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Archive for June, 2008

Weekend

29 June, 2008 at 11:13 pm by belgianwaffle

We went to view the restored Porte de Hal yesterday.  It is all very interesting and beautifully done but I would have enjoyed it a great deal more, if the boys and I had not spent some considerable time stuck in the lift.

The button on the side of the lift with a picture of a telephone, yielded no answer; a stricken call to Mr. Waffle’s mobile phone gave me a voice message; and the alarm button though unpleasantly loud to the lift’s three sensitive passengers, appeared inaudible to anyone else in the building.  Meanwhile, the disembodied female voice in the lift continued to announce calmly to us that we were on the second floor.   This was clearly untrue as the lift kept descending.  The best bit was probably when the lights went out in the lift and we whizzed down to the basement.  We emerged physically unscathed to be met by a security guard who said “no need to worry, it happens all the time, we knew you were in there, it rights itself automatically – you see I knew just where to wait for you to come out.”  While this may remove the need for staff to worry, I can’t see it as being ideal for visitors.  It is perhaps something the authorities could usefully look into.

We had people round to dinner last night and I spent today recovering from the unaccustomed alcohol intake (a Kir and two glasses of white wine – contrary to stereotypes, not all Irish people are great drinkers) by going for gentle walks around the park.

As I write, the children are all in bed asleep but they are unlikely to remain so as the large local Spanish community is celebrating Spain’s victory in the European Cup by driving around beeping their car horns and letting off fireworks under our windows.  Sigh.

Decency tip of the day

26 June, 2008 at 9:23 pm by belgianwaffle

If you are planning to cycle to work, do not wear a wrap dress.  That is all.

A Practical Arrangement

25 June, 2008 at 2:56 pm by belgianwaffle

Michael completed his toilet training some time ago with almost no accidents.  So much for boys being bad at this.  This process has given me some unexpected insights.  It’s actually relatively hard for boys to aim with any accuracy but I am amazed how much easier it is for small boys to wee in public without wetting their clothes than it is for small girls.  I suppose I knew in theory but I never really expected to know in practice in quite so much detail.

A friend (mother of two daughters) tells me how she had a little boy to stay and after he had been to the bathroom, it was soaked.  He had stood at the toilet but every time he heard a noise outside the bathroom he had twirled around to see what it was and sprayed liberally as he turned.

Too much information?

Confusion

24 June, 2008 at 9:35 pm by belgianwaffle

I sent my mother a belated little parcel for mother’s day.  At the same time, I sent my friend D a present for her new baby and her three year old daughter.  This is why my mother telephoned me and said “thank you for the miniature stove with doors that open and close”.  I hope that little A likes the Villeroy and Boch bonbonnière that is winging its way to her.

Trilingual

23 June, 2008 at 9:08 pm by belgianwaffle

The Princess is terrified of going to her Irish language school in September.  She is excited about moving to Ireland, being closer to her relatives and having a house with a garden but the prospect of school is hanging over her like a dark cloud.  Any conversation about moving to Ireland ends with her in tears saying she can’t speak any Irish.

We have begun introducing her to the odd Irish word, though, unfortunately, this isn’t fooling her into thinking that she has an excellent command of the language.   I think that it will be easier for her to pick up Irish because she already speaks two languages but I’m not the one who will have to face a classroom of strangers and interact with them in a foreign language.   When not in the company of her parents, the Princess is, I think, a great conformist and she is concerned that she won’t be able to follow the teacher’s instructions.  However, she can now say “ciúnas!” with great authority.  I have emphasised that this will stand her in good stead as my memory of primary school is that this was the command most used by teachers and the one that they were most anxious to see obeyed.

I assume that it is progress of a sort that this morning she uttered her first trilingual sentence: Can I have a cáca milis in my boîte à tartines, please?

Interesting times ahead, I daresay.

Random examples demonstrating that my husband knows everything

22 June, 2008 at 3:35 pm by belgianwaffle

1. At the mini train extravaganza.

Me: What does BNSF stand for on the side of the train?
Him: Burlington North Santa Fe, I’d say [on later inspection, this was quite right].
Me: How do you know that?
Him: Good guess?

2. On the radio

Me: Who sings that?
Him: David Bowie.
Me: Oh yeah, talk about selling out, remember that perfume advertisement?
Him: Well, David Bowie is the man who turned his back catalogue into a financial instrument.
Me: What?
Him: Complex explanation.
Me: How did you know that?
Him: Everyone knows that.

3. At the supermarket one morning.

Him: Interesting, that lorry is from Slovenia but the drivers’ friends are obviously Romanian.

Me: Eh?

