking journey towards death of a woman who, with her last breath, still wants to believe in the miracle of human passion."

Indeed. Also: the picture.

Well, there should be challenging things and light and shade in a child's life and education, surely. Rather this than Bakugan Battle Dimension. And perhaps most operas are full of sex and death? Yet I do wonder how they are planning to explore some of the more challenging themes, and wish with all my heart I could be in the classroom to hear it.

Occasional snippets are filtering out from Fingers, who is gratifyingly enthusiastic about the whole business. Last week was the first "opera day" and I learnt about the early death of Verdi's wife and his children, and how heartbroken he was and his vow only to write tragedy. I also heard about his latter 'friendships' with other women.

"What, he had three wives?"

"Non, he had a wife and then.. some others".

 (I do not know how true any of this is. It is filtered through an eight year old.)

Fingers also asked me the following question as he sat in the kitchen watching me lovingly prepare a meal of breaded chicken waste and oven chips.

"What do you call a man who makes women fall in love with him and then abandons them? I can't remember".

"Hmmm. A cad? A seductor?"

"No. No, he seduces them and then abandons them but it's not seductor. It's something like .. dojo?"

"Ah! A Don Juan?"

"Ouais! C'est ça!".

He spent the remainder of the evening gently humming arias from, and explaining, Rigoletto (also contains adult themes). There was some discussion of Nabucco and Falstaff too, but I was out of my depth and must brush up on my Verdi.

Yesterday was second opera day, and apparently they spent the whole session playing games around the theme of Verdi's Requiem, to which I say, La Monnaie, I salute you, because I can't think of many pieces of music less suited to games with 8 year olds than a Requiem mass. Fingers' written description of the day was .. enigmatic. "I listened to Verdi's Requiem. I carried my friend Victor".

The whole term of opera-based hilarity culminates in ... A PERFORMANCE, by the whole class. Imagine! This is going to get me through the long, dark evenings when the Great British Bake Off has finished. I promise to keep you apprised of all courtesan death based developments.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Ancestral Lands, etc.

I have been to my ancestral lands for the weekend, which means I am currently 40% bacon, 40% alcohol and 20% refined carbohydrates. I was attending the wedding of B, much loved acerbic, hilarious baby animal lover formerly (and greatly regretted) of this parish, and his also very funny and charming paramour, the Great Scot.

I never get invited to weddings. I am not quite sure why, but I think it is a combination of:

(i) Social ineptitude/antisocial behaviour/poor communications skills/inability to mingle;
(ii) Not having really made friends at university due to spending 3 years weeping and going to France for the weekend;
(iii) Not having a party face. I think my demeanour is inadvertently a bit Jack Dee's face at times. Emma, with your face like a leaking barn conversion. Emma, with your face like a Aldi J-cloth. Emma, with your face like a listless fairground terrapin.

Whatever the reason, it means I get unfeasibly excited on the rare occasions I do get to go to one. Champagne! Strangers! Dressing up! Well, I didn't enjoy the one where I was sitting next to a mercenary, but APART from that one, I love weddings, and this one was a corker. The venue was gorgeous, as were a freakishly disproportionate number of the guests, the grooms were both magnificently kilted with thistly corsages and incandescently happy looking, the ceremony was very moving, the speeches a brilliant combination of hilarious and moving, and the Ceilidh dancing by the combined New York/Euro/Scottish contingents, erm, approximate. I used to have to do Scottish country dancing at Quaker summer camp, but everything but the vaguest heel-toe had completely deserted me. We did 'slithering', 'stamping' 'going the wrong way', 'banging into people' and 'whirling around out of control' instead, which seemed to work. I particularly liked the bit when, after several rounds of punishing dances, there was a tea, bacon sandwich and cake break. All exercise regimes should incorporate such an incentive.

