Opening the Chocolate Box

8 Aug

Okay, so I have decided to cast aside the Proustian confection for now and instead focus on the new pentagonal-shaped chocolate box I have just prised the lid off of: Brussels.

I’m not sure if I’ll be updating the Proustian blog again, but maybe in a few months, left to its own devices, I’ll go back and discover that it has sprouted something new, like a tub of yoghurt when you leave it in the fridge for too long. Maybe if I leave it longer still it will evolve into something entirely different, so when I look at it a few years from now I’ll discover that it has turned into a political diatribe covering the dire social situation left behind by Margaret Thatcher’s monetarist policies. It will have been updated every day, but each entry will only be one line long (perhaps the old blog was Proustian against its will. Maybe it always wanted to be concise and to-the-point, and to this end as soon as I am gone it will decree a ban on spiral staircase sentences (along with useless information in brackets) and retitle itself ‘Hemingway Headlines’ (if it does this I will probably disown it…))).

I’ve been here for just over a month now, peering out of the little plastic window of the chocolate box and growing fat with the flavours I’ve ingested so far. Just like my first visit to mainland Europe, it’s taken a while to put pen to paper after arriving here. I’d say it’s for similar reasons, too: when you’ve just eaten a big meal, you need to lie down and give yourself time to digest it before you go for a run. Well, of course I haven’t been tasting things the whole time: I’ve also been focusing on those far less delicious duties such as registering as a resident, opening a bank account and looking for the means to keep putting waffles onto the table every week, but on the whole I think my slowness has been brought on by one too many Godiva truffles.

Here’s a little taste, a little Whitman’s Sampler of the things that have happened so far:

Almond Whirl: Crossing the Channel

 Moving from London to Brussels was slightly less dramatic than moving from Sydney to London. When I moved from Sydney to London I’d been saving up for well over a year to do it, the journey took 24 hours and my whole family drove me to the airport. I then had to contend with a week of punishment dished out by my body for turning it inside out and backwards: that is, implanting it into a place where night should have been day, cold should have been hot and trousers should have been pants. It was like I’d woken myself up in the middle of the night, settled into a Jacuzzi until my fingers were warm and wrinkled, and then slapped myself in the face and bombed straight into a swimming pool teeming with icebergs. My flesh was fizzing with cold bubbles and my brain felt like it was trapped underneath a custard skin. I tried piercing the skin with a spoon to let straight and steady streams of thoughts pour out, but the bright lights shining into my face scared them all back in again. Locked inside my custard mind, they had no option but to chase each other around and around in flustered little circles.

Moving from London to Brussels, on the other hand, was a piece of sponge cake. I woke up at the normal time, went to work, headed to the train station in the evening and by dinnertime I was comfortably ensconced in a completely different country to the one I’d woken up in. No custard-skins forming on my brain or wildly fluctuating thermometers this time.

With my unshakably Australian view of distances, the ease with which I completed my relocation was a source of wonder for almost the entire 2.5 hour journey. In Europe you can move to a country with a completely different culture and language in the same amount of time it takes to watch Me and You and Everyone We Know. Alright, maybe a little longer than that, but if you started watching the Director’s Cut of Dances With Wolves you’d have to pause it when you arrived and watch the rest later. By way of comparison, in the same amount of time I could have driven from my place in Sydney to my friend’s place in Newcastle, and I have never noticed any glaring cultural or linguistic differences between these two cities. I mean, people might boast that they are from one town or the other, laying claim to certain beaches and landmarks, but if you took a European to both places and asked them to spot the difference, I’m pretty sure that the most they could come up with might be, ‘In Newcastle people wear more hats.’

Chocolat Noisette: Learning French

 For the uninitiated, in Brussels people speak French and Flemish (Dutch). Most people seem to speak English, too, but I’ve decided that it’s finally time to give this language learning lark a proper go so that I’m not continually going to Post Offices saying things like, ‘Bonjour! Um, erm… could I please post this to London?’

I’ve tried learning French a couple of times, but the conditions were never exactly right for it. Well, let’s be honest. The conditions weren’t right for it, and I was too lazy to keep up with it. If I’m even more honest still, I think one of the reasons I’ve shied away from learning or practicing a new language is because I’m worried about sounding like an infant. Or worse, a hillbilly. There’s a David Sedaris book where he’s asking a butcher in Paris about the calves’ brains on display in the shop window. With his pitiful French, the best he can come up with is: ‘Is thems the thoughts of cows?’ I can already see myself hobbling along with the same sorts of bumpkin sentences.

