Monday, 21 January 2013


Right, let me shake off my damp tweed slanket of self-pity (and a heartfelt thank you for all your thoughtful and heartening and frequently fascinating comments on the previous post), which is starting to smell like wet sheep and mildew.

Actually, and I feel I should state this for the record, today is WONDERFUL. There's a proper snowstorm outside, tiny insistent flakes buffeting around the garden, drifts against the back door and on the tables (dead cactus collection now obscured by aesthetically pleasing whiteness), pushy gangs of finches arguing over our really quite unpleasant looking homemade fat balls. The fire is showily enormous and crackling and it hasn't gone out for about ten days, which has the benefit of making me feel like a particularly assiduous Russian peasant stoking the hearths at someone's dacha. I'm semi-gainfully occupied making my fifth baked good of the weekend (bagels, after fluffy pancakes, buttermilk scones, a chocolate fudge cake and some rather dubious looking bread rolls that look likely to join the notorious bread gargoyles of oversalted doom in the roster of Food That Is Better Forgotten): my Kitchenaid has overheated and is making a plaintive sound, a bit like the dog when he sees a Herta sausage. The children are out sledging and between bagel wrangling phases, I'm sitting at the kitchen table drinking Kusmi smoky Earl Grey tea in a happy fug. For the first time in ages, I don't have to work this weekend and I just want to bottle this feeling up, the intense, delicious cosiness of it. Of course, soon they will come back and L will be in his current sulky pre-teen fug of resentment and F will slink away silently to spend 4 hours playing DS in the dark and we will have to clean out the rats which is enough to fracture anyone's wintry idyll. But just now, right this instant, it's perfect, the kind of day I'd Instagram the fuck out of if I actually knew what Instagram was for.

(Updated to add: in the latter half of the day I fell over and banged my arse barely 2 feet from the back door, stood in some toxic woodworm solution, the binbag exploded all over me, and the dog peed on all three of our snowmen, so normality was indeed restored).

That means I have time to contemplate the fundamentals; the very essence of life: refuse collection.

There has been a tremendous hoo-haa in Brussels about the new refuse collection arrangements for 2013. Oh yes. You may feel that perhaps this reflects an absence of real problems to think about and you may be entirely right. I watched Belgian TV news accidentally three nights in a row this week (unwise) and 80% of each programme was devoted to the burning issue that is: The Snow. My particular favourite evening featured a hapless reporter sent out to tap on drivers' car windows and ask them what they thought of snow ("ben, ça va, tant que ça roule" "c'est beau, on ne devrait pas se plaindre, hein?", etc etc etc), a woman with a microphone on a lightly snow-dusted motorway bridge trying to find something to say about perfectly fluid traffic, followed by an in-depth interview with an eight year old on how to make snowballs. You think I'm joking, I'm really not. My favourite Belgian TV show, C'est du Belge, which is a delicious mixture of obscure royals and artisan crafts had a long, lovingly filmed report on a manufacturer of door handles this week too. I enjoyed every second of it.

It is, thus, not entirely astonishing that the bin collection changing has caused seismic waves of distress to reverberate around the capital. The first, ominous rumblings came before Christmas, when a leaflet was delivered, communicating the distressing news that the blue bags (plastics, tin cans) were getting divorced from the yellow bags (paper, cardboard). It was literally expressed in these terms: "Entre nous, c'est fini!". No counselling, no last ditch attempts at reconciliation, nothing. It's not as if we even knew the blue and yellow bags had been having problems. They kept it very quiet. It just goes to show how little we know about relationships between other, er, bin bags. The heart of the binbag a ses raisons. 

Later, as the various teams of bin men came round to collect their Christmas tips ('but I've paid you already! Three times!' 'Non, madame, we are the green bags'), we took receipt of a more detailed account of the terms of the blue/yellow separation. And when I say detailed, I mean detailed.

These are the rules:

Then these are the exceptions to the rules:

Then this is a strange, lengthy explanation of what you can put in each bin. The pink section is the DANGEROUS HAZARDOUS MATERIALS.

Which I was happy to see included chip fat.

This document was the main subject of discussion between Brussels residents for the whole of the first fortnight of January. Need to make smalltalk with a taxi driver or shop keeper? Awkward school gate silence? Talk about the bin bag polemic.

I suppose I can see why it has proved challenging to the good burghers of Brussels. I mean, the leaflet is clearly a prize winning work of obscurantist nonsense in two languages, but the actual rules when you get down to it (when you, for instance, ask one of the many men who are tapping you for €5 in the run up to Christmas) are very simple. Blue bags one week, Yellow the next. How hard is that? Not very hard. If remembering - or gauging the level of your two recycling bags and using deductive reasoning - proves insuperably challenging, there is always the wild, spontaneous option of looking outside your front door to see which bags your neighbours have put out. And if, by any misfortune, your neighbours are idiots, the magnificent people at Bruxelles Propreté (Brussels Cleanliness!) have a site where you can print out your own personalised colour coded calendar for your very house. I have just done precisely that with a glow of intense satisfaction. A whole year in rubbish! Just for me! There is also a freephone number. And a team of gentlemen who walk round the city slapping warning labels on the bags of anyone who has got it wrong. You can see why my tax bill is so impressively gigantic now, can't you.

