Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Percentage heavy

No smug domesticity this weekend, just stomach flu and a long wait for a mystery African translation that never arrived. I have started this morning involuntary whispering my empowering affirmation-slash-mantra several times ("I hate everyone") and plan to spend most of the week staring sullenly at the garden (which is, I concede, looking very beautiful this morning as long as you don't look too closely at the mountains of chicken shit).

(apparently I spent the whole of Monday staring sullenly at the garden, because it is now Tuesday. It's still beautiful out there, but it's supposed to rain tomorrow. Maybe I'll finish this then. Actually, hang on , now it's Wednesday, so let me try. I had about seven draft posts sitting around, but then I got busy and lost my train of thought, perhaps irrevocably)

I tried to take a picture of my new hair for you, but every time I try it comes out 65% giant, red nose (complete with two large spots) and the rest greying, uneven complexion, which is very unfair on my very talented hairdresser. I like it, anyway, it is a little bit longer at the front but still nice and short at the back and we had a good, hilarity-heavy chat as we always do: work, sex, money, hair, home, scandals. I am trying to live up to my hair by not dressing like a hobo and at least putting on a bit of tinted moisturiser, but I confess my success rate is currently running at about 15% basic levels of aesthetic decent maintained, 85% tired blotchy hobo.


My son's phone is somewhere at school "accueil" and the person who has it has gone on maternity leave. This farce has gone on for a week. It wasn't even confiscated, I dropped it off because he forgot it (= genetics).

Do my clients actually concert to ensure that I have long periods with literally FUCK ALL to do followed by intense bursts during which everyone wants something at the same time?

Belgian avocados. 10% rock hard, 60% rotten, 29% seemingly perfect to the touch but suppurating and black once you cut into them, 1% perfect.

I am quite annoyed by the interviews with aspirational young chic people I am currently translating, who have more money/kudos/success/creativity than me. Also tofu is NOT your "vice", hush now.

It is raining. It always rains on Wednesday when I have to trail my younger son around Brussels to his various (SELF-SELECTED) improving activities.

Invitation from my bank (yes, them again) to a "free information session: what is the future of your pension?" Ha. Ha ha ha. What do you imagine this involves? Maybe they show a short film of a post-apocalyptic Uccle, all fire and rubble and desolation, with us, their customers, scavenging for rat carcasses and fighting each other for pieces of cardboard to construct our primitive shelters? I hope they have crisis counsellors and many boxes of tissues.

Yorkshire Vet seems to be over and I had to watch a programme about women marrying their cats instead which was vastly inferior.


MY TREE is in its short hour of glory:

Non-Working Monkey is blogging again! There are many delights for lovers of recorder playing horses and spreadsheets.

The arrival - in defiance of the Belgian postal strike - of the world's most amazing chocolate package from Arianna including those chocolate unicorns, Mocha KitKats.

I have now tested the Mocha KitKat and I like the cut of its jib. It tastes deliciously cheap, like a coffee Revel, but better.

The font on my proofs (and thus at some future date in my actual book, fuuuuck) has the prettiest letter Qs ever. I could stare at them for hours.


30% Failed multitasking, leading to paralysed sitting/blog post writing
30% The return of formless terror after a nice few weeks off from that bullshit
10% Toasted halloumi sandwich craving
10% Facial blemishes
10% Unicorn bemusement (or here in English)
10% Unsure what to read now (suggestions, please?)


Tuesday, 20 October 2015

In which I go to the bank

Scene: The bank, Tuesday morning. 

I am walking past the bank on the way to the Commune to finally get my new ID card (second attempt after the one that ended with my shouting "I hate this fucking place" at the sky last week), when I remember that I have a €20 note that caught in the zip of my wallet and has ripped. Surely the bank is the place to deal with such a thing? In my current mood of administrative virtue, I resolve to go in and attempt to deal with the ripped note. 

In the manner of banks everywhere, the bank has undergone recent renovations to make it as unhelpful as possible. There is now no discernible counter service or any of the other traditional signifiers of a bank, just a vast expanse of floor, some motivational posters about saving products and a couple of automatic machines hidden behind bright plastic dividers. A woman sits at an empty desk in the middle of the expanse of floor with nothing but a telephone and a pen on a chain. The lobby is filled with shuffling, confused customers who aren't even sure if they've come to the bank or to a drop in centre for wayward teenagers who need to avoid excessive stimulus by mistake. 

