Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Taming the Shrew

So last night I took my roommate, Yoka, and our friend Marwa for Yoka's belated birthday dinner. As happens whenever females convene in groups greater than 1, we started to discuss the men in our lives. It's amazing how non-flattering these stories can get. Anyway, Yoka and I were telling Marwa about Yoka's new boyfriend Will having invited Yoka to Scotland for a meet-the-parents session.

This invitation had come near the end of a meal we had been sharing at home this past weekend. While discussing the trip, I started to notice that Yoka, who is really thin but eats MONSTROUS amounts of food (and keeps off the weight by being a cave-diver/runner/cyclist kinda gal) was using the side of her fork to scrape food from her plate that I, sitting across from her, realized could not be seen with the naked eye. She would scrape her plate a little and then, as though there was actually food on her fork -- which, there was not -- put it in her mouth as though she was actually eating -- which she couldn't have been. At this point I have to say that, even though that sounds odd, when Yoka does this kind of thing, she does so with a quirky sort of elegance.

Yoka is Belgian-European and has habits around food that, to my Canadian eyes anyway, are endlessly fascinating and charming. I love sharing meals with Yoka. It's not just that it's amazing to watch a lovely redhead who weighs, maaaaybe, a buck-10, consume massive quantities of cream-covered pasta, bread, cheese, olives, salad, and and whatever else is on the table, and then end her meal with a dainty little flourish of chocolate mousse -- but it's the way she eats ("you know what would be so perfect"? she will ask innocently following an anaconda-like eating session "a little chocolate mousse. It's soooo delicious" and she will smile widely and jump to our miraculous chocolate-mousse producing refrigerator).

Yoka approaches her meals as though everything she eats is endlessly interesting and tasty and she makes delighted, "yummy noises". It's quite adorable. So when she finished this particular meal (we had been eating for almost 2 hours by then... pretty typical for a Sunday afternoon around here) by scraping the molecules, I teased her by asking if she would like to lick her plate (she had done it the week before), and I said I would look away.

(Notice Yoka's spoon... I'm lucky to have got this shot before all this food disappeared)

Caught, she laughed and said "it's just so delicious. I don't want to miss any".

Will, however, gave her a level stare as though seeing her for the very first time and asked "you lick your plate"?

Yoka and I looked at each other, grinning a little. I said nothing. Yoka with an innocent-sounding Belgian-English accent said "weeelll, yes. Sometimes I do. If my meal is delicious". I looked at Will who clearly was assessing this new information and trying to reconcile it against his image up to that moment of his fantastically wonderful, beautiful, sexy new girlfriend. He honestly looked as though he'd never seen her before. "You don't do it all the time though, do you"?, he asked.

Yoka looked at me, perplexed. I answered for her "well, of course she doesn't". He didn't look convinced. "Besides, it's not excessively unusual" I continued in her defence, "haven't you ever licked your plate".

"No". He said and turned to Yoka, "You're not going to lick my parents plates, are you"?

"What"? We said simultaneously.

"Your plate", he said. "You're not going to lick your plate at the dinner table when we visit my parents, will you"?

"Of course not" We both said again, simultaneously. They looked at me. "Well, I mean, of course she wouldn't lick her plate in front of your parents" I said. "Who would do that"? I looked at Yoka, suddenly unsure. "You wouldn't lick your plate at Will's parent's house, would you"?

"NO"! She said

"See" I said

"Well, I'd hope not" said Will

See, Will's parents are Scottish and, by his description, are quite conservative. I suspect he's at least as conservative as they are.

So last night after we laughingly retold this story to Marwa she exclaimed "he's Taming the Shrew"!!

"Oh my God"! I said with sudden clarity, "he IS. He's taming the Shrew"!!! and Marwa and I broke up in peals of laughter.

"He's what"? said Yoka "what's he doing"?

"He's taming the Shrew" we choked out together
"Shakespeare" I said, not breathing
"You're Katherine" laughed Marwa

"I don't know what you're talking about" said Yoka, who has been educated in the Belgian school system and hasn't read much non-continental literature.

"You're Eliza Doolittle" I said, non-helpfully "You know, Pygmalion".

