Friday, 25 March 2016

How it feels when the heart of the city you love is broken #BrusselsAttacks

The location of home is a movable feast. For some it is a cosy image of a childhood house where their heights through the years are pencilled on the wall. For others their minds will forever return to those formative university years. For some it is an adoptive city where they finally found their place in life. For me, I left my heart in Brussels. I only lived in the city for seven years, but it is where I had my first kiss, first heard the words ‘I love you’, first had my heart broken and first learned that life goes on despite this. 

Brussels is not just any city to me, but my city. I awoke on Tuesday to the radio blaring that it was under attack, that bombs had ripped through Zaventem airport, smashing and pulverising travellers just like me. Perhaps on their way home to see beloved grandparents as I had been so many times, or simply harried commuters who were glued to the email on their phones seconds before that life was destroyed. I could feel the howling pain of a city so small that any attack would touch someone, somewhere, you knew. 

When a second explosion blew out the doors of a silver metro train, vapourising dozens of lives in its foul wake, it was at a station that I had travelled through daily on the way to and from school. It was a station whose name flashed past my eyes on my commute as I yawned away the morning, as I wondered if I had done all my homework, as I excitedly anticipated seeing my boyfriend. Maalbeek was part of the wallpaper of my morning journey. 
As smoke belched out bloodied commuters on to the street, I felt the tears begin to flow. Why? I hardly know anyone who lives in the city anymore, and those that I did know were not likely to have been travelling in the morning rush hour. But while I could weep for every family crushed and shattered by death and loss, the familiarity of this tragedy made it hit home much harder. 

Brussels is a like a familiar teddy to me, a well worn comforter that makes me feel at home. Walking across the cobbled Grand Place, its soaring gothic confections surrounding me is like a hug from my childhood. The antiques market of the Sablon, a babble of the monied denizens of Uccle poring over heavy oil paintings and glitzy ornaments, was what drifted through my window as I tried to enjoy that teenage privilege of sleeping until 2pm. 

The Midi station was the unsavoury starting place for trips home to London, the Bourse, where now candles flicker to remind us of the dead and injured, was where I would grab a post drinks McDonald’s burger. The trams and metro were my network of freedom, taking me to parties and nightclubs, to assignations and break ups, to gossip with friends and to get to school. 
I cannot compute the comfortably bourgeois city of women in fur coats and children in preppy chinos, of chocolate shops displaying their sweet wares like precious jewels, of the salty, greasy joy of chips and mayonnaise, of waffles crisp and vanilla sweet, with this city of dust, destruction, twisted shrapnel and nails of hate flying and piercing it to the core. 
I suppose I shouldn’t care about the mayhem unleased in Brussels more than anywhere else in the world, but I do. Having lived in London for the past couple of decades since leaving Brussels, the concept of bombs, horror, terrorism and innocent blood shed is hardly alien. There have been attacks on the tubes, beheadings in the streets and the treat of a spewed outpouring of bile and bombs is never far away. 

But Brussels is different; it is cosy, sedate, perhaps even smug and pompous, but for it to become a hot bed of terror is inconceivable. Though I, and many contemporaries, will admit perhaps it should’t have come as quite such a surprise. Disenfranchisement is the currency of Brussels. As French speakers squabble with Flemish, and tie themselves up in the impenetrable tangles of red tape, a whole community of North Africans was left to fester for decades, creating a culture ripe for brainwashing. 

Despite living in a smart square in central Brussels I was often confronted with the spray painted words, ‘Maroc dehors’ (Morrocans Out). There was no sense of integration, instead these dark skinned immigrants were ignored and demonised. 
Racism was a part of everyday life, perhaps because no one who had spent any time on the night time streets of Brussels had avoided a casual mugging or, as a girl, groping from the sullen clusters of North African youths, who longed for the trappings of a comfortable life, but wouldn’t dare to aspire to it in this fragmented society. 

Everyone in Belgium carries a carte d’identit√©. When I lived there in the early 1980s acquiring one as a foreigner was a humililating and alientating experience. You would arrive early, before the office opened, and queue along the pavement for hours before being greeted with a brusque yes or no as to whether you were someone the Belgians wished to become a part of their country. Belgian civil servants are renowned amongst residents for their surly approach to customer service. 
This was the days before Schengen took effect in 1995, so we Brits queued alongside everyone else. It was not pleasant to feel unwelcome in a country you wanted to call home, but at least we knew that our ID cards would be issued once we reached the head of the queue. I’m sure this wasn’t such a dead cert for those whose colour ensured their faces didn’t fit so easily.

Even once Moroccan immigrants were granted their cards they would need them far more than I. Belgian police are not the friendly bobbys on the beat I knew from my life in England. They tout machine guns and have the right to stop anyone to ask for their papers. 

