Sunday, December 31, 2006

IMG_1288So what will be the third thing?

First came the Christmas Day decapitation, now the New Year's Eve evisceration, so that leaves one more Neilish act of destruction still to occur. If dropping someone to a station in a hastily borrowed car (they drove out as they drive quicker), then driving back slowly because I don't really fit in the car, I'm not used to it, can't get the clutch right and because the nearest road to where the car lives has oil all the way down it (mixed with a damp road equals fun). Didn't hit anything on the road, turned off, messed up backing into the drive the car lives on, so the right hand wheels were on the lawn. And because it's been raining, the drive is well worn and somewhat algal and the tyres are coated with oil, the wheels on the drive gripped while those on the lawn slipped forward slightly, at which point the pair on the drive gave as the lawn two dug in, so the car twisted downhill towards the road. Rather than let it slide and plough its way across the lawn or sideswipe the hedge, I pushed the accelerator to try and force it back up the slope, which might have worked had I brought the clutch up enough (I'm not used to the not on its way out clutch, and I know that counts as very stupid, but it was instinctive). At which point there was a steering column versus knee conflict, letting the clutch came up on its own. If it were my car, it would have stalled; it wasn't, so it went back with a thudding. At this point I notice the dustbin weeble into view in the door mirror (did I mention the car is a convertible with a letter box for a rear window? And that I don't normally drive it or park there and completely forgot I needed to check for the dustbin, a state not helped by not seeing it at all). A post-Christmas, no recent collection dustbin, just beyond the top of the slope so where the going suddenly gets easier.

I drop down and straighten up and get out to check damage. There's a mark on the bumper and on the bin, but they don't matter. And then I notice the lights, helpfully arranged in the one big unit. Was that big crack, missing chip and starred bit there beforehand? Oh.

I stand trying to figure out the angles, as it shouldn't have been possible to hit that part of the car with that part of the bin. Unless the car was sitting low on the suspension (as it does; it hunkers down when the clutch is brought in), so the bumper hit the dustbin low down, with the bin pivoting round the bumper and a protruding, reinforced corner swung into the lights like a bell chiming. So actually, it's all the fault of whoever invented wheelie bin, as an old, round bin would have either crumpled or tipped and rolled, and certainly wouldn't have had the weight-bearing corner to act as an emergency escape hammer.

At least if it had been my car that light would already have been cracked (my father backed it into a JCB; I at least had the excuse of not being able to see the thing I hit. He's also tried driving through a Volvo when the entire family were screaming at him that it wouldn't fit; it didn't and I think we can conclude that Volvo trumps Renault).

And I thought sending the lower half a wine glass flying past my brother, when it wasn't even the bit of the glass I hit, had been impressive. It was during Christmas lunch, I had a full outbound wine glass in my right hand, empty incoming in my left; I hit the base of the full glass against the rim of the empty glass and the base and stem of the empty glass flew off. So now I have a very small cloche and probably shouldn't have been so slovenly as to swap full for empty when serving (I wasn't pouring, merely aiding).

But in other news I got through the first mostly strangers Christmassy gathering in ages were I did not become the centre of attention by virtue of my glass handling skills last night (previous soirées have seen me throw orange juice across the room and fling the glass to the ground unintentionally when unexpectedly touched; I think I might have been a bit nervous). Possibly this is because I was distracted by Danish delicacies (well, food as I'm not sure they do delicate), very aware of drinking red in a very new, clean and pale house and because I either put the glass down in the middle of any table or hid it deep in some cubbyhole. And because I was the only person under forty there, and so expected to stand quietly and not do a thing. And am I supposed to visibly relax when I see the hosts, who I'd never met before, are merrily serving on-offer-in-Sainsbury's wine? The prevalence of currently cheap in Sainsbury's items provided to guests has always been a secure indicator of get-on-ability through people-like-us-ness.

Worryingly at least fifty percent of the guests present were engineers, and another was an engine driver (well, Eurostar driver: cue tales of the stupidity of customers and the incompetence of the railways). Actually I probably hung near the Eurostar man most of all. Hearing the folly of the man who chose to get on the empty train when everyone else was getting on the Paris train on the other side of the platform, sat back, set up his laptop and then be taken nearly to the depot before realising all is not right was fairly entertaining. His rationale for choosing the not in service train? There were more seats on this one.

And apparently it's a favourite of American tourists to go down and sit in the lounge, not moving when called as they think the lounge is the train (they also think the hissing doored train loos are lifts to the other floors). Also the fog had an interesting effect on Eurostar as bewildering numbers of people thought airline tickets were also valid on a train (and then berated the staff for not letting them travel for free, not having the capacity to take everyone travelling to Europe and general other acts of perceived incompetence).

Then by a brief segue through the joys of Prague airport letting someone get on the wrong plane (I mean, Sofia and Bucharest are quite close) and the chaos than unleashed and back to Eurostar as apparently there's a four o'clock train from Notacity to Waterloo, which spends most of it's time not existing, being cancelled or being replaced by a single taxi, which is favourite of Eurostar drivers, and so leads the very Notacity scenes of people indignantly protesting when the staff at Notacity deny the very existence of the train, horrified at the idea that the disjointed and ill-managed local railway can scupper their plans to take the first train to Paris. Whereupon a stranger in their midst tells them not to worry too much about the Paris train, as he's meant to be driving the thing.

I've just realised I'm retelling someone else's anecdotes, but that's probably because I'm not sure what I've to say. I've got a couple of parties and the rest of Belgium to write about, but I strongly suspect none of you really give a damn (yes, I know I need an editor, or at least to highlight the funny bit, but it only works with the feed-in, but by the time I've finished that your eyes have glazed over and so you miss the one good line). And thinking of the things I used to write about, I'm a bit adrift in the world of ideas and decent thought, as the good blogs have faded or grown faster than my reading habits have, and the people blogs all seem to have been as erratic as I've been recently, or to have become more insular. So as a vaguely linked aside, go and cheer up Sinders (I'm not sure he'll be pleased with the Sinderella allusion, but it's that or Sinothy, and this way I get to try and guess if he is best reflected by Cinderella, Prince Charming, the pumpkin or the highly impractical footwear; perhaps the last is the third breakable and as it does not exist I have only destroyed it figuratively, so eliminating what it represents).

