Friday, 26 February 2010

Searched for recently...

... One of my all-time favourite keyword searches this week:

"Books for people who love the West Wing"

Well, there are plenty of books around along the lines of "behind the scenes of the West Wing" (frustratingly they only tend to cover the early seasons) and Amazon, in its usual helpful manner, will happily point you to them.

But no fiction. Until now.

Much as I would love to publish Donna Moss' diary and/or some quality Josh and Donna fan fiction, I think there may be some kind of copyright laws about that.

Next best thing, though: a book whose characters are fans, and occasionally quote lines, and talk about politics. And may even use the world's best chat-up line, from Scent of a Woman, "we should get together and talk politics sometime".

A book, which, in my head, has a film version in which the leads are played by Melissa Fitzgerald and (of course) Bradley Whitford, with cameos by Janel Moloney, Joshua Malina, and Allison Janney.

So look out for inevitable by Claire Lyman, coming in - maybe late 2011? In which case I really ought to get off this blog so I can wake up bright and early tomorrow (well, before 2 pm - it is Saturday after all) and ready to write the next few scenes...

Vent, vent, vent

I know, I know. There are more important things to get all heated up about.

Like, for instance, the actual debate over healthcare reform, rather than Bradley Whitford's take on it, which he delivered live on CNN while I was in my house, three metres from my television, having been ruthlessly up to date with everything about him including some nasty and patently false rumours about him doing the rounds today. Not tweeting, not channel surfing, because I was watching a film of his, which I was only watching because he was in it.

There is some irony here if I just look hard enough..

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Twitter: the illusion of connectedness

It's a funny thing, this cyber space lark. Possibly even a quirkier place than the strange but endearing country where I find myself living.

A few months ago, I had my first Direct Message on Twitter from a properly famous (and very cool) person. That I was beside myself with excitement goes without saying. That he then re-tweeted me not long after, and THEN started "following" me was further fuel to my cyberglee. That he hasn't unfollowed me since is even more of a miracle. (Especially given my frequent and over-enthusiastic mentions of, gushings over really, one of his major rivals.)

Then there was yesterday. Oh, yesterday.

The person with whom I would most like to communicate is either not on twitter ("I don't tweet on the first date," he once said in an interview - guess there'll have to be more than one date, then) or, more likely, hiding under a false and unguessable name. But I do exchange tweets with several people whom he knows, several with whom he is currently working in fact. And when I say exchange tweets, I mean they actually message me too. This is amazing to me. I don't know why it should be - they are, after all, only people, aren't they? - but there you are, it is.

And yesterday one of them offered to pass on a message for me.

I think.

He may have been joking, but that would be cruel, unspeakably so.

Why should this have me bouncing up and down and unable to concentrate on what was a more than decent Gilmore Girls episode?

It is completely irrational. It is not even as if I have met the guy. I am no closer to the second date after which we would presumably tweet each other directly.

The illusion of connectedness. That's all it is. And yet, surprisingly powerful, intoxicating even.

Go figure.

Monday, 22 February 2010

My first award!

I've been struggling with my writing lately. My novel feels two-dimensional and in need of a sub plot. My brilliant, deep, philosophical ideas seem to come out on paper as "he said hi she said here's some French verbs he said okay then they kissed and then it was sad the end".

My blog posts, while I enjoy writing them (and then enjoy spying on my readers - Luton fan, where have you gone?), are also, let's be honest, a little one-dimensional, based as they are mostly around one topic. (I'm resisting the temptation to name names...)

So it was very reassuring, and actually a little big exciting, to be nominated by @peabee72's Sunshine Award for bloggers, particularly as she said she chose us "because I love their use of language, their honesty and the genuine tone that they write with". Those are three of the things that I definitely want my writing to be known for.

So perhaps my writing career is not turning out to be dead on arrival after all... the Brussels Writers' Group were all very kind about my short story the other day too, and then I read somewhere today that apparently the first draft of a novel is all about the bad writing.

So it seems that hope really does seem eternal! Hooray.

I'm nominating @himupnorth's blog, because his impossibly clever satirical poems make me smile... He apparently has two of them ( and, so it's just as well I have some nominations going spare.
I'll be adding more as and when inspiration strikes!