Him: Well, it has Slovenian number plates, see from Maribor which, as you know, is Slovenia’s second city.

Me: Eh…

Him: But in the window he has Romanian plates with his friends’ names on them.

Me: Ah right.

To be fair this last touches on two of his specialised subjects: geography and number plates.   But generally, my husband is good on facts. When we have dinner at his parents’ house and a question comes up, everyone swivels towards him which I find mildly amusing. In my parents’ house (the home of the patriarchy as Mr. Waffle wistfully refers to it from his equal opportunities outpost), everyone swivels to my father. Though my father really does know everything.

What is it they say about women marrying men like their fathers?

Pasta

21 June, 2008 at 10:48 pm by belgianwaffle

Michael loves pasta.  His diet largely consists of pasta and pesto.  My first mouthful of pesto only passed my lips when I was 19 years old and spent a summer as an au pair in Naples.  I do wonder whether, if I’d paid a little more attention to the whole picking basil from the garden of their country house and sticking it in the blender with pine nuts and so on, I might have been Ireland’s answer to Nigella.  I digress.   So intrinsic is pasta and pesto to the modern Irish child’s diet that when I went to Perugia a couple of weeks ago, it was to find that my cousin had brought pasta and pesto with her from Ireland to feed her children.  She was a little defensive about this decision but it’s hard not to sympathise.

Anyhow at the supermarket Michael, took a packet of pasta from the shelves and clutched it to his bosom until we got to the check-out whereupon he briefly handed it to the cashier and then reclaimed it and carried it tenderly to the car.  “Mummy,” he said to me hopefully “me eat pasta after my dinner?”

Help, they’ve got us surrounded!

20 June, 2008 at 2:37 pm by belgianwaffle

A couple of weeks ago Mr. Waffle got stuck behind a group of fishermen protesting about the price of oil.  It took him an hour and a half to get into work.  When he got in, he sent me this email:

From: Mr. Waffle
Sent: 04 June 2008 10:56
To: His loving spouse

Subject: FW: Demonstration, Wednesday 4 June, rue de la x – avoid the area
Importance: High

Note the useful timing of this message.

______________________________________________
From:   The Secretary who sneers at everyone

Sent:   Wednesday, June 04, 2008 9:39 AM
To:     Everyone

Subject:   Demonstration, Wednesday 4 June, rue de la x  – avoid the area
Importance:     High

Demonstration, Wednesday 4 June, rue de la X

The Belgian police have warned us of a potentially large demonstration by fishermen tomorrow morning. They are expected to gather around 10am.  Major delays and traffic disruption are anticipated. Staff are advised to avoid the area unless absolutely necessary.

This isn’t strictly relevant as it wasn’t really a blockade but last weekend we went to this must-see before you leave Belgium attraction and it was almost impossible to get in. “Fortress mini-Europe” said my witty husband. Jon Bon Jovi was playing nearby and all the car parking places appeared to have been reserved for him and his fans in tents.  You had to admire their perseverance as they sat there at 9.30 in the morning.   One assumes that Jon was still in bed.  And not in a tent either.

Then, this Wednesday, Brussels was fenced in by tractors.  There were half a dozen blocking traffic on my way into work. There were hardly any cars in the city and it was very pleasant for me on my bicycle.  I spoke to one of the farmers and he told me that he was up at 4.00 this morning to drive his tractor to Brussels.  The Belgian police wouldn’t let them drive on the motorway so it was a long old trek.  I assume that he has to drive back as well [though perhaps he could strike a deal with the hauliers who were blocking traffic on the city’s main traffic artery].   I asked, with what I hope was endearing faux naïveté (note to self, does this work, if you’re nearly 40?), what they were protesting about and he said the price of fuel.   I pointed out, very bravely I thought, after all he had been up since well before dawn, that food prices have soared recently which was surely compensating him for this loss but he was having none of it.  I am not entirely sure what he and his colleagues are hoping to achieve.  Though I gather that the Commission has folded and given something to the fishermen (I suppose that having rampaging fishermen outside your door focuses the mind of the average fonctionnaire), so, who knows, maybe they’ll get something too?  Though, as the Princess pointed out to me, they were inconveniencing everyone and what did they expect her to do for them?

Finally, today and yesterday traffic was held up to allow the 27 European heads of state and government and their courtiers and acolytes to whiz in from the airport with their police motorcycle outriders.

There will be much less of this in Dublin.  I understand that there traffic never moves regardless of whether there is a demonstration or not.

Long Dark Night of the Europhile Soul

13 June, 2008 at 10:46 pm by belgianwaffle

Only read this, if you have the faintest idea about the Lisbon Treaty. Really, it’s better for both of us this way.