Me (with little actual hope): Can I possibly change this ripped banknote? What is the procedure?

Accueil lady: Yes you can. You need to sit down and wait for the guichet to be free then you can go and swap it. You're in luck, it's Tuesday, the guichet is open on Tuesdays! (this last part said as if I have unexpectedly come into a significant windfall)

Me (genuinely pleased, for it has come to that after 9.5 years in Belgium): Oh good! Thank you!

I sit down. Ten minutes pass. All the customers milling in confusion around the bank are over 70 and cannot cope with the brave new world of banking with no counters, staff or any way to do your basic transactions other than THE INTERNET (here be dragons). The woman at the acceuil keeps having to explain to them the many and varied ways in which they can no longer do what they have been doing for the past 50 years, particularly if it involves actual paper money, and there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth. 

I study the motivational posters about savings products for a while and eventually it is my turn in inner sanctum-cum-locked cupboard where the "guichet" is. It is freezing in the cupboard and the woman behind the counter is swathed in scarves and looks very cross and ruffled, like a little owl removed mid-nap from its nest box for ringing. 

Cashier: Can I help you?

Me (Placing ripped €20 in the plastic tray thing confidently): I would like to exchange this ripped bank note for a new one please.

Cashier (sharp intake of breath, recoil of head): Please can you wait a minute.

Much tapping away at computer ensues. She picks up the phone twice, then shakes her head and puts it down again. She stares at my note and sighs.

Cashier: I do not know what to do with your banknote.

Me: I believe you take it and give me a new one?

Cashier: But I am just filling in here. They told me to sit here. I do not know what to do. Please wait.

Me: Can't you just give me a new one? (proffers bank card) Look! I am a customer of this bank.

Cashier: (shakes head) Please can you wait.

She tries to call two people. We stand/sit in uncomfortable silence for five more minutes. I do some sighing and poke pointedly at my phone, since this is the way of my people.

Cashier: My colleagues are not answering the phone. I do not know what to do.

Me: So I see. The lady at the Accueil said I could just come in here and swap my note for a new one. She seemed to think it was a perfectly normal thing to do.

Cashier (rising tone of grievance): The problem is that I am stuck in here and I don't know how to get out and I do not know what to do and THAT is not normal.

Me: No. No indeed it is not.

Cashier: Could you perhaps come back another day?

Me: Oh, very much not. Not when we've got so far.

Cashier: Why don't you give me your bank card then I can see your dossier.

Me (thinks: WTF): Here.

Cashier: Your ID card information is not up to date. We could do that now, perhaps? While we wait?

Me: Sadly, I am just on the way to get a new ID card so that will not be possible. Can I have a new €20 note now instead?

Cashier: Just a moment.

After several more attempts, she manages to get through to a colleague on the telephone.


She hangs up.

Cashier: My colleague is coming.

Me: This is welcome news.

There is some slapstick as Corinne tries to get into the cupboard, because as previously stated the Cashier cannot open the door and Corinne has to shout instructions through to her and then finally - finally! - Corinne is in the room. 


Corinne: You give her a new one.

Corinne hands me a new €20 note. 


(Takes €20 and goes to spend it on crack)


The one good thing about this incident was that it made the subsequent trip to get my ID card almost painless in contrast and I didn't end up raging at the sky like last week.

I only saw one shit pumpkin on my travels through Belgian administrative purgatory, but it was pretty tragic.


50% Teenager induced rage-slash-impotence
10% Puzzlement at Milka chocolate bar (bought in error) that comes missing a square so you have to go online and get the missing square sent to the person of your choice, what, no, SOD OFF, just give me the whole bar of chocolate, thanks, marketing fops.
10% Hair (wig) dresser says "Let's try something new on Friday" terror.
10% Chinese character flashcard drudgery
10% Assorted other drudgery
10% Desire to give up and eat chocolate covered pretzels until bedtime.


