26 February 2010

Hairdresser betrayal

Stop press. My hairdresser has left Brussels.

I found out the other night from a friend who also gets – used to get – her hair cut by him. I couldn't believe it. How could he leave? How could he leave without warning? He's been cutting my hair for 5 years. Both Clover and Helsinki adore him, Clover because he let her cut her sister's hair (a bit, in the back) one time, and Helsinki because he gave her a bright pink streak (temporary) for her birthday last year. I am gutted, feel completely abandoned on the hair front. We were supposed to be growing it out. We had a plan. He was going to fix me up in a couple of months once I generated some length. So what am I supposed to do now? I was counting on him!

Well, obviously, now I've got to find someone else to pick up the pieces and let me tell you, it took me ages to find him, the leaver, the bastard, Brussels is a crap place for haircuts and now I'm right back where I was 6 years ago, only far less prepared to gamble with my hair. Bastard. Double-bastard. You could at least have said good-bye and given me a referral.

24 February 2010

I rescued a book from the second-hand shop

– a book written by a friend who used to live here in Brussels. It was her second book. I couldn't bear to leave it on the shelves of the Pêle-Mêle – it just didn't seem right. I had read that book from its earliest drafts, had watched it grow and form. I slid it off the shelf, admiring the cover (it is a great cover), thinking about all of the time and effort it took to make that book work. This must also be the case of many other books, although we never realize it, because the finished product – if it's worth it's salt – doesn't show any of that effort. This copy was in good condition and the price marked faintly in pencil in the upper right hand corner of the first page. €2. I had always meant to buy a copy of this book, but never did in that way I don't manage to do a lot of things, and often regret it. I was glad to have found it. Otherwise I might not have read it again. A few years have passed and I was able to read it now with fresh perspective. It's a much better book than my friend got credit for, I think. I wonder how many good books get ... well, not really lost but sort of passed over, getting a couple of reviews when they are first published (if they are lucky) and then relying on – what? – an attractive cover or absorbing blurb and then word of mouth to sustain them? I don't know. And what happens when the book is a few years old, and it has to compete with each year's newer titles? I don't know how that works, either.

My friend's book is at heart a haunting book. Haunting, and haunted, and real and ambitious in its setting (Moscow, in the time of perestroika). It is also, unusually, uplifting. By that I mean both (1) in a way that books often are not and (2) in that you don't expect it. It's the kind of book that, if I had seen it in the second-hand shop and not known it, I would have considered it a prize find. By the way, it is called If Only You Knew. By Alice Jolly.

22 February 2010

A City Dweller / Une Citadine

Will they know what I sometimes suspect: what appears
To be the distracted gaze with which we see
The world is the world itself?—It sees and hears
Itself through the thin transparency of our screens.

Ceux-là connaîtront-ils ce dont quelquefois je me doute :
Que le regard apparemment distrait que nous posons
Sur le monde, est le monde même ? — il se voit et s'écoute
À travers la minceur transparente de nos cloisons.

from: Un Citadin / A City Dweller by Jacques Réda, translated by Andrew Shields, via the Poetry Foundation

18 February 2010

Dirty Pretty Rice

It's winter, it's freezing, and I'm obsessed with packing a lunch for work so I don't have to buy any boring, overpriced sandwiches. Or salads. Or pasta that I can make better. I have brought my own lunch every day I've worked since 1 September -- a personal world record, and one of the best (and probably healthiest) changes I have made in a long time.

Today I had "dirty rice" and it was so pretty...

Isn't that pretty?

It is my own creation, a combination of dirty rice recipes from (1) Jamie Oliver's America (which Lichfield got me for Christmas) and (2)

(Who else remembers The New Basics when it was still new?? I have a hardback edition from the late 1980s, stained and stuffed with notes and crumbs and recipes cut out of newspapers!)

1 onion, sliced & diced
6 cloves of garlic - minced
1 red pepper - diced (other colours would be fine)
100g (ish) lardons (or bacon, whatever)
1 pork sausage (the one I used was mild but it could have been spicy)
1 handful of dried red lentils
1 400g tin of red kidney beans
about 500 ml stock (I used Marigold powder, I am a total Marigold convert!)
parsley, chopped.
salt, pepper, paprika, cumin, oregano
white rice

Oh yeah, Jamie lists chopped green/spring onion as well which does perk up the colour a little...

