Friday, 31 August 2012

Full House

My mother said, to get things done, you'd better not mess with Major Tom.  My mother said to get things done, you'd better not mess with Major Tom.

In fact she said nothing of the sort, mainly because she was probably draped over the railings down by the 88 bus stop.  (Yes, unfortunately that is where we found her once, completely passed-out over the railings of a small park where the bus turned around.)

I have been feeling rather like an octopus in a jar of late.  This flat that I love, in this area that I love, is just too small.  It would be too small if I were 3ft 6.  My books, which are sort of like my blood, are stacked up in the wardrobe.  In the same way that other people dream of having fantastic kitchens or hot spa whirl pool things, I dream about having all my books on shelves and letting out a sigh.

Gent/Ghent is suggesting itself to me more and more.  I have realised where all those people were striding to, across the park where I sat on my first day in this job.  The Gare Centrale is about a twenty minute walk from my office, and Gent is a further half an hour.

In Gent, for what I pay here, I could rent an entire HOUSE.   

Yes.  An entire house.  Ashes to ashes; funk to funky.


Thursday, 30 August 2012

Now You See Me

I don't want this to be about self-pity.  This is the story of how I became invisible.  I mentioned before that I can go pretty much anywhere untroubled by attentions and this may explain it, in part.

When I was a child, being silent and invisible kept me safe.  There was a period between about 1970 and 1973 when everyone got hit pretty badly.  My eldest brother was thrown down the stairs.  My sister had her jaw broken.  My next brother up from me had his head held down on little brother's highchair and punched.  And my mum was beaten up all the time.  I did not get hit.  Whether this was down to my becoming invisible or because I stood up to my dad and said if he ever laid a finger on me I would call the police, I don't know.  But in my head silence and invisibility were what kept me safe.  It didn't always work in the outside world as I grew older, but most of the time.

And it sort of stuck.  The good part of it is you can go anywhere and do pretty much anything, because nobody notices.  The bad part of it is that nobody notices. 

I've decided to come off the dating websites because the lack of anything approaching anything is causing me physical pain.  In the real world it is likely I'll have no greater success (because of the invisibility) but it will hurt a bit less than putting oneself up for grabs and relentlessly not being grabbed.

The fact that I'm thinking about maybe doing Calendar Girls is connected with the invisibility.  Nobody is going to see me so I can just go ahead and take my clothes off in one of the most prestigious arts venues in the city.  In worse times it has felt as if I'm a ghost haunting my own life.  In better times it just feels like I can do anything I damn well like.

So this isn't self-pity.  It's about how a child learned to survive, but not really live properly.  And I wish I knew how to change that but I think it's hardwired. 

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

On The Money

The last few days I've been carrying around a wad, a veritable wad ( €132) of luncheon vouchers, not quite having the courage to use them.  Many shops and brasseries take them but I don't want to be caught out at the counter by an out-of-date peeling sticker on their vitrine.

Tonight I chose my shop with care.  A little grocery place on the way home (please note NOT the Delhaize on the Chausée d'Ixelles, with its skirt-blasting vents out the front and one aisle for exit and entry and the longest queues in the known world) with a chatty lady on the till.  I had my bank card ready just in case. 

And lo, they accepted my voucher!  So I bought bread and wine, just like Jesus would if he had had luncheon vouchers, and LU Pim’s Framboise which are like jaffa cakes but raspberry and with dark chocolate.  Because this is pretend money, you see, and you can buy frivolous shit with it.

So now I've broken my luncheon voucher duck, I will take myself somewhere exotic (Chez Papy, two doors down from here) at the weekend, sit in the garden where I can actually see my own windows, and eat and drink with pretend money.


Sunday, 26 August 2012

Come Into My Parlour

I feel like a very still spider in the middle of lots of possible flies at the moment.  Just poised there with all eight legs waiting for a tug of the web.  Which means, of course, that I end up doing nothing because I can't decide which fly looks tastiest.

