Archived entries for Events

Confrontations with the Clinically Insane

I think it might be a wise idea if I carry a card around with me. Unlike a business card, which usually makes its appearance after the champagne and chit-chat (“Ha ha, yars, yars, you must come round and look at the tennis lawn sometime”), it would be the first thing I hand to other people. For their own safety. It would serve to lessen the impact when they find themselves, sometime later, in the sort of situtations in which the most prominent thought seems to be, “Why on earth didn’t I just stay at home and tidy the kitchen?”

The card would, in other words, act as a sort of personal disclaimer. A wallet-sized ‘You Have Been Warned’ notice. It would say something along the lines of, “Being friends with Matt carries certain risks. It is likely that you will encounter people several stations too far from Sanity Central. Stay alert.”

It had, up until yesterday, been a relatively “nutter-free” existence in Brussels. Most people I met were fairly stable, apart from, say, the people who decide to fix you with a solemn stare for the entire metro journey, or anyone who’s a member of ITS. Yesterday afternoon, after a walk exploring the area just north-west of where I live, I decided to meet my friend, a Spanish girl called Pilar, for a coffee at Grand Place. It was just after 5pm.

We met near the market, and were walking down one of the streets, looking for somewhere that was fairly quiet, away from the Bank Holiday crowds. As we were walking, a man passed us and spontaneously produced a gesture that looked like he was swatting away a fly in front of him…very violenty. Pilar and I exchanged a look, and we turned around out of curiosity, as you do when these things happen. As it happens he had also stopped, about fifteen meters away, and was looking at us.

He was standing next to a builders’ skip, inside which were broken up blocks of concrete. One of which, he picked up, and made as if to throw the block right towards us. At this point, Pilar grabbed my arm and screamed. Maybe this is what he was hoping for, because he didn’t throw the block at us, but continued to stand there with it raised in his hand, staring with malice. At the time, I was at a complete blank, I just stood and stared at him, gripped with fear and disbelief; of course, the moment we felt sure he wasn’t going to throw it, we got out of there like lightning.

Shaken, we found a cafe – the criteria having been narrowed down to, “somewhere, anywhere” – and gradually were able to joke about it; the event would become “something to tell the grandchildren.” It got me thinking, however, that perhaps I ought to advise the people I meet to consider something in addition to my personal details: some personal insurance.

(Regarding my journalism training, this last week, among other things, I’ve been dealing with serious organised crime.)

…and what do you do?

Union Pacific Railroad Big Boy #4012

I hope there’s not some universal rule that dictates that the people you tend to attract are a reflection of the sort of person you are yourself. Maybe, of course, somewhere deep inside me there’s an enthusiasm for those interests that are, to put it kindly, located at some distance away from typically popular culture. Why has this sudden suspicion arisen, you might ask? It’s because last night I was at a champagne reception and got caught in at least fifteen minutes of conversation (or, rather, my own one-to-one lecture) with a Dutch train guard who works on a voluntary railway, on the subject of narrow-gauge railways…in Romania.  

Speakers

bruges.jpg 

 Lovely day out to Bruges on the weekend. The pictures, as usual, can be seen here.

I’m helping to cover this month’s plenary session in Strasbourg, and it’s got me thinking about speakers, speeches and the incredible range of ability when it comes to speaking to a group. I was at a meeting last week and listened to a fantastic talk for journalists by Michael Shackleton on the complicated process that is the co-decision procedure. By leaving out much of the jargon, and by keeping up a really enthusiastic attitude throughout, Mr Shackleton was able to get across just why the procedure was so important for the division of power here amongst the European institutions. 

On the other hand, I remember being in another meeting about three weeks ago, and listening in astonishment to someone who managed to speak for about 10 minutes and at the same time managed to say absolutely nothing. I was supposed to be taking notes, and I kept asking myself, after every few sentences, “What has he actually said?”

Sometimes it reminds me of this “management-speak” that you get on a lot of recruitment posters for big companies. You know the sort of thing I mean:

“Kick-start YOUR career by helping us to find strategic solutions tailored towards a client-orientated global financial leader.” 