Think that better be it.


Saturday, December 30, 2006

Proper shopping blankedIn response to MQ's dual gross perversions of cloves and a packet.

The poor fool knows not how to make bread sauce.

So one largeish onion, chopped (roughly chopped if you're finicky, finely chopped if you're my father, or hacked until you can't be bothered anymore if you're me). Bung in the microwave with a bit of water (if you remember to add it) until soft-ish. Add just under two pints/1 litre of milk (using special won't-upset-the-Norwegian-genes goats' milk if you must, but remember soya milk is an insult to anything it is used with. And this is why you're using that big jug that you guessed you should be using). Heat until reasonably warm (boiling it is supposed to be bad, but I can't remember why). Take whichever stale bread the local supermarket were selling cheap (although I'm not sure what the results will be like if you use rosemary and sun dried tomato focaccia) and tear [or if very elderly, break] off chunks and throw into the jug. I add the crust because you can't tell in the final result, so there's no point wasting it. Do try to remember that Christmas lunch is imminent and so eating too much stale bread might be a bit foolish. Push the bread down into the milk (beware of cafetière-ing) and nuke until it goes soggy. Add more bread and repeat until it's about the right consistency (although the gloppiness is a matter of personal preference; add the remaining milk if necessary). Somewhere along the line stirring it with a whisk (breaks the bread up quicker - don't attempt to actually whisk it, as you'll break the whisk, your wrist or some nearby light fitting) is supposed to happen but you probably figured that out by now. Mix until homogenous i.e. the lumps are evenly distributed. Then ask for the nutmeg grater over the screech of the pressure cooker (yes, I was doing it a bit early). Ask again, then mime. Try not to look too confused when your mother hands you a rotary whisk. Try again, have blazing row while helping impale the turkey to move it. Suddenly discover I'm doing the rest of Christmas lunch. Find the new nutmeg grater behind the salt (new in this context means the pepper mill design one, not the grater-style one older than I am). Enlist brother to panic over the pressure cooker (he took the par- in parboil as referring to parsnips; it is just about possible to roast parsnip soup), while you serenely inhale a lethal dose of nutmeg. Keep going, occasionally mixing it in. Keep going and going; there is no such thing as too much nutmeg. Nuke for bit, mix, leave to stand, and then cycle through stir-nuke-stir-stand while various abortive attempts are made to finish cooking and serve (don't forget to take the dead spider out of the last used last Christmas sauce boat before decanting).

This recipe serves God knows how many. Enough for four, with seconds, plus a large amount leftover for use in additional meals and the traditional turkey, ham, stuffing and bread sauce sandwiches (yes, I know bread in bread has a BSE-inducing oddness to it, but it works, and anyway there are some people who think tinned spaghetti on toast is a meal, rather than carbohydrate accompanied by carbohydrate).

You will notice that no temperatures, wattages or timings are given, but that's because the microwave used came from Bejam while they still existed (my mother still hasn't forgiven the bank for querying her card - she'd been scouting for months, worked out how much she could afford, so bought a lot in one day - in Bejam while her food defrosted onto her new microwave), is a bit Skoda-like (unpowered) and everything comes with a suck-it-and-see (or squeeze-it-and-see) ishness to it. You can also reputedly make bread sauce in a saucepan but I imagine that involves lot of burning, sticking, swearing and generally having hot turkey fat sloshed down your arm.

Anyway, I'll properblog at some point, but I've been co-opted into a ghastly do this afternoon (I think the hosts are working on the assumption that the guests know one another; I expect to spend much of the time saying the same things while trying rather hard not to say very much more).


Sunday, December 24, 2006

DSC_0218 - All the world's a stageSorry.

I have sort of meant to blog during the past month, it's just not happened quite the way I'd have expected. So there are three posts about to appear lower down the page, one on apologising for not blogging in the near future, one on doing one set of things, and another on the beginning of a another set of things. So I've still got the rest of the last post to do, plus the stuff after it. And somewhere along the line I've got climb an unclimbable tree to attach lights of resounding hideousness in a manner which no doubt will be dismissed as unthinkingly ghastly; an act made all the easier by the lights being encased in plastic tubing, thereby removing any problematic snags but also the ability to attach the damn things to anything else, so it may be taken as certain that during the night they will slump out of the tree like a recently eviscerated intestine.

Guess who while typing has the traditional aural accompaniment of a carols overlaid with a histrionic rant where the place of 'amen' has been taken by 'any more' as once again my mother vows to never again leave icing the Christmas cake till Christmas Eve (she's got round it before by simply giving up at the marzipan stage, so if the decorations had actually reached the cake, they would have stood amongst curiously yellow snow).

I reckon I've got until quarter past four before she remembers I exist and screams herself senseless at me (I've never been brave enough to - I just heard a traditional, highly emotional "I don't care", which is as oxymoronic as it gets - call her Violet Elizabeth Bott).

Added later: I might have been a bit wrong on the timing, but then I didn't know when my brother would turn up (and oddly at least quarter of an hour elapsed between noticing his car turn into the road, and him appearing at the front door; can't think why).

Anyway, I'd just like to add, before I go all foetal, Merry Christmas to you all. And sorry again for having the odd situation of Dan blogging more recently than I had, while I'd added photographs to Flickr more recently than him (even Sin Use-Sparingly had blogged more frequently). I am of course posting this now before Az gives me another prod on his way back from Hong Kong.

So, um, think that's it. Go and look and Flickr as there are 23 pages of Belgium pictures, and a few more which went up before then, but while hanging around long enough for me to publish the outboxed posts.

Heb pret.


