Sunday, 31 January 2010

Quirky things about Belgium, #753

Travelling by train may be fraught with unnecessary complication over in this quirky little country, but there are a couple of nice things about it. (And not just boring things like there are usually seats and they still run when it's snowing.)

There is the little hook next to each window where you can hang up your coat.

Then there is also the fact that, once the doors are closed and ready for departure, one set of doors remains open a few seconds later for the "accompagnateurs" (ticket checking people), I assume for them to poke their noses out of. I've never known why really. In theory, it is strictement interdit to climb onboard through these doors, and in Brussels this is enforced tooth and nail: I once saw a train delay its departure until a man who had got on after the whistle agreed to get back off again. (Which struck me as a little pointless, but I'm guessing he arrived at the station with more time to spare the next time.)

In my little town, though, if they see you coming, they wait for you to run to the open set of doors, effectively delaying the train's departure a few seconds for the person who didn't turn off twitter quite soon enough to make it up that killer hill in good time.

And people ask me why I live here. Surely things like that make it worth it?

Keywords and blogs

As if twitter, Facebook and all things West Wing related weren't taking up enough of the time I really ought to be giving to such things as working, getting to know people in Belgium, keeping in touch with people back home, getting my tax return filed on time (ahem) and getting my novel written, I have for several months now had another new addiction, and, inspired by Kat with a K's blog, I thought I'd share it with the world.

It's "stat counter" - a handy little device that shows me exactly where, exactly when, and exactly how many times people have clicked on my blog. Self-obsessed? Shamelessly so, but quite fun nonetheless.

It allows me to get very excited when, for example, someone from New York City reads my fan fic - with only eight million people in NYC, it's bound to be Janel Moloney, right? - or, as the other day, "Dallas" pops up - I imagine Bradley Whitford is rushing out between takes of his new TV show to check the latest update of my thrilling insights into all thing related to - him, mainly. (I promise I will write about other things soon. I really promise.)

It also shows me which keywords people have used to get to my site, and that for some reason is a source of endless fascination for me.

Just shy of a quarter of you reach me through - drum roll, this is going to be surprising, I'm sure - typing "Bradley Whitford". Next most popular (but a long way behind) is "Janel Moloney" but in the last few weeks I've also had a fair few people search "Bradley Whitford m(o)ustache", and you'd be surprised how many people google "Belgium" and "West Wing" in the same breath. Luckily for them I have a page devoted to answering just that query. Hopefully whoever keyed in "West Wing tractors Brussels" found it.

I seem to get "the third best job in the world" quite a lot too, which is odd to me. (It's mine, by the way - the other two you can probably guess if you have been paying any attention at all...)

The teacher in me gets frustrated, though, when people go to my page asking a question and I know from the page they have hit that they won't have had it answered. (Sadly, statcounter does not as yet provide me with an email address for every reader of my blog!)

Things like...

- What does "bound to happen" mean? (this one pops up with surprising regularity... that Josh and Donna scene is frustrating enough when you do understand what she says to him - I really feel for these people!)

It means that something is destined, definitely going to occur one day. Inevitable, you might say, which coincidentally is the title of the novel I'm currently working on.

- Is Good Friday a Bank Holiday in Brussels?

Nope. Which I find a little odd. Any excuse for a bank holiday (that's a public holiday to you guys across the pond) normally... We do get Easter Monday though, which surely would not have any significance whatsoever without the events of Good Friday, and as as it is seems to have very little except perhaps allowing us to recover from our over-eating of Easter eggs and the like. It's a little like getting Boxing Day off (which we don't technically over here, though a lot of offices are shut between Christmas and New Year anyway) without bothering with the whole 25th December nonsense. Still, it's hardly the most baffling thing about this quirky little country.

- Janel Moloney pregnant

Yes, she is, and it's actually quite ridiculous how happy I am for her.

- English lessons through Skype

Yes! Email me at languagetuition at gmail dot com if you are interested in flexible, personalised language lessons from the comfort of your own home. Advert over.

- Oboe Abu Dhabi

Erm, can't help you there. Sorry.

- Janel Moloney been seen in New York.

That one's just cruel. She does live in NYC, so it's not entirely surprising she should have been spotted there, but despite knowing what some of her hangouts are, did I see her when I was over there? No. I did not.

- What can't you study in Belgium?