“This (grinning idiot, pictured jumping in a field, in his suit, with his work mates) could be you. You too can a key player in developing an innovative, people-centric management system for today’s commitment-driven, asset-focused businesses. Reach further, faster.”

The only thing I’ll be reaching for is the dictionary.

Young and, er, wild…

A quick trip to Cardiff for an interview for a place on the postgraduate diploma course in journalism – and, in response to the forthcoming question, I think it went OK and I’ll probably find out next week – and, at the Youth Hostel, I got my suit out of the suit bag…only to find it had crumpled inside. I had got up especially early that day in order to first wash then iron a shirt for this interview, so I was pissed off. “What’s the point of you being a suit bag” I fumed (at the suit bag) “if all you’re going to do is abandon your duties?! Well? No, don’t just shrug your shoulders like that. That’s not going to get the creases out of my shirt now, is it?”
I’m glad no-one entered the dormitory right then and caught me arguing with my suit bag.

So I had the interview in a shirt that had more creases than Keith Richards, but I hope they were paying more attention to articles rather than attire. I had a really nice evening following the interview, actually. At the YH when I got back there were a load of teenagers and my first thought was “Well that’s just great, isn’t it? A tiring and testing day and now a noisy rabble to contend with. Fantastic.”

Actually, though, they were all surprisingly well behaved, and as I was cooking my dinner and hadn’t yet been stabbed by one of the sharp meat knives, I struck up a conversation with a few of them and it turns out they were all Danish, on a school trip to find out about the UK. We ended up chatting for a good while, me telling them about my work in the Parliament and about the great times you have at university, and they told me all about Denmark and their school. It was a fascinating couple of hours. Eventually their teacher came in and reminded them that they were supposed to be in bed 15 minutes ago. They all lept to their feet, apologised to him profusely and scattered upstairs. It could have been such a different set of circumstances, with them coming back at 3 in the morning having been out all night finding out whether beer or wine bottles have the best impact when thrown against a shop window. They had, in fact, been sitting around a table, politely making conversation, and had forgot about the time. I was impressed.

Today I have been mostly…learning about the co-decision procedure and sampling Greek food and wine at a reception.

Still Life

Sardinia

Just back from Sardinia, where I joined my family who were staying near Stintino, in the North West of the island. As we went out of season, both Stintino and the surrounding area were deserted, giving the place a very “League-of-Gentlemen” feel: “Lei è locale?”

It reminded me in a way of where I come from, North West Wales. Beautiful scenery, absolutely packed with people in the summer months, and a bleak emptiness in the winter months. I began to wonder what would pass for news in Stintino, what would get the locals chatting excitedly in the shops, cafes and by the post box:

“Man Drops Keys Down Drain”

“Last Night’s Full Moon: Exclusive pictures inside!”

Speculating on what might constitute headline material in this remote part of Sardinia reminds me that North West Wales has itself produced some memorable “news” items recently:

Man rang 999 to report cold meal

Man gets breakfast tattoo on head

There comes a time when Scrabble clearly loses its appeal…

New horizons

The gang from 46 Ave Albert Jonnart

It’s been a busy few days since the weekend, beginning with a wonderful day out with my housmates to Ostende, a chance to get out of the city and also to spend a bit more time getting to know the people with whom I’ll be sharing a house for the next 5 months. For me it was a strange resort because right next to the beach, there is a very built up area consisting of tower blocks of hotels and appartments. Even when you look along the coast, further along through the haze you can make out the tall buildings rising up from the sea and sand nearby. A visit to a new place with new friends, I stuck to the theme of novelty and tried some new food. The “Warme Wullocks” (sea snails), which Marta had bought, were very hot and very chewy, but didn’t really taste of anything. It was quite satisfying in a sort of “Yeah, I’ve had snails” way, but also disappointing in that I had sort of perversely hoped I might faint with disgust.

