Sunday, February 25, 2007

IMGP1983Sometimes one has to admire the Guardian (technically the Observer) for their sheer otherness. In today's Food Monthly, in an article titled The ultimate easy classics and with a first line reading How to whip up simple, delicious food, from pizza to macaroni cheese, they use the words "For the ganache".

Très simple.

But then I suppose they are doing things the easy way, as higher up the page the recipe for onion soup requires two tins of beef consomme. If one ignores the fact I had to look up what the last word meant, it probably is far simpler to use tinned consomme that make it oneself, but still I cannot help but think that the only thing which appears to be simple about that recipe is that word consomme appears sans accent.

Toast is simple. Baked apples are fairly easy. A recipe which reads "Stick potato in oven. Grate cheese." is reasonably doable. A recipe which requires one to grill soup is not really at the same end of the scale.

Even the omelette recipe sounds dangerously convoluted, as the writer proscribes stirring it different amounts during the various stages of cooking. It's the combining of the words "stir" and "omelette" that worries me, because, and I speak from experience here, that sounds suspiciously like the inadvertent path to scrambled eggs.

For those still bemused, a consumme/consummé is a soup which has been clarified with egg and a ganache is a thick blend of chocolate and cream (and which presumably has to made with panache).

Onto other stuff:
I've just finished reading Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks, the name of the author probably telling you all you need to know. Before that I finished Doctor Whom by ARRR Roberts, which was a Christmas present from she who has previously given me Ferrero Rocher, and which is definitely a book one can judge by its cover. It mocks both Doctor Who and Eats, Shoots and Leaves as Linnaeus Trout (geddit? And it's the type of book to use 'geddit?') and co do battle against the Garleks and the Cydermen (who regrettably do not ride in on their brand new intergalactic combine harvesters) amongst some of the most death-defying puns and crowbarred popular culture references known to mankind. It is the type of book one should put down seconds after receiving it, thereby leaving it for evermore in a friend's house (a bit like the hideous teddy bear that did the rounds of our little troika in college and university until someone's mother unsportingly binned it). Having read it I think it is definitely a book to be shared and so will 'lend' at my soonest convenience to she who thought that the 3 for 2 Waterstone's sticker must be a sign of quality (ye gods, you mean she paid something more than tuppence ha'penny for it?).

Bizarrely both books feature inhabited and war torn icebergs.

In other cultural delights Orange 241 Wednesday was spent not 241ing, instead buying DVDs at lunchtime, one of which was a gift for use later in the day. The two which weren't a gift were yet more £3-at-Fopp things (where else?), both are somewhere in the quirky end of the field, and can be summed up separately with the words silencio and seventh-and-a-half. The third film, which I already own, was a DVD of Brief Encounter, bought as present for Ben of The Lunatics having seen it in a list of his favourites on his Blogger profile (figuring that if he already has it then I'll simply use it as a birthday present for someone) and because I was due to meet him that evening.

So of course at ten past five I receive a text from him starting with the words "Blast! Need stitches...". Suppressing the urge to tell him that if he's silly enough to attempt to play football then things like this are going to happen, I reply while working on the assumption that events will be bleeding permitting and so it's all delayed or postponed.

He replies later to tell me he's on the road (texting while driving? Hmm said sternly), so I aimed to leave about the same time I would have left pre-injury, instead being typically me and hitting the "Oh hell! Is that the time?" stage which ensures I curse speed limits the whole way there (while not being too sure of what speed I'm doing because the dashboard lights have conked out so estimated speed is based on the engine pitch; obviously it helps if one can remember which gear the car is in).

Park, scurry down, arrive at the pre-arranged can't-really-miss-it venue, look out for a man in a suit, realise I should probably have been more specific in my directions but I hadn't there in years and had forgotten what a warren it is. He arrives, or possibly I catch him on the last of his many circumnavigations, some dithering occurs, drinks get bought, though both are soft because both are driving and one doesn't do alcohol anyway.

Adjourning to the nearest available seats, which happen to upstairs, we sit, attempt to talk and then I try to present him with his present. It turns out that while he did not already have a copy, it's not one of the films listed on his Blogger profile, because there are none listed.


And then I try to spend the rest of the evening recovering from that, simultaneously trying to work out whose profile it was on and why I thought it was Ben's, and how much I have to apologise, and how much I have to explain that despite the suggestion inherent in giving a copy of Brief Encounter to someone I have never met before while sitting in the modern equivalent of a station cafe, that meaning was not intentional.

So instead I realise this is the wrong place to have any type of meaningful conversation, that while he may disdeign alcohol and its influence on encounters I probably need it to allow me not to find myself faltering for words, snatching cruder alternatives (remembering too late that this is another thing he does not do), scattering the ashes of my own anecdotes (note to self: never tell hamster story to someone who owns chinchillas) and staring into the massed headlights of the oneway system in the otiose expectation that one light brighter than the rest will emerge and draw me away, leaving something far more entertaining in my place: 3 square inches of bubblepack should do it.

So a thrilling time was had by all. He was nice, if concussed and still bleeding (what form exists for pointing out the blood running down someone's forehead?), whereas I hit panic with the DVD and stayed somewhere in the realm of ineffectually dumbfounded for the rest of the evening. Eventually we leave, heading out and up and up again via a narrow alley, into an unlit stairwell with a disturbingly familiar smell. Once more unto the roof dear friend, to try to point out dull features rendered obsolete by the night.

And so we return to the cars, him unsure of where he left his, us discovering both fairly near each other, leaving me to wonder how he managed to find the exclusive back entrance (which I use because it's less crowded and because I've seen how pretty the lowest level looks when flooded). We compare dents while I notice his car seems devoid of all signs of life or former life except the leather seats (I'm not sure how many generations of spider have inhabited my car's left wing mirror).

We part, oddly, I remember the DVD in my bag and return to give it to him should he still want it (remind me never to let the mistakes show), and then I dawdle slightly to wave him off and not have him witness my attempts to start the car.

Driving out and failing to navigate that kerb (I've never known anyone not mount one of them) I realise I really should have been more concerned about his apparent confusion, his several hour drive back home and the head impact a few hours old. I should probably have told him not to drive, but that wouldn't have been practical. It might have been helpful to tell him about the hospital three roundabouts away rather than let him drive home instantly. But by the time I thought of it, his car was somewhere beyond the current cycle of lights.

So I sent him a text later, because as we know, they cure everything (assuming one doesn't tempt fate). The reply came from A&E at five to one in the morning after which I heard no more. But he must still be alive because I've noticed click-throughs coming from his blog, by someone using his work server.

I can't lie and say it was fun, we must do it again some time, because I'm not sure it was for either party. But then past brief encounters haven't necessarily been the best time ever on the first occasion. Hopefully there will be another and hopefully this time I'll plan things a bit better, building in mutual distraction thereby allowing any interaction to be from choice rather than unrelenting compulsion. Like an awful lot in both our lives, we'll have to see how this pans out.


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

2005-07-23 012Mither

Hands up if you know of the word and what it means.

Because I used bemithered in an email, aware I was building the verb up idiosyncratically. Or rather I thought it was idiosyncratic to use the verb, having previously been exposed to its nounish use referring someone as being "in a mither" or "all of a mither" through my maternal grandmother who also spoke of the morrow, a grandchild being a daft apeth/halfpennyworth and the time being five and twenty to. From the way she used it I took the word to mean a state of confusion, bewilderment, befuddlement, unpreparednesses or general disarray; being busy, in middle of something, and suddenly having to cope with much more or the results of trying to juggle slightly too much at once. So the natural initial response to a familial horde turning up two hours earlier than expected and merrily scuppering plans.

This meaning somehow manages to combine the two listed for the verb moither as given by, which are to perplex/confuse and to toil/labour. But this is drawing solely on the contents of a 1913 dictionary (helpfully my fairly recent and fairly hefty Collins lists neither spelling). Various others have mither but define it as the act of annoying, to pester or to fuss.

Searching for mithered brings up a better selection but some usages suggest it is a synonym of bothered, usually as in "I can't be...". So how did my version end up so far from that of others? My grandmother never accused anyone of mithering her, but she could be in a mither and so presumably mithered, so to her to mither was to be on the receiving end of those others would describe as mithering (so the bit just before people suddenly find their interruptions unwelcome and are politely but firmly banished).

Any views?

And while preparing this I found a new word: velleity (found in a list on Diaphania). The lowest form of volition; a hint of an inclination; a tuitless desire (a tuit being a circular device that allows one to do things).


PS. Having written all that I've just realised I forgot to mention pronunciation. Mither: my-the, to rhyme with either (er, which of course you may pronounce the same as ether so this really isn't the best example. Basically, nothing starting me or myth).

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Tanzania geographic 094I'm not sure if I've been tagged or not. So picking up a meme that I might have been handed on someone's real name blog, here are five things you didn't know about me (probably):

1. Copying the geographic idea, the furthest north I've been is somewhere just in Scotland(55°N), although I can't remember where and the place I thought was the border was the boundary between Yorkshire and Lancashire. The most easterly place I've set foot is Muscat in Oman (58.5°E), though that was just changing planes; the furthest east I've slept is on the east coast on Zanzibar (39.6°E). The furthest south I've been is Dar es Salaam (6.8°S). The furthest west I've been is St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands (64.9°W), although that was to get off a plane, go through US customs, then get back on the same plane in the same seat, so it doesn't really count; the furthest west I've spent a day is Montserrat (62.1°W) and the furthest west I've slept is Antigua (61.8°W).

2. I have scar on my left wrist marking where I sliced it open on a nail left sticking out of a handrail on Zanzibar; I bashed the same part against some coral near Antigua. I also have three chicken pox scars by my right eye just below the eyebrow borne one commemorating my brother's flying Lego fire engine; it annoys me when sunglasses fit so badly as to show me the reflection of these.

3. I sneeze for no apparent reason. I have phases of double or even triple sneezing (in which the exhalation is broken into separate bursts despite common inhalation).

4. I have the cunning ability to switch between binocular and single vision as well as switching which eye is currently dominant. This usually happens automatically, especially when I am trying to catch something, meaning it apparently jumps and so ploughs through my fingertips.

5. I cried when I failed my cycling proficiency test; I am the only person I know who has managed to fail cycling proficiency.

Bonus "you never knew": in first school my drawing of Gumdrop was so good the teacher photocopied it and handed out copies for the whole class to colour in. I seemed to spend a large amount of time at school gaining prizes in external art competitions no one told me I'd entered. Part of my GCSE art coursework was copied to give to some anonymous and forgettable but very important adult at speech night (again I only found out about this afterwards having asked why the original was missing the bottom of the print; apparently someone framed the print before my art teacher pointed out the original was not the school's to give). Despite this and a dyslexia defying fascination with words (admittedly rarely in evidence here, but this doesn't get marked) I still see myself as belonging to the science/engineering camp (I just wish some of the other members weren't quite so bloody boring or downright odd).

Extra bonus YNK: I currently have hiccups. These are annoying me quite lot.