There are so many things you can do here in Brussels that it would be possible to be out every night of the week, and that's before you even start on the bars, restaurants and men.  These are some of the things currently under consideration:

  •     Samba class (the drums, the drums!)
  •     Salsa class
  •     Bachata class
  •     Zumba class
  •     Joining a choir that does all sacred music and stuff
  •     Auditioning for Calendar Girls (and yes, the play does involve middle-aged nakedness)
  •     Signing up for the next level of French
  •     Joining the Brussels Brontë Group

Having some sort of social programme going on would help to balance life, I think.  I might stop getting the WORK HORROR dreams.  My job is going just fine, but in my sleep IT'S ALL GOING HORRIBLY WRONG.  I get these looped nightmares that convince me of their reality.

Of course, appearing on stage naked would not only uphold an old family tradition (my mother was a Windmill girl) but it would hopefully give me calm, bucolic Dubonnet-ad dreams.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Word Up

Despite the 84% in my French test, my spoken French tends to be me looking confused and repeating back to the person in front of me what they've just said.  If I can understand it.  So this week:

At the boulangerie picking up a lunch order for a meeting the only thing I understood was when they asked me if I needed a receipt.  The rest might as well have been Icelandic.  It probably was, on reflection.

On the phone yesterday I managed to cobble together "Je ne comprends pas tout ce que vous avez dit...est-ce qu'il y a quelqu'un qui parle anglais...?"

And today in the pharmacy I mainly just repeated words back to the pharmacist looking confused.  It wasn't that I didn't understand the words, but that I didn't understand what the fuck he was asking.  Why would I be in your computer?  Tant pis, and all that.  At the end of the day, it's still the end of the day.

I long for a time when conversation is not something that gives my eyebrows a double workout.   I reckon it's going to take years.  Tomorrow I have to take something back to a shop and ask to exchange it.  This is going to be most amusing.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Meet and Eat

It was my first big meeting today. Not big by any means but it meant a lot on a personal level that it should go right.

Some spectacular sandwiches were ordered for lunch. None of your limp triangles here. J went out with me yesterday to get fruit, fancy biscuits, dried fruit-and-nuts. Last night I put water to chill in the fridge. Checked the flipchart and pens. You don’t want to run out of flipchart pens. Wrapped knives and forks in napkins. Washed the coffee maker. I really should have given the coffee maker a dry run, if you see what I mean.

This morning I could not get it to work. While our guests made light but slightly thirsty conversation I was faced with a coffee machine that just refused to do coffee. I went hot and – well not cold, just hot. Tried another socket, bingo. Fucking thing. I have no idea what the coffee was like as I hadn’t tried it out first, but they all drank it.

Then to the sandwich place – actually it’s a quite fancy boulangerie-nosherie type place. I had my French phrases all sorted in my head and then couldn’t understand a single word they said. It was more the vocabulary than anything. Anyway, two cellophane-wrapped platters the heavier, back to the office.

I was all Cinderella at my desk while they laid into the fancy tartines until I was invited to join them. Hoooraah! Under the guise of quality control I tried several different sandwiches.  And we have loads left.

After lunch one of my colleagues helped me clear.  All dirty dishes are left for the cleaner, who comes twice a week. As an ex-nanny I know how little I liked to come back to the house to find a load of dirty dishes. It wasn’t part of my job, but I washed them – if I was preparing food for the kids it was impossible on a counter full of last night's food.

I have the cleaner’s job description here and it isn’t part of our cleaner’s job either. So I did the washing up with the kitchen door closed so they couldn’t hear me do it. I think if you’ve worked in a role like that you feel a certain empathy.

Anyway, the meeting is still in progress and everyone seems happy. But it’s a bit too early for food poisoning to manifest itself, I suppose.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Naked Fear

I have a fan.  It was the last reasonably priced fan with any sort of muscle in Brico and it is mine.  I am naked, with the fan on.  I almost didn't get it because all the fans were in the window, and it meant talking to the staff.  Because it was the last one, they thrust it unboxed into my hands.  Puis-je prendre un sac, s’il vous plaît, I asked slightly disbelievingly.  So they found a little bag into which the bottom of the fan just fit, a bit like those strange mankini things.

I have the fear a bit at the moment.  This may seem odd after having merrily deleted an entire UK life and having settled like a nesting hen on a completely unknown city.  If I was going to get the fear, shouldn’t it have been long ago?  Perhaps the day I handed in notice on my job and flat?  Or the day I sat on the Eurostar feeling like the air was sucking out of me?  Or any day in the last few months when it seemed that ever after would be measured in nappies?