Friday, 19 February 2010

Searched for this week...

Recently, aside from the usual plethora of "Bradley Whitford" and "Janel Moloney pregnant" keyword searches on my blog (I particularly liked "Bradley Whitford Dimples"), I've also had the following...

RDV French bible week 2010

Yes, I'm going, but I have no available information at this time (as I've said before - only one thing better than meeting with God - meeting with God in the sunshine then spending the afternoons at the pool!)

It takes place during the last week of July at the Centre Chrétien de Gagnieres near Ales - nearest airport Nimes. Word of advice: be careful not to mistake your arrival time for your departure time, or you will have to fork out 100 Euros to fly to Marseille and get the train from there. I've heard.

the best job in the world grammar

Well, I don't know who would search for this, but at a guess - my future husband.

Weird things coming up in Belgium

I'm sure there are many, many of those, coming soon to a town near you. Possibly there already, in fact.

translate "destined for greatness" in Japanese

Wow. My short story isn't published yet, and someone already wants to translate it into Japanese already...? (those delusions of grandeur again...)

toby/donna fan fic west wing


Looking for a French teacher in Brussels

Well, that would be me. I can teach you French, English or Spanish, face to face in a Brussels café, or anywhere in the world over Skype. Feel free to get in touch at languagetuition at gmail dot com. You can check out my linkedin profile including recommendations at

Is there a claires in new york

No idea, but hopefully there will soon be a Claire there!

Also, here’s the thing. Somebody in Luton, Bedfordshire, checks my blog for updates several times a day, and has been doing so for some time now. I’m increasingly intrigued. Who are you? A literary scout? A potential suitor? Bradley Whitford’s undercoveragent? Feel free to say hi on a comment and let me know.

That is all.

Bradley Whitford films: a shamelessly subjective viewpoint

I'm not sure how, but word has somehow got around that I am something of a Bradley Whitford fan.

Having decided that since, sniff, the West Wing only continues to exist in the hearts and minds of fan fic writers... (I plead guilty), I should get my Brad/Aaron fix from Studio 60, I thought I would try and wean myself onto the idea of watching Brad on other things with Little Manhattan. Since that was such a thoroughly positive experience, I shall now be regularly indulging in the Friday-night treat that is watching a film I would never have heard about were it not for him.

Him, and my fellow tweeters, that is, who have been a very useful source of information for such things. And today "Laura in Washington" asked me to rank BW movies by amount of screen time that he gets, so she knows what to watch first.

So in the spirit of world-wide friendship, altruism, and self sacrifice (ahem), here goes. Though I don't fancy getting the stopwatch out so I'm going to use a throughly subjective complex mathematical equation along the lines of:

wonderfulness of Brad's character x screen time x greatness of film in general x enjoyment of said film by a girl whose favourite genre (apart from political dramas by Aaron Sorkin) is the (intelligent) chick-flick

Number One - and this should, by now, come as no surprise: the West Wing. The West Wing. The West Wing. (I get so excited that I have to say it multiple times.)

- well, what can I say? If you really (really?) want to hear me enthuse more about this, check out this blogpost, or this one, or this one.

To be absolutely fair, I will let Aaron Sorkin take some of the credit for Josh Lyman's attractiveness, and also Rahm Emanuel for being his inspiration. (Funny, though - I've felt a little cheated since realising Josh is not 100% creation... I knew no good could come out of leaving the world of fiction to find out about reality.) Oh, and because I have to mention her in every post, also Janel Moloney. I think that Brad once said that so much of who he was on the West Wing was a product of his interaction with her. Or maybe it was the other way round. But either way...

It's a no-brainer, though, really: who doesn't love a vulnerable, impossibly bright, world-changing hero? With those dimples and those eyes? Come on.

Number Two: Inevitable

Yet to be made, this one, but essentially a film version of the novel I am currently working on. Oh, and he and I are going to write the screenplay together. (He just doesn't know it yet.)

He finally gets a lead role, as a frustrated musician masquerading as a diplomat in Brussels, (assuming we can make him look thirty-five) and both he and his character are thoroughly lovable. Also, Janel Moloney gets a cameo. A must-see. Now if I could just get the flippin' thing written...