"Listen" said Marwa a bit seriously "you said he started correcting your grammar sometimes... "

"Yes, well", said Yoka in perfect English, "but my English. It's not perfect".

"... and now he's worried about your table manners in front of his parents", continued Marwa, "he's grooming you for the visit. He's taming the shrew".

I nodded in agreement.

"...and you're the shrew". Marwa concluded.

I nodded slowly.

"Well" said Marwa, speaking for both of us, "We think you're perfect".

Yoka looked at me. "Completely" I said.

"What's a shrew"? asked Yoka after a moment.

Marwa and I weren't expecting this.

"Uhhh, I'm not sure", Marwa evaded, and started looking around for the waiter, "does anyone want chocolate mousse"?

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Lost Weekend
Different Weekend. Same big damn waste of time. It was as though last weekend I ran a pilot and this weekend is the real thing. So far the project to become the most bored/boring girl in Belgium is a big success.

My Saturday so far (I’m not proud):

-- Slept until 10:30, got up, looked at the sunny day and decided to shower and go outside immediately to get some sun and exercise…. Juuuust as soon as I checked Reddit to see if anything interesting had bubbled up in the last 8 hours

-- Read Reddit and must have blissed out in hyperlink-Heaven because….
-- At about 1:30, said “holy fu@k, I’ve been reading Reddit for 3 hours?!!! I’ve got to get showered and get outside"…. Juuuust as soon as I log in to YouTube to see if they have any Trailer Park Boys episodes
-- Watched Trailer Park Boys episodes on YouTube for no fu@king idea how long
-- Slipped into watching amazing but random-seeming videos about people eating mentos and drinking diet coke… as well as doing pretty incredible sleight-of-hand tricks with cigarettes.
-- At about 5pm, noticed it was 5pm and started to wonder if I’d been abducted by aliens because I had the feeling that 3 hours had passed that I couldn’t quite account for. Decided I definitely had to head out the door when I….

-- Got a call from former-lover Belal and, stupidly, took it and...
-- Listened to Belal explain how he can’t live without me and how we must be together and that we will have a very passionate life together... in SAUDI ARABIA (Theoretically this could work I guess, as long as 20-yr-old recently deflowered Wife#1 doesn’t discover us and, I don’t know, have me killed or something).
-- Hung up and toasted the newlyweds with a shot of Crown Royal.
-- Took this picture, thinking I might send it to Belal:

-- Realized that this is more than just a little bit creepy and deleted it before sending.

It’s now 8pm (even though my posting time disagrees.. can't figure out how to reset the timezone) and, although I have had a shower, I’m still sitting in front of my computer thinking I’ll finish this quick blog entry and go outside… except now it’s getting a little dark. Maybe I’ll juuuuust check to see if there is anything new.

I suck.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Humour of any kind will NOT be tolerated
or "rule #9023438: Acting Canadian is punishable by instant demoralization"

First of all, I need to preface this by saying that this was all my fault. I know that. I should have known better. It won't happen again.

My department was about to publish a policy with, shall we say, a non-trivial security gap in it. This yellow-eyed new policy has been creeping closer and closer to the front door just waiting to be released into the courtyard to be discovered by some devious soul who recognizes the power it wields. It's part of my role to identify these things and help prevent them.

Last night, thinking that it would be nice to write a non-boring email for a change, I chose a less conventional format for my concerns. Specifically I structured them in a well-written, plausible but fictional dialogue between my boss and another person involved in the policy. The style I chose for this dialogue, obviously, was 2-part radio dramatic-comedy. The premise involved these two people walking along the process flowchart via the precise path that ultimately led to their discovering the Very Dangerous Policy. In my dialogue, they discovered it, quickly executed an elegant course correction, and saved the organization from ending up at the same conclusion. They were heros. I will say that I liked this format because it made it very clear that the outcome had potential to occur and that it could also be avoided. I also concluded it with a summary of the issue and a solid recommendation (author's note: please quickly conclude weak attempt to establish credibility as a creative-but-sensible non-wacko) .

For anyone thinking 'hey, that's kind of a clever way to get your boss' attention' -- unless you are having that specific thought while sitting on your puffy pillow at your tiara-shaped desk at your job where you work as a chihuahua petter for Paris Hilton, let me save you some pain. It's not a clever idea. It is a bad idea. Read this slowly: A Very. Bad. Idea. And, if you happen to work in the technology sector, with Belgians -- in Belgium -- it's considered psychotic.