Monday, 19 October 2015


Oh god, I so loved my weekend. We had one fight about teenage behaviour, a minor violin strop and one phone confiscation and I had to de-mite both the chickens and the chicken house (speculative, there is a lot of feather removal going on, which they choose to do whilst standing on the back step and staring in at us for extra creepiness), but apart from that, the wonder of it. I woke up on Saturday morning and it was just THERE, the autumn, properly, even though it has been cold, unseasonally cold, for at least the last week, misty on occasion, gloves weather at least twice. But Saturday was different: I suppose it was something to do with the light and having the fire going and anyway, it was wonderful and I was gleeful with cosiness and filled with the desire to bustle around in a hygge fashion like some Beatrix Pottter harvest mouse in a bonnet.

On Saturday afternoon I made Hannah's sweet potato coconut and chilli soup (delicious, easy), then I made a chickpea and spinach curry with the remaining coconut milk (hmm) whilst listening to Elvis Costello's memoir on audiobook (he is reading it himself and is very very funny and wonderful as you would imagine). On Sunday, we made bolognese for the freezer and a beautiful leg of lamb with baby roast potatoes all of which is frankly astonishing because as frequently documented here I loathe cooking and suck at it, this was simply the magical power of autumn removing my normal personality for a few brief hours.

We also got the jumpers out of the freezer to make room for batch cooking and surrender them once more to the mothbastards, collected two pictures from the framers and bought a new kettle and also a Microplane grater, because I have wanted one since I first read Nigella's How to Cook (which is deliciously prescriptive about tools, I love people who are firm about what you need, see also India Knight writing about pretty much everything and Esther Walker's new blog, which I am greatly enjoying), so that I can make lemon drizzle cake without sacrificing my knuckles to the box grater. And now you are all gagging on my insufferable smugness but fear not because Monday is here and THE DOOM WILL RETURN.


30% there is a Marcolini coffee eclair in the fridge and I can't focus on anything else
10% lunch plotting
10% really want to make this apple pie
10% Dutch exam nerves
10% insufficient layering for ambient temperature
10% goat thoughts
10% desire to Microplane something, anything
10% no to this shite-tastic Halloween display:


(Postscript: my smuggery bubble has just been punctured by realisation that all my bags of nutritious batch cooked soup have adhered themselves to the freezer drawer wall so firmly, it is impossible to remove and eat any of them without defrosting the entire sodding thing, fool)

Friday, 16 October 2015

Friday futility

(You said you just wanted me to keep boring on, so I have taken you at your word)

Prog Rock
Prog Rock has checked into the waffledome with two multipacks of Walker’s Crisps, €10 each for the boys, a giant book on evolution and my birthday present, six weeks early (“saves postage. You can decide whether to open it now, Em.”).

On Prog Rock’s radar?

- Why there was a photo of 17th century radical Gerrard Winstanley on the wall of the Kremlin.

- My sister (always. Currently camping in Inverness playing folk violin at a festival apparently)

Red Plenty and industrial ideology in 1960s Russia.

- The entire contents of Le Monde Diplomatique, comme d’habitude.

I feel on top of things, momentarily, with Prog Rock here. There’s an essential rightness about the house and the world when he’s curled up in an armchair with a strong mug of tea and a massive library book, occasionally nipping out back for a roll-up. I don’t know what it is exactly: the calming familiarity of his presence, or the fact that he reminds me of my childhood (well, teenagehood really, I have to remind myself he only moved in when I was ten, and how even more astonishing it is that I think of my home as a teenager as being such a peaceful and welcoming place. Now I possess a teenager and a nearly teenager of my own, this seems like an actual godalmighty miracle, I started today shouting about a towel and then removing 700 Daim wrappers from the washing machine filter with very bad grace, also I am pretty sure L has stolen my tram pass). Perhaps it's just because he’s so simply delighted when we make him crap pasta with sauce out of a jar or offer him a beer, allowing me to feel like some kind of genius gracious hostess.

I like it, anyway and I can make tea in a pot for once and have even descaled the kettle in his honour (surely the nicest of household tasks, or at least a tied first with cleaning the tumble dryer filter). The greatest and most enduring solitude of the Brit expat is not having anyone to share an actual pot of tea with, so tea-loving houseguests are cherished. F thought he liked tea for about five minutes a fortnight ago and I got quite misty about the possibility of having someone to share my tea-life with, but sadly he has changed his mind.

