Thursday, 31 December 2009

It's New Year's Eve, as I'm sure you are all aware. I am, therefore, trying to summon something deep and meaningful to post here.

Unfortunately, the only thought I really seem capable of is one in which I wonder if the cleaner really had to come at 8.30 am after I was up til gone 2? Grr. Guess that's the end of my "feeling incredibly rested" streak.

So, what kind of year has it been?!

Well, for starters, as anyone who has been anywhere near any of my blogs - or, in fact, anywhere near me - will verify, it's been a West Wing year. 'Nough said on that one.

It's been a year of new beginnings, of rediscovering myself, of finding that being an expat in Brussels actually really is very me.

A year too when writing became a part of my life again - actually, it feels more like it's taken over my life.

But, mostly this: a year without heartbreak. I don't remember when I last said that. It feels unadventurous, maybe a little shallow, but you know what? I like it.

Which is kind of interesting, because that's one of the major themes I'm exploring in "Inevitable", the book I am currently writing. What's better - a life of adventure which ("inevitably") involves pain somewhere along the line, or a dull but happy life? Or can you not be happy without adventure anyway?

Still, in the meantime, here's to 2010, and may it be heartbreak-free. And possibly a little adventurous. It makes my blogposts more interesting.

Related Post:

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Isaac and Ishmael - a few brief thoughts...

I’ve just watched Isaac and Ishmael for the first time.

The first time, you ask?

Well, yes. Both times I have been tearing through the West Wing and desperate to get to the action. Shame on me, I know. It’s also been quite cool knowing that there is an episode I hadn’t yet seen. Now, sadly, that’s it, and I have to make do with writing fan fiction (and yes, reading it too – one of my guilty pleasures!) and sobbing gently into my pillow with the unfairness of ER getting 15 seasons. Fifteen? Imagine that.

(We’d get to see President Santos reforming health care and managing to include a public option; freakishly intelligent curly haired, dimpled blonde children grow up to also be very organized and a little bit arrogant, and take over the world; and Sam finally seeing the light and marrying his French tutor, who looks a lot like me. Anyway.)

I really loved this – the way it explored the issues and taught me so much in the process, which is one of the hallmarks of the West Wing as a whole; the Aaron Sorkinesque one-liners; and, let’s face it, I wasn’t entirely opposed to the focus on Josh, either.

How amazing would it have felt to be one of those kids in Political Classroom?

I guess pretty much as amazing as it felt to get to be one of those younger actors in the West Wing. I loved the guy Josh called “Fred”, and the fact that Josh saw himself in him. That was moving. Moving also for me because I have often been that kid, or at least liked to think of myself at that kid. “Most people weren’t the smartest kid in the class,” Toby says elsewhere. “Most people didn’t even like the smartest kid in the class.” But what’s that compared to Josh Lyman looking you in the eye and saying “keep doing what you’re doing”? Wow. It’s enough to make you proud to be a geek – and that’s something it takes some of us a long time to learn.

It must be almost as amazing as Bradley Whitford looking you in the eye as an actor and saying the same thing.

Anyone know what any of those younger actors are up to these days?

Monday, 21 December 2009

The ghosts of Christmas past (a winter ficlet)

It’s just starting. Indecisive flakes are lazily making their way past your apartment, then thinking better of it and peeking into your neighbors’ windows before continuing their descent.

You love the snow, but for now you’re content watching it from indoors. The dog will need walking soon enough , and you’d like to wait until New York City’s fresh white coat is draped over its shoulders before you head out. You’ll take your camera and your snow boots and go exploring.

For now, though, you’re happy in your fluffy holiday sweater and your big thick socks. You flick on the TV and busy yourself warming some milk on the stove (no, who I am kidding, probably in the microwave) for that hot chocolate you are going to curl up with.

Your lurching stomach responds before your ears consciously do. You recognize immediately the Pavlovian reaction to that theme tune: that gut-level knot of nostalgia, pride, and frustration.

Frustration? Yes. There’s so much more to you than this one role. You are not her, and everyone seems to forget that – even those crazy fans who like to send you Facebook messages in the vain hope that you’ll one day respond; even those, very few and far between, who have worked out that your name is, in fact, a stage name. They forget that your character was created, that you breathed life into her, that although you may love her like a twin sister, she is distinct from you .They seem not even to be aware that you have played other roles. It shouldn’t get to you; you owe so much to the genius of this show, and to the wonderful character you were given to play. But it ended three years ago, and you want to move on. You think everybody should. All those websites are a little creepy.

And yet – those years were some of the happiest of your life.

Usually you flick the TV straight off. It’s simpler than trying to untangle all of that. But they’re showing the Christmas episodes (really? Could they not think of anything more original?) and those are some of the happiest memories of all. So you settle down with your hot chocolate and an enormous box of tissues with one eye on the snow that seems to be getting heavier, in sync with the episodes.

The phone rings at the end of the second one. Why are you not surprised when you see my name flashing up?

“Hey.” Even without caller ID you’d have recognized my voice with one syllable.

“Whatcha watching?”

A playful sigh makes its way down the phone line. “What do you think?”

You know the drill. “Yes, you were wonderful in that episode. Yes, you totally deserved that Emmy.”

“Thank you.” I like to think that was graciously uttered. “ But you know, you made me what I was.”

I say this so often that I don’t think you really hear it anymore; but I mean it every time. Do you remember when I got you to babysit my Emmy? I wanted it to sit on your shelf for a while. So much of what I was on the show was a product of my relationship with you; it seemed only fair.

You’re not the only one with conflicting emotions. “We had it good, didn’t we?”

I can almost hear your thoughts. Are we really going to do this every time they put on re-runs?

But you have no choice but to agree with me. You do add, though: “if by good you mean twenty hour days and forgetting what our friends and family looked like and being stalked in the street by hysterical people who have forgotten to take their medication.”

I know what you mean, although that seems to still be happening to me, with frightening regularity. I remind you of one perk you seem to be conveniently forgetting: “You also got to flirt with me every day for seven years.”

I can picture your broad, beautiful smile. “Well, yes. That was fun.”

“We were good together, weren’t we?”

The pause tells me I’ve overstepped the mark, as I am prone to do.

You say my name, a one-word scolding, in the same affectionate but exasperated tone your character used to take with mine.

I know what’s coming. Why must you always break the spell?

“I’m married,” you remind me. “And we’re happy.”

I know. And if you think I don’t kick myself every day...

You sigh again, this time not so playfully. You remember now why those emotions curdle inside you like benign poison, make you feel slightly nauseated. Why normally you flick straight onto another channel.

“You missed the window. Deal with it.” It would sound cold, but I know you. I know you don’t mean to hurt me, that it’s friendly advice, that I, like those crazy fans, need to move on, that it’s what’s best, for me, for our friendship.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Old habits die hard: it’s the same adolescent tone of voice I would use with my mother when she nagged me about getting a real job, in case, you know, the acting didn’t work out. So much of me is still a petulant teenager; that part of my character I had no problem identifying with.

