Archived entries for People

So I went to a Spa…and then this happened

Photo 22-09-14 10 56 41

So it is that I find myself, along with my wife of 3 days, in a Thermal Spa in Grimbergen, a chance to relax following our exhilarating, amazing wedding weekend. I’d originally booked the spa as a birthday treat for Zoe, imagining that she would go with one of her girlfriends, so when she actually said she would prefer to go with me, that’s how I ended up with an appointment for a Mother’s Day Special pedicure.

Now, I don’t have the nicest feet in the world, if I’m really honest.

So after sitting in some hot water outside for a bit, then sitting in a hot room for a bit, plus a lunch including a glass of the local brew, it was time to go upstairs to give our feet a treat.

We had to sit in this pre-pedicure waiting room drinking herbal tea with our feet in a bowl of oil. We did this to the soundtrack of dolphins and pan-pipes (you know, from a compilation like “Deeply Chilled Tones Vol. 8″, supposed to be relaxing but which ought to come with a warning: “The record company cannot accept any responsibility for damaged audio equipment as a result of prolonged exposure to this music.”) until we were called in.

Why do I always get the bad-tempered member of staff?

We started off on the wrong foot, or should I say, feet. My feet, to be precise. My woman asked Zoe, as if I were not in the room,

“Madame, has he washed his feet?”

“Yes, don’t worry, he’s been soaking them in the oil. Of course.”

I mean, honestly. Then we go through to the room where we have to lie on these beds. It doesn’t seem to be going too badly at the start, but then about 5 minutes in I look around and see that the woman dealing with my feet has a look on her face of utter, utter disgust. She looks like she’d be marginally happier sorting through last week’s rubbish bins.

Then she leaves the room. Just like that. I wonder where she’s gone? Has she been so repulsed that she has to go and get some fresh air? I feel a bit humiliated, really, lying there by myself having been left high and dry by my masseuse. Though not as humiliated as when she walks back into the room. She’s come back wearing surgical gloves.

Zoe nearly falls off the bed laughing.

The customer is always…

Ah, customer service in Belgium. We meet again.

The first was trying to replace a faulty Blackberry. The man in the shop was all too happy to replace it…with a cheaper model.

“Not a problem, sir. I can give you a Blackberry 9360 instead. Free of charge.”
“…but that model is about 200 euros cheaper, with fewer features and no touchscreen.”
“It’s a very reliable device, sir, we’ve had to order some more of these models due to the big demand from our customers. It’s your lucky day, though, sir, because I’ve just got a new delivery in. Today, in fact.”
“…great, but it’s not the model I’m looking for. I’m actually looking for the one that’s the same as the Blackberry I’ve got at the moment.”
“Which model is that then, sir?”
“The 9790, as I said at the beginning of this phone call.”
“If you’d like to come into our shop sir, I can replace that model for you, no problem.”
“Thank you. Is three o’clock this afternoon convenient?”
“Perfect, sir. See you then!”
“Just to confirm…you do have the 9790 in stock?”
“Let me just check sir….no, sir, sorry, we’ve got none of those models left I’m afraid. I was expecting more to arrive, today, in fact. Can you call back next week?”

Picking up a parcel here can also be equally trying. I’d been left one of those “We Called In But You Were Out” pieces of paper, which instructed me to go to the post office after a certain time on a certain date and my post would be waiting. So off I went.

“I’m sorry, sir. Your parcel isn’t here.”
“But it says on this piece of paper that it will be ready to collect after 11am today.”
“Have you checked the date properly?”
“Well, my diary’s usually pretty spot-on at telling me the correct date. That’s it’s killer feature, you see. Never lets me down. So yes, that’s today’s date.”
“I’ll just check my calendar…yes, you’re right, it’s the fourteenth.”
“Well, I’m glad we’ve got our dates aligned. What about my post?”
“I have no idea. Maybe the postman forgot to drop it off this morning…it could be that, couldn’t it?”
“I don’t know! I don’t work here, you do!”
“Can you call in at the same time tomorrow?”

