By George!

I almost forgot – but today is actually the most forgotten holiday in the British Isles: St. George’s Day, the national day of the English.

Not the British, that is, for the proud nation of the United Kingdom has no national day at all, only the Queen’s official birthday (what nonsense), but the English. Which is only beginning to become known in later years (ugh, that was a nasty sentence, but I’m too tired to rewrite it).

So while the Scots wallow in haggis on Burns Night and the Irish roll in Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day (quarter irish as I am, I grumpily boycotted the latter event this year simply because my schedule on that day prevented me from joining in the said rolling), the English do not even have a Bank Holiday on their national day, which pases most people by unnoticed anyway.

I am currently reading (and much enjoying) Jeremy Paxman’s The English: A Portrait of a People, where he points out the irony of the mainland of the former British Empire lacking such a national identity of its own. Mind you, we don’t even have an anthem of our own either, so, for example, whenever England wins the football (soccer) World Championship (ho hum), we have to borrow the national anthem of the whole of Britain, which in turn is little else than a prayer for the salvation of the Queen and has nothing to do with the rest of the country anyway.

But then again, maybe the chronic lack of football success is one of the reasons why those of us who were born in that part of the country find it so difficult to muster an English identity.

We recently discussed this at work, where the ever-present discussion on what to name the various bparts of Britain in news texts reappeared. I tried to point out that most people in, say Devon, Cornwall or Yorkshire would be perfectly happy to be called “British”, while writing “Edinburgh in Britain” would probably be enough to spark a new William Wallace uprising, even though it is technically correct.

And while there is an increasing sense of Englishness in England, the truth is that most English would refer to themselves as British rather than anything else.

Or am I wrong here? What say ye English readers of this blog? Your thoughts on this are most welcome in the Comments section.

Happy St. George’s to you while you think about what to write.

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I Am The Easter Bunny

I thought our Christmas ordeal was a challenging experience in cross-cultural communication, trying to explain to our little children the four incarnations of Santa Claus. Little did I know that I would have to become the Easter Bunny at 7 am on Easter Sunday.

Let’s recap. Our children are of Anglo-Swedish origin, and we live in Belgium. Three cultures to merge already, the latter of which we are still largely ignorant of in spite of a total of six years in this country. Our children, however, spending most of their awake hours in a Flemish school, are not.

I should have remembered last year, when we were hunting little Easter eggs all around our back yard. Another mnemonic came a few days ago in the shape of our dear little old lady neighbour downstairs, a Flemish woman with no children of her own and thus our kids’ surrogate Granny. She called me to her and snuck a large bag of little Easter eggs and candy of the same kind, with the obvious intent of helping us to repeat the act this year.

The thing is, in this part of the world, little children awake on Easter morning (I’ve never been able to figure out exactly which day it’s supposed to be) to find their gardens full of hidden chocolate eggs that have to be found. In France, these eggs are said to be spread all over the world from the Vatican’s church bells; in Belgium, for some reason I have yet to unveil, they are all laid by the Easter Bunny.

Problematically enough, however, he is not the only one who does so. Any visit to any commercial outlet of any kind this time of the year reveals that Easter Bunnies must have reproduced like, well, rabbits, because you are met with row after row, aisle after aisle, of one set of Easter eggs and candy more sugar-stuffed and unhealthy than another.

Consequently, we thought ourselves to be good parents to but the kids one large, candy-stuffed Easter egg each on Good Friday, to prevent any possible pining. But when they came home from school, they had already had a visit from the candy-dropping Bunny in their classrooms, and were thus already experiencing blood sugar levels set to saturated and rising. So we thought it good to ration the candy intake, and leave the garden chocolate hunt for Easter Day in the morning. Eager inquiries from the Four-year-old and the Six-year-old, anticipating the hunt, were met with our purportedly initiated explanations that “it’s too early yet, wait for Easter Sunday”.

Talk about making a rod for your own back.