“It doesn’t mean I don’t love you, though.” I'm glad you clarified that.

A line from Notting Hill pops into my head: in a depressingly asexual way... But for once, I choose to keep my mouth shut. See how I’ve grown?

“Or that making out with you wasn’t a lot of fun.”

Aha! Now, was that so hard to own up to?

“We were good together, weren’t we?” Just a little more reassurance is surely not too much to ask...

“Amazing,” you concede. “Now go away and leave me alone.”

“Okay,” I say, but there’s no click, and we both sit watching the snow with one eye and hours of us with the other, tissues in one hand, curled up with our hot chocolates.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Quirky things about Belgium, #357. #358, #359 etc...

It seems that I often seem to rant and rave about Belgium here. And I feel bad about this. I feel bad, because I can't help thinking it's an arrogant expat kind of attitude that does this; an attitude I have spent most of my life despising. I feel bad, because for all its quirks, I love Belgium. It's home.

So here are some quirky things about this place, that make me smile rather than stamp my foot in frustration:

- the kindness of strangers.
This warrants a post to itself, and in time it will get one, but so often there have been people to help me just when I needed them - people who in London would have looked right through me or maybe shrugged their shoulders or pushed me out of the way

- my local supermarket - Tesco Metro equivalent - sells fresh, home made soup, made by a lady who brings it to them every day. I just think that's so cool. Souper, in fact. (Sorry. Plenty more where that came from, so I am actually being quite restrained.)

- the little hooks next to train seats to hang your coat up! Priceless!

- the way they wrap your presents for you in shops. I love them for this. I'm so bad at wrapping presents, and I get distracted by Friends episodes when I try and do it.

So there you go. That's just the beginning. Watch this space for more thrilling installments in the New Year...

Monday, 14 December 2009

Quirky things about Belgium, #356

Ah, Brussels South Airport. "The friendly airport." How I wish I could say that I love you.

I'd like to love you for your ridiculous name. Possibly even more ridiculous than "London Luton".

I'd like to love you for your slightly-too-efficient security guys. My luggage will fit in the Ryanair measuring thingy. It will. Even if I have to bribe you with the chocolate I thought I was packing to give to my friends when I arrive, if you ever let me on this plane.

I'd like to love you, most of all, for your oh-so-efficient use of lighting in the toilets. Movement-sensitive. But only sensitive to movement close to the washbasins. Once people are in a cubicle, sitting still and attending to business, the light turns itself off. We have to shuffle back out, trousers round our ankles, to coax the light to come on again. Pure Belgian genius.

Such pure Belgian genius, in fact, that someone in an adjoining cubicle quips, "Ca a encore été inventé par un Belge, ca..." then apologises profusely for her assumption that "Belgian" sometimes means the same as "faintly ridiculous".

It's really okay. I live here. I understand exactly what she means.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Thankful, part 2

Today, I am thankful for...

drumroll please...


I know, I know. I should be supporting my local bookshops, not some big evil American corporate entity. Boo hiss.

The thing is, though - they're brilliant. Not just cheap, though I will freely admit that cheap is a big part of it. But so efficient. Admittedly I can't get the free postage from here in Chocolate Land, but it's not extortionate, and my parcels arrive soooo quickly! And now you can track them too!

In my defence, living in Belgium means buying English books here is an expensive business. But I wouldn't want to give you the impression that I never used Amazon before. Oh no.

(Lest you think I am over my West Wing addiction, I'd also like to plug the fact that you can currently get *the entire box set* for just under fifty pounds! The entire box set!)

And then of course there's the Wish List feature. I'm the only person I've ever met who plugs mine, which is 37 pages long because I started way back in 2001 when I barely had a grip on email, let alone exciting things like online shopping. But getting presents you actually want? You can't put a price on that. (Well, you know what I mean.) And in fact getting more presents, because all people need to do is click a couple of times. Genius. Pure genius.

And what's more, free with every book comes its own protective cardboard wrapper, which you can use religiously every time you leave the house with some reading material. OCD? Maybe. But a book with a bent spine or upturned corners? Shudder.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

I am Donna Moss...

I am Donna Moss.

Deluded, I hear your cry. Someone give her a dozen tablets and lock her in a small room with no light and definitely no West Wing DVDs.

It’s okay. I am fully aware that I am not tall, slim, blonde and stunningly beautiful.

But I do have more in common with Donna than a predilection for handsome, powerful Democrats with dimples, good hearts and a certain heroic determination to make the world a better place. (Not realising, of course, that their very presence does that. Ahem. I digress.)

Those of you who know me probably realise I am not talking about her powers of organisation. I like index cards, but am pretty sure she would not approve of the way they are strewn on my mess-ridden floor.

I did use to think philately was fun, and I also have been told that there is a bright future for me as a stalker, should I desire to go down that career path.

But there’s something else, too.

“I’m a flautist. I play the flute... I ask myself, if I’d pursued the flute professionally, would I be meeting interesting men? And the answer comes back to me: Probably not."

All depends, of course, what you mean by interesting. If you mean men capable of distracting you from Josh Lyman, well, let’s not fool ourselves: that is a tall order for anyone.

If you mean interesting as in “would make a great character in a novel”, though, there is plenty of mileage in it. (Although let’s not overdo the artist thing. A professional flautist and a professional writer? I’d have no time to bore you all with my delusional thoughts...)

Men who at, say, 45 ask you how much you paid for your flute and does it have a silver heard and you really should consider investing in one of those flutes with holes in the keys (I’m so unprofessional I don’t even know what they’re called). Interesting, yes. In a sociological study kind of way. It does make you wonder, you know, about their childhood and stuff.

So yes, Donna. You would be meeting “interesting” men. But I think you and I probably ought to stick to politics.

Windows 7: not so great after all...?!

I know, I know. Some of us are never satisifed. But it does seem to me that the point of upgrading is that things are supposed to work better after you do.

So, for those of you out there considering upgrading, and for those of you who like problem solving and feel like suggesting solutions, here, in no particular order, are some of the issues I've encountered within 12 hours of getting my sparkly new operating system. (Well, the disk is sparkly, anyway. Very pretty, in fact.)

- I'll start with a minor one, which nevertheless irks me: my screen saver is set to randomly show me photos, in shuffle mode. It now seems to be doing the same order every time - so after 2 minutes of inactivity, up comes the same photo, and then the same one that followed it before, etc. Since this includes a couple of very lovely pictures of Josh Lyman early on, you'd think I wouldn't mind, but...

- I apparently do not have permission to update my own iPod. I won't even begin to try and express my frustration on that one, lest I lose all of my readers for good.

