Right now I am seated in a cafe, surrounded by people speaking French, and drinking a particularly toasty hot chocolate. Outside it’s in the gentle minuses, with traces of overnight snow on the ground, and everybody is running around trying to avoid the freezing wind. I’ve just (finally!) completed registration at the Services des Etrangers, and am quietly dodging the first of the French lessons for which I signed up last night. I’m also waiting for a brie panini. Fuck knows when it will arrive.
Things in Brussels are going rather brilliantly. My French is ещё совсем ужасный of course (hence the lessons), but everything else is great. Just the past week alone..! On Friday I was ‘that girl’ in class (as JFord pointed out, I was always going to be ‘that girl’) when the prof asked if anybody knew the difference between Русский and Российский (hint: one has more letters :p). Then it seemed I was either the only one who had done the readings, or the only one who was comfortable speaking up. I then compounded the whole situation by volunteering to do the following week’s presentation. Volunteering, people!!
Friday night was my first night out in Brussels, and Mr Belgium took me to the centre of town, to some sort of swing bar. Haha I was messaging two of my friends back in Aus during the night (*waves*), and my drunk fingers misled them into perhaps thinking it was a ‘swingers’ bar. To be fair, my phone always autocorrects in the naughtiest possible way, it makes me proud. Anyway it was all rather fun, and drunken me made friends with some kind of Cypriot diplomat at 2 in the morning. Drunk me is good like that.
Saturday was, needless to say, mainly horizontal, after getting to bed after 4am. Then I realised that one of my friends, a guy I used to work with in the UK, was in town. Obviously this necessitated further drinks, with some food thrown in. Not to mention lots of discussions of potential adventures – I can’t recall whether I wrote about it, but this friend is the guy who took on the Mongol Rally in a Ferrari.
Sunday was brain-melted zombie-ing (and attempting to do my uni readings for the week), then finally arranging a trip to Switzerland, so I’m off weekend after next for a couple of days. Haha yeah. I need an income..! Also on the ‘soon’ agenda is a likely trip to London next month for one of the London Comic Cons. Potential costumes thus far: Rikku from Final Fantasy, or girl-Link from Zelda. Haha I’m kind of tending toward the latter 😀
Monday and Tuesday were freaking awesome. I was at a conference arranged by my school, which had high-ranking diplomats and academics from all over Europe and Russia, discussing EU-Russia relations. It was absolute gold. I’d go into more details, but I’m honestly kind of dead. It was brilliant though, as obviously it’s my focus / interest area.
Wednesday was meeting up with a fellow Australian, who’s put me in touch with heaps of people, and has led to my attending a talk by Julia Gillard this upcoming Wednesday. (I mean, who goes to the other side of the world to see their ex-PM? It’ll be brilliant to be fair, Jules is my home-girl.) Then it was learning EVERYTHING, repeat EVERYTHING about Armenia, and particularly its accession to the Eurasian Economic Union last month, for a presentation yesterday. Plus classes everywhere of course. Oh my god I’m tired. Possibly compounded somewhat by the fact I seem to have forgotten how to sleep—bit of a life fail, really.
Okay. No more procrastinating—it’s surely time to head to class.
Ohhhhh my. This afternoon’s lecture resulted in rather more misadventure than I really anticipated. It all started last week (was it only last week?!) when I had lunch with the head of the Australian Society here in Belgium. She mentioned the organisation ‘YPFP‘, Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, and suggested I sign up, saying that this would help me in attending a lecture ex-Aus Prime Minister Julia Gillard would be giving the following week. (Incidentally or otherwise, ‘YPFP’ reminds me of the film ‘YPF’, which is just wholly inappropriate.)
Anyway, one thing led to another—as it often does—and this afternoon I headed over to the VUB campus to see Jules giving a speech about global education for the Kapuscinski Development Lecture series.
So, after drinking a litre of water, I wandered across to the uni in plenty of time. I got to the venue and decided to take a precautionary bathroom trip, which was fine (thanks for asking) but for the busted hand-dryer. ‘No matter’, I think to myself, and walk off to find the entrance to the auditorium. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see somebody I recognise—sure enough, it’s the girl who runs YPFP in Brussels, who works at the Aus Embassy and whom I had coffee with on Monday. I figure this must be where to go, and I can see coats hung up behind her. ‘How fancy’, I think to myself, ‘I get to put my coat away properly!’.