Maybe.  But I suppose fear is what happens when you get something and don’t want to lose it.  Or doubt whether you should have it in the first place. There were three interviews to get this job, but there is part of me that will forever be raising a dubious, pencilled eyebrow.  Perhaps everyone feels this way deep down, and sits there raising an eyebrow at their own achievements.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Pas Chic, Le Freak

Bear with me, I'm going into full-on Liz Jones fucking moans territory.  I haven't suddenly acquired a menagerie of sickly ponies, or a puppyish ageing fictional rockstar boyfriend, but nevertheless. 

The last couple of days have been mainly spent in my pants, venturing into a t shirt and trousers for a broiling unpleasant walk to Carrefour.  And everyone else is loving it. Summer has finally come, hoorah, get out and enjoy it, isn't it lovely.  It makes people happy and that's something incomprehensible.  I sit feeling vaguely unwell indoors (better than being extremely unwell outdoors), picking at some apple compote.  The only activity that is feasible is cleaning the bathroom, mainly because it involves getting wet and cool.   

I'm a freak, this much is clear.  Most of the time it can be hidden under a carefully constructed shell of normal.  But when temperatures are in the upper thirties and most people are joyously lying down somewhere roasting, or are dancing, cycling, roller-skating, or doing other summer things, I'm paralysed, miserable, sick.  A date that was planned for this weekend has been cancelled, because I would be utterly rubbish company and then there are the crusted mosquito bites.  Not one part of this apartment is cool.  I may have to clean the bathroom repeatedly. 

Hopefully it is nearly autumn. 

Friday, 17 August 2012

Friday Night Is Musing Night

I hear a party somewhere near - probably the Friday night roller-skaters.  They do rather like this sort of thing here.  Meanwhile the blue sky mocks.  How can it be so clear and yet the air feels as though it has no air?  I'd do a rain dance if it wasn't so bloody hot.  Sunday it threatens to be 34 degrees.  Threatens being the operative word.  There will possibly be only one person smiling in the whole of Brussels when the inevitable fog and rain come in September.  At work we were sequestered behind blinds, with fancy air-conditioning, and a not so fancy cheapo fan, probably from Brico.  I took my coat to work - the Englishness is hard to shake off.

I rather love my job.  I want to nurture it like a little tree.

What I actually wanted to talk about was a topic that has been hot on Facebook and other portals, the problem of harcèlement de rue in Brussels.  I have thought quite carefully how to phrase this, as I do not want it to appear that somehow I am exceptional, in a good or bad way.  Harrassment happens, of that there is no doubt.  But the last harcèlement I can recall is about thirty years ago.  What one wears should never really be an issue, but it was a rather fey Laura Ashley shift, which probably didn't help.  The details are not important - suffice to say it was in a library and that particular book may subequently have had some pages that stuck together.

Since that time I have wandered through life as if equipped with a cloak of invisibility - this has proved enormously helpful.  Even late at night on the Uhlandstraße in Berlin, with bits of paper spread across the pavement because I couldn't remember at which bar to pick up my key, no harrassment at all.  Of course, there is the fact that I am now ancient and wobbling gently into some sort of matronhood, but this was not always the case.

There is no particular conclusion to this.  I wish no woman got hassled in the street.  I'm bloody glad it has been my experience not to experience it.


Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Body And Soul

Stayed late tonight; tomorrow is Assumption Day where we all get to wag off, and then my boss is back.  So I wanted to make sure everything was as perfect as possible before leaving.  Only to discover then that I was locked in the building.  Clearly nobody works till 6pm in my part of town.  Fortunately a little swearing and trialling keys used for other doors did the trick.  Can you imagine if I'd been stuck at work for the whole of Assumption Day?  There would have been lots of coffee, Mentos Dessert Mints and those little dark mignonette chocolates.  And I would have had to sleep in the board room.  And possibly cry a bit.

According to Wiki, Assumption Day is a major feast day, so I will be mainly eating, tomorrow, and thinking about the Blessed Virgin.  On the way home I stopped by a Delhaize and actually ran into a friend.  This rarely happens, mainly because most of my friends don't live here.  E is a new and lovely, generous person.  Well, new to me anyway, I don't mean she just hatched.  Hopefully we shall meet up in a more diarised way when she's back from hols and not juggling groceries in the longest supermarket queue in Brussels. 