Belgian cultural happenings
I went to what I thought was a new museum opening yesterday but what turned out to be an opportunity to examine a building site which will one day become a new museum whilst artistic videos of eg. people skateboarding but with the skateboards removed played in the background and storage heaters flickered, carbon monoxidely (totally a word).

I spent much of the press conference trying to decide if the bare breasted girlie calendars on the wall were (i) art or (ii) left there by the builders. I haven't been to an event like this for months and had totally forgotten what they are like, that is, impossible for someone as bad at small talk as me. Everyone seems to know each other or at least know someone and I stand in the corner and stare at the wall, sweating. I swear, if come the apocalypse we can only survive by networking (admittedly I can't quite see how this would work, but it would definitely be an apocalypse of sorts), I will be dead within 48 hours. What did people do at these things before they had phones to stare at?

My body is a Belgian museum building site
I am currently on an unlikely minor health kick. It started with some, ugh, “Yogi” tea (“Bonne Nuit” variety), which I have superstitiously decided is the only thing that can possibly get me to sleep at night, which in turn is part of my ongoing attempt to not be mad. Whilst on the search for more of this unpleasantly flavoured gateway drug to smugness, I have been lured into the recently expanded health food shop round the corner. As is traditional with health food shops, all the staff look like they are suffering from catastrophic nutritional deficiencies or possibly taking class A drugs and greet customers with all the enthusiasm and warmth of a chilled chia seed porridge. I have not however let this put me off my voyage of discovery into the bewildering world of contemporary health foods. So far I have tried:

-  a raw cocoa bar - tasted like compacted soil, just no, never again, could not even finish, what the fuck was I thinking.

- a giant bag of ground up linseeds with added vitamin D. I am wary of these, because doesn’t too much vitamin D give you liver failure? Will I go yellow? Anyway, they taste of nothing and I can’t remember why I thought they were a good idea.

- coconut water, which is of course disgusting and expensive but which my friend F insists is amazing for hangovers and I have very much not given up alcohol.

- some “anti-stress” vitamins which get stuck in my throat in a manner I find highly stressful. I don’t think they are working anyway because at 10:30 am this morning I found myself standing outside the Uccle town hall boiling with impotent thwarted rage and could not stop myself just shouting, out loud “I FUCKING HATE THIS PLACE” (there is no story behind this really, just the usual tale of missing paperwork and obstructive officials, but it seems I have more latent rage than I realise).

I also went to Brussels' newest and hippest organic #eatclean #nourishyourself bollocks café with my friend Nathalie this lunchtime but this was clearly a step too far because it made me feel chippy and mutinous and I went fully off message and had a toasted halloumi sandwich (delicious).  Nathalie's woe-inducing, fridge cold plate of mixed salads was straight out of Cranks circa 1985. The bloody Rose Bakery has a lot to answer for, if you ask me.

This outbreak of smuggery will not last anyway, because I have arranged a chocolate swap with an internet acquaintance in order to obtain these elusive Mocha KitKats and also bought a box of choux buns. Maybe I could sprinkle them with linseed dust, but then again, no.

It's not at all decorative gourd season, motherfuckers

Once more, with wearying inevitability, Uccle lurches towards Halloween whilst continuing to have no fucking clue.

No to this

Even more no to this. 

More offences against the gourd as I spot them.

What of your Fridays? 

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

On my radar

What’s on my radar? I’m so glad you asked. They have this feature in, I think, the Observer Review and it's almost always unremittingly highbrow. No such issue with mine.

1. The Yorkshire Vet
I have become entirely obsessed with this Channel 5 show in which a nice man called Julian rummages around inside cows on various farms on the outskirts of Thirsk (fact: "Thirsk" is my favourite word to make French people say). In last week’s episode, Julian had to insert a sort of valve of the type you find on bicycle tyres in a cow to cure its bloat. The cow looked appalled and even the farmer’s wife was felled by the vile smell of cow effluent as it deflated. Other episodes have featured a murderous hairy Mangalitsa sow (I LOVE THESE PIGS), a vomiting pug, a llama with a low sperm count and a woman so in love with her chickens I believe it to be a diagnosable pathology. Highly recommended, particularly if, like me, your most cherished dream is to have a smallholding in North Yorkshire. The trailer for tonight's episode reads "Julian treats a bad-tempered goat." How can you possibly resist?