I received the following email response from my boss:

If you have this kind of time, I would rather you use it to complete the R&R Matrix.

Not cool. Did you notice that he used the unhappy face? That is the Belgian equivolent of "STRIKE-ONE!!"

So, you're probably wondering what I did in response to this. You're probably thinking it's one of 3 things: a) Sent him a note of apology, b) Did nothing in the hopes the matter will be forgotten, or c) sent a note saying that I had written the email on my own time and that a better use of my time in future will be to do yoga or cook a nice dinner.

You guessed it. It's 'c'. Oh yeah. I'm incapable of learning.

I'm also starting to suspect that Belgium might not be the most perfect fit for my personality.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Cultural Differences
or "How to say nice things to Belgians so they won't think you're talking crap".

Yesterday I attended a corporate training session on the topic of "Professional Development Planning" that was facilitated by an HR professional from the States. He was great -- he did all the things a good corporate training facilitator should do to keep his audience engaged. He had it all -- the modulated, encouraging tone, the loud funky music, the canvas bag of primary colored foam balls and an agenda choc full of time-boxed small-group activities. If this is sounding like your version of Dante's 4th circle of hell (note to self: must actually get around to reading The Inferno before quoting it too many more times so as not too become tiresome bore), I assure you that it was a refreshingly good session. The potential for poofy-fluff-fluff was there... but the session had real substance.

I won't go on and on about how good it was. But it was good.

My absolute favorite moment was when our facilitator shared an idea for providing regular feedback to our direct reports. "It is scientifically proven" he started with a grin and a brief pause, "scien-tifically proven that if you stop whatever you are doing every Friday at exactly 9:42am and take a moment to write down one or two things about the way the people who report to you do their job that you'll be a better Manager". He continued "And if at some point ever Friday you take a minute or two to acknowledge something your employee has done in the past week, you will end your employee's week on kind of a high note that won't have cost you as a Manager anything".

The North Americans in the room generally nodded at this. I was sitting there thinking "hmm, not a bad idea. I'll think about that" when I noticed that the Belgians were looking rather concerned. And then one of the Belgian women, a corporate lawyer, said the most enlightening thing. She said "this may be a cultural difference, but if you are going to tell your Belgian employees about some good things they did, you should also tell them that they did some things badly". At this point, the North Americans started to look a bit concerned and confused. Having the room's full attention, she concluded with perfect Belgian logic "otherwise they won't believe you were sincere about the good things".

This explains so much.

Since I arrived here, I've been pretty challenged by the rapport in my team. Quite often, believing that good work should be rewarded -- and that compliments are rewards -- I will commend a colleague when they do something particularly well, or I will thank them for helping me with a request I've made. Nothing mushy, just a bit of a 'good job'. Very often I've been met with a confused look and an awkward "well yes, fine. But that is my job" (note: Belgians don't speak with contractions much). I just thought that Belgians were naturally humble people -- that they appreciate the compliment, but are a little shy about receiving it. So after the training, I asked a Belgian colleague of mine about it. He paused a moment before answering, then looked me straight in the eye and confirmed that I've been totally wrong. They dislike the compliment. They distrust the compliment. "Belgians", he said, "are highly suspicious of people who say unsolicited nice things". And then he looked at his wristwatch and said "I must go now" and left me standing there with my mouth hanging open.

So basically, every time I open my Canadian mouth, Belgians think I'm talking shit.

It all makes sense now... the unofficial no eye-contact-in-the-hallway rule, the no-smiling-at-or- saying-good-morning-to-people-in-elevators rule... the sense I get when I inquire if someone enjoyed their weekend that it's as if I've just asked if their teenage daughter is on birth control yet... it's finally clear: In Belgium, exhibiting typically Canadian friendliness is equivolent to being insincere and it upsets Belgian people.