Saturday, February 17, 2007

DSC_1777 - An 'thStick that in your pot and grow it

I haven't done a plant update in a while, have I? So...
- The intentional avocado is in the greenhouse, has survived being frozen in there (the watering can next to it froze as the temperature plunged unexpectedly below -5 outside) and part from one section which looks frosted, appears to be going quite well. God knows where the unintentional one is; possibly back on the compost heap which bore it.
- The banana is currently overshadowing me, with the traditional plume of long, sumptuous indoor leaves all longer than my arm (all of which will keel over in the slightest breeze once it goes outside).
- The Eden cactus is about 200 mm in each dimension, with varying degrees of spikiness, branching pattern inspired by fireworks and a rock balanced on the side of the pot to keep the whole thing upright. The grandparents' cactus has large chunks of embarrassing life in middle of the unremovable dead sections (I did not nearly kill them; someone who shall remain nameless and Texan did).
- I've lost track of the Mexican hat plant/plants. At they moment they appear to be trying to grow in a bookcase as well as everywhere else.
- The amaryllis has still shut down for the winter.
- The sensitive plants are happier having been potted on, though they're still leggy. One of them has churned out a bud which is unlike anything so far; it may be about to flower (I suppose it's had about a year), or possibly turn into a Triffid. Comments about the aptness of me growing a plant which is slightly prickly and has a tendency to recoil and retreat at the merest intrusion will not be appreciated.
- We have lychees. Buy them, eat them, gather seeds, stick in damp compost point down, wrap in plastic bag, stick in airing cupboard, return a few days later and before those which are sprouting, pot on trying not to snap the root, leave on windowsill, worry when the most advanced turns from white to pink topped with a hint of green overnight but not be sure if it was the cold or the light that did it and so decide it's too late to worry.
- No news yet on the chikoo (Tesco spells the plural with an s, but it seems odd, so I'm sheeping it). But then they've only just been stuck in the airing cupboard and I've only just discovered such a thing exists thanks to the short-dated reduction. Supposedly it's like a caramel infused pear, but I think the one had was a bit old, tasting and feeling more like an overripe pear does once the sugars have started to go, only without any taste of pear (just the grainy texture). Oh, and it looks like something found in the ground that might be a potato but it also might not.

Just checked the airing cupboard again. I might soon have to ask if anyone wants a lychee plant; everything I read said they were hard to germinate.

[Update 23/2/07 (sorry, 20070223)]
Lycheemania strikes. I now have eleven seedlings which have broken the surface, although with varying degrees of maturity. All stems turned red; the lower section of a couple remains cream, which I think reflects where the stems were originally buried before they got potted on.

The buds on the sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica) turned out to be me not recognising what new foliage looks like when it's big.


Tuesday, February 13, 2007

2006-04-15 050I before E except after C.

Except for the all the exceptions.

Somehow my brother has ended up having an impromptu competition between his friends for who can think of the most exceptions to this rule having found themselves using exceptions more that words controlled by the rule. Naturally enough I've forgotten the examples he quoted, except heist. So dear wonderful and occasionally slightly batty blogreaders what further examples can you think of?

So far I have feisty and seize, have just remembered inveigle and I found protein and society on a pack of Fruit Pastilles having just offered my brother one as the topic came up.

And do we count Zeitgeist? It's got a double word score.

Incidentally apologies for any delayed responses over the weekend; I found myself volunteered to move a compost heap amongst other things (when I hadn't secreted myself away somewhere with this month's Prospect reading articles that made me remember I've been neglecting Fistful).

It would be tempting to add a Neil (does the rule extend to names?) style "Music playing" tagline which claimed Rammstein's Du Hast was the backing music but Winamp just jumped from Pennsylvania 6-5000 to American Pei (it's about the architect dying).

Man, I dig those rhythm and blues. Which'll be why it's just played Bros while I was hunting for an image.


Thursday, February 08, 2007

DSC_1582 - The river crack'dDe-dei-de-la-da-da

Heard at 12.09 today. Yes, that is La Cucaracha. Yes, it was being played in tones used solely by ice cream vans. Yes, there currently is snow outside lying like icing on a bun round; stretching, sagging, folding and contorting as it wetly shimmies down, afflicting all with Persillised elephantiasis.

I think it might be a slight coals-to-Newcastle-ism (which my grandfather has done). And I've never quite understood why ice cream should be linked the cockroach song, which conjures up images of Mexico. Does a litre of mint-choc-chip come with a dead worm somewhere in the tub? Or maybe waffle cornets are seen as analogous to tortillas used in fajitas?

Rather worryingly, my brain has just invented a new flavour of ice cream: tequila. So not only do you have to swallow it whole, which I imagine will cause one's temples to shatter, but there's the added fun of trying to control mixing salt and ice.

Sorry, random thing. Anyway, you might notice that I've finally published a few things that all got caught up together; everything from the Belgian post at the beginning of the month upwards is new.


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Drive CArgh.

As you will have guessed today's topic is elderly computers. Having put off the latest round of upgrading for some while, I finally decided that was one terminal chunter too many so went back to my numerous notes and worked out what I wanted. Trawl through numerous sites ending up at Amazon, wade through that entire thing, whittling on specifics, opinions, price. Finally get everything I want (bar the hard drive as still can't decide). Click Checkout, where I not only unearthed all the stuff I'd stashed months ago and didn't buy (or bought elsewhere) but discovered that the very good buys have accrued eighteen pounds in postage between them. Bloody Marketplace-dom where every item clocks up charges regardless of where it's being sent from.

So any recommendations for where to buy RAM, an optical mouse (preferably Playstation 2), a USB PCI card and possibly a new hard drive when I decide what the computer will cope with? One which preferably doesn't append spurious postage charges on everything? It is disconcerting to realise that the unnecessary gouging actually makes walking into PCWorld a viable option again (seriously, the mouse would be cheaper in a rip-off shop). If websites can manage to sell DVDs for £1.99 all inclusive why does the inclusion of silicon demand a minimum charge of £5 per unit?

I know precisely who I should go and talk to, but I haven't heard from him in about five years, none of his contact details still work and even the fail-safe doesn't because his parents have moved as well. I think I need a new computer-geeky friend (but I used to have so many); will you be my friend?

Oh, and the first person to ask "why the hell don't you just get a new computer?" wins a prize. It's a very special prize; they get to buy me one.

There's nothing quite like trying to find bits for a computer to make one what to go and buy anything else instead. Ooh, cheap DVDs, they'll cheer me up.

Or maybe not. You know I hadn't decided on which hard drive to get? Well, Play are doing one for £300. Expensive, but then it does hold 1TB. That's like seeing something with a best before date of three years hence; my brain doesn't go that high yet. And how long will it be before people talk in petabytes (which Firefox's spellcheck doesn't recognise as a word yet)?

As my current hard drive is about one seventy-fourth the size of that one I'm going to stop before I start crying.


DSC_1425 - HollywoodThis may end up being a bit of a culture post, but first of all it's not just Blogger which has been hit by compulsory upgrade fever; Flickr is doing it now, insisting Old Skool is now longer cool and I must become Yahooed. Aptly enough they've chosen the ides of March as the deadline for conversion.

Other than the ugliness of the Yahoo log-in screen, what problems does this cause? Because I have two yahoo accounts, assuming they still work. One realname, one pseudonym, only the psuedonym isn't anything-hoo and is really just a log-in spam trap. So if I merge with the realname one, will it decide to start leaking information, or will I be able to suppress everything so the public face is the same? I know the FAQs probably explain this, but usually I manage to misinterpret thing like that, said he suddenly remembering that little realname account I already have on Flickr (for personal photographs, but I haven't added anything to it in a long time). Hmm, so do I merge realname to realname, realname to... I could be here a while.

Drat, it looks as if I'm going to have to create yet another Yahoo account to keep them all lined up. Yes, I know it's my own silly fault for having facets of me, but when the options for limiting views comedown to friends-only, family-only or both, it's not the most flexible of systems. And there is that whole link back to the blog thing (using Google ain't so hard, and somewhat perturbingly the quote from Flickr happens to be MQ's kind words).

I know this verges on the pathetic, but it's change and that always worries me (although lack of change scares me. Happy me).

On with the culture. I've just finished reading The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (cheap in FOPP). I'm trying to work out why it's a GCSE set text (but not one I had to read). I suspect, and this is partly based on knowing it was only proscribed for the lower sets, it is used because it's thin enough not to disenchant, it's about a child who doesn't feel he fits into his school, and it's about bluster, leading into the damage and harm dishonesty and pretence causes (while not actually doing a great deal beyond being obnoxious).

I have to admit to wondering if I missed something. The tale is as meandering as an estuary and about as sluggish (comparisons to my writing style will not be appreciated). It doesn't really go anywhere, which perhaps is the point, but as such it serves purely to demonstrate a certain mode of thought and a character specific style. But one doesn't need a whole book to do that. Know that Catch 22 "feather in my cap" thing, where the point is so severely rammed home that the housing for it disintegrates, grating with the reader along the way? That's what happens in Catcher. The goddam lousy phonies kill me every time, for Chrissakes.

Perhaps I should have read it when younger, or I need to be older, or perhaps I ought to have read something to inform me what to note, what to look for, what is great about that book. Because I missed it, and I suspect if one has to read the Lett's guide beforehand to understand it then that is a bit of a failing. I found it just a nothingness; a diversion not an improvement. It added nought but a style. About the only distinctive part of it was a quote about maturity which I may purloin, but that was already a quote in the book.

Time go back to the Sin stack (or possibly Omega's pile). At which point I remember that bloody Rushdie thing which left me feeling like the Napoli (firmly aground, rather battered and not likely to make much headway any time soon). I think I'm about a third of the way through it, as I have been since autumn.

In lieu of any exhibitions (did I do a write up of the Holbien thing?), the latest new exposure to art was at an exclusive unveiling this morning. But I preferred January, at least in terms of the Ton Schulten calender.

And now on to our main feature: Fillum 2007. This week we explore, in the style of just-Ben, that seasonal classic, perennial chestnut and whatever else one feels like accusing it of, the Christmas romcom. As I was recently taken to see The Holiday, it seems fairly logical to review that.

ACTING: Diaz, Law, Winslet, Black and Wallach. So that'll be two out of five then. Diaz doesn't quite know how to pull off a zany ice cube thawing, instead relying oscillating wildly between brittle and goofy, occasionally exposing the over sweetened fondant filling that would do better to double as hair gel. Law, who appears be using flashes of his disconcertingly white smile to send Morse, simpers through his habitual loveable rogue, using rampant upstaging hair fiddles and not having the grace or wit to deliver the implausible and awful lines he gets given with anything more than more of the same. Winslet has fun, even if it's not always convincing fun, but she knows it's a pantomime and so flings herself around with aplomb. Black appears to be doing his straight guy act, which basically him on Ritalin; half hearted exuberances and lots of him waiting, impatient to steal the show again. Wallach just about avoids saying "Oy vey" but some other parts feel as though they are pitched at American audiences, but for the most part he's good, and therein lies the rub; Winslet and Wallach end up being the leading couple, showing everyone else how it's done and thus highlighting just how weak the interactions are elsewhere. Honourable mentions to the two children, who must have driven the adults mad through adding so much saccharine to the sticky concoction that it starts to crystallise on screen, and who were obviously trained in true Hollywood tradition which demands they play ickle and yet have a soothsayer's knowledge in speaking the unspoken.