This week the Parliament has a Plenary Session in Strasbourg, a monthly meeting in which MEPs give speeches, debate issues, vote on resolutions and adopt reports. I’ve been following the proceedings closely, with a little help from Felix, a stagiaire with the French press service, who has been very patient and explained how a lot of things work.
This morning I followed a very important debate on the Berlin Declaration, which is to be signed to mark the 50th anniversary of the treaty of Rome and which will set out a rough agenda for the future of the EU. It was an interesting debate in which many colourful views were expressed, and I helped produce our subsequent press release which can be viewed here:


MEPs expect a Berlin Declaration worthy of today’s EU

It’s been more relaxed on the cooking front so far, because often when I come home Anglela and Marta will already be making something and will just ask me if I’d like some. Fear not, though, because I have agreed to cook for a certain girl I’ve got to know – somehow my intial offer of a restaurant didn’t register – so we’ll see how that goes. I shall place my trust in Delia once again and hopefully can look forward to a kitchen that features many flavours rather than many firemen…

From Sitting in Seminars to Sipping Champagne

European Parliament

 

Quite a busy first few days of properly getting stuck into my traineeship! The general atmosphere at the moment is hectic, with a police presence everywhere because it is the first meeting this year of the European Council (the Heads of State/Government of the Member States) on the 8th-9th March.

 

I drafted, as my first task, an article from a 27-page report on corporate social responsibility, and I’ve also produced my first genuine piece of work, a summary about the (slightly lighter, 17-page) report about the role of local authorities in the development process. I’ve been to a couple of introductory meetings, and also to an equal opportunities award ceremony, then on Wednesday afternoon I went to a three-hour seminar for journalists on Women Politicians and the Media. Wednesday evening, there was a nice social gathering for all the new stagiaires (work experience people) at a bar near the Parliament, and it was a great to chat with people of the same age, from all over Europe (I was only there for a couple of hours but had a good talk – sometimes in French, sometime in English – with a couple of Italians, a German, a Spaniard and a man from Finland).

The multilingualism is something which is particularly noticeable in the canteen at lunchtime. If you stop for a while, and just listen to the general buzz of conversation going on around the room, it’s almost impossible to make out what any individual is saying; anyone who might want to try and get a snatch of Parliament gossip would have a pretty tough job.

Today was International Women’s Day, so after registering at the Parliament’s library this morning I joined a small gathering in our building, where we had champagne and bread with olives and tomatoes as our own little celebration of the event. My champagne glass kept getting re-filled as I was talking to people, so in the end I’d had about three or four glasses of champagne and was feeling much more light-headed than when I entered the room!

My supervisor clearly has my best interests at heart, and, perhaps having anticipated my eager acceptance of champagne before midday, had already thought of a cunning plan to bring me back down to earth.

“If you could proof-read this before this afternoon” he said, handing me the Briefing document for next week’s Plenary Session. It was 40 pages long.

 

(By the way….you can find my article here.)

Plat du Jour

As the first weekend of my time here in Brussels draws to a close, through the white noise of change and constant novelty, normality is slowly approaching. I am on the platform of adventure, awaiting the steam train of stability. (Yep, three glasses of wine so far..)

I’ve moved in to my house, and my house-mates are all fine. Two girls, Angela from Blackpool and Martha from Warsaw, and an Austrian lad, Gernot, from Vienna. We all get on really well. There are plans to cook together at least on the weekend, which will be fun – and hopefully I’ll learn something in the process!

Cooking is one of those things which brings that level of normality to my experience here. You might, I don’t know, be one of those people who takes a certain delight in all the forward planning, time management and generally practical and hands-on nature of cooking. I normally take a rather more defeatist attitude, I’m afraid. I’ll look at a recipe and spot the one obscure-sounding ingredient (Like Oregano…to me that sounds like a Spanish resort, viz: “EasyJet Spring Breaks – Liverpool to Oregano only £29.99 one-way!”). Then I join the “Don’t Have It, Can’t Make It” school of straight-jacket thought and reach for the frozen pizzas.

Tonight, howver, I surprised myself with my boldness in the kitchen. I’d bought some chicken, and I was going to do the usual thing, where I just fry the chicken and throw in a load of curry sauce (“They don’t do curry sauce. It’s a no-go on the curry sauce…”) to have with it. I think it’s probably my general feeling of carpe diem that I’ve had since I arrived that made me venture out and try something new. So I opened Delia (so to speak) and had a go at a recipe called something like Poulet Basque. So there’s me, in our tiny kitchen, chopped veg and knives and pans everywhere. Gernot, meanwhile, is standing in the doorway offering words of encouragement, as I’m stirring a colourful frying pan that’s in serious danger of overflowing. Snatches of conversation echo from the kitchen amid the hiss of steam, the “thlunk” of chopping knife on breadboard and the occasional swear word (“Pardon my French”, doesn’t really work when you’re swearing in French), as my cauldron spits hot oil onto my hands, like an angry cat.