Need an authorised technician to fix your TV?

“Hi, is that the Sony Service Centre?”
“Yes.” (No immediate offer to help, then.)
“I’ve got a Sony flat screen TV which needs looking at, would it be possible to request an appointment with one of your engineers?”
“Yes.”
“…OK, thanks. Would he be able to come here on Friday morning, say ten o’clock?”
“We only carry out service repairs at the Service Centre.”
“So you don’t send technicians out to fix things? I have to bring the TV to you?”
“Yes.”
“Slight problem there…it’s massive, this TV. It’s not like I can just pick it up and waltz over with it.”
“We only carry out service repairs at the Service Centre.”
“OK, thanks for being so flexible. Goodbye.”

How about you? How’s the customer service where you live?

One word, two syllables

How to mime a root vegetable? Recently, I’ve been doing our regular Sunday market shop by myself, armed with a list, written by Zoe, of all the fresh fruit and veg for the week ahead.

Now, most of what’s on the list is perfectly legible, but sometimes there’ll be a word which looks like it’s written in a certain way but is in fact spelt and pronounced slightly differently. Oh, and it’s all in French, of course.

So there I am, at the market fruit and veg stall, and because I’m on autopilot I’ll just be asking for things directly from this list. Which is fine until we get to the point where the word written down as I read it…makes no sense to the man – let’s call him Bernard – on the market stall:

“I’ll have some…parnasse as well, please.”
(A confused silence.)
“Parnasse?”
“Yep, just a small one.”
“Parnasse? What’s that?”
“You know, parnasse, it’s er, quite small and yellow and…”

How on earth do I describe it?

“…and you put it with carrots as a side dish.”

Now I’m miming chopping a vegetable.

Does it work? Of course not, it could be any vegetable I’m miming. I don’t consider myself to be that bad an actor but he’s looking at me as if I’d just pretended it’s something I need to add to get the lawnmower started.

In fact, it’s starting to get a bit embarrassing as he turns to his fellow stall holder:

“Eh! Georges! What’s parnasse? This lad’s asking for some…”
“Never heard of it…oi, mate, can you see it anywhere here?”
(It’s at this point that I’m suddenly all too aware that a delighted audience has been watching our little drama. Why didn’t I just say something else quickly?)

“Er…”

Got it. After what feels like several weeks I finally spot what I need, and point it out to Georges, Bernard and the rest of the people waiting in the queue.

“Ah! Panais!” declares Bernard, triumphantly.

What I was after was a parsnip. I had in fact been asking the poor man at the market if I could have a Nineteenth Century French literary tradition.

Waterloo market

The Sunday market at Waterloo

“The next tune to arrive on platform three….”

It’s been great to be back in the UK for a little while over Christmas, catching up with family and friends. A couple of memorable moments included:

Seren being too quick for us and falling down the stairs at my parents’ house. “I’m going downstai-” Thud thud thud crash. Luckily the stairs were carpeted and she was fully dressed with jeans on so she was fine.

From a young Dad and friend of ours, listening to an absolutely hilarious blow-by-blow account of childbirth, told at lightning speed, on the way home from the pub, with both my brothers looking horrified with every extra bit of detail they really didn’t want to hear.

Sharing recommendations about local ales in a tiny pub – I didn’t spend all my time drinking, honest – with a random chap at the bar. “It’s a very consistent ale, that one. You can go anywhere in the country and if they have that ale, it’ll always taste the same.”

Golden Pippin

[Image: http://www.copperdragon.uk.com]

Drinking whisky – honestly, I was sober for some of the time – while watching a fantastic adaptation of William Boyd’s novel Restless on the BBC.

Zoe and I watching a stunning sunset across a Hampshire field, while getting soaked with rain. Some very impressive dawn skies too.

Hampshire sunset

Hampshire sunrise

Hampshire sunrise

 

Listening to a stranger playing some pieces by Ludovico Einaudi on the free pianos that have been installed in St Pancras station in London. A lad was just walking by with his girlfriend, spotted the piano sitting there and started to play. A beautiful, spontaneous moment which had Seren and I enthralled for a good 20 minutes. Possibly the first and last time I will hear live, classical piano mixed with loudspeaker announcements about the next train.

