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Thursday, September 29, 2005

Creature from the deep

I don’t remember when I first saw the film ‘Jaws’, I do remember that at a certain moment I started to wonder if I would be eaten alive every time I entered an open body of water. Never mind that white sharks rarely attack in duck ponds and canals deep in the interior of the Belgian countryside. The North Sea shores are not really known for shark attacks either, being both cold and very polluted (what were we doing in that water anyway). And later, when I had money enough to fly to more exotic beaches I just knew they were out there, searching for the mustard in the back of their freezers before they would rip off a leg or an arm.

But then we got the National Geographic Channel, and I learned that white sharks aren’t that dangerous. It’s all a matter of bad press. Damn you, Steven Spielberg! In fact, great whites aren’t man eaters, unless you’re stupid enough to lie down on a surfboard and pretend you’re a turtle or a sea lion. They may be a bit short sighted, but on the whole great white sharks are excellent chaps that make a great conversation, albeit with a big mouth. The days of shark cages are long gone, you’re a sissy now if you don’t swim between them in the nude with ketchup all over your body and a sign around your neck that says ‘bite me’. Similarly, blue sharks are as meek as a puppy, just don’t pretend you’re a dying fish, they hate that joke and you might get some biting remarks. (Mako sharks on the other hand are bastards; don’t leave your kid alone in the swimming pool with them).

But now there is this: an eight meter long monster with tentacles of more than five meters. And apparently, it wasn’t even full-grown! A Japanese researcher discovered it in the depths of the Japanese sea in October last year. The giant squid took the bait that was hanging on the line, together with some pretty mean hooks. But after hours of struggle, it still got away, although it now only has seven tentacles instead of eight, the poor little thing. Scientists think that there are even much bigger squids out there. So is there nothing that can stop them? Sure, sperm whales eat these enormous creeps, only the Japanese and the Norwegians are killing the sperm whales. Are they out of their minds? STOP DOING THAT!!! All this leaves me no choice but to take preventive measures. No more scuba-diving at 1000 meters depth for me, ever! Or at least not off the coast of Japan.

Posted by Bart at 10:30 PM
Categories: Animal Farm

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Mediterranean lamb ragout

I named this dish the ‘Mediterranean lamb stew’ because of the typically southern ingredients such as tomatoes, paprika, lamb’s meat, garlic, etc. although it was developed and tested in Belgium – which is not a Mediterranean country – by myself. No Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italians, Slovenes, Croats, Bosnians, Montenegrins, Albanians, Greeks, Turks, Syrians, Lebanese, Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, Libyans, Tunisians, Algerians, Moroccans, Cypriotes or Maltese were harmed during the making and testing of this dish. Let me confirm for the record that I am absolutely against practices of smearing lamb ragout in the eyes or on the skin of Mediterranean people for any cosmetic or medical purposes.

It’s a relatively simple dish, but it does take a while to prepare, as with all stews, casseroles, ragouts, etc. The beauty of lamb ragout is that you get all the delicious taste of lamb, at a budget friendly price. Lamb ragout is about the cheapest kind of lamb’s meat you can find. It just takes a while to prepare and of course, if you don’t like food with bones in it, this is not the dish for you. I did throw in a couple of slices of the shoulder of the lamb, which have more meat and less bone.

A final remark: I made this dish for the two of us, but the portions are really enough to feed any passing armies. That is because with the same effort, you can make a whole heap of food you can then put in the freezer. And I think it’s too much effort to make this dish in small portions, besides you would have to leave out some of the veggies or start using halve paprika, etc.

You need:

  • 2 medium sized onions cut into small pieces
  • 1 yellow, 1 green and 1 red paprika, cut into small pieces
  • 6 decently sized tomatoes (1.5 kilos), any variety you like, cut into pieces
  • 500 gr. of lamb ragout
  • 500 gr. of lamb shoulder (slices)
  • 50 gr. of margarine (you can use olive oil too of course)
  • Spicy paprika powder
  • Harissa
  • Salt
  • A seriously large cooking pot

First cut up the veggies, then put your LARGE cooking pot on a low fire and let the margarine melt without getting brown. Throw in the onions and jostle them around now and them. After a couple of minutes, add the paprika, stir around and put on the lid. Leave it for five minutes or so, stirring occasionally to prevent burning.

Take the pot from the fire and add the paprika powder and a bit of salt. Stir well, so the paprika powder mixes with the molten margarine (cooking oil). You’ll get a kind of paste with the pieces of onions and paprika.