In Brussels, they think all Irish people are like de Valera who, I believe, said that he only needed to look into his heart to know what the people of Ireland were thinking. At coffee breaks at every recent event, people here would break the ice by asking me what I thought that the outcome of the Irish referendum on the Treaty would be. I would look into my heart and confidently predict a victory for the yes side by a narrow margin. It turns out that I am not de Valera.

Ireland joined the EU* in 1973 and my father started coming to Brussels for expert meetings shortly thereafter. From about 1980, every family holiday would be preceeded by a trip to Brussels. We would camp in Heverlee outside Brussels and drop him in every day for his meeting, my mother gaily navigating the Brussels ring with the three children squabbling in the back. Once his meetings were over, we would pack up the tent and head off to France which was generally sunnier and more congenial, though I still have fond memories of the lego and table tennis in Ter Munck. I suspect he was the only committee member staying in a tent. We used to go and join him for lunch in the Rotonde occasionally. This was the restaurant in the basement of the Berlaymont which is now, alas, defunct. The glamour, the excitement: self-service food, pillars, tap water.

My father became good friends with many members of his committee and they stayed in contact over the years. I even did a language exchange with a daughter of one of the committee members (unsuccessful, her English was much better than my German). My father was still coming to meetings when I started working in Brussels in 1993 and, when he came over, he would meet me for a drink in the Metropole and slip me some very welcome cash.

When I was a student, I was funded under the Erasmus programme to study for a semester in Italy. Almost all of my professional life has, in one way or another, been related to EU affairs. I suppose that I could hardly be called a neutral observer. I love the EU. I suspect that I am a bit of a minority but there it is.

When Irish women were barred from working after marriage in the civil service (and in the banks, just because they wanted to join in) who made them stop? Well, yes, it was the EU. When the Irish Government on accession sought a derogation from this draconian provision and the wretched equal pay legislation which was going to bring the country to its knees who said you must be bloody joking? Well, yes, it was the EU.

When the Irish economy was going down the toilet in 1987 and unemployment was spiralling out of control and the IMF was on the doorstep, who do you think gave us a great deal of money to spend on turning the country round? Well, yes, it was the EU.

When Northern Ireland was a basket case who pumped money into co-operation programmes through the PEACE programme? Well, yes, it was the EU.

When the divided continent of Europe was reunited, when we realised that, actually, having half of the continent behind an iron curtain was like having lost a limb, who gave assistance in money and governance to those countries so that now they are starting to do better and better? Well, yes, it was the EU.

And how come we can work anywhere in Europe and we have a single market? How come Europe can punch its weight in the WTO negotiations? Well, yes, that’s the EU too.

I believe in the EU as a potent force for good for Europeans. I believe it brings us together and helps us to learn about each other. I believe that Ireland is much closer to Berlin than to Boston.

So, the Lisbon Treaty. Well, it wasn’t a particularly clear or lovable treaty. Jon Worth has a copy of the Jason O’Mahony summary on his blog and for my money, that’s probably the best explanation of the contents. Not that anyone cares now.

The purpose of the Treaty was to finally put a close to the institutional (and very dull) angst which the EU has been going through since some time before its expansion to 27 member states. That was broadly it. It was also supposed to answer the Kissinger question, “Who do I call, if I want to speak to Europe?” Frankly, I’m not sure it provided an answer to that. Was it ideal? No, it was a compromise between 27 sovereign states. Was it the best agreement that we were ever likely to get on this subject? Oh yes, I would think so.

Why did Ireland vote no? Looking into my heart has proved ineffective in finding an answer to Irish questions, but let me share my suspicions with you.

Firstly, I suspect the press. The Irish Times which, as you know, has a place close to my heart, had an editorial on Lisbon last weekend entitled “Are we out of our collective minds?” Now, while I agreed wholeheartedly with every word written, I couldn’t help but feel that the tone was a teensy bit unhelpful. I can’t help wondering whether this was also the tone of the political parties, almost all of whom strongly advocated a yes vote. Then, the British media which is almost uniformly eurosceptic is widely available in Ireland and, in some cases, produces Irish editions (Irish Sun anyone?). I have no idea what these papers’ stance was on the referendum but you know what? I can make a good guess. I believe British coverage of EU issues is hugely biased and I don’t believe that this is a fault of the Irish press (I can tell because Irish coverage of EU matters is invariably crushingly dull). I really suspect the British media of stirring up the sovreignity issue which is not something that I have been aware of as a particular concern in the past.