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.

 

 

 

 

The energy generation

I’ve got an idea. First, though, I thought I’d set the scene.

According to a recent article in the Observer, there are lots of new graduates, fresh from university with good degrees and strong CVs, and yet due to the recent economic turmoil, this new generation of bright young things are all failing to find those high-flying jobs as advertised in the numerous career brochures which float around campuses across the country. In other news, we learn that Russia and Ukraine have been squaring up to each other in a standoff over gas supplies, a row which apparently has now been resolved according to the latest reports, but which only serves to highlight the increasing dependence of European countries on Russia for this sort of traditional energy. It’s about time we shifted the focus onto newer, more self-sufficient ways of generating power, which we’re going to have to think about anyway due to the recent agreement among EU countries to increase the amount of energy that the EU gets from renewable resources from a measly 7 per cent up to 20 per cent by the year 2020.

So what we have, then, are lots of graduates who are all dead keen to get stuck into something exciting and cutting edge, something which makes a genuine difference and could even have international implications. OK, so they might not have given that impression when they were still students. In fact a more accurate description might be that genuine excitement came in the form of a special offer on vodka jelly, cutting edge research involved keeping up with Eastenders and the international side of things didn’t feature too heavily beyond trying to get into bed with the lovely Italian exchange student down the road.

University was fun, now for the world of work. Given the context that I’ve outlined above, what better way to employ these young people than to get them involved in helping to develop the next generation of renewable energy? If you’re a graduate reading this, by the way, don’t run off screaming at the thought of having to put on bright yellow wellies and trudge through the countryside doing environmental impact assessments for wind farms. There’s something for everyone here, if you think about it. Renewable energy is no longer just something for hyper-environmentalists and bearded scientists. It can’t be, because we’re all going to have to get involved sooner or later. Already, we’ve read reports and seen pictures of people in places like Bulgaria, freezing in their homes this winter because of a lack of gas. Isn’t it time we learnt how to become more independent?

It’s something that everyone can get involved in, and in the case of these graduates who are now all looking for meaningful jobs, whatever subject you studied and skills you have, you can all bring something to the table. For the physicists, the chemists, the maths graduates, for example, I think it’s pretty clear that these are skills which can be put to immediate use. What use, I hear you ask, is a degree in history when it comes to this sort of thing? Plenty. Historians are generally very thorough people, good at checking facts and spotting arguments that work and those that don’t. Perfect, in my view, for fine-tuning the propaganda that will be needed if we’re going to win mass popular support for energy change.

Psychologists also have their part to play, looking at for example the difference between the anxieties that people have about what it might be like to live near a windfarm, or a hydroelectric dam, compared with the actual psychological effects of doing so. We might find that people soon forget they have solar panels on the roof once they’re actually there. (The solar panels on the roof, that is, not the people. I imagine if you were stuck on a roof, you wouldn’t worry too much about some solar panels).

English graduates can help explain the case for renewable energy in clear, easy-to-understand language, and marketing graduates can help sell the idea. Those with degrees in sports science can win support from people that do sports that use natural energy like windsurfing, kiteboarding and downhill mountain biking.

I think we can all see that renewable energy is something that’s got to be done, and it’s something which I personally think is A Good Thing. This isn’t a moment of sudden eco madness on my part, by the way; it’s something that I actually feel quite strongly about, enough at least to do my bit to help win the recent support for the Gwynt Y Mor wind farm. There are plenty of celver, energetic people out there, looking for work, and at the same time we’ve got a so far pretty empty-looking government department which is dedicated to the task and waiting to get started. What could be simpler?

Sharing the sound

I’ve written previously about bad experiences whilst shopping, so here’s an interesting twist I encountered last weekend. I went into a Philips audio shop to look for some headphones, and I found myself checking out a pair of swish Sennheiser wireless headphones that looked a bit pricey but pretty good. My bad hearing however means that I’m lucky if I notice there’s actually sound coming out of the things, never mind luxuries such as “analytical sound reproduction”, but I was interested in these headphones as a way of hearing the TV better without trailing a wire acorss the room, the coffee table and no doubt the other people watching TV.