For more on my delusions of grandeur, click here...

Number Three: Little Manhattan

Funny, sweet, endearing. Hats off to Josh Hutcherson who I think has a great future ahead of him, though I've heard something about vampires and the like... (Not really down with the kids these days, not that I ever was...) Lots of New York City in it. These are all good things, aside from the vampires part.

Brad's character, a fab dad, needs a hug throughout the film, and that certainly works on me.

It makes me sad, though, that he is playing a character going through a divorce... A little too close to real life.

Screen time is substantial for a non-lead character, and in any case it is a film I would have loved even without Brad. Perfect for a girls' night in. Go out and buy it. Now.

Eight out of ten (I rarely give 9s, and 10s are reserved for the West Wing).

Number Four: Studio Sixty on the Sunset Strip

Well, how could I not like this? It's not just Brad, but Matt Perry as well - and he is fantastic (and not entirely unattractive) in this. It's also Aaron Sorkin's writing, plenty of romantic tension, and a lot of depth to a series that could essentially have been about unimportant fluff. Still, it's no West Wing. Maybe because there was no Janel. Or maybe because it was only allowed to last one season - it may well have needed longer to come into its own, or allow some of the storylines to benefit from the kind of Josh/Donna tension that only comes with long, long waits.

Eight out of ten as well.

Number Five: Burn Up

Can I give this one eight of ten too?

This did not sound like the kind of thing I would enjoy, and yet I'm very glad following the Brad trail led me to this. It's a two-part TV drama, three hours in total, that charts the run up to a Kyoto 2/Copenhagen conference. If global warming sounds like a dull premise, then think again - passions and self-interest run very deep in a such a powerful place as the oil industry, and there are plenty of unexpected twists and turns that will have you gasping, and wondering throughout where exactly your sympathies are supposed to lie. Brad's hair is way too short, but that's perhaps the only criticism I could level at him, or Burn Up in general. Really worth the watch. Neve Campbell and Rupert Penley-Jones are great too, and it's always fun for me to watch Brit/American dynamics play out against this kind of backdrop.

Number Six: Scent of a Woman

Thanks must once again go to Brad for introducing me to many films I would otherwise not have touched, or, to my shame, even been aware of. Among many great things about this film, which other people have no doubt reviewed and discussed much more eloquently and intelligently that I can in the context of this blog, is possibly the world's greatest chat-up line: "want to get together and talk politics sometime?".

I don't feel I can do the intelligence or subtlety or fantastic acting of this film justice here. (I will, however, be checking out more of Chris O'Donnell.) The sweet ending I wasn't sure quite fitted with the rest of the plot, but hey, it did fulfill the major criterion of a Bradley Whitford film, which appears to be making me cry.

Brad's role (let's face it, that's why you've read this far) is in a relatively short scene, quite near the beginning. He's great, though, and you get to see him speaking his mind and pinned against a wall. The Brits among you will also chuckle with me when I tell you his character's name is Randy.

6.5/10, according once again to my subjective equation, not to any objective Great Movies Of All Time league: Al Pacino got his first Best Actor Oscar for this.

As it says on the DVD, heart-wrenching, and heart-warming.

Number Seven: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 1

I've blogged about this elsewhere, but essentially, it's another great girlie film, though be warned that if you have any painful issues in your past or even just a modicum of sensitivity, you will be getting through a lot of tissues.

Screen time, though, is minimal, and painful - his character is an idiot through most of it and does not do what he really should have done in the scene where he vaguely redeems himself (bending over backwards not to spoil the plot here). But heck, he is still very attractive.

Six out of ten, but could've been more if I hadn't spent so much of it crying and therefore unable to see him properly.

Number Eight: Kate and Leopold

At sixteen, I would probably have loved this, but at - oh my goodness, I hadn't quite done the maths before - very nearly twice that, I kept myself sane by tweeting throughout (sorry, tweeps) and reminding myself that this was a Brad film. I would have stopped watching after twenty minutes were it not for him.

Remember that ridiculous drama on BBC last year about a girl who finds herself trapped in Jane Austen's times? Cross that with Bridget Jones. Don't think it would quite work? My point, exactly.