- This apparently is an Internet Explorer problem - I no longer have "permission" to click on hyperlinks in my Outlook. I've tried all the solutions suggested by various people. Nothing works. It's a problem with Internet Explorer - and get this - Windows 7 is programmed so that you CAN'T uninstall it!!! So what exactly am I meant to do, hmmm?

- Skype no longer seems able to do videocalls. Which is great when that's part of your job!

- msn chat has to all extents and purposes disppeared. I can't work out what Microsoft have done with it, but I can't uninstall the new version in order to get the old one back. Grr.

- Outlook now seems unable to perform a "search" function.

Seriously, though. I know I've said this already, but isn't upgrading supposed to improve things? Aren't technological advances supposed to make our life better? Seethe, seethe.

Monday, 7 December 2009

2009: A year in the life of Claire

1.What did you do in 2009 that you'd never done before?

Went to America. (DC and NYC.) First longish-haul flight, first time I'd even wanted to go to the US. Loved it, in case you have missed that somehow.

Dangled my feet in the world of fan fiction. In fact, believe it or not, until this year I was not really aware that such a thing existed.

Started living by myself. It's wonderful.

Went to Rendez Vous, a Bible week in the South of France. Only one thing better than meeting wtih God - meeting with God in the sunshine and then spending the afternoons by the pool, drinking coffee and reading!

2. Did you keep your new years' resolutions and will you make more for next year?

No, but I think I'm going to make the same one this year: to learn a new word every day. I did learn quite a few though! Most recently, "obdurate". I like that one.

3. Did anyone you know give birth?
Yes, but no one I'm especially close to. Next year will be fun though :)

4. Did anyone you know die?
No one I'm close to.

5. What countries did you visit?
USA, Holland, England, France, Ireland. Ooh, that's quite a lot!

6. What would you like to have in 2010 that you lacked in 2009?
More discipline to actually get things done!
A few months off and lots of money to go on a big trip around the US!
I would not say no to an attractive man who was madly in love with me, looked a lot like Brad Whitford, and also happened to be passionate about God and Church planting.

7. What date from 2009 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
24th March. The day I moved back to Belgium, exactly 18 years after leaving.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Erm... finishing the West Wing?
Learning to play "we gather together" in E flat major on the oboe.
Maybe I should put "achieve something" on my to-do list for next year.
Oh, no, wait, I became a published writer this year with my articles in the Mag!

9. What was your biggest failure?
I'm not sure what it says about me that I can't think of anything!!
I gave up on learning Dutch - but I like to think of that as effective prioritising rather than failing as such.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?
More fluey things than is normal for me. Belgian germs and American germs - pah! Also I have an enormous cavity in a wisdom tooth but I'm hoping that will just go away. (!)

11. What was the best thing you bought?
A book called "So you think you can spell? Killer quizzes for the incurably competitive and overly confident." (Ahem.) Turns out my spelling is not all I thought it was.

12. Whose behaviour merited celebration?
I like that question, but can't think of anyone right now...

13. Whose behaviour made you appalled and depressed?
Where is George Bush when you need him?

14. Where did most of your money go?
Holidays and bank charges. Also books.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
Series 7, episode 13 of the West Wing ("the Cold"). I know, I need to get out more.

16. What song will always remind you of 2009?
The West Wing theme tune.

17. Compared to this time last year, are you: happier or sadder, thinner or fatter, richer or poorer?
Happier, marginally fatter, perhaps slightly less poor.

18. What do you wish you'd done more of?
Writing. But hey, you can always do more.
Meeting people. I'm turning into an introvert. It's freaking me out.

19. What do you wish you'd done less of?
Faffing around hitting refresh on twitter and facebook - unbelievable how much time you can waste that way.

20. How will you be spending Christmas?
Wishing I was somewhere else!

21. Did you fall in love in 2009?
Not with any real people, no, which might explain the lack of heartache this year (hooray!).

With Josh Lyman, yes, with America, yes, and with the English language. (Aaron Sorkin is in large part reasonsible for all those things.)

24. What was your favourite TV program?
Is there anything else apart from the West Wing?

25. Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate this time last year?
Don't think so!

26. What was the best book you read?
Ooh I've read a lot this year, so it's hard to choose. Loved Obama's Dreams from my Father - the first biography I've ever read, and I did not expect it to be so interesting or so beautifully written.
"Then they come to the end" - I loved the style.
Currently reading "The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao" - also fantastic, as is "Reading like a Writer". I'll stop there, for now.

27. What was your greatest musical discovery?
I've started oboe lessons again, and that's quite fun.

28. What did you want and get?
A new start.
A trip to the US (though I didn't start wanting that till the summer!)

29. What did you want and not get?
A coffee with Janel Moloney in New York.

30. What was your favourite film of this year?
500 days of Summer - loved it. It reminded me of Amélie - anyone else?

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
31. Played a fab board game with some people I love very much and have known forever :)

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
Finishing my novel. (but I'm doing okay considering!)
Doing some kind of course with the OU. I will definitely do that next year.

Okay, that's two things.

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2008?
You know what, now I'm in my thirties, my personal fashion concept is to wear what I like and what I feel comfotable in. I will never be one of those super-cool, super-stylish people. I've made my peace with that, mostly.

Though I've bought a lot of argyle lately, and I'm loving the current trend for purple.

34. What kept you sane?
My alternative universes: the West Wing, and thinking about the plot and characters in my novel.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?
That's easy. Josh Lyman/Brad Whitford. I had a Sam Seaborn stage previously too but I saw the light.

36. What political issue stirred you the most?
I've now had two nightmares about the Conservatives winning the next election. Did you know that David Cameron has openly admitted to not even liking the West Wing? I know, it's shocking. You really want to entrust the future of the nation to such a man? Political lecture over.

37. Whom did you miss?
Fewer people than normal and less painfully than normal. But the usual suspects.

38. Who was the best new person you met?
Difficult to choose, though a special mention must go to Isabel for rescuing me from my stalker and becoming my friend in the process!

39. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2009:
I don't know if this counts as life, but in writing - keep your hero and heroine apart as long as you possibly can - it keeps people hooked!!
Also, life is too short to read books that do not grab you.

40. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year:
In a New York minute, everything can change...

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Belgium does it again!

... and they say nothing interesting ever comes out of this tiny, delightfully quirky country.

Think again, dear readers.

And no, I'm not talking about the deep excitement that is the EU Presidency, delightful though it has been to have Radio Four use it as an excuse to wheel out all the old Belgium jokes. (Here's one of the better ones - "Do you think Belgian officials drive around in cars with Tintin-ed windows?" I admit to chuckling at that one.)

No, ladies and gentleman, this is something far, far more world-changing, more inovative, more - well, words fail me.

Yes, just when you thought life couldn't get any better: Belgium brings you the Twoddler. Yes, now your small child can tweet too.