Friday, December 22, 2006

DSC_0104 - Little Red Riding 'HooExcuse me while I carefully ignore the elapsed time between events occurring and being written about. I could just say "Hi, went to Brussels, look at Flickr" but that, while probably gaining a cheer in some quarters (you don't like needlessly longwinded? And you're reading this?), wouldn't really be enough, especially not as I refer people from Flickr to here for the answers to some things.

Anyway, are you seating comfortably? Well, why have you got a hedgehog there in the first place? That is not a valid answer; Mrs Twigglywinkle was not real. Look, just go and find somewhere to sit which doesn't have to be sanctioned by the RSPCA and I'll get on with it, ok? Good. Then I'll begin.

It was a dark and stormy day, and the train to London was late, due to "unexpected passenger load" (apparently some poor fool made the mistake of getting on the train rather than hurling themself underneath it. Really, these people who don't commit suicide are so selfish; can't they think of anyone but themselves for once? I mean not only have they slowed the train down by getting on, but in so doing they increased the problems from "the wrong sort of leaves on the line". It could have been so much easier if they had become another one-under; bonemeal does wonders for traction).

So I meet Omega, and we descend to collect tickets for the morrow, after his abortive earlier attempts. When arranging the trip he discovered one needs a UK bank account to book Eurostar tickets (a mightily considerate way of ensuring that tourists with hefty great backpacks don't use Eurostar because unless they stay in the UK for months, they cannot get anything less than the most expensive fares, thus pricing it in the absolutely absurd range (or about the same as long distance UK walk-up fares)). I offered to book, but as he was trying to slot various things round each other, and had a tame travel agent with a UK credit card, I let him do it.

Which meant he'd turned up the day before, been told he needs the card on him to collect the tickets, argued for long enough with the woman serving who then said that if he had a photocopy of the card, along with the cardholder's signature, authorising him to use it, that should be fine. So he went off to email the other side of the world.

Cut to the next day, when, with me in tow, he went to collect the tickets. The embarassingly long story can be simply summed up with "Ah, mais non" and that effortlessly Gallic (or possibly Gallicly effortless) palms-up gesture accompanied by a traditional "pfft". Naturellement, la femme de la dernier jour avait disparu. For the most part I gallantly left the enduringly charming Omega to it, occasionally returning to add down-nosed looks and comments with strangely over-enunciated vowels (the whole of Waterloo may well have heard me telling M. Pffter on the desk "Oh, don't be quite so absurd" in tones reminiscent of "A handbag?").

Eventually, after he figured out that Omega could goodheartedly "mate" him to the furthest antipodes, by means of plate tectonics, and I obviously have the blood of Canute in my veins (stubbornly proving a point does seem to be a forte, just ask MQ), he scurried off to consult with his superiors, returned, looked flummoxed again, scuttled away as best a bald forty year old with the air of a starchitect can while wearing a Eurostar uniform which features grossly unflattering colours last seen in Russian sushi, disappeared for a curiously long period, in which we suspect he went on his break, reappeared wide-eyed in dismay to discover us still by his desk (I had considered how long it would take me to learn the computer system so I could lean over and find the right button to print the tickets), and eventually told us it was all quite impossible. Whereupon Omega waved a card, the insufferable little Frenchman (it's not stereotyping if he was) noticed with glee the VISA mark, and promptly tried to shunt the booking from one card to the other. But no go.

Instead he had to cancel one booking, book another set for sometime in February to get the right prices, and then change the dates to tomorrow, then discover than because he has separated the hotel and train booking, it is now £59 per person, not £58. He looks confused, tries redoing things, then explains the situation with "But these, er, pounds, they are such little things. Ce n'est pas important". Omega waves it away, while I think that's still two quid; we're paying two pounds for your successive mistakes. And if it's so unimportant why must we be the ones to shrug? Oh, because, M. Avec L'Attitude, you can do nothing about it. Pourquoi? Parce-que, computer says 'no'.

Vous êtes plus insignifiant que le pénis d'un escargot.

And that was the short version. Then up to his friend's place to dump stuff, into town, for cheap pizza (good old Goodge Street), a brief tour of the transport thing at the NLA (very, very brief, as Omega wanted to see my version of London, and I think he was worried about geeking out in the exhibition, so overcompensated, whereas I'm happy to be geeky), then the British Museum to see the map exhibition which we couldn't find and the land-from-the-air thing wanted too much money (um, would help if I'd remembered it was at the British Library), so instead we Elgined (scary horsed, lowest-common-denominatored and so forth). He took the colonial view (meaning those of the colonies) in using the world "plundered", so I did the traditional pointing out of what would have happened had they been left, and anyway, you never would have seen this range of pieces, of artefacts, of ideas had they not been in one place, and what is that man doing on that vase? Is it a Grayson Perry?

And then having things viewed and people watched to our heart's content, we headed out and west, where we stood in the lee of Centrepoint discussing where next, which included having to point out that the big tower he was standing underneath was the big tower he'd seen earlier and wanted to look at. And so Soho, because it was cold, windy and raining, and, although I'm not sure, rumour has it that they have somewhere there that sells alcohol.

I'm guessing from the way he stopped and had to be dragged on (and then kept making sure we walked back past certain points), he might have quite liked it (according to Omega, Oxford Street, the confusingly named Old Compton of Sydney, has the people but doesn't feel the same). And apparently, I'm not very good at noticing those I cause to walk into street furniture, although those gates are very inconsiderately placed (I don't get Soho; I'm me, not some god like...Oooh. Oh, sorry, there was this, er, did you see, down there, you can't see anymore. Anyway, each time I go near it, I come away thinking how desperate people there must be that I'm even on a scale). So we sat in the overglitzed happy hour being outbloked in a suspiciously female bar, slowly sipping our Beckses (remind me not to be so indecisive as to just have 'whatever you're having' when they might order lager, especially when the happy hour deals include cocktails), talking are way in circles over the whole cost of things and how pays for what (me = less money than him, but believe in being fair, yet there's such a thing as looking a gift horse in the mouth*, yet feel guilty. Him = so bloody happy-go-lucky and unrelentingly pliable getting a decision or making an agreement is like playing tennis with pancake batter).

