Friday, February 25, 2011

On a personal note,

I haven't done much speaking about myself lately here.  Probably because it's quite the mixed bag we've got going on chez nous for the moment, but none of it is terribly thrilling.

---Mami (Boyfriend's grandmother, who's house we currently live in,) died.  We knew it was going to happen, given her rapidly progressing dementia, not to mention the liver-cancer that popped up last year.  She was not undergoing treatment for the cancer as the doctors had decided the treatment would be terribly invasive and probably kill her, and she was not yet at a point of suffering from it.  She passed in her sleep, which really was the nicest way it could have happened for her I think.

---Boyfriend had a 3D x-ray (not an MRI) taken of his lungs and a battery of lung volume and efficiency tests were run a few weeks back.  He's been given the green light by the lung specialist to resume living life with a few exceptions.  He has been positively timid about resuming life as normal, taking things really slowly and listening intently to his body.  I get it though - he's worried about having another pneumothorax (because after the first, there is a 20% chance it could happen again.)  If it were to happen again he'd probably have to have a surgical treatment to deal with the problem, which he's heard is terribly painful, and not necessarily effective.

---We have plane tickets.  We'll be visiting Toronto for a few weeks at the end of March/beginning of April for a much needed vacation/visit/catch-up with friends and family (not to mention accountants and doctors and favourite clothing stores!)  I'm SO looking forward to it!

---The goal of getting more credentials in 2011 is almost one I can scratch off the list.  I have an irrational fear that I'll cause exciting things to evaporate by speaking about them, so I'm not going to say any more at this point.  I'll share with you when it's done.

---I signed up for a half marathon (21k).  It's a big one (about 17 000 runners) in London in September. There'll be music along the route, and since it seemed like so much fun and so little pressure, I said "why the hell not?"  So, I'm booked in, our hotel's booked, and away we'll go.  I had written down the time I'd hoped to do better than here, but then that irrational fear of speaking about good things and thereby turning them into horrible things kicked in, and a whole scenario ran through my head involving my knee being hurt again and my having to drag myself using my arms along the route of the race... so I'm not telling you the time I'm going for after all.

---Completely unrelated to this (shhh) - I ran a 10k today where I pushed the pace a little and it was 51 minutes! I wasn't feeling super this morning, though I felt pretty ok, and I was really only pushing a little harder in the moments where my mind wasn't trying to ply me into walking for just a second, or where it was flatter running, so I hadn't expected that time.  This has given me hope that I may ... uh, nevermind.

That's all for now.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ceci n'est pas un gouvernement

Efrutik posed a question in the comments for the last post, and it's one commonly asked by those outside Belgium. "WHY? Why are Belgians willing to live like this, in a limbo? "

It's a question worth the effort of investigating at this point, with neither hide nor hair of a government in sight, not even on the horizon after two hundred and fifty something days.

Demystifying the Belgian mind concerning politics will not be easy.  The realm of Belgian politics is murky, surreal, and tedious all at once.  Though I am not fully versed in the matter I've been here long enough to gain some insight into it.  Here, I roll up my sleeves and try to explain things in ungoverned Belgium, as I see them.  (And because I do not claim to be an expert at understanding all nuances of Belgian government, I do welcome corrections of factual errors on my part.)

Most non-Belgians who grew up in democratic environments are raised to believe that a vote is an expression of our will.  We can choose to express our political desires or not, by either going to the polls or not.  We accept that the politician with the most votes in a designated area is the winner and will directly assume his/her seat in the place where governing happens.  He/She will certainly not agree with all the other elected politicians who will also attend the governing place, but in order to resolve these disagreements they will make their points, and then they will all vote amongst themselves, with the winning solution being the one they will jointly pursue.  Of course this is a simplification of the process but generally we think of this as their job, and so do they.

It doesn't quite work that way in Belgium.

In almost all places there are traditional steps taken in the process of forming a new government after an election.  In most democratic countries the tradition is a 'formality' and is quickly done.  Unfortunately, in Belgium this formality has become distorted, blown wide open, magnified and dragged out.  What was once a formality is now an expansive grey-area playground in which politicians make their power-plays.

