August 2006

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Sandwich Sociology

In a daring and breathtaking bit of sociological participatory research, I discovered that eating a plain sandwich in public is not done in Belgium these days.

I went out to buy a bunch of presents during my lunch break. She-who-teases-me-with-my-old-age is celebrating her 28th birthday tomorrow, getting another step closer to the big three-O. Meanwhile, a friend of mine has reproduced by means of his wife, but more on that tomorrow. So since I had to run errands and have lunch in the same short span of time, I walked merrily towards the subway station while simultaneously munching my sandwiches.

It was then that I noticed people were staring at me. Not just one or two of them but almost everybody I crossed. There was nothing extraordinary about my lunch: three sandwiches made from two slices of whole-wheat bread, one with spiced ham, one with chicken-curry and one with veal-in-mustard-sauce. Granted, they were big slices of bread, but not that big either. Yet people eyed me with suspicion and disbelief.

I met three youngsters chewing overstuffed pitas in the subway, but they didn’t get any looks. I saw someone hurling through the street in an attempt to catch the bus while eating a slice of pizza and no-one seemed to care. Dozens of people were milling down the omnipresent baguette or waffles or fruit or fries, but all that is perfectly fine.

But the humble sandwich, the working class’ lunch-item number one is socially repressed here. I think it’s outrageous that people here are condemned to a lower status because of their choice of lunch! It’s only a matter of time before we’re treated as second class citizens. We’ll have to sit in separate lunchrooms or be restricted to the back of the bus while we’re eating. It’s discrimination, that’s what it is. Forget about all that bickering between Flemish and Walloons, or the discrimination of people from Northern Africa. This is far more serious because nobody dares to bring it out in the open. Until now that is! Remember, you read it first on Bartlog.

And before someone asks, I did eat with my mouth closed.

Culinary Treat

Yesterday, someone found my weblog by entering the following search phrase in Google:

Sticks a dinner fork in his testicle


That’s what you get when people are forced on a diet. Can you imagine how desperate you’d have to be?

Wrong Way Track

Did you know that trains can take a wrong turn? It happened to me last week, twice.

On the same day.

In the morning, I take a direct train between Antwerp and Brussels. I’ve made this trip thousands of times now, so I could tell immediately something was wrong. Instead of going to Brussels, the locomotive merrily went on his way to Lier, and we had to follow of course, being in the wagons behind. Lier is a nice little historical city, but I really had to go to work to earn my pitiful little wage so I can make my colossal stack of bills a little less high. We stopped, and moments later the conductor informed us that the person at the controls in the signal house had made an error. Apparently, Belgian trains don’t have a reverse so we had to drive all the way to Lier before we could continue our voyage to Brussels via Mechelen.

Thinking this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I went to work and set off to return home in the evening. After our third stop (that thing stops basically at every house in Brussels), we were off again to discover strange new worlds and civilisations. Or at least we would be if the track wasn’t blocked by a reparation crew and the railroad bridge further ahead wasn’t under reconstruction. This time, a detour was not an option. Luckily, the track went also uphill, so we could roll back to the station as I’d already established earlier that Belgian trains don’t have a reverse. At first, the conductor mumbled an excuse about “stopped due to reparations”, but later he had to admit that it was that – censured – moron again who – censured – can’t – censured – his – censured – and on top of that doesn’t even – censured – and his mother too!

Honestly, if the railroad company keeps allowing students to take the controls during the summer months, it’s only a matter of time before my train has a head-on collision with another one. When that happens, it will probably be a freight train with a 500 tonnes load of steel coils, or a nuclear transport or something.

Logarithmic DIY Disaster

Me, 8 weeks ago:

We can do the bedroom before we move in. I was thinking about blues: we paint the ceiling pale blue and then we put a slightly darker blue wall paper on the walls.”


My wife, a couple of days later in the DIY store:

Wouldn’t it be nice if we took this dark blue wall paper too and do one wall with it?


We get the key, three weeks before we have to move. My father and mother start taking off the old wall paper.

Son, I think you should take a look at this.


Just come and see.

You see they put some thin insulation material underneath, but we can’t remove the wall paper without making holes into it.

That’s no problem, just take it off.

Well, yes. But then the plaster comes off too at some places.

Don’t worry, I’ll repair it.


A week later:

We realise that we won’t have enough time to finish the living room, the dining room that we won’t be using to dine and our bedroom all at once. We decide we have to prioritise and focus on the two rooms downstairs. The bedroom gets a lower priority, but my father continues to work there when he has to wait until something downstairs dries. He also removes the dreadful fake wood panelling on the old chimney, and replaces it with nice clean plasterboards.

