Sunday, 29 August 2010

Autumn leaves....

We are coming up to my favourite time of the year. I was lucky to live close to some spectacular parks in London. In Bayswater Kensington Gardens were just 1 minute from my front door, and when I lived in Connaught Square (before Blair moved in 4 doors away, I hasten to add) I was almost on top of Hyde Park. But as with most things, Bermondsey outshines the rest of London, and Southwark Park comes second only to St James Park as far as I am concerned. Autumn is the time to walk in the park - the reds and browns of the trees are even more spectacular than the blooming flowers.

And now I am going to say something positive about Brussels, for a change.

It is a city with many hidden features, one of which is a little ecological park - the Jean Felix Hap Park. It is on Chausee de Wavre, behind the white wall opposite the Brussels International Catholic School. Not a lot of people know about it, which is what makes it so perfect. This morning I was pleased to see the leaves turning red.

I'm very fond of this park. A few years ago I decided to add to my cv by taking a diploma in environmental policy. It was one of the most enjoyable subjects I ever studied, and Jean Felix Hap Park is where I tucked myself away with my textbooks during the summer months.

What particularly impresses me is the absolutely pristine condition of the park. If a plant wilts, the staff know about it instantly. It also boasts the source of Etterbeek's original freshwater source, and the small lake that still remains is superbly looked after.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Who said nostalgia ain't what it used to be?

There are a great many things I miss about London. One of these is the museum of childhood at Bethnal Green. If you were never there, then you must go, although for the sake of appearances it is best to take a child along. It is an outpost of the V&A, so you can imagine the standards. There is a good cafe, and the park & Bethnal Green library are just behind. If you cross the road to Paradise Row, you can see the home of Dan Mendoza, probably the greatest boxer of the 18th century. The benches in the little garden in Paradise Row are a great place to sit and watch the East End go by. I should be a tour guide...

There is a toy museum in Brussels, which is also worth a visit. I don't think it ever had a curator as such, as everything is just sort of spread out in a chaotic fashion. But then, maybe, thats the way a child would do it... 

It does of course have some typical Belgian touches, the first of which I discovered on the museum website, which announces that "We are open 366 days a year..."

This one is a wee bit off the tourist trail, but is located close to the city centre, near Metro Botanique, and is well worth a visit. A bit of advice - take a cold drink and a snack, as there is no cafe, although you can leave and go out for it and they will let you back in. Also, it has a shop which is the place to go for retro-style childrens toys. 

If anybody else has some tips on good toy museums elsewhere in Europe, please feel free to leave a comment :)

Bethnal Green:

Friday, 27 August 2010

The Spiders Are Coming!

A number of US Army trucks have been stranded at the docks in Antwerp since August 14th. This is because they have been found to be infested with Black Widow spiders.

The Black Widow is unlikely to survive the Belgian climate, according to experts, but this is still alarming news indeed. They say all men have a feminine side to their character, and mine manifests itself in a complete terror of spiders. You can't trust anything that has its skeleton on the outside, as far as I am concerned.

So we are all in agreement. Me, the Yanks, and the dock workers all agree that these little bastards must be ruthlessly exterminated.

There is, however, a problem. A problem that could surely only arise in Belgium. The local authorities want to kill the spiders, but they cannot act until the Health Department produces the documents enabling them to do so. At the time of writing, they have been waiting for 2 weeks.

Waiting for a Belgian government department to produce documents. Hmmmm.... now there is a recurring experience.

Belgian road junctions...

Driving in Brussels, as anybody who has ever met me in a bar will know, is one of my pet hates.

I recently had another of those moments that can only happen in this city. It was at a road junction that only a Belgian urban planning commitee could come up with. 4 roads, 2 tramlines, and numerous hidden bus lanes all converge on one junction - and it is worth remembering that Belgians also place their pedestrian crossings on road junctions. It is hairy to say the least.

I had a green light, and so it was my turn to inch forward, head frantically turning from side to side  like a fighter pilot scanning the skies for enemy trolley-buses. Then the lady in front of me, riding a pushbike, stopped in the middle of the road. She then, to my astonishment, dismounted and proceeded to pull up her stockings. I yelled, politely, for her move her bleeding jacksy. She ignored me completely, taking her own sweet time adjusting her attire. In the meantime, the lights had changed, and the floodgates opened, with me stuck in the epicentre of the junction. From every direction all manner of vehicles, public and private, hurtled towards me hooting, flashing, and wildly gesticulating at me.

Belgium's answer to Nora Batty calmly got back on her bike and rode to the pavement as if nothing had happened. It was not a nice experience.

Spot the flaw in Belgium's new public health strategy.

Belgium's Federal Public Health Ministry has announced a cunning new plan to improve public health. They are going to sterilise all the cats. They plan to have "most cats" sterilised by 2016, according to the newspaper "Flanders today", (which rather sensibly is printed in English).

They will start with cats in shelters, and then roll the plan out. This is where, in true Belgian fashion, they introduce a major flaw into the strategy.

Cat breeders are going to have to sterilise their cats.

I guess this means that after 2016, cats breeders will have to retrain, and Belgium will become a net importer of kittens.

On the other hand, if the cats are sterile, then the breeders won't have to do much work - which is just the way that Belgians like it!

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Spaced Out

Its an old adage that if one walks across Grand Place at 4am, when it is totally deserted, and then stands still, a Belgian will walk into you within a second. Belgians have absolutely no concept of personal space at all.

This afternoon, I decided to have a bar of chocolate from a vending machine in the parliament. The place is pretty empty right now, so as I approached along the shopping mall like ground floor, with its banks, hardresser, dry cleaner, newsagent and permanently closed post office, there was just me and a Belgian. I knew he was Belgian, because of the funny tuft of hair growing from just under his lower lip. Its very popular over here. The 3-piece cordrouy suit was also a bit of a giveaway. I sensed that he would walk behind me, and then want to use the same vending machine as me, at the same time. I was right!

I stood back to let him go first. Instantly, 2 more appeared, like characters from Shaun of the Dead, and a pantomime began. Together, they all tried to work out how to use the machine. I sat down to watch, sensing that this might be entertaining. How many different ways, I wondered, can they fail to put 60 cents into a slot to by a mars bar?

After 5 minutes, and much jangling of coins and banging on the glass, they all left, shrugging at each other. I decided to try my luck. The vending machine that worked perfectly well yesterday is now well and truly bolloxed.