Also, I have a philosophical problem with films where Brad is not the one I am meant to be in love with. He is the baddie a la Hugh Grant in Bridget Jones, though one with a heart. (I remember having similar issues with not being allowed to fall for Hugh Grant, but that was then.)

And oh, the cheese.

Four out of ten. Even though this is Brad at his physically most attractive - 2001, so season 2/3 of WW.

Number Nine: the Client

Now before you all start attacking me for my lack of taste, I refer you to the aforementioned equation. This is absolutely not my kind of film. There is a lot, however, that is great about it, including Mary Louise Parker - amazing. Also, suspense and plot twists and even sweet moments that - damn it - made me well up. More crying! Bradley Whitford, please stop it!

Also, Brad is one of many "supporting" characters (not quite minor, he has a couple of moments of glory), so screen time is limited - and who knew that he would not be sexy in glasses. I mean, not sexy for Brad. And it's kind of weird, but even though this film is way old, he looks older than Josh Lyman did. Maybe it's those glasses Or the haircut. Or the braces. (Suspenders, to you Americans.) As a Brit, I'm not really qualified to comment on his Southern accent but it seemed to me that it wasn't the best (which is just as well, because, I'm sorry to say, I don't find that very attractive either). But let's face it, he still has the dimples. And the man can most definitely act.

So don't rush out and buy this if, like me, you like sweet, romantic Little Manhattan type films. But if you like thrillers and John Grishams, then it's a good one. And if you're a fan of Susan Sarandon and/or Brad Renfro and/or Mary Louise Parker (which you can't fail to be if you've seen the West Wing, and I'm guessing the West Wing is the reason most of you are on this website in the first place) - definitely one for the collection.

Enjoyment factor: three and a half out of ten.

So that's that for now. Watch this space for the next installment... Recommendations welcome. More than welcome, in fact. Actively encouraged, you could say.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Bradley Whitford makes me cry!

I've taken a big step in the last few weeks: I wouldn't exactly call it having reconciled myself to there being no more West Wing, but I'm coming to terms with the fact that if if I want to see more of Bradley Whitford, I will have to cross back from fiction into reality and remind myself that he is not only Josh Lyman. That he is, in fact, an actor, and appears in lots of other stuff. It turns out, actually, that he's in quite a lot of films, but often films available only in the US, and often not as the lead (though quite why baffles me, but that's another story).

What I didn't count on was how much he would make me cry.

And not just because I am so in love with him.

Little Manhattan was wonderful, and it's a film I would never have discovered were it not for my twitter friends (do we call them friends?) and my obsession (yes, I think we can call it an obsession) with all things West Wing, and with the beautiful Brad in particular. A film that's right up my street, and not just because the book I'm writing has as its heart not only childhood sweethearts, but also that eternal question of whether it is really better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all. I'm still not sure I have the answer, and I don't know whether my character (Kate) does either. (Oh, and the hero is called Brad and has fluffy hair and dimples, but I'm sure that's just a coincidence.)

A lovely, cute film, funny, full of quotable lines, sweet moments, great acting even from children (I think Josh Hutcherson has a bit of Bradley Whitford in him, so it's fitting he played his son) and lots of New York (which I have also fallen in love with of late, along with all things American. Oh Aaron Sorkin... you have a lot to answer for.). I cried, a bit. But it was a feel-good film, and I'll be watching it again, soon.

And so the tradition was established: every weekend I go on Amazon, find a random film with Bradley Whitford in that is probably cute and harmless (so, not Cabin in the Woods) and then I order it and have it ready and waiting for when I get home from work on Fridays.

This week, in my enthusiasm, and my confusion at now having two separate Amazon accounts, I accidentally ordered two copies of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. (If anyone would like a copy at a bargainous price, let me know, though I may be about to put you off it.) A winner, I thought: in an attempt to fill the void left by the end of the West Wing, I've been working my way through Gilmore Girls, and am getting into it, though, as I'm sure I will be expounding upon in another blogpost, it's made me realise that one of the things I love most about WW is the way that romance is subtly blended into a much bigger metanarrative. Anyway, what I'm trying to say is, I love Alexis Bledel and her blue eyes (I would like her to play me when I am famous please - her or Melissa Fitzgerald, since Janel Moloney is perhaps too blonde).