Add a layer of tomatoes and put the pieces of lamb ragout on top. Don’t put in the lamb shoulder just yet. Put the rest of the tomatoes on top of the meat and place the pot back on the fire / laser-guided ceramic conductive cooking plates.

There! Most of the work is already done. Turn up the heat a bit in the beginning to get it going and stir now and then. When the tomatoes have fallen apart and turned into tomato sauce that’s bubbling nicely, turn down the heat again so that it keeps boiling softly without anything burning. Continue stirring once in a while, but not too much or the meat will start falling apart and you’ll end up with a kind of soup instead of ragout.

After an hour of total cooking time, taste the sauce and add Harissa, salt, pepper and any other spices you like. Then add the slices of lamb shoulder and stir again. Try to resist the delicious smells and let it boil softly for another half an hour. Serve with mashed potatoes (‘au garlique’), rice or bread (those flat Moroccan ones or Italian Ciabatta). Then seat yourself on two chairs, unbutton your trousers as a preventive safety measure and dig in, because this is absolutely delicious.

Posted by Bart at 10:25 PM
Categories: The Hunter Gatherer

Monday, September 26, 2005

Blame it on my genes

My grandfather was known for his sudden, violent outbursts. The object of his frustration would mainly be inanimate, but this didn’t prevent him from claiming that “it was all made just to annoy him”. Man, he could shout! Likewise, as children we knew better than to hang around dad when he was practising DIY. Whenever things went wrong, he would curse the plaster of the walls. Generally, this was followed by “Bart, come here and hold the bloody thing for me”. On which I would enter knees trembling and slipping a way as silently and as fast as I could afterwards. Generally, he started to DIY in the middle of exam periods. Not that he is bad at doing it; it’s just that it was a very frightening experience to all of us. We were tip-toeing around the house to prevent drawing attention to our presence, or worse, make something fall apart because of any tremors we’d cause.

Because the DIY virus is simply in our blood, I too have an impressive collection of machines, screwdrivers, wrenches, etc. But I always thought I would never scare my children like my father did, because I’m just a much calmer person. I’m an icon of Zen-calm when I’m repairing stuff. Well, of course, I do swear occasionally. In our family, we call this “talking to god”. Although I’m an atheist, I still feel this is sometimes necessary to speed things up, or to encourage cooperation of certain appliances or materials I’m working with.

This weekend however, I really lost it. For the 9th weekend in a row, I was refurbishing (read: rebuilding) our living room. Finally, we got up to putting up the wall paper. And despite the fact that there is not a single 90° corner in the whole apartment, or a straight wall without curves, bends, holes the size of the Atlantic Ocean, I managed to remain utterly calm. That is, until I started on what should have been the easy part, on a part of the wall without any wall sockets, doors, chimneys, and so on. I put up a piece of wall paper, well smeared with glue by my beautiful assistant (my girlfriend) for whom this was her first experience in wall-papering. But then I noticed it wasn’t on straight, and I couldn’t correct on the fly, so I took it off again. No problem, just a minor mismatch.

So on it went again, at one side first, but mysteriously, there was this gap again at the bottom. Ok, something was definitely wrong here, either with the wall, or with the paper I was holding or with its sibling already hanging on the wall. Another attempt followed, but by then the glue wasn’t holding very well anymore. So each time I ALMOST had the thing hanging correctly, it slid away. In the end, it just refused to stick to the wall. Just when my girlfriend proposed to put some new glue on, a red haze came in front of my eyes. Boiling with frustration, I vented my righteous anger by tearing apart the insubordinate piece of paper and wrapping it into a giant ball, while the steam was coming out of my ears.

I noticed my girlfriend just quietly slipped away, as softly as she could. It’s just as well, no-one can stop a genetic outburst of anger.

Posted by Bart at 10:21 PM
Categories: Home Improvement

Friday, September 23, 2005

Uncle Bart

Yesterday, I became Uncle Bart. Well, not officially, since it’s my girlfriends’ side of the family and we’re not married yet. I’m more of an aspirant-uncle. In the evening, we went to the hospital to get a glimpse of the newborn, and I can tell you she’s a beauty. Her name is Pippa: apparently she’s named after a character in the parent’s favourite soap series. But let’s not get into that.