When the big day of the move arrives, the bedroom isn’t ready, but it won’t take another couple of days to finish it. We already decided at that point that the horrible wall-to-wall carpet has to come out and that we’re going to clean up the wooden floor beneath it. We have ample experience with cleaning wooden floors. But then I get crazy ideas.


Three weeks ago

You know, now that we don’t have to rush anymore, I could put some more time and effort into the bedroom. I could remove the lowered ceiling and replace it with wood or plaster.” (The old ceiling was made of horrible cardboard tiles)

That would be nice, I do prefer a clean plastered ceiling though.


After my return from Africa...

...I set to work. I remove the carpet and discover that the planks underneath are nice, although they have some burn marks as if the room was ablaze at some point in time.

Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make false walls (to solve the plastering problem) and put isolation material behind them. That way we won’t hear the neighbours kids anymore.

You mean the neighbours won’t hear us fooling around in bed.

That too, yeah.


Last weekend

Honey, I removed some of the tiles from the ceiling. It looks as if the old ceiling itself is in pretty bad shape. I don’t want to risk hanging those heavy plasterboard plates on the old structure. I think it would be best if I removed the old plaster all together, right down to the wooden frame.

Oh right, maybe it would be better if you don’t put plasterboard up there. I’d like it if you could leave the wooden beams like that.

Well, they’re not very clean. Besides, I’ve been thinking (something I really must stop trying). I could put rockwool isolation between the beams. Otherwise we well hear every noise in the children’s bedroom on the second floor.

You mean you’re afraid that the kids will hear us fooling around in bed.

That too, yeah.


This weekend

I removed:

  • The remainder of the ceiling tiles.
  • The wooden frame on which the ceiling tiles were attached.
  • The plasterboard structure my father made around the chimney, in order to remove the plaster on the ceiling.
  • Half of the plaster on the ceiling.
  • The wooden sticks on which that plaster was stuck.
  • The electrical wires and the lamp in the middle.
  • The wood panels at the base of the walls.
  • A telephone wire and connector.

Taking down the plaster was fun, carrying it in a plastic box past the closet (very narrow), down the stairs, through the hall, through the dining room that we won’t be using to dine, through the kitchen, trough the place next to the kitchen that has no official name, outside past the huge mountains of rubbish already piled up there to a free spot at the other end of the garden, was no fun. I think I removed about three tonnes of ex-ceiling by means of an uncountable number back-and-forth-s between the bedroom and the garden. Tomorrow I will be about 85% handicapped for sure.

Meanwhile, the bedroom looks like a disaster area. When I worked in Bosnia, I saw houses that came through five years on the front zone of a civil war in a better condition. And I still have to break more things down before I can start rebuilding it. This is going to be a five year project, at best.

Ye Fatigue Is Upon Me

Week-ende oh week-ende!

Where areth thou, oh week-ende?

Cats On The Loose

Sunday was the big day for our two man-eating tigers, Macka (pronounced Match-ka) and Snijeg. After a year in prison they were given early parole. They were born in the wild, but their mother disappeared mysteriously so a friend of mine took them home and managed to persuade us to adopt them. That meant they would live their lives confined to the walls of our second floor apartment.

But when it became clear earlier this year that we would have to find another place, it wasn’t before long that we decided to find a house with a garden. Not just for the cats’ sake, we want also want our children to enjoy playing out in the garden. The bonus for us will be that we won’t have to take them to the park every couple of days to keep their ADHD in check.

Macka and Snijeg had to remain indoors for the first couple of weeks, to get them accustomed to their new surroundings. At first their territory was limited to the kitchen, living room and the small space next to the kitchen that has no official name yet and where we installed various things that didn’t find another place yet, including the washing machine. Last week we allowed them to run havoc in the hallway and on the stairs to the first and second floor, after I had carefully tucked away the telephone and internet cables. One of their favourite hobbies, apart from ripping the new wall paper to shreds, is chewing on thin cables like the ones that hook up a stereo, telephone, computer or any other very expensive device.

And now the last magical gate has opened. The last couple of weeks they have been mystified by the garden door. They were allowed a view onto the world beyond, through the fly door which they surprisingly didn’t shred to pieces.

