Bigging it up for Belgium

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I met someone recently with a French name and I was trying to guess where he came from, I went with the obvious Switzerland (obvious as I met him in Geneva I then tried France, with equal failure. At this point he looked a bit exasperated that I wasn’t going to remember which other European country speaks French when the answer came to me: Belgium. We spoke for a while about how annoying it was when no-one remembered his country.

Granted Belgium is bilingual with the two national languages of Flemish and French so that doesn’t make for an easy linguistic classification but I recalled that Belgium gets overlooked on a regular basis. And by a regular basis I mean I can think of one example, albeit a glaringly obvious one, which is that fries around the world tend to be known as French fries, when in fact they originated in Belgium.

Who else recalls with fond patronising mockery when a number of high-ranking and therefore headline-grabbing Americans decided to rename ‘french fries’ as freedom fries’ because the US was upset that France wouldn’t agree to join military intervention in Iraq without international support?

This may have never happened but I imagine indignant Americans refusing to grant recognition to the tasty potato fry, I imagine French people probably ridiculing the gesture and lastly I imagine Belgians angrily stomping their feet and saying ‘mon dieu! Les frites sont belgique pas français!’

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Coming from the UK/England (for better or for worse) I’ve never really had the problem of national or linguistic non-recognition but I’ve seen the frustration of Welsh friends trying to explain that Wales wasn’t England and I imagine there must be a lot of inhabitants from less renowned countries sighing and rolling their eyes as they try to explain that ‘no Suriname is not in Africa’ (it’s in South America – I checked), ‘yes, I’m sure Luxembourg is in fact a country and not a province of Germany’, or ‘no, I don’t speak Polish because I’m from Hungary’.

Where you are from is actually a pretty big part of your identity so to have someone fail to recognize your nationality, or even worse to question it’s existence once you tell them, must be immensely annoying. I’m definitely not a geographical expert and I often get mixed up about where places are but I hope I’d have the sense to accept the answer of the person that’s actually from that place. I presume, and hope, that non-national recognition is only a problem for people when meeting others outside of their country, if you go to a country and don’t know that country exists then I cast a whole heap of judgment upon you!

So with Belgium on my mind (plus I was going anyway), last weekend I headed off to Brussels to meet a good friend who relocated there from London. I had been to Brussels before but quite a few years ago, so I had forgotten what it was like. I was imagining it would be much like Geneva, i.e. small, so was surprised on arriving at the airport to discover it was an airport of substantial size that actually takes a little time to navigate and that Brussels is in fact a pretty decent sized city, i.e. bigger than Geneva but not as big as London.

I had a great few days, it was awesome to catch up with a friend I hadn’t seen for about two years and to discover we had one of those friendships that is like an old comfy trainer. You might forget it exists from time to time and definitely don’t give it the attention you should but when you finally put it back on you remember just how comfortable it is. (A, if you are reading, sorry for the old shoe comparison).

As I’d done the touristy trail in Brussels on my first visit we also went for a day trip beyond the city and visited Ghent. Belgium impressed me by the convenient travel distance between big cities and by the fact it didn’t cost me a small fortune (try rocking up at a Swiss station on the day to get a ticket to a nearby city without crying as an unbelievable amount of swiss francs are vacuumed out of your account)!

Brussels was nice but Ghent was just laid-back cool. It was cold, it was foggy but it was awesome and also provided some nice Ghent specific beer. There is more to Belgium than beer (there are also fries, waffles and chocolate) but culturally it is a fairly important component and it would have been pretty insulting of me not to sample the local produce. Not wanting to risk initiating any diplomatic incidents I obviously felt obliged to try a few whilst I was there.

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 14.04.46 What’s particularly cool about beer (because yes, beer is cool or at least as cool as I am for continuing to use the word cool) is that every beer has it’s own specific glass, which makes the whole drinking experience so much more than just get trollied. It is a world away from rocking up to an English pub requesting a pint and being provided said pint in whatever generic glass happens to come to hand. Drinking a beer in Belgium is a traditional practice, imbibed with a rich national and social heritage (which could also be said of getting bladdered on the weekend in the UK, but it’s probably less frequently mentioned be the Minister of Sport and Culture).