They would regularly trawl the Rue Neuve, one of the arteries of night life, on a Saturday demanding ID from random revellers. Well I say random: for white teenagers we could wave our slip of green card and be on our way; brown youngsters would be smashed against the side of the police van and frisked. There was no sense that there should be any fairness in stop and search policies. If you were brown you were fair game. 

I would love to say I cared, but at the time this was just life. Moroccans didn’t mix with regular Belgians, even less so with the monied ex-pat crowd I was part of. They preyed on us, stole from us, grabbed at us in the street, made us feel uncomfortable with their dark brown stares. There was no attempt to assimilate them; instead they were hidden in ghettos, fear and loathing keeping them in segregated schools and low paid jobs. 

These were not a section of society that we chose to recognise, but instead sought to ignore. Belgium is not a progressive society. Perhaps that is what I loved so much about it. This is a place where one style of jacket remained in fashion for a full 25 yearsfrom the early 70s to the late 90s. Where bars, restaurants, architecture and shops are prized for traditon and longevity, not innovation or change. 

But this slow pace of change also means the feuds are never settled, and that bureaucracy moves at a snail’s pace. The tradition of closing for lunch, a plethora of bank holidays, keeping the hours that Britain ditched back in the 50s, are all prized above actually solving problems. 

It is also a tiny place, that has, admittedly through some fault of its own, become guardian of the peace in a bloody war between ISIS and everyone who disagrees with them. With a population of just over 170,000 people, the equivalent of a single small London borough, Brussels has now been tasked with acting as the gatekeeper of Islamic terrorism. 
While Belgium may be to blame for not keeping its house in order, when cities like Paris and London cannot keep their populations safe, how on earth could Brussels be expected to? 

This is a tiny and provincial country rife with dividesa country that cannot decide the identity or language of its own peopleso it is perhaps no wonder that it failed so spectacularly at assimilating a culture with whom it had nothing in common.

So as my old home rebuilds the devastating damage inflicted by these bombs, my only hope is that by smashing its heart to smithereens, there is some chance to rebuild it free from the racial fault lines that have always threatened to tear it asunder. 

Saturday, 12 March 2016

The monotony of a long term cook

Putting the last candy sweet, acid bright lick of icing onto a showstopper challenge cake, lifting a glass cloche to unleash a puff of fragranced steam, watching a swoosh of rich jus being painted, just so, onto the pristine white of a porcelain plate. These are sights that I cannot get enough of on my television screen.

The Great British Bake Off is must-see viewing for all the family, and I can be found, surrounded by a squirming sea of boys, glued to the soggy bottoms whenever the series airs. The orgasmic groans of Gregg Wallace as a particularly delicious pudding melts its way down his throat have me in paroxysms of joy, and don't get me started on Heston's Feast. When he crafts a jelly baby out of ox's blood and angel's breath (or something equally implausible) I can hardly contain myself.

Which is why it surprises me how dull I find cooking nowadays. You would think that someone with shelves bulging with bright ideas from Nigella and Jamie, a monthly subscription to Good Food Magazine and a family-sized belly to prove my enthusiasm for the consumption of food would enjoy the process of the creation of food more than most.

It was not ever thus, once I did relish whipping up a delectable feast for lovers, friends and sometimes, at a push, even family. I remember my first serious relationship, which spanned my late teens and early 20s, was measured in grand meals I would cook for our unappreciative young friends. They would happily live off Pringles, booze and huge chocolate bars, but was determined to be 'grown up' and host sophisticated dinner parties replete with herb-crusted lamb and lavender-infused panacea.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that, old before our time, that boyfriend and I reached that stage of boredom with one another that wouldn't usually hit until mid life crisis years and split up when we were just past 25.

It was with a real sense of abandon that I threw out my aprons and matching dinner sets. For a good year I subsisted on Kit Kats, Special K and vats of white wine. While I am sure that I paid the price internally, that divorce diet of hedonsism and self neglect was ideal in terms of slimming me down ready to find my next catch.

Part of the attraction was that my new man helped to restore my deep affection for food and we spent our courtship enjoying romantic meals a deux and lovingly crafting meals for one another.

Then along came children. At first this did little to abate my culinary activities. I remember the night I went into labour I had just put the finishing touches to a chocolate bread and butter pudding ready for a dinner party that weekend. The arrival of a newborn put paid to the party, but we did enjoy the pudding, warmed up from the freezer, some months later.

When it was time for solids the neat, blonde, neon-white smiling Annabel Karmel, nestled herself between the quirky charm of Nigel Slater and the haute cuisine of Gordon Ramsay on my book shelves.

