Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Week of Win!

I've spent a lot of today floating.

It's been, as my new friend Rebecca would say, a "week of win".

I spent a substantial part of Thanksgiving Day tweeting, and wishing I were in America. Nothing new there, you may say, and you'd be right, although the turkey cravings were perhaps slightly more unusual.

But the tweeting got me thinking. As I think I may have said last year, I love the idea of having a day to think about what you can be grateful for in life. Grumble, grumble, I thought, I don't have much to be thankful for, but then I was walking down a snowy street and it occurred to me that I have central heating, and then, once I had thought of that, somehow the thankful thoughts started tumbling through my brain quicker than I could update my Facebook status. Oboe lessons. Affordable flights to America. Cocoa. And that's without even having to resort to all things Aaron Sorkin.

Anyway, Sunday at Church I used this as a springboard for discussion: what are we thankful for? Then, seemingly unrelatedly, I read my Writing Magazine in the train on the way home, and it mentioned this wonderful website, where the blogger lists three beautiful things every day - the often small things that make her smile, that we so easily forget about and yet that would make us more grateful, happier people if we just remembered.

What a great idea, I thought, I will do that too, and then promptly went off and wasted more time tweeting. So I haven't done it yet, but by the end of this week I will have many, many things to be thankful for.

Firstly, the happy news as recorded in a previous blogpost, that Starbucks is coming to Brussels. The even happier news, for me, that when I pitched this as a basis for an article in an expat magazine, one in which I've wanted to write for a while, they came back within days and said yes please. I used the same news as a basis for an assignment for my journalism course and my tutor said lovely things about it, and encouraged me to pitch it. (I'm not sure if there are enough expat mags in Belgium, but I will certainly bear it in mind.)

Then, my currently all-consuming hobby got some coverage in the press, and that's been a lot of fun.

Then, then, today I got an email from Writing Magazine, Britain's best-selling, erm, writing magazine. They've got a new section where they review 300 words and a synopsis of a novel. They've chosen mine this month! I'm so excited about this, not just because, well, it's always nice to be chosen, but also because of the coverage it gives me, and the boost in confidence.

Add to that the fact that someone close to me is out of hospital, and that my oboe teacher keeps heaping praise on me and telling me how much better I'm sounding, and we have a happy Claire.

All I need now is turkey, and some pecan pie... Anyone?

Monday, 22 November 2010

Book Review: An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

An Abundance of Katherines opens with a very ordinary tale of adolescent heartbreak. But Colin is not ordinary, and neither is his predicament: his nineteenth Katherine has just dumped him. Him! Him, who is destined for greatness, if he could just work out how to make that difficult transition from child prodigy to adult genius. Him, who can make a dozen anagrams out of any given set of words. Him, who can speak far more languages than anyone will ever need to.

Enter Hassan, the loyal best friend who cares enough about Colin to tell him when his conversational tangents are Not Interesting. He drags Colin away from home so that he can forget about Katherine XIX, and together they can engage on the American rite of passage par excellence: a road trip. But they never make it past Gutshot, Tennessee – here they meet some new friends, find a job, and Colin works on his Important Project: a mathematical equation that will predict the success of a relationship.

Colin is a collector of useless facts, and shares many of them with us. By the end of this book, you will not only have spent time with some lovable characters and learned more than you ever thought you wanted to about maths, you will also know which President was so fat that he once got stuck in the bath and why the shower curtain always seems drawn towards you.

Think of this book as Adrian Mole meets the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, with a dash of social commentary thrown in.

Warm, witty, and engaging, this is a “Young Adult” novel with an appeal far broader than the genre would suggest. Lovable, self-confessed geeks like Colin and Hassan are particularly likely to enjoy it.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Quirky things about Belgium: Starbucks?!

Yes. It's really true. There's really going to be a Starbucks somewhere other than the airport (and I've long argued that while it's great to start a holiday with a celebratory blueberry muffin and tall latté, if you're at the airport, you're probably going somewhere that has plenty of Starbucks - ie, just about anywhere else in the world).

Okay, yes, there is also one in Antwerp, but that's also a long way to go for coffee.

The choice of venue baffles me somewhat, though - they're going for Gare Centrale, which in many ways is the worst of the main stations: its design is the nicest, but it feels dirty, frequently unsafe, and yes, it smells. The more recently renovated Gare du Midi might make more sense, particularly with the Eurostar terminal being there. (And the fact that I go through it more, and they would therefore make a lot more money.)