I’m doing my best here to sell Belgium to the world but it will always be a winner in my eyes because in one week it gave me both a new friend and renewed my acquaintance with an old friend. And of course, more importantly than forging or rekindling human relationships, there was beer!

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‘Twas the night’ – L’escalade

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Twas the right time of a year for a repost – Happy Escalade Geneva and all who sail in her!


Twas the night of midwinter, when all through Geneva,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a beaver,
The washing all hung, by the chimney with care,
In hopes that come morning, dry clothes would be there,
The children were nestled, all safe in their beds,
While scents of hot soup, filled their sweet heads,
And Madame in her bonnet, apron in her lap,
Had just settled down, for a long winters nap,
When out on the walls, there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed, to see what was the matter.
Away to the window, I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash,
The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,
Gave the lustre of midday to object below,
When what to my wandering eyes should appear,
But enemy troops, in formidable gear,
With the Duke of Savoy, so lively and quick
I knew in a moment, this was a devilish trick.
In blackened armour, they scaled the walls,
As they clambered, and scrambled, and planned our downfall.
Now musketeer, now canoneer, now pikeman, now fusilier,
On scoundrel, on crook, on rascal, damned villains!
To the top of the outer wall, to the foot of the inner wall
Now dash-away, dash-away, and damned you all!
A sentry alerted that all is awry,
Having met with alarm, emits a loud cry,
But up to the money gate, the rapscallions they flew,
With an armoury full of weapons, and bad intent too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard from the gloom,
A rattling, and clattering from our little room,
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Away from the kitchen, Mère Royaume came with a bound.
She was dressed in night wear, from her head to her foot,
And her apron, tied round her, had remained put,
A cauldron of soup, she turned to with a knack,
And engaged in removing it from the hot rack,
Her eyes, how they darkened; her brows, how creased,
Her lips were drawn tight, her anger unceased,
Her bare little feet scuttled across the floor,
As she emerged from the kitchen door,
The lump of her pot, she held tight with gritted teeth,
And the steam it encircled her head like a wreath.
She had a broad face, and little beads of sweat,
From all the effort were making her wet,
She was determined and grim, a right angry old elf,
I started when I saw her, in spite of myself,
A wink of her eye and a twist of her head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread,
She spoke not a word, but went straight to her work,
And from the window, her soup she upturned, with a jerk,
From the enemy below a cry soon arose,
Rising up through the night, we heard their woes,
The brigands at bay, burned by the soup, gave a whistle,
And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle,
But I heard Madame exclaim, as the enemy fled from sight,
“Happy Escalade to all, and to all a goodnight!”
© Courtesy of www.1602.ch

© Image courtesy of http://www.1602.ch

 


With credit to Clement Clarke Moore’s “‘Twas the night before Christmas” poem which inspired, and provided some of the lines, for my parody.
You can find l’escalade Part 2 here.

Ten reasons to live in Switzerland

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1. Chocolate. Yes there is rivalry between Belgium and Switzerland when it comes to the world’s best chocolate and personally I think Belgian truffles tip the scales slightly, although Genevan Pave’s (little chocolate truffley square thingies) are delicious and Switzerland gets credit for inventing the chocolate bar, which is easier to have kicking around your handbag than a box of truffles.

2. There is no need to constantly descale your kettle or endlessly clean your shower head. Water here is just so clean and simply isn’t full of all the crap that clogs your watery appliances in the UK.

3. It’s so expensive to live her. This might not sounds like a good thing when you are forced to spend most of the year living as a vegetarian not for commendable moral reasons but because meat is just too darn expensive. However, whenever you go anywhere else (not including Scandinavia) everything  is so much cheaper. Even London is cheap to me now. £5 a pint you say? So much more reasonable than Geneva.