So, I thought - Bradley Whitford, Alexis Bledel, and a happy film on the theme of friendship. What's not to like?

Nothing's not to like. It's a great movie. (Movie? Film, I mean. Oops.) I was particularly impressed with Alexis Bledel, because she most definitely wasn't Rory - and as noted elsewhere, in a post also on a loose Bradley Whitford theme, that is one of the signs of a great actor. A lesser adolescent actress would surely have been Prototype Teenage Girl Part Two - but she holds herself different, has different mannerisms - I was ticking off all those personalisation techniques in my head.

Of course, Brad is great too. He even had me unconsciously closing my eyes when he said grace! So you see, I have trouble with the fact/fiction boundary. Which is why I was probably always destined to be a writer.

The problem is, no one told me I was going to cry. Not like oh-wow-Josh-finally-kissed-Donna or I-want-Matt-Santos-to-be-my-President slight teary eyedness, but proper bawling.

This is not my definition of a feel-good film.

I'm sure someone out there will tell me it's because I also grew up a long way from my dad, but Brad's character is nothing like him, and nor were our circumstances.

Part of me, the more I read about Brad and Jane, also feels very sad that they divorced when they seemed so in love and happy and ideally suited. But come on, I am not that altruistic. I'm sure that's not what has me crying like that.

Maybe it's because I never had the kind of friendship these girls have as teenagers, and always wanted it. But that pain feels a long way away too.

The story of each girl was touching, and I found Tibby and Bailey's the most poignant. (Well, that's what I'd like to think; actually it was Carmen and Al's, but that would be admitting that the psychologists are right about pain from childhood and the like.) My point is this: I defy you, whatever your history, not to find something in this film that you will identify with deeply on some level.

Go ahead and watch it. Especially if you're a fan of any of the actors, sunny Greece, young men who turn out not to be losers after all, and friendships that prevails over all.

Just don't say I didn't warn you about the need for tissues and Haagen Dasz.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Quirky things about Belgium: unpredictable efficiency

For weeks now, I've been meaning to blog in impressed tones about how well Belgium has coped with this unusually cold winter.

Impressed tones, but slightly wistful ones nonetheless: there was something truly lovely last year about looking out on sugar-coated London gardens from deep inside a centrally-heated bedroom, safe in the knowledge that no one expects to you get to work in such - shuddder - freezing weather.

No such nonsense prevails in Belgium, though. I'm told there is a law effectively banning "snow days": you are not allowed to skip work for such ridiculous reasons as a journey time of two hours in each direction on treacherous roads. The trains still run (with no more than usual delays). Life, believe it or not, goes on.

Here, when it snows, you put just add an extra layer, curse Skechers for being unable to make boots that last longer than a month, then keep calm and carry on. As you might in Russia, in fact.

In Russia, I would expect these kinds of cultural differences. Yet it seems that even after nearly a year here I can still be taken by surprise by how different my two homes are despite their geographical proximity. As a Brit, everything in me screamed, stay at home! Snow day! Nothing will be working! And one of the many joys of the self-employed is in fact the free exercise of such choices. So you'd have thought... But no. When in Rome, and all that.

So, off I went this morning, mildly irritated when my first student called five minutes into my journey to cancel her lesson: the buses weren't moving, she said, and she was understandably fed up with waiting in the cold. I should, at that point, have listened to my British instincts, and come straight home to be - erm, I mean to write my novel, but I reasoned that since the bus had always run so far, even on the snowiest of days, it would surely be fine by the time I needed it.

Oh, you of such great faith.

No buses; none. At least non on the 47 bus route, which constituted the last ten minutes of a journey which takes an hour and a half. So close, yet far enough away to get back on a tram, back on a train, and come home to have my heart as well as my body warmed by the season finale of the Gilmore Girls over a plate of pasta and pesto.

The train, of course, ran more or less on time, and here's my point: make your mind up, please, Belgium. Either be hopelessly inefficient (as I've come to expect, even to find endearing at times) and allow me to take one look out of the window and stay at home, guiltlessly confident that no one will mind because it's impossible to get anywhere anyway.

Or surprise us all with your sudden and uncharacteristic inefficiency.