Secondly, people didn’t know what the Treaty was about. I saw the text of the referendum question. Dear God in heaven, that was complex. But, you know what? There was a lot of information out there. I’m not saying it was a particularly straightforward message to understand but certainly a lot of time and effort was spent trying to explain it all. If you wanted to know, you could have found out. But people couldn’t be bothered, they didn’t care enough, they wanted to give the government a bloody nose.

Thirdly, there was the ludicrous scaremongering the European super-state, abortion, prostitution, army, locking up your three year olds bringing in the death penalty end of things. The problem for the yes campaign seems to have been that they spent so much time refuting the more outlandish claims of the no campaign that they had very little time to explain the (oh so dull) merits of voting yes.

So, I reckon, that’s it. Oh yeah, of course, fourthly the farmers were pretty annoyed about Mandelson’s position on the WTO negotiations, that probably didn’t help much either. Particularly since farmers always vote.

I’m gutted. I was really looking forward to the end of the institutional debate (yeah, yeah, I should get out more) and the EU getting to grips with the substantive issues which people actually understand. I believe that a stronger EU is vital for Ireland, vital to ensure that we maintain our position in this globalised world. And I trust the EU to deliver that, it’s not a bunch of faceless bureaucrats, well, yes it is, but they’ve done a fantastic job, the EU has achieved so much but it needs to do even more. And, wretchedly, it’s our fault that we’re going to have a weak, inward-looking, demoralised EU for the foreseeable future. More soul-searching, more “we must communicate with the citizen” (I mean nothing wrong with that per se, just that the citizen doesn’t seem to care), less actually doing things. Mr. Waffle points out that nobody has died and they will hammer out a solution based on the European model: peace through boredom. This is strangely uncomforting.

Any europhiles out there feeling sunny? Please tell me the upside.

*Yes, yes, I know the EEC as it then was.

Sodden

12 June, 2008 at 9:43 pm by belgianwaffle
On the way into work this morning, I slipped on a paving stone and fell into a puddle.  When I got into the office I had to wave a fan heater at my bottom for quite some time before getting somewhat dry.  This is not a dignified start to the day.  However, my loving husband cycled to work and got soaked.  He emailed me:

Luckily I have my football gear, so am now in T-shirt (a bit old and shapeless), white socks and runners (as well as work trousers). I can’t tell you how classy I look. Still, it’s great having your own office to dry wet clothes

When will the summer be back?

 

Meeting of the logistics planning committee deferred

11 June, 2008 at 12:02 am by belgianwaffle

Last night we had an emergency meeting of the crime and security committee instead as we were, alas, burgled.

I got a phone call at work in the late afternoon.  Our childminder said and I quote “something has happened at the house.”  Of course, I instantly thought that something had happened to one of the children and had gone from imagining them in hospital to seeing their lifeless bodies stretched out before me by the time she explained that there had been a burglary.  In this context, the news came as something of a relief.

Mr. Waffle and I went home and found the childminder nervously waiting outside the door with the three children.  We went in.  The house was in disarray.  All the clothes had been thrown out of drawers in the, futile, hope of finding some valuables.  My brother and sister have frequently mocked me for my lack of investment in modern technology (no i-pod, ancient stereo, 9 year old television, cheap DVD player, PC purchased second hand in 2001) but it came into its own yesterday as nothing was taken.  The thieves did, however, take some of my jewellery.  They were discerning thieves.  They took the only items of any significant value in the jewellery box: a ring that my parents had given me for my thirtieth birthday and my grandmother’s engagement ring.  I was particularly upset about my grandmother’s ring.  She always wore it and I clearly remember her wearing it.  It always reminds me of her and I adored my Nana and, in due course, I wanted to pass it on to my daughter.  I lost it once before.  I wore it to mass when I was about 17 (outside my gloves – some kind of bizarre fashion statement) and it fell off (inevitably).  But I found it walking all the way between my parents’ house and the church with my head down.  This time, I think it’s gone forever.

Mr. Waffle wouldn’t let me touch anything until the police came so that they could dust for fingerprints.  I was keen to pick up my underwear (some of which, frankly, had seen better days) off the floor, the bed and the radiator but nothing could be touched until the police came.  To be fair they came quite speedily.  To be unfair, they were deeply uninterested in our run of the mill burglary.  They almost laughed when Mr. Waffle asked about fingerprints.  “If we had to send fingerprints for all burglaries to the lab, they’d never get anything done.”  They gave no indication that they were going to search for the culprits or that there was the remotest chance that they might be found.  They gave us an incident number and told them to fax in details of what we had lost and they would send us a statement for the insurance.  I was unimpressed.  The children, however, were delighted to have the police in the house and Daniel insisted on kissing them before they went on their way.

