On being a Remedial Wife

As I write, you are in the kitchen, whipping up yet another curry for us. Since our time in India they have become something of a point of pride for you. You love nothing more than playing with the spices, toasting and grinding your own mixes. I am truly lucky that you found me. That you did not give up on me during those first months when I was not available or later, when I descended into dark days and you struggled to understand what was happening and felt helpless but still pulled me through. You are a gem.

The real reason I call myself ‘Remedial Wife’ is that I never feel like I pull my weight compared to the amount of love and care you provide. I’m always playing catch up. You are much more patient than I am. You see the humour in the blackest situations which threaten to swallow me whole. You call me out when I begin to wallow, having learned the signs. We pay someone to clean the house and iron your shirts because I’m not one of those wonder women who can do everything with style and panache. I am easily overwhelmed, with a tendency to throw too much of myself into my work to the detriment of everything else, particularly myself. It is your love that cocoons and protects and anchors me.

It is almost Valentine’s Day. Traditionally this is one of the two (yes two!) times a year that I try to make an effort and cook for you. The dish is not going to be a surprise because I tend to fall back on the same things repeatedly but at least it is something you claim to enjoy. It is a meagre sign of my love and deep respect for you but it is a start, right?

Who knows where we will end up next, my love? It is not always easy, this cycle of packing up and moving on but we both love it and you are a most excellent partner in crime for adventures.

Happy Valentine’s Day my boy.

Treasure-hunting for Belgian antiques

When I first moved to Brussels I was lucky enough to have room-mates with an amazing eye for treasure which meant we furnished our flat for next to nothing and with a unique style. You know the type – you all go out to a flea market and you blithely walk past rows of overflowing cardboard boxes of what you consider ‘junk’, while they spot original 1950s china at 200 paces AND get it for a bargain price.

I’m not a die-hard bargain-hunter. During our time in Asia I discovered that I’m just too British to be a good haggler. I find the whole exercise incredibly stressful and distasteful while Mr B revels in it.

Nevertheless, when I heard about Belgium’s largest antique and flea market in Tongeren I was curious and wanted to pop along ‘just in case’. You understand that after our postings in India and China Mr B and I have absolutely no need for any more furniture but one of the great things about expat life is the ability to find beautiful things that add a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’.

2014: The Gratitude Project

Through expat life I realised that no matter how far you travel you take take your ‘weather with you’ as the song says. There is no escape from ourselves no matter how much reinvention we have access to as constant travellers on the face of the earth. For those of us with depression this is a hard, hard but vital lesson. We have to turn and face ourselves and find a way to live together; us and our depression.

Through depression I came to yoga.

Through yoga I came to the concept of mindfulness.

At the end of 2013 (an amazing year for travel incidently) this is where I find myself. Not only that but the certainty of three more years here in Brussels, albeit in a new chapter. This gives me stability, the lack of which I’ve realised belatedly is often what makes expat life so scary, lonely, particularly for the ‘trailers’ in an expat couple.

There is more and more research that says gratitude leads to happier, more fulfilled individuals who suffer less depression, anxiety and stress. This is particularly true for the self-critical amongst us.

With this in mind I’ve decided to try and find three things a day to be grateful for. I’ve been sceptical about daily projects in the past but I’m curious to see how it goes. Follow along on Twitter.

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” – Thornton Wilder

Ten things to do in Brussels in August

If, like me, you swore that this summer would be the year when you would get to Ommegang and failed (*curses work*), or that you would stroll down the canal to check out the beach and summery activities at Bruxelles-Les-Bains and failed (*curses own laziness*), you might be forgiven for thinking that you’ve missed the best bits of the fabulously quiet summer in the city.

For those revelling in the drastically shorter commute to work this month, here is my Top Ten things to do before La Rentree hits and the crowds return:

1. Cycle: take advantage of the low levels of traffic and hire a Villo, or take your own set of wheels to see the city from a different angle. Remember this is the one time of year you will feel as if you are not taking your life in your hands by moving around on two wheels in a city notorious for traffic jams and aggressive driving. Particularly recommended are heading out to the Forest de Soignes or the 6km old railway cycle path towards Tervueren.