And you probably could use celery, in with the onion and garlic. But I don't really like it.

1. Prepare the white rice, it can cook while you're making the rest (and tastes better, I think, when it sits for a while)
2. Using a pot or large saucepan, sauté the lardons in a bit of olive oil and then add the sausage, casing removed. Break up the sausage as it cooks. Remove these, and drain away excessive fat. Keep a bit of fat in the pot for the veg....
3. Sauté the onions, as quickly or as slowly as you want. Add the red pepper, then the garlic, and the cumin and oregano and salt and pepper.
4. Throw in the red lentils and stir them around....
5. Add about 250 ml of your stock/broth, so that the lentils can absorb it.
6. Put the lardons and sausage back into the pot and let everything simmer for a while -- at least 20 minutes. Add more stock till it gets to the consistency you like.
7. Add the red kidney beans (rinsed) and parsley, and let them warm through. Taste for seasoning, etc.
8. To serve, mix the "sauce" with the rice using the ratio you prefer...

This is fab and filling and I think works particularly well with a chocolate cupcake for dessert....

16 February 2010

I like when this happens

Congratulations are in order -- friend and fellow Brussels resident Alex Dampney has had a poem selected in this month's Guardian Poetry Workshop. Follow the link and scroll down to "Not My Father".... Well done Alex!

15 February 2010

The Pianist

Guest Post by Martin Westlake

There is a florist's shop on the rondpoint near to our house. For a long time it was run by a chain smoking man with very little taste. We went there occasionally to keep the shop afloat, but it was always a disappointing place to visit. After one particularly cold winter, the chain smoker decided to move to a sunnier part of the world and the shop stood empty for a while. Then it was taken over by a young homosexual couple. One of the men was tall and thin, with gaunt, emaciated features. He had very long fingers and huge hands. His partner was short, just slightly chubby and certainly more cherubic. Both had great good taste and visiting the shop became a pleasure. Not only did they make tasteful and pretty bouquets, but classical music played in the background. At the end of concerts in the Palais it was, we noticed, their bouquets which were given to the visiting stars. Hélène Grimaud came to visit the shop, in between concerts, and other musicians wafted in an out. Maurice, the tall one, was himself a pianist. One day, a grand piano appeared in the shop. He had begun practising seriously again, his boyfriend told us. The shop's displays became ever more flamboyantly beautiful and now, when we went into the shop, we were greeted by live music. He was practising for a concert, the boyfriend confided. That was a few days before the boyfriend left. Maurice was distraught, but he kept to his schedule. And then he began to talk about his forthcoming performance – of Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto, the Emperor – Beethoven's last. It would be at the Palais. He would give us the date. After a few weeks he told us the month and the week. I went to the website but could find no reference to him in the programme. They just have to fix the exact date, he told me. Give me your e-mail address and I'll make sure that you're informed in good time. The week in question came. At the beginning of the week Maurice was still open for business and still practising hard, but his gaze was evasive and I didn't have the heart to try and pin him down. At the end of the week, the shop closed and it has never re-opened. Now, the shutters have collapsed at one end, diagonally blocking out the view of Maurice's last flamboyant display, the plants wilting, the surfaces fast gathering dust. But I like to think that Maurice got to perform the Emperor at least once – if only in his head.

14 February 2010

Oh god it's wonderful

... to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much

Happy Valentine's Day Lichfield!

Quote is from the end of "Steps", by Frank O'Hara.

12 February 2010


As I walked this morning I realized I just needed to be in motion. The walking is part of the process, I keep learning, over and over. I was lucky this morning to find myself with a series of destinations. My mind felt empty and hollow, as though there was nothing to be brought out of it. It is not unlike the sensation of being in between breaths. If you pay attention to breathing, you will see that sometimes it happens, that there is a pause after breathing out, before you start another breath in. Sometimes it seems quite long, even, but it is completely natural, and if you just watch your breathing, you find that the next breath does come. I've never once panicked or feared that I would stop breathing in between breaths, even when I sat there, cross-legged, wondering when it would happen. It starts up again of its own accord, or the body's, in its own time. Perhaps not an earth-shattering discovery, that. But it comforted me this morning.