Creative writing. The Francophone world seems united in its belief that these things can't be taught. And maybe they're right, but it would be nice to give it a try.

So there you go. This has been fun, so I may do it again.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

West Side Story at St John's International School and various other ramblings

First of all, wow. Events like tonight's never cease to amaze me - what can be done by a bunch of, well, kids really - even though they probably would prefer not to be called that. I can only imagine how hard they all worked and for how long, and launch across the blogosphere a massive well done to the dedicated teachers who no doubt poured into the production every available drop of energy, adrenaline, and patience, and then some, and then some more. I hope you are as proud of yourselves as you deserve to be.

The acting was great, the dancing was impressive, the music to a professional standard. The group singing was fab, and where some of the solos faltered, I got the impression that the singers - who proved in other places that they definitely could sing - were out of their ideal range.

Also, call me an uneducated Brit... well, actually, don't call me that: I'm reasonably well-educated, just hopelessly behind on all things American since I've only started giving the Land of the Free a second thought in the last six months (and yes, West Wing, Aaron Sorkin, Bradley Whitford, blah blah)... but anyway, I had never actually seen West Side Story, and kept wanting to break out into "oh, so that's where this song comes from!". Thankfully for the aura of sophistication I was trying to project in case there were any marriageable American men in the crow (there weren't), I managed to restrain myself.

I thought it was a great musical, though, and managed to do the whole love story-within-a-bigger-picture thing that I so love (West Wing, Aaron Sorkin, Bradley Whitford, Janel Moloney, blah blah...), questioning America and its values and (broken) dreams - the kind of thing I am just fascinated by these days.

It's the kind of thing I'd like to do with my writing. I will probably blog on this in more depth at some stage, but here's my dilemma: I'm writing a novel, the plot of which is basically a doomed love story, and I want to write it well, in a literary fiction kind of style, and to have real substance to it, things worth discussing. I want it to be the kind of book to which Guardian Books might devote fifteen seconds of their Podcasts in passing on a particularly slow day. (Well, obviously, the kind of book that wins the Costa prize would be even better, but I'm going for achievable goals here.)

But it seems to be these days that you can either write a story about love, call it chick lit, make the cover bright pink and the ending sugar-sweet, or you can write a novel in exquisite prose, raising deep issues, making readers' pulses quicken and have them reaching for their pencils to underline particularly elegant turns of phrase. (Or is that just me?) What happened to doing both, like Jane Austen and Henry James? Is it really no longer possible in these enlightened times?

Answers on a postcard please, or just in the comments box provided. Which doesn't really have the same ring to it, but does have the advantage of being a little more practical, and slightly quicker.

Anyway, I'm off to google the lyrics of "I want to be in America"... (Appropriately. But that is a another subject, for another day, and another blog post.)

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Not Just Waffle: get more from your Brussels trip

You know the drill. You are learning French, and excitedly book yourself a trip abroad to practise your new-found language skills. Then you get, say, to Belgium, and find that everyone wants to speak English to you. Or, that beyond “une bière, s’il vous plaît”, there actually isn’t much call for conversation. Where are all these French speakers who want to ask you all about where you live, where you went on holiday last year and what you think of the current government back home?

Or your company is relocating you to Belgium. You need to learn French. Where to start? Perhaps some lessons online followed up by the same tutor face-to-face once you get there...

Or perhaps you are popping to Brussels on the Eurostar for the day on a business trip. The meeting you are going to will be held in English, but wouldn’t it be nice to at least exchange some pleasantries before you start, in your clients’ native language? Always a good way to build a fruitful rapport, too...

You’re in Brussels for the day. You’d like to fit in so many things – but where to start?

With these as with so many other situations, Not Just Waffle is here for you! We exist to help you get more from your Brussels trip by combining language learning with guided tours in whatever proportion suits you.

Perhaps we can walk you round the main attractions of the city, while chatting in French.

Or sit down with you over coffee to discuss what a good route might be, and teach you some “survival phrases” for the day.

Or talk you through any topic from the history of Belgian chocolate to business etiquette, in French or in English.

Or just have that conversation about everyday things that you’ve been longing to have with someone other than your usual tutor.

Or even go over the imperfect subjunctive with you so you can wow them on your return!

Or... or... or.... The possibilities are endless, and endlessly personalised. If you’re in Brussels for any reason or any length of time, make sure you get more from your stay than just waffle(s) and extra calories ... call on us and see how we can help you.