2. Doctor Foster
Some weeks after the rest of the world, I have finished watching this entirely preposterous BBC “is he, isn’t he” adultery drama in which the wonderful Suranne Jones was required to divide her time between: standing in doorways looking pensive in nice blouses, being the worst GP since Harold Shipton and saying lines like “I am a wolf now.” I am a bit ashamed I even saw it through to the end, but since I have no work, well, no, that's no excuse, I could have been reading Henry James or saving orphans or you know, FINDING SOME WORK.

3. Marks and Spencer’s cashmere jogging bottoms
I don’t need a reason and neither do you. We just all need a pair of these. There is a men’s version too, FYI.

4. Elvis Costello - Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink
The extract in the Guardian today from this memoir was brilliant and now I must have it.

5. Sloths
Sloths are always on my radar, obviously, but since we met Edward the baby sloth at the weekend, I have been quite preoccupied with the wonder of him. He was an utterly calming, beady-eyed, presence.

We also met the coatis, who are ferociously funny and mugged their keeper for a pocketful of ferret food and F shared a cubing moment with a colobus monkey:

 (This whole animal extravaganza was in aid of my father’s 70th birthday. He is notoriously hard to buy for, so we adopted him a Hero Rat and called it Sir John, which amused us, if not him).

6. The Heating
It is time. 4°C here today, let’s not kid ourselves. I even have the storage heater in my office on and the dog's geography teacher roll neck coat is coming out too. Time to wrestle with the winter weight duvet this weekend.

7. Picard spanakopita
Cook in about 5 minutes. Contain a vegetable, thus acceptable lunch food, AND the comforting flaky goodness of filo. If you require more vitamins with your lunch, the addition of Picard Velouté de Fèves aux Epinards also gets my vote.

8. Au Marché Noir
If I could afford it, I would get my lunch from here every damn day and would live forever with porcelain perfect skin and sparkling eyes. Basically, they do two cooked fresh, utterly healthy and delicious ready meals a day then tell you what they are on their Facebook page every day. There’s usually a non-meat one at €8 and a meaty or fishy one at €10.
I had this €8 beauty last week - pumpkin pancake, lentil salad, roasted aubergine and pepper, beautiful fresh tomatoes and wilted chard with some kind of insanely delicious sauce (“émulsion de basilic mauve”, apparently, though I could not have identified with a gun to my head). Sadly, I can only justify this about once a fortnight, so my skin remains grey and my eyes bloodshot and I still have a festering wound on my left knee where I fell over trying to avoid capture for not having a ticket in the tram (ndlr: the inspectors weren't chasing me, I should clarify, I just got off and walked because they were apparently in the area, then fell over my own legs). NB, obviously they aren't paying me to say this, because if they were I could probably afford more of their food.

9. Philips AirFloss
If you had any doubt over whether this is sponsored, hahahahaha. We got one of these fancy pants toothbrush things that spits water and air between your teeth in violent bursts about two months ago as a pathetically middle aged treat to ourselves, but within approximately 2 minutes of starting it up, it broke and we have been in a tedious cycle of consumer exchange purgatory ever since, with several calls to the "Helpline", some minutely specific and alarming instructions on how to return the package and following that, frequent wistful thoughts of whether we would ever get a functioning one back. It arrived on Friday and now I can start testing the bastard for real. Judgment is reserved but it is very much On My Radar.

10. Anguila
Since Madevi found me this article about it. I am ready to meet my goat overlords.

What's on your radar? Also, did I actually dream that coffee KitKats were a thing? I am sure I had a conversation about them recently but can find no sign that they actually exist on the internet.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Things that have happened or continue to happen


1. Dog blessing

WE GOT THE DOG BLESSED. I have been dying to go to this annual Brussels event for years and finally managed. We were unable to locate any tortoises (hibernating somewhere) and the chickens did not seem good contenders for a tram trip, so the dog was volunteered, much to his enduring disgust. Despite a sad lack of variety in fauna, the event was everything I had hoped for. The actual blessing involved the man in the sandals wielding this lavatory brush style implement full of holy water at you after another man with a microphone announced your pet's name and age over the tannoy to the assembled weirdoes (I include myself in that). One woman brought a fish in a plastic bowl in a shopping bag to be blessed. Another lady had a plush toy blessed. Every old person in the Marolles was there with a grotty, aggressive small dog. The man next to me, smartly dressed in a suit, with highly polished brogues, had several kittens in a hold-all.