I walk on into the room where YPFP lady is standing. It’s actually pretty empty, with only 10-12 people. I can’t figure out what’s going on: is this not the right room? Are people putting their coats up here then heading into the venue properly somehow? Either way, I hang up my coat and go to speak with YPFP lady.
This is when things ?start? to go downhill. YPFP lady introduces me to the other two she’s standing with as the girl who brought minties and redskins (Australian lollies/sweets) for the Aus Embassy. YPFP lady then introduces them as high-ranking Aus Embassy staff: one of them was the Deputy Ambassador for the Australian Mission to the EU. EEP. Thanking me for the lollies, Deputy Ambassador then reaches out to shake my hand—my weirdly damp hand might I add—and the internal mortification begins. Likewise with the other lady.
The group then goes to join the other 8 or so people at the other end of the room, when suddenly I see red hair, and a terrifying thought dawns on me. Sure enough, red hair turns around and it’s Julia freaking Gillard and I am clearly crashing the wrong room. Then, everybody else starts to introduce themselves, and they’re all Embassy staff, Ambassadors, and Vice-Chancellor of the uni. Oh god. And I’m like…. “I’m Laura.” Because I don’t have a cool title. Though “Laura, who is about to die of mortification” may have been suitable.
People start talking, and I barely—just barely—stop myself from making a facetious comment about Australia now being allowed in Eurovision. Thank god my usually non-existent filter chose this moment to cut in. Can you even imagine?!?!
After about ten minutes of this, I saw my chance, and I tried to quietly scurry out of the door. I was not only dying of humiliation on my own behalf, but on that of YPFP lady—she clearly knew me, and I didn’t want to reflect badly on her with my politician-fiesta-crashing ways. Oh god.
I couldn’t see Aus Society girl when I made it into the actual venue, so sent her a text. It then turned out she was sitting a few rows in front and there was room, so given I was sitting in the middle of the row and everyone had the little tables in front of them down, I had to ask everybody to pick up all their stuff, put away their tables and stand up so that I could get past. Both to exit my row and to enter Aus Society girl’s row. At least I’m consistently a nightmare?
The lecture was very interesting—I don’t know much about global education initiatives, but did volunteer on the national campaigns team for a development NGO at one time, so there was a fair bit of cross-over. What was really cool though was that, at the end, the uni gave Julia an honorary doctorate—it was so touching!!
Once people started to file out, Aus Society girl voiced what I’d been wondering—would it be okay to get a selfie with Gillard? “Let’s do it,” I said. “After all, I’ve already been awkward in a room with her once tonight, I may as well continue the streak!” So we headed down to the stage, waited, and jumped on in. I automatically reached out to hug the people next to me for the photo, meaning I hugged Australia’s ex-goddamn-Prime-Minister!! Oh Laura. Is that some kind of protocol breach somewhere, somehow?
It was finally time for the ridiculousness to end (or so I thought), until YPFP girl grabbed Aus Society girl and I at the end and asked us to do a vox-pop about the lecture with a journalist. She said that we were both “erudite” women, so volunteered us. And now the two of us are in front of a video camera, for posterity, talking about the lecture. Thankfully though, for the first time tonight, I wasn’t a socially awkward pile of confusion, and I’ll post a link to the video in the next couple of days. And then, home time! Because apparently I need some sleep. And/or to hide under my doona (duvet/quilt) with my good friend chocolate and never come out again.
In other news, I wrote a guest post on Pure Jonel’s blog last week, and you can now find a link to this and all other guest blog posts/interviews etc under About>Me Elsewhere.
It’s a fairly normal day here in Belgium. That is to say, my housemates are eating, it’s raining outside, and I’m catching up on uni readings (aka ‘procrastinating’). I was idly wondering to myself this morning whether such procrastinating would result in an official Valentine’s Day post—I’m (perhaps obviously) not a V-Day kind of girl, especially given I dated a guy by that name. Now, for the first half of February, I pretty much end up narrowing my eyes at all V-Day related signs and items. If I weren’t entirely devoid of any notion of romanticism already, the first half of February would definitely cure me.