When our neighbours came home, it turned out that they had been burgled as well.  All the women’s jewellery was gone but nothing else.  Our lovely Italian neighbour lost a gold necklace that her grandmother had left her.  The Belgians downstairs, who seemed to know the form, asked us for the incident number so that they could fax the police with their details.  We had a locksmith in to look at all of our doors (whom Daniel also kissed) and that was it really.  Though, startlingly our electricity also went leaving us dealing with neighbours, locksmiths, excited children and the fuse box in one slightly cranky package.

Of course, if the thieves could only have waited 6 weeks we would have been gone or, if the weather had been less fine, the children would have been at home instead of in the park.  No use crying over spilt milk, I suppose.

I remember when I was the same age as the Princess, my parents were burgled while we were all asleep in our beds. The burglars took most of my mother’s jewellery including her engagement ring which she had on her beside table, my great-uncle’s gold watch and, bizarrely, my father’s alarm clock (which meant we all overslept).  Very excitingly, there was a thumbprint over my bed which the guards dutifully dusted (or whatever it is they do).  They never did find the culprits or our stuff.  For years afterwards, my mother used to look in the window of a suspect jewellery shop in town where, the guards told her, stolen jewellery often turned up.

My sister, who wasn’t even born at the time of the robbery, remembers my mother staring intently in the window whenever we went to town.  I think, aside from her engagement ring, what my mother resented most was the intrusion.  The thieves had even had the temerity to make themselves a snack in the kitchen (it was a big house, but still you might have imagined that they would be a bit nervous).

I asked Mr. Waffle whether he thought the thieves might feel bad seeing all our plastic toys and our children’s pictures but he thought not.  In my head when I imagined them going through our drawers, I imagined young north Africans which shows that I am a useless liberal as prejudices I didn’t even know I had float to the surface at the slightest provocation.   Mr. Waffle comforted me by pointing out that it was probably a young man and, further, all the young men around here were north African.  However, a colleague tells me that there is a gang of Romanian women who are notorious for jewellery thefts where they take all the best stuff.  Do you think somebody should tell the police what the dogs in the street* appear to know?

*Just to clarify, no insult to my colleague intended here but you know what I mean.

Flying on one wing

8 June, 2008 at 4:16 pm by belgianwaffle

Mr. Waffle is in Ireland for the weekend at a 20 year school reunion and I am here minding the children alone.  Mind numbing terror, I can tell you.

Yesterday we went to the European institutions which had opened their doors to the public in a touching effort to inspire enthusiasm in Europe’s apathetic citizenry. The Committee of the Regions had face painting, a bouncy castle and goodies from various European regions (tea, reindeer meat, orange juice and a bewildering array of sweets)

At 11 we were summoned to a “kick-boxing demonstration”  which turned out to be a very nifty demonstration of how to disarm a man who is pointing a gun at one’s head.  We left before they moved on to knives.  The Princess and Daniel were scared and delighted to go.  Michael had to be dragged away kicking and screaming.  He likes live performances.   This, at least, is what I tell myself.  Humour me here.  I have two questions for you on this.  1. What kind of assailant in his right mind would go to the Committee of the Regions looking for a target and 2. Do you think face painting and instructions on how to disarm someone who is threating  lethal force are a good combination?  Answers on a postcard please.

The afternoon was peaceful with the boys napping and herself at a birthday party.  Dinner was, frankly, unsuccessful.  The boys refused to come to the table and howled for bottles which I stoutly refused to give them.  The Princess and I ate our dinner with a woeful Greek chorus going full blast in the background.  The Princess, sensing perhaps that her Mama was reaching the end of her tether, was extremely helpful in corralling the boys into their pyjamas and into bed.  It’s at times like this that I entertain real hopes that she may become a pleasant grown-up.

Today has been much more relaxed.  A trip to the park where an elderly American man with 11 grown-up children advised me to have some more because it doesn’t get any more difficult after 3. I must let Mr. Waffle know.  Lunch was delighful, everyone ate and now, as I type, the Princess is off in the park with a babysitter and the boys are naping.  Hurrah.  And only 5 hours until Mr. Waffle’s return.

Is your Mama a llama?

6 June, 2008 at 2:36 pm by belgianwaffle

I asked my friend Clyde.

“No she is not,”

is how Clyde replied.

“She’s got flippers and whiskers

and eats fish all day.

I do not think llamas

act quite in that way.”

“Oh,” I said.

“I’m beginning to feel

that your mama must

really be a…”

[Reader pauses here to let young children give the correct answer.]

Daniel shouts out excitedly:…”phoque”.