In my inbox is an invitation to a barbeque tonight but there's an awful shyness has me by the guts and I feel unable to go.  Large numbers of unknown people are terrifying.  This is stupid, I realise.

In other news hopefully work are going to order a QWERTY keyboard, so I can stop typing like a spaz.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Mint Condition

As I walked past the printer on the way to the drum of Mentos Dessert Mints, it said Sleep Mode On. 

How could it possibly know?  Is this machine connected to me via some undiscovered USB port?  These mints are like crack.  There are nine wrappers on my desk.  The outside of the mint is gently friable, giving way to a creamy, cavity-filling filling.  Divine.

There has not been a phone call since last Wednesday.  I have read everything in sight.  Well not quite, but the most pertinent things.  I have been through the calendar and emails as if looking for nits, to make sure all is in order.  I know the names of all the board members, their assistants, and possibly their pets.  I have made really cool revision cards of French phrases to use on the phone, all connected with a twisted paperclip.  Ideally I need to learn them, otherwise me answering the phone is going to look like a bad card trick. 

August is bit of a sleepy month here - simply nobody is around.  Later this week the Director is back and hopefully things will pick up soon.  I like it here and am gagging to be busy.  If nothing else it will stop me decimating the mints.

Saturday, 11 August 2012


There was a book that The Girls loved me to read to them: a re-issued Ladybird version of The Three Little Pigs.  Leaving aside for one minute the culture of entitlement that allowed these feckless piggies to ask of honest tradesmen "Please will you give me some *******? I want to build a house for myself",  it was quite a fun tale to huff and puff through.

I feel like the third pig.  Built my brick house, and I'm all inside with the wolf nicely bubbling away in a pot on the stove.  (Actually it was pasta with a creamy mushroom sauce and mixed leaves, but let's allow some licence.)  So once you've had your wolf stew, wolf pie, wolf on toast and then wolf rissoles, what next? 

The first seven months of living here have been devoted to finding bricks and evading the wolf.  Now there is space to think about what to put in the house.  Not a Billy bookcase or new plump cushions - you know what I mean.

It's time to start building a proper life here, now.  Although I say there is no homesickness, in my heart I am still pulled back, quite a lot.  This will probably go in time, but I need to put my heart here.  And other parts.


Thursday, 9 August 2012


My first love was not Scott Tracy of Thunderbirds.  He was second.  My first love was Smith's Crisps.  I am old enough to remember when crisps had no flavour and they came with a little salt bag that you emptied in.  I then augmented this with vinegar, which lay in a cheek-puckering pond at the bottom of the bag, and the last crisps would be soggy and tart.  Quite why a small child was allowed to pour vinegar into a bag of crisps and eat them is a mystery.  I was the fifth child and my mum was probably exhausted.  She did say it would dry my blood up; a threat which, fortunately, turned out not to be true.

This love affair with potatoes and potato products has been the enduring joy of my life.  Nothing says comfort like a roast potato, crisp and fatty on the outside, fondant on the inside.  Forget the chicken.  There is nothing like a good bag of chips for restoring a sense of rightness with the world.  And there is nothing like a damn good bag of crisps to fill the interstices of the day.  Christ, I've come over all Nigel Slater.

I'm fairly certain the health risks of salty, fatty, carbohydraty foods are...well dead boring to read about, frankly.  The security and comfort offered by a lifelong potato habit outweighs any risks and, thankfully, potatoes are still legal and can be consumed indoors or out.

One strange thing - I will happily share my food, as long as it not potato-based.  Do not ever ask for a chip or a crisp.  Do not attempt to steal my roast potatoes.  Somewhere is a bag with heads in it, of people who tried that.  I can only think in a previous life I lived through a potato famine.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

A Metaphor Is A Glorious Thing*

If you perceive everything in life as being a bit like something else, you run the serious risk of looking a bit of a knob.  However, I can't help it, life comes at me in images; in metaphors.  So, knob it is then.

And whilst one should never, never mix metaphors, maybe it's ok to serve them on the same plate. 