* I've only just figured out what that comes from.

And then we Cindrella'd (not some unspeakably awful nightclub) to schlep across town to a bar his friends were going to be at (dual birthdaying meant his latched onto someone else's, rather than forcing the mutuals to cut and run to his). A bit of an oddity; a Chinese styled bar with not much by way of Chinese (is Kilkenny or Caffrey's Chinese?) filled with a billabong of Australians (what is the collective noun? Well, the national animal is a kangaroo, isn't it? So that mean they're a mob?). It's very disconcerting to recognise identical types of people and matching dynamics to those I already know, but all in strange enthusiastic accents. I only hope I didn't call any of them by the names of their English equivalents. I'm also fairly proud that I didn't once lapse into aping one guy's pet sound which spread to whomever he was talking to to. It's 'yeah', but with a nasalised N at the beginning and AQI.

Flobble dob?
Nyeah? Flob, nyeah?
Dob flobble dob. Flob flob?
Flod, nyeah? Nyeah?
Doffle flob, yeah?
Yeah? Flob? Yeah?
Nyeah? Nyeah?
...offle dob blod? Yeah?
Nyeah? Nyeah nyeah?
Yeah? Yeah?

Or perhaps I'm only sensitive to it after I unfortunately asked "sorry, near what?" after a misplaced 'nyeah'. Instead I just counted the occurrences until I could stand it no longer and had had to resort using hex just to make the number short enough to handle.

And now I have the sound stuck in my head, and am rediscovering just how abrasive it is. Perhaps I should set it to work on Cap Gris Nez in retaliation for the Eurostar staff.

So eventually the party disbanded, we headed back to the borrowed flat, with my impatience and navigation saving us a futile wait at some soulless busstop in Shoreditch (it's still odd discovering how near some places are to each other), instead leaving us in a stunning fug of cannabis fumes north of Old Street (surely it's wasteful to get thirty odd people stoned when only one man is trying to?), drunken teasing playfulness suddenly seeming very out of place (especially behind the team of young guys, who were going for gangsta but gave off more of an air of Costcutter, except for the three with vocabularies and discernable vowels both of which kept slipping out, no matter how short their hair, low their trousers or innited their speech. And was Waitrose the only shop still open when the munchies kicked in? Oh, but the one with the hair is eating an M&S healthy living branded pasta salad, so maybe not. Come on guys, even Lily Allen does this act better than you. What's that? You're 'urban'? As in 'the tenth'*? What? You're 'well street'? No, more like Curzon. Now get off the bus, go home and get your mummy to make you some fairtrade cocoa before my friend decides to find out how many insulating layers you have on under your public-display pants. He will you know; I've already had to stop him groping me, and he's been making very lewd mimes about the static laden fun he could have with that tracksuit of yours, presumably with you still in it (or, you know, not).

* Hands up if you get that reference. Wooyay you.

And so to bed, in a stranger's living room, on a sofabed with a list (again) and a quilt which isn't quite big enough to stop the draughts.

The next morning I discovered the 'grocery shopping' Omega did didn't run to actual groceries (so what then? Grossery shopping, replete with puns and suggestions too depraved for this blog? Put that kumquat down), so breakfast was the remains of the snack the night before, including the oven cleanerish delight of superorganic soda bread (not even yeast was harmed in the making of this bread). Then repacking, out, having to explain the guy who just flirtatiously winked at me was not flirting, but instead is a barber at the place I used to go to (am I the only person to feel guilt over apparent disloyalty in walking past a barbers where I'm known [how the hell did that happen?] when I haven't been there in months and instead have a not-as-good-as-it-would-be-there haircut. How can I explain wordlessly that I would go there if I could and not just because it costs £4.50 and is run by guys who not only take their time to get it right, but happen be somewhat visually inoffensive, but obviously would try not to communicate that last bit to winking barber), grabbing food in passing, and heading through London to Waterloo studiously avoiding the Northern Line.

And then because I knew the train was at 12.40, but Omega thought it was twelve, out onto the South Bank to eat and laugh at tourists and struggling statues who seem to be miming nearly getting blown off their soapbox quite well. Then in to defiantly drink some water and return the bottle to my bag in full view of the security guard standing beneath the sign banning all liquids (can one highjack a train with coffee? What does one do with a hijacked train? Annoy all the passengers at the next station by stopping slightly beyond the end of the platform? Actually the most disruptive thing you could do would be to take the keys and get out, leaving the train over some points, assuming trains have keys).

Then through the ticket barrier, debate whether to flirt with the French customs guy, but discover that the damned laissez faire efficiency means I get no more than a passing glimpse during which I utter "Thanks" then remember he's French. And then it's into the lounge to wait for boarding. And other than managing to time running to the loo with the doors opening (typical me, but it saves being stuck in the scrum waiting to ascend), and running at full pelt through nearly empty lobbies is quite fun in a delight-of-moving way.

Back to the bags and Omega, then up into the chasm, along, endlessly along, into the right carriage, approach the pair of seats, check the number as there's already a guy sitting in one, who notices us and hops up the moment I start my I-think-I'm-in-the-right "Hi". Omega later pointed out that the phlegmatic man with the bilious tie who had caused so much fuss earlier had booked us into different parts of the train, whereas I'd just assume we'd be next to each other and was already cursing M. Désolé for making sure that throughout the whole journey we'll be turned towards the land of Mecca Bingo. So pardonnez-moi to the man I turfed out, although there were no shortage of empty seats (despite the many warnings not to sit anywhere other than those booked because people will be getting on at Ashford, no, really, some people do). Soon afterwards we move off, with that long train delay between sensation and visual confirmation.