There were also some great outfits. Most of the men wore full Highland regalia, even those from places like Munich and Poitiers and New York who had never touched a sporran in anger before. I especially liked one pair in not-quite-matching-but-highly-complementary chic grey kilts.  The women wore shiny dresses (even I was, for once, quite pleased with my outfit: stripy silk assymetric dress from Rützou in soft greys and blues and pinks that I have owned for 3 years and worn once, violet Ferragamo sandals, and a Sara Berman opera jacket thingy I bought online in a fit of stupidity even more years ago and had never worn. I have not seen a picture of myself but in my HEAD it looked good and that's already a massive improvement on any of the other 4 times I've left the house in the past year) and there were a lot of Louboutins and sequins and the odd hat and all was astonishingly beautiful. It did reminded me how terribly I miss B and the Scot though and those of us left behind in Brussels without them vowed to try and meet up more often.

So that was the wedding, and it was brilliant and grown up and delightful and I wish them both a long and blissful union, ideally one during which they are both constrained to return to Brussels for several years at some point.




Other than that, the ancestral lands seemed in very fine fettle. There are a lot of shops in Glasgow, aren't there? I know that sounds odd, but really, there's very little I ever want to buy in Belgium, whereas Glasgow seemed a dangerous palace of retail delights. Not even exciting, independent, artisanal delights, just glorious mundanity like a giant Boots and department stores with make up counter ladies who don't try and chase you off with rudeness and supermarkets that open on Sunday and until 10 at night and sell you painkillers and cheap chocolate, and places that sell greetings cards that don't make you want to go and live in a cave for the rest of your life. I mean, I realise that on balance it's probably a good thing I live somewhere where I'm not consumed with retail lust all the time, but it was nice to bask in the welcoming warmth of Boots three for two offers on vitamins and Nurofen and the like. Also: Poundland. Franchises I wish to take back (or rather, wish someone else would take back) to Belgium: Boots. Office. Poundland. I ran amok in Poundland's Halloween Crap section, trying to buy bat deely boppers, light up lollipops and, mystifyingly, a fake sleeve tattoo for some child or other, then I had to have a stern word with myself and leave (I think I get a bit over-excited in Glasgow because everyone sounds like they're probably a member of my family, so going home with some cheap orange plastic tat is better than trying to shove several people I have convinced myself are my cousins into my suitcase).

The next day I went to visit Elsa who, knowing exactly what would fill me total hysterical joy, came to meet me off the bus with a ferret in her handbag. Badger, the ferret, was extremely sweet and funny and I was even allowed to hold onto his lead as he ferreted his way through the foliage to Advanced Staring from all passers-by.



Badger

After Badger, there was delicious CAKE and EWOK. This is Ewok, yawning. 



And here he is looking totally charming wrapped up like Samuel Whiskers. 


(Elsa and her family were completely lovely and welcoming too, especially given I basically invited myself along to her home-slash-petting-zoo without really asking if it was ok. But you know, there was a tiny ferret wrapped in a towel, and I am not made of stone)

After that there was venison shepherd's pie in Edinburgh (good), and Satan O'Leary's Megabus of winged death back to Charleroi at 6 this morning (very very bad) and now I do not really feel like a human at all, so I will stop here and return with my profound thoughts on Belgian electoral developments very soon. Have you seen Antonia is blogging again? IMPORTANT NEWS.

How was your weekend? 

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Cormorant

God, adulthood is a bit of a swizz at times, isn't it? When you're fourteen, you think it's going to be all parties and presents and being famous and living in a loft and hanging out with Simone de Beauvoir, then when you get there, it's self-doubt and failure and pulling other people's pants out of their trouser legs nightly and worrying that you're going to end up in prison because you lost a piece of paper from 2003, or that you've ruined your child's life by shouting at them about potatoes or something. That, and paying the accountant when you haven't actually earned any money and smear tests and the news, which is full of unspeakable tragedy so awful you can't even find a place for it in your head, or a way to comprehend it. And the dog has probably given you all worms. And Simone de Beauvoir died when you were 12. Sometimes it's all just .. too much. Today I have mainly been crouched on my office chair like a forlorn, sparsely feathered cormorant on a windswept rock, surrounded by a sea of scribbled on pieces of paper, none of which have progressed me beyond my default Tuesday state of .. actually I don't know how to transcribe my Tuesday state in actual words. 'Bleuurgh-thud', it goes. If it were a noise, it would sound a bit like a cormorant regurgitating a whole fish onto its rock.