These guys with their kittens and furry hats were also amazing, like something from central casting.

There was also a woman carrying the largest cat I have ever seen, which was immobile and oddly rigid. We spent a good ten minutes trying establish whether it was alive or dead and failed.

2. Avian health
Tabasco, the worryingly lethargic hen recovered from her lethargy after a €70 trip to the vet, so that was good. I got a separate bill (another €30, I could have bought four more chickens) from the laboratory full of weird capitalisations. “Votre POULE” it said, several times, “POULE de 18 mois, Tabasco”. “Analyses sur votre POULE”, as if the laboratory could not quite believe it themselves. I do not actually know what was wrong with the chicken because I never called the vet to find out. She seems fine now, laying, hiding by the back door to run in and eat the dog’s food whenever anyone’s attention lapses and shitting all over the terrace. I regret nothing.

3. Summer of crazy

I had a bit of a weird summer, brain-wise and have taken a while to get back to breathing/sleeping/functioning. I feel much better now thanks to the combined effect of: constant hot and cold running podcasts (Great Lives, The Moth, Criminal, Strangers, Love and Radio, Mystery Show, Undisclosed, In Our Time - finally, there is a point to Melvyn Bragg, who I have always loathed - also, I like The Read even though I only know who approx 3% of the people discussed are), very long walks with the dog, obsessive laundry and alprazolam but it seems to have poleaxed my writing mojo, ambition and get up and go (yes, it is debatable whether I ever had any of these things). My writing has all the deft lightness and wit of an elderly dugong swimming through treacle and I just want to sit quietly somewhere rural with a few goats and hens, basically. Since this is not actually a feasible plan for at least, what, six years, I need to work out what the fuck I am doing with my life. Any suggestions? No, I didn’t think so.

It wasn't all eyeball gnawing anxiety over the summer, however. We also climbed the Three Peaks in honour of my father's imminent 70th birthday. Here we are on the way back down from Ingleborough, which was our last peak, looking querulous and ready for gin. Observe the cold fury of a Ouipette forced up a succession of Yorkshire's finest vertical bogs.

4. Aesthetic degradation

I have two weird bumps on my face that I can only conclude are just more of the general indignities of ageing (I tried to pick one of them off unsuccessfully earlier in the year and it just came back). Aesthetically things are pretty bad at the moment: my wig is full of bald patches and I have accidentally given up on make up (again). Due to the prolonged period of crazy in the latter half of the summer, I am much less fat than I was previously, but this means the once-excellent & Other Stories boyfriend jeans now hang around my flat arse in sad folds and I look grey, drawn and half-demented.

On the one hand, I would like to up my game aesthetically, but on the other, I currently give zero fucks and this is winning out. It feels as if I am at a crossroads: in one direction lie ill-fitting trousers secured with safety pins, pockets filled with straw and chicken feed, dirty fingerclaws, pink-rimmed eyes and street-based muttering; in the other, some simulacrum of middle-aged respectability. Which way will it go? I am seeing my hairdresser to cut a new wig in a fortnight, hopefully this will be the necessary fillip back into basic presentability I need. I did buy a wildly expensive blusher and “magic” eye crayon from Charlotte Tilbury last month buoyed by the glamorous and supportive presence of Mrs Trefusis, but so far all I have done is stare at them in puzzlement.

5. Nederlandse les

I have started intensive Dutch classes in a concerted attempt to leave the house more often and talk to other humans. Wow, but we are all so shit at Dutch in our Dutch class. It is not a pretty sight, or sound. More about this in an upcoming post, I feel.

6. Where do we go from here? 

I am thinking about how I could do this blog differently. I don’t want to stop, but I am a bit bored of talking about my boring-ass life and no one else in my boring-ass life wants to be comic blog fodder, which is inconsiderate of them. I thought maybe I could write a post every time I finish a book and incorporate a book review into it rather than putting them onto my reading page? What do you think? Is personal blogging dead?

I have to go to Dutch class now. I will attempt to return soonish. What have you been up to in the past three months? Facial buboes, brain spiders, pet incidents? Do tell.