So that's 4 for Winslet and Wallach, then another two for rest of them combined.

6 out of 10

STORY: Guess what, brief encounters lead to romances, and unlike Coward's version they all help fulfil everything in each other's lives and all leave happily ever after. The End. Oh, and there's some technically dubious houseswapping which allows juxtaposition of mirrored lives. And for some reason lots movie set pieces crop up, which it very kindly points out. I imagine the words 'heightened reality' were flung about a lot when pitching this; the term obviously being synonym for jarringly unrealistic. It's like splicing together every romance ever made, but doing so in alphabetical order and cutting by the second not by the scene between films running simultaneously.

The score below reflects the unoriginality of the plot coupled with the damage wrought on it by the makers. They take a solid if formulaic idea and somehow break it.

2 out of 10

PRODUCTION VALUES: One critic decried one half of the scenery as Narnia, which is both accurate and unfair. The places shown can looked like that, albeit usually a good deal less tidy, but only for half a morning in February, not on Christmas Eve (and there's pub shown in the film; I was there on Christmas Eve and it wasn't quite how they portrayed it). Ignoring the squawks as characters drive the wrong way down one way streets. One problem with pretending half the film is set in Lapland is that the actors forget they're supposed to cold, not leaving the front door wide open to stand chatting in shirt sleeves (Law did at least remember at one point, but his brrring made me wish he hadn't). But then it wasn't a real house, being far, far too like the illustration of a brandless cheap box of chocolates, which I imagine upset those people who put offers in for it.

If one watches the first minutes of the film, there's some none-too-subtle product placement (and what's the thing on the left going to be branded, Dell? Oh, no, it's another Sony. One of the lines even namechecks a brand later on), a bit of scene setting which I wasn't watching because it starred Jack Black in the wrong aspect ratio and load of numbers and filenames scrolling in the top righthand corner, which rather distracted me. And then it's England and Winslet at the Daily Telegraph's Christmas party in the Daily Globe's multistorey wooden hall-come-offices which look completely unrelated to 1 Canada Square, and everyone seems to have been told the party had an Eighties theme (brown with white polka dots? Where did you find it?). Miss Winslet then walks to the station via St Thomas's (Waterloo is back thataway) and so goes home alone on a train which is unlike any known in this land. A few more well placed incongruities cause me to give up counting, Canuted by the research failings. Oh, and did I mention the lowly hack lives in a secluded cottage and her shambling, failing publisher, single parent brother (oh bugger, that's a spoiler; what a pity, now it's ruined, ruined for you) lives in an even bigger one with no mention of where the many millions needed came from, but they must be rich because he drives a brand new, shiny, black Range Rover. But then the brother claims to keep "a cow in the backyard" (you'd think Law would at least point out that no way in hell would anyone in this country say that, but no. Anyway, round where it's meant to be set, it would in the paddock. We won't even attempt to explore Winslet's "Surrey" which I can only conclude was a spoof that somehow made it into the final cut).

I imagine Winslet's Fresh Prince of Bel Air taxi ride is equally as irritating, but I've never been to LA and so cannot point out the many mistakes. But half the film seems to have been created by minds devoid of all knowledge on the subject of England, people who have never visited it except through celluloid and probably fact checked stuff with a guy who claims to be from Devizes but is actually from Des Moines.

Nothing is convincing, even allowing for the intentional fairytale aspect, and at times it feels if as the world is drowned in honey, and everything visible are made up of the bodies of ensnared insects. Someone went to a lot of trouble to fling that much paper over every surface, but it does not convince.

But the titles earned a weak cheer, so I suppose that earns them an extra point.

In summary, unrealistic, unoriginal and unimproving.

5 out of 10

OVERALL QUALITY: Dire or pleasant depending on viewpoint. Someone I was with said she couldn't see the point of making it, although the film's many self-knowing, yet curiously unaware, rants against the modern filming process explain precisely why things this pointless get made.

A film completely lacking in gumption. Professional but witless and soulless.

5 out of 10

VENUE: An Odeon. Queues through the doors as per usual. Inept staff. Dotty carpet to conceal the small bits of popcorn everywhere. Before the film but after the adverts and the trailers and endless sponsored warnings telling everyone to behave they had a very long pause while they played dull music loudly to make it more interesting and a a branded gobo bounced round the room deftly illuminating its mounting bracket twice every cycle. They then managed to show the first ten minutes of the using the wrong aspect ratio so Jack Black was even more odd looking than usual and there was nothing left of Cameron Diaz except two cheek bones and a chin. The fault was not corrected until someone from the audience went to find a member of staff, which judging my the time it took for him to stick his head round the door meant he had to be dragged from the front desk and then return there to find whoever it was who knew which button to press to stop the obesity epidemic.

On the other hand I could see the screen and didn't have my knees rammed hard into the back of the seat in front and there was no stealth chewing trying to hitch-hike on my trousers.

Making a mistake is bad, but not correcting until someone who has paid for your service asks you to is just poor.

4 out of 10

REFRESHMENTS: There had no sorbet and the staff when eventually deigning to notice had no idea if they'd stopped selling it, had yet to restock the shelf or if there was no more in the building. As this was the only thing anyone in our party was buying, it doesn't really give me much for which to praise them. I stuck with whatever I happened to have in my pocket, which turned out to be Fruit Pastilles, which I didn't have because the post-sugar-surge slump combined with that film would have sent me to sleep.

3 out of 10

COMPANY: Er, pass. Two of them talked through the trailers about completely unrelated things and laughed at bits in the film which had reminded them of something else, thereby making them about the only people in the cinema to laugh during the entire romantic comedy.

The score reflects their presence and the 241 cheapness it provided.

5 out of 10


For the film: 18 out of 40

For the experience: 12 out of 30

Overall: 30 out of 70

Conclusion: Do not repeat.


DSC_0104 - Little Red Riding 'HooWhat etiquette deals with happening to be in the same town as one's mother when she goes to give blood, and thereby informs one that one is going too. At which point should one mention that one hasn't so far been to give blood because A. It's scary and all. B. They won't take mine. C. There might a reason for B.

Because I wasn't sure, but possibly mid-afternoon in a supermarket car park is not really the best place for coming out.

"When did you last give blood?"
"I haven't"
"Why not? Come now, you haven't anything wrong with you, you haven't been aboard recently, you haven't got AIDS, and you haven't had sex with men, have you?"
[Pause while the question registers and I fail to decide how to deal with it] "Mother!"

While carefully not confirming or denying the last clause, my reply does nothing to improve the long term situation.

She thinks I'm offended she even had to ask, I think I'm offended because of the way she asked, and her presumption that it was not anything a reasonable, sane, normal person, such as either of her children, would even consider doing. Possibly I'm worried because in the back of my mind I assume my parents almost know as they always have done. Yeah, I know there are comments about inevitable children, but that's just the same part of her as believes that because she was taught to ride as a child then so were her children.

I can't believe she doesn't at least suspect enough not to press it. She isn't an idiot yet is firm in her conviction that it's not an option. How? How can she know so little? I'm a useless liar and for a fair while I've been trying not to lie outright. I know they have suspected; my father was paranoid about it in the past, enough to have quiet words with my mother about me (hey, you guys, sound travels) which led to me being firmly discouraged for doing certain things (I just liked the way it moved).

I think what really scares me is I don't even know which of them will cope and which won't. My mother likes to think she's the younger, modern one, but reads the Telegraph, quotes from it, thinks the world is a complete write-off nowadays, has far too many faded blondes for friends all of whom seem to be a mix of Puritan, Victorian and Daily Mail (and none of them would even consider attempting actual thought any longer; HRT apparently exempts them). I'm worried she'll use the existence of her gay/bi/no-noticeable-girlfriends-yet/look-it's-all-a-bit-a-continuum-anyway son to prove her tolerant, liberal credentials and thereby make her immune to charges of Fascism, using non-sequitorial logic along the lines of "he can't be racist; he's black". Either that or use it as a mark of martyrdom; see how she has suffered, the poor woman, with such Job like trials in her life. You nearly died of cancer? Pah, that's nothing; she's got a gay son. Oh, my poor dear, how awful for you.

I do worry that she won't see anything wrong in either of those two roles, that she won't realise how damaging, how caustic either of them are, just how much they let people confirm ludicrous opinions and actions.

And what did I do? Be a complete coward. Work out certainties and probabilities. Deny everything. Intentionally misread. Negate. Lie.

How the hell am I supposed to deal with reading the warnings on the importance of honesty and the guarantees of privacy and complete confidentiality throughout the process when my mother is telling me to what to put and reminding of operations I had when I was six?

And why the hell is there a blanket ban on oral sex between males even with protection? Is the advice of every sexual health resource I've ever come across completely misleading? There are risk factors, but am I really more at risk than anyone on a university rugby or hockey team (who of course revel in sleeping with every member of every other sports team)? It's not even as if I could leak the news to a nurse while having the first check, as I'd already seen them come out of the completely unsoundproofed, not very well screened areas and mime the reasons for rejection to other staff across the room. Data protection apparently extends to not telling the donor about the broadcast.

Never have I hoped more fervently to be anaemic.

But no, my blood sank and with it everything else. Out to sit and wait, then get called. Onto the bed, swabbed for the statutory thirty seconds, arm pumped and patted, then yet another little prick (would doing lewd innuendo here be unbecoming? And would it cast doubt on that earlier slash in the safe, blue, normal 'No' column?). Except it wasn't a little prick; it was clenched bungee snap of pain. I'm told that the slight stinging is the alcohol. And of course not wanting to draw any more attention to me than necessary I tried not to let on that it was more than a slight sting.

Looking the other way, she lessens the pressure on the cuff and tells me to open and close my hand. And she's still standing with her groin about an inch from the end of my palm, fingers near enough to reach inside her, too afraid to uncoil properly (is this a test? Do I have to prove I'm straight by groping her?). I'm trying to do it, when there's bong from some machine. She gives the pressure band an extra squeeze and hands me something to twiddle in my hand, telling me to move it with my thumb. Which would be fine, if only I could keep my face from spasming with pain each time I pull my thumb back. I try to carry on, the machine apparently chiming the hour, one hand trying move without pulling the needle sideways through the other tissues, while the other arm is clamped deep against my side, trying to halt the heat shedding and incipient shivering.

Eventually at about seventeen o'clock and she decides that the rhythmically contorted face is actually me putting a brave face on it and as no more blood is forthcoming she'd better give up.

And then I'm given a little pad to hold on the hole, while she puts my donation, which was about the same as the milk rations we used to get for break in school (and thus left rather a lot of air in the bag) into a little plastic box, which is a different colour to every else's (to presumably be 'filed'). She leaves my lying, suppressing shivers, before coming back with a timer and giving me the proscribed ten minutes of staring at the ceiling (but what about the time I was lying down before you started timing?).