DSC_0045 - Subliminal traffic coneSouth London trundles by, hello Sainsbury's, hello DHL depot, hello brother's old flat, hello rubbish dump, hello hedges, hello anonymous suburbia, hello world. London goes on for a fair way and Kent for bloody ever (hello cars, yes we are going faster than you, no matter how much you accelerate). Somewhere along the line Ashford appears and disappears with pleasing speed (who had to bribe whom to get them to stop there?) and then an announcement, complete with giggle inducing Flemish (I'm sorry, but even if it was "Ladies and Gentlemen, the train well shortly enter Charon Tunnel. Transit time is expected to be 23 minutes, after which there will be a short stop for all eternity at Hades Europe International, where the train and all those aboard will be consumed by fire with lots of brimstone, accompanied by a Hasselhoff composed piece commissioned for the occasion to be performed by Hillary Duff. Thank you for travelling with Eurostar" I'd still be suppressing laughter because it's in Laangua Fraanklij Stoopijd).

And does anyone else wonder where the other Lille is and how one could be confused enough to travel to the wrong one? It's not it's differentiating between Lille-Europe and Lillehammer or somewhere similar, because it says Lille-Europe thus implying it's the only one in the continent, which suggests there's a Lille-Australasia, and to be honest I'm be fairly impressed if you could get a train there from Waterloo (either one, said he remembering there's not only one in Manchester as well*, but one in Belgium which started the whole shebang).

* No, I've not been there, merely been annoyed when train companies based out of London Waterloo automatically assume you must mean the one so far north Father Christmas shops there.

So through Northern France deciding it needs some trees and some hills, noting that the road markings are different, the pylons are different, the houses are different, the... we could be here some time. And I'm sure English weather is never quite as bleakly grey as that was. But at least we discovered DHL depots still look the same.

Off the train feeling a little weary but with that are of importance which seems to infect anyone who has just come from a different country (this may not apply to Schengen places where it's hard to tell whether you've actually left yet). Towards the metro to rummage for change, confused by the ticket options (where do I swipe my Oyster?) despite discovering the machine comes with English menus. And I like the time limit system, whereby one can make as many journeys as one wants in one hour and still only count as one (rather than London's usual thing of having to guess how well the buses are running so you know if the Tube will be cheaper and never ever changing at King's Cross because they make you surface and pay more). So you buy the ticket, stick it in an odd orange blob, take it again and walk onto the system without any barrier, wondering whether you've done the right thing and not being helped by being told it's like Brisbane (Brisbane has an underground? I'm surprised it has roads).

Onto a train, confused by the door handles which jerk away from the hand with a hiss. It feels very American, in a plasticky, seventies, unkempt way like a near abandoned theme park monorail by some inland Californian city. It's a repeat of Space 1999 played from a worn tape sometime after the millennium. It did not come to pass.

Off at Roundtuit for the hotel, surface, book in, which I leave to Omega as he's the one with details, while I sag across a chair staring at the ceiling in horror at the endless octagons of dark wood and gilding, worsened by the murder scene image shown above, whereupon I sit up properly, aghast I looked so ill and sprawled.

The room has a dismaying faint smell of smoke and television informing us of God knows what (fortunately the subject was not actually what God knows, just French babbling). We head into town to wander the rain doused streets, while I curse having left my camera in the hotel (well, it is night, and it is Saturday night, and it is my new camera).

We eat in some street full of tourist restaurants (you can have Italian food offered to you in any language you choose with all the comically mistranslated menus you can take), discovering that either the wine had grit (and a fruitfly) in it or the water with which it was adulterated did, and the place has the gall to charge us for the drinks despite telling us they were on the house. Playing the unmannerismed provincial Omega argues until they strike it out, whereas I prepared to be perfectly civil until they refused to be, at which point I'd walk out (the cannelloni had indeed appeared lonely and freshly arrived from the canal). Instead I silently thought of my per meal budget (vastly in excess of what was needed, assuming we remembered to go and eat) and how much was left to buy something elsewhere.

And so we adjourned to the Christmas Markt at the Bourse, we mutual sugar overdosing ensued, via gaufre for me and gluhwien for him (the waffle came the chocolate sauce, the type of stuff one used to use on ice cream, only the woman serving it was trying to explain something to someone else as she did it and forgot to stop pouring; it is quite impossible to eat a too hot to hold waffle with each well filled with sticky chocolate sauce in any manner approaching elegantly. I even had toddlerish streaks of it on my cheeks and trickling down every finger. Licking it off was not an option as my saliva had been replaced with viscous brown sugar). But oddly getting extremely sticky (how on earth do people use it in foreplay? If starts to dry you'll take the other person's skin off) was more fun and more satisfying than the meal we'd just had (and warmer; after several days in Belgium I've come to the conclusion doors were introduced to the country some while after broadband. They neither know how to close them nor how to fit them. Even the people who wisely walked out after complaining about the draught left the door open behind them. But that restaurant was pretty dismal as I nearly pulled down half the fitted furniture cornering at the top of the stairs as it turned out to be not entirely attached to anything. Though at least everyone else heading to the loos had the same bookcasey-thing come try to follow them down the stairs too).

Into the town to find some road Omega was keen on finding, which I didn't recognise as any I had heard of. Turns out he was automatically seeking out the gayest part of town, though judging by the general local ambivalence to details - straight lines are obviously too difficult for the noble Belgian intellect to master - I'd posit, and this might be stereotyping a tad, that there ain't that many gay genes in that pool. I'd always thought the Parisian rioters' weapon of choice was somewhat implausible - how do they get the cobblestones out of the road? They're packed in solid and cemented down - until I tried walking anywhere in Brussels. When the wind is sweeping sand out from underneath the remaining stones, it's probably time to do some maintenance. Obviously someone had scheduled some as we found a street with an actual barricade at the end made from cobbles, but no sign of them being inserted in the gaps across the city (maybe cobbles are only stone on the outside, with an iron core, and there was a big magnet in this road, so all the loose cobbles with slowly converge on it).

So we walked up the Rue de la Marché au Charbon (or the Coalmarket). According to the French Wikipedia:
Actuellement ce quartier... est devenu le quartier gay et l'un des plus animés de la capitale européenne.