The many and various ways of elucidating the potential confusion have not stopped Belgian TV news adding to it with a variety of alarmist coverage. I watched a lengthy report (no, I have no idea why I am watching so much Belgian television at the moment. Some version of hibernation, perhaps? I watched an hour long programme on "the treasures of Wallonia" too, we must never speak of it) where bin men went round knocking on doors to explain things. They were knocking on doors during the day, and were thus faced with a mottley collection of shifty looking freelancers in pyjamas, elderly people very keen to talk, a large number of non-French or Dutch speaking cleaning ladies in the posher areas and a light spattering of lunatics. Poor bin men. I will give my €5 even more readily in future. The beleagured journalist tried to interview some of them. "I get easily confused" said one grinning man they cornered on the street, his eyes swivelling erratically. "But I think I understand it now".

Do you know, I don't even know why I am telling you this any more. I apologise. Oh, maybe it was this: I am now very clear that I do not wish to work for either Brussels Cleanliness or Belgian TV news.

(It's blue next week. I've totally mastered this)


J. said...

Are they actually recycling what they collect? When I lived in Chicago a few years back, the rules were that you could toss the blue bags in with the trash bags in the bin, and they would sort them out later. Turned out to be a huge green-washing ruse--they buried them all in a landfill. Now I live in a village that is so obsessed with recycling that they also collect food scraps. I assume they are actually doing something with them, as periodically we get manic emails from village hall telling us where we can pick up free compost.

Michelloui | The American Resident said...

'Bin bag polemic', I love it. Indeed it is, sheesh! I lost our instructions and I keep putting out the wrong thing at the wrong time. I can almost imagine the bin men smirking at the stupid housewife. I think I can go online to find the right order of days, but when I think of it, I'm never at a computer. Until now. But now I'm busy. Sigh. It used to be much more complex and I ranted about it on my blog... but now seeing this post I'm ashamed I ever thought our system was complex!

Good luck...

Philip said...

The Real Story.....
Once we had 1 paper and 1 plastics recycling bag plus 2 landfill bags per week.
Now we have 1 recycling and 2 landfill bags per week.

Message: Lets do less recycling. Oh dear.

Anonymous said...

I read somewhere you can get an app for this bin conundrum and I mentioned this to my man indoors who said 'Well, I don't need an app, I'm just going to look out of the door and see what the neighbours do, like I always have.. ' Good point

London City (Mum) said...

And I thought the Swiss were bad.
How mistaken (but highly entertaining as always, dear Waffle).


Anonymous said...

I do - I get my very own garbage calendar in the mail (because we have yellow, blue, green, and grey - and this does NOT include glass.) There was a mini-uproar over last year's calendar because supposedly the print was so small that people could not read it. Which made them re-design it into something that is so unintelligible that I am now simply copying the dates onto our big family calendar. Heh.

More importantly, I'm glad you are feeling better. I've been writing a comment to your last post in my head, and it keeps getting longer. So for now I would just like to point out that by no means is Meg Jay an expert on neuroscience. She is a (probably very nice) clinical psychologist who apparently wrote her dissertation on something to do with gender and depression. So this whole brain stuff is most likely in there to make "carpe diem" look a bit more scientific and sexy. (Reading that part made me think of my grad school advisor who, irked by pseudo-neuroscience drivel based on neuroimaging, dreamed of publishing a paper titled "Any schmuck with a ruler".)
Not that there is anything wrong with "carpe diem" (I speak as the mother of a nineteen-year-old, you see).
XXX, Annette

Anonymous said...

I have 12 yellow bags going out tonight, due to several weeks' worth of reject labels - strange to see all my christmas wrapping paper still hanging around out in the street again - would not be surprised if they are still out there in the morning...

Patience_Crabstick said...

In my city, you're charged according to how much trash you have. For example, if you put out a 15 gallon bag, you affix to it a sticker that cost $2 (or something--I don't actually know the price of each sticker as we buy them in bulk.) If you put out larger bags, you must use more expensive stickers. Recycling is free. Then they have "hazardous waste amnesty day" twice a year when you fill your car with all your frying oil and old house paint and batteries and drive it to the dump. It's lots of fun because everybody is SO happy to be getting rid of the batteries, etc that have been sitting around for six months.

Margaret said...

I live in a high rise. I put the garbage down a chute and leave the recycling in the plastic bins in the garbage room. The porter takes it all away and gossips with the staff about the volume of Zappos boxes and empty wine bottles we put out. Once a year he gets a large tip to not share this information with my neighbors.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Waffle! That personalised bin bag calendar you linked to was a raving success in my Facebook feed.


Helen said...

This post made me laugh out loud in Duke Humfrey's!

Now. Ok. This is totes crazy, but it's been bugging me for ages. WHAT DO THE COLOURS MEAN?!

I see these adverts on the Metro, with their yellow and blue bin bags, and I say to the Dutchman, 'Our bin bags are white.' And he looks at me as if to say 'Why the fuck are we talking about bin bags?' and shrugs.

Are we going to get fined by bin bag monitors? Will they force us to adhere to their crazy colour-coded schemes? Possibly they will come for us with crazed eyes, slapping reject stickers on us, shaking our non-conformist rubbish in our faces?

What is going on in my brain...

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