11 February 2010

Did you know there is an English theatre in Bruges?

No, neither did I, but apparently they have existed since 2007. This is their space:

Isn't that charming?

One of the downsides of living in a "foreign country" is that most of the live theatre is not in my first language. So it's welcome news to find another source of amateur, Anglophone drama.

The BF and I have booked tickets to see their production of The Lover by Harold Pinter, showing 25-28 March for only €8 !

See you there?

09 February 2010

Odete, Jacqueline & Hope: The Last Bit of Chapter 4

This may be overdue....In fact, I'm sure it is. If you want to refresh your memory, here is the previous part of chapter 4. Links to earlier chapters are in the sidebar to the right.

While the conversation in the kitchen was taking an abrupt change in direction, the search upstairs continued - Odete was in her bedroom digging through her mother’s shoe box of recipes.

Odete’s bedroom was the only room in the house that had not been dramatically changed since her husband had left almost two decades ago. The room was of good proportion, big enough to contain a queen-sized brass bed, two teak wardrobes, and the night tables that Odete had made herself and painted a glossy royal blue – to match the pictures on the walls: a series of watercolours featuring the classic “m” shape of distant seagulls, flying off into a multi-hued, swirling stormy sky. Hope had completed the pictures in high school during her “Turner” classes. Odete didn’t know much about Turner or his paintings but Hope’s versions had garnered her an “A” and that had been really all that had mattered.

It had been in this room, stretched out on this bed that Odete had first read the letter that her husband had left for her with the babysitter the evening he had walked out. It had been here that she had first felt the strange mixture of joy and regret from his absence.

Jose had not been a bad man, in fact he had always been very kind and had continued to be so even after he had discovered the truth and left. Miraculously, every month, the mortgage payment for the house had found its way to Odete’s bank account. That, with the secretarial job she had found, ensured that she and the girls had lived comfortably.

After ten years of marriage, she’d finally gained her freedom – as had he – although she had no idea what he’d done with his. They hadn’t seen or spoken to each other since the morning of the day he left.

But all of this was a long time ago, and she tried not to think of it often. In many ways, it helped to drive her current focus, and at that moment, it was on the shoe box on her lap and the recipe now in her hand. As she scanned down the short list of ingredients in the Pudim Flan, she knew that she had forgotten nothing, but then it suddenly struck her – everything had been included in the flan, but what about the top of it? Odete dumped the contents of the box onto her bed and as she separated and glanced over the pages with their yellow curling corners, she saw it – the directions for the whisky glaze. Of course, she had forgotten to glaze the custard. Her mother’s absence had been a message – never forget the whisky.

A smile crept over Odete’s lips. Mama always knew what was important in life. She hadn’t come to visit today, but it’d be okay. There was still a next time. Another chance to get it right. Another chance to feel her spirit and her unconditional love. At that moment, it was impossible for Odete to even think that fate might be capable of surprises.

Pudim Flan (Crème Caramel), with the necessary Whisky Glaze

For the flan:

1 cup sugar

3 eggs

1 vanilla pod

¼ litre milk

For the glaze:

2 cups icing sugar, sifted

2 tbsps whisky

  1. Preheat oven to 180°C.
  2. Whisk one tbsp of the sugar with the eggs until a frothy consistency is reached.
  3. On very low heat, warm the milk slightly and stir the sugar/egg combination into it.
  4. Cut the vanilla pod open and scrape the inside into the milk.
  5. In a separate pan, over very low heat, melt the remaining sugar, stirring almost continuously until brown.
  6. Pour the melted sugar (caramel) into four small ramekins or pastry moulds and pour the milk mixture on top.
  7. Place the ramekins in a roasting pan, adding enough water to come half way up the sides of the ramekins.
  8. Bake just until set, 30-45 minutes. Be careful not to allow the water to boil and splash into the moulds.
  9. To test, stick a skewer into the custard, if it comes out clean, it’s done.
  10. Remove the moulds and let them stand to cool.
  11. Before turning them out, dip them briefly in hot water.
  12. Serve with a whisky glaze.
  13. For the Whisky Glaze, mix the icing sugar with the whisky and enough water to make a glaze that is pourable. Beat until smooth. Drizzle over the Pudim Flan just before serving.