Though personally as far as Belgian inventions go, I think I favour the saxophone, or those bitter lemon sweet things called the Napoleon.


Thursday, 3 December 2009

Claire's West Wing article

Implausible as it may sound, I happen to know that someone googled "Claire Handscombe West Wing article" today. Sadly, they would have come up with nothing. Zero. Nada. Zilch.

Well, okay, not quite zilch. We'll call it zilch plus one. They would have come up with my west wing fan fiction, which is how I know they googled it the first place, but that's another story.

But they would not have found my article.

Which is sad. Tragic, almost.

So, dear fans, be disappointed no longer. (Fans of mine, or fans of the West Wing, who knows - or are the two synonymous these days? There go those delusions of grandeur again...)

By way of introduction and a quick plug, this article was written for a fantastic language-learning magazine called the MAG, which is available for advanced students of French, Dutch and English, and which I highly recommend, and not only for the penetrating insights shared by some of the contributors. (Ahem. Those delusions again...) Not even just for my dulcit tones which make an occasional appearance on the accompanying CD.

I wanted to scan in the actual article, but both my computer and my technological powers have failed me, so for now text only will have to do.

So without further ado, here it is - written for an audience who have likely never heard of the amazing viewing experience that is my favo(u)rite TV show... but have hopefully now all been converted!

It’s ten years since the pilot episode of The West Wing was aired, but the TV show still inspires devotion that goes way beyond the norm for a television programme, and arguably with good reason. It informs and educates even the most politically ignorant, but never patronises. But that’s not all it does: it makes you laugh, cry, gasp and occasionally shout and perhaps throw things at your television.

The West Wing gives us a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on in politics, in much the same way as ER does with hospitals, or the Wire with the legal world. As the name suggests, it is set in the West Wing of the White House, under the fictional (left-leaning, Democratic) President Bartlet, and features his family, senior staff, and other political types, such as journalists. Sound boring? Think again.

In the words of the late John Spencer, who played Leo (Chief of Staff and closest advisor to President Bartlet): “The West Wing is about human relationships, the backdrop is politics in the White House. But, basically, it's about ... these people who have worked together and formed complex friendships over the years.”

And these people are not just anybody. They are fantastically written, brilliantly portrayed, and complex. (Kudos to Aaron Sorkin, the creator and original writer, for that and so many things). It has been said that “in fiction, in order to engage our attention and sympathy, the central character must want and want intensely."; politicians at this level are deeply passionate people, and that is perhaps the key. This passion in the characters is intensely captivating – you find yourself rooting for them, crying with them, wanting to hug them. Of course, it does not hurt that several of them are rather attractive.

There are even a few love interests, subtly interwoven into the plot, and often doomed and difficult, most notably the smouldering romance between Josh Lyman and his devoted and highly capable assistant Donna Moss. The chemistry between them manages to gently simmer for seven seasons until... well, you’ll just have to watch it and see.

This show has everything you could possibly want from a television series: drama, humour, suspense, superlative acting from an amazing cast. The writing is fast paced and intelligent, with dozens of fantastic one-liners which fans delight in pulling out of their hats at any opportunity. The filming has also been deservedly praised, and the thoughtfully matched, often haunting music also merits a mention. Critical acclaim has been overwhelming, in the shape of 27 Emmy awards and many more nominations for individual actors, the casting as a whole, and various aspects of the writing, filming and music.

Whether you tune into the West Wing with a good grasp of American politics, or with no clue whatsoever, you will come away having learned something, whether it’s the meaning of an obscure Latin phrase such as “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” , or that there are only three words in the English language that start with “dw”. You will have been “ensorcelled” and “bewitched” by the characters (to quote one of them), the big themes, and the outstanding writing. You may even start planning a trip to America or writing fan fiction.

You risk losing a large chunk of your life to the West Wing if you cave to temptation and buy the boxed set of DVDs (currently priced at just under £50 on, a bargain by any standards) . You may be hooked for life. You may never be the same again.

You have been warned.

On being thankful...

If there's one thing the Americans definitely do better than us (apart from political dramas... okay, I really was going to try not to mention the West Wing on this post, but what can you do...?), it's being thankful.

We have Harvest Festival, aka getting your five year old to take a can of sweetcorn into school to add to the big pile of cans. I mean, come on.

But a whole day of being thankful, well a weekend really, because you also get to be thankful for the time off, and thankful for all the bargains to be had on Black Friday (and then thankful for the fact that not all shopping days are that crazy). And you get to eat delicious turkey and cranberry sauce and green bean casserole and pecan pie till you can't be thankful or really feel any emotion at all ever again.

This all strikes me as a very good thing, and an excellent way to kick in the season where surely we should be at our most grateful - that God Himself would come to earth surely tops the list of "wow" moments.

So, inspired by this, and by the blog of Ami Loizides whom I follow on Twitter despite never having met her (funny old world)... I am going to start being explicitly thankful a bit more often. I hope that's okay.

Friday, 20 November 2009

The third best job in the world...

Today, by the standards of a West-Wing-addicted language geek, has been a good day.

Well, it was actually yesterday, since two episodes of said amazing TV show have somehow caused it to be after 1 am as so often tends to happen. It’s Friday, so that shouldn’t matter, except it kind of does, because my Fridays aren’t really Fridays... five hours of teaching await me tomorrow. Sigh.

But my seven hours today went well, particularly the two-hour slot with my advanced English class. I have to admit to not having taught them a whole lot of grammar (actually, possibly none at all – oops!), but we did list 40 of the American states (and I put them right when it came to their belief that there are 51 or 52 of them – I assume they were counting the UK, which as enthralled with the US as I am, I am not quite ready for, and I’m sure many of my compatriots would be with me on that one) ... and I later added two more... Which is quite impressive, considering that a couple of years ago, I could just about list Florida, California and erm maybe Washington, is Washington a state? (I am now fully briefed on all angles of the answer to that, before you all rush to the comments box.)

After having done this, I pretended, erm I mean, explained it was all an introduction to our topic of the day – oh look, someone has written about the West Wing in the MAG (an excellent language learning magazine, by the way, and not only because I’m a contributor). Maybe, for our general culture, you know, we should read it and analyse every sentence and every paragraph and talk about what’s so great about the West Wing? Yes, let’s do that.

So yes, we did that. I taught them the words “boyish” and “dimple” – just like in that photo, said one of them, pointing at the very sexy Josh Lyman – and successfully got them to say things like “the West Wing is amazing” and “maybe we buy the DVDs”.

They could recognise Josh and Donna and they knew that the photos did neither of them justice (particularly Donna- the photos we got permission to print were some early ones, which are not great considering how very beautiful Janel Moloney is) and that it was all very heart-breaking because they were in love and couldn’t do anything about it because they worked together (puritanical American work ethics, some would say). Well, you have to simplify slightly, even when you are teaching advanced students.