Roughly translated:
Recently the area has become the gay quarter and one of the most lively places in the European capital.

So we walked down it and saw two cute guys heading home with their dog, and then made jokey comments about them being the only gays in the village after deciding which of us the cuter one was checking out (if he was looking at me, it can only be to think "Dear God, what is he wearing?"), only to discover that they were the only gays in the village, heck they were the sole inhabitants of the village. But somewhat pleasingly, if one's into uniforms, the main police station is the biggest building on the street, although unfortunately it was the only place with young men hanging round outside, but then it was the only place apparently still open, and that was on a Saturday night. It wasn't quite Old Compton Street, or the NSW Oxford Street. You know that little alley which runs parallel to the road heading south from Soho Square? The one which not even groping couples bother with? If the Kolenmarkt is Brussel's version of Soho, that alley is as near to Soho as it gets. Even the rainbow flags had hunkered down for the night.

DSC_0288 - Grote Kerstmis MarktSo instead we went into the Grand Place, and found ourselves in the middle of what I thought was called the Electrabel (the signs announcing it may have been in four languages, unfortunately they were all dialects of PR) but I later realised (due to walking past an office with that name on) that Electrabel is probably the state electricity company. Well, if there's Belgacom because someone else is already BT, and the firms would probably try to avoid using the full name of the country, due to that making the choice of Flemish or Walloonian (Dutch or French) obvious, it's all that unlikely. I think the state bank has rebranded though, as the most common one is Fortis, and that firm seemed to occupy a building built to suggest it was the national bank (um, just checked and I don't think that's true, what with the whole coming into existence in 1990 thing, which is a bit late, even for Belgium).

So basically there was much light, some music, a few bouncing goboes including some of reindeer which the French people clapped (the French also queue up to stroke the hand of a memorial just off the Grote Markt, which I spent the weekend calling Strokey Hand Woman until I discovered it was meant to be a man; it was something about the angle of the wrist, but then he is meant to be dead so presumably hence the apparent limpness). I have to admit that as ghastly as twee music, bouncing snowflakes and the cloying, bewildering joy (and perfume) of French tourists is, the square did seem so much more interesting when lit up, even if parts of the lighting scheme were sublimnials for Nurofen or Top of the Pops. Unfortunately I'd left my camera in the hotel because it was Saturday night and I mistakenly thought Saturday night in the capital might mean more than a waffle, a few bits of blue plastic over the nearest lampposts (and some of those where blowing off) and going back to the hotel to investigate with French or Flemish television was the more pointless (we didn't, but only because we were thinking watching television on the first night might rather be letting the side down by admitting we cannot think of anything better to do).

And somehow my brain carefully tried to skip the curious incident of the park. Can't think why. We'd headed back up the hill on the way back to the hotel, refusing to give in to soon to Brussels boredom and to check out what things looked like at night, having been round that bit during the day (we'd arrived around four, and Brussels is on Cohesive European Time, so it doesn't get dark as early as it should, so had seen that area by the light of a wet and windy day). We went up to the parliament while Omega was on the hunt for the Flemish Parliament (political Wikipedia-ing geek; there isn't a picture of it on Wikipedia, and there still isn't as we never found it, though I've just found where it is on a map, and discovered that we've walked within a block of it on each side and it's just past the American Embassy, so if you're passing that way).

Anyway, up to the National Parliament, then rather than walk round the park, I suggest through, basically because Omega said round because it's dark and parks are dangerous and I'm bloody minded and we're two full grown men (ish) and people cross the street to avoid me even though that makes me worried about the big scary man who must be walking behind me and... So in we went, and surprisingly not very much happened, as there were only a couple of other people around mostly crossing our central path. We carried on down the main axis, just chatting, edging away slightly from the rather aggressively intimidating policeman on duty standing conspicuously beneath a lamp. Very puffed up, arrogant, machoier than thou, which was a bit disturbing especially in such a touristy city, where even the churches bid you come. Curiously American style uniform too, considering all the evidence we've seen so far suggests Brussels looks south for all answers. Actually, we'd seen French-style police in Charbonthingy; they must be a different branch or under a different jurisdiction. That would be very French, to have civil and military branches, only with the additional complications of city, region and national police, probably with each stage speaking a different language to the others (there's something about Brussels which makes one remember a fondue set is a type of melting pot). Hardly a welcoming vision though.

We carry on, passing a solitary guy coming through the gates; hmm, he was quite cute. As we leave the southern end of the park a guy gets out of his car and walks into the park. Must be cold night judging by the people who've given up and are waiting in thier cars. Maybe there's a theatre or something nearby and these people are waiting to pick others up; it is fairly late so it probably finishes. I wonder if that's what the station looks like before an evening train gets in; I never understood people who would walk in the morning but would want lifts on the way home. Anyway, they're probably trying to avoid paying for parking by waiting in the cars, though I haven't seen a warden, not that I'd know what a Belgian traffic warden looked like.

DSC_0058 - The StandardSo that's the King's Palace then. He must have double-glazing or sleep in the back, if he's there at all; the huge area in front of it, which is a fairly busy road, even this late at night is apparently made of solid rumblestrips, or possibly just ordinary cobbles en masse. That is a huge expanse of paving, and the sound isn't helped by the cars apparently taking the big empty space as a sign that they ought to see how fast they can go across it. And the palace doesn't leave much doubt as to which side of the cultural divide it is on; that roof is enough to turn any building French. Didn't Omega say the King refuses to speak Flemish?

What? What guy? Oh. Why didn't you tell me there was someone in the car. I didn't see him, sitting in there in the gloom. Just as well I didn't make some comment about the nappies on the parcelshelf. Anyway, what was it... Oh look, they're talking. The two guys from earlier; the cute guy and the one after him. Well, it is a small town, so they probably keep bumping into each other; that's probably why the guy who got out of a car was in a hurry, because he wanted to catch up with his friend.

