Some Highlights Of My Day

around 14.00    Sat at a press conference with Gordon Brown.

around 15.00    Interviewed the Swedish Prime Minister.

around 18.00    Crawled all over the floor at home on my hands and knees, playing with my little boys.

around 19.30    Partly dismantled my syntheseizer to get a ball pen out that one of my boys had managed to put in there.

around now      Will soon go and roll some meatballs for guests expected for lunch tomorrow.

Who said I lead a humdrum life?

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Peace Police

I was rolling on the floor laughing, literally in tears, last night upon hearing the explanation why the police in Iceland are not armed: They have made an agreement with the local criminals that if they won’t carry arms, the police won’t either.

Is there such a place in the known universe?

Water Of Love

(Now there’s another blog post title I’ve nicked from a song title from the Jurassic age, when I was still young and beautiful. Go figure.)

Yesterday was one of those where you find yourself searching for the Reset button. When you start closing all the windows thinking that you might be able to pull the old Microsoft trick and restart the whole day.

On the plate: Hard disk change on my stationary computer, which is about as much of an IT heart transplant as it sounds, a task which turned out to include trying to find the power supply adapter cable that I hadn’t thought of. (I now know that SATA disks, which I am testing for the first time, require another power cable than ATAs. And that there are adaptors from the standard Molex. I wish I had known that when I bough the disk, though.)

And then our new car unexpectedly had to be hospitalised, leaving me on foot far from home. I’d taken it in to investigate a strange creaking noise which had been there since one of my family’s members (I have promised her not to divulge who) had a close encounter with a block of concrete, and the repairmen started talking about possible faults of a dimension that sent the cash tills ringing in the back of my head. Not to mention that I need the car to get to the computer shop to get the cable to be able to start working on the endless task of installing, connecting and bleeding water cooling pipes, formatting, partitioning, installing programmes and drivers and moving a three-figure Gigabyte amount of files.

In other words: Stuck.

However, things did change all of a sudden, in one of those ways where you thing that Someone up there is actually looking after me after all. Walking a long distance to the bus stop going home, I suddenly remembered that there was a computer shop right behind me. I went in and explained my ordeal in my pidgin Flemish.

“Oh dear”, said the computer shop guy, doubtfully shaking his head and diving into the cellar. From whence he emerged aome time later with a tiny plastic bag in his hand.

“It’s the last one!”

Back in business! Suddenly I was able to get things running. Collecting the kids from school turned out to be much easier than I thought; they didn’t mind the walk to the garage, and my Mrs came with me to help out. My understanding boss sent me some encouraging words. And the car turned out to have only minor damages which were nicely fixed at a fraction of what we had started fearing.

This general relief was probably why I let myself be dragged without the expected kicking and screaming to the local sports complex to go swimming. My wife used to be a semi-professional; I can’t swim. Hence a source of marital tension. But my six-year-old has been going there for a year with his school, and my four-year-old has recently shown interest, so I had grudgingly agreed to pay the place my first visit.

I must confess, was expecting to spend the next few hours shivering in something run-down and shoddy. After all, I’ve seen so many awful public areas in Belgium to learn not to expect very much, or maybe to have becom prejudiced, sorry to say. Not to mention that the water in every public bath I have been to – in Sweden at least – is usually kept at a temperature suitable for Greenland whales.

But it turned out to be the most brilliant, clean, neat, modern, well-kept and pleasant set of indoor pools I have visited; with some nice features I haven’t seen anywhere else. Refurbished only four years ago! Large windows! Tastefully designed! Hot showers! And warm water in the pools!

My six-year-old was very happy to show Daddy around for the first time, my four-year-old didn’t want to go home, my wife was happily trawling around in the pro pool, and life was suddenly very pleasant again indeed.

I suppose that’s where I got the strength to start wrestling with the computer again, which I did until about 04.30 this morning.

Shutdown, A Survival Guide

Today was one of those days that you might call Survival Day here in Belgium. It’s a public holiday – the day after Pentecost – which means that all is closed. Complete shutdown.

Fine, I certainly think people need time off. But when it goes over more than a normal weekend, life suddenly becomes an exercise in Urban Survival.

Cash is first. Cash dispensers (ATMs) usually dry up on day three of any given long weekend, in central Brussels usually on Sunday nights I am told, so the first thing to do is to raid the hole in the wall. I normally don’t like to carry a lot of cash around for security reasons – cash in my wallet is in great danger of being spent – but since I’ve had quite a lot of problems with my VISA card lately, you can’t rely on your card being useful.

Then comes food and supplies. Supermarkets are usually shut on Sundays, basically with no exceptions when it comes to the usual chains, and they remain as shut on extra holidays. At the same time, all family will be in to eat every meal at home, you might want to get a little extra this-or-that for your extra time together, and oh maybe someone might drop by as well. So, next thing is to work out your prep list and try to foresee all the variables that come with having kiddies; for instance, sudden surges in milk consumption.