In fact, I gave one of them a gold star (well actually two stars: a blue one and a gold one, because they were stuck together; nothing is ever simple in my world) for naming Martin Sheen with no prompting and (mainly) for recognising Josh Lyman, having given me the impression he wasn’t really listening to me or understanding me. They clearly were after all. Ha! Caught you!

In case you are worried their money is wasted, I did also teach them plenty of other vocabulary, such as bewitched, ensorcelled, gasp, simmer, smouldering, cliff-hanger, interwoven, fast-paced, one-liners, kudos, head over heels, dwarf, dwell, dwindle, and of course the very useful phrase “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc”. Also how to say “raison d’être” with an English accent. (Thanks Richard Schiff for that one.)

And of course I imparted my vast political wisdom: Democrats GOOD, Republicans BAD. (I also taught them the word “patronise”.) They loved what they saw of President Bartlet and correctly identified him as the anti-Bush.

So my work there is done, even if they do need to work on their tenses and irregular verbs a little bit. That’s for another day.

Oh, and did I mention that this was all on the basis of an article I had been paid to write?!

Paid to write about the West Wing, then paid to talk about it.

Paid to talk about Josh Lyman’s dimples.

(As I may accidentally have squeaked out loud in the class in my excitement.)

It’s official: I have the best job in the world. Well, except for Aaron Sorkin’s and Janel Moloney’s. The third best job.

And now, inspired by Donna Moss to be a tiny bit more organised, I have got my coffee machine ready for tomorrow (who can name the episode where she does that? Hmmmm?), and am heading for bed so I can be up far too soon to teach some French grammar and Spanish verbs. Sadly there will be no excuses to bring my obsession into any of that, but I do have a free evening to indulge in the next part of series 6, and maybe even do some writing. It’s been far too long. And Brad and Janel need their next film script after all... ;)

172 Hours In America... the photos

: if anyone is interested in my New York City and Washington DC pictures...

You know your addiction to the West Wing is beyond all hope of redemption when... get the cravings. You know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, there is still hope for you

... you're listening to Eva Cassidy's "Fields of Gold", and think you heard, "you'll remember me when the West Wing moves"

... you know exactly how long it’s been since you last watched an episode

... you are proud of yourself when you get through the day without watching an episode, so you reward yourself with some fan fic, a fan video, or some discussion on Facebook or twitter and end up spending longer on this than an episode would have taken

... except, of course, that an episode always takes an hour at the absolute minimum because you have to rewatch every Josh and Donna scene, pause to scribble down particularly good one-liners, and occasionally tweet to let the emotion out. And then if the inspiration strikes for writing some fan fic, well, what can you do...

... there being a B in the president's name, it sometimes happens that you are listening to Radio Four and think they are talking about President Bartlet. In your defence, this is usually while cooking or clattering about - so lots of background noise.

... you visit New York City and half expect to bump into Janel Moloney and become best friends with her. In fact, you do a double taken every time you see anyone blonde. You’re sure you saw her husband, too.

... you are more excited, in fact, that “wow, she has, like, actually been in this coffee shop” than about Macy’s or the Statue of Liberty or the tall buildings or anything, you know, normal.

... you visit Washington DC (of course), wander around in a happy daze, but are actually a little surprised and disappointed not to bump into Josh, Donna, Sam or CJ

... every time the Capitol building comes into view, you hear Josh in your head: “you want a piece of me? Come on! I’m right here” and you want to hug him. More than usual, that is.

... you get very cross when anyone misspells Janel Moloney’s name (it’s with an O people, where have you been all this time?!) even though there was a time when you thought not spelling it Maloney was just plain awkward for the sake of it.

.... in fact one of your characters in a future book is going to have that surname, just so her quirk can be “and it’s Moloney with a O.”

... speaking of future books, they all have politics in, and you have to figure out how to get the heroes not to all look like Brad and the heroines to not all look like Janel. Or you could just cast them in all the films. Yeah, come to think of it, that’s a much better solution.

... you weren’t going to bother with a pen name, but you like “Lyman”, so why not?

... you are in denial about the fact that Brad Whitford is, in fact, old enough to be your father. After all, your father is old enough to be his, just about, so it’s all okay, right?!

... you look up the name “Donnatella” on a website for baby names because you’re sure it should only be spelled with one N. And as it turns out, you’re right. But I guess the whole “It’s Dona, with 1 N” thing would have worn thin after a series or two.

... you inexplicably find yourself buying a lot of argyle, feeling like someone stylish and cool would wear this stuff, then realise while watching series 5 and 6 that Donna Moss in fact wears quite a lot of it.

... you have developed a habit of tilting your head when listening intently, and never knew where it came from till you just spotted Josh doing it

... you see a book that makes you laugh and think “I should buy that for Josh for Christmas, he’d like it”

... you are still boycotting everything with Rob Lowe in it, because you haven't forgiven him for his treacherous departure which was such a loss to the show, despite giving us more Josh, which is a (obviously) no bad thing

... you find yourself explaining the American political system to your bewildered students, who really couldn’t care less and whose level of English is not quite up to differentiating between Congress and Senate.

... you give a gold star to one of your students for knowing who Martin Sheen is and for picking Josh Lyman out of a picture of the cast. Well, it’s good to encourage their comprehension of authentic Anglophone culture.

... your students, in fact, know to say “it’s amazing” whenever you ask “what can anyone tell me about the West Wing?”

... you pester your editor to let you write about the West Wing, then you use your own article in a lesson.

... “dimple” is a word that you feel you need to include when you are teaching your students to describe people

... you get your students, who have explicitly told you they want to learn about British English (which you used to think was laudable) to try and name all the States, and are a little proud of them for knowing Wisconsin, and even more proud of yourself for resisting the temptation to tell them that Donna Moss and Brad Whitford both come from there

... you find yourself thinking in an American accent and adopting American vocab, and, shock horror, even grammar.

... the day inevitably comes when your spell-check (which in days gone by, you had, of course, set to British English) has to correct you when, for the first time, you write “color”, and it’s not on purpose.

... your list of must-haves for future partners has grown from just “single, male and passionate for God” to all those things plus American, Harvard-educated (okay, Yale or Princeton at a push), incredibly articulate, and of course Democrat-voting, though to be honest the chances of you falling for a Republican were always pretty (sorry, quite) remote. (Although, if it can happen to Donna... ) The furrowed brow and receding hairline you could probably live without, and you’ll (reluctantly) trade the dimple in for a passion for the West Wing. Otherwise, what will you do in the evenings? And what will you talk about?!

... You start planning to help out in the next Obama campaign, and wondering if that is, in fact, where this amazing yet slightly vulnerable man in need of an assistant and the love of a good woman is hiding.

... You spend longer communicating with people you have met via discussion groups on Facebook than you do with friends you have known for years. Oops.

... you’re watching a film, and you want to shout, “but where’s the politics in this?”

