part-time musings

Tag: Brussels

Tres surreal…

The last week has been a surreal one even by the standards of la Belle Belgique.  Keep in mind that this is a country that inspired its painters to such outpourings of surrealism as this:

And this:

Last week the country passed the record for the longest it’s taken a country to form a government following a democratic election. The occasion was marked in a fairly low-key fashion with some nakedness in Gent and frites-eating across the country. A typical lunchtime in Belgium in other words.  This follows an (obviously unsuccessful) campaign of political protest by beard-growing.

On Tuesday Bruxellois awoke to find the capital crippled by a transport strike.  Hard-pressed commuters bore the news fairly stoically when at first it appeared that the strike was in sympathy with a driver who had suffered an ‘act of aggression’ from a passenger. But stoicism turned to outrage and outpourings of inventive language (my Flemish and French vocabularies were dubiously enhanced) when it became clear that it was THE DRIVER who hit a passenger. The rationale by which this led to the transport workers going out on strike evades most people. Anyway, a week later and there is still no government and someone apparently got let off a speeding fine because the people who installed the camera were French-speaking and the installation manual was in Dutch. I’m thinking of becoming a painter.

Leonard Cohen and Sumo and other things I didn’t like but do now

We all have to find inspiration somewhere. Today I’ve found it in the media interest in Elton John’s list of Ten Things he didn’t like when he was 25 that he does now.  What is it about lists that fascinates us so much? Is it that they are little laser beams of insight concentrated on other peoples’ innermost thoughts? Is it that I can’t think of a metaphor that fits?

Anyway, back to the list that is my source of inspiration. I’m tempted to deconstruct Elton John’s list. I mean I have so many questions. Like ‘napkin rings’. Why?  Also ‘boats’, which I feel is not sufficiently specific. But in a genuine effort to be original, I’ve actually thought of my OWN comparable list. You’d weep tears of laughter if you knew how much mental energy went into this exercise, so really, you should appreciate it; it’s harder than it looks.

10 things I didn’t like when I was 25 that I like now

1. Sumo wrestling. Watching it, not doing it (have you seen the size of me? Not typical sumo-wrestler size). When I was 25 I was only vaguely aware of it as something involving very large men crashing into each other in Japan. Then I started watching it on Eurosport and developed a hugely geeky fascination with the minute details of the sport, the skill, the traditions, trickery, and scandal.  It’s not unlike the field of professional history except biting is against the rules.

2.  Tour de France. Here again I owe a lot to Eurosport. One long hot summer as I was engaged in mortal combat between procrastination and finishing my D.Phil thesis, I found myself in Belgium where the only half decent TV channel in English was Eurosport which was showing wall-to-wall Tour de France. When you’re up to your ears in redrafting, suddenly the idea of watching very fit men in lycra on very beautiful bikes seems appealing. And again, it’s a sport which readily responds to a fascination with minutiae. I was drawn in and have watched it avidly every year since for the drama and the detail.

3. Brussels. When I was 25, Brussels was, in my mind, merely metonymically representative of the EU. But I’ve spent a lot of time in Brussels since then and I’ve grown to love it. I’ve learnt to see beyond the bleak dominance of the road network and architecture of the centre to appreciate the parks and trams and elegant apartments, and steaming brasseries, and tough women in fur coats with arrogant tiny dogs, and small gestures of old-fashioned politeness.  It’s a city that’s filled with absurdity which is sometimes baffling, but more usually charming.

4. Baking. Not cool I know. My 25-year old self would have thought that, and I sort of know it now. In my defense though, I’m hugely greedy. I realised at some point in the last few years that I am my own constant supply of food.  But I haven’t entirely lost sight of the cool, so I’m no Stepford Wive when I bake. Music blaring, drink in one hand, and an experimental disregard for actual recipes.

5. Fish. Okay, this is a little unusual for someone who grew up within meters of the sea and swam and surfed and yes, even fished, practically every day, but really I couldn’t stand eating fish. Freud and I trace this back to a traumatic mollusc incident in my childhood.  Mostly it was traumatic because the mussels coincided with a short-lived but single-minded devotion to a diet consisting solely of NikNaks. As I got older – around the age of 30 – I realised that running away from the table screaming ‘fish. die! ugh!’ was socially limiting, so I actually tried some fish. And hey presto. Look at me now, totally reformed and exploring whole new areas of greedy.

6.Winter. I had always viewed Winter as a waste of valuable beach time. Mostly I just wanted it to go away. But when eventually the realization sank in that this was a battle I wasn’t going to win, I started to notice some actually not completely awful things about Winter. One of these is the food (see 4 above).  Other things are cashmere, cognac, and the smugness you afford yourself after a long walk in the cold/snow/torrential rain.  Also long hours of reading and generally doing very little are somehow more justifiable without the harsh ‘come to me’ sunshine of Summer.

7. Calvados. I didn’t like it. Then I learnt to associate it with late nights in Paris.  That’s all you need to know.

8. London Review of Books and other literary magazines. I used to think I read a lot – after all, at age 25 I was in the middle of a doctorate and editing an international affairs magazine – but it turns out that was NOTHING compared to now. It used to take me several hours to read the Economist; now I’ve read it, together with Foreign Affairs, the New Yorker, all the newspapers in the UK, US, and South Africa, as well as some in Belgium, numerous online news sites, blogs, and the entire contents of twitter all before breakfast.  The reason I like the London Review of Books and similar magazines is that they force me to slow down.

9. Public transport. At 25 I really loved my car. I was heartbroken when I moved abroad and had to leave it behind. I was even more heartbroken when I realized my overseas student income (i.e. poverty line existence) was incompatible with owning a car. So I took the bus, and the train, and the tram and the trolley bus. And I liked it. It’s great for reading the Economist, listening to all the TED talks I’ve downloaded, catching up on the sleep I’ve missed, and for people watching (not in a scary way you understand, but in a writerly way, it’s completely different).

10. Leonard Cohen. When I was a kid my father listened to Leonard Cohen a lot. And – and believe me this is far far worse – he actually used to play his guitar and SING Leonard Cohen songs and I would literally die of the embarrassment. But just recently I started to like Leonard Cohen. I have absolutely no explanation for this. Maybe it’s genetic.

Okay, I’m not kidding you know, I’ve made this look much easier than it is. Try it yourself  – what would be on your list? Tell me. Give me something to read after breakfast.