The day before – nay, the night before – I had reason to attend to a lot of important business that kept me up late, late, late into the wee hours. Or early. Going to bed, I calculated when I would have to get up again in order to get us ready for going to Church, and decided that I could at least sleep until 8.30. Wow, almost five hours’ sleep.

How wrong I was. Ten to seven, our two little tots came bouncing into our bed – which only so happens to be the best point for getting a view of our garden – excitedly wanting to see how full of sweets the garden was. You should have seen the look on their faces when all they saw was frozen grass. Disappointment and grief doesn’t even begin to convey it.

Drowsily trying to return to the land of the living, two thoughts fought for attention from the four of my brain cells that had switched on so far

1)      Are these Belgian kiddies my children?

2)      How in the name of Pete do I get away with this?

Luckily enough, necessity is the mother of invention. I sent the kids back to bed with some half-baked explanation that it was so early that the Bunny hadn’t even made it there yet, trying to order them to sleep a little more. That is usually impossible. When the sun is shining at full floodlight strength and they are expecting one of the year’s major events, it’s as easy as drilling a mine shaft with a boiled carrot.

I then remembered that thankfully, there is a corner of our garden that you can’t see from anywhere in the house, as it is concealed behind a large shed.

So I put on a suitably troubled face (which was the one thing this morning that took the least effort), went to my grim-faced little dear ones laying in their beds and told them that I was going outside to take a closer look, just in case.

The thermometer said –0.4 C.

Well, then at least I could wear a winter jacket large enough to conceal the sack of candy from the Secret Hiding Place. Out I went, after first ripping open the little bags that these eggs come in, so as to be able to act quickly once out there.

I felt like someone out of a Biblical parable as I stood there in the garden, spreading little candy eggs like a sowerman. There must be a sermon illustration in all this. Hope the neighbours weren’t watching, but then again, they probably would have nodded in sympathy.

Next, stage two of the Deception: I took a deep breath, rushed inside, and dashed into my kids’ bedroom feigning excitement.

“I found them! I found them! They were in the corner! Come and have a look!”

Grumpily and drowsily, the kids reluctantly arose to come and see. The Six-year-old looked in some disbelief, wondering what those empty bags accidentally sticking out from Daddy’s pocket were all about. My and my wife’s acting skills were stretched to their limits as we boiled up yet another lie about them being some old trash that I was about to throw away.

I eventually managed to pour my children into suitably warm clothes, and get them outside, where they would only be able to see the candy from right behind the shed. You guessed it: the day was saved.

However, as I stood there repeating that the Easter Bunny must have been in a great hurry, why he left all the eggs in one corner of the garden – all in the name of making the illusion complete – I did wonder how I was going to reconcile the fact that I had begun this year’s largest Christian feast day by trying to systematically violate the Ninth Commandment (or Eighth, if you’re a Catholic or a Lutheran).

Better get to Church, I suppose. My alarm clock just went off 15 minutes ago.

 

 

Summit Time, And The Living Is Easy

I’m not entirely sure what’s wrong with Slovenian ham. I’ve just put down two delicious wraps with that and some other stuff in it, and it was lovely. But for some reason, they were the ones that most people here hadn’t touched at all.

In other words: It’s EU Summit time again, and I’m back at the press centre munching free sandwiches, traditionally handed out by the current Presidency so as to avoid insane queues where everybody is trying to pay for their meals. There’s hundreds and hundreds of journalists here, and any attempt to charge money for the food would probably lead to queues the length of Belgium. Where the last in line might get his/her orders in time for the next summit.

The first and second time I visited this event, the catering consisted of incredibly dry baguette rolls with dry chees or ham. Puffs of dust came out as you put your teeth into them. And – they were the only choice.

But that, I understood later, was all due to the presidency of the day, which shall remain unnamed for their culinary crime. Later presidencies have improved the snacks, introduced more variations, and the Portuguese last time offered some quite decent rolls with camembert, which raised my spirits considerably.