But please choose one, and stick with it. I'm not sure your unpredictability is any more endearing in you than it is in a hormal woman.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Keywords, part 2: searched for this week...

Funny, but most people seem to arrive at my website by typing in some kind of West Wing related query. I don't know why that is, really - can anyone help me?

But more on that later. This week, people also searched for...

- "Claire Handscombe"! Yes, me! Someone in Thailand, no less. It must have been me they were looking for, because as far as I know I'm the only one. Yep, the only one in the world. And "I'm anticipating every joke you could make right now". (There was another one years ago, but she got married, or maybe she only appears on page 15 of Google... all the others are me in all my various incarnations though. Plus there are a lot of me with different names. French pen name, English pen name, plus all my different business names. Really I'm almost as ubiquitous as Google itself. But a lot less famous.) Wonder what that was about. The only thing more exciting is when someone googles my pen name.

- "Blog hog Brussels"- erm, what?

- "Is Machelen and Mechelen the same place?" A perfectly reasonable question in a nation which has two names for every town (Brussel/Bruxelles, Gent/Gand), some of which are nothing like each other (Mons/Bergen - actually it's more logical than it seems but I won't bore you with the etymology!). Machelen and Mechelen are in fact NOT the same place, as I found out just in time the first time I tried to go to Machelen, and realised just in time that it wasn't Mechelen, which is also known as Malines. Confused? Try living here for a few months... you ain't seen nothing yet.

- "I miss Brussels." Ah, that's nice. It is one of those places you become attached to for no logical reason.

- "Greatest of Claire blogspot" - well, dear readers, I'll let you be the judges of that.

Many, many people wanting to know about various variations on "Janel Moloney pregnant". Well, all I know now is that she has been - she may not be any more. If anyone finds out about the safe arrival of what will no doubt be a beautiful baby, feel free to let me know - I am quite excited for her! (feeling as I do that we would be best friends if only we could meet... ah, fate! What a terrible thing you are when you are not on our side!)

"Amy or Donna West Wing" - well, that is the 64,000 dollar question, isn't it? (does anyone know why 64, by the way?) My own opinion on the matter is well known, and I will defend it to the death, and have done on many occasions, threatening in fact to throw anyone who disagrees out of the Facebook group I have created (ahem) for the "unhealthily addicted"... And this despite my objection to the disproportionate number of blondes in the West Wing and the fact that they end up with all the hot men.

"Sweater Donna West Wing" - she goes through a lot of argyle post-Aaron Sorkin... I noticed that because I suddenly found myself buying a lot and it took me a while to realise why.

"necklace seen on West Wing" - a great quote is by one of the many eccentric and stupidly posh British people (they do it with blondes, they do with Brits: come on West Wing, I thought you were above that kind of stereotype!) - "CJ, your necklace is a monument to bourgeois taste"... he also later says something about "retribution for Eurodisney" which makes me chortle every time. I like the Brits on West Wing. But still. Just saying.

"have you ever been to dinner with Janel Moloney" someone was quite insistent with that one. Stop with the torture. Please.

Also, many, many clicks on "Bradley Whitford". And of course, "I love West Wing".

And with that, it's a long time past bed time. And I'm sure you all stopped reading a long time ago anyway...

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Destined for Greatness: a New York ficlet

My mother named me after her favourite actress in an obscure political TV show. Which is unfortunate, because our side of the Atlantic Janel is less sun-kissed Californian blonde, and more illiterate Essex girl with a failed perm.

Still, she tried, my mum - it's not her fault I didn't turn out to be slim, leggy and destined for greatness - and I thought of her when I boarded the American Airlines plane in London, thought of how proud she would be of me making this trip. I think of her most days, actually. I choose to believe that despite my lack of acting skills or political interest she would find something in me to be proud of. Don't ask me what. That's the part she was meant to tell me.

Today is the day I'm going to meet Her. My namesake. I know it as surely as I've known it every day for a week now, when I pick out my hairstyle and my outfit - purple argyle jumper, today, going for the casual look - but doomed, despite it all, to look like nothing more than an ordinary British seventeen-year-old.