4. Clean air. A colleague in my office told me that she thought Geneva was a dirty city and I laughed at her. When I came to Geneva from London the difference in air quality was palpably noticeable. Whilst I live here I don’t always remember to appreciate this but every now and then I am still impressed at just how good it feels to fill my lungs with air here.

5. Cheese. It is no exaggeration to unequivocally state that the Swiss like cheese. I have so far discovered three traditional Swiss dishes, which are all variations of cheese and potatoes: Fondue, melted cheese you dip potatoes into; raclette, you melt cheese under a grill and pour it over potatoes; and tartiflette, potatoes and cheese sort of baked together.

6. The hills really are alive with the sound of music. Cows here, do in fact, wear cowbells. These aren’t purely novelty items for sale in souvenir shops and at the airport. Everytime I’m out for a walk and hear a cowbell or two it fills me with a Swiss induced glee.

7. Yodelling is the Swiss equivalent of Morris Dancers. Your everyday Swiss person can’t just summon these vocal vibrating skills as a party trick for any occasion. I imagine most Swiss people would be a bit embarrassed to be associated with yodeling, but the thought of this specialized cultural practice dying out would fill them with sadness.

8. You don’t really need language skills to assimilate. Swiss have three (or perhaps even four?) official languages and whilst some people know them all most people tend to speak just one of French, German or Italian (and then probably English as a second language). You could go to any part of Switzerland and master a couple of sentences in one of the non spoken official languages and still pretend to be Swiss. For example you could pretend to be a Swiss French speaker living in the Swiss Italian part. Your shame at not being able to speak other languages may never be found out.

9. Their flag is a big plus (badum tsss!). If you are from a country with a pretty distinctive flag it’s great to be able to easily pick out your adopted country’s flag in a line up without having to remember which order the colours go. (Tip: If it looks like a sign for a hospital then you need to switch the red and the white around).

10. There is something about Switzerland that is inherently cool in a “let’s not talk about it” kind of way. If I was to have any European(ish) passport in addition to my UK one, I’d want a Swiss passport. Maybe it’s their neutrality, maybe its that owning a Swiss bank account makes you feel like a villain in a bond movie, maybe its the fact you know the country is awash with guns and money but no-one really wave these things in your face, maybe it’s their determined non-Europeaness (in the heart of Europe) attitude, who knows, but whatever the reason I wouldn’t mind being Swiss.

 

A cultural croissant crisis

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For the last week or so I have been in southern Africa for work. Yes, my job is awesome but trust me this is no jolly trip to another continent. I am working, working and then working some more, evenings and weekends are not exempt. Add to this some very temperamental internet connections and there’s my excuse for not having posted for a couple of weeks (for those of you who noticed my absence and thought my standards slipping).

I was in Swaziland for the first four days and have been in Johannesburg, South Africa since then and I’m out here for just over two weeks in total. In case you think I am exaggerating about the amount of work, it is true, I did fib a bit because I did have Sunday afternoon off and a colleague took me to the zoo and then to the cinema where we saw Women in Gold.

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I picked the film on the basis that Meryl Streep was in it but other than that knew absolutely nothing about the film. Incidentally, it’s a very strange experience to sit down at the cinema with no idea what you are about to see. Anyway, it was about a famous Klimt painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer, also known as the woman in gold but I’m giving the full title too for reasons that are obvious if you watch the film, and the restitution of art stolen by Nazis from Jewish families during the Second World War. Meryl didn’t let me down, it’s a very good film and I’m happy to recommend it to all of you.

Anyway, back to the point I’m trying to make, which is, obviously, about croissants. I am currently staying in a very nice hotel in Johannesburg and, as in all hotels, you can tell if it’s a decent choice because of the breakfast. Whenever I stay anywhere with breakfast included, particularly where there’s a buffet, I try to eat as much as possible to, one, get my money’s worth and, two, potentially avoid the need for lunch enabling extra dosh for dinner time.