How did this happen?

After an election The King of the Belgians asks the head of one of the most popular parties to do a small formal job (the job of "informateur".)  This job is to confirm that all those elected are ready and willing to form a government.  (Makes sense that they should be, right?  After all, just prior to being elected they were busy preaching to the people about how ready and willing they were.)

In a normal world, newly elected politicians would say to the informateur "Yes!  I'm ready to get in there and argue about issues and to vote on their possible solutions!"  The informateur would go back to The King and give him the thumbs-up.

The King would then choose which of the head of one of the most-voted for parties he might like as his Prime-Minister.  His choice would be based on how he thinks the Belgian people will accept the new leader, which form of politics received the most votes regardless of region (in this case total votes for socialist parties outweighed total votes for more conservative parties in the country as a whole,) as well the King considers how well he feels the new Prime-Minister will do, whether he will be able to do his job both inside the country and when representing the country among other leaders.  BUT, before appointing someone Prime-Minister The King also gives them a job.  He makes this potential Prime Minister "the pre-formateur", and the job of the pre-formateur is to form the government.  (Again, it's pretty much a formality in a normal world where the politicians have all said "Yes!  We can't wait to get into that governing place so we can argue and vote!")

But - what happens when someone takes advantage of this process and says "No" to the informateur or the pre-formateur?  The formal process never really addresses what happens when someone who said they wanted the job before being elected then turns around after being elected and says "Even though I was elected, and I'm now being paid to do this job... I don't want to do my job as long as I have to work in the same building as that guy who has other beliefs than my own."  It's so easy to throw a wrench in the works when your system is built this way, with these formal steps.  Here the process stops dead if someone says "no".

I know.  This is the part where even if you were rolling your eyes at the idea of informateur and pre-formateur, you are now thinking "WHAT?"

And this is what's happened.  The pre-formateur has had no success in forming a government.  Talks between parties about the possibility of all going to the governing place and governing have fallen apart, again, and again, and again, and again.  The King has a "caretaker government" in place while all the nonsense drags on.  They are a skeleton crew comprised of members of the previous government, and their job is basically just to make sure the ship doesn't sink while everyone aboard is busy fighting.  Incidentally, the caretaker government has been doing a pretty good job, which begs the question "do we really NEED all those extra politicians to run things, then?"

Back to the scrum though.  There has been a lot of posturing, and use of the media to fan the flames.  Various politicians have all taken their turns playing the role of diva this time around, saying "No, I simply cannot sit in a building with THAT person so long as they believe THIS THING about THIS ISSUE.  I will not agree to form a government until THIS is RESOLVED."

I know.  You're thinking "WHAT?" again.  "Isn't the point of government to resolve differences of opinion by arguing in the governing place and then voting on them?"  Aaahhh, but you see... voting is democratic, which means for politicians with extreme views, it probably isn't a good way to get your way.  Playing outside the system as long as possible to the frustration and mounting embarassment of The King and the other willing politicians, not to mention the mounting worries of the world financial markets is probably a better way to get a few concessions you want, isn't it?  Eventually if you can wear people down by stomping your feet and refusing to form a government, people might just give in to a few of your demands to try and get the ball rolling again.

The King, who has no power to change this process, must now realize he's screwed.  He's in a position (officially) of being the man who guides the formal process, meanwhile he has no real control over it.  All eyes go back to him when a pre-formateur says "I can't form a government."  All he can do is try to encourage the formation of a government by telling the pre-formateur to "go back and try harder", or he can accept that government cannot be formed and agree to another election (in which case the vote could turn out similarly, and if the same politicians are elected the same problems forming a government would likely reoccur.)  Quite the headache for Albert II.  Catch 22.  Checkmate.

His highness, King of the Belgians stewed in the failure of the pre-formateur and delivered a new scheme to the Belgians to resolve the problem:  "The conciliateur".  The conciliateur was also appointed by the King, and was supposed to try and find a way to calm things down enough so that the elected officials will stop all the posturing, agree to form government, and GET TO WORK.

