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6 years and counting

Yesterday was a special day for me because it marked 6 years since I first arrived in Belgium. I’d had a fantastic weekend with friends in London en route, and then I took the Eurostar, for the first time, to Brussels.

Upon arriving, I’d arranged to meet my landlady in advance of moving in so I could store my things in the house. Being completely new to the city, I showed a taxi driver the address, which he looked at and nodded in a confident manner before proceeding to drive off in completely the wrong direction.

“Can I just check…was it the Avenue Albert Jonnart in Ixelles you were after, mate? Or the other one? No, hang on, No…I was thinking you were wanting the other Avenue Albert, the big one – no worries, I’ll just turn around right here in the middle of this lane and put my foot down even harder, and we’ll be there in no time!”

Unfamiliar streets whizzed past and I found myself at the door of what was to be my new accomodatiom for the next 6 months. Dropping my stuff at the house was brief, because I only had with me what I could carry, and then it was just a me, a rucksack to take with me to the Youth Hostel – no, really – and the rain.

I sat in Pain Quotidian to dry out, ordered a coffee, and wondered what on earth I’d let myself in for.

Fortunately, I didn’t need to sit there contemplating my next move for too long. Thanks to some contacts at BBC Wales where I’d recently done a work placement, I had found out about a Welsh reception held in Brussels every year to mark St David’s Day. So I went along, grateful to be somewhere that was a bit “home from home” on my first night in a new city abroad. I’ve been going to the Gwyl Dydd Dewi reception every year, a sort of annual marker of my time here. See below a photo from this year’s event.

Carwyn-Jones-St-Davids-Day-2013

First Minister of Wales Carwyn Jones opening the reception

St-Davids-Day-reception-2013

People enjoying the Welsh lamb, cheese and beer in the grand surroundings of the Bibliotheque Solvay

A refreshing glass of ale from the Ardennes

Last night I sat down with a refreshing glass of La Chouffe, which as well as being a delicious, award-winning Belgian ale reminds me of visiting the Ardennes.

It was our second trip down to rural Wallonia, and we were staying with friends in a nice little farmhouse gite near Houffalize. You could walk straight from the house along a path to a nice forest, a river, fields with horses and some great views. A fairly steep climb up to the viewpoint and then a leisurely descent down into the valley.

Ardennes trees Stream in Ardennes

The first time we did this walk, we got close to where we thought we were supposed to be going but, in typical Belgian style, there was a complete absence of signs, no halfway maps or anything. We asked some locals who were having morning coffee in their garden, who reassured us that yes, we did indeed need to keep walking in the direction of the dark forest road that looked as if led to nowhere in particular.

Sure enough, we carried on for only a couple more minutes and there it was, nestled snugly at the foot of the valley, surrounded on all sides by trees: the Chouffe brewery.

La Chouffe

Outside right now, there’s still snow on the ground and the temperature remains at a level that can only be described as Cold Enough To Freeze Your Nuts Off. It’s nice to drink a glass of Chouffe and to look forward to more weekend adventures in Wallonia.

Icicles in Waterloo

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.

View from the train

I get a commuter train in the morning, from where I live, Waterloo, to Brussels, the city where I work. It’s a very pleasant 20 minute train ride, and on these winter mornings there are some wonderful views across the fields and forests as the sun rises.

The above photo was taken on my way to the train station, but what I’d really love to do is get a snapshot of the view from the train itself. One of the problems with the commuter train is that you can’t open any of the windows, like you could on the older trains.

Fortunately, the train home is a less busy one and you can indeed open the windows, which allowed me to capture the evening sky as the sun goes down.

Winter sunset 12/12/12

Perhaps the windows on the morning trains are sealed shut for health and safety reasons, which reminds me of a leaflet we used to get given by the British Transport Police about railway safety, written by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake.

Roald Dahl's Guide to Railway Safety Image: quentinblake.com
[Image: www.quentinblake.com]

Christmas List 2050

What’s on your Christmas List for 2050? You know, things you’d like but which have yet to be invented:

Socks which match themselves – everyone’s had mornings have there been where you’re already running late and now you’re cursing the sock drawer like a madman, hopping around with one sock on, throwing clothes everywhere and insisting that your wife/boyfriend/mother/pet dog must have hidden the other sock out of spite…

Intelligent suitcases – it’s Summer, it’s the holidays and you’re just about to leave for that long-awaited break. You’re all packed, when you suddenly remember that you’ve forgotten to include your washbag. Damn. You’d spent all weekend sorting it all, packing and re-packing so that everything you needed fitted into your suitcase perfectly, and now your shaving cream means you can’t close the thing.

Intellicase (TM) would solve all your problems by re-arranging and re-adapting itself using only the power of mathematics and a pre-programmed spatial awareness you can’t even begin to work out. You start the holiday smiling rather than swearing…

Finding a free table – you’ve arrived in a new town or city and you’re starving. where’s good to eat? There are numerous apps out there which will cleverly use your location to find, rate and recommend restaurants in the area. You look inside, people are enjoying what looks like absolutely delicious food. “Great”, you think, stepping inside…only to be told that you should have booked ahead, I’m sorry Madam but we’re full.