Naturally, an essential part of my procrastination today has been reading hilarious book reviews on Goodreads. And eventually, it always always comes back to 50 Shades reviews. After reading a review of the second book, I stumbled across this little gem:
There you have it, people: the abusive fuckwit character of Christian Grey is ranked 27th ‘best book boyfriend’ from at least 4911 possible options (I’m assuming there’s a predictably large number of love triangles in the books included on the list). I actually teared up. Not with laughter, mind you—with horror.
Then it struck me: what if this number 27 ranking was only his character for the second book. What about the first book?
Second. Second best book boyfriend. Wtaf. I mean for starters, have they never read Howl’s Moving Castle?! And he’s neurotic as fuck! Glaaaagh what hope for humanity.
But I’m not going to launch into another diatribe against the 50 Shades series, because apparently that’s exactly what I didlast Valentine’s Day. Instead I’m just going to leave this here, and conclude that people are screwed. In a potentially rapey, manipulative kind of way.
Domestic abuse helplines
UK: 0808 2000 247
Australia: 1800 737 732 (1800 RESPECT)
Canada: 1800 363 9010
USA: 1800 799 7233
It’s easiest for me to find the English-language hotlines, but a quick Google should help find the relevant support in your local area.
Friday morning I managed 45 minutes of my French class before leaving sick. The only obvious cure was to spend the weekend going out in Brussels. Naturally, things didn’t go to plan.
Friday evening started off well enough, taking a stroll through my suburb then heading to an Irish pub at around 22:00. One of the guys from uni was celebrating his birthday, so there were quite a few of us there. I spent a lot of time talking to people whose names I still can’t remember (seriously—I’ve been at the school for two months now. I think it’s reaching the point where it’s too late to ‘fess up and I’ll just have to stop talking to people). Eventually though, things were dying down, and a cohort of us decided to head into the city. I was dying for a night out (read: dancing, drinks, poor judgment) so despite my sobriety, obviously joined in.
There were two taxi-loads of us, and so I jumped in with an Italian guy, an American, and a girl called Oz (not to be confused with Hugh Jackman:)
The American guy, who gave me permission to use his real name but who I am instead calling ‘Herbie’, was very fucking wasted. And so, being in the passenger seat, he instigated a conversation with the Rwandan taxi driver, asking questions such as “how long have you been in Belgium?” (1997) and “so why did you leave Rwanda?” (Oz, barely holding back a face-palm: “think about it, Herbie”). Italy meanwhile wasn’t holding back on the face-palming whatsoever.
Soon enough we got to De Brouckere station, where we would meet up with the guys from the second taxi. Herbie meanwhile needed to go to the bathroom. He said he was going to go and see if there was one in the metro station, so sent himself off down the stairs. I’m chatting with Oz and Italy and we’re starting to wonder if Herbie is still alive. Oz walks over to the top of the stairs to see if she can aspy him, when suddenly there’s the sound of glass hitting the ground and Herbie running up the escalator yelling that he’s been mugged and to call the police.
The story as Herbie tells it is that he wandered down the stairs looking for a toilet, when some homeless guys ask him not to go there in the station because that’s where they’re sleeping. (Herbie meanwhile keeps asking for a ‘restroom’, which is a word nobody here knows. I’m sure that helped!) Anyway he wanders onward, fails to find a bathroom, and so turns to come back to where we’re waiting for him. At this point, he’s grabbed from behind around the throat by a big homeless dude. Herbie says, in a thick Southern accent, “je n’ai pas parle de francais, parlez anglais?” (which is wildly incorrect, but given I heard him say it at least twenty times Friday night, am 100% sure it’s what he was saying). The homeless guy says “of course” (I like to imagine he was eloquent while saying it, and possibly wearing a bow tie) and asks for money. Herbie gives the guy 10 euro, the homeless guy says he must have more; Herbie gives the guy his 9-euro phone. At this point the homeless guy releases him and so Herbie runs away, and seeing his quarry escaping, the homeless guy throws a wine bottle after him. The bottle hits Herbie on the left side, on his back above his hip, and crashes to the ground.
Anyhoo while Oz and Italy tried to calm Herbie and find out what had happened, I called the police (an adventure in and of itself). Italy and I help lift Herbie up onto a park bench, because he’s in a lot of pain from where the bottle hit him.