I'm having a bit of a shit day, as the more perceptive among you may have divined from a few subtle clues concealed in the previous paragraph. You should also be able to tell that work isn't going so brilliantly at the moment from the amount of blogging I am doing. I am all out of courage and confidence and ideas and god knows, I wouldn't employ me, so I can't really expect anyone else to, can I? I keep giving myself these kinds of brisk pep talks, and then myself looks sullen and rolls its eyes and slams the bedroom door and starts listening to Strangeways Here We Come really really loud.

Anyway. Nothing is really bad, I don't work in a Nigerian sawmill and everyone is basically in good health and safe and happy, so I have absolutely nothing serious to complain about, and should almost certainly just shut the fuck up. Instead, whilst sulking my way round internet, I happened on and remembered Schmutzie's Grace in Small Things and I thought it would be a salutory exercise once again to think of some small things which are good and for which I am very grateful. So:

- The children now really like stupid cooking shows (Masterchef, The Great British Bake Off, Come Dine With Me), so I no longer have to watch Pokémon or Galaktik Football or anything which was once Japanese and has been dubbed into moronic French by a 45 year old woman pretending to be a 10 year old boy. This is the golden time when they can watch normal TV programmes and make cups of tea, yet still submit quite willingly to being hugged. I am cherishing it. Fingers is quietly singing me an aria from Rigoletto tonight for mysterious and hilarious reasons which I will attempt to elucidate in an upcoming post.

- It is B's wedding this weekend and I am mad to see him again and there will be dancing and booze and silliness and as a bonus I get to meet Elsa and her ferrets.

- People are nice. Loads of them. Often they go out of their way to be nice in touching, wonderful ways. Ok, that is not a small thing, it is a huge thing, and M, who puts up with my near-constant whining, merits an extra-special mention.

- Frédéric Malle Portrait of a Lady body cream, which is the most grown up and complex and delicious smell of incense and dust and roses I can conjure, even when I am wearing fleece and tracksuit bottoms.

- I have Nicola Barker's new novel to read and can continue my wintry catharsis-through-Scandinavian-brutality stomp through the crime novels of Asa Larsson, recommended by someone in the comments here. Person from the comments: will dogs die in every single one I read? Just so I can prepare myself mentally.

- I no longer need to faff around trying to find things to wear other than sturdy opaque tights and forgiving dresses or skirts, because it is properly cold.

-  Aromatherapy Associates bath oils, which are like therapy but (marginally) cheaper and make the whole house smell civilised, like a really expensive, understated spa.

- Cold weather breakfast is crumpets cooked until they are brown on top and singed underneath, with butter with big salt crystals in and there is simply nothing more delicious. And when you are an adult no one can stop you having them every day, so I suppose I must concede that is one small advantage of adulthood. In fact I might go and have one now (later: there were no crumpets, but I will let this stand anyway. Even in the abstract, crumpets are a good thing).

- Prog Rock has just reminded me that David Sedaris was on the radio on Sunday night, so yippee, I can go and listen to it.


Would you like to tell me a thing that makes you happy tonight? You don't have to. You can come and sit with me on my slithery be-guanoed rock if you like.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Bucolic

We spent the weekend at the Beddington Collective Farm (comrades are requested to ensure their innoculations are up to date and must sign this 38 page personal injury waiver before starting work). It is a very long way to go for the weekend, especially if, on the return leg, some idiot forgets to turn their headlights out on the Eurotunnel and gets a flat battery, blocking you in for a further hour, making 9 hours total return, with only 2 sausage rolls and half of Gloucestershire's apple harvest between you and, well, mild hunger. It probably felt even longer for the dog who injured both his front paws within minutes of arriving in entirely inexplicable circumstances (he went outside, ran around for a minute, yelped and came back in limping) and was unable to do anything other than sit on the sofa and look pained. Poor dog. He is a very good traveller, lying limp and flat and uncomplaining under the children's feet for however long he needs to, happy simply to be travelling with the pack. Of course on arrival back home, he leapt out of the car so precipitately he catapulted my Kindle into the gutter, thereby dissipating all my warm and fuzzy feelings towards him. It was ever thus.

