Archived entries for Brussels

From outside toilets to origami

It’s been a busy few months, which for the most part were spent helping to organise a conference and all the associated chaos therein. There were no major disasters, fortunately. The exhibition stand didn’t fall on anyone, nobody got agressive during the debate and there were no paper-cut injuries from delegates rushing to pick up a report still warm from the printer (“My apologies, sir, we’ll get you a bandage; it looks like you’ve cut yourself on ‘Preventing Injuries at Work’.”).

We’ve been settling into our new flat, helped greatly by Zoe’s parents, who came over for a few days and transformed the place from a rather disorganised, space full of boxes and clothes to a welcoming living quarter with pictures on the walls, proper kitchen tools and even homemade curtains.

They’ve even cleaned up the outside toilet on our balcony. Outside toilets have always for me been dark and scary places. I had an outside toilet in the house I grew up in, and I’d regarded it as the sort of unappealing place to which I might go only if I really, really needed to. Even then, shivering from the cold wind blowing all around, it was all but impossible to get anything constructive done. You’d need to go in there with the sort of reckless urgency which is usually followed by a white-knuckled gripping of the toilet seat and at least one return journey.

The toilet on our balcony is now so clean and sparkly, people will be queuing to use it.

Even the spare room is looking warm and inviting, now with curtains and a bookshelf. This is a good start, because in most houses, the spare room often falls into the same category as the outside toilet: one of The Lonely Places. It’s the sort of place you go into, and don’t quite know what to do once you’re in there. You put your bag on the bed, maybe take your jacket off, and then…what? Wander over to the window, perhaps. Look at the bed. Have a peek into the cupboad (“Yep. Empty.”).

Maybe there are a few books in there, but you can almost guarantee that they’re not going to be the thrilling page-turners you’re hoping for. Try as you might, ‘Adventures in Origami’ just doesn’t keep you gripped until the last page. In fact, by the time you get to ‘Crouching Frog’ the book’s back on the shelf, and you’re starting to inspect the cupboard in the manner of the quietly insane.

Then, of course, someone calls you down for tea, or a glass of wine, and you’re reminded once more of what makes a house a home: The smells in the kitchen, the photos, the alarming crashing sound as Grandad trips over the cat again.

We’d like to forget the Forty-Seven Laws of Paper Folding and concentrate on the sort of charm and character that makes places feel like home. We’re getting there.

 

 

 

 

Left in the dark

EU-Speak

Here are some fine examples of the sort of sentences you can find in EU press releases which might leave you unconvinced that, as the EU’s communications chief Margot Wallström puts it, “communicating with the citizens of the European Union has been a primary concern for this Commission from the very start.” It’s not hard to see how the following extracts indicate that citizens tend to be left in the dark over what the EU actually does:

“The Organic Farming Campaign was developed with an umbrella–style approach that serves the interests of organic operators within the EU and empowers them to actively promote organic farming.”

In this press release on organic farming, what on earth do the words “developed with an umbrella-style approach” actually mean? Does anybody use this sort of language in real life? If your next-door neighbour called and told you that “I think we can sort that problem of your faulty wiring/creaking stairs/farting cat with an umbrella-style approach, John”, you’d think the poor man had finally lost his mind. Try as I might, I can’t for the life of me picture what an “organic operator” might be, short of some sort of root vegetable manning the phone lines.

Have you heard what’s on the programme for the Ambassadors Event for 2008 European Year of Intercultural Dialogue? Well, keep this to yourself, but apparently “going beyond an exchange of opinions, this event will illustrate dialogue between artists through creative performances – through music, film, art and literature.” Anyone understand that last part? You can’t relate to this kind of language, in the same way that it’s pretty unlikely that you’d relate to someone who, on walking out of a spectacular concert, and turned to their friends and said, “Man, that was amazing, the way those guys managed to illustrate dialogue through creative performances, it totally blew my mind.”