... and then you want to shout, “but where is Bradley Whitford? Who am I meant to be in love with here?"

... You have regular West Wing related dreams, your favourite one to date being the one where you are explaining to Matt Perry why it’s better than Friends. This in front of your heroes, Brad Whitford and Janel Moloney. Stupid alarm clock!

... People have to ask you to stop putting things like “wishes Josh would hurry up and kiss Donna” in your Facebook status updates, because you are ruining the plot for them

... you feel guilty writing a list like this and not yet mentioning Allison Janney, whom you love, and who was your favourite for a long time until your Josh and Donna addiction fully took over

.... you are determined to make it back to NYC next time Allison Janney is in a musical, or any of the cast are in anything at all in fact

... in fact, you need to set up a Google Alert for that, to go with the ones you already have on “the West Wing”, “Bradley Whitford”, “Janel Moloney”

... You are dedicating your next novel to Brad and Janel, and mentioning Aaron Sorkin in the acknowledgements for inspiring you to write

... You are in on a Friday night writing this list... but it’s okay, you’re going out to meet a friend soon, and she hasn’t even heard of the West Wing. You'll soon fix that...

Monday, 16 November 2009

New York City - very first impressions

I realise, by the way, that this blog really ought to be renamed americanclaire, seeing as that's where I spend so much of my thinking time these days, but anyway...

People often say that when you first arrive somewhere new and exciting like Delhi or Beijing or Phnom Penh, what strikes you is the noise or the smell or the busyness... Not so with New York. The first thing that I noticed was its reassuring familiarity. JFK Airport looked and felt like any other airport, complete with the greyness and drizzle outside. Apart from some posters on the wall reminding me where I’d landed – as if I could forget, after counting down to this trip for weeks – I could have been almost anywhere, or at least anywhere English-speaking.

That’s perhaps the key to why I felt so at home in the US during my stay: as an expatriate Brit, living in Belgium, there was something so pleasant about being in a country whose language and whose customs I at least thought I understood (even if that did turn out to be somewhat of an overstatement). Call me a heretic, but I miss the simple London things, many of which I have spent years railing against - things like Starbucks Coffee Houses (and there is certainly no shortage of those in New York City, though they are perhaps less omnipresent than I had been led to believe by anti-American propaganda). Things like big chain bookshops too. And oh, how I loved that things are open whenever you need them to be. Yes, even on a Sunday. Granted, I have no need to buy an iPod at 3 am (the futuristic Apple Store on Fifth Avenue really is open 24 hours a day), so some of the commercialism is perhaps over the top, but a pair of (so excitingly cheap) Sketchers at 11 pm on the way home from a Broadway show? Why not?

I was, in fact, quite surprised that JFK Airport was not the temple to capitalism that I expected it to be. There is just one little shop in arrivals where you can buy drinks and things like Newsweek, which has a different cover over there despite containing the same articles. That was perhaps the first difference I noticed (what can I say? I am a geek); immediately followed by the odd shape of Coke bottles. Unlike the UK, which has been officially metric since 1965, though in everyday life most people speak – and, crucially, think - in imperial measures, America puts up no such pretence: my Coke was 20 fluid ounces, or 591 milligrams, hence the unfamiliar size. Paying for that, then my bus ticket, was the next obstacle: I’m used to banknotes whose colour varies depending on their value – a 20-euro note is blue for example, whereas a ten-euro note is red, and a similar thing applies in the UK. I’m also not used to tipping anyone and everyone 20%: it seems almost no price can be taken at face value, since it often fails to include either the tip or the tax, and probably both in some cases.

Yellow taxis outside the airport confirmed that I had arrived in the right place. After navigating the various complications of getting on the bus, I settled down, ready to say “wow” every five minutes on my way into New York City for the first time ever. As it turned out, I saved my “wow” moments for a few days later, when walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, admiring its famous views on a beautiful sunny day. From the bus, I took in more mundane sights such as those famous yellow school buses (it turns out that Bart and Lisa Simpson aren’t the only ones to travel in one) and brands like Staples which in my British imperialism I had assumed were English.

But then we turned down 42nd Street and suddenly it looked like the films. I’d arrived in New York City. This, despite my jet lag, was very exciting indeed.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Quirky things about Belgium, #355

Delhaize again for this installment of quirkiness...

So, in the spirit of enterprise, my local Proxy Delhaize (the biggest in Belgium apparently - though it's a bit like saying the biggest Tesco Metro - there are other Delhaizes which are way bigger, just aren't called Proxy - so I'm not sure it's really much of an accolade...) is, shock horror, not only open on Sundays, but also on bank holidays. This, for Belgium, is remarkable foresight.


They are the only supermarket open today.

If you were the only supermarket open in a town of 30,000 people on a bank holiday where most people have a day off and therefore will want to pop to the shop, might you perhaps order extra supplies of things, so that you have not run out of everything useful by 3 pm?

Yeah. Thought so.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Quirky things about Belgium #354

So, Delhaize helpfully write "tissues" on their tissue packets, in eight languages.

Which is nice, although they write "hankies" in English, trying I think to be cool by not using "handkerchiefs", even though the paper version is not called that at all.

And I have to say that "zakdoekje" is one of the few elements of Dutch that inexplicably took up permanent residence in my memory approximately twenty-five years ago. So it must, you know, work, assuming their goal is to subliminally teach us that very useful word in eight languages.

My question, though, is this:
since the packet is see-through, shouldn't they have saved themselves the trouble?

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Delusions of Grandeur - on writing, part 3

I have this ridiculous recurring fantasy of what happens after my first novel, "Inevitable", gets published to critical acclaim in both the UK and the US. Well, a girl can dream. After all, dreaming is what turns us into writers to start off with, isn't it?

Of course, if I actually put this much effort into writing the thing, it'd be a best-seller by now. But anyway.

So, in this daydream, I'm being interviewed on a TV show, preferably by Parkinson, who has come out of retirement for the occasion, and definitely not by Jonathan Ross.

We spend some time discussing the novel, its themes, whether it is in any way autobiographical. (The main character is a French teacher in Brussels who falls for someone who looks a lot like a young Bradley Whitford, and is slightly obsessed with the West Wing, so no - it's not autobiographical at all. Cough.)