Truly, this linguistic regime creates difficulties for the unwary.

Baci di Perugia

4 June, 2008 at 6:04 pm by belgianwaffle

A couple of months ago my parents and my aunt and uncle were invited to a cousin’s wedding in Perugia. They had no intention of going but then my sister moved home from Chicago and convinced them all that it would be a great idea to go. Well, actually, she failed to convince my father who would rather have all his teeth removed without anaesthetic than fly to Italy. A plane. And to Italy. Double horror. However, she convinced the others and volunteered to act as their chauffeur and do the organising. At this point I heard about the trip and decided that it would be lovely, if I went too. Italian hilltop town, family, weekend break. All most appealing and I speak Italian, I drive, I could be helpful. However, I felt that I could not, in fairness, leave Mr. Waffle with the three children so I decided to take herself. What a delightful treat for my loving family.

It was only after I had booked our flights to Rome that my sister opined that the Princess’s presence might not be entirely welcome. To start with, they would have to book a larger car to negotiate the Italian hill top towns. I appealed to my mother, was she not pleased? She hauled out her most hardworking sentence: well, dear, you must do what you think fit. A robust exchange of views followed, the upshot of which was that my mother finished all our phone calls for the next several months with the words “I look forward to seeing you in Italy at the end of May”. Though this was the formula I had recommended that she use, it never really struck me as entirely satisfactory.

Meanwhile, the Princess had been studying castles at school. The day selected for a school trip to the castle was Monday, June 2. “We will be in Italy,” I told her “but I will find a lovely castle in Italy for you to look at.” “I don’t want to go to the castle in Italy, I want to go to Hainault.” Great. Meanwhile, my poor uncle had been struck down by a mystery bug and, on admission to hospital, was found to have gall stones which, obviously, precluded him and my aunt from travelling to Italy.

What with one thing and another, when the day dawned for our trip, I was unenthused. The Princess, mercifully, had become quite animated at the prospect of a trip to foreign parts and meeting various relatives. We went to the airport and we waited and we waited Our flight which had been scheduled to arrive in Rome airport at the same time as my mother and sister’s flight from Cork was delayed by over two hours. I acquired a nasty headache and the Princess was, hmm, challenging shall we say. The flight itself, when we eventually got underway was uneventful except for my regular trips to the bathroom to throw up (headaches make me sick – hurrah).

Things perked up when we got to Rome at about 11.00 pm. Despite managing to lock my Irish mobile phone by forgetting the PIN code we found my sister and my mother who had got the hired car and were ready to head off to distant Perugia. The idea was that I would be able to drive the car too but, because our flight was so late, my sister had decided it was better to get the car and have her as sole driver rather than wait to add me as well. Given that I was sick as a dog, this was very welcome news. The Princess, delighted to see her relatives behaved admirably. We set off for Perugia assisted only by my brother’s satellite navigation device which he had posted to my sister in an old sock which came with us in the glove compartment. The world of satellite navigation is new to me and I was quite charmed with the English lady who guided us north around Rome and up to Perugia, 200kms away. As my sister drives alarmingly fast, we made Perugia in no time but we spent quite a while circling the walls of the town as Ms. Satnav had decided to abandon us and we had no map. On our fourth trip past the same spot, my mother made me get out and ask the policemen at the gate for directions. The guardia di finanza appeared to be carrying out a drugs bust: one of them was searching the car with an alsatian, another was searching the car owners with an alsatian and the third was supervising. I approached the third man to ask for directions. To be honest, I don’t think that he thought much of my timing but he pointed me in the right direction, nodded curtly and went back to drug busting.

The hotel had advised to park on Via Marzia which is steep and narrow. Our car was broad. We then had to go to the hotel for a parking permit. It was 2.30 in the morning at this point and I volunteered to run to the hotel. The Princess insisted on accompanying me. We made our way through the quaint streets of the old town and assisted by unfailingly helpful Italian revellers eventually made our way to the hotel where we got the parking permit and filled in forms and handed over passports. Inevitably by the time we got back to the car, my mother had us dead and buried. We all went to the hotel and retired to bed.

I feel a little defensive about the hotel. I volunteered to book the hotel. I was looking for something cheap. My sister approved my choice and I booked it. It was fine. Basic, but fine. My sister did not like it. The thing she disliked most about it was that there was no parking other than the steep and narrow Via Marzia which was a step from the hotel; then there was no diet coke; and no hair dryers in the room; and no common areas. Also, she did not like breakfast. Personally, I thought breakfast was ok. And it was clean, central and it had an en suite bathroom; how good did it have to be? Even I would concede that it was a little noisy. My mother, when pressed, described it as downmarket. Alas. This was a greater blow as she has not (unlike my sister) spent the past 10 years staying in luxury hotels at the expense of munificent employers; in fact when holidaying abroad in the past, she frequently stayed in a tent.