So either I have no blood, or the needle overshoot the vein (hence the pain), or I have really poor circulation which shuts down completely when I'm cold (oh, and I'd been sitting motionless in the unheated hall for an hour and half before disrobing to try to donate beneath a large, ill-fitting, single-glazing window on the coldest day for ages), or some combination of the above. But given the sundry biology undergrad experiments which convinced lecturers the probes must be in the wrong place because no way could someone's core temperature fall that rapidly especially not as the same rate as their peripheral temperature, which they believed until they came to check, started looking rather worried and telling us to abort now. Apparently they'd never seen anyone get as cold as me as quickly as I did.

And should the nails on the fingers on the hand on the arm which is being tapped be blue? Because they were and it wasn't a sign of my declining taste in nail varnish.

But at least I know I am capable of hibernation.

So what did I learn? I don't like not being me, I don't like my mother for being so certain, and there's probably a reason people make comments about my cat-like nature to occupy any space regardless of form and comfort as long as it lets me bask in the warming sun. But most of all I don't like being an outcast, being told I am not good enough, being informed I am so odd I am danger to myself and others.

And for whatever it is worth, I know what I've done and with whom I've done them, and for those with a greater degree of contact I believe I know background and past status. Perhaps it's not one-partner-for-life stuff, but there's a difference between hazard and risk.

I hate my mother for treating me like a child, for her blind assumptions and instructions (I was driving her somewhere earlier in the day and it's like being back learning to drive; she tells me to do things, and start I obeying before realising how idiotic and dangerous they were. The best was telling me to overtake a dangerously incompetent cyclist on a nearly blind bend with the words "nothing coming" as the oncoming, speeding Audi hoves into view).

But more than that, I hate myself for acquiescing, for not challenging her, for not telling the truth, for not being honest, for letting her cling to the failed, flawed vision of her second favourite surviving son, the accidental replacement, rather than letting her know it's not that bad, I'm not that pathetic, I'm not that inept, I'm not that pointless; I hate myself for not daring to be me.

So not terribly surprisingly there was a slight dearth of cute guys, or even remotely good looking men (can they all be gay?), despite the prevalence of not wholly unattractive females (how can the straight guys be missing such a perfect pick-up opportunity? Chat them up while waiting, boosting their confidence, showing yourself to be generous and altruistic, and then meet them again while they feel weak and light-headed, where you can tend to the sweet things, charmingly sharing your custard creams. Yeah, thoroughly sexist, but females largely tend to be quite willing to abandon feminist orthodoxy whenever it suits.
The update, even though I've kept this post concealed until the results came back. You'll be pleased to know I am not the fifth horseman of the apocalypse the National Blood Service had held me to be (I'm not even the fifth pony-trekker of the scene of mild peril) as the letter contained no "Please contact your local health care provider for further details". You'll probably also be thoroughly unsurprised to hear my blood group is A+. I thought the days of getting results like that in tests were long past, though that's usually because my planning and time management skills, combined with my motivational ability (we won't ask what I should be doing instead of this), usually mean that revision becomes revi...oh hell.

So now I have a red card and a letter inviting me back in May, assuming no further notches. Which is a bit presumptive given the treatment last time would probably have put me off the whole thing anyway, were I not such a tolerant fellow. The best was being assured at the end that if I had an appointment I was guaranteed to be donating within 15 minutes, which given some booked in people were kept hanging around for 3 hours...

In the letter it says only 5% of those who could give blood do. Which as they've already stripped out the red-box-tickers (hmm, suddenly those surprisingly large statistics about men who have experimented with other men come to the fore), makes me wonder who the many are who don't. My brother's one of them, but that's because he fainted impressively and was asked not to come back because it was putting the other donors off. But who else doesn't? I think most of my friends do (well, those not outcast as unclean), stressy jobs and related illnesses permitting. I was about to suggest you lot go in my lieu, before remembering that for the most part the readers of this are red-boxers (and in the wrong country), with the possible exception of one regular, and even then I'm not entirely sure he is true blue.

So in summary, dishonesty crushes something deep within me. I understand the usefulness of classification by risk, but to suddenly be told that I am a danger is profoundly unpleasant. To be treated generically is insulting. In a land of tea and sympathy to be told to take a number and stand out of the way just feels wrong. It's finding oneself torn between the pragmatically rational and suddenly flung into the debarred camp with no further questions. I suppose partly what irks is that I have to tick to be disenfranchised, I have to mark myself out as damaged, I have to complete a form to show just how wrong am must be. And the form leaves no doubt that what I have done, my life, is grossly irresponsible and downright wrong; it's not what anyone sane would do. I must be malignant. Now of course any woman I sleep with now will have to mark herself down as soiled and acceptable and thus be eliminated (assuming she knows; it's the unfairness that the sensible are banished and the forgetfully flagrant are admitted which truly rankles). It's also interesting to note that the NBS questions seem to assume that HIV is time limited. You've not been theoretically exposed for 12 months? You must be fine, come in, welcome to the club, drinks are free, fun and sunshine for everyone.

But I suspect there are too many conflicting aspects for this to be succinctly précised, to be appended 'FIN', and so I should halt the dwelling delve before I find myself once more examining abnegation of the cruellest form.


Thursday, February 01, 2007

DSC_0555 - BilingualismWhere am I upto? We've done cruising in Brussels, right?

The following day was a bit slow to start, then we foolishly tried to explore the 'real' Brussels, and so turned off the ring road in the other direction, and thus spent a long time walking endless grey streets in the rain, hoping to find anywhere vaguely inhabited or at least with an unlocked door, rapidly coming to the conclusion that Brussels is a one horse town, and either the Francophones have eaten it, or it gets Sunday off, because there simply is nothing moving on a Sunday, despite walking past street after street of flats stacked atop shops; anywhere in England there'd be a cornershop or a newsagents open, but not even they function on the Sabbath in Brussels.

Eventually we do find somewhere in the northeastern hinterland which is open, buying plain bread rolls and bananas, but by this time it's tipping so hard the collaborators strung from the lintels (ok, so they were Father Christmases supposed climbing the outside of the buildings, but everywhere had turned bleakly murderous or suicidal) were saggy under their sodden weight, neck strained at odd angles above limp limbs only adding to the jolliness. We suddenly find signs of life, with a cafe a full of locals. Well, they do say eat where the locals eat, but I think that assumes the locals have a choice. It's the type of place one would rapidly pass under normal conditions, with laminated and much faded photographs in the windows showing sumptuous meals, all of which feature sweetcorn heavily, rammed onto minuscule plates (that trick only works when it the dishes don't feature scalable objects like half eggs such as in the grossly bastardised Niçoise) or better yet photographed in the polystyrene takeaway containers. With grave misgivings I order a hamburger, working to the assumption that it won't have enough meat in to have gone off (the hamburgers, sausages, meatballs, random odd shaped things and vegetarian hamburgers all appear to be made of the same material, with only the pressed shaped, with proud seams, indicating what it is supposed to be. Calmingly they are all a uniform beige), and this isn't Burger King, so food poisoning won't be guaranteed (never touch a Whooper near me). Not quite surprisingly enough, the burger costs the same as the chips, and a third of the burger price is the bun. Hey-ho.

It's only after we order and find somewhere to sit that we notice someone eating steak in pepper sauce, which was not on the menu, and which I have learnt is invariably the one thing every French (or wannabe French) cafe does cheaply and well. Bugger, but I don't need to eat meat the whole time (um, how can I put that sentence so someone will not deliberately misunderstand it? What you see was edited from the original which unintentionally repeated the M&S food porn idea).

So we eat, pay (I'm sure they got it wrong, in our favour, or it was extremely cheap) and depart, heading back into town (we're off both guidebooks' maps). Rejoining the ring road by the ING building (it was a frequent appearance on our travels), heading south, hugging into the lee of buildings and cursing the town for not having anywhere with a roof open, we head down, past warped trellises and decorative rose arbours, with one half blown out of sight, eventually getting to Bastion Tower, which is cunningly designed to knock the clouds out of the sky and fling the contents at bypassers in warning for the roaring blast in a few metres time which will heft them into the middle of the dual carriageway. It's very cunningly designed with two wings, at about 120 degrees to each other, which one pointing into the prevailing wind and the other perpendicular to a pavement. Helpful.

Having been thus reminded of the gloriousness of winter a la Bruxelles, we descended from that level of hell to something rather different. Hoping on the tu... Metro, we discovered what the entire population of the city does on a Sunday; stand round crammed together, all looking tired, ill, bored and boring and all conspicuously leaving large gaps round anyone who dared to look non-European (I wonder if they'd even get off the platform at Waterloo), but what can one expect from a group who are characterised by a Moominish, middle-aged, overweight, grey cartoon character (you know those 'Love is' posters in London offering guidance on using the Tube? The Belgian version appears to be not young lovers but a very grey version of Whatno?)? And have I done Belgian train doors? They have a pull handle, which recoils when touched and the doors magically open sideways. But they do have better poles (which they need as the Metro trains have far fewer seats) which split into three, meaning someone can't block secure access just by leaning against it.

Sorry, somehow became an examination of the transportation variations between London and Brussels (the latter is distinctly more orange and generally feels like the monorail of some just about surviving themepark, and one designed to look futuristic to 1960's eyes at that. It also doesn't seem as vital to the city).

Emerging at Centra[a]l[e] we wandered before I disappeared in the other direction to Omega. Guess who'd seen some far off bit of old stonework. Of course, it turned out to be as precisely as interesting as chunks of stone are apt to be, but I was a little dismayed by the Brussels experience so far, so anything that could be classed as good was, despite the wall abruptly ending in an office block and being at the kebab salad strewn back of a bowling-alley-cum-petrol station. And would someone please tell me what is a little odd about this image?

DSC_0084 - RestraintA bit more morosely failing optimism (I laughed at scaffolding for God's sake) brought us up a street where I was so busy focussing (or not) on the juxtaposition of neon and leaded windows, that I nearly didn't notice the crowd huddled by a Christmas tree stall. Except at the back, behind the Christmas trees, is a patch of grey, and, hold on I have to get closer, there's something in the middle of it. Why, it's a small boy playing with himself. It was not so much 'thou shall not worship false idols' as 'thou shall not worship idols one can scarcely see and the likeness of which has been used on tourist souvenirs bigger than the original'. And thenceforth it would be known to us as the Manneken Piss-take, which presumably is what the pub opposite used to be called till the Angus Steakhouse down the road nicked the last five letters from the sign.

Then into the centre, past a far more interesting statue, round one shopping arcade with more ghastly leather than the front row of a Versace show, and then into another much nicer arcade, where shopping appeared to be a secondary function (I never worked out what the primary function of it was). Into a café for a café under a café ceiling, bourgeoisly gung-ho in enjoying the accompanying chocolate mousse (the place serves chocolate mousse with everything [ok, every hot drink]; I think I like) while sitting beneath framed originals of Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto, while half-eavesdropping on the French couple beside us (well, he shouldn't have arrogantly assumed we didn't speak French when the waitress asked us if we'd ordered, and anyway, 'commandez' is not terribly different from 'commanded', so we would have got there in the end even if I hadn't understood and already replied before he butted in with his translation).