Then he comes to the subject of my name:

"So, your name's Claire Lyman. Are in you in any way related to Josh Lyman?"
"Well," I weigh my answer carefully, "It would be kind of difficult to be related to him, since he's, you know, fictional."
"But Claire Lyman is a fictional name, isn't it?"
"A pen name, yes."
"So you could be related to him."
"In my craziest moments I like to imagine myself to be his cousin." (Laughter from the audience. Phew. I was hoping they wouldn't think I actually imagined the West Wing to be, well, real.)
"Not his wife?" He plays along. "I would have thought most women would prefer to imagine themselves to be his wife."
"Well, no, because he and Donna are living happily ever after. The ship's kind of sailed on that one." (It should be noted that I have, by the time my novel comes out, mastered the art of making people laugh with me, instead of at me as they used to. Kind of like Matthew Perry. Or maybe Brad Whitford. Yep, there's a theme here. Sorry.)
"Okay. So you've met them before?"
"Erm... are we back in reality now?" I'm increasingly unsure. Even in my daydream this is becoming slightly surreal.
"If you like."
"Well," I explain very slowly, "they are fictional, so it would be difficult to meet them."
"So you wouldn't like to meet Mr Lyman and Ms Moss?"
"You're joking," I squeak. That's it - he's played me long enough. I can't hold back my childlike enthusiasm one more second. "I'd absolutely love to."
"That's a relief, because they'd have been terribly disappointed if you hadn't. They've flown a long way to be here."

Bradley Whitford and Janel Moloney join me on the sofa.

I can't wipe the grin off my face.

And of course, during the course of the interview, Brad agrees to write the screenplay with me, as well as star in the film (we'll address the issue of how he is going to look 35 later...) and Janel, with that beautiful smile of hers, tells me she'd love the part that was written with her in mind.

I go out for dinner with them afterwards and we spend many happy hours discussing not only the best TV show in history, but plenty of other things it turns out we have in common. It's the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Well, two, really.

Look, I told you it was a ridiculous fantasy.

But, just in case, you read it here first.

And in the meantime, it is inspiring me no end.

Friday, 2 October 2009

On writing, part 2

Okay, so I really want to read Zadie Smith's "The Autograph Man".

It's set in London, where I lived for five years as a child and five years as an adult, and New York, where I am very excited about going in just over three weeks' time, and where one of my very top favourite TV stars lives.

It's about, as far as I can make out, a young man obsessed with celebrity and wanting to meet famous people.

Now, here's the thing. That sounds a lot like something I could write about. From, erm, personal experience, apart from the fact that I am not a man of course. (If anyone has been following me on Facebook or Twitter you will have no trouble understanding what I am talking about.) It also sounds a lot like something I might WANT to write about at some point in the future.

So what do I do? Do I read it? But what if there are ideas in it that I would have come with myself, but then can't use because I will know I've read them in or been inspired by the Autograph Man?

I surely can't just avoid all books for the rest of my life, can I?


Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Belgium and the West Wing

For a tiny country, Belgium gets mentioned a lot on the West Wing.
So I thought, you know, in the interests of expat research, or something, I would start listing those mentions.

Let Bartlet Be Bartlet (season 1?) - Donna and Josh are discussing the issue of "English as a National Language". Donna just wants to check: "Are we for it or against it? I mean we’re not in favor of making another language the official language, are we? Like Dutch or something..."

Series 2, episode 7 - CJ is annoyed with Danny and quips, "well, I certainly hope we don't accidentally send your luggage to Belgium on the way back". Classic.

Series 2, "In this White House" - CJ again, she is obviously a fan! "I rode the Lifecycle this morning for an hour and a half. If it was a real cycle, I'd be in Belgium by now."

Series 3, episode 8 - countries who were partners in a UN mission are no longer taking part. Albie Duncan excuses "Belgium and the Netherlands"... because "they've got cheese and chocolate to make, I suppose"...

Series 3, "Dead Irish Writers" - Abbey Bartlet, about to get drunk with Amy and CJ: "The wine is a '95 Old Vine Zinfandel from Hog Cellars, which once belonged to King Baudouin of Belgium"...

Series 3, H Con - 172, Leo: When the British Ambassador told the German Foreign Minister that they were going to war over Belgium's violation of the neutrality treaty the German Foreign Minister said "You're going to war over a piece of paper?" (erm, I'm a bit hazy on what exactly he was referring to here, but anyway!!)

Series 5, I think - there are issues over the trip to Brussels because there are "tractors clogging up the Place de Brouckere". Which makes me smile every time I pass it on the metro.

Series 6 - Josh tells Santos' campaign staff: "Don't let him change the official language to Flemish while I'm gone." I've got to ask though, is there a reason why the only language that is ever named in the West Wing as possible contenders for the national language (other than English) is Dutch/Flemish. Odd that....

Series 7 - Josh goes on holiday (with Donna - everybody say aaaahhhhh) leaving employing future members of staff a week, because "it’s not like they’re going to take director of cabinet affairs jobs in Benelux countries" . Well I dunno Josh, Belgium is a pretty interesting place politically! No, really! You thought the US was complicated...!!

Monday, 24 August 2009

Quirky things about Belgium #353

Well, it may be a lot easier to lose your cash card in a machine here (due to very little thought going into the design of the whole process... sigh!) but it's also a lot less hassle to resolve. You walk straight into a bank and they hand over a temporary card which works till your next one comes through. Brilliant.

Of course, it has to not happen anytime near a Saturday... because the thought of a bank being open on a Saturday, or a lunchtime, or any other useful time... shudder.

But, still!

Thursday, 20 August 2009

quirky things about Belgium #352

... Cash points which give you a little advert at the beginning reminding you to take your card back.

Then at the end they don't give them back automatically.


Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The adventure of writing a book...

It feels a lot like being pregnant.

Not, you understand, that I really have any concept of what that might feel like.

But I imagine you walk around in a bit of a daze. Constantly distracted. That you pick up on tiny things that could be relevant in the future - people speaking about the topic, useful quotes, beautiful things...

That you feel like in your own little world, your happy place, that no one else can destroy for you because most people don't realise it's even there.

Not sleeping so well either... You keep having to sit up and write stuff down before you forget it.

Your thought process is suddenly one long "what if...?"

Everything, everything, even your previous obsessions, become wrapped up in this one thing.

You hope, you dream, you prepare. You know the birth will come, that it will be long and painful, that it's inevitable, but that it will be so worth every moment.

You are excited, and you are impatient. And there is work to do...

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Why I love the West Wing... (well, some of the reasons!)