I was curious to know, however, just what I’d get for the steep price of what looked like a promising, wire-free solution that might bring an end to other people taking stray headphone wire out of their coffee, or falling towards the door, dinner going everywhere, as a result of the mischievous headphone cable hidden in the shadows. Could I, for example, listen to the TV at the same time as other people, or would I cut off the sound? Could I do the same with my hi-fi? So I called over the assistant of the shop, and here’s where the usual routine differed.

Normally, I might expect an intense barrage of sales-speak, a complete overload of technical terms, functions, some 30 second financial advice and, before I know it, a brisk handshake and a deal done. It usually ends up with the shop assistant insisting that we take a good, all-round tour of not just the product I’m interested in, but, it seems, all the products that everybody else is the shop is interested in as well. Have I, sir, seen this on offer? Did I know, sir, that today and only today I can lay my hands on the first production model of the new Z7000 “Nuclear meltdown ready” mobile phone?

This time I was the one doing the talking.

“With these headphones, will other people hear the TV?”

“Oh no, sir, with these you can listen to the TV without disturbing anyone else. Your very own private cinema.”

“Well, that’s no good, is it? What if my girlfriend wants to watch as well?”

“If you plug the TV into your hi-fi, sir, then she can hear out loud and you can still listen with these.”

“What, so even though these are wireless, you still need to buy an extra wire for connecting the TV to the hi-fi?”

“Er, yes…but only for when you both want to hear the TV. Or your girlfriend could watch with headphones as well.”

(Think about that, for a second. I’d be wearing headphones because I need them to hear. Zoe can hear just fine, so I can hardly imagine both of us sat there, headphones on, snuggling up to a Sunday night film. The sitting room would have all the romance of a flight control tower.)

“Would I also be able to listen to my music with these, on my hi-fi?”

“Why of course, sir. They’re specially designed with a total harmonic distortion of just-”

“Yes, yes, never mind all that. What about other people? Could they listen as well? Can we test it on one of your hi-fi machines here?”

Now he had begun to look like he wanted to cry, I’m sure he had been hoping I would just buy the damn things on the basis of their “intuitive control elements”. Half an hour later, there he was, routing through product catalogues, trying to find something that would satisfy my not overly taxing request for a system which would allow me to hear TV or music better but also share the sound with other people. It was a refreshing break to feel in control as a customer, for a change, rather than be made to feel as if I’m being lectured at by a 12-year-old with a degree in electrical engineering.

I didn’t buy the headphones, in the end. A private cinema would be no good to me, anyway. I need other people there to keep me up to speed when I don’t quite catch the crucial bit in the film where, say, Bond is told precisely where the secret weapon in kept. I bet he never has any trouble in a hi-fi shop.

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.”

Towards my thousand-yard-stare

Apologies for the lack of entries of late, I’ve been doing a bit of travelling, most of the visits for the first time. Some photos, if you’re interested, can be seen in the picture gallery.
Of course, in an ideal world I’d be sitting here with a full-length beard, several battle scars from my daring encounters with the darker side of human nature and a glass of strong whisky to take the edge off the flashbacks. Alas, we can’t all be Indy, which I suppose is why my “scars” comes from a Gillette razor and I’m sipping a cup of mint tea. I can see it now: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Ginger Nuts.

I went to Slovenia, to an awards ceremony (European inventor of the year) in Ljubljana, the capital, where I interviewed a man who invented what he called “telepresence” surgery. The is essentially a robotic machine guided by a surgeon, with the robot arms capable of performing incredibly precise operations and even, to my amazement, able to cancel out tremors in the surgeons hands. I also spent a good 15 minutes trying to explain what a flapjack was to a poor shopkeeper who clearly didn’t have any, had probably never heard of them in his life.
“OK, so you get oats, and…oats, you know, like the farmer grows in his field. Farmer…the one who has the fields and the sheep and drives a combine harveste…do you know what? A Mars bar will be fine.”