The current Slovenian presidency has rightly taken the opportunity to boost interestin its national cuisine, I realised as I just snuck into the press centre to check things out (and, frankly, to get a free snack).  As I said, the Slovenian ham was delicious, and I do hope that my colleagues’ disinclination to try something new and daring doesn’t put this and future presidencies off their attempts to offer something more interesting than air-dried cotton posing as bread.

Let’s see, who’s next in line…. aha, France.  Hmmm. If they do not live up to and beat du pain, du vin, et du Boursin, I shall slam them at their national pride on this blog, eternally shaming them for betraying their proud cuisine. Or something like that.

But first’ I gotta get another one of them ham wraps.

Supersize Tuesday

As most of you are aware of, today is the (in)famous Super Tuesday in the US, when a large number of states hold their primaries and when it could be de facto decided whch two candidates will stand against each other at the November election.

However, it also happens to be this year’s Mardi Gras, or Fettisdagen, or Shrove Tuesday, when you are either supposed to put on enough fat (hence the “Fat Tuesday” of the two former) or seek abolition for your sins (hence “Shrove Tuesday” for the latter) before Lent begins tomorrow, starting with Ash Wednesday when I suppose you are supposed to don sackcloth and ashes in fasting and repentance.

Remembering my previous blog post, there is probably quite a bit of repentance necessary for most of us Westerners; seeking absolution for our oppression of the Third World would be a very appropriate thing to do. But today is the Fat Tuesday, when we will be indulging in semlor.

Our British heritage should really prompt us to fatten ourselves with pancakes today, but we do that so often otherwise that there’s no point in that. (And I just read that it is now considered too dangerous to arrange pancake races anyway, in these days of the nanny state. Maybe by next year pancakes will have been outlawed too?)

But semlor is a peculiar offshoot of he Swedish cuisine which is gulped down in hedonistic quantities in that country, and revered by expatriates in foreign lands as well. It is simply a wheat bun, filled with marzipan, the top cut off to form a lid under which generous amounts of whipped cream are squirted, and dusted with powdered sugar. It was traditionally served immersed in hot milk as well, but that seems to have waned over the years.

You can buy them everywhere in Sweden this time of the year, but in our case, we have to bake our own. Which brings us to the interesting hunt for marzipan in Brussels in February.

Last year, I didn’t think much of that as any problem. I remembered having seen huge stacks of marzipan blocks at our local Ikea, and just assumed that it would be available all year rund. We invited some Swedish friends, most of them in their first year here and in need of some consolation to get through this day of tradition, and I set out to get the ingredients at the last minute as always.

However, by the time I got around to it, the marzipan was all gone, being a seasonal thing for Christmas only. It was then I re-discovered how difficult it is to bake in Belgium.

I have come across that before. I’m used to baking my own birthday cakes and the like, but I have discovered that it is virtually impossible here in Belgium. Ingredients are notoriously hard to find, and cost a fortune of you do. Ready-made cakes, however, are reasonably priced, so we have got used to the plastic taste over the years and begun buying instead of baking. But of course, you can’t buy semlor.

It seemed that marzipan was not a commodity made available to the general public at all, once I started looking for it in the supermarkets. Which is very surprising because most of the gourmet chocolate houses, which Belgium is known for, display a wide variety or artisanal marzipan goodies as well. (Do the candy makers have secret contracts? Clandestine deliveries late at night?)

And at Christmas, there are no limits to marzipan-based sweets being sold, including a very popular one that is supposed to depict the baby Jesus made from pink marzipan.

I’ve always thought it to be seriously blasphemous to chew up a pink candy baby Jesus, and I was hoping not to have to resort to using a leftover stock of such items, but with the evening arriving and the guests drawing close or the other way, desperation was at a peak and rising.

Finally, I did find some other leftover Christmas candy and the problem was solved. This year, I have stocked up on marzipan from Ikea… and forgotten to invite any guests.

Oh bother.