It was about at this point the manageress came out to tell us that they had run out of pancakes and would we care to order anything else. Cue slightly raised eyebrows while we discuss just what it is pancakes are made of (eggs, milk and flour and, er, that's it, isn't it? You mean to say the city has run out of flour? Told you it was a one horse town. Obviously that's another thing they have to wait for while it is shipped in from China). And in the time it takes her to reappear with menus, they've discovered that apparently the crêpes are back on, presumably having discovered that they're not all that difficult to make from scratch and the country isn't in famine after all (or they found another tin of them).

And then it was once more unto the breeze, and discovering the cathedral, then guessing the big Kom en Zie emblazoned across the front probably means we can go in, though Omega went to recce on pricing (I'm not a fan of paying to enter a church; I'm not a fan of paying generally mind).

Then in to the maze of gospel music, managing my usual mix of pretending I'm not a camera wielding tourist, while just having to edge a bit to the left to get the shot, trying to move quietly and discreetly, wondering what it all means, not be quite sure what one is supposed to do in a church, feeling rather out of place yet casting disapproving glances at the tourists who have yet to turn their flashes off, and inevitably ending up on my knees purely to get the right angle.

There was one slightly odd occurrence, and this is before we got to the pelicans, in which Omega was enjoying the show (or more likely waiting for me to finish), so I snuck up and took a surreptitious photograph of him (came out very, very dark, but then it was), which prompted some random girl to do the same. If I hadn't already noticed her, the flash did rather give it away.

Line of day: "God, it's a bit Catholic" said by me in response to the blood and thunder and fire and brimstone and rape and pillage, with a side order of eternal suffering, pulpit.

But then the rest of the cathedral had odd excessive flourishes. Belgian stained glass is very much of a muchness. And Catholic church layouts are odd; the apse letting people walking behind the main altar seems almost sacrilegious. But the rest of it is fairly normal, and as you can tell from the excess of photographs I liked being bale to see the buttresses as fragmented by the windows (oh, and the overspill of the floodlights beaconing the cathedral sprawled across the vaults).

Then Omega (who had sat through probably slightly too many Belgian carols) realised I wasn't going to stop this photography lark and retired to the hotel, ostensibly to sleep, leaving me the Een Dag Jump travelcard (at the weekends it's 241 if travelling together and it's only €4 for the whole city; let's not think about how much it would if for the equivalent in London).

I wandered down into town, past a revolting pink shop, and the Bourse; the latter was much less sticky than the day before (leaking waffle-age) and featured the confusingly familiar phrase "Every day is a song for a holiday" in neon (if it were turned on). Then into the Grand Place/Grote Markt for yet another Electrabel spectacular, which was just like the one the night before, right down the French tourists clapping dancing reindeer, except for an Indian guy living in Frankfurt, who was waiting for a friend over an hour late, who tried chatting me up, although we setted for my envy of his camera (an Eos with a very short name). And then I ran away because I find strangers approaching me thoroughly disconcerting (though they seem to home in on me regardless of where I am; I obviously look the type to carry maps and speak English), it was cold (which had had a predictable effect on my body and I'm not really a frequent user of public toilets even if I could have found any) and I was due back at seven.

Which is how I came to find myself standing in Central Station lingering for long enough on a platform that I began playing with my camera, just because it was something to do, which after 6 minutes caused a security announcement to rumble through the station, although I ignored it because it was largely unintelligible, being in Flemish, with the only discernible word being something like fotografiert and because the train turned up at that point. It's so much easier when you can be a foreign tourist who won't understand and therefore won't try to engage the staff in reasonable and rational conversation (with TfL staff? Am I mad? Or are they?).

And so back to the hotel, so we could go out to eat, yet be too tired to bother, instead staying in being boring and debating whether Flemish or French language television is worse before retreating to the international language of "sodding hell, that shark's big" courtesy of an Attenboroughed BBC1 (it really was the best thing on).

The next day we headed up the road outside to find brunch and to find out what that big churchy looking thing at the end is and to try to find non-touristy yet actually inhabited parts of Brussels. Unfortunately I didn't take my camera with me, as I'd forgotten to charge it (I'm not used to having to charge it), so you missed the interior shots of Schaarbeek's townhall and much interesting architecture and general winter-sun-on-rained-upon-streets-oh-I-wish-I-had-my-camera-just-look photographs. I suspect I could happily have wandered round that area for hours. It certainly felt the most like an actual functioning place than anywhere else we visited. I suppose it had something to do with grabbing a roll from a cafe as all the school children come out for lunch, and the queues building in the post office while some woman rants about a lost form, the cars left with the hazards going when parked illegally while the owner pops out to get something and the shopowners chatting to the neighbours during a lull. That and the place being nearly entirely populated by immigrants, which is a sure sign you're beyond the tourist bus routes (and all of whom are refreshingly Francophone; it gets quite hard to remember it's somewhere foreign when one hears an unmistakably Glaswegian accent in a shop, an American whine in the Metro station and even people in uniform start in English before one has uttered anything).

Then back to hotel, grab stuff and out again, out towards the Arc de Triomphe once more (it's a monument in the Parc de Cinquantenaire or Jubelpark, built to celebrate fifty years of independent rule - fifty years of freedom from French oppression - and they built something which looks awfully like one of the most famous monuments in France [ok, minor belated fact checking; it's not quite a replica, but the impression when seen from the far end of the avenue is the same]). During the wandering we discover myriad new levels of greyness, not greatly helped by the pavement blocking concrete blocks round the frankly ugly British Embassy [def built in the local style]. Omega skirts arrest by taking a photograph of his own embassy, whereas I strangely do the same for the UK one.

Eventually we tire of playing Guess the Flag, and continue onwards, trying not to miss the European Parliament tour for the second time in one day (the first is at 10 am; we, er, had better things to do at the time). So down Wetstraat, discovering that maps aren't very helpful when they neglect to mention that the road of the right is there, but a hundred feet down or thereabouts, and that might be stairs down on the other side of the road, but when there's continuous traffic going somewhere above 30, the other side of the street is a very long way of, and unless we fancied playing Frogger across the lanes, which I'm not sure works on a one way street, we'd better find some other way. So back to the previous junction, down to the next main road, east along that past the exit from what looks like the car park of the EP, past the roadworks and into the park, back up the hill to the now visible main building.

DSC_0317 - Odd one outWhich we got to, or rather we passed very close to before discovering there was a fence in the way, and so diverting once more round and variety of boundaries, before coming onto the Rue Wiertz and the full splendour of the EP. It is pure parson's egg (or curate's egg; it's just as well I check these things. But it's a "parson's nose", isn't it?).

And then, continuing the early computer games metaphors, we played Pong between the two main entrances, failing to find anything to indicate where we should go for the tours, or where tourist information desk was, instead seeing only glazed eyed security guards ignoring the beeping chunks of metal scanning incomers, signs requesting all Polish people to gather in a certain corner, and most helpfully of all nothing on the doors except the names of two presumably dead Europeans, both S-p-something, and several printed A4 sheets detailing car rental arrangements with a range of companies. I do wonder whether there is perhaps undue prominence given to Avis et al by ensuring some of the first words any visitor to the seat of democracy for 457 million people sees is a brand name. In fairness, they do seem to provide rental information for every car hire firm in town, thus avoiding bias, but is the front door really the best place for it? And why are there no bus, train, metro and tram timetables, information about the storage of cycling helmets or carpooling rotas Sellotaped to the door?

DSC_0357 - The art of discretionEventually I wander north, intending to turn back and check if there was some big arrow on the side of the bridge between the buildings, which we'd been missing by being underneath it. No such luck, but high on a wall of a great grey tunnel I notice a small sign. Four letters, one symbol. I suppose it needs no more, but it might be nice is it were a little less unobstrusive. The aesthetics of the place are not of such a standard than it needs to be invisible from the main entrances, and even if it were not invisible, it would be illegible unless one happened to be half-man, half-SEM (and that would only work if the sign were doused in heavy metals, which might be agin some of the EP's own legislation).

Entering into the valley of the shadow of death, or possibly the world's dullest wind tunnel (even I know how design buildings so it doesn't do that, so why didn't the designers?), from deep in the gloom light emerges, beckoning us to its beacon. But, like the moth drawn to the flame, it's not the light we want, having nearly walked into the library. Further up we find somewhere with an air of a travel agents in an unadventurous town, navigating through the greatly amended entrance (I'm guessing the steps down got replaced with a wheelchair friendly ramp, and someone else discovered that because the door's halfway up the wall all the hot air escaped every time someone came into the visitor entrance, so they built an entrance hall in the middle of the room to try to stop the workers freezing, so the entire thing feels like an adult ed centre, with endless conversions stumbling over past fittings, all done with not quite enough money. Which wouldn't really be noticeable if it weren't for the sleek glass and granite combo outside and the general pretence of modernity, oh, and the overriding sensation that whoever did it originally didn't have clue what they were doing when they bloody well should have done).

Not being entirely sure who to ask as the people in front of and behind the desk all seem indistinguishable. I try catching anyone's eye, which yields mass paper sorting, burying heads in photographed sands of whichever celebrity on whichever beach in whichever magazine or someone suddenly answering a phone that hadn't rung. While I try to work out who works here, who is just a friend, and who is a visitor, and which of the above might actually know the answer, as well as debate the language to speak in and cue up the necessary words, Omega aims his best spiel at the blonde. I translate into less colonial colloquial English. Slightly disconcertingly she replies in Scandinavian English, handing him a map and pointing things out to him. The turns out to be yet another white of photocopied white A4, this time with some potato prints on which I take to be the blocked in plan of all the buildings in the complex. It has no words, symbols or key. Omega thanks her and departs as I still try to work out which bit I missed, as I'm still no clearer on what happens when and where.

It turns out the visitor entrance is on the northern edge of the parliament building, so down the side of the round building, about where you'd expect a fire escape to come out. And there is a gate to the park, but the path from the main park isn't apparent. I decide to kill time taking pictures of the place, while Omega waits inside. I'm not sure how to describe the architecture style, or styles, and the meshing of those styles, or, largely, not. My guidebook uses the words "a committee of architects" which says more than naming it after an obscure if apt French cheese [Le caprice des Dieux: the whims of the gods] ever will. Astoundingly ill-conceived is probably the most succinct description I can come up with, and even writing about it a considerable time later I still want to rant. Go and browse Flickr, but try to remember that for the most part I made the best I could from it.

I go in, wait indoors with the rest of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of the world's teeming shore and other dregs of a tedious Monday in early December. There's the probably Danish boy who will no doubt become the leader of some ghastly rightwing party in a couple of decades escorted by his proud father, and by a boil the size of Greenland on the tip of his nose. There's the Asian guy writing notes constantly in his journal, scowling at those who dare notice him, while probably etching pithicisms about the staring people. There's the two French women who arrive late, one so paranoid and defensive that she has Omega instantly calling her as a member of some parliament for the Green Party, a suggestion I find very hard to refute, because while I've never noticed it before she has the endless suspiciousness of the ardently leftwing. There's the young Mediterranean couple and the young Nordic couple, both too busy entwining to look up. there's the usual shutterhappy Asian family debating the meaning of the 'no photography' sign. There's a few more weary travellers, nationality eroded by months of doing as the Romans, several of whom seem to have lost track of whether it's Tuesday or not and so whether it must be Ljubljana or not.