I went to Ireland, for a wedding, which was held in this gorgeous castle near Warrenpoint. I’d never been to Ireland or Northern Ireland, so it was an extra treat to spend a day in Dublin and then take a bus over the border. Gorgeous country. We had to sleep in Dublin airport, though, which wasn’t too much fun, but hey, we saw the sun come up. Well, Zoe just sort of watched it sleepily but of course I had to take some photos. OK, in hindsight perhaps I didn’t to take quite so many arty shots of, er, the luggage trolleys bathed in golden orange or, um, the nicely lit airport stairs. Yes, OK, we were a tiny bit late (“Look, there it is! Check in…check in for Brussels, yep…is now closed.”) but it’s part of the adventure really, running for the plane. I could even hear the Indy theme tune as we sprinted past gate 5, looking for gate 42.

Then to Bath, to visit my brother, a BBQ (someone had a BBQ, I mean; I didn’t go and visit one) a chat with his friends, and a chance to relive students days. Long summer nights lazily cooking sausages and talking about the girls on the psychology course. Piles and piles of notes, textbooks with carefully constructed but essentially pointless bookmarks, look at all the colour highlighters I’ve got! That night last week, what were we drinking, was it two for one on lighter fluid? D’you remember, we all go so wasted we all ended up sharing a bin outside the police station, waiting for Spar to open.

Also to Oxford, more student days, a visit to my sister who’s finished her first year. Watching the posh students celebrate graduation or, in some cases, trying to absorb the shock of that truth (universally known) that it’s possible to have too much of a good time:
“I mean, yars, OK, vomiting onto old Perkins during class wasn’t the most frightfully clever thing, but I mean, come orn, they’ve gorn and shown a jolly good sense of humour failure with this “you are forthwith suspended” nonsense. Tell them they can’t, Father!”

Last night I was in Germany, a quick trip over the border to watch the Euro 2008 final between Germany and Spain. It was great fun (despite Germany losing to Spain) trying to order things in rusty Anglo-German (“Now vee vould like der bill, bitte”) and struggling to lift, let alone drink, huge tankards of Kolsch beer. For my first visit to the country it was certainly a memorable experience, watching a football final accompanied by the surround sound of loud Germanic chanting and the constant presence of those red, yellow and black flags.

Four new countries, three months, catching up with two siblings and recalling it all in one blog entry. Less Indy, more “Mint Tea”, but it’s still been a fast-paced few months.

Breathe in the air

I’ve changed the theme on this blog and also, hopefully, begun the process of writing entries more regularly. A lot has happened since my last post, I’ve been to stranded in Strasbourg in the snow, I’ve watched the Belgians out in force to try and preserve the unity of their country, and I’ve found myself suddenly, marvelously in a relationship with a lovely girl, Zoe. Hence the reason for the slight diversion from documenting my goings-on here. Only to be expected, of course. One can easily imagine the outcome in the first couple of weeks if I’d have devoted more attention to online reportage than romance: “Could we leave that meal I was going to cook until maybe tomorrow? It’s just that I was planning on writing a blog entry tonight about a hilarious conversation I ha…hello? Are you still there?”

This last weekend was good. I went to meet Zoe for a short trip to Geneva, where she was attending a meeting of the Grain council in her capacity as an agriculture journalist for Agra Europe. The weather wasn’t too great on the Saturday, but it was great to be close to nature again, and it was dry and cold as we walked along Lac Leman and to the Jardin Botanique. Just to hear the sound of the lake and to actually see the horizon was a much-welcome break from the cluttered streets of Brussels. The real highlight though was Sunday morning, just before we caught the plane back, because it was fantastically clear and sunny, revealing the snow-topped Alps all around the city. Next time, we’re going to plan in advance to try and get out into those mountains. Obviously it’s always good to get away from work from time to time. As an EU journalist, perhaps there’s a deeper appreciation when it comes to escaping for some fresh air.



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