Fishermen might have trawl nets for fish, it looks like they also need them to understand how EU policies are affecting them. Member states need to step up and improve their maritime policies, says the EU, so according to this press release from July, “the Commission proposed to Member States that they should inject an integrated approach into their domestic maritime governance, which will better equip the EU as a whole to achieve its ambitions for preserving and exploiting the potential of the oceans and seas in an optimized fashion.” How you inject an approach, let alone an integrated one, (“Now brace yourself for this, dear, I’m just going to inject an integrated approach towards tidying the bathroom cupboard.”) is beyond me. Why simply “make the most” of the Summer holidays when you can be “preserving and exploiting the potential…in an optimised fashion”?

Ironically, it is another press release on “How to reconcile the national and European dimension when communicating Europe”, that manages to sum up the conclusion of this post in a surprisngly clear and concise manner. The European economic and social committee (EESC) quite rightly said that more needs to be done at the national and local level because “It is impossible to communicate to 500 million Europeans from Brussels.” What the EESC also points out, however, is that what is badly needed is for the EU “to use clear and simple language.”

You never know, it might improve, if the EU’s communication departments take the time to think about whether or not what they’re actually writing makes sense.

To put it another way, using an EU phrase, if “the integrated thinking which is at the heart of this policy permeates into policy-making and executive action.”

Shopping’s not that simple

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An appropriate end to my first year in Brussels, marked in the same way it began with a party hosted by the Welsh assembly to mark St David’s Day. After twelve months here, it seems fitting to embark on my first serious move to new accommodation, and this weekend Zoë and I installed ourselves into our new home for the next twelve months. The flat is lovely; it’s got a decent kitchen, wooden floors, and a terrace. It’s similar to the previous flat I lived in that I find myself once more above a dentist’s surgery, which is probably good for things like securing a reliable electricity supply: “I’m terribly sorry, Monsieur Redon, but we’ll have to finish the root canal operation another time. We’ve been a bit naughty, you see, and forgotten to pay the electrics this month, what with going away and everything; we’re still in holiday mood! What’s that, sorry sir? Painful? It is, isn’t it? Coming back from holiday, back to the same old routine of work, imagining that this time last week you were…ah, right, er, I’ll just try and find you something. Try not to bleed onto the carpet.”


While we’re on the subject of change (glad you’ve still with me), the European commission has put up yet another of its vague banners onto the side of the Berlaymont building.

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This time, it’s supposed to be about consumer rights, but personally I find the choice of imagery a bit strange. I mean, promoting better consumer protection is all very well, and I’d imagine a picture of, say, a happy shopper and a happy till assistant, smiling because of course your average Sunday shopper always walks into the supermarket in the full knowledge of the latest EU initiative geared towards the consumer. Just like the lad that packs the bags for you was briefed only that very morning on the latest proposals. Happy vibes all round then, courtesy of Santa. Sorry, I meant that other well known bringer of goodwill, Maglena Kuneva. Easy to get the two mixed up, isn’t it?

Anyway, the image the EC has chosen isn’t remotely like this at all. It’s a female shopper with, yep, a bag over her head. The slogan is: “Know your Rights. Use your Rights”. Now, maybe it’s just me, but personally when I see that image, all I can think of is, well, the sort of situation where you have a bag over your head. Such as when you’re being interrogated. By an anti-terrorist squad or something. The slogan just adds to the confusion because it implies that the woman with the bag over her head hasn’t got a clue, not only about what on earth’s going on outside the interior of the paper bag, but what rights she’s entitled to. So, to recap, she’s being interrogated and doesn’t have access to a lawyer. She might, in fact, not even be allowed to have access to a lawyer at all, because when she was captured and had a bag put on her head, maybe they decided that she no longer had legal status. Otherwise she’d get a lawyer, just like people without bags on their heads. When you come to thing about it, there are loads of us without bags on our heads that don’t have a clue what rights we have or don’t have, that’s why we employ lawyers in the first place. As you can see, this poster might very well lead to mass confusion where the average Sunday shopper suddenly becomes very agitated because the EC has announced that if you didn’t know that you’re paying too much for those frozen peas, well, you might find yourself woken up at four in the morning and the next thing you know, they’ve got you on tape saying that yes, you’re very pleased about the great value that the European commission gives to the well-being of European consumers and could you please go home now.