2. Picnic: Those of us who live here know there is a precious small window of a few weeks when we actually see blue skies and sunshine. Take advantage by visiting one of the 50 parks throughout the city. Alongside the goregeous Petit Sablon, more unusual choices include the Haren cemetary and the Cite Modele in Laeken. Pick a part of town you don’t know and explore! Another great introduction to the city’s parks come via the Urban BBQ, this year in its 7th session at Parc Woluwe on 18th August. A number of top chefs provide a delicious set of ‘tapas’ to begin plus BBQ for EUR15.

3. Royal Palace: With the low-key coronation out of the way, now is the time of year to snoop around the offices of the Belgian Royal Family. Not to be confused with the Palace at Laeken whose gorgeous greenhouses are open for a few weeks every spring, at the centrally located Brussels Palace you can see the faded glamour of the Grand Hall, Throne Room, Mirror Room (look for the beatle winged ceiling) and then pass harsh judgement on Leopold II whose ruthless exploitation of the Congo made it all possible. Open until 1st September.

4.Floralientime: A new event from 2013 to fill the alternate years between the famous, beautiful and slightly bonkers “flower carpet” on the Grand’ Place. The Floralientime fills Grand’ Place and City Hall with stunning arrangements from top florists. The inaugural theme is ‘Colours of Life’. Talented photographer Alison at Cheeseweb has, as ususal, captured gorgeous images that are guaranteed to have you rushing to pay your EUR5 entrance fee. Open 15th-18th August.

5. Brussels Summer Festival and beyond: Belgians adore music of all kinds and in the summer there are festivals galore to choose from. The biggest is the Brussels Summer Festival (9th-18th August) but there are many others, including the free Feeerrieen organised by the incredible team at Ancienne Belgique and this year celebrating its 10th anniversary in the Parc Royal, (26th-30th August). Festival Midi-Minimes offers a mini-break for your soul each lunchtime from 12.15 at the Royal Conservatory (until 31st August), L’Orgue at Notre-Dame-de-la-Chapelle is ideal for those seeking the melancholy tones of the organ (24th-31st August), Fiesta Latina will liven up the Bois de la Cambre (23rd-25th August) and Classissimo for classical lovers at the Theatre Royal (8th-17th August).

6. Midi FairBrash and impossible to miss, the fair dominates the area around Gare du Midi until 21st August and for many signals the official beginning of the summer in Brussels. There has been an annual fair on this site since 1885! Open until 2am at the weekend for all your spinning and swirling pleasure with the added benefit of keeping me awake. While the police are visible, be very aware of pickpockets.

7. Mini-Europe by Night: Given a reprieve following the threat of closure earlier this year and accompanying wailing and gnashing of teeth by Brussels residents, see this kitsch monument to the glory of the European continent illuminated. Fireworks and illuminations every Saturday until 17th August.

8. Arts & Theatre Festivals: Again, for a small country there is an astonishing wealth of arts in Belgium supported by our generous tax donations. Summer festivals in Brussels include contemporary performing arts to reflect the ongoing financial crisis (intriguing or up itself? You decide) at the wonderful Brigittines complex in the Marolles (I can only attest to their cafe, the rest is too highbrow for remedial wives. Open 16th-31st August) and the Theatres Nomades which looks much more jolly, especially for those of you with kids. Open 22nd-25th August.

9. Enjoy an aperitif in the sun: Formally via the Friday drinks rotating amongst parks and landmarks across the city, Aperos Urbains, or informally taking advantage of the (slightly) thinner crowds at Places Chatelaine, Flagey, Brugman, du Sablon or St Gery. Now is the time to find a table, don your sunglasses and bask in the evening rays. Sante!

10. Go behind the scenes at the airport: We’re incredibly lucky to have an airport that hosted the first Starbucks in Belgium and is easily accessible from the city centre, albeit one that requires a marathon to get from Terminal A to baggage claim. What it lacks in size, the team at Brussels airport are determined to make up for in customer service and are now working on making the airport into a destination in its own right for the incurably curious.  In this spirit, each Sunday in August sees the airport team taking groups on behind the scenes tours. Open 18th and 25th August but running throughout the year. Incidentally, the airport regularly runs competitions on their awesome twitter feed (@brusselsairport) which also happens to provide brilliant up-to-date travel advice. *with thanks to Brussels Life for highlighting this*