How weird. But also how liberating! WooHoo!! Tomorrow I get to practice being... hell, I don't even know what... bossy? sullen? DEMANDING! I can be DEMANDING!!! I don't know even where to start, but I definitely cannot wait to get to work tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Today was uneventful. For me, that's not a complaint, but it is decidedly irregular. Normally, I can point to at least one quirky interaction I've had or to some otherwise completely banal occurence and see the humour in it. Today though, there were no moments like that. Nothing at all weird or unusual or whimsical or fan-tas-tic happened. Nothing. It was just a day. The sun came up (which, granted, qualifies as a borderline unusual event in Belgium), I worked, I had French class, I came home, cooked and ate dinner, went to the bottle depot with my roommate and we for a long walk and talked about the Middle East. We made a trip to the storage unit to find my pillow and she found a skirt in my bag of clothes I'm giving away and convinced me to keep it. I called my family in Nova Scotia and now I'm blogging. Come to think of it, it was a pretty damn nice day. But it is the kind of day that, by tomorrow will have blended itself into the soup of non-fantastic days and I'll probably never think about it as a discrete block of time ever again. Nor will I ever associate a single event or memory to this day.

It's as though this past 24 hours was completely meaningless. That it never actually existed.

Brrrr... sorry to get all Camus about it. I'm just saying.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Learning to Live in Belgium: The Coffemachines
Moving to a new country is not easy. Moving to Belgium can be, well, pretty weird.

The office I work in is big and shiny. The workareas are well lit, the carpet is spotless, the floors are always polished, things are clean, clean, clean and the coffee machines are excessively wonderful. The coffee machines are big and shiny and have many buttons -- buttons that let you select luxuriously perfect servings of coffee (with your choice of a lot of milk and sugar, a little milk and sugar, or an average amount of milk and sugar), cappuccino, espresso, hot chocolate, cafe mocha, tea, and hot water. Wonderful. No matter what button you press, out pops a little red cup into the little red cup holder, and with a pleasant little whirrrr, out spouts your precisely desired combination of gorgeous coffee, cocoa, or tea, sugar and milk. Absolutely lovely. With one teeny tiny exception: The little red cup. It's, well, really little. It holds almost the exact amount of hot beverage that I can comfortably consume in the time it takes me to get from the wonderful coffee maker back to my desk. Many a morning I've arrived at my desk, just as I drain the last of the contents of my little red cup only to toss it into one of "my" 3 assigned refuge recepticles (note: one of these is just for little red cups, one is for paper, one is for 'semi organics'... whatever that is, but I've yet to determine which is which) and start back down the hallway for a second serving... the coffee adicts version of 'shampoo. rinse. repeat'.

I have tried various strategies. I have tried drinking a little red cup of coffee while standing at the coffee machine and then taking a 2nd cup back to my desk. The Europeans have a word for this. It's 'gluttony' and it's to be avoided. I've tried taking 2 cups at once and pretending the 2nd cup is for someone else -- but the little red cups are made of thin plastic and get really hot really fast. With one cup, one can keep changing hands to avoid getting scalded. With two cups, I end up blowing on/drinking from both of them and then have to throw out two empty cups by the time I reach my desk. Also, it's hard to appear as though you are bringing the 2nd cup to someone else when you are frantically blowing on and drinking from both of them.

And honestly, all I really want is to be able to enjoy a steaming proper mug-full of coffee at my desk while I work. To this end, this morning I decided to 'trick' the coffee machine into giving me a proper, North-American sized mug of coffee.

Some time ago, I read the HR-issued coffee machine press release (this is Belgium; there are corporate press releases on every topic) which instructs people needing 'extra' hot water for things like soup, to swing out the molded plastic 'extra liquid catcher' sitting underneath the liquid spiggot, and the coffee machine would continue to dispense hotwater until the reservoire was swung back into place. For those of you not quite following me, it's like a hinged version of the overspills you see at self-serve soda machines or some coffee shops that catch excess liquid generated by kids playing with the 7-up or by people pouring off the top 1/8th of their Starbucks grande lattes so they can add some cooling milk. Basically, it's a little hinged bucket to prevent overspill messes.