I can’t wait for the next banner.

Frites and Ferocity

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Maybe someone just got out of bed the wrong side that morning. On reflection, though, it was worth the verbal abuse for the unforgettable taste of those chips. I’d stood in the queue, in the freezing cold, for the best part of 25 minutes, this had to be something special. The woman being served in front of me was clearly at pains to stress the point that it was a paper cornet of chips she wanted, Monsieur, a cornet of chips, yes? Cor. Net. Of. Chips.
Well this was all too much for Monsieur Frites. He looked tired and emotional, in that I’ve-been-working-all-day-inside-this-tiny-Fritemobile way. He’d spent hours serving the hundreds of people out and about on this sunny weekend.

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Along comes this fussy customer with her demands, asking for a cornet as if it is she, not I, who knows more about chips. His pride was hurt. In short, he had every right to snap.”Yes, madam, I fully understood, the first time, that it was a cornet of chips you wanted! Alright?! Now who’s next? Who is next? Come on!” he yelled, sternly, from the Fritemobile.
It felt as if we were back in school uniforms and had just been caught by Monsieur (“Old Fritesy”) kicking a ball through his window. A silence fell upon the crowd. Everyone stared at the floor, terrified to move. Shoes were scuffed, appetites vanished. I was next in line. One word out of place and that bottle of mustard wouldn’t stay on the counter for much longer.
“I…just..if it’s no bother…a p-p-portion of chips, please, your Friteness. Nothing extra, honestly, that’s all, sir. Thanks.”
Damn, they were good chips. No, really, I’m not just saying that. If you’re in Brussels, go to Place Flagey and try them yourself. Just remember your manners.

Getting the message

I shop for herbal teas bilingually. Don’t worry, it’s not one of my chat-up lines; I can’t begin to imagine an appropriate response to such a declaration (“Really? I get my fruit and veg in Hebrew, myself”).
No, it’s just that in the health food shop near where I live, one of the girls working there is Francophone, and the other comes from the Flemish part of the country, and so it’s easier for her if we speak in English. So it’s often the case that I end up saying things twice, once in French and then once again in English. It’s one of the charming aspects of life in Belgium which, I think, brings a bit of variety to everyday life. Obviously another reason I support bilingualism is that I’m from Wales, where we live life in Welsh and English all the time. Even the sheep are bilingual.

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Getting the message across in another language can, though, cause more confusion that one might have bargained for. Translation’s not always easy, even for the European parliament, with it’s army of interpreters for the 23 official languages of the EU. When Yulia Tymoshenko (below), prime minister of Ukraine, came to visit yesterday, they had to resort to the stop-start method of waiting for an interpretation to be read from English to Ukranian and vice-versa.

It causes a bit of trouble at the individual level, too. I should know, I nearly found out the hard way. Last week I had quite a nasty cold, and so I left work a bit early and went to the pharmacy. I started speaking in French, trying to explain that I was blocked up and that I’d like something to relax my lungs. There’s a tightness in my chest, I explained, and I’d like to ease it a bit.
So after a bit of thought, the pharmacist asked if it was asthma that I was talking about, because I’d have to get an inhaler from the doctor, she couldn’t give me one just like that. I said no, sorry, I wasn’t being clear; it wasn’t asthma, I’ve got things for that. We discussed a bit more what it might be that I was after; me trying to explain that I wanted something to clear and relax my lungs, her trying her best to understand. On reflection, perhaps I used the word “relax” with too much emphasis. Eventually the pharmacist asked me my maternal language. As it happened, she was actually Flemish, and found English easier than French. Thank heavens we managed to reach an understanding. Instead of wanting a simple flu remedy, the pharmacist thought that I had been asking for muscle relaxant.