She’s utterly cute, soft and cuddly, weighs about 3.4 kilos and already has a nice head of dark hair. So far, her eyes are blue, but there were many theories about whether they would turn brown, green or remain blue-ish. Personally, I thought they might get red, but apparently that’s not possible.

You’d think that everyone would like such a sweet little baby, but unfortunately, little Pippa already had mighty enemies. You see, Pipa does not have a mommy and a daddy, but two mommies. So in the eyes of some, including an old geriatric that never had sex in his life but apparently can dictate how other people should behave in this respect, Pippa shouldn’t have been born at all. Because it’s not ‘right’. Because children should have a mother AND a father, in have to be raised in a traditional family. First, let me say that when people should voice such a stupid opinion about Pippa and her loving mothers in my presence, they’d better be aware that they might loose their ability to make children altogether. Secondly, in the presence of so much love of both mothers for this little newborn, I honestly can’t say that I as a man could do better or give more. I don’t think that I’m by default a better partner to my soon-to-be-wife in raising a child in a loving way.

On the positive side, I am glad that I live in a country where gay and lesbian people are on the way to enjoy the same rights as all the rest of us, although there’s still a way to go. Frankly, it shocked me that my girlfriend’s sister’s name was erased with Tipp-ex from the birth certificate, after it became clear that the partner was a woman too. It has to, by law, and by law, she has nothing to do with this child. Which is absolutely, mind bogglingly outrageous!

Posted by Bart at 10:19 PM
Categories: Miscellaneous

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Accidental discoveries of the third kind

Yesterday I was strolling through Brussels, killing some time and the occasional toddler running under my feet before meeting some friends for diner. By chance I stumbled upon Sterling Books, an English bookshop in the centre of the city. They had lots of books – obviously – and more to the point a quite impressive collection of recent and not-so-recent science-fiction novels. So what, you say (I know that up to know no-one has found my weblog yet, so technically, I’m speaking to myself here, which is a bit worrying).

To appreciate my discovery, you have to understand that on average, Belgians have no imagination whatsoever. Seriously, their combined imagination wouldn’t allow them to envisage someone building a huge canon to fire a huge bullet filled with people to the moon. We have at the moment zero-point-nothing-whatsoever science fiction authors here, at least none that got their work published (for the others, see this site (Dutch language)). That is why Jules Verne was a Frenchman and not a Belgian. So science fiction novels are rare here, because not many people read them. And if you find a SF-novel, it’s the obligatory Star Wars spin-off crap about the exciting life of Princess Leia and Han Solo after their marriage. Allow me to take a moment to puke here.

…So, all done. For the rest, you can find Fantasy novels here, although only the more popular titles. That is because we in the Flemish part speak Dutch (kind of), which is a language only a couple of millions of people speak. So it’s often not worthwhile to translate books into Dutch, especially not science fiction novels that are avoided by Belgians like a Wookiee with the Vulcan plague.

Series of novels are often a problem, because they only translate parts one, three and fifteen. So you have to buy the rest in English. Or you did buy parts three, four and five, but the first two volumes are nowhere to be found. And no way, they’re going to be reprinted. Because they burned the translated manuscripts AND the translator, they exiled the printer, and they erased the memory of every salesperson who was ever in contact with those novels. So you’ll find no trace of them anymore ever.

So a bookshop like this is to a Belgian SF-fan like an ice-cream stand to a car-crash victim ablaze like a torch in the middle of a desert. They had so many books missing in my collection that it was difficult to choose. And best of all, at ridiculously low prices (mustn’t tell them that, they might increase them): 12.5 € for an Isaac Asimov classic, that would otherwise cost me at least 20 € or more.

I’ll guess they’ll see me often there, in the coming months.

Posted by Bart at 10:18 PM
Categories: Miscellaneous

Monday, September 19, 2005

Cat's Towers

In the race for the world’s highest structure, we present you the Cat’s Towers. The Petronas Towers in Malaysia, the Sears Towers in the US and other mega-structures currently under construction all stand in the shadow of this giant. I put it together myself and it stands in our (temporary) living room since last Saturday. It has 1000 parking spaces underground, a business lounge on the first floor (that’s the second floor to Americans), luxurious apartments on the second floor, a fitness room in the middle of the building, and a promenade deck on top with an excellent view on the city.