At the airport, the coffee and the muffins taste exactly as they do in the UK (not as they do in the US, where the muffins are different, but that's another story, and since I'm from the UK, that's fine with me), and the décor is reassuringly familiar too. The price is high, though, and the service slow - or maybe it just seems slow because I'm usually rushing to get the plane I'm late for. At peak hours, in Penn Station in New York someone comes to take your order while you're queuing, but I'm under no illusions about that happening in the Capital of Inefficiency.

I'm also unconvinced that Starbucks-style opening hours will be in operation: seven days a week, 6.30 am to 9 pm (for example) seems unlikely. It would be lovely to imagine that someone has realised that demand is actually likely to be higher at weekends, when most people are likely to have a lot of time to kill given that most middle-distance trains are hourly (yes - hourly), and that in those long stretches of time reading a paper in a comfortable chair rather than sitting on the cold, forbidden steps is likely to appeal. This logic, though, is profoundly unBelgian.

Here's the thing with Starbucks, too. I don't think I so much want one: I've lived here long enough now that the latte cravings have dulled substantially. It's not that I want their gourmet coffee (because, as Belgians will probably be quick to tell you, and as I used to claim myself, it's not really coffee anyway), it's the convenience of their ubiquity that I miss. I want to know that I will be passing one wherever I go, the whole no-time-for-breakfast-I'll-grab-coffee-on-the-way thing, obviating the need for my now dying thermos thingy that I religiously fill with home-made coffee every day (or long discussion in places like Exki where I try to explain I would like a lot of coffee, and a lot of warm milk, all together, but I will mix it myself). And that seems a way off yet.

But, lest you think I do not welcome this development, I do. I really do. If it were not 2 am I would, in fact, be dancing for joy.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Quirky things about Belgium: the perfect brunch

Yes. It really does exist. After a lovely meal last night in a newish Nivelles restaurant (more on that another time), where the waiter had taken a shine to us and given us a whole bottle of wine for the price of half, plus free kirs for aperitif, I had a craving for brunch this morning.

I was meeting a friend at L'Atelier du Pain at Vanderkindere: I like their plain, Ikea-style decor, and their comfortable seats; I also like their coffee, though I had forgotten how much. I knew, or suspected, they would have nice goat's cheese salad type affairs, and I reasoned with myself that this was at least as good as a greasy brunch.

But then - oh happy day - there was a breakfast section of the menu, and the cheerful, polite waitress was happy for me to order it after 11.30, though not at the special-offer price. And one of the options was l'Anglais: bacon, eggs, bread, butter. The waitress did not roll her eyes when I asked if the bacon was real - she offered for me to see it, and it looked English enough, and tasted wonderful. Delicious, perfectly cooked, as were the eggs. Even the butter tasted great - and I didn't feel I was missing out on the coffee front, either, which if you have been reading this blog for any length of time you will know is a minor miracle.

Well done, Belgium: five stars. This may be almost be enough to redeem your myriad other quirks.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

The Souler Opposite

It took me a long time to come to terms with the idea of Bradley Whitford playing anyone other than Josh Lyman, but I got there, mainly thanks to people who kept insisting I had to watch Studio 60. I'm glad I did; thanks to my little crush on Brad, I've discovered a lot of films that I wouldn't have known about, most notably Little Manhattan, which is exactly the kind of thing I love but had never heard of and Burn Up, which I may not have thought I'd like, but I was captivated, and very cross when my laptop ran out of battery somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean before it finished.

It's taken me even longer to accept Janel Moloney as anyone other than Donna Moss, though I did see her guest spot on Sports Night, and enjoyed that. But a little while back I found the film The Souler Opposite on Amazon, and heck, there was politics, and while it was even stranger to watch Janel in a Donna-but-not-Donna role than it may be in, say, Armless, I'm all about the politics, so I couldn't resist.

Essentially, Barry is a failing stand-up comedian who bumps into Thea one depressing night, and they begin something like a relationship (Thea is not interested in having a boyfriend). The setting is pleasingly retro, 1992, and Thea is working on an electoral campaign for a Democrat named Joe Brown. She walks in off the street to the campaign and ends up with a job on the staff and an offer of being "half of a DC power couple". (It's worth noting that it was Aaron Sorkin who wrote the line: "Good writers borrow from other writers; great writers steal from them outright".) Every girl's dream, in other words, or perhaps not every girl's, perhaps only mine, and perhaps thanks to Janel Moloney in the first place. Anyway, I digress.