(I have many times considered buying a cow, which would take care of the need for mowing the lawn as well, but it probably couldn’t keep up with the demand in this family. In fact, I was delighted when we first moved here to see that our farming neighbour had three cows just across the fence, and I quickly asked him in my lousy Dutch if we couldn’t buy milk directly from him. He burst out laughing and laughing, and then gave me a basic biology lesson explaining why a cow without a calf doesn’t produce any milk. OK, I thought, I’m a city boy, fair cop; but then it turned out that he’d been sharing this amusing story about those crazy city-folks for foreigner newcomers with half the village.)

Then you need to make itiniary plans. Belgium has roughly ten million inhabitants, but I can assure you that there are at least twenty million cars out on the motorway around Brussels alone during any given rush hour during normal workdays. During long holidays, the Belgian roads are little else than oblong car parks. So if you plan on going somewhere – get out early. And no, traffic doesn’t get lighter during the day because everyone else would be heading out early too – we’ve tried that; the less said about that day, the better.

This time, I thought I had it all worked out. Every food storage area in our apartment was properly stocked. We were staying at home to relax. I had the cash I needed. But of course we ran out of milk anyway, and then, well, er, there’s no easy way of saying this, but… ehrm, let’s just skip the reasons, and say that we ran out of toilet paper, and leave it at that. And when you do, especially for the very reasons that cause you to run out of such items, you simply must go and get more.

Luckily, we have by now mapped the waterholes for such events. There’s a lovely little shop down in central Sint-Pieters-Leeuw called (simply) Deli Traiteur, which has assumed the mission of staying open whenever everyone else stays shut. It’s great business for them, and they’re pretty well stocked as well. AND they’re always nice and friendly. AND the shop is neat and inviting. AND they always happily take my VISA card.

I just checked their web site and it turns out that they have more than twenty branches all over Brussels, all with generous opening hours. I haven’t visited them all, of course, but if they’re as good as the one we go to, they’re well worth being your first call in case of holiday horror. They’re a bit expensive, which is why we don’t shop there regularly, but on a shutdown day, it’s worth every cent. Bedankt!

As a little irrelevant twist, our local Deli Traiteur this time was displaying a set of premium spices from the Swedish company Santa Maria – in a display box with all text in Swedish. Quite a strange sight. Which you won’t get to see here, of course, because I forgot to take my camera as usual.

(By the way, there’s a famous news photographer in the US, also named Jonathan Newton. Maybe all the photographic DNA from the gene pool of all Jonathan Newtons has been sucked out to him… that would explain one or two things. Any other Jonathan Newton out there who is as bad at taking pictures as I am who can confirm this?)

Monday Sermon

Take some time off and listen to the full twentysomething minutes of this, won’t you:

(click to play… for those of you reading this via feed, you probably have to click yourself to this blog post on my site first)

Nice Gesture

It’s things like this that make you, all said and done, realise that you’re going to miss Tony Blair when he quits. I mean, it’s common courtesy for world leaders to congratulate newly-elected colleagues, but dressing down, going on YouTube, and doing it in French, in order to reach young people, is a brave and commendable thing to do indeed. If only you’d see more of this kind of stuff more often… maybe we’d avoid some of the more stupid confrontations that plague us.

(Press to play)

Two Choices

Some time ago, I enjoyed a great sermon in my church along the lines of “You’ve Got Two Choices”.

Before saying anything else, I should add that my church is NOT into whacking people over their heads with simple fix-all solutions. (I would run for the door if that would ever happen, let me assure you.) Rather, its preachers usually draw upon their own experiences, pains, struggles and joys to help and encourage.

Anyway. I remembered this as I realised that I could choose to look at my life right now in two different ways.

Either:

1) Ten years ago this month, I was living in Brussels, I was cold and soaked, I was broke, I felt I had accomplished very little in life, I had no idea about the future, and I was driving an old automatic gearbox car that cost a lot of money in repairs. Today, I am living in Brussels, I am cold and sometimes soaked, I am broke, I feel I had accomplished very little in life, I have little idea about the future, and I am driving an old automatic gearbox car that costs a lot of money in repairs.

Or:

2) Ten years ago this month, I was living in a crummy, run-down shambolic useless excuse for an apartment, which my then girlfriend Y could hardly visit for fear of the neighbourhood, I had no job, no family, precious little food, and no education. Today, I am living in a beautiful apartment, my girlfriend Y now having become my wife, in a neighbourhood which is as safe as it gets, I have a great job, two wonderful children, food on the table, and a BA.

Both ways of looking at the last ten years are equally true factually speaking. The entire difference is in what we journalists would call “the angle”, or, to put it into the context where I started, which choice I make when thinking of things.