The Italian Connection

Italians, like the Irish, have historically been migrants and on each expat assignment there will inevitably be some, chatting away in their beautiful, lyrical sounding language. Italians are always plugged in to the food scene of the cities where they find themselves, especially the best ingredients from their home land. Mr B and I are fortunate enough to have lots of Italian friends and colleagues and thanks to them have begun to compile a list of good restaurants and stores to pick up delicious things I thought worth sharing:

Stores:

  • Antichi Sapori Italiani on rue de Bailli 73, is a great example of the many Italian traiteurs in town. This is a brilliant concept, found both in market stalls and stores such as this, perfect for remedial wives in need of fast, ready but home-made options for dinner. As well as ready to eat pastas, they sell all kinds of deli products, biscuits and wine.
  • A very recent discovery is Italia Autentica, an amazing couple of supermarkets gathering products from all over Italy. The drawback are the odd locations (Mr B and I missed the one in Drogenbos by a frustrating few hundred metres the first time) but this just gives the whole process a greater sense of adventure. Be warned, these supermarkets are extremely popular so it is best to get there early. A huge wine selection from all over the country, a massive choice of dry pasta, oils, frozen foods, fresh bread and a full deli counter are on offer. Mr B highly recommends the Tuscan sausages.
  • At Christmas, Stival Mercato on rue Vanderkindere 540 in Uccle provided lots of authentic continental treats for family and friends in the UK. A good amount of choice with a neighbourhood feel.

Restaurants:

  • Those in search of good Napolitan pizza (and many friends argue the best pizza in town hands down) should look no further than Fratelli la Bufala in the perennially popular Chatelain area of town.
  • Fornostar on the aptly named Quai au bois bruler 65 near Place Ste Catherine is a favourite of an Umbrian friend who has in turn shown us that this is a great choice when you have visitors, with a wide range of exciting pizzas and the handy location in the city centre for drinks afterwards.
  • Mr B and I also love the student favourite Dea’s pizza on rue du Germoir 3 for take aways.
  • Osteria Romana on Avenue Louise and Toscana 21 on the Sablon come highly recommended.
  • I’m a bit reluctant to divulge the last choice for this list, given after my first visit I realised it is one of those absolute hidden gems with incredibly authentic food and passionate chefs that can quickly spiral to the top of a “must do” list but I’m sharing it selflessly as good restaurants deserve lots of support! The fact it is normally only open at lunchtime simply adds to its mystique (although if you can rustle up a group of 10, they’ll open exclusively for you in the evenings). It is Il Ramo Verde on rue de Toulouse in Etterbeek (very obscure location but again, worth tracking down). Autumn dishes are a particular speciality – a must for truffle lovers!

Coffee:

  • As a non-coffee drinker, I am only going to dip my toes into this. There are plenty of Italians in Brussels who will lament the lack of good espresso in town, while others hold the Natural Caffee on rue Breydel 50 in high estime (though not the other branches interestingly), while others are celebrating the opening of a real coffee house at the Pl du Luxembourg end of rue d’Arlon.

Where do you go for your Italian fix in Brussels?

Buon appetito!

Venture into the wilds of Drogenbos to find this hidden Italian treasure!

Venture into the wilds of Drogenbos to find this hidden Italian treasure!

Vive le carneval!

Carnival/Carneval is not a big thing in the UK like it is here on the continent. I don’t really understand the excitement around it, the mad cutting of ties that my German friends do, for example. Brussels is much quieter this week. Most people with kids have taken to the mountains to ski.

I wanted to take advantage of this not-quite-downtime. One of the things I loved best about living in Asia was the festivals – the noise and the colour and the stories behind it to learn and appreciate. Belgium also has plenty of festivals, none of them seem quite normal (but isn’t that the point of festivals?) and I’m determined to start travelling to see them as much as possible. This meant getting a very early train in the bitter cold to see the Shrove Tuesday Gille parade this morning. The creepy-looking masks are featured on every tourist guide to Belgium and I wanted to check it out for myself.