Snijeg (the white one) was the first out. Despite being fond of water, Macka didn’t like the rain. But he soon followed. With their behinds close to the ground and their heads bobbing up and down, they sniffed their way onto the terrace and later into the garden. They loved the shrubbery that borders our garden, but they were a bit apprehensive of that strange green blanket that covers most of the garden. The lawn was wet, but Snijeg quickly discovered that it was soft and fun. Best of all, you can chew on it, just like the plants in the living room! Slowly they worked their way through the whole garden. Snijeg eagerly followed a couple of young doves that were fighting in a tree close buy. Whether he wanted to make new friends or he was thinking about lunch I do not know.

Somewhere Down The Crazy River

Here it is, my photographic report of my last trip to 'La République Démocratique Du Congo:

Kinshasa in the early morning, cloudy as always despite this being the dry season.

These are orphaned children getting circus training.

This is the jeep we bought. Pretty nice for an African second hand, isn't it?

On Sunday, we went to a spot some 30km west of the city, near the Congo river rapids.

In the wet season, this would be a raging torrent of water. In fact, I'm standing in the middle of the riverbed. In the dry season, people have easy access to the rocks and pebbles, so they can earn a bit of money excavating stones.

It's amazing to see the shapes the water has carved out of solid rock. These funnels give an idea of the force of the whirlpools in the river during the wet season. No swimming here!

And a nice sunset-over-the-river picture to finish it all off.

Lost Luggage

My suitcase has returned, two days later than its owner but I shall not complain. All my precious belongings were still in it. Apart from a week’s worth of dirty underwear, socks, shirts, trousers and so on, it also held my precious camera.

I put it in my suitcase because my camera bag contains a lot of little trinkets such as memory cards, filters, a mini tripod and so on that fast fingers could easily snatch during one of the many ‘security checks’ at Kinshasa’s N’Djili airport. I also had to take my laptop with me, and there was only room for that or for my camera in my backpack, but not for both. When I flew to Kin, the laptop travelled in my suitcase and my camera in my backpack. Now it was the camera’s turn to make the journey in the cargo hold.

To tell you the truth, I was a bit apprehensive to take my camera. My employer loves it when I take pictures of the organisation’s projects, but they’re also a bit ambiguous on whether or not they will pay me a new one if it gets stolen or smashed to pieces in the course of duty. And I’m not that rich, especially with all the recent events.

So if you all behave, I’ll show you some pictures I took in my next post.

Barely Made It Back

Sorry about not keeping you informed, but internet access was lousy in Congo. Last time I could use someone’s high-bandwidth connection, but this time I was restricted to the use of Cybercafés that generally had lousy computers and an even less trustworthy connection to cyberspace. So I’ll give you a brief report:

While we’re queuing for the umpteenth time to get into the plane on Tuesday, I notice a message on a screen that asks Mr and Mrs. Kaping to contact the boarding staff immediately. ‘Kaping’ in Dutch means high-jacking. Luckily they never show up. A couple of days later we see the news in a local restaurant and learn all about the mayhem in European and US airports. Apparently, the panic started after the secret services found a couple of people in Pakistan with plans to blow up explosives by using tooth paste and Eau de Cologne. Just great, this means even more delays, queuing and frisking in the future. And I really don’t understand the panic, more than three quarters of the population in Pakistan has concrete plans to bomb us.

Arrival in Kinshasa airport was smooth. In fact during arrival and departure a week later, only two people asked for a bribe to pass the check-points. And this improvement is not limited to the airport alone. The general atmosphere is much more relaxed. Maybe it has something to do with the presence of an international military force – EUFOR – but it can also just be a coincidence. Things can turn ugly here rather quickly, but so far so good. It’s been two weeks now since the general and presidential elections. The results are still not known, because of the logistic difficulties. Ballot boxes have to be brought in by bike, donkey, foot, pirogue, etc. and then everything has to be counted and recounted manually. And that in a country that is huge but has a general lack of roads that are worthy of that name. The radio gives the intermediate results of each district that has finished counting, and so far the main contenders are Joseph Kabila, the son of the old revolutionary Laurent Désiré Kabila who overthrew the Mobutu regime, and Jean-Pierre Bemba. Supporters of both parties already claim victory, while other less popular candidates claim that the elections were not fair, despite being monitored by the international community and being deemed fair. It seems possible that a second round will have to be organised with the main contenders. The question is: how will the losers react? As a precautionary measure, Angola sent its military to strengthen the border region, so that gives you a clue as to what might happen.