I get as misty as the weather at this time of year: it makes me nostalgic for some golden rural childhood I'm fairly sure I didn't actually have. I love the leaves on the turn and a low pale haze on the lawn in the morning and the brambles getting fat and dark and my father's apple trees bent with fruit, the Sunsets and the Lord Lambourne's and the tiny deep red Spartans. Yes, I hate the country, but for a couple of weeks in September I conveniently forget about that and go fully Marie-Antoinette, hello clouds, hello fields, hello rotting carcasses, hello taciturn farming types pondering the slow but inexorable destruction of your way of life. Not even the spiders the size of ponies and the crushed pheasant guts littering the road and the pervasive smell of manure can put me off: it is beautiful and when the sun shines (which it did for a full 8 hours), I can entirely see the point of it.

My father didn't even have any interesting animal corpses to show us this time: instead we picked apples, and then we crushed apples in his primitive Heath Robinson crushing machine. Here they are, all three of them, cackling over machinery as they made a special protein enriched cloudy blend of stick and mud and weevil apple juice:


And here are my children roaming feral, which is always pleasing, since it gives me time to hide in the corner and read the papers and drink wine, issuing instructions like "go and find me six identically sized sticks" when they get too close.




Lashes kept his hood up all weekend, in the manner of a slightly shifty Grim Reaper.







Then we ate most of a pig and the children bought and then "performed" crap magic tricks. On Sunday we went to the Shipston on Stour Harvest Fair, where we failed to whack a plush rat, watched a man whittle a chair leg and Lashes won a Union Jack teatowel in the tombola. I was bamboozled into buying a bag of cobnuts for £2.50 from a man with incredibly bushy and persuasive eyebrows even though I don't know what cobnuts are or whether I like them (ok, apparently they are hazelnuts, I have looked it up. I don't like hazelnuts). A good time was had by all (except the dog, and even he perked up slightly following the pig leftovers).

Apart from the bag of cobnuts, we have brought home: 800000 apples (and probably about twice that number of resident earwigs and spiders), a mountain of chard, a few tiny anaemic heads of sweetcorn, some bacon, a WI Rhubarb Sponge Pudding, 320 Yorkshire Gold teabags, a couple of packets of jelly, some mini Cadbury's Caramels and a Lyle's Ginger Cake, for which I have a periodic nostalgic yen. Ah, Lyle's Ginger Cake, mon amour, my madeleine. My dad used to give me this highly processed vaguely ginger flavoured stodge for breakfast when I stayed with him in the holidays in the Yorkshire Dales when I was little.  On special occasions he would even bring it to me, with a cup of tea in his big spotted teacup with the cockerel on, in bed. That was my ultimate luxury: a morning in bed with Josephine Pulleyn Thompson or Agatha Christie and Lyle's Ginger Cake, under the beady gaze of a balding stuffed duck, then a trip into Leyburn to go to the cattle auction and Coke and a packet of Seabrook crisps in a pub, or a ride on Sonny the homicidal hairy strawberry roan pony. Simple pleasures. Well, when it wasn't shitting down with rain for the 25th day running and I hadn't lost my dad's watch or we hadn't had a fight about me being a surly brat.

Back home, there is no furious strawberry roan pony in a boggy field down the road and no trip to Leyburn cattle market but there is the now slightly squashed Ginger Cake, which I have unwisely placed on my desk. I am whittling away at it, much like that man with the chair leg in Shipston on Stour. It is as delicious as ever, especially the sticky, dark bit that gets stuck on the paper case, and which has to be scraped off with your finger, absent-mindedly. When I do that, I'm back there in my damp Dales bedroom in a faintly mildew scented fug of electric blanket and junk shop books, waiting for life to happen.

I now find myself wondering if my own children will have similar misty feelings about Old El Paso fajita mix. What did your childhood - real or falsely remembered - taste like?