What’s need is a restaurant app which also lets you know whether the good restaurants actually have any free tables. Proper tables, too, not the ones that they cram together so close that when you lift up your fork, you accidentally jab your neighbour in the face with your elbow.

What would be on your list?

Morning has Broken (my delightful sleep)

“Wake up, Papa! It’s Time to go downstairs.”
“…grrrmphh…wha? What time…? It’s much too early…”
“It’s not too early.”
“Yes it is. What time is it?”
“It’s half past six.”
“You always say it’s half past six. What’s the real time?”
“Time! Time to go downstairs!”
“It’s five o’clock in the morning. I need some more sleep. Downstairs later.”
“Not downstairs later. Downstairs now!”
“In ten minutes…shhh! Listen! What’s that noise?”

This is followed by me being as quiet as possible in the hope that my daughter Seren (aged 2) will magically fall back into a deep sleep. She knows exactly what I’m trying to do. The next thing I notice is not the gentle sound of a sleeping youngster but instead two little hands trying to pull me out of my own bed.

“Er, what do you think you’re doing?”
“Seren’s bed.”
“No, Your bed is in your room. This is my bed and I’m staying i-”
“Light on!”
“No, light stays off. If you switch it on, Papa will go blind. Will you leave the light alone if I go downstairs and get you some milk?”
“Yep.” (She giggles. Those confident giggles you get when you know you’ve won.)

So the day begins.

Pay as you go

So Zoe and I were on the way back from a lovely holiday spent in the French Alps and then to Perpignan for a friend’s wedding, and at the airport we discovered that because we didn’t check-in online, Ryanair charged us 40 euro each to do so in person. We didn’t use the online option because, surprise surprise given the nature of our work, both of us were keen to stay “offline” for the duration of the holiday. So it came as something of a shock to be told that we had to pay extra to get boarding passes for the aeroplane at the airport.

I mean, can you imagine if other situations were handled with a similar, “give us your money first” level of arrogance?

At the hairdressers: “Sorry, Madam, but the density of your hair is likely to wear down the sharpness of these scissors. There’ll be an extra twenty euro charge to cover the excessive utensil strain.”

At the beach: “Excuse me, young man,” said the lifeguard. “There’s a large amount of sand between your toes. That means there’s now less sand for the others to enjoy. You don’t need me to tell you that there’s an on-the-spot fine of fifty euro under the Rules Governing Responsible Use of Sand-Based Recreational Areas. Time to pay up, I’m afraid.”

At the ferry terminal: “You forgot to validate your ferry ticket, madam, so I’m afraid there’s a two hundred euro fine attached. The validation machine is located in the engine room of the ferry. The fact that you need to board the vessel first in order to access said engine room isn’t my concern, madam. Cash will do nicely.”

It’s all a bit ridiculous, really.

Easily distracted

Click. Has anyone seen….You have 24 new message…seen my atten..click. You might want to re-connect with…Has anyone…click. Has anyone seen my…Results 1 to 10…attention…of about 482, 200, 78….span?

It’s important to pay attention. How much, though, and for how long? Ideas about this are changing. The old way of thinking was, you sit down, you learn (whether it’s how to fix a car or how to study a text) and, over time, you absorb the necessary details. This is all changing, however, with the way we are all connected through the internet on our computers, on our mobile phones, our televisions, music systems and, soon, our fridges and washing machines. You have one new message: your socks are clean.

There’s just so much information now out there, on Twitter, on rolling news feeds, on the hundreds of mobile applications fighting for our attention, we’re becoming more and more used to scanning and filtering information by the bucketload. Is this always a good thing, though? I for one know that after a busy week at work, a week of endless emails pouring in, constant flicking between websites and documents and different applications, my ability to concentrate is exhausted. We need to make sure that we’re able to keep up with the flow of the thundering river of information, to avoid becoming stranded, waist deep, unsure how best to proceed.

What about our ability to sit and listen, to concentrate for an extended period of time? We’ve all been in situations where we would expect to have someone’s undivided attention, only to find, five minutes in, that they’re checking their phone.

You’re halfway through a sentence, but that doesn’t matter. Out comes the phone, and “Ah ha ha! Pete says he’s just bought a ticket to Australia for twenty euros. Legend. Sorry, go on.”

No, you go on. I might as well talk to the wall behind you, at least it doesn’t interrupt what I’m saying. “No, I’m listening, honestly. I just need to reply to this.” You don’t need to reply. You’re not wearing a flourescent jacket and Pete’s not screaming at you to help him get his hand out of the shredder. It can wait.

Next stop will surely be “attention rehab” clinics. Please leave your phone at the reception and get ready to embark upon a weekend of re-capturing your concentration skills. Last free places available for our Summer residential course, “Talking without Texting: the Ten- Minute Challenge”.

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.

 

 

 

 



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