To register I have to go up, present my passport (or ID card, or driving licence, or birth certificate, or gas bill, or gym membership card) to the broken-armed security guard behind the desk, who then passes it to his colleague, who then passes it to his colleague, who then passes it to his colleague... until it gets to the youngest one at the end, who gets out his Biro and writes down my name on yet another sheet of white A4, which contains no other marks except the handwritten details of everyone else in the room, and which one strongly suspects will be appropriately filed in the correct recycling box as soon as we are out of sight.

We are then all made to wait, then instructed (in French, then dire English; most of the audience listened to the English) to get up and go quickly through the security checks (at which point anyone who wanted to join the mêlée without registering could easily have done so). Then much palaver while various characters decided they are too important to take their coats off (admittedly they chose to ask mime to people individually rather than announce it to all) or to remember what bits of metal they have upon their bodies; one advantage of overzealous security in London is that one gets very used to knowing exactly what to do, except for knowing which face to pull as I smug march through the barrier (happy = I got away with it, sad = I am about to die, angry = die infidel, blank = stoned or unhinged so I'd get stopped either way). Madame le Vert is making a fuss, presumably worrying the scanner will excite her atoms (I wonder if I should explain how I can see her). I also wonder why we had to wait outside the barrier, then wait to go through it, rather than sending us through as we arrived, thereby cutting out the queue.

Anyway, we head up to collect our audio guides, and being me and thoroughly tired of my failing attempts in French being beaten by Omega's pure Oz, I bound up to a blank bit of desk, avoiding the cluster of people uncertain what they want and how to ask for it while one helper looks helplessly confused, and speaking before the guy has a chance to look away say simply "English please", while noticing his hand was already reaching for the Anglophone box. A brief "thank you", with no hint of the by now habitual following "oh, um, sorry, er, merci", as he hands it over, and I'm away before the gaggle have worked out which language they're speaking. I'm still not sure what it was about me that said 'English' before I did.

We mill briefly, then are swept into a lift, which becomes a study in nationality personal zones, as I offend half the people by standing Tube close; I can hear the clanging as someone desperately tries to back through the end of the lift. The French guide and current lift operator is not impressed with those trying to keep everyone else at arm's length, as she has to resort grabbing people and forcing them into the lift to get it nearer capacity.

DSC_0320 - Un-ist-ed LobbyEmerging onto a balcony overlooking the main foyer, the audioguide kicks in. So we stand, taking photographs, half listening to the history of the place, occasionally wondering if we need hear quite so much background information on steel trading, and so probably tuning out by the time it gets to the important bit. Apparently the sculpture in the middle, which looks like scaffolding that has met a tornado, represents the dynamism of the place and its commitment to the arts and modernity and... and it's just lumps of steel in the lobby of a steel trading organisation; presumably the coal was too hard to clean. It's about this point that I realise the curvily dull, beige carpeted land beneath me is the lobby of the European Parliament. Somehow it's hard to imagine anyone lobbying for anything down there. At which point I hear Churchill; the guide is playing Europeans making speeches, just to let us know what speeches sound like. There's no attempt to translate them or put them in context, instead they are bedding for the rest of the experience, which unfortunately isn't doing much to the sounds of "Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer" (ok, maybe that prominent European leader didn't make the final cut for the guide).

And then onwards once more, this time round to wait outside the Hemicycle (the local name for the debating chamber, yet it sounds like some rare and uncomfortable Victorian version of a bike), standing by one ill-considered room and sneaking looks into others. Eventually the school group ahead of us leaves, and we go in, to listen to a monologue, again intercut with Babelists, discussing the workings of the EP (or europarl as the EP prefer to call themselves, even though it sounds ugly, is worse to actually say and doesn't get round the linguistic knots it attempts to avoid). My concentration lapses as the soundtrack is supremely dull, and being played to us in an overheated, underlit and fundamentally beige room (there is a little window in the corner allowing the suggestion of daylight). You can tell it was designed to minimize conflict and aggravation; one also suspects this helps minimise dissent and debate (the structure of the parliament pretty much bars individual action). Most worryingly of all, I run out of things to take photographs of (and that's after shooting the ventilation plate in the floor with someone's abandoned earphones caught in it).

Wow, that's incredible; I'm falling asleep now and that's just from thinking about the place. The European Parliament is Sopor City. Even Omega, the ultimate political geek, was struggling to concentrate, if not develop a strong list to port and then slump onto the floor. Other members of the group gave up entirely, with both couples curling up to doze while the omnipresent voice discusses the paperwork required for being allowed to ask one question (which is time limited, along with the response, and to which there is no follow up, oh, and the questions are circulated beforehand. It's like booking the village hall for a yoga class; as long as whatever came before clears out on time, be it a child's birthday party or an S&M kit sale, it doesn't matter what comes next).

It's quite depressing really. I wanted to go and learn things about this great institution, with which I could battle with Eurosceptic friends. Instead I became so bored I cannot think of a suitably intensifying adverb, as they all inject too much excitement. I sat for a bloody age in a monumental and monumentally flawed folly, wondering if such descriptions might also be applied to the very thing it houses. I now understand why people tend to avoid questions on whether the Commission ought have so much unelected power; if the Commission is the only part that gets anything done and comes anywhere near vaguely competent, greater democracy is not in the interests of the people (which sounds as Gallicly patriarchal as it comes).

I also found it disconcerting that the moment which created a spontaneous, unifying sensation of European solidarity was when the French Greens woman and friend decided to have a loud conversation while the commentary was still running (must be a politician; thinks her own voice is the most important thing in the room), thus barring the rest of us from hearing of the minutiae of political groupings, rousing the lovers from shared torpor (though the Mediterranean couple had woken for a fleeting kiss earlier), and generating universal concord as we all glared in pointed silence. Did bugger all, but that's not the point of joint European projects.

And then it's over, and the races of the continent stretch in unison. At which point we discover it's over over, and Laddies and Generalmen thar Caen-clues a tewer turdi. That was it? But we did nothing and we learnt nothing (if we'd been taking notes we might have concentrated more, but if I'd dropped my pen in that gloom I'd never find it again). Isn't there anything more you want to show us, want to convince us? But you haven't tried yet (have you?).

So we are hustled out, by our guide who did nothing more than make poorly some poor announcements and press two lift buttons, and who is now standing holding her carkeys. As a fillip we get to keep the earphones (and possibly nick some headphones from the chair backs, were we so inclined), which presumably is the bribe to add a feelgood vibe to the end of the visit, so making sure that we remember something positive about the place (if one doesn't think of how much it costs a year to replenish equipment).

Then down to the visitor centre, with the unmanned shop which sells the usual array of EU branded rubbers, rulers, highlighters, post-it notes, pencilcases and ashtrays (er, should the EU really be selling ashtrays? Isn't that condoning, if not promoting, smoking? Didn't they ban tobacco advertising? So, er...). While Omega tries to guess the countries woven into one guy's accent, I try to find the information packs we were told to collect on our way out. They have shelves, some with stacks of leaflets in. Unfortunately there is nothing but dust in the English section, marks in the dust in the French section, not much more in the German section, and actually very little in any section except for half stocked bit under the heading of some S language. The leaflets in the last section are impenetrable, but because there is so little available it's quite fun watching the assembled nationalities walk up to only visible pile then scan in the incomprehensible, consider taking it anyway, and the drop it back into the pigeonhole in dismay.

In the end I settle for taking stickers advertising the EP's website in 6 languages, despite only being able to recognise 2 of them (German and Dutch; I think I can guess the Polish one, but I'm not sure). It's fairly interesting comparing the messages printed on them. I'd guess the English version says:
457 million Europeans:
one address

Which of course is utterly unlike the EDF sponsored banners put up in London a few years ago, reading:

The German version has a dash:
457 Millionen
Europäer - eine Adresse

The Dutch doesn't:
457 miljoen Europeanen
op één adres

The as yet unknown (which I unthinkingly took to be Austrian) does (Google says Latvian):
457 miljoniem -
viena adrese

My contender for most likely to be Polish doesn't have one, but it also apparently cuts out the European bit:
457 milionów obywateli
pod jednym adresem

God knows 1 doesn't (Google says Saskatchewan):
457 miliónov občanov
má spoločnu adresú

God knows 2 does (I'd guess something from way up there. Google says Estonia):
457 miljonit inimest -
üks aadress

Umpteen million languages
one idea
many interpretations.

Oh, and that one address (to in the darkness bind them)? Vay vay vay punkt... Visit it now, I dare you.

All of which is about as interesting as anything related to the EP gets and about as coherent as it gets too. Even the flags come from different manufacturers, with helpful notes like "SLOVENIE" written on the hoist of the more obscure ones, all of which are displayed with a typical Belgium attentiveness to details and fondness for straight lines.

The walk into town shows us not every approach to the EP is the long way round, but the townwards doors carry the same noticeboard air as the rest; the general impression is "Not today, thank you". I think I might actually have been impressed with how much grey one town can fit into itself; it's enough to make you want to slit you wrists, but worry that in so doing you'll be adding colour to the streets and so drive the inhabitants to a black box freaking frenzy a la 2001.

DSC_0376 - Party Wall AgreementI'm also impressed with Belgian health and safety. Can you spot why I took the picture on the right? It would help if I hadn't Eschered it, but you see that stripy bit? Well, that bit is just a freestanding wall. Only it's a free standing wall six storeys up, which wasn't built as a free-standing wall* and has an unweatherproofed face exposed to the weather. Bagsy not walking underneath when it's windy. Oh wait, I did.

*Hmm, I think I'll leave that unintentional example of incredible inconsistency. As for the Get Carter carpark thing behind; it's offices and flats and looks largely abandoned, but the even better news is that there are two of them; there's a pair flanking the road.

Then along the ringroad, down to the Avenue Louise, up that (yep, I know there are shorter ways of doing that, but we didn't know that area existed), turn round in the face of police escorting various cars in and out of the hotel at the far end, where I had to rely on Omega to connect country to flag. And I'm sure the commuters of Brussels must love paths for diplomats being swept in front of them, blocking cars, halting buses and stopping trams. Annoyingly I didn't take a picture I wanted to because it was lights reflected in the blacked out windows of one of the cars half onto the forecourt of the hotel and either it contained the representative of some dictatorship, his entourage or local policemen, and so it didn't seem very wise.

Back down the other side of the road, trying to work out if it's the Belgian Oxford or Bond Street or perhaps Piccadilly, while Omega stops to buy a tart which he converted into Australian dollars after he'd started eating it, offered me a bite and we both agreed that it was very nice, which was just as well as really considering his bewilderment as he assumes he got the calculation wrong.

DSC_0396 - Padded PalaisThen back into town, towards the Palais de Justice, which is a hefty great chunk of stone surmounted by a gilded crown, the latter to remind people that while all men are equal under the law, the king is more equal than others. The entire edifice was buried in scaffolding with prayer flag strips of tarpaulin flapping frantically off it, which probably made it look better than normal.

We somehow managed to start a craze for photography with people queueing up to take shots from the same angle we'd tried. It's always disconcerting to find people looking at what the camera's pointed at and then getting out their cameras and phones.