Soon enough the police arrive, with so many guns (Belgium), and a not-particularly-friendly dog. They check out the scene of the crime as it were, and Oz accompanies one of them down into the station to point out the culprit. Once that’s sorted and the guy’s being arrested, the police call an ambulance and Herbie reluctantly gets stashed into it. Meanwhile, Oz or Italy were going to have to go to the station to give a statement, and I was sober so volunteered to also go with them. So Oz and I pile into the back of a police car with two incredibly model-esque police officers (one guy, one girl with a gun of such epic proportions that I later found it gives her back ache) and whoosh! Sirens on, screaming through the city to the hospital! Excitement!! (And yes, yes I giggled inappropriately.)
The next few hours saw Herbie, Oz, myself and the two police officers waiting in his hospital room for an x-ray, while Herbie desperately asked every medical staff member he saw for the wi-fi password. Haha in between swearing loudly every three minutes just about on the dot, and telling us how he broke his thumb playing football. He has five screws in it! (/s)
Oz was meanwhile hearing from the guys from the second cab, and as it turned out, they’d followed us to the hospital and were in the waiting room. Poor guys! I was hoping they were out drinking twice as hard on our behalf.
Anyway eventually Herbie had his x-ray and it was just soft tissue damage; I let him use my phone to email his parents; and we then spent more quality time in the police station. It was a grim little room, full of low plastic seats, a one-way mirror, and caging over the window. Herbie was walking relatively well by this point, and his parents called my phone to check he was all good. I can’t hand-write cos of my gimpy wrist, but the other two filled in statements. However the police were still trying to find some way to recover Herbie’s phone—the homeless guy had told them the name of the person he’d given it to—so told us to wait some more. Oz lived just around the corner so was finally free to go home, but I said I’d wait with Herbie until he was on his way home (I was updating his housemate on his whereabouts in case of further misadventure/disaster). Finally—finally—our police came back and said it was a lost cause at this point, and we were free to go.
Sweet freedom!! It was well after 4am by this point and there were obviously no buses, so I saw Herbie into a cab and then summoned myself an uber (please use my discount code, kids: uberexplaura) and was home to eat chocolate cake and crash before 5am. Result.
Saturday night was also epic, though happily of the completely opposite kind. But that’ll have to wait—the girl has places to be!
Every year, Belgium decides to do something a little crazy (for Belgium), and has an event where its major museums are open from 7pm until one in the morning. And then there’s an afterparty. Because what are museums without a party?
After someone from uni asked me what the hell was going on, and did I know when/where people were meeting, I made a half-assed effort to arrange for us to all get together. Then it turned out that everybody else wanted to go to BOZAR, the fine arts museum—and as we’veseen before, I hate fine art. Sooo instead I messaged Oz’s Russian-American friend Masha, who I’d met the night before. As it turns out, she and some of her colleagues were going to the natural history museum, which is exactly where I wanted to go. Result!
A little while later, I was happily waiting beneath a giant dinosaur statue with a big pink cone.
The museum was fricking awesome. Walking in, we passed a band then headed downstairs to the dinosaur exhibit. It was interactive and just super, super cool. Anyone who comes to Brussels definitely has to check it out!
Next we headed upstairs to the evolution exhibit, where we got involved in a science play sort-of-thing. We were wandering again, looking at the awesome exhibits (including one performance artist who was pretending to be a bird—weirder even than it sounds), when Masha’s colleague Manon paused thoughtfully. “I wonder where all the animals come from?” she asked, questioningly. Naturally, I provided an appropriate answer: “well, when a mummy animal and a daddy animal love each other very much..”. Apparently that’s not what she meant? Go figure!
After a stop at the crustacean/arthropod section, we were getting pretty munchy. There were 23 museums open for the evening and we definitely wanted to see more (a lot more!), but one of the girls wasn’t down with walking, which limited our options somewhat. So we jumped onto the shuttle bus to the military museum stop, and scurried off to find some food.
At this point Ciara from my course texted that the fine arts museum was terrifying and going to give her nightmares, so I told her where we were and she joined us. This turns out to have been an excellent choice, as our next stop was Autoworld, and we both get lady-boners for beautiful cars. TMI? Don’t even care.
How adorable is this gas pump?
These bikes reminded me of Tintin!
View of part of the first floor
My true love
I was again reminded of Tintin… can’t imagine why!
Practical place for a mirror?
