I wish I had some glamorous and escapist things to relate. I have been admiring other people's lovely lives (bloody Instagram again) with some wistfulness. The macarons! The make up! I have nothing remotely like that for you, though I have at least left the house. I met a grotesquely fat cat down an alleyway last night and put that on Instagram. I am totally getting the hang of this.
1. Yesterday we went to Oostende (I like it with the Flemish extra 'o'. You only get an Oo with Oostende!), along with 87,3% of the rest of Belgium. I still hate the beach after 38 years, and sat huddled fully dressed under a wide brimmed hat, the hem of a bath sized towel tucked under the rim of my sunglasses and the rest of said towel covering every inch of my body and scowled at the sun while the children dug holes and went in the horribly cold water and so on. Occasionally we would sit while they warmed up and admire the seagulls who were circling very, very low and very, very deliberately over the beach, biding their time while they chose a child to carry away. Oostende was papered with jolly warning posters about seagull antics, featuring a vulpine and terrifying seagull head and a disembodied (quite possibly literally) finger unwisely proffering a chip. The seafront is populated not only with death gulls maddened with blood lust for surimi batons and fingers but also by nine thousand beered-up and sunbaked teenagers in fast, low cart things called cuistax whose goal for the day is to play chicken with other people's shins. Even getting back the 2km to the station felt like an exhilarating brush with death. I have rarely felt so alive.
2. Oh, I have also been to two festivals in under a week, which on reflection was probably a little more festival than I am ready for at my time of life. At the first one (world musak festival Couleur Café) I ate the worst food in the chequered history of Belgian food (grey friterie meats, I am looking at you), a dish of "curry" so grey, lukewarm and sludge-like that it made me quite hysterical. I should have Instagrammed the fucker but I was rendered incapable of anything whatsoever simply by the presence of the paper bowl of malevolence. It was like food kryptonite, if kryptonite were very faintly cumin scented porridge. After that we strayed into the aural assault range of a group called 'Die Antwoord' who seemed to be extremely angry about everything, possibly someone had prevailed upon them to try the curry. All choruses featured the work "fuck" shouted repeatedly at high volume, like a South African, electro version of Father Jack. I also took several taunting pictures of white dreads (of which there were legion) with which to taunt Madevi.
The second festival is miles away in the Flanders countryside, through an endless succession of long, unlovely sprawling towns and villages full of garden ornament shops and elaborate and ill-advised villas of the kind you find on Ugly Belgian Houses. It was full of happy, pissed, loud, dancing teenagers, cheerily throwing cups of beer in the air and pissing in hedges, which is the kind of thing you have to be in the mood for (the mood being "highly pissed yourself").
I went mainly for Vampire Weekend and they were, as ever, polite and slick and wonderfully musical and in-tune and possibly the cleanest looking group of musicians I have ever seen. So clean! Such nice boys! They were quite hard to enjoy, however, due to the teenagers insisting on having loud vocal fun throughout (you can see I was not entirely in the spirit of the thing, narrowing my eyes fruitlessly at the square dancing youths in the monkey onesies). The rest I was more relaxed about: I quite enjoyed what little of Bloc Party I could see across 9000 sunburnt shoulders and lots of Dizzee Rascal, though I was forced with regret to conclude that "HOW THE FUCK YA DOIN' BELGIUM?" will never quite have the ring of, say, 'Vegas' or 'Ibiza'.
On the way home, somewhat mellowed towards the youth by a couple of lukewarm beakers of wine (2,5 tiny paper tokens each. Tell me, the rest of the world - do your festivals require you to buy a strip of tickets from an officious ticket counter in order to procure victuals? Or is this a Belgian peculiarity? I don't even know any more), we relinquished our wristbands, highly illegally, to two enterprising teenagers who conducted an ingenious trick involving putting my hand in a cheese Doritos bag. I felt quite edgy for about four seconds.
3. Today I got back on a train to go to Ghent to be initiated into the ways of Beer. In preparation for this, I bought four different kinds of beer at the weekend and hated all of them. There was "the unbearably bitter one", "the disgustingly sour one", "the unpleasantly sweet one with the nightmarish Santa on the bottle" and "the other one that I can't remember, can we stop now". See these glasses?
That is how much of each beer I managed to drink. Pathetic.
Thankfully today's selection was considerably better, though that is not really saying much (the beer expert laughed heartily when I told her about my brush with this bastard and said it was "probably the worst beer you could have chosen to start off with", so that was unsurprising). My train on the way back was delayed by nearly an hour and featured the trifecta of transport torment that is: a furiously arguing and volatile couple of the kind that could quite easily decide at any second to reconcile and turn on you, a barking dog and an inconsolably wailing baby.
"What do I win?" I emailed M.
"You win .. this magnificent headache!"
In conclusion on 1-3, leaving my house and venturing outside of Brussels is an activity fraught with strangeness. I am used to the particular, familiar weirdness of my neighbourhood: the man with the multipurpose bench of lunacy (currently piled with sheet music and books about canaries), the sociologically interesting and inexplicable local practice of buying ice creams then sitting in the car to eat them, the hairdresser's window. The strangeness, however, of the wider Belgium, always throws me. I like it, but I sure as hell do not understand it. They speak another language, in which I can only describe a house or say "order 98 is ready at the butchers" (thank you Colruyt). Everyone wears earplugs to listen to music. They drink beer that tastes like the concentrated essence of misery ("yes, yes, it's supposed to smell like socks"). You can go on walks guided by a pig (I am, predictably, hell bent on doing this). I am, however, encouraged by the enduring strangeness, because it means there is still plenty for me to explore. I mean, I still haven't been to the festival where the initiates swallow live fish and then pelt the audience with pretzels! What have I been doing for the past seven years?
MAKE SOME FUCKIN' NOIZE BELGIUM.