We stayed in rooms that are let by one of our partner organisations. There was no warm water in the shower – or a shower head – but it was clean. There was also a mosquito net, something I foolishly forgot while packing. In my defence, it was difficult to pack in a house that’s still filled to the rim with boxes. Electricity was only available now and then (more then than now). Generally there’s none in the evening while you need it, so we spent most of our evenings in one of the two restaurants nearby. We couldn’t risk walking much further at night, we’d been dead meat.

We had a busy week, with loads of interesting meetings, discussions and so on that would bore your head off, so let’s skip that part. We also spent much of our ‘free’ Saturday to look for a decent second hand car. Unfortunately prices are soaring at the moment, with all those new organisations coming in to re-launch the development process in this country. We only have half the budget we need, but by sheer luck we manage to find a decent Mitsubishi Pajero jeep, without a leaky engine, rotting chassis or body work that has more holes in it than an Emmenthal cheese. This is the second car I buy in two weeks; I’m getting good at this. I manage to pretend that I know all about cars, looking at the engine and poking and pulling at things, looking with a sceptical look to the suspension and exhaust pipe, looking for rust and rot on the body work. My colleagues are duly impressed.

On Sunday, we have most of the day off and we drive to a place next to the river, near the rapids west of the city. It’s a nice spot without any garbage – you have to pay to get in. I took some very nice pictures, if I may so myself, but you may never see them since my luggage has gone missing with my camera in it. At the moment I’m waiting anxiously on a phone call from Air France…

Temporarily Out Of Office

It’s been already six weeks since my last trip abroad (honeymoon) and almost four months since my last working-visit to one of our projects, so high time for me to get my sexy firm masculine (hairy) butt on a plane. Tomorrow morning I fly off to Somewhat More Democratic Republic of Congo (they had elections a week ago, for the first time in four decades).

I will foolishly take my camera with me, which will be stolen about five minutes after my arrival. My bloody cut-up corps will be rotting in one of Kinshasa’s open sewers until it is found by a search party organised by my faithful blog readers five months later.

Anyway, as you know this means I won’t be posting until my return a week later, but if and when I have access to internet I will inform you about my antics in this beautiful but strange country by means of the Haloscan comments. So tune in regularly even if your RSS feeder claims that I’ve been lazy, not posting anything for days. He’s lying, or I’m dead.

Of Cats and Men

Cats and men/women have been living together for thousands of years. When prehistoric men first took a cat in his home, the cat couldn’t do much wrong since everything was made of stone, including cups and vases – which weighed about a quarter of a tonne, and the cave’s walls. People didn’t move around a lot either, because there were only so many caves around.

Nowadays, moving from one house to another creates a whole new set of problems. Both people and cats want to make themselves at home in the new house. People do this by making everything nice, for instance by putting wallpaper on the walls. Cats do this by marking their new territory, for instance by scratching the new wallpaper of the walls. People use the opportunity to install an impressive audio and video system, including digital TV, surround sound and linking up everything in one giant media centre. Cats make themselves cosy by chewing up every cable they can find.

So this weekend I spent most of my time making everything cat-proof. The computer now has its own room, which is strictly off limits to our feline devils. I tucked away the internet, stereo and telephone cables safely away, even if that meant I had to drill holes in every wall in the house. And in the mean time I kicked their little buts every time I caught them looking at the wallpaper. Not that there is much left of it, especially in the dining room where we put the most expensive wallpaper. Those were also the last rolls available, so reparation will be impossible. I wonder how Macka and Snijeg know all this.

Honeymoon Pictures II

Time for some more pictures of our honeymoon in Ecuador.

When we were in the jungle, we visited a local primary school where this lot terrorise their poor teacher. I think the Kiwi couple that accompanied us drove the teacher mad after they gave every child a 'clicker' toy.

The Indigéna family we stayed with had a row with their neighbours after they had eaten their previous pet turtoise

Our guide showed us how to find gold, so we were practically able to earn the cost of our honeymoon back.

In our next jungle lodge, parrots flew in by sunset to pick up some leftovers from the kitchen. When there were no leftovers they decided themselves what part of our food was for them and what should be left over for us.

This maggot was offered to us as a snack. Apparently it's delicious when baked, but you can also eat it raw. It's also very healthy. No wonder hamburger and fries is so popular all over the world, while you rarely find an 'All You Can Eat Maggot Hut' anywhere.

This woman is preparing 'Chicha', a local alcoholic drink made - in this case - of manioc. Because they traditionally don't have yeast, the women take this pulp in their mouths and chew it. We were offered some to drink, and I think I was the only one who know the details about this 'brewing' process, in any case the guides didn't inform us. And even without this knowledge, it's an acquired taste.

That's all for now, more later.