Our next museum was just around the corner—Musee du Cinquantenaire. By this point it was pretty much just Masha, Manon, Ciara and myself—the others were quickly falling by the way-side. So we went into this museum and walked into the first exhibit, which turned out to be about the Lascaux Caves in France. These caves are full of paleolithic paintings, and the exhibit included re-creations. You walk into this big dark tunnel, and it has the paintings re-created on the walls and lit up with subtle spot-lighting. It honestly gave me chills. Seeing these paintings, even the re-creations of them, it felt like people from 17000 years ago were talking to me. And I guess what makes it weirder is the fact that these people lived in such a different world to us: other exhibits included skeletons of the animals they lived with—ancient bison, cave lions, and mammoths. I guess I get a similar feeling around dinosaurs—these were creatures who lived on the same planet as us, but were so wildly different that they don’t even seem real. It blows my mind. But then you’ve got these paleolithic paintings, and rather than the animals (ie people) being different, it’s just the world around us. I mean, you can emote with these people, they’re not so different to us; they’ve got the same concerns and basic desires. And this was them involuntarily talking to us across an almost unimaginably long period of human history. Weird.
We remaining four were keen to try and make it to a fourth museum, so ran after a shuttle and jumped aboard. Our goal was Cinematek, the visual arts museum. Unfortunately we didn’t arrive at the appropriate stop until five to one, so it was pretty much game over. Ciara headed home, and we listened to a DJ who was performing outside. And Masha and I bought some waffles! My first Belgian waffle!! Finally!!! (Side-note: I officially don’t like waffles.)
Masha was the only one with a ticket to the official after-party, and Manon had to head home. However, someone somewhere on the internet had sent me an invitation to a ‘Secret Nights’ party being held in a private members club (I was actually suspicious it was a swinger’s party, and in this case I’m talking about the type with keys), and it was just up the road. Haha we’d had a conversation on the bus with Masha talking about the after-party, and the other two were dissembling. Meanwhile she looked at me and said “well, Australia‘s coming”. I replied with “Australia’s not even going to argue. She knows it’s happening.” So I was clearly in!
Following the little blue dot on google maps, we eventually found the entrance to the party. And it was fancy. Really fancy. Guys were all in suits (boo), and girls were in shiny dresses, full make-up, and big pointy shoes. Um, so I was in a singlet and jeans, pony-tail, and no make-up as usual. Hmmm. But Masha reckoned we could blag the dress code, and we walked past the be-penguin-suited bouncers, strode up the candle-lined red carpet, and walked in the front door.
We’re in line at the front desk, and Masha is arranging her shawl around my shoulders and offering me her lipstick. Then somehow, miraculously (and 15 euro shorter), we’re in!
We ditch our coats, bags, and my big-ass headphones, and line up to buy drink tokens. One token is three euro. One vodka is three tokens. Yeah, we weren’t going to be drinking a lot!
Either way, we headed downstairs, bought our one drink, and threw ourselves onto the dance floor. A solid dance later, we went upstairs to find a bathroom, and the desk lady saw us and started laughing. We were sweaty and bright red, because we take our dancing seriously, dammit!! Haha though Masha was outraged that she’d come all the way from the States, just to dance to American music. I pointed out that at least it was recent American music—the further east you go in Europe, the further back in time. I don’t even understand.
There were, as usual, some incredibly hot Euro men at the event. And a couple of creeps, including one way older guy who was gazing at me as we danced on the stage, somewhere between ‘adoringly’ and ‘I’m going to give you a lolly-pop and take you away in my van and you can live safely in my locked house forever‘. Luckily Masha and I had the girl-defence psychic bond going on, and danced our way away from all would-be interlopers. Anyhow, as Masha pointed out, so many of the guys here are so crazy hot, but (in her words), SO BORING. These guys just stand there, looking all serious, like good-looking statues. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel any particular desire to talk to beautiful statues. I mean, that sounds… unusual?
Masha turned 30 yesterday and I do in July, and she therefore pointed out that if we were married with kids (like so many of the people I know!), we wouldn’t be winging our way into clubs to dance our asses off in foreign cities in the middle of the night. Yup, pretty happy with my life choices.
At around quarter past three Masha couldn’t take anymore, especially given she had to fly back to DC in the morning. So we walked up the stairs, Masha singing “Titanium” at the top of her lungs and toppling over, while I fell into a giggling pile. Yup, we were those girls blocking the stairs. And we were sober! But either way, we said our farewells and I walked home, to get to bed after 4am again. This is becoming a (most excellent) habit..!