Sorry, a what? Are you sure? But... oh, some man's talking to the policeman. I hadn't noticed he was leaning back against the pole with his foot hooked on it. It did seem a very American uniform, and he didn't quite give off the right world-weary air for standing guard over a near empty park in the middle of the night. Oh. And what about the people in the cars, yes, I know they're all guys, but I just assumed Belgium was a bit sexist, I mean, they still haven't got their head round non-smoking tables in restaurants, and you know what the French are like when it comes to women. So you think these guys sitting in their cars, parked facing the park, you think they, oh, there's another getting out, you think...


You'd never guessed I'd lived within sight of the four-footed shrubs of Hampstead Heath and a twanged condom shot away Clapham Common, would you? So that's astuteness as well as assertiveness I've got to improve.

And what did you call it? A beat? Isn't that when a lot of take themselves, a fair amount of scotch and some sticks off to spend the day romping through undergrowth? So how does that differ from cruising?

Guess whose sole exposure (that I've noticed, which given my ability with simple arithmetic, especially an even prime plus an even prime...) to such things runs to being asked if I wanted to see some odd man's sundial. As it was night I declined. And yes, I only figured out what he meant some while later (the answer was still no).

Yeah, so we found out what all the Belgians do on a Saturday night and we found la quartier gay de Bruxelles helpfully located in le Parc de Bruxelles (which apparently has Freemason symbols incorporated into the paths; I wonder if they approve - maybe it's an initiation rite. Though having checked the ill informed sites*, the Masonic symbols seem to be either interpreting the three arms and the fountain as that odd beaming eye thing, or as a pair of compasses. No doubt someone will also claim that a right angled corner represents a set square. This mean the pub at Worth is also a centre of Freemasonry (until I point out the proximity of a large number of quarries)?).

* One claims the park is by the European Commission Parliament [sic]. It's not by the EC or the EP, but the BP.

I still wonder whether the very well spoken and well aged, but slightly lost, English couple we saw entering the park soon afterwards did the sensible thing and asked the policeman for directions, and if so just what was the reaction.

But I've run out of time to do this, so you'll have to survive for the time being with just news of Day One.


Monday, December 18, 2006

DSC_0017 - Babble onI'm doing well, aren't I?

The pre-disappearing act post never got posted and then came tiredness, general out-of-the-habit-ness and trying to tie in blogging with uploading images to Flickr, which given I've only just put Sunday night up, and I came back on some distant Wednesday, well, it's not quite running to plan. And we don't even mention the more recent images yet to leave the camera.

So, long, long ago in a galaxy not entirely far, far away, a little blogger named Anyhoo met up with a friend, who we shall call Omega because we've forgotten his other myriad blognames (this blog grew out of emails written to him, and to some extent has usurped those emails, despite his refusal to read the blog, probably because I was worried about I'd written about him, even though I'm not sure what there is, and not being able to remember the blognames I can't search for entries) and because the multiple personas make it look like I have more friends than I do.

Or rather a little blogger named Anyhoo spent a large chunk of the morning wondering where the hell Omega was, as Omega got up a little bit late, grossly underestimated cross London transit time (did he not think I was serious when I moaned of everything being an hour away?), missed the train, then was so good at killing time he missed the next one, rang - thus breaking the never having spoken thing (yes, that type of friends*) with something utterly mundane - to ask whether he gets the earlier train but would need collecting from a different station, getting that train, and eventually meeting in the entrance hall of a suitably uninspired station (not quite Brief Encounter). Like an inverse Cheshire cat, I saw the grin coming first.

* But I find 'penpal' to be one of the most loathsome words going.

So out, into town and up the hill, all important first words lost in clashing accents succumbing to the roar of the one way system. Then quite of lot of "where now?" and failed attempts at tourguide-ism. So I did the traditional thing of suddenly taking him up some random passage, up some stairs inspired by Slough, and out, onto the top of a multistorey (why are the words 'car park' unnecessary after that word?) to view the town in its full glory (or as glorious as a damp, early December Tuesday can be).

Glossing over Omega asking if the Jacobean hospital was a mosque (I suppose there is a geometric similarity, though I've yet to see a mosque with a sundial on the front), not much of interest happened while we were there; there was much walking with intermittent hunts for postcards (Omega is fool enough to encourage competition between friends and relatives over who gets the most postcards; I summed it up in an email to someone as the world is spinning on a slightly different axis now due to the weight of card shipped between hemispheres and that [Omega]'s tongue must be more glue than flesh by now), great excitement over the discovery of a holly bush beneath the castle (not because it was beneath the castle, but simply because unlike gorse, holly has not reached Australia), a slight lack of wonderment at the canal (not surprising apart from Omega's previous near constant amazement at the concept).

And then because there really isn't that much to do (and because I had to move the car), we head down and up, back to the car, with a slight detour to discuss not being able to see London on most days, a film I've never seen, the endlessly treey plain, the disappearance of Heathrow in its own smog, and the passing cold front shunting all the gunk up and out of the way. So down the hill in the car, hoping I don't have to brake as mashed wet leaves won't leave me much option, a bit of insh'allah driving (you can't see so you assume it's fine). And suddenly I'm realising the flaw in delaying the write up: I know we did things, I can remember being there with him, but I can't remember if it was night or day at the time. Not that it matters really.

So, um, eventually we head off towards far hills, through endless villages, the Chessington* road enforcing more periods of gear change than not. And so to Wetporth.

* Or Alton Towers. But I refuse to admit Thorpe Park can ever be more than very dull teacups.

Or rather, so to Wetporth Wark, in through the wide entrance and narrow gate, scrambling up the hill behind, lost without other cars to avoid. Dumping it in the corner nearest park, I'm all for bounding off, when I notice the sign demanding that all cars bear the National Trust sticker. I don't have one. I've got an old one for the sailing club, will that do? How about a security pass from ex-work? I'm fairly sure I haven't had an NT sticker. But I can't go and ask as there's no one to ask, and I can't go and check any other car as we're the only people here. Dumping my membership card on the dashboard, we head off, sticking the motorway bit because this is Wetporth and it's been raining and the well-trodden path is treacherous enough without attempting to forge our own.