08 February 2010

No one's favourite

I wrote this poem some time ago and I don't think I will ever find a home for it. It gets a few laughs and some nods of recognition from the local "expat" audience, but I don't know how much it resonates with anyone who doesn't live here. Maybe I should translate it into French and Dutch.... and by that I mean, in alternating lines.*


You are no one's favourite.
You are the child nobody wanted,
discovered too late to get rid of,
whose parents are now divorcing.
Their divorce is bitter and long.
Neither of them wants custody.
It is all about money and pensions.
You sit in a court-appointed room
and suck your thumb.
When no one looks, you stick chewing gum
to the underside of the table.
You draw with pictures of lions and roosters.
They peck and claw.
Your teachers are worried but unanimously
can't be bothered. They know you'll grow up
to be even worse than you are:
on the dole, pissing between parked cars,
and refusing to give up priorité à droite.

* I want to add "because that's what it's like to live here", but that isn't exactly true. The two linguistic communities are nowhere near as integrated as alternating lines.

04 February 2010

Description of a Badly Drawn Horse

I am home sick with an awful cold, feeling just well enough at the moment to raise my head to the laptop to check my email and take a quick browse through the reader (a sure sign of a surge in energy levels). It's a good thing I did, because the Badly Drawn Horse poem is a gem. It makes me want to draw it!

03 February 2010

For what it's worth

Last year was a year of wanting. I wanted badly to write a novel. I began to see it as a challenge, like taking up knitting a scarf. Now, I have never been a sewer or a knitter. I don't know why, it would seem to suit me; I like fabric and colour and textures. I like nice clothes and I love quilts. I sometimes think that I would love to make a quilt -- but actually not, because I tried it once and I do not have the patience. It was hard enough just cutting out the little squares. So I wouldn't actually "love" to make a quilt. I wish I could, maybe, if I had unlimited time, very sharp scissors and a forgiving pattern. But given the grist of reality, no. Not at the moment.

And writing a novel, I'm beginning to suspect, may be a similar thing. I admire good novels. I enjoy reading good novels. I have learned a lot about how novels work and are constructed and what you need to do to write them. But for me it is like cutting out all those little squares: more difficult than it looks, and not particularly enjoyable! I have also discovered quite a lot about myself. For instance. If I write 2 good poems this year I'll be happy. If I write 50 mediocre poems to get to the 2 good poems I'll be happy. If I publish the 2 good poems I'll be ecstatic. But if I don't publish any poems, I won't be terribly depressed.

The novel is a net, it tangles and traps, both in the reading and in the writing. This year, I think, I would rather be a fish. I would rather swim with dolphins. I would rather dive for pearls.

01 February 2010


Ah, February 1. January, where did you go? I've been very busy with birthdays and cakes yet
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

I have been scribbling away, and am fairly happy about it. I did a difficult thing, too -- I asked the BF for a few hours of time on my own to write on the weekend. This was hard for me as we do not get much time alone, but neither do I get enough time for it, so I faced one of those horrible me-vs-him-vs-us-vs-it and felt crap about everything, until at last I was brave enough to say "I need this". And guess what. He understood, and now there is balance.

God I hope my daughters don't have these horrible self-esteem issues.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

I don't really like talking about writing. I suppose that's why I have this blog -- well, one of the reasons -- because I would never presume to go on and on about my writing life even to another writer. It's like talking about "this great dream" you had.... It unfortunately means very little to anyone else. But I need an outlet, so here I am, saying things I would never say out loud unless in a very safe environment.


Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.

And I don't keep a very firm boundary here, although that's what "they" tell you to do: blog about one thing, find your niche, etc.... Well if you've read this over any length of time you will find the writing part of me is all mixed in with everything else, and the point of the blog is to "show all" (or, at least all I can) about my own small writing life.... Which, when I think about it, is so very mushroomy: so much happening underground, in private, out of eyesight; very slowly pushing out of soil rich with last year's wet leaves.

NB Quotes are from Sylvia Plath's poem Mushrooms, which is in, I think, "The Colossus".