The buffet at the Capital Moloko is excellent and I have been approaching it in the strategic way that I approach all buffets. For starters I’ll go for a bowl of muesli, yoghurt and fresh fruit salad with pumpkin seeds scattered on top. Round two and I’m digging into the cooked breakfast items, particularly relishing the bacon which Switzerland deprives me of. Finally, I will conclude with some toast and jam, perhaps a Danish or both. Yes, I do have a three course breakfast and yes, I am aware that I am probably eating my entire daily recommended allowance of calories in one go but I’ve already explained my reasoning.

Yesterday, on my final round of breakfast I selected a lovely fresh looking croissant. I then spied a collection of breakfast accompaniments in little white dishes. One of these was obviously peanut butter, the other was something dark and red I didn’t recognize and the third was a dark brown syrupy liquid that my immersion in Swiss culture taught me must be chocolate.

I had a lightbulb moment and thought I could upgrade my normal croissant to a chocolate supreme version by thickly drizzling, but artistically you understand, the sticky brown liquid all over my croissant. I felt so smug that I’d combined the two in this genius manner and even caught a couple of my fellow diners giving me what I could only assume to be envious glances. I took my croissant creation back to my desk, sat down to bite into this sweet breakfast delight only to discover that the ‘chocolate’ was in fact marmite.

Now don’t get me wrong I like marmite but I also like it thinly spread over buttery toast not dripping in thick clumps off a croissant. Perhaps with full appreciation of what I was eating a croissant and marmite could be a nice savoury option on this French breakfast treat but I cannot begin to explain the shock as I chomped into the pastry expecting a sugary sensation only to be hit by the bitter saltiness of marmite. I understood my fellow diners glances had not been envy so much as incredulity.

I never would have imagined that marmite might actually be popular in some places outside of the UK, so much so that it is easily offered without labeling as though all diners will automatically know exactly what it is. Should I be ashamed that as a British person I didn’t automatically recognise marmite? Has my time in Geneva turned me into a real European?

Ten reasons to be impulsive

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1. Thinking things through gets in the way of actually doing stuff, avoid the problem and skip the thinking part!

2. The sooner you impulsively commit to something the more likely you are to follow your instincts and go through with this. For example you could think I’d like to travel more so randomly apply to an internship in Cambodia and then when the email offer comes through immediately respond that you are in and tell everyone. Its so much harder to back out when you force others to become collaborators of your impulsive ways!

3. You can be impulsive in some areas of life but still remain resolutely steadfast in others. I like to be impulsive about the small things such as committing to take up a new sport by buying all the equipment before even trying the game, which career to pursue or whether to move country. However, I remain wholly restrained when it comes to more serious things like deciding not to go out for a spontaneous afterwork drink when I’ve been looking forward to an evening of some sort of Netflix fix and binge eating with the cats for company and judgment.

4. Being impulsive makes for much more interesting and also more succinct story telling process. Guess which is the impulsive version from below?

  • ‘I applied for a job in Switzerland without thinking about it, was offered the job and then decided to move’
  • ‘I carefully considered whether or not to apply for a job in Switzerland, I weighed up all the pros and cons and sensibly thought through all potential ramifications of undertaking such a step, eventually I concluded that such a notion was ridiculously ill-thought out and I therefore decided to stay here in a predictable job I ceased to enjoy some time ago.’

5. Being impulsive gives you an air of mystery, where people are never too sure what you are going to commit to next. Maybe you’ll simply buy a life-size elephant soap dispenser on your next Ikea trip, maybe you’ll have moved to Timbuktu before you got round to telling anyone, maybe you’ll do nothing impulsive for long enough people will think you’ve got over these crazy tendencies then BANG! You can surprise them with the next adventure!