Highlights for me: playing with my new camera, walking in fresh-air-winter-sun-ery, talking to a guy I've known for ages, trust implicitly and like considerably (even if I don't always understand him, and I don't just mean the accent).

Highlights for him: yet more pheasants (so I told him why my car has no aerial), molehills (Australians may make mountains out of molehills, but they also think molehills are bigger than they are), deer (even if I haven't the foggiest which type), realising customs will have to scrub his boots for him when he flies back (presumably the more considerate equivalent of the French insisting we had to dip our deck shoes in disinfectant when we sailed across during the foot and mouth thing; obviously the French haven't figured out that cows don't tend to live on salt laden teak and GRP) and then flapjack in the car while we think of where next (he'd never had it, and had only heard of it through me, and wasn't quite tempted by my description of it, though I think he's now a convert to the one true way (well, that and Kendal Mint Cake)).

Then through town half debating whether to park, but not and so thanking the tortuous one way system for providing a tour of the place without having the leave the car, then ever southwards to sweeping views under the sweeping rain and sandblasting sun, onto the "oh, a freeway" (I was trying to make him navigate, but Australian maps are apparently different; I remember his amazement years ago at discovering that the entire country has been mapped, and more than once [I think the UK or at least GB is reputedly the most mapped country in the world, and also apparently the most intensely studied geographically or biologically]. He also later admitted that driving in Australia is very different to driving the UK and so his suggestion of a roadtrip might have been quite a lot more work here, especially in my heavy-clutched, no-power-steering car, which incidentally is apparently the same as his, though under a different badge. He also didn't know that in UK, the person, not the car, is usually the thing insured and so he couldn't drive us back if he felt like it).

Thence to Bashom, where my memory failed and so I ended up in the car park which you actually have to pay for. Omega pointed out just how little I was being miserly about, then paid himself, but put midway between the first two increments in because he thought the no-change machine was pro-rata (golly, Australia must take the idea of being fair very seriously). So a tour of the town, with pointed comments trying to draw his attention to the high thresholds and board slots, while not wanting to give it away (No, I didn't mean the roses still in bloom or the crack running across their facade. No, just look. No, a bit lower. No, not the name of the house...), and not quite being able to complete the circumnavigation of the town because of the incoming tide, which was so fierce that even the people in what looked like a souped-up hearse turned back (presumably because the seaweed might stain the shiny, all terrain tires). And by fierce I mean the flooded area was a bit too far to jump and it would have been unfair to make Omega cling to the wall to get past. But at least Omega mortified me by going up to the guys in the tank and letting them know they'd be fine going through (and thus were being a bit pathetic in refusing to get the tyres wet). It's not like there's going to be a wave come in and drag them off the road, on the grounds that any decent waves would have to make it up the Channel, bang a left, plough over the top of the Wiggerings (and yes I have been Googlefoxing the names) before coming ashore there, and anyway, the harbour's so shallow it would probably evaporate on a hot day.

Then up into the town, round the church after convincing Omega that the CofE is not like the Catholic church, being quite sure which party is the group doing the deigning, out onto the salt patched green, to admire the house I've always wanted, possibly falsely ascribe the Canute story, and discuss life before heady along the bay round towards the normal parking place, then inland, where we made the mistake of assume a path between houses might go somewhere useful before it gets to Haven't, and then back into town along a suddenly much longed road.

And so home, or so northwards, with the intention for aiming for the pub in a nearby village, though driving rather sedately as the dashboard lights had gone off (and this in the rushhour) and because there were still some fun floods lingering. Get to pub, where I sound less than enthusiastic because I haven't eaten all day and have been driving a car were it feels like one is winching it uphill through the steering wheel, which Omega takes to mean I don't want to go in (it depended on which of the owning family would be around), so instead I drive into the nearest town, only driving off the road once (you know that run-out-of-energy thing? If you've seen me you'll know I don't have reserves and my early warning system is the equivalent to the first splutters of a car running on fumes), where we settle on pizza having walked the length of the town and back again and because I can't be bothered to move anymore (a state I feel similar to right now, hence the unSinned language). This is where the bruising from the last post came in (but the entire class of girls also in the restaurant apparently largely did the same thing).

Then out into the town, killing time before the train, doing tour guidey stuff (fairly easy in a town like this, as there's the X, the Y and the Z, involving not necessarily beneficial technological innovations, fame through failure and rabbits) and having to explain that bellringers need practice (though at least the idea isn't alien to him). Guiding him up to the station (quick plug of another more recent locally filmed movie I haven't seen) then to the right platform (the choices are up and down, and to go up you go down) where the train was still on the screens as expected even though it was past the time it was expected by. We hang round for a while as the sole member of staff locks up and heads off for the night, with me saying wait and Omega refusing to believe that an on-time train can turn up late.

As the next train is in an hour we leave and so get a good view of it cutting across the valley behind us. Omega claims it'll be an express. I point out there are none on this line unless there's engineering works elsewhere, and it's going far too slowly to be just passing through. So instead a tour of different parts of town, cursing the National Trust for their interfering ways (Road before: melted in part in hot sun, but well drained. Road after: sheds gravel everywhere, still melts where bald, but now requires Jesusing to pass, not helped by overzealous lights from the neighbours which ruin any night vision but also cast deep shadows), the arrogance and incompetence of local planners (I've met them and, er, yes and yes) and few other dodgy bits of design (Omega might not have literally been taking notes, but he is originally an urban-cum-transport person, before the politics stuff).

And so bundling him in the car, taking him to the next decent sized station up the line, bailing him out of the door and suddenly realising that's it. It's odd, I don't remember much of what was said or what we did, simply that he was there.

Anyway, I'm tired and my temperature control has gone to pot, so I'd better stop and find some food.


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