In the event, despite my being slightly too generous with the pepper, my meal was a success. Gernot tried some, and said it was very good, and Angela (who has said she’ll teach me cooking) tried some, and said it was a nice surprise from “someone who claims they can’t cook”.

It’s all about seizing the opportunities and going out of the comfort zone; something which I think I’ll be getting increasingly used to as time goes on…

Familiarity

I’ve started my adventure in Brussels and today’s post, ladies and gents, is on the topic of familiarity. I’ve just spent a really good weekend in London meeting some old friends, some I’ve known for less than a year and others who I’ve known for at least the last ten years. I met some of their friends, all of whom were instantly welcoming, and it was interesting to meet some of the people I’d heard about in the stories told by my friends from home, during university holidays.

I’d been to Brighton the night before, a place I’m beginning to get to know better, and even though London is quite intimidating it’s still obviously British in character.

Arriving in Brussels on the Eurostar, was a bit of a shock, for suddenly I knew nobody and nothing was familiar. I was relieved at how quickly things started to become familiar, however. I started speaking French with the taxi driver, which was a source of comfort as I’ve been brought up going to France on family holidays, and spent last summer living and working in Bordeaux.

I checked into the Youth Hostel, and then took a taxi to drop off my heavy luggage at the house where I’ll be living for the next five months. I told the driver where I wanted to go and tried to show him the address on a printed email, but after about twenty minutes of driving he asked me to give him the address again, and then realised he’d be heading for a similar-sounding street in the wrong direction. It was alright, though, because he reset the taxi meter and then started talking in a lively manner about how he absolutely had to be finished by 6pm or else his wife would be angry. I was trying my best to understand and respond to the French, but secretly I was just willing him to keep at least one hand on the steering wheel.

That evening I went to a St David’s Day reception hosted by the Welsh Assembly, although I arrived only in time for the after-speech food and drinks. In the crowd there was a surprising absence of Welsh, and of familiar accents. Obviously I wasn’t expecting the unmistakeable sound of Maesgeirchen to come drifting (or rather, charging) across the floor, but the sounds of somewhere in Gwynedd would’ve been nice. I didn’t know anyone there, so I ended up randomly introducing myself to a few people who looked about my age. I met a political researcher and a couple of interns who were really friendly; they gave me their contact details and invited me out for drinks once I’d got settled in Brussels.

Yesterday I thought I’d better try and explore a bit of the city, so I wandered around the centre, with its shops, and unwittingly tried out the metro during the rush hour, which was heaving (“I am not a wall, Monsieur”). I had a new room-mate in the YH, Nicolas from Paris, so we went for a drink last night. He told me that if I want to sound more French I need to speak in a more monotone accent (“Ton accent, c’est trop vivant”), and I told him that yes, it’s true, there are people in Britain who really do enjoy Marmite.

 

 

 

 

Gifts of a different kind

sunrise-from-ysbyty-gwynedd.jpg

It’s been a good day today, a day of simple pleasures.

A short bike ride to the beach with my Dad, cruising along the track that runs parallel to the sand. The wind is cold but the sun is out, and the hills are a vivid green in the distance.
Enjoying a quick BLT sandwich in the cafe and catching up with some friends in the village.
I’m doing well, thanks. So where have you moved to now? Working in the power station, is he?
Then an afternoon in the pub with an old schoolfriend I haven’t seen for a whole twelve
months, lots to report from both sides. Leaping from April to October then back to July as
tales are told, characters are quoted and conclusions are drawn. In lowered voices we
exchange the most daring jokes we’ve heard since the last meeting, the ones which make you gasp but leave you grinning.

I’ll be writing to say thanks for the book vouchers, of course, but it’s moments like these
that I’m really grateful for.



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