And it worked as well as you might think.  Meaning not really, because the problem of any politician being able to throw the formation of a government out the window by saying a simple "no" hasn't been solved.  In fact, the conciliateur recently went to The King and threw in the towel.

Somewhere along the line the King invented a "clarificateur" as well, apparently.  Yeah, I can relate there Albert II ... it gets confusing and a little clarity is always a good thing.

So - why do the people of Belgium accept what's going on right now?  Because Belgians are raised to follow tradition, and having grown up here they accept that in Belgium most governmental processes take a long time.  They accept the many layers of administration used to make things run.  Inefficiency and delay in administration are a way of life here, and unless the delays get really extreme, people don't get upset.  People are just starting to get upset now.  In the past 50 days, there have been protests in the streets of Brussels and other Belgian cities, and citizens are becoming more vocally and visually demonstrative about their desire for the politicians to stop bickering and start governing.

Why has it taken this long?  Well, all those layers of government act like a cushion.  The administrators (not politicians) have continued working at their snail-like pace, rubber-stamping the papers that drift across their desks.  The city-councils continue meeting.  The caretaker government is still in place, and life plods along feeling pretty normal, despite the lack of "A Belgian" government.  It makes it easier to accept the fact of no government while making it harder for Belgians to remember that the longer this continues, the less confidence international investors will have in Belgium, (which could endanger the health of the country in a whole new way.)  It doesn't feel like limbo, or a crisis, even though it is in the eyes of most other countries looking at Belgium.

For those of us who know that other places don't work this way, it makes little sense.  I think a lot of Belgians just don't know any better.  They don't know how much better it could be with a little reform to correct that obvious and currently exploited weak-point in their political process or believe the task of untangling and simplifying the process to be so precarious that it may in fact break, rather than fix the system.  I chalk much of the Belgian tranquility over no government to these things, but of course there's also apathy.  You might feel that way too if you were legally obliged to vote, and then forced to see that your vote had no real correlation to the eventual tangible result.  BUT, in any case you can't make a reform to the political process without the consensus of government, can you?  And you can't do that if there isn't a government!

But for now there's a tradition to be followed.  It's always been done this way, and it's always worked before.  Just wait, you'll see.  It'll work, eventually.  Maybe after this next informateur?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Congratulations, gentlemen.

You've brought a distinguished honour to Belgium.  You must have known it would happen... is that what all these knowing glances and smiles were about all along?

For those not quite in the loop - as of yesterday Belgium beat out Iraq for the record of "Country to go without a government for the longest period of time".

249 days post-election and counting...

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Are your sweets truly sweet, my dear?

Nothing says love more than giving that special someone a heart shaped box full of child labour and pesticides, right?

This time of year especially, the problems of pesticide use and child labour in the chocolate industry are ones some of the large chocolate companies do their best to keep hidden.  They aren't very romantic, feel-good things after all, though they are still significant problems.  Pesticides are used by many producers because cacao trees are very susceptible to disease and damage.  In a world where the demand for chocolate is rapidly outstripping the supply, it's becoming more and more a matter of money to ensure the security of the supply... even if it's not in the best interests (health-wise) of the consumers or the producers.

Fact 1: While major companies are beginning to take initiative to change the way chocolate is grown and harvested... (and thumbs up to them for this,) there is a looong way to go.

Fact 2: There are also a lot of companies who HAVE taken the initiative to ensure that farmers are paid a fair price to take care of their cacao trees organically, and to ensure that child labour is not involved in the harvest.  This used to be a fringe thing, but now there are several companies who are able to boast that they make amazing chocolate, produced to high standards when considered from both gastronomic and ethical perspectives.

Keeping your eyes open for a fair-trade or organic (or ideally, both) certifications on your sweets isn't that hard, is it?  These labels can now be found on chocolates produced by either large or artisinal producers.

I guess in making this post, I'm just trying to point out you can make the loving intention of your gift that much sweeter...  The difference to you when you buy a heart shaped box or bar of chocolate with these certifications might be a few dollars or euros.  It's a small difference in order to ensure that the people who helped make the chocolate you've purchased are treated like human beings who produce a product with value.  At the same time, that little extra you've