Monday, 8 July 2013

Adventures in greater Belgium

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?



Patsy said...

I did I enjoy your tales of days out in the land of weird, a walk with a pig makes up for dreadful takeaway food surely? You must leave the house again, there are clearly plenty more wild adventures to be had in Belgium!

Patience_Crabstick said...

Macarons are everywhere, all of a sudden. Are they the new cupcake?

One is supposed to appreciate beer nowadays and enjoy craft beers and discuss them intelligently, but I really detest it. If beer is required, I get Bud Light, and I don't care what the world thinks of me.

We saw a grumpy capybara today, in the Buffalo, NY zoo, sharing a habitat with two small crocodiles and some turtles. That was a little weird.

Anonymous said...

In the U.S., the tickets scam is the way we get around liquor law regulations, and limit the number of people handling cash at an event. That way, you only have to train the ticket sellers in the beer selling rules (the training consists of a policeman telling the ticket sellers: "check IDs; don't sell to anyone whose fake ID consists of a photocopy covered in Scotch tape"). My job requires me to dispense booze in exchange for tickets at outdoor concerts, and deal with belligerent people stuck with excess tickets because they weren't paying attention when last call rolled around. It sucks for everyone involved.

BDM said...

So brave. Downright feckin' brave. Travelling for beer. Beer!! To festivals yet. Crowded with *people*. Fer gawd's sake. My condolences.

Mrs Jones said...

Ooh, 'Die Antwoord'! I like them, so weird and threatening but very interesting. I've only been to one festival in my life - WOMAD, way back in about 1988 when it was still in Cornwall. You live a far more racier life than I....

I insist you do the guided pig tour next.

Nimble said...

That cat is a whopper. It's also looking right at you. You're lucky to be alive.

JBG said...

Just enjoying your outlook on life. It seems about as surly as mine.

David Oliver said...

I read this before breakfast and then nothing sounded good. I kept thinking about the sludge-like stuff and got quite hysterical as well. Actually I was already well on my way after viewing the fat cat and Sphinx. He bears a striking resemblance to the the Great Sphinx of Giza. It is a short trip from hysterical to schizophrenia as I began imagining scary dead things coming to life and biting me. Maybe I need a drink. None of the beer you talked about please. I'm not even real crazy about good beer.

As for the teenagers, I have been avoiding them for several years now ever since I played with some in WoW and wondered if we were of the same species.

Per your query about festivals - we have only the Watermelon festival. I don't think you have to buy or do anything except walk around eating corn on the cob while letting the butter drip off your elbows.

Hairy Farmer Family said...

I was also recently initiated into the ways of the beer, and found them all repulsive. Even J, who is a hardened ale drinker, was revolted by the final offering. If you ever want to feel really, really terribly ill, I suggest you drink some of this.
It is... summat else. There isn't a macaron in the world that can take the taste away, sadly.

Lirong said...

Dear Waffle, I am an ardent reader of your blog, despite never posting a comment. However I am having a thoroughly rotten day and for reasons I cannot explain I am certain that I would feel better simply by letting you know how much I enjoy your blog. Somehow. I would also like to make offerings to you - via schadenfreude - of my week so far (it is only Wednesday).

SCAMMED: Au-pair got burgled on the streets of Camden (where else), but in trying to help her buy a replacement, I got robbed on eBay.

LAUGHED AT: Police laughed at me when I tried to report robbery.

WASTED: Completely forgot I'd booked top-tier tickets to We're Going on a Bear Hunt.

BUSTED: After a 3year-old and a 19month 'baby', my favourite silk sack dress gave up its seams today.

I love Vampire Weekend for similar 'mother-of-2-boys' reasons too.

Reading you always makes me feel happy. Thank you! Xx

Fat Controller said...

My only experience of Oostende is of a place to hang around in while waiting to get the heck out of Belgium. Thus I have sampled various seedy bars in the vicinity of the ferry terminal. You should go to Plopsaland. Please visit Plopsaland and report back as to whether it is as horrible as its onomatapoeiac name would suggest.

Helen said...

Congratulations for getting back from the wilds of Belgium unscathed.

The paper-as-money thing is common here as well. I'm pretty sure it's a profit-scam reliant on people buying too much upfront. When I went to Benicassim a couple of years ago they were charging SEVEN EUROS for HALF OF A HALF PINT (250ml in foreign) of HEINEKEN. It put me off festivals for life. However I did spend my yoof as one of those festival goers, and I drank so much so as to forget about the trench foot. But that's soggy English festivals. Somehow I imagined the continent to be a bit more chic. Oh Belgium.

Anonymous said...

Like a previous commenter who is having a rotten day, I'm just not feeling great these days. Life has a way of being hard sometimes.
I'd just like to thank you for your wonderful writing. You never fail to bring a smile to my face or strike a chord somehow, no matter how I might be feeling on any particular day. Just to let you know that the ripples from your writing are far-reaching and life-affirming.
As Lirong put it, "Reading you always makes me happy". Thank you, Waffle, for years of happy moments reading your story. Yours is a rare and wonderful talent.

Waffle said...

Lirong/Anon -Goodness thank you so much! I'm really touched. What incredibly kind comments, they are hugely appreciated.

Fat Controller - I HAVE been to Plopsaland. More than once. I am never going back. That is all I have to say on the matter, except perhaps to say the "Indoor" version is worse than the outdoor.


Veronica Wald said...

"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?"

Yes! Isn't it clever?
(Taste of Chicago)

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