6. Impulsive behaviour is just another way of following your gut-instincts. These aren’t the instincts your gut has to avoid cheese wrapped around butter encased in clotted cream but that inner feeling within you that tells you if a particular course of action is right or wrong. All too often we suppress our gut instinct and agree to things like attending a seminar on how to optimise seminar attendance when we really should have listened to that inner voice telling us we don’t want to do that.

7. Being impulsive is a characteristic often associated with children, this doesn’t mean it’s bad for adults but means it will help you access your inner, and frankly much more fun, child. It means you can enjoy running through the rain, cartwheeling across the park/in the office and climbing trees without worrying about getting wet, making a fool out of yourself or how you’ll get down again.

8. Being impulsive means you can face your fears and learn to overcome these. I was pretty terrified of teenagers, particularly en masse, so when I saw a volunteering opportunity (whilst studying part-time and working full-time) to work with groups of 16 and 17 year olds in the spare time I really didn’t have I signed up without thinking it through AT ALL. Having impusively committed myself to something where others were relying on me, I was compelled to continue and actually quite enjoyed the experience, learning that young adults aren’t nearly so terrifying as I had initially expected!

9. Whilst being impulsive may occasionally get you into some foolhardy situations, the stories that occur as a result are usually worth any traumatic experiences at the time. For example an impulsive desire might lead to your clambouring on top of the fridge (so you can stare down at others) and then realising that the washing machine you used as a staging pad has since been turned on (and is now whirring so much it’s truly terrifying) that now you can’t get down without some serious help you desperately need but are really reluctant to accept. Traumatic? Yes. But probably worth it for the stories you can later share with friends of how great it was to be able to stare down at that mean cat you don’t like and leave them guessing abut how you got to be so high up (this may have been an example of my cat’s behaviour rather than mine).

10. Impulsive behaviour led me to writing this blog, I bought a domain name before I knew if or what I was going to write and then before I knew it I was happily blogging away like a trooper and connecting with all sorts of cool other bloggers.

Ten reasons I had a wonderful day

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1. The sun shone even thought the forecast at the start of the week said it would be raining.

2. I found a 5 franc coin on my way to work (that’s about £3.50 or a little over $5) which is a decent sum in it’s own right and the coin had a pleasantly heavy feel about it as I dropped it into my jeans back pocket. I will spend it on something insensible.

3. My cat only woke me up at 6am this morning and then after a quick banishment from the bedroom she didn’t wake me up again until my alarm went off. This is an improvement from being rudely awoken at 4am by said cat banging on the wardrobe doors and consequently, on being shut out, banging on the main door at least once an hour until I’m supposed to get up.

4. Aside from a little hayfever, which is par for the course for me at this time of year, I woke up feeling completely chipper.

5. I met a friend for lunch by the river, in the blazing sunshine, and allowed my bare naked flesh (although I am only talking about my arms before anyone gets too worried about the idea of me over-exposing myself to all an sundry of Geneva) to feel the sun’s heat without the need for a coat. And I didn’t get sunburned. I also got to feed some sort of biting insect, so that’s wonderful for them, I guess.

6. The fiancé undertook the trip across the border to France to stock up on excitingly cost-effective (compared to Geneva prices) supplies for a party we are having this weekend. When I returned home the kitchen and cupboards were laden with supplies and best of all he knows me well enough to have got me some treaty things I could eat now (so I don’t eat all the party food before the actual party).

7. We actually have enough friends in Geneva now that we can have a party, which is nice as I’m going to be 30 soon and don’t want to feel like billy-no-mates as I transition to my fourth decade.
8. I had a very productive day at work where I could see actual progress on a couple of things I’ve been working on and the boss agreed I could work from home tomorrow to concentrate on a report.

9. My postal vote for the upcoming UK elections finally made it to Geneva and as I’m going back to the UK next week I can post it from there and be reasonably confident it’ll arrive in time for me to participate in democracy (Swiss post surprisingly not as reliable as I had expected).

10. As a result of the fella’s shopping trip we had a lovely, if perhaps not the healthiest, dinner of fancy hotdogs (proper sausages in fresh baguette).