I learned what a mouli was for, and why it should be avoided at all costs, and could find my way to the butternut squash section of the supermarket with my eyes closed. My fridge was soon clogged by icebergs of tiny cubes of frozen mush. Meal times became a fraught battleground as I tried to persuade my son that he would not die if he let a mouthful of courgette pass his lips. I lost, as he is quite right, these are the Devil's vegetables.

This was perhaps the beginning of the end of my love affair with cooking. After spending hours pureeing and mashing all manner of exotic fruits and vegetables, wasting time that could so much more profitably have been spent, slumped, asleep, in front of the TV, seeing it tossed to the floor without even being tasted was soul destroying.

Fast forward through years and years of serving up teas of fish fingers, pizza, pasta and chicken nuggets to an unappreciative audience of children and my romance with cooking has been cremated. Every night I wrack my brains as to what to feed us all that will be nutritious, tasty and easy to make. I fall back on staples that are dull and do little to excite the appetite, but I have neither the will nor the inclination to try harder.

I thought that when my husband took over cooking duties when I went back to work things might improve, but within a month he had that same rabbit caught in headlights look when asked what was for supper.

I used to wonder why my mother said that my grandmother's fondest wish was that they would invent a tablet you could give children that would fill them up and provide them with all the nutrients they needed. Now I know just what she meant and hope that some bright spark will make her wish come true.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Why I hate the supermums of Instagram

When I was a kid the worst words a host could utter were 'Would you like to see our holiday snaps? As it presaged at least half an hour of h oohing and aahing over utterly dull shots them and their kids posed against landmarks in some not awfully far flung destination. Even worse was if they were a bit more tech savvy and could put them up into a slide show. Everyone would sit, stifling yawns, in a darkened room as we were subjected to grainy slide-after-slide of pictures of them splashing in the waves in their Speedos (it was the 70s after all).

Back then pictures of other people's lives were probably the dullest form of entertainment imaginable. Fast forward 30 or so years and we can't seem to get enough of them. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have made billions courtesy of our insatiable desire to devour images of other people's lives. It has also made a pretty penny for those select few whose photos everyone wants to see too. Gather yourself a few thousand, or indeed tens of thousands, of followers who lap up your smug photos of your perfect life and you can bag yourself a fortune from brands who want to hook themselves to your star.

So what's changed? It's very simple - the ability to edit your life so you only show the gorgeous, heavily filtered, glossy magazine version of your daily life.

In the days of film, your dad would take a shaky shot of you, cutting off half your head, with your belly hanging out and a weird expression on your face. But you wouldn't know how monstrous you looked until the photo came back from the chemist, by which time far too much had been invested in the photo not to keep it for posterity.

Seventies family life is preserved in all its Technicolour horror, though thankfully it is now consigned to dusty albums or retro slide boxes, that are only aired when your parents want to embarrass you in front of your kids.

Family life in 2016 can be doctored as thoroughly as any magazine front cover, which has led to the rise of the model family as portrayed so deeply annoyingly by the uber mums of Instagram.

Where once it was acceptable to slide disgracefully into motherhood. Once you had an extra human being to care for it was OK to let your standards slip. A day spent wiping up slicks of unmentionable bodily fluids was excuse enough to live in tatty tracksuit trousers and a ratty T-shirt that skimmed over the bumps left behind after expelling a child or two.

Not any more. Now mums are tortured by shots of women who seem intent on sharing how bloody amazing they are. Their children are photogenic and dressed immaculately in the latest mini me fashions, their houses are interior designed to the hilt, their holidays are not sandy sandwiches on a windswept beach, but infinity pools in exotic locations and, worst of all, they still look gorgeous in a bikini.

How I hate these paragons of perfection who remind us that you (and your husband) that don't have to let yourself go after having children. In fact you can still be a sex goddess, a loving mummy, a wild explorer and a fitness queen.

Oh please do fuck off with your year long sabbaticals jetting around the world with your stunning bevy of blonde toddlers, your insistence that motherhood is no reason to jettison your fashion sense, and your meals that look as if Jamie Oliver just popped round to cook an organic tea for your tots.

If only I still had mini people of my own I could set up an anti-instamum account, sharing only shots of me when I had been freshly puked on, had failed to wash my hair for a week and still had a preggie bump two years after my child had exited my womb. I could wax lyrical about the beauty of elasticated waists and food from jars, I could let my devoted followers watch as I jetted from Tesco to  push a crying child on the swings in a wind swept park. I could inspire envy with shots of my children literally coated in snot, or whinging in a wee soaked nappy. I could be the real mum of Instagram.

I am sick of the reality of motherhood being airbrushed under the carpet, and I think it is about time mums are reminded that while there may be the rare and exotic few for whom becoming a keeper of several small and wild things makes her more beautiful, successful and all round amazing, for most of us it's still a challenge getting dressed and out in the morning.