Binche itself is really nothing to write home about. A tiny Belgian town south-east of Brussels that enjoys a few days in the spotlight every year because they’ve kept their traditions alive since the 14th century at least. Many elements are popularly traced back to 1549 when Mary of Hungary welcomed her brother, Emperor Charles V, to what was then the Spanish-controlled Netherlands (including modern-day Belgium). Part of the festivities were given over to a celebration of the recent conquest of Peru. It’s unclear whether unfortunate Incas were actually ever paraded around the narrow streets but the colours, dancing with small steps to rhythmic drumming, feathers and bundles of sticks to ward off evil spirits apparently have some roots in native Peruvian costumes.

Mardi Gras is better known as “Gilles Day” in Binche. This is the day the ‘Gilles’ (men of the town who have been selected by their neighbourhood or church peers to enter different ‘societies’) put on their full regalia, including stuffing their fronts and backs with straw (bet it was handy this morning in the freezing weather), putting on wooden clogs, donning a belt of bells (‘apertintaille’) and, most distinctively covering their heads with white caps and cloths (‘barette’) and wearing frankly odd, nightmarish, identical wax masks. There are as many as 150 different patterns that can be used to decorate the Gille suits. I saw lots of lions and stars and massive care is taken of the wax masks – they are held reverently in white cloths by wives and female relatives until they are needed.

I was lucky enough to bump into a group of Gilles picking up their last member at his home (having had the obligatory Shrove Tuesday breakfast of oysters and champagne, I’m sure) and we then danced our way slowly through the streets to the Grand Place to the sound of drums. The Society was then received by the Mayor in the town hall before dancing their way home for lunch. Other societies such as the Pierrots and Arlequins) were also out but the Gilles are the most striking. Remedial Wife was frozen solid by this point and headed home. The afternoon parade sees the Gilles don ostrich feather hats and chuck oranges at the assembled crowds – this is allegedly to ensure a good harvest but is a handy excuse to cause mayhem too. I want to see this and the Sunday parade next year if we are still here.

If you fancy going next year, try to pass by Thirion who sell fantastic carnival cakes and tarts before going home!

When is an expat not an expat?

At the end of January, Mr B marked three years since moving to Brussels for the second time. I have very mixed feelings about this. The fact is, we passed the point at which we planned to move on a year ago and there are no new postings on the horizon. We’ve come to accept (very grudgingly on my part it must be said) that there are unlikely to be any moves anytime soon, what with the lingering recession impacting Mr B’s company and my inability to find something interesting to do overseas.

I’ve been trying to work out whether there is any point in a posting at which you stop feeling like an expat or a foreigner and simply just be? Perhaps it is easier if you have a strong tie to a place, with the instant family that marriage can provide, for example. Mr B and I have now been “out” of our respective homelands for long enough that spending more than a few days at “home” provides plenty of opportunities for us to see how much our perceptions and memories of our own cultures have become ‘frozen’. For example, I still labour under the impression that shops close at 6pm in the UK and that nothing is open on Bank Holidays. Mr B is constantly surprised at the speed of which his home city is spreading and is cut adrift from a lot of cultural references. Neither of us mind particularly, after all living abroad is an adventure that we both actively sought out but it is disconcerting. Disorientating.

 When I arrive back at the airport or Gare du Midi I am glad to be back with Mr B and in a great apartment, in my own bed but that is all. Walking around on the streets I always have a sense of being ‘other’. Perhaps not in the same way you do for the first few weeks in a place, the kind of feeling that automatically sends out a signal to those around you that you are ripe for a scam. And certainly there is a huge difference between being a working expat here and being a trailing spouse in Asia. And again, being an expat in Europe as a European myself (whatever Mr Farage says) is not the same as being an expat in Africa or South America where the culture is markedly different.

Still, for all its odd charms and laissez-faire madness, the truth is that Brussels will never be home. And I don’t want it to be. Part of me notes each passing month with a sense of incredulity and sadness and sometimes despair that we are still here which is not at all helpful. I try to ignore that bit and look on the bright side – the ease of living here, the proximity to family, the basic grasp of language. I have struggled, really struggled with being here for a second time which is pointless but depression is like that. Therapy and medication and looking for a new way to see Brussels has helped, particularly because most of our friends have moved on (mostly metaphorically into a different world of small children but literally too).

One thing I am grateful for, though, are those people we’ve met on our travels who continue to be important to us, who we still wish we saw more often and travel to see.  This is the part of being an expat that I like, that keeps me sane. That keeps me hopeful.Grand'Place Brussels, sunny day