Les gens qui ne rient jamais ne sont pas des gens sérieux

Be who you are and say what you mean, those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Brussels Mussels

Moules frites has long been a favourite of mine, and one of the bonuses of living in Belgium is the regular supply of fresh mussels that you can order from almost every restaurant. Especially recommended are a few select venues in the old port of St Catherine and one or two of the dining places that can be found in the tourist trap of rue des bouchers. I always felt bad for my mum, another mussels fan who ate a bad one, one unforgettable summer in her twenties and spent the night throwing up on a darkened beach, the poison from the mussel twisting up her insides for twenty four hours of misery.

Through our childhood, when we were on family holidays, we would tuck into our glistening mounds of black shells, scooping out the bodies and slurping the white wine they were cooked in. Mum would have some other fish, hopefully glad that we were at least enjoying what she could not. A couple of times, after that initial violent reaction, she tried again to eat mussels, just a couple to begin with. Each ended in the same day-long suffering and in the end she decided it wasn't worth it. No more mussels.

Last weekend we went with friends to our regular mussels chomping ground. A good night was had by all, and we left stuffed and satisfied. When I woke up at 5am, stomach growling and queasiness making my head light, I didn't know what was happening straight away. I went into the bathroom and mentally went over the previous meal, the careful sorting through and rejecting the closed and broken-shelled mussels, the happy fullness I felt once my plate was clear, the blissful ignorance of the poison that was already working its way into my system. I was soon bent over the toilet bowl, last night's dinner being ejected from my body, the violence of the sickness actually making me black out at the worst point and crack my head against the bathroom wall.

Marek was standing over me as I came to, panic marking his face and uncertainty over what to do evident in his questioning. I reassured him and curled up by the radiator, waiting for the end to come.

After a couple more uncomfortable hours, my stomach had calmed down enough to sleep. When I woke, the sickness had subsided into a general background nausea and I gave in again to my sleepiness, vaguely considering the possibility of concussion and dismissing it as an abstract concern. By the evening I no longer felt the need to retch at every thought of food, and I began to come to terms with the fact that I was not going to die.

I thought of mum, and how we alway joked about her friends' comments that I was more like her than she was. I'm doing my bit to get there.

Edited to add: The night after I wrote this, on a plane to Vienna, I had a dream that I found a white hair, in among the regular brown ones, and that it stretched longer than any others. As I pulled on it, I saw the ones surrounding it were white too; that in fact I had a thick stripe of white hair, high on my head. I showed my mum, but as I showed her it became not a white stripe on my dark head, but a white stretch of spider's web, just above my jaw line. Mum pulled at it, and it came away to reveal an angry red boil, where I knew the web's spider had buried her eggs. I asked mum what I should do, resisted the urge to scratch at the boil, in case it made it worse, and waited for advice. Mum said nothing but brushed the boil away as if it was a loose hair. It fell off, leaving clean bare skin, and I felt the immense relief of knowing I would not absent-mindedly scratch my face and pull my hand away to find it covered with tens of tiny scrambling baby spiders. Analysts? I say the spider is the mussel, invading my body; the baby spiders are the potential impact of the poison and my mum features as herself, telling me to get a grip, and stop being silly and pretending its more disgusting than it really is.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Speech number 2

Yes, I made myself do it again, and they rewarded me with another 'best speaker' award. If I do the third and don't get the award I think I might cry. Spoilt brat. This is how it went, more or less. I actually managed to unclench myself part of the way through, and deviated from the script somewhat, but I'm taking that as a good sign.


Good evening fellow toastmasters and very welcome guests.

Tonight I would like to talk you about something that is

- something I'd never experienced as recently as five years ago
- something I experienced rather a lot of over the three years while I lived in Warsaw
- and something that will greatly influence one particularly important day for me this year

I'm going to talk to you about Polish weddings.