Ok. So this morning I brought in my Tim Hortons mug and decided to see if the reservoire method would work with coffee as well as with water. With a quick look around to confirm there were no witnesses, I swung out the plastic overflow reservoire, put my Tims mug in place, and pressed 'coffee, med-milk, no sugar'. With a little whirrrl, the wonderful coffee machine began to spray a lovely milk/coffee combo into my Tims mug. And then paused. With a jazzy little kick-ball-change the coffee machine didn't miss a beat and started to serve out a 2nd helping of the perfectly proportioned coffee/milk combo into my mug. This was too good to be true! Pause--two-three-four! and whoosh -- a third portion! but, uuuh wait, my cup is getting really full... uh... ok... uh... that's enough thanks... Pause-two-three-four! Whoosh! Oh shite! I grabbed my overflowing cup and closed the overflow, assuming this would stop the whole production. Wrong. My coffee machine was in the middle of some Skinner-esque fixed action pattern. Pause-Two-three-four! Squirt! The reservoire hadn't completely shut and coffee continued to stream cheerfully down the front of the otherwise immaculate coffee machine and pool onto the otherwise immaculate carpet.

Damage control? No options. I slammed the reservoire shut and walked, or rather, stalked away, with a dangerously full coffee mug in hand. This particular mug, unfortunately is ergonomically designed to for maximum enjoyment while sitting and sipping, not for fleeing a crime scene. Try as I might, I could not avoid leaving little beige splooches of coffee all the way down the long corridor to my desk.

I'm sure they'll never figure out it was me. If they do, I'm hoping they are too polite to say anything. Then again, this is Belgium. I'll let you know if I receive a citiation in the mail 6-8 weeks from now.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Lost Weekend
or: " how to anaesthetise oneself with DVDs"

This weekend was a writeoff. My fabulous roommate who is, amongst other things, a cave diver, has been away leading a group through a cave in the Ardennes. Today, to top off their weekend, they went rafting. My roomate, being hardcore, of course built the raft with materials on hand for this particular excursion...


I would normally be all over a weekend like that. And my roommate wasn't keen on leaving me home, but I insisted I needed to chill out alone. So I stayed home. Specifically, I stayed home alone in my room. Watching an entire season of "Taken" on DVD. 5 DVDs worth of good old fashioned alien abduction. I went outside for exactly 1 hour this weekend. I went for a walk in the forest. I talked to exactly noone.

I also cleaned the bathroom. And the kitchen. And the storage unit.

It's funny. I didn't think about Belal at all this weekend. I'm pretty sure it's because I haven't had TV for many, many years and I rarely watch it. Right now my brain is completely saturated and probably fried. I feel numb and, yes, quite dumb. But oddly serene. I think I'm over... uh, what's his name...

Saturday, August 19, 2006

My Life as a Foreign Film

Some days it is hard to ignore the simularity between my life and grainy foreign theatre. Anyone reading this should also be eating popcorn for maximum effect.

My former lover is a very sexy Arab man I met while in Montreal. Our relationship had a quality to it that made it one of those rare, special partnerships. We had long, interesting conversations and laughed a lot, we made love often and for hours, he made exotic meals for us that we would feed to each other with our fingers... after two years, his student visa expired (he was doing an Engineering Masters) and I got a job offer in Belgium. Our hearts said 'marry and stay in Canada'. My head said 'if you marry someone so they can stay in Canada, you'll never be completely sure why they married you'. Stupid head.

We parted last October, made no promises and tried to move on with our lives alone. This worked for a while, but Ramallah is a hard place and Belgium is cold and we missed each other terribly. So we talked about how we could be together and decided to pursue a Family Reunification Visa for him to come to Belgium... we would marry and live in Europe for a couple of years before going back to Canada. Belgian beurocracy being what it is, however, we had difficulty making progress and it was frustrating.

Last night he told me that he got married last month and that he's taken a job in Saudi Arabia.

The punchline? He feels forced into his marrage. He has regrets. He loves me. He wants us to be lovers. He has to see me.


I think I'm busy that weekend.

I should come with subtitles.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

I've returned from a heady whirlwind 6-week cross-Canada trip: Queen Charlotte Islands --> Ontario --> Nova Scotia. Admittedly, it was difficult leaving such woooonderful people (read: Canadians), but I'm looking forward to gaining a foothold here. Uh.. Riiiiiight.

Anyway, when I arrived, it was raining in Belgium. Rats.

Ok, it wasn't raining rats, but it was raining.