- Bradley Whitford: so intense, so brooding, makes me melt in that part of the credits where he raises his head and looks straight at me
- Janel Moloney: beautiful, attractive, brings Donna to life so beautifully. If I were in the least inclined towards women, I would have a massive crush on her.
- Rob Lowe. I’m still smarting form his treacherous departure from a show which suffered its loss, but the fact that this is the case is testament to how much he brought to it.
- Allison Janney. Her character is a role model. Strength, intelligence, femininity. Wonderful acting. My favourite for a long time.
- The chemistry between Bradley and Janel
- Josh as a character – I would marry him in an instant!
- Donna as a character and her many little quirks
- The increasing romantic/sexual tension between Josh and Donna
- The understated way in which it does romance and weaves it into the plotline – never forced, and often doomed or difficult!
- The characters – so believable all of them, so lovable most of them. That’s part acting, part writing I guess. I feel I really know them as my friends.
- And speaking of writing. Oh the writing. Aaron Sorkin please be my mentor.
- The pithy one-liners
- The big storylines
- The tiny storylines
- The mini, one-episode storylines Donna gets in series 1 – they’re all brilliant. I love it when Josh falls of his chair just as she is talking about the intelligence of people who work there.
- The trivia you learn: dwell, dwindle, dwarf – the only three words in the English language that start with dw
- The Latin you learn: Post hoc ergo propter hoc – I love that. Desperately seeking a way to get it into every day conversation. Or at least a book
- The music. Oh the music is so good. I am desperate for the sound track of everything, including everything by Snuffy Walden – so brilliant. So well used. “Body and Soul” at the end of episode 713 being a perfect example – the words are so pertinent and it’s worked so well into the scene.
- The intelligent women!!
- It has made me so interested in and intrigued by the great nation that is the US. And you would not have got me saying that a year ago.
- It is not smutty: you turn off the TV feeling good about what you have just watched
- You also turn off the TV feeling more intelligent and educated
- That’s if you turn off the TV at all. I became increasingly unable to watch just one episode
- It gives me hope in politics in an age when, quite frankly, as a left-wing Brit, well you get the picture...
- It make me laugh and gasp and cry and shout things like “But Josh should be with Donna!!!!!” or “you evil Republican” or just “Aaaarrrrghhh!”
- It speaks to me spiritually. Seriously. For example, the fierce protectiveness of Jed Bartlet towards his family reminds me of God’s Father heart towards us and his “secret service” of angels at his disposal to protect us...
- It inspires me to write
- It gets my creative juices flowing
- And last but definitely not least: it inspires me toward greatness. I’m not sure how this translates yet, but it will.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Who says Belgium is boring?

How totally cool is this?!

Friday, 17 July 2009

Oh the excitement...

Actuapress is a fantastic not-for-profit association, who publish excellent magazines for intermediate + (B1/2 +) learners of French, English and Dutch, which come with a CD. I recommend them.

This month, my article is the one featured as a sample on their webpage:

Woop – international fame and fortune here I come?! (well you gotta start somewhere!!)

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Some classic Belgian photos

A friend came to visit recently, which gave me the excuse I'd been looking for to play at being a tourist, while sounding all knowledgeable about things... And that included taking lots of photos of the quintessentially Belgian!

Mussels on the Grand Place - it had to be done. Highly recommed them - Provencal style in the restaurant just across the square from the Godiva shop.

Classically Belgian in its logic, this is, I think a not-so-subtle attempt to remind foreigners that the only acceptable accompaniment for chips is mayo...

The Cote d'Or shop near the Palais de Justice was an exciting find! Not only is it, well, full of every possible kind of chocolate, you can drink coffee there too... the banner claiming they were passionate (since the year... dot I think!) seems almost superfluous, the place speaks for itself...

And yes, they do a coffee + 4 fresh chocs of your choice deal... Perfect for a break from sightseeing!

Oooh, I love these! Can't get enough of them!

Well, yes. Predictable. But it's been a while since I took his photo. And he was very smart in Swedish national dress!

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Sometimes small but always great things about Belgium! part 1 of many...

- it's (usually) okay to speak my mind here - even to strangers on the bus!
- WHERE is the rush hour? Not once have I had to stand for twenty minutes with my head anywhere near someone's armpit!!
- you pay for things AFTER you receive them! I just ordered a TV online and won't have to pay for it till 2 weeks after I have it - by which time I will have been paid and will be able to justify it!! woohoo!!

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Belgium: weird and wonderful things. Part one of many.

- Sort your rubbish carefully. Binbags are changed at 1€ each, as a kind of council tax, to encourage recycling. Not that anyone tells you where you go to recycle.
- Travelling by train is fraught with danger, so bear the following in mind
a) carefully check you are going to where you think you are going to. Do not, for example, by a ticket to Mechelen when you want to go to Machelen since they are nowhere near each other.
b) on the other hand, do not panic if the train you are getting appears not to be stopping where you want to go. You may have been told to go via Maline, but if the train says Mechelen, that's fine - it's the same place, but no one will have warned you, despite your best attemps to explain you are foreign and do not understand Belgium.
c) do not expect any useful information from anyone selling you a ticket. They will not understand that you are trying to ask them about, say, a day travelcard, or which one the train that goes to Maline is. They also will not be able to tel you where to go to get this information. Your best best for this kind of thing is to randomly ask people at the station until you get something like the correct answer, then pray.
d) you can buy a ticket on a train for a 3€ supplement, but your have to frantically wave at the guard before getting on. Once you are on and they come to you, it is assumed you are trying to travel fraudulently, and you will be fined. If you can't see a guard you are meant to walk up and down the train till you find one. I kid you not.
e) for short journeys, there is something called a Key Card, in that wonderfully pseudo-English way. It's a bizarre system in that you fill in by hand where you have gone. For longer journeys, you can break the journey into stages of the appropriate length - just put them on different cards. This is allowed. Go figure, as the Americans would say...
- it is impossible to get a decent latte, and capuccino hardly has any milk in it
- tea tastes funny with UHT milk. The Belgians will tell you it is impossible to get a-ny other milk. This is not true - most of them, honestly, do not realise you can buy it in the dairy bit of the supermarket!!
- even if you speak perfect French, they will attempt to speak less than perfect English to you
- Good Friday is not a bank holiday :(
- there are good things about Belgium too!!

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Sometimes it pays not be completely British...

Okay, so if I'm going to have a blog, I probably should start writing it! I realise I'm not in Brussels yet (and incidentally I won't be in March either - I'll be in Nivelles, which is a little town just outside Brussels in British terms - or miles away if you're Belgi anand have a warped perception of distance!)...

... still, I'm thinking I really ought to have started a blog years ago. "The wonderful weirdness of London", or something. So if I had said blog, I would have written about what happened at the gym today. Am sorely tempted to name and shame them, but one apparently shouldn't be negative online...

I was told there were no towels. After a bit of a Claire-style rant, I asked for a complaints form. They had run out of complaints forms. After ranting and raving a little more, I asked to see the manager - and lo and behold, a towel was produced! They even admitted that they were reserved for the people who complained the most!! Not sure how it fits in with Philippians 2.14, but I did feel quite smug and satisfied...
(less happy later when it turned out they didn't have loo roll either... it took me ages to find a shower that had hot water, and then the one that did didn't have any shower gel. Honestly, what do they think the hefty membership fee is for?)

It reminded me of a recent train journey from Cumbria (delayed, by the way) where they had "no hot water". Two hours in and trying desperately to do some work I was desperate for a cuppa. So off I went to first class and asked them for hot water. Which of course they had.

So, there you have it. There's a lot to be said for not being quite British enough to not put up with lame claims... and kicking up a bit of a fuss from time to time!