My aunt thinks I'm sightseeing, which is only partly inaccurate: from inside this café in the West Village where I have waited and hoped every day - prayed, even, because it can't hurt, can it? - I have read pages and pages of the Rough Guide and written pages and pages in my big pink notebook. I can recite endless facts on the Empire State Building and Macy's and what was filmed where.

They recognize me in here now; maybe they think I am a budding artist, or a lovesick teenager looking for someone to whom I can pour out what is left of my heart. Most likely, though, they are not thinking anything about me at all. I get the impression that, at my tender young age and all that, I'm not yet meant to have learned that most people are far too obsessed with their own worlds to give potentially insignificant others any kind of thought at all, let alone a second one. More fool them; they've missed their chance to get my autograph and brag later on Oprah: I knew her back when she had pimples on her chin...

For the millionth time, the door creaks slightly as it opens; for the millionth time, I look up briefly, sigh in short-lived disappointment, dive back into my book. It's only when I stop for a sip of Organic Guatemalan - I'm a convert to coffee now I understand that Starbucks is not all there is - that I realize I've stopped really looking at who comes in, the way you stop seeing the French verb conjugations and periodic table when they've been on your bedroom wall for months.

And that at the table by the window...

I know now how that cliché came to be - you know the one, about beauty taking your breath away. Of course she looked amazing on TV or at the Emmy Awards or airbrushed to perfection on billboards. But here, years and years later, handing a pink crayon to her curly-haired little girl and marveling at the intricacy of her just-finished drawing, unwatched, living like the rest of us, she looked more beautiful to me than I'd ever seen her in the file my mum used to keep.

The beating of my heart is drowning out the gurgling of the coffee machine, the very cool pierced-nose girls gossiping next to me about some guy, the funky music, even. Come on, I tell myself. You worked every Saturday for two years and you got on a plane and you flew hundreds of miles and you sat in a café for days, and you're going to go home and say I saw her, but I was too scared to speak to her?

Surely I must be made of sterner stuff than that?

Apparently not, because I can't seem to move. Another cliché: fear that nails you to the spot. Or the expectation that weighs you down... Whatever, it's all true. I suppose that's how all clichés survive. I sit, and I don't move, and I look at her. I look at them, really, because the little girl is gorgeous too - and I watch them, mother and daughter, and then out of nowhere I feel like I'm going to...

...Oh. I am. I'm really crying. Okay. This was not part of the plan. I looked good, for me, this morning when I left my aunt's. Waterproof mascara or not, red eyes will not improve matters.

What is it about children? Children and cats, actually? They have an inbuilt radar for tears; they know when you need someone to come and sit on your lap and make you feel like you're not alone in the world after all.

"Mommy," she says, "why is that lady crying?"

I imagine I will smile later, remember this is the first time I've ever been referred to as a "lady", but for now, I would prefer to hide under my chair. Or, even better, an invisibility cloak. Where is Harry Potter when you need him?

She smiles at me. Did you see that, mum? It occurs to me that I ought to smile back, and I think I managed it. Just.

"You okay?"

"Yeah." I nod, vigorously.

"You want to come and sit with us?"

I nod just as vigorously, will my feet to follow me, pull up a chair. Then I ask a stupid question, because I have to say something, don't I? "Are you who I think you are?"

Had there been any room for doubt - and there really hadn't - her distinctive, radiant smile would have given her away.

"I guess that would depend," she says carefully, "on who you think I am."

I've thought about that, a lot. Of course I don't know who she is, not really. I've seen every film she's been in - and some of them are quite strange, let me tell you - and of course every episode of that drama, but that's not the same as knowing her. I've often wondered what it must be like to be so well-known in a way, and yet so little known at the same time. I suppose it's a little like having an identical twin, and people you've never met smiling at you and interacting with you as though you were her, expecting things from you that aren't yours to give.

But I know. I know she's not those characters she created just because she shares looks with them, any more than I'm her because we share a name.

"My mother named me after you," I blurt out.


Back when she was in the public eye more, she probably got asked for autographs and pictures all the time. Probably got messages from obsessed fans on Facebook, that kind of thing. But I'm guessing from her sparkling eyes that she's not had many little girls named after her.

"That's pretty cool," she says.

"I think so."