The film itself - I'm not sure. Parts I liked, parts I didn't. (The beginning, with Barry and his best friend as sixteen-year-olds, could have been cut.) Janel's character, Thea, seems like she has a lot of depth to her that never fully gets explored or explained - frustrating not just for me as a viewer, but for Barry, her "souler opposite" (played by Christopher Meloni, whose surname is presumably pronounced exactly like hers). There were some cheesy lines (kudos to Janel for keeping a straight face for that "nectar from the gods" line; aside from that I can't remember any, but cut me some slack, I was high up in the air, mourning my departure from America), but there was also some good writing, and the acting was fantastic - Thea was a totally different character from Donna and it's always a relief when your favourite actor turns out to be able to play distinct people. Also, Christopher Meloni is very easy on the eyes.

If you're hoping for deep political commentary, you'll be disappointed - but if you like the backdrop of politics and DC (thankfully, grey and rainy, which mitigated my mourning after three days there in the beautiful autumn sunshine) for a romantic chick flick with a pleasingly determined male protagonist, you could certainly do a lot worse.

Other reviews can be found here, and I particularly agree with the first line from the New York times: "Anyone who can get past the title pun and the opening shot of misogyny in ``The Souler Opposite'' is liable to like Bill Kalmenson's alm in spite of itself."

Friday, 12 November 2010

Another thing that made me smile...

I have a whole new level of respect for Bradley Whitford. 

Yes, yes, I know - you didn't think it was possible.  Neither did I. But I went on a tour of Juilliard yesterday (was it yesterday? I won't even attempt that kind of mathematical time zone gymnastics - I've slept once-ish, since, so it must be yesterday) and - wow.  

For a start,  750 - 1,000 people apply, and they only take about 20 each year. 

Then, once they're there, they work them unbelievably hard: six days a week, 8 am till 11 pm (apart from Wednesday and Saturday evenings - woop).  And they're not let anywhere near an audience till their fourth year.  

Just after we sat in the theatre where the seniors perform, we walked down a corridor lined with framed black and white photographs of performances past.  Shame I don't know what year Brad was here, I thought, because he might be somewhere on these walls.  And then, I don't know why, but I turned my head slightly to the left and the photograph I was facing caught my eye; I read the label, just in case, and yes - it was him: unrecognisable in his youth and wispy moustache.  

I couldn't help feeling it was another of those just-for-me moments, like finding Hillary Clinton's Living History in a box of free books in front of a house in a Georgetown house.  It made me smile.  

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Adventures in DC

It's been a wonderful, wonderful day, with only a few frustrations rooted mostly in painful feet and faulty logic ("there must only be one street called 5th street", "if this metro is not going to Shady Grove, it must be going in the opposite direction", "if I keep asking this graduate student questions about the MFA in Creative Writing, she will suddenly realise she does know the answers after all").

First, there were the famed scones from my host: while not (of course) the same as British scones, they are reminiscent of them, and were a great start to the day. Then I wandered down to Union Station to meet up with a Twitter friend - who turned out to be exceptionally kind, generous and encouraging. We prayed for each other right there in the station. Very cool.

I made my way to Dupont Circle, where in a misguided fit of excitement at having found the house where Donna lives in the episode of the West Wing where Josh throws snowballs at her window, I asked a passing stranger to take a million photos. A task she undertook with gusto and flair, but alas, all in vain, because although the houses are very similar in style, it wasn't the right one.

Still, it made me happy at the time. And under the blue, blue sky I made my way to Embassy Row, where after making admiring noises at posh buildings I eventually struck up conversation with yet another kind and knowledgeable stranger who pointed me in the direction of Georgetown. I'm not normally a walker, but my unusual physical exertions were amply rewarded when, somewhere on Q street, I passed a box marked with my two favourite words: Free Books. Among which was Hilary Clinton's autobiography, which I've been thinking of buying. Much happiness ensued. I continued my path through the beautiful Georgetown streets with the houses that are all so different yet somehow form a coherent whole. I could have photographed every single house; they all had character, and colourful charm.

Georgetown University was nice, too, and I love listening into students' conversations and imagining that I am still one of them. I walked and walked and walked, it seemed, in pursuit of a cafe that my guide book had recommended, but instead I passed one that called itself the "cutest in Georgetown" and it lured me with its outside patio and old issues of Time Magazine, and I'm glad, because although the coffee was terrible, the crepe with banana and Nutella was so enjoyable that I didn't even get cross at the article in Time about the alleged benefits of being an only child.

And in the evening, after much getting lost, I finallly ended up at Busboys and Poets, for an authentic DC experience listening to a Very Famous Man I've never heard of talk about the Death of the Liberal. Really interesting, and great food at the same time. Should I ever move here, this will become one of my favourite places.

Tomorrow, Eastern Market, Library of Congress, Hawk and Dove, and Politics and Prose, although that seems a lot to manage in a morning, so I may have to let one of them go. I love this place.