Thus encircled we fled before we got arrested for unlawful demonstration, being tempted to run diagonally across the square in front of the palace, but realising that we'd pushed our luck crossing the tram-ridden flyover roundabout on the ringroad (I still can't get used to Belgian crossings were one has to walk as if driving and so ignoring everyone else and leaning on the horn, only without having a horn to hand. Basically step out onto a Belisha-less zebra crossing or a green pelican crossing and get ready to jump) and so we might be able to get on the huge barren island in the middle, but getting off might not be an option till the traffic-tide goes out. Instead we stood outside, admiring the iron rule of the Belgians, which obviously warps in the heat.

DSC_0395 - PatienceI did my traditional cameraing while Omega... I have no idea what he was doing, probably getting very bored, yet never complaining. Odd boy. This is where I discovered the wonders of long exposures, as the wonder on the right demonstrates; it does rather sum me up.

Then down into the old town and across to Saint Catherine's, which purports to be the Camden of Brussels, and so logically enough appeared to be sponsored by Tallinn. The merry-go-round there made me very glad my childhood was not in France as it was equal parts Tim Burton, Jean Paul Gaultier and Heath Robinson. In England the fairground rides play merry tunes; in France fairground rides play creaking, groaning, squeaking and screeching noises as they slow with increasing judders and an eventual hiss. In England the joy is movement; in France the joy is surviving.

DSC_0414 - Things that make you go 'Ooh'By this stage Omega and I have become detached, occasionally passing and greeting and begging a few minutes more. I head into the church to follow him, through the doorway that's either the ramshackle remains of the sandblasting hoarding or is meant to recreate the stable but with Jesus replaced by a begging drunk asking for gold, francs or a McDonald's. Inside to marvel at the powerful, glorifying, all pervading spirit, manifest in the floodlights streaming through every orifice, alighting on ribs and vaults, rebounding from the graven images of Russian icons. I loose track of time and Omega through playing with long shots.

Rejoining him we wend through yet another Christmas market, with Omega buying food along the way. I'm insisting I'm fine, while meaning I'm ravenous and can we please go somewhere that serves more than snack food. Omega seems to be sufficing himself and I settle for nicking half his mayonnaised chips. And while standing round indecisively we managed to decide to not bother with the Ferris Wheel (ok, we just about decided to be silly and go on it by the time it started raining), that ice skating with rucksack was not a good idea and that leaving them on a bench instead was an even worse one, and that proper cutleried food at some point might be good idea as breakfast was a roll at lunch time, we'd scarcely eaten the day before and we were both cold and tired. Not bad for standing around not getting anything done.

So we headed off into some side street, finding old tracks in the road. Omega thinks one way tram loop, I shrug Gallicly, before belatedly remembering where else I've seen tracks like that. Research confirms it. The square with market used to be a dock and the tracks run from warehouses to the wharf.

At the end of the street Omega opines on Flemish architecture, before I point out that the unduly baroque church could just as easily, if not more easily, fit into some Spanish or Italian town. I'll concede the curlicued gables next door are unrelentingly Dutch (and thereby Flemish) but the church was an import.

We stumble under a sonorous monster icy cold, slain beneath the walls of the town, itself ensnared by a hotel whose residents are kept awake by the death rattled beast. No, really, we did.

At which point we thought that the world was odd enough without hallucinations and so we sought out some decent food, indecision shuttling us through the many priced warp. With a ban on Italian (it's not just the churches they import wholesale), dubiousness about the laminated photographs of the kebabages, and lack of anything else, we drift into somewhere Thai. Omega seems surprised that I would have encounter Thai food and would know if I liked it. I ignore the implications of this and shush him by pointing out the set menu, which is reasonable value even if replaced with an unlisted purely vegetarian version (he's such an odd boy; it's not like any of it is going to have much meat in anyway).

So I tried not fall asleep on a structurally unsound, pointily gold dragon, Omega eavesdropped on the proto-couple next door (he a Eurocrat, he a newly arrived translator), we discussed the blanched efficiency of the soup, and I failed in two languages to convey the concept of tap water (what is it in Vietnamese? Yep, I think it was part of the same process that sees fish and chip shops owned by Chinese or Polish people and Greek tapas bars, which is usually a good, if confusing, thing). I've no idea what the name of the place was, but they have very nice prawn crackers (carefully served to be snacked upon while perusing the menu and thus guilt tripping people into buying something) and huge candle outside which would have put both of us off had it been there when we arrived.

And then we headed back through the wet streets to hotel, with occasional photography breaks, which once again consisted of Omega trying not to look irritated and impatient, eventually dragging me to somewhere warm and dry.

On Tuesday came the trip to Brugge that we'd failed to organise so far (at some point the day before we went to find out details of train times and costs, where I was scuppered by the complete absence of any timetables anywhere in what is effectively Belgium's Waterloo, or Victoria, or Paddington or any of the northern stations. the only thing I could find was something were one looked up the day and time of travel and then read where one could get to at that time. I also found a machine to buy tickets in advance to work out the price, but I couldn't find anything defining peak times, surcharges and advance and group booking discounts. Omega of course went to the travel lounge advice section and discovered the trains run every hour [or perhaps half hour; like clockwork anyway], you can get it from any of the main stations, and the price is about twenty euros return whenever you buy it and whenever you travel. Sometimes not having to turn thrice widdershins in the hope of getting a Supa-Network-Bronze-Advance-Discount-Sava which allows you catch one train, change to platform nine and three-quarters and catch another only when the moon is fat can be quite nice, especially when a guard emerges to tell you that under the Defra Satellite rules your ticket is valid only for the static parts of the journey; why does rail travel in Britain often make one feel like a token in some game of the Gods, which applies the bankruptcy rate of Monopoly with the rules of Mornington Crescent).

So after grabbing sandwich in the station from a complete misery guts who refused to understand my French (look, I know how to order a sandwich; it's one thing we practice for years), choosing to correct me to tell me the unappetising, slightly too pink rectangles were called "harm-bone" rather than that j meets z meets sh word which I have no hope of typing phonetically (next time I'll call pronounce it as in jelly). He then proceeded to up his prices because he was annoyed, justifying this with a tirade that simply didn't add up (three twenties do not make seventy five). Unfortunately we had a train to catch and I was to tired to tell him to stick the baguette back where its contents came from.

I have no idea why, but my French, which sounds like it does on their television channels, invariably ran aground whenever I tried using it, yet Omega breezed through with accented English. But the guy in the station spoke like a Marseillais undergoing dental surgery.

Hmm, can you tell I was planning on getting lunch once we got to Brugge and so was disappointed to find myself railroaded into making doing at a station, where the offerings are no better than those in stations back home (I didn't see if the place was called L'Arbre Limon)?

DSC_0446 - Pattern LookAnyway, we scurried off catch the train, finding ourselves waiting in the nineteen thirties, only with ailing paint and the infectious grey that spreads over Belgian buildings, which contrasted with the new glass boxes beyond the far platform. Belgian trains are also quite odd. The platforms are comparatively low, so the trains come with steps which hiss down beneath the doors as the train halts. But then I find overhead wires an ugly novelty, which only reflects which side of London one was born. Basically, as in much else, the Belgians do things differently.

Onto the disturbing neat and oddly spacious train. Omega settled down with the Guardian and the Economist, whereas I took the highbrow option of staring out the window for most of the way, which works really well when one heads south from Brussels North (or BRU. NO<O>RD as everything calls it) and so enters a tunnel within minutes, trundling through dim, forgotten and abandoned stations which occasionally shock with people.

Of course, not even I can take the Belgian landscape solidly for an hour (the land is so flat it even overrides the curvature of the Earth), instead dipping into whatever Omega is not reading, trying to ignore the swaying cause by the wind, and eventually making a break for the loo only to discover the light must be broken because it's locked, so I try the other one, but that's engaged too, so I loiter trying to here movement, wondering if I should check the indicator again, at which point I look up and Omega is advancing down the aisle to relay the information from the elderly French gentleman opposite that one has to give the door "a jolly good yank". I try and it works, as it's another of those doors where the pull-style handle flexes to release the catch rather than the more normal giving slightly before coming away in your hands. By this stage the train is swaying so much that I half expect to have to pump out the bowl halfway through to prevent it overflowing (whoever designs loos on yachts does not take into account the degree of heel or bladder size).

DSC_0454 - VelomerSo after an hour we arrive (and we'd been through Ghent at the midpoint), alighting to look out over a sea of bikes which we later discovered was the overflow parking. Heading into town, with much photography along the way, we manage to walk in circles, repeatedly. The enduringly grey but flexibly wet rain combined with a landscape scrubbed and sandblasted free of all age and context aren't quite exciting enough. It may be magnifique, but it's also bloody boring if it means nothing and the person you are with is stopping to take photographs of everything and then complaining that none of them are good (yes, I do mean me, sorry Omega), at which point a noticeably less sanguine Omega suggests hiring bikes, I'm not exactly keen but beginning to realise that there's only so much small masonry I can unthinkingly absorb before I start asking questions to which I have no answer. As someone who grew up in Tweeton, I am acutely aware of the sustaining ability of twee: nil.

After begging a few more photographs where I find the only epiphytes in town, and yet another bloody bridge, I admit defeat, packing the camera on the way to the bike shop. Filling in forms with driving licence details, I debate whether we'll last an hour when Omega opts for four. Oh, right, ok then.

Out into the street and it's apparent Omega cycles to work and I failed my cycling proficiency (there was a dustcart backing into the street which they were halfway through resurfacing. Yes, I know this makes me unique as the only person in the country to have failed, but I didn't fall off; but I should apparently have maintained my signal while making use of my right of way). And I am following him, and so have to overcompensate for everything because I've no idea what he was about to do. So when he brakes, I have to brake harder to avoid hitting him, then accelerate faster to keep up, I have to steer a different course in case he sees something and stops once again which means when he swings round a corner I can't take the same line so either swing blindly into the outside the bend, skid to near enough the same place or come to a standstill waiting for the traffic to clear enough for me to pull out. I can't ride in front of him because he just disappears, wordlessly.

Eventually he stops to wait for me and I get through to him that signals might be considered polite. And then it's easier but I'm still acting like a trailer hooked up with a spring, flailing along behind him, messing up the gears, struggling to find the right amount of zip to allow me to cool but not get drenched nor converted into a kite and where to position my rucksack to stop it ignoring any change of speed of direction (and how did I end up being the one with the rucksack?).

Of course by the time I get used to it we've run out of town and are watching a barge with car on the roof come up into a lock beneath a raised bridge, the rain's become thicker now that we're out of the lee of buildings and Omega wants to take the bikes back. I find us shelter while the worst passes and then veto the giving up idea by riding off down the towpath.