I always thought that buying a luxury climbing post for your cats was a bit over the top. Something only those people who give their cat fresh foie-gras and let them inherit their entire fortune do. But now I realise, it’s either a luxury climbing post or your furniture. Our carpets are getting pretty thin here and there, and we’ve only got the damn cats four months. I suspect they’re trying to dig a tunnel to escape. I read somewhere on a website, that if your cat does things it’s not supposed to, a radical but guaranteed successful trick is to spray water on them. They’ll never do it again! Unfortunately, our cats are the only ones in the world that are not only water proof, but that actually seem to like it. One time or another, they’ll just take out their shampoo and ask to spray a little higher and more to the left.

So in a furniture-preserving effort, we drove to the pet shop to buy a climbing/scratching post with multiple levels, its own carpets that they can scratch as much as they like and many other possibilities for play and general mayhem. We got a 40 Euro reduction because it was a showroom model, and this was also the reason why we had to take it apart in the shop. And we forgot one of the – central – parts. And I didn’t notice before we got home, after a half hour drive through dense weekend traffic. So back to the shop it was, trying to remember if we had taken it out of the shop or not, and if not it probably meant it was still lying on the sidewalk or in the gutter. Which was luckily not the case. But anyhow, all’s well that ends well, and now we have this giant thing in the middle of the room, next to our bedroom door.

I wonder how long it will take before one of the little devils jumps in my neck first thing in the morning when I leave the bedroom, still barely aware of my surroundings.

Posted by Bart at 10:15 PM
Categories: Animal Farm

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Brussels' best fry shack

At my first job, we had a little tradition by eating fries for lunch every Thursday. This was greatly stimulated by the fact that one of the best fry shops in Antwerp was around the corner. For those of you who have no clue about what I’m talking: fries are for Belgians what cheese and wine is for the French and Woursheshtershouresoursauce is for the English.

Sadly, when the office moved to the edge of the city, we were deprived of quality fries. Actually, there were many fry shops nearby, but of low quality. Most of them were little Pita or Dürum restaurants where you could also buy fries. But shoarma and fries just don’t mix; either you get crappy pitas or crappy fries. There was a dedicated Belgian fry shop a bit further, but this was one of the look-at-me-I’m-so-hygienic-I-rubbed-all-the-taste-out-of-my-fries variety. So our weekly tradition came to a virtual standstill.

Since almost two months though, I have a new job in Brussels. Up to now, I never tried one of the fry shops around my work, which was simply intolerable. Worryingly, there aren’t many about apparently. But thanks to advice of my colleagues, I was able to pinpoint two of them. So yesterday, despite the threat of adverse weather conditions on the long walk to my goal, I ventured to the Place Saint-Josse/Sint-Joost Plein.

First good sign: it was a real fry shack, looking a bit old and wobbly, with a real sense of tradition. Not one of those shiny-glossy-all-new-flashy-plastic-metallic-mirror-palaces. The grey-haired owner looked experienced, and had a large gold chain round his neck. But what struck me the most was the delicious smell invading my nose and making my mouth water. This wasn’t the smell of ordinary King Wendy Mc’Donalds Quicky deep-frozen fries soaking up vegetable oil. No, these were obviously fresh potato fries browning beautifully in cow’s fat.

There was quite a long line of people waiting, but fifteen minutes later I hurried back to the office with my steaming pack of delicacies (large fry with mayonnaise, ‘fricandelle/curryworst’ and ‘viandelle’). Full of anticipation I planted my fork in a large fry and tasted it – pure, without any sauce. And it was DELICIOUS, I tell you. I’ve rarely eaten such good fries. They were hand-cut, thick, soft in the middle, with nice brown edges and a taste that would convince you to give your left testicle for another bite. The mayonnaise wasn’t quite the best I’ve tasted yet, but wasn’t bad either. And both pieces of meat – fricandelle and viandelle – were fine too. So this good old fry shack will be rewarded an honorary place on my website’s Belgian fries page.

Now I know for sure, I am meant to work here, in the close proximity of this fry shack.

Posted by Bart at 10:14 PM
Categories: The Hunter Gatherer

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Boy with toy

So I finally bought myself a digital camera a couple of weeks ago. Mind you, not just your average 13-in-a-dozen-quickly-take-a-snapshot-of-the-children-playing camera. Noooo, I desperately needed a digital SLR 8 megapixel beast of a camera, the same way men generally need a sound system normally used by the Rolling Stones on one of their larger tours, or an all-terrain vehicle capable of crossing the Sahara desert to do the groceries. And man, do I feel all-powerful now with my new Canon EOS-350D in my hands. Nothing is safe for me now. I can take pictures of black horses in coal mines without any light. I can make close-ups of life forms on the moons of Jupiter. I can take 300 shots of a Formula-1 race-car speeding towards me before it cuts my legs from underneath my body. All thanks to the 500+ easy-to-learn functions that this thing has. And all this only cost me a measly 900 Euros.