Saturday was the day of the wedding and we were up betimes making preparations for a wedding which would be half full of Italians (the bride being from Perugia) and therefore required extra elegance. The Princess and I were not going to the wedding given that I had not met the groom in many years (hey, he’s a second cousin and 12 years younger) and he was blithely unaware of the Princess’s existence. The morning passed off peacefully enough and in the afternoon, my mother and sister (designated driver) went off to the wedding and the Princess and I explored the town. As you might imagine, the Umbrian hill top town of Perugia is spectacularly beautiful. As you might also imagine, the Princess was completely indifferent to its charms. There was an international market where we were able to buy butter popcorn from Grand Rapids, Michigan (twinned with Perugia, in case you didn’t know) and eating this was probably one of the highlights of her day. I was delighted to hear a singer on the street belting out Jacque Brel’s ode to Belgium; Le Plat Pays. It made Perugia feel like a home from home but, again, her highness was indifferent. She was also indifferent to the parade of drums and horses (interesting combination for the riders) on Corso Vannucci. We saw several weddings including one where the bride was a good six months pregnant and an Anglo Indian one where the bride was serenaded down Corso Vannucci by a brass band playing here comes the bride. All very multi-cultural. I was a bit disappointed by the style of the locals. The young people all seemed to be wearing slogan t-shirts and low hanging jeans. Important note for Italian youth follows: if you want to go for this look, it is vital that you do not let your mother iron your clothes. You’ll have to trust me here. I dragged my unfortunate daughter into the Pintoricchio exhibition which she took with reasonable equanimity in exchange for the purchase of a pair of high heeled pink slip-on shoes (€6.50 to you signora).

By this time it was about 7 and the Princess and I were preparing to go for dinner and bed when the phone rang. It was my cousin S, eldest sister of the groom. The groom comes from a family of 8 and I know the three eldest: S well as we were in college together and D and M reasonably well. The others are a mass of younger siblings. Their father and my mother are first cousins and my grandmother and their grandfather were brother and sister and close friends which is how the families know each other pretty well. I know a lot of my second cousins on this side (though as my grandmother was one of 10 by no means all of them). I’m not sure Mr. Waffle actually knows what a second cousin is. I digress. Anyhow, S rang saying that we should come to the wedding. I demurred: we weren’t invited; the Princess was tired. She insisted: there was extra food, paid for which would go to waste; the Princess could play with her cousins and sleep with them, minded by their babysitter. I demurred: we had never met the bride. She insisted: you speak Italian, you could be useful, we would love to see you. I conceded gracefully and my kind sister drove into town, picked us up and brought us out to the villa where the wedding was in full swing. I was glad that we went. The Princess loved her new (3rd) cousins. They, as children of a father with 10 siblings and a mother with 7, greeted the arrival of a new cousin with complete equanimity. I imagine that new cousins are always appearing out of the woodwork for them (they already have 29 first cousins). There is one little cousin almost exactly the same age as the Princess and she is a lovely, lovely little girl. Even better, she lives around the corner from my parents in Cork. Hurrah.

Meanwhile, I was off at the wedding (fabulous food, I fail to understand why this is so very rarely replicated at home) and chatting gamely to my cousin’s neighbours who had come out from North Cork. Living as I do in Brussels I was pinned to my collar trying to answer questions on CAP reform and the WTO negotiations about which I knew far less than the man from the dairy farmers’ lobby who, unhappily, was sitting beside me. I was rescued by my cousin who brought me off to a table of cousins and spouses and left my mother to fend alone on searching questions about SACs. It was really lovely to talk to my cousins and meet their various spouses. S and I have a lot of friends in common, so we spent a happy half hour exchanging gossip. She is also hilariously funny, so it was all very pleasant. The bride and her family were gracious and charming to the interlopers at their wedding. The speeches were excellent and, very cleverly, they had translations projected on the wall behind so that there was no need for lengthy translations (as my mother said, well that’s his speciality. “What?” my sister and I asked. “Computers” said my mother. The groom is an IT consultant; we wowed my mother by explaining that, if necessary, we too could use powerpoint). The groom’s father’s speech was really lovely; simple and moving. He described his son as “having a good word for everyone and not having a bad bone in his body”. I wiped away a surreptitious tear. S then ruined it for me by hissing “you know he’s used the same speech for all of us”. The bride’s father spoke about how proud he was of his daughter and how delighted he was that she lived in a country where CVs counted more than “la raccomandazione” (what Irish people would call pull). I found this a little distressing as, his lovely daughter (having passed the exams necessary to become a solicitor in Ireland – including the Irish exam – it’s not a very challenging Irish exam, I passed it but then I did spend 13 years in school learning Irish) was looking for an apprenticeship in an Irish law firm. And if there’s one area of Irish life where having a little pull is very useful, it’s in finding an apprenticeship in a solicitor’s office. Particularly a solicitor’s office in rural Ireland. They take on their own children and their client’s children. And, if they do find room for someone else, I suspect, they’re not particularly open to employing a non-native English speaker. I think that her best bet is probably to go to Dublin but since she met her husband in Cork, did her PhD in Cork and now speaks English with a strong Cork accent, I’m not sure how willing she would be to go to foreign parts (though her husband did say that he thought that she’d go to Letterkenny, if she could find an apprenticeship there, of course, Letterkenny isn’t Dublin). Oh well, if she stays in Cork much longer, it will be impossible to distinguish her from a native (except when you see her, of course, she looks entirely Italian – they will have beautiful children).