DSC_0489 - Henrietta's BridgeWe give up all pretence of looking at the place beyond just as a passing blur, so we bat round town, dropping down a gear for the cobbles, ignoring signs because they all give exceptions for bikes (even if I did think the Flemish word for 'except' meant 'bikes' thanks to bilingualism) and generally behaving like lunatic tourists on hired bikes because that's what everyone expects and so in Brugge one ends up with everyone else giving way. Cycling when the local interpretation of a hill is Henrietta's bridge and there are no bendy buses to worry about and everyone slows and there are no designated cycle lanes in the gap of the double-yellows is actually nice. It's like being a child again, running over the tar that melts in the sun, flitting round the new road that wasn't a road and wasn't new, spinning round new and empty office car parks, pelting along long flat old roads when far fewer people lived on them and few had cars or anywhere to go on a Sunday. It was cycling when you don't have anywhere to be in three minutes and the traffic isn't forcing you onto tracks beyond the range of all sane gears. It's cycling fast because one can and slowly because one wants to, not because the lorry behind is trying to leave a Volvo imprint in your elbow or the women with pushchairs haven't learnt what those little symbols painted on the separated tracks mean.

Eventually when we've discovered that even dual carriageway ring roads are a joy to ride round over there and we've found the mammoth tourist office selling maps by the treacherous paving (it's all right, I'm sure it doesn't rain that much in Brugge, so it won't be wet the whole time) and then realised that we've down nearly every street in the old town, Omega the urban planning geek heads out to find what Belgian suburbs look like and so we pass off the edge of the new bought map.

That little jaunt taught us that though the styles may be different, towns don't vary all that much and end in the same slight confusion across all continents. But it was not touristy which was good. On the way back we cut across a field and down a muddy track, or rather I suggest going back that way and Omega wavers because it's muddy and the bikes don't have mudguards, at which point I realised it's the second time I've got him muddy (the first was Wetporth) and he really doesn't like it. I try pointing out that we're sodden already so in effect we're already soaking the marks out, but it doesn't seem to sway him, so I tell him to avoid the puddles and cycle on, coaxing him on behind me, past the private property sign and down into a road which showed that parents collecting school children in 4x4s are a liability across the globe.

By the swimming pool Omega turns the wrong way, but I assume his innate sense of direction has found a new shortcut. Instead we run out of houses and come out onto a huge junction without much idea of where any of the signs point to. But taking a dual carriageway with separate bike path back to the left, nearly parallel to the road we where just on feels right, taking us ceaselessly towards and unseen destination. Or it would if the Merc pulling out the carpet warehouse and sitting in the space between the path and the road had used its handbrake and not rolled back between Omega and me, causing me to think I can hop onto the pavement and survive this rather than plough into the polished black boot.

It didn't quite work like that. The front wheel was too oblique to the kerb and scrapped down it while the back wheel tried to go up it, which it sort of did till my weight which had been aimed at an angle dragged the top of the bike over the pavement while the front wheel hovered in the cycle lane and the back wheel popped down to rejoin it, meaning there is now a me shaped hole in some anti-everything shrubs beside what looked like the boulevard of broken dreams. I got up, cursed myself, the bike, the rain and the Merc which had now driven off (the car behind which gave me no choice but the pavement at least didn't move until I moved on, though they didn't get out to help either - but it was raining) and wondered what was most damaged, although I was more concerned about my trousers (which survived only slightly stretched) than the leg underneath.

But other than the Merc, I like bike lanes, especially when everyone else remembers I have right of way, even if I kept expecting them to pull out and thanking them for not.

DSC_0496 - A night on the tilesEventually Omega noticed I was missing and as I approach the distant figure he rode back to greet me. And so back a bit more sedately into town, with me somehow leading the way because his sense of direction had closed for night (follow the bus), and then back to the cycle shop about three quarters of an hour early, where I got the impression we were the last people back. Then a wander in the Christmas market to find food, settling on the local version of panhagglety and then onwards to buy chocolates to test then chocolates to give and to keep realising too late that we only tested the dark chocolates in the shop and forgot to ask for a selection free from white and pink monstrosities (I've only just finished them even though the flavours had long leached into the neighbours resulting in a uniform if faint nutmeg, coffee, cherry, hazelnut and miscellaneous liqueur taste except for the very last one; the nice dark one I'd been saving turned out to banana. But when they were fresh they were nice, but I've forgotten the name of the shop; female-apostrophe-ess on the road between squares).

Omega sought out the only loo in town while I played with my camera, feeling tired and endlessly wet. Then once I realised that not only had his sense of direction shut down but he was getting too far gone to read a map and his hands were too cold to fold it, I let him guide me to a pub, where I discovered that either beer's suddenly become palatable or the Belgians make it differently and we decided that there's only so much of a weird vibe one bar can put out before the tourists in it leave it empty again on the heels of the insulted locals (we were going to eat there, but it didn't entice). Instead we headed into town for find a more welcoming establishment, except he couldn't decide on one, instead distracting himself with food menus, which is how we came to be having lasagne vegetariene and lasange just normal (where the not normal one looked nicer and bigger) while continuing to sample the local beers. It's very odd when beers don't come in pints or unspeakable halves and there appears to be no fixed standard volume for what makes a beer.

Thus replenished and refortified we enter the night, wandering the abandoned streets, past unusual furniture lifts to play with cameras in the darkness, before the rain once more got harder and we thought 'sod this' and got the train back.

I've still got his map, slightly eroded, taken from his hands once he'd lost the use of them and was mashing the folds helplessly, even though I've no idea where most of it was. I get as far as looking at the pictures and knowing it was beside a canal somewhere, which doesn't narrow it down much.

DSC_0554 - Ray of LightArriving back in Brussels North (I like this pick-a-station-any-station model) I play in the sleek night amongst the blue blaze of buildings, camera ever busy, Omega drunk enough to be doing the same. Up towards the hotel, the world blurring under the influence of drink and rain and 30 second exposures, while Omega keeps popping off to shop.

Getting back to the hotel, shedding damp clothing as soon as the door shuts, the odd shapes slumped over chairs, door handles and the shower rail all lacquered in Belgian grey. Omega is still hunting and now hungry again, so dulls up to head back out to complete his quest, while I lay idly watching whatever happens to be on, while trying not to revert to the BBC (Sunday night in Brussels: watched Planet Earth. Monday night in Brussels: watched University Challenge and the awful choir thing with the LSO's delightfully cute Gareth Malone. Would probably have put Radio 4 on if the radio worked). Which means I see half an dire French film set on a cruise ship, a bit of documentary on the la plus grande A380 and after that it's all blur because I get the thing stuck on some Flemish channel and keep falling asleep while trying very hard not to.

Omega returns with beer and crisps and nothing more because certain things cannot be bought in one horse countries, while I pretend I wasn't really asleep. And so we drink beer or rather Omega announces the first to be vile and so quaffs it while I struggle not to spit it across the room, making little headway with my own bottle as Omega plough through his bottle of the good stuff and then mine, all the while eating flakes of flint stained with rust and flecked with verdigris. The beer has revived him and so Omega settles into vast loquaciousness on grand truths while I falteringly retain conciousness, eventually succumbing to warm nothingness in the smell of wet hair and the beguiling deep rumbles.

DSC_0563 - Deep-seated urban decayAnd lo, there was light, and a great void beside me and the consternation of waking up in the wrong bed. Eventually Omega rose and eventually we packed and eventually we checked backs of drawers and under the beds and eventually took our luggage downstairs, into the cacophony in smoke and mirrors where Omega sorted out the bill (we'd caused chaos by staying an extra night in Brussels rather than Brugge or Ghent), and eventually were allowed to stow into in their scabby little room and eventually left the building, heading into a missed enclave between the two main routes into town, where we found desolation, despair, decay and dog's muck on Le Place des Martyrs which from the plaques seems to the local Whitehall.

DSC_0570 - Nice lightOnwards, into a town transformed by sun, lunching on mispronounced quiche in our return to the Galleries St Hubert's Vaudeville, complete with darkly Buttoned DIY hot chocolate, the arcade lit by cream, milling Omega shops for a souvenir (which my dictionary has just informed me is Australian slang for 'to purloin'). A final wander round the last-huzzahing town, before returning to the hotel, bagging up, onwards to BRU. NO<O>RD, thence Zuid-Midi where the ever-postcarding Omega (never encourage one's friends to compare numbers of postcards gained) tries to find a post-box while I worry about time because the station's so damned long and I'm not sure we're on the right floor (judging by the his attempts to make Waterloo on the way over when he thought the train left forty minutes before I thought it did, I'd guess he has higher tolerances and greater faith than me). Omega is swept aside unseen in customs leaving me with a vision of his feet beneath a screen, in a move reminiscent of a friend discovering too late the low credit on their Oyster, where he is kept an age, but it turns that was only because he writes slowly, his wrong coloured passport requiring a form.

And then we're on the train, trying not laugh at the fools who bought chocolates from the most expensive shop in town and are now parading the bag, while I am mongoosing to fetch and stow various items and Omega attempts to make me shriek, laugh or just blush. I comment on a solitary paragraph in the Economist which turns out to have been the biggest Government-rocking news story of the year in Australia and thus distracted we loose continental Europe. Somewhere under the Channel Omega tries to teach me to use an iPod which I just about get sorted by Brixton, only to discover he has very little music on it, and most of what I recognise is stuff I've sent him.

Suddenly it's "oh, look at the time" before realising I recognise that big stupid clock. And we emerge into a rushhoured Waterloo, where the rapturous crowds and soaring fanfare appear to fallen victim to engineering works. Into the night, to Westminster, to Victoria (I'd forgotten how far it was), beyond to one hostelry with no room at the inn, and then another, Omega trying to convince the Polish proprietress that passports not names make nationality, while I loiter with intent not to fall over on the over side of the road. His re-emergence signals my rehefting, back to Victoria, Tube northwards*, ready for an Orange Wednesday of cheap food and a cheap film, except we arrive late and stick with just dinner, having my standards at the usual restaurant while wondering if the product of Mao's China has put its prices up or if never usually paying means I never notice. Or perhaps it's noticing that everything is the same price as it was in euros** in Brussels, only with a different symbol.

* Belatedly changed. Mentioning a standing if lapsed engagement (other factors permitting) at a certain restaurant in a certain place on a certain day at a vaguely certain time probably isn't the best thing to broadcast. Though regular readers probably have gleaned enough elsewhere to figure it out, and if you're fool enough to have read the whole blog then you probably have a right to stalk.
** MQ, I know, but did remove the capitalisation and I just can't say it without the ess, but look, I've left all-European looking with that -os not -oes spelling, isn't that enough for you?

DSC_0726 - S. FoyA nostalgic bus took us back south, where... sorry, once again I can't remember the order things happened. There was a not-really-me bar where they searched our bags on the way in (which given mine was full of dirty washing, boxes of chocolates and souvenired shower gel, must have proved interesting for the doorman). There was trying to show Omega the wonder that is Foyles, but it was shut as were all the others except Borders, where I found myself sitting on the floor while Omega decided to flick through books with bad titles and worse covers drunkenly deciding I need educational presents. By this time I'd lost the strength to argue or realise I'd grossly misinterpreted the words "Graphic Fiction".

Then back down towards the river, a becalmed parting at the base of the upriver Hungerford and an explanation of the difference between Charing Cross and Embankment. And that was it. I hurried flaggingly to get a train I then missed, too tired to tell tourists to turn their flashes off, standing morosely in Waterloo till the next one, the last one. Then the phone call, the lift, the chat, the sleep and back to the oblivion of life.


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