I took it on our annual vacation, destination Portugal. I spent three weeks looking through the (removable! interchangeable!) lens, capturing about 450 pictures of Portugal’s beautiful cities, coastline, people and forest fires. I left with two 250Mb CompactFlash (II !) cards, and had to buy a third one there to document everything. Gradually I got better in handling the many functions, and produced some very nice photos, if I may say so myself. Best of all, I got to take photos I never was able to take before with the simple devices I had at my disposal. I returned home a happy man, with a slightly annoyed girlfriend that felt too much love was diverted from her towards a stupid toy.

But then, dear reader (anybody out there?) the troubles begin.

You see, in the old days, you just took the films to your local photographer, who developed them for you, and afterwards you could throw away the stupid ones – which you never did, so you’d end up with stacks of not-so-nice photographs. But now, you can see them on your computer first. You can arrange them in categories. You can rename them and develop a system to classify them. You can enlarge them, crop them, alter the colour balance and get rid of the red eyes. You can get rid of people you don’t like (anymore) or turn them into the freaky monsters they really are. The possibilities are infinite.

And so is the time you spend trying to sort them out and prepare them for an online printing service. We’ve been back for six weeks now, and I finally classified them all. At the moment, I’m trying to find out which service has the best price/quality to print the ones I’m GOING to select, so add another week or two. Then – FINALLY – I can put them in an album. By the way, I’ve still got eight years of photos waiting to be put into an album. And I’m getting married next year, so there will be plenty of pictures to put into plenty of albums too.

Of course, to get them sorted out in the first place, my old computer configuration wasn’t potent enough in my humble opinion. I definitely needed USB 2.0 support (yes, it was that old), a 64-bit processor, DDR-RAM, Firewire and the lot to turn my pictures 90° and rename them. Although I used a lot of the old parts, you can add another 500 Euros to the bill. Including the price for three CompactFlash cards and a USB-stick I couldn’t live without and have only once used after buying it, I’m about 1600 Euros poorer BEFORE I even got a single photo printed out. I just hope it won’t be gathering dust in some close six months from now.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Rush hour tourists

After a month and a half at my new job, I really master the commuting thing. My daily trip between Antwerp and Brussels takes about an hour and a half each direction, in the company of several thousands of other people who press themselves on the same tram, train and subway car as I do. I now am capable of finding my way around practically blindfolded, which is just as well because you can’t expect a lot of mental activity at 7 a.m. from this commuter. Most importantly, I mastered the empty, mindlessly annoyed gaze of the average commuter and the purposefulness we share with a group of lemmings at the steep end of a cliff. Added to that is a will to bump into anyone in your way, shoving them aside without remorse, walking stick or no. Rush hour is no time for the weak and feeble.

Poor tourist, who unwittingly finds him- or herself in this maelstrom while trying to reach ‘Manneken Pis’, the ‘Grand Place’ or one of the many museums. Yesterday, I encountered a couple of them between the subway station and the Central station (which is also underground). Like a ship adrift, they were floating in the rapids of commuters trying to get home as fast as possible. They drifted to the left and to the right, sometimes swimming into the stream to try to read the signs pointing to the different exits. When I came nearer, they hoisted a big sail. A large map of Brussels, flapping in the wind but blocking the sight and path of the commuters, who growled and hissed in anger. Who dared to block them? She got bumped pretty hard, and his map was almost ripped out of his hands.

He understood that they had to get out of there, no matter where they went. He quickly folded the map, while the commuters were stomping the back of his heels to get him out of the way. He took her hand and dragged her aside. I don’t know if they made it, because the tide had already swept me past the next curve in the tunnel.

Just a few weeks ago, I too was a helpless tourist in a foreign city, not realising that people had to work while I was on vacation. People growled and snapped at me too, while I was following the directions of my Lonely Planet guide. One thing is for certain: commuters hate tourists. They just don’t need to see any happy persons free of stress while they are floating in it on their way back from work.

Posted by Bart at 10:11 PM
Categories: Public Transport Pains

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