At about, 12.30, I lifted the Princess out of the bed where she was snuggled up with Doggy and two cousins and brought her out to the car. We drove back to our hotel and my sister dropped us off at the door as the Princess was in her pyjamas and groggy. The three of us went in at my sister’s urging leaving her to find her way to via Marzia (you will remember, how could you forget, that there was no parking at the hotel). We all went to bed. About 1.15, I was awoken from my slumbers by my mother. I tiptoed out of my room leaving a sleeping Princess. There was no sign of my sister. My mother was poised to start phoning the hospitals. She would never forgiver herself or (definite subtext) me for having left my sister park alone; suppose she had been attacked. I had the advantage of having walked round the town the previous night at 2.30 and knew it to be heaving with people, so I felt that this was unlikely, I did think that she might have had difficulty finding parking or maybe a slight tip in the car. Eventually, after 20 unnerving minutes my, very cross, sister arrived back at the hotel. She had indeed had difficulty finding parking. The Via Marzia was full. A car had driven up this steep one way street against her and the carefree revellers in the car had thought it an excellent idea to reverse, then rev up and drive towards her several times. She had eventually got out, got parking and got back to the hotel. I think it is fair to say that it was at this point that my mother and my sister’s profound dislike of what became known as my hotel, settled. It was also around then that we discovered there was a multi-storey car park nearby and I feel that had we only found this earlier, all might have been well.

The next day, my mother and sister slept late to recover from the trauma of the previous evening but the Princess and I were up early and off by taxi to the villa where the cousins were staying to do some more bonding. The taxi driver, on learning that we were from Ireland said “oh a beautiful country, I would love to visit, much more beautiful than here.” Boy, is she due for a disappointment some day. The Princess and I spent much of the day imposing on the cousins: eating their food, using their pool, their swimsuits and their floatation devices. My mother, when she and my sister came to collect us, was torn between disapproval at our imposition and delight that the Princess had got to know her little cousins whom, hilariously, she resembles. Genetic code and all that. Mr. Waffle refuses to see any resemblance and points out that until last week, this was a child who was held to resemble no one but him. Back in town, we took ourselves to mass. A full hour’s worth, in Italian. The Princess was silent but wriggly. The young woman next to us with the looks, and the patience, of a Pintoricchio Madonna, smiled indulgently.

The next day, my saintly sister and mother, drove us to Rome airport. We stopped on the way for lunch in a hilltop town which was bizarrely depopulated. Lunch for four was lovely and came to 30 euros which led to much discussion on value for money and some further reflection on my part as to the disappointment that the taxi driver was likely to feel on her long awaited trip to Ireland. It started to bucket rain and (definite highlight of the trip), my sister produced from her pocket the rain coat she had bought the Princess as a present. The excitement. This only slightly marred by an incident involving a tree and one of the car’s rear lights. In fact the Princess was utterly cheerful but the rest of us were a bit unhappy. Throughout, she ignored the concern of the grown-ups and demanded to be told a Dora story. It may be that my daughter is a little insensitive to the moods of others. The Princess and I were dropped to our plane leaving my sister and my mother to refuel the car, hand it back and wait five hours for their flight which made me feel grateful but very guilty – a good catholic combination. The Princess and I travelled back to Brussels (an hour late but otherwise without incident) where we were met with suitable enthusiasm by the rest of our little family and the Princess told the boys, in completely unnecessary detail, how many ice creams she had eaten. That is all. My congratulations, if you have read this far.


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