Settling down

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Ah, the chaos of Christmas. It’s going to be good to go back to Wales for a short while, though. It’s been an intense couple of months, I’m slowly getting used to the fast-paced and often unpredictable nature of my work (today, for example, I was still in the office at 8pm writing up a press conference on aviation emissions) and I’ve also grown to like Brussels a lot more. Yes, it’s freezing cold here right now and probably will be until late March, I recently had a daunting lecture on the Belgian tax system for freelance journalists and the whole place is currently a bit chaotic as the country’s only just agreed to have an interim government after 192 days of not having one at all. Yet last weekend I was in the Christmas markets at Flagey, they had the brass band playing (see above), and everyone was in good spirits. I had some vin chaud and the Région de Bruxelles-Capitale local authority gave me a free, beautifully made wooden yo-yo. Last night I went to watch a local choir perform some Christmas songs, and it was a very local affair, with a handful of friends and relatives in the audience, babies trying to join in and the odd choir member dashing in at the last minute so as not to be left out. The singing was fantastic, though, and it was a shame that Zoe and I had to leave because they were all really friendly and offered us drinks and snacks after the concert. We met a lad from Nigeria who wanted to play the piano for us, right there and then, and, when we said we couldn’t stay, asked if we’d like to listen to him some other time, let’s keep in touch.
It’ll also be interesting to have a break because this time I’ll be going home from a relatively settled position. The last time I went home for any real length of time, I was in an interim period between work experience and finding a job. This time, I’m more of a resident here. I have a local pub, a local park where I go jogging, a boulangerie for croissants on Sundays and am beginning to get to grips with the merits of the thousands of different beers on offer (Particular favourties which spring to mind are the deceptively strong “Westmalle“, the let’s-have-a-proper-chat “Chimay Bleu” and the delighful innuendo of “Bush“, the latter involving amusing requests towards attractive female bar staff…suggestions on a postcard please). Armed with tales of beer, trips to the boulangerie and le boulot (French slang for work), I’m actually quite excited about seeing old friends again, some of whom I haven’t seen for almost a year, and revealing that there’s actually a lot more to life in Belgium than they might expect.

Welcome to the Uninspiring Kingdom

 Sarkozy at the European council

An exciting afternoon visit to the European council in Brussels on Friday. Particularly interesting because it was at the “where next” stage in many respects for the EU. We’ve signed the Lisbon treaty, now let’s see if it’s actually effective. What will in mean, really, in practice? The UN climate talks in Bali were taking place at the same time, and they’ve not amounted to much except for an agreement to carry on talking. Sarkozy was enthusiastic about his new idea, a “committee of the wise” to oversee the future of Europe, and said that it was possible that this could include discussing a “new European dream”. It was a well delivered speech, and Sarko made his points with a lot of passion (see my photo above, which I’m pleased with, among other things, for capturing the essence of this post) and was lively when answering the questions.
Shortly afterwards it was Gordon Brown’s turn.
What a boring half an hour that was.
Where Sarkozy was quite animated and pretty secure in the knowledge that he’s one of the hot topics in Europe right now, Brown was quite frankly just an embarrassment. He could have at least tried. It was all vague nonsense along the lines of the challenges of addressing “freedom, prosperity, security and energy” with all the enthusiasm of a damp towel. The UK is now being laughed at by the rest of Europe. I mean, I can understand schoolboy lateness, but to miss the main ceremony of an EU treaty? Maybe he was trying to make a point, to be the stubborn uncle in the family. Even so, you wouldn’t turn up late to your nephew’s christening in order to convey the hint that in all honesty the baby is, let’s face it, a bit on the ugly side.
When are we going to grow up, I wonder?