Email us at languagetuition at gmail dot com. Together we will come up with the ideal solution for your time here, whether you are popping across for half a day, moving here indefinitely, or anything in between!

Monday, 25 January 2010

Spiritual lessons from the West Wing, part one of many

One of the scenes that never fails to have me reaching for the tissues and another spoonful of Haagen Daz does not, as you might expect, involve Josh and Donna or even a rousing speech by Jed Bartlet or Matt Santos.

It’s towards the end of the whole thing, when CJ is trying to work out how she can share her life with someone, now that the West Wing adventure is over and it may turn out that there is more to life. (Hard to believe, I know.) She has, she says, “missed the window” – that mythical point in a youngish person’s life when they are flexible enough to learn to make decisions in partnership with someone, to consider how to accommodate them in their choices.

She hasn’t.

So Danny assures her. He doesn’t want to make her decisions for her, as she had thought he was implying. He wants her to speak to him about them – because, and here’s that killer line:

He loves the sound of her voice.

While I was journaling this morning, when I wasn’t really making any decisions, wasn’t really asking for God’s help for anything (I came to that later), or pouring out my soul about any heart-wrenching pain, was in fact beginning to suspect I was just rambling, I thought I heard Him whisper something to me.

He loves the sound of my voice.

That’s why he wants me to share everything with Him. Not so I can beat myself up when He tells me I’m not holy enough; not because He wants to force His way into areas of my life I’m finding it hard to hand over to him.

“What else?”

That’s Danny’s phrase. “What else?” Keep going. Tell me. I want to know everything, down to the typo Toby found in the constitution. A comma. So insignificant! (Well, to some people, anyway.) But it’s part of her day, and so he wants to know.

Because he loves the sound of her voice.

Think you’ve forgotten how to share your life with Someone? That maybe there was a time in your youth when you could get excited about God, when you could strum your guitar for hours or cry into your pillow asking Him for help, but now you’ve forgotten what intimacy with God feels like, and it’s time to settle for the superficial appearance of respectable religion? Think you’ve missed the window?

You haven’t.

He wants you to talk to Him.

Because He loves the sound of your voice.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

"Inevitable", by Claire Lyman - what's it about?

What's it about? I usually get asked when I apologise for my recent lack of social engagement with the excuse that "I'm writing a book, and I'm living eating sleeping breathing nothing else at the moment." So, for those of you who've wondered...

Catherine is bored. It’s not that she doesn’t love her books and her West Wing DVD collection, and the passion and excitement they stir in her. But she’d like something to happen in her real life for a change.

In search of adventure, or at the very least some existential angst she can use to finally do some of that writing she’s always secretly wished she had the heartbreaking past to fuel, she moves back to her native Belgium.

Yes, Belgium. Things happen there too, you know, as she discovers when she begins teaching French to Brad, an American diplomat, who, looking as he does like Bradley Whitford circa 1999 and minus the disproportionately controversial moustache, is not hard to fall in love with.

All well and good, but Brad’s ambiguous friendship with the beautiful Lucy (think Janel Moloney), back home in the US, seems to be getting in the way of the perfect Pride and Prejudice ending she’d like for her autobiography.

If heartbreak is the price for adventure, is it worth it? Should she fight for Brad? Should she settle for his best friend, who just happens to be another attractive American? Or should she retreat back into the world of fiction, living vicariously and free from gut-wrenching pain?

Come with her and help her decide...

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

In defence of Bradley Whitford's moustache

Unless you are one of those obsessive types who searches Twitter on the hour every hour for West-Wing-related gossip (and who would do that? Hmm?), you have probably missed the most controversial issue to hit the West since the Monica Lewinsky scandal: Bradley Whitford now has a moustache.

I’ll give you a minute to recover from the shock.

The Twitterverse is in uproar, myself included, because my intense devotion to (a clean-shaven) Josh Lyman is second only to Donna Moss’, and not by very much, I can assure you.

Here’s the thing, though – and those of you with sensitive dispositions may wish to look away now.

Bradley Whitford is not Josh Lyman. That some of us cling to the belief that he is, is actually testimony to his talent as an actor.