Right now, of course I think so. How could I not? Not so much at school when boys (it's always boys) google her, then look me up and down with my chubbiness and my unruly ginger hair and pronounce, "well, life can be cruel, can't it?".

"So is your mom here with you?" Mum, did you hear that? You're this close to an autograph...

"She died," I say, trying to sound - what's that word, nonchalant? "When I was born. People think that doesn't happen anymore," I've learned to add pre-emptively, "but it does. Well, it did back then."

"I'm so sorry," she says, squeezing my shoulder, and this time I don't have to force the smile out: her gentleness has melted my stage fright, or whatever you call this strange feeling.

"Mommy," says the little girl, still looking at me wide-eyed, and tugging at her mother's sleeve. "who is that?"

"This is Janel,"she says. "Say hello, Cara."

"But that's your name," says the little girl.

"We share a name," says her mother, tucking one of Cara's curls behind her ear. "I wonder if there's anything else we share?"

If her intention was to make me laugh, it's certainly worked. "I think that's probably about it."

"Well, we both like coffee, don't we?"

And then before I know it we're talking, about coffee and Starbucks and books and films and New York and London, and Cara is drawing a picture of me and her mommy together that I know I will treasure forever.

Janel asks about my big fat pink notebook, the one I always carry around with me.

"Oh. That." I shrug. No big deal, I want to say, or at least imply with my cool demeanour.

Actually, it's the biggest deal ever to me, and I've never shown it to anyone: my jottings and poems and descriptions and what I like to think of as deep philosophical thoughts but will probably cringe at in a few years' time, just like I cringe now at the diaries of my thirteen-year-old self. But for some reason I can't quite pinpoint, I pass it to her. "Take a look if you like..."

She flicks through with all the care I didn't even have to ask her to take. She nods, smiles, laughs at various places. The right ones? I can but hope. "This is good stuff, you know," she says when she pushes it back towards me across the wooden table. "Keep doing what you're doing. And send me your stuff." She scribbles down her email address and hands it to me like it's the most natural thing in the world.

And when, a few more crayoned pictures and another Columbian blend later, Janel and Cara get up and go, I'm left with the strangest feeling: that perhaps I am destined for greatness after all.

100% fictional, and dedicated to my favourite actress from a not-so-obscure political TV show...

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Things I miss, part 1: ready meals, carrot cake and Starbucks

So, I've been here nearly a year already, and there are certain things that inevitably make me think wistfully of home. ("Home" is fairly fluid concept for me, but that's another topic for another day... here I mean England!)

Things like standing in GB (sorry, Carrefour - old habits die hard!) longing for a ready-meal that isn't lasagne or moussaka or pizza with mushrooms on it. Oh for my Pimlico Sainsbury's, with rows and rows of every variation of Indian and Chinese dish at a bargain price. (If I'm going to spend 7 euros on a main course, it probably won't be on a ready meal in the Gare Centrale.)

For any entrepreneurs out there (or just Sainsbury's, if they want to start exporting), that is a definite gap in the market.

Also, while we're on the subject of Sainsbury's, their carrot cake. Any form of English kind of cake, really. I didn't even realise it was English. And yes, I know I could just make it, but if I'm the kind of person with the kind of lifestyle where I miss ready meals, do you think I'm likely to bake?

And, on the subject of cake... and therefore of coffee... (not so tenuous a link as you might imagine...)


I know, shame on me. And, to be fair, it's not really Starbucks I miss. If I could have absolute free choice, I would go for Costa. Better coffee, still the comfy chairs, and those white chocolate and raspberry muffins... And less of the American capitalism. Which I mind a lot less these days, and would mind still less if they wanted to invade us with a Starbucks of twelve. It's the ubiquitousness of Starbucks that I miss too. There's always one when you need one, particularly in London, when you are trying to boycott them.

I've found places with relatively comfy chairs (Haagen Dasz near the Grand Place for instance) but what I haven't found is anywhere that serves a decent latté, and/or a coffee that takes more than two sips to drink.

Today, I had two and a half hours to kill and an article on Cadbury (sniff) to write, and all I wanted was a Costa coffee latté.

Anyone know a n y w h e r e I can go with this kind of craving? Other than the airport, I mean, which I am seriously considering paying a visit to, just for a banana nut muffin and a tall latté...