Five years ago I had never set foot in Poland. Well actually, that's a bit of an exaggeration, I had stepped over the border from Germany once, but I knew little of the history of Gdansk, I had only vaguely heard of the beauty of Krakow and I didn't have a clue about the buzz of Warsaw.

As you may remember, I moved to Poland to work with asylum seekers and refugees through the European Voluntary Service. I worked with Poles and foreigners and spent my free time learning the language and exploring the culture. The best introduction to Polish culture came during the first few months with an invitation to a wedding.

In England weddings are generally held at grand places with no expense spared - a short ceremony to get the serious business out the way and then a loud party, with flowers and champagne followed by speeches and your Dad dancing round the dancefloor in an uncoordinated fashion.

This wedding was different. The differences started at the church. There were all the familiar trappings of a wedding - rings, misty eyed relatives, music... but then after the service all the guests lined up and presented the happy couple with bunches of flowers and their best wishes one by one. I had only been in Poland for a few months and as Polish for best wishes is 'wszystkiego najlepszego', I think I just smiled.

Then came the reception. For starters it was held in a fire station. OK, the party room of the fire station, but a fire station all the same. There were flowers, but mainly the ones presented by the guests, spread around the room. There were no champagne glasses and no speeches, but there was vodka - lots of vodka - and games, led by a traditional band with an accordian, a saxophone and several guitars.

As the newlyweds arrive at the wedding reception they are greeted by their parents and then there are a couple of traditional rituals before the party starts. The bride's mother shows the couple a plate with bread and salt on it and asks her daughter whether she wants the bread, the salt, or her new husband. She takes all three. Then they drink a shot of vodka and throw the glasses behind them to break on the floor for good luck. Finally, the groom carries his new bride into the building and the fun really begins.

The first thing I noticed as I came into the room were the tables. In England there is usually a three course meal and then the tables are cleared to make way for the dancing. In Poland the tables stay, and are groaning with food from the beginning of the party until the early morning. Waiters come and serve food at regular intervals and you are free to choose between the salads, cold meat and cakes set out on the table whenever it takes your fancy, in between dances and games.

Between the hot courses the band played and the people danced, but this was no shuffling of feet and clumsy hand clapping as you might see in England, here everyone was ballroom dancing as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I tried my best waltz, but mainly watched the others - old ladies twirling around in the strong arms of their steady old husbands; young kids with their arms shyly around one another; the newly married couple gliding round the dancefloor with large smiles plastered to their faces.

The games were also new to me in this setting, although some of them - like musical chairs - I'd played as a child. Do you know that one? A number of chairs are set out, one more than the number of people playing. The band plays and everyone dances around the chairs, then when they stop, everyone sits. There is always one person left without a seat, or on someone else's lap or slipped off onto the floor. Let me tell you, if you thought these games were fun when you were six, you should try them as an adult after a few shots of vodka. Great fun. In England the bride throws her bouquet and the girl who catches it will be the next to marry. In Poland it is a little more complex. The bride throws her veil out to the unmarried women and one of the unmarried men gets the bridegroom's tie. The new couple then has to dance and do a series of dares... it is very entertaining to watch although I am always quietly relieved when some other girl catches the veil.

The vodka was a challenge to be honest. The most important man at a Polish wedding is the one who goes round the tables replacing the empty vodka bottles with new ones. I was amazed at the speed with which this man had to do his job, and had to refuse a couple of times when a friendly hand tried to replenish my shot glass. Then I learned the trick to a successful Polish wedding. When everyone downs a shot, take a sip. You'll last much longer.

After that first wedding, I was happy to receive several more invitations. Some were in grander locations than the fire station, some were smaller groups or had louder bands, but all had the basic elements - people genuinely enjoying themselves and really celebrating with the newlyweds.

So when my Polish boyfriend proposed last June, not only did I know I wanted to marry him, but I had a pretty good idea about where we should take those vows. Forget all that stuff about weddings taking place at the bride's birthplace, I'd like a Polish wedding please.

Thank you.

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