I’m hoping that people will just think it’s cute (that’s what my better half is telling me, anyway), but there’s something about coming across as a dimwit – even if it’s a cute dimwit who is obviously trying very hard – that makes my stomach clench.  It makes my stomach clench because my language is one of the few things about myself I’ve always been at ease with. It’s one of the few things I feel like I’m reasonably in control of. Of course sometimes when I’m writing I feel like Old Mother Hubbard looking for the right word and only encountering empty cupboards, but usually words pour out of me as freely and joyfully as espresso from a finely tuned coffee machine. I catch them in a little glass and then pour steamed milk over them before serving them to my friends and business acquaintances. If I’ve ever come across as a dimwit while I’m speaking, I would like to hope that this label was applied due to the content of my speech, rather than the expression of it.

If the Brussels Flea Market* was in an English-speaking country, I might be able to saunter up and say something like, ‘How much for that fabulous stained-glass window replica of Starry Night Over the Rhone, my good man? I do so love the way that the artist has captured every nuance of the original painting, with flourishes of yellow and dabs of orange over generous pools of navy blue. I don’t want to sound overzealous, lest you propose a sum deeper than the chasms of my pockets, but I am of the opinion that the individual from whom you procured this breathtakingly pulchritudinous object must have had a sublime aesthetic sensibility.’ (Don’t worry, this is what I could say, rather than what I would say.)

In French, to express the same sentiment, so far I would only be able to point and bumble, ‘I like it. The bill, please?’

Despite my fears of sounding like a four-year-old yokel, I intend to learn French while I’m living in Brussels. I’m trying to think of it this way: I can always keep my well-oiled English machine running on the side, and serve up amusing concoctions for my French-speaking friends throughout the day. If I start getting down about my Sedaris-inspired title, ‘Village Idiot of Brussels’, at least I’ll be able to wrap myself up in a warm blanket of English before I go to sleep at night.

Crunchy Frog: Discovering Décrottoirs

 Brussels abounds in décrottoirs. You can see décrottoirs out front of almost every house in the city. Some décrottoirs are ornate, and some décrottoirs are simple, but even though everybody is covetous of a fancy décrottoir, nobody actually uses them anymore. What is this fanciful décrottoir thing of which I speak? Although it may sound rather posh (as most things do in French) – maybe even something you’d like to have installed out front of your own place – don’t be fooled. My personal translating service tells me that in English, the closest approximation you might get to ‘décrottoir’ is ‘de-shitter’. Yes, a décrottoir is an early version of a doormat: a small groove carved into the stone beside your front door, with a metallic construction jutting out for you to wipe your shoes on.

I’ve become a little obsessed with these contraptions, pointing out the prettiest ones whenever I’m strolling along the cobblestone footpaths of Brussels. I would have gone around taking pictures of all the art nouveau décrottoirs, simply because I like the very idea of an art nouveau de-shitter, but someone has already beaten me to it: at the nearby Halles St-Géry, there is currently an exhibition showcasing ‘1000 Décrottoirs of Brussels’. Here are some examples:

 

*Strawberry Delight: The Brussels Flea Market

 Within strolling distance of our flat is the daily temptation of the Brussels Flea Market. Some people gawp in front of Prada windows or drool over $945 Manolo Blahniks, but for me, it’s the sight of haphazard piles of second-hand silk scarves or Farnsworth ET-064 Bakelite Radios from 1946 that make me reach for my wallet and then wish I had more than moths and buttons inside of it.

Spread out across tables, blankets and cobblestones, stuffed inside of cardboard boxes or leaning up against tree-trunks, the Flea Market has every second-hand thing you can possibly imagine. Framed paintings, frames without paintings, cameras, bits of cameras, gold-rimmed tea-cups, dilapidated chandeliers, bouquets of silver spoons, yellowed books, blue pots and purple pans, chaise lounges, racks of leather jackets, egg-cups with Marsupilami painted on them, 60s-style coffee sets, tin boxes full of pins from various World Expos, street signs, oil lamps, plastic clip-on earrings, vases of ostrich feathers…

I have limited myself so far, but I have a feeling that once I have a relatively stable source of income I will be as common a sight at the Flea Market as shoeboxes full of Belgian francs.

Toffee Penny (or, the one that nobody takes): What’s next?

 I’m still looking for a relatively stable form of employment, but in the meantime I plan to update this little pentagonal chocolate box as often as I can. You may have noticed that so far my chocolate flavours have been limited to those found within Quality Street and Whizzo Chocolate Company boxes, but perhaps when my wanderings expand and my French comprehension level graduates to the level of ‘caveman’, I’ll be able to present you with combinations you’ve never heard of before.

Je reviens…

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