In This House…

It’s a time for change once again. Last week I was informed that I had successfully obtained a position as a journalist with The Parliament magazine, which was fantastic news for me because it’s a continuation of similar sort of work to that which I’d been enjoying for the last 5 months at the European Parliament in Brussels. So now that I’ll be getting an income, I was finally able to move flats and have ended up in a place that is very near to where I used to live but is a single appartment rather than a shared house.  Which will be a new experience, because I’ve never lived alone before. I’m imagining myself, three months down the line, with all these little routines that will establish themselves, unhindered by the need to accommodate other people. I might end up, for example, doing the ironing at exactly 6pm in the evening, then when people ring up and ask me out for a quiet Sunday drink it’ll be: “Hate to disappoint you but I’m afraid it’s Ironing Hour.” I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up with a fridge stocked in alphabetical order and when asked about the large plant that’s in my room, reply with: “Oh, that’s Horace. He’s quite moody so don’t get him talking about politics.”

Also I have been given about one hundred rules from the landlady. Not just the usual regulations you would expect, for example about keeping the front door locked. No, these are, it seems, rules which are so obscure that it is almost as if they were specifically put in place to be forgotten, and consequently broken. Rules about windowsills, carpets, when to open the curtains. The flat is above a doctor’s practice, and I hope the landlady never finds out that one particular memory that stands out from my previous work in hospitals is the occasion when I set the bank alarm off. For the second time. I just hope that here I don’t unwittingly lock the patients in the waiting room or mistakenly direct an ill person to the downstairs toilet instead of the doctor’s surgery.

Right now I’m being extra careful, making sure that, yes, the windows are shut when I leave and that this time I didn’t wrench the door of the wardrobe off its hinges within my first half-hour; at least with housemates I have the chance to explain that, no, I don’t know how on earth I managed to do it either but would they please just hold this while I look for the missing wall bracket/fuse box/fire extinguisher. This time, I will be shouting at Horace the Plant in exasperated tones, urging him to not just stand there but help me to try and put this back in one piece again….

Pillow talk

Personally, I don’t worry too much about pillows. However, I may be in a minority here,
judging by last weekend’s trip to IKEA to help a friend move into her new flat.

As we wandered around the vast warehouse, I wasn’t allowed to go and look at the kitchen knives until I had answered concerns regarding whether or not I thought a bright blue towel or a bright yellow one would go better in the bathroom; a 15-minute lecture on towels and their spiritual role in domestic life (or something) and I discovered that my opinions had to adopt a rather more substantial form than “It doesn’t matter.”

The matter of the towels was eventually settled after several hundred years deliberating the respective merits of the colours blue and yellow, and then choosing pink, and we moved to the pillow section. Now, I’m all in favour of a good selection to choose from, but this was the sort of confusing array of options that ensures that you might possibly leave with a pillow, but certainly with a headache and, if you really pay attention, perhaps the beginnings of a mild obsessive disorder.
What are you looking for in terms of “pillow height”?
What is your preferred shape and durability?
Do you want your pillow to retain its fluffiness after many washes?

I wish they’d explain the price difference, perhaps with one of the features written in bold being something like “The Gosa Krama: get to sleep a whole 30 minutes quicker.” This would help prevent those tedious discussions:
“Why is this one six euro more?”
“I don’t know. It’s a bit bigger?”
“No, no, look. Look here, the dimensions are the same.”
“Well…maybe it’s better material”
“They’re both filled with polyester. What’s going on?”
“I don’t have a clue. Pillow marketing isn’t actually on my Top Ten list of-”
“You don’t care, do you? You would if it was YOUR choice.”
“If it was my choice I’d live in a tent in the mountains.”
“You go and do that, Hippy Child. I’m going to find an assistant.”

You might think I’m exaggerating here, but IKEA even have an online version in which you are presented with a range of similar options in order to find your perfect quilt or pillow.

Ironically, though, you don’t actually need any of these pillows to get the good night’s sleep that they claim to provide. A quick trip round IKEA will soon see to that, pillow or no pillow.

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.)



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