I have not (as yet) had the immense pleasure of meeting him and asking him about this (and would no doubt be too tongue-tied to say anything coherent at all in that happy event), but I assume, and think I may have read somewhere, that he practises something called Method acting. I know a tiny amount about this thanks to the wonderful book “Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist can Learn from Actors”, by Bradilyn Collins, easily the freshest, more original and all-round best book I have read about writing (along with Francine Prose’s “Reading like a Writer”). (And I’ve read a fair few.) I admit that part of the reason I bought it was that I could get one tiny step closer to my heroes, Bradley Whitford himself (who needs no adjectives) and the thoroughly exquisite Janel Moloney.

Purely gratuitously, and because neither Twitter nor Facebook give me enough room to do this on my profile page, I’m copying my favourite quote from the book here. Favourite because it’s inspiring, and because it make me feel as if, if I were to sit down for coffee with Brad and Janel (and let’s throw in Allison Janney, because she’s fabulous, and Josh Malina, because he’s cool, and he makes me laugh every day), I’d have huge amounts to talk about with them, and it would be the start of a several beautiful and mutually inspiring friendships.

(I haven’t left the topic of Brad’s moustache though, so don’t tune out. This is all relevant, I promise.)

We writers of fiction are alike in one way. We’re a mighty strange breed. We view the world differently. We walk around with voices and shadowy figures inside our heads. We tend to stare out windows and mumble to ourselves. The Normals can’t begin to understand us. Only our first cousins, the actors, can come close to matching our eccentricities. For we share the same goal: bringing characters to life.

There we have it. Bradley Whitford was not put on the West Wing to be Bradley Whitford, and he’s not been put on Code 58 to be Bradley Whitford. Unlike some actors, who only really ever play some version of themselves, Brad is talented enough to be able to create a character, and it’s details like knowing that Dan would have a moustache that make a difference.

Method acting, which from what I can gather is really just good acting, means you create a new character for every role you play. You give them mannerisms in keeping with their personalities and backgrounds. You still your own inner rhythm, your own emotions (while drawing on them when necessary), in order to better portray theirs. You consciously become a blank canvas onto which you can paint all the physical, emotional and character traits of the person you are bringing to life, drawing of course on your own experience and observation of life.

So, there you have it. Bradley Whitford did not just grow a moustache because he heard I was coming to the US and wanted to hide, though it pains me greatly to think I may have walked right past him and been denied the opportunity of said beautiful friendship.

He did it because he is, and always will be, a great actor who understands his character. Which is why we loved Josh Lyman, and why we love Brad. Well, that and the dimples...

Monday, 4 January 2010

Quirky things about Belgium: inefficiency

Welcome back to Belgium, the banner could have said. You like it here, remember? It's home.

Besides, it's very pretty with all the snow, and you can warm up with a waffle. And there are languages. Lots of them. And chocolate. Rivers of chocolate flowing down the streets.

Also, a place of glorious inefficiency. Political views aside (I won't reveal mine on this issue lest I lose whatever readers I may have painstakingly gained over the last few insight-filled months), it worries me slightly that this is where the powers that be chose to put Europe, HQ. Here, where for much of the time they can't even agree on their own government.

Here, where you have to ring ahead to an undisclosed number if you want to use a trolley when you get off the Eurostar with your five thousand suitcases full of Christmas presents and sales bargains, for the simple reason that, and I quote, "ce n'est pas Londres ici, Madame." Sigh.

Welcome home, all you expats. Take a deep breath. Getting cross does not help, and I'd know. Think chocolate. Think gateway to Europe. And don't go overdoing the Borders closing sale next year.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Random Waffle, part 1

Dear readers, I am ashamed. Day Three of 2010, and already I have failed. "Ashamed" does not even begin to cover it.

Yes, I have failed: this may be the quickest I have ever broken a New Year's Resolution. This one was to work on my writing every day. Oops. Can Sundays be exempt? Perhaps. Let's hope so.

I am, at least, up to date with my Merriam-Webster "Word a Day" calendar, though already I struggle to list all three of them - so far, syncretic (as in, Belgium is a syncretix mix of expats, Flemish-speakers, and French-speakers), mash (an intense and usually passing infatuation; also: the object of infatuation. As in, well Josh Lyman I guess. Is that "passing", though? Time will tell.) Today's was something to do with poetry and started with u, I think. It referred to the final syllable at the end of a line. Anyone have a clue what I'm talking about? No? Me neither. I'm too tired. Sorry.

By the way, dear readers, who are you? And what led you to my blog? I'd love to know...