There seem to be three main ones at the moment:

1.  I'm a vessel.  Mrs Szklarek at school would often tell us "empty vessels make most noise".  This vessel is not empty.  Like a magic porridge pot in reverse it is constantly being filled but is never full.  New bits of language, new bits of job, new people, new names, new stuff, new procedures, new everything, seeping in constantly.  I can't really keep on top of it all, so I'm just sculling away somewhere in the middle.

2.  The old tightrope is back.  One would have thought by now that I'd be putting my plates of meat on solid ground but I'm still forty feet up, still walking, no wire.  No wire.  No net.

3.  Until my boss comes back from holiday, I'm the gatekeeper on her email inbox.  So it was with a strange little twinge yesterday I noted that there was an email from The Agency, with my reference from my former boss.  It remains unread.  Momentarily it was like looking across the river Styx into a life I cannot re-enter.  And in that closed world is someone who knew me well.  You see, that was really knobby. 

Anyway.  I'm still working out what I like best about my new job.  One thing is that I'm in charge of all supplies.  I love that. 


Monday, 6 August 2012

Grade "A" Capon

Enough with the modesty, although it may be genuine.  84% in my French test and I can skip the next levelWooooooooooooooooooooo-ooooo.

If asked, I would still say I'm rubbish at French because that's what it feels like on the inside.  However, there seems to be some improvement.  Comprehension is getting better, if not the actual speaking.  And although my job is allegedly in English, the only phone calls I received today were in French.  Unfortunately the first was from a very distressed lady whose husband had died and she wanted to know where he was.  The second was from a hotel.  (The two calls were not related).

Apart from that the greatest struggle today was trying to master the Belgian keyboard.  It appears they put the letters in the wrong order just to annoy me.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Testing Testing

Last night I babysat for my morning family of recent months. I'm not sure why I agreed to do this as I probably don't need the extra cash now. But it seemed like a nice thing to do, and it is easy work. It is work though, and on a Saturday night. Bah. They were at a wedding do and sometime after 1am called me to say that, if I wanted, I could get a taxi as they were on their way home. This would have meant leaving two children asleep, alone, in a large house. Stuff of nightmares. Ask Alfred Hitchcock. The mother in me could not do this. What if something happened?

So anyway, I got home eventually about 2.15am, so tired I could not give the taxi driver the right money. Today was mainly about sleeping off the weird necky headache got from exhaustion and watching the Olympics at a funny angle, I think. Eventually I surfaced to go and fritter my babysit money at Carrefour, inexplicably dressed as an American tourist - white plimsolls, raincoat, and stupid bucket hat.

Tomorrow evening I have a French test. Examinations of any kind congeal the blood in my arms and head so that I go into a kind of anxious paralysis. This test needs to be passed in order to go up to level 2C. I am not at all confident of passing, despite having studied a bit. It just doesn't go in. Instead I retain words from handwritten signs in the street: Ce trottoir n’est pas un crottoir. Merde alors.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Working Girl

Day three, and it already feels like home.  Today I had my picture taken for the website.  I look a bit special, but maybe that will discourage people from phoning.

It will not always be so quiet (August is notoriously quiet as most of Europe flees desperately to the frothy edges of the continent), but being able to concentrate on one thing at a time without somebody whining feels very much like a luxury.  Walking on the pavement without wheels and bags and babies is a luxury.  Having clean clothes all day is a luxury.  Having adult colleagues, all of whom are great, is a luxury.  Leaving the office at 5pm, is a massive, massive luxury.  And this is all before they've even paid me or given out the luncheon vouchers. 

Wednesday, 1 August 2012


The first day in my new job left me with a head full of bees.

With two hours spare until French, I went and slumped in the Parc Royal, and thought of nothing for a bit.  Then I found a bar.  Unfortunately the proprietor was serving nothing more adventurous than sandwiches, so I had a half baguette with marg and some processed cheese.  But the wine was €2,30 a glass - this must be the cheapest in Brussels!   That's about £1.80.

So, good cheap wine, a very basic sandwich, and the Olympic Chaps' Gymnastics on a big telly.  That quietened the bees for a bit.  The bar was all brown melamine and sort of olive vinyl, just the kind of unpretentious place I like.  I had two glasses of extraordinarily cheap booze while watching all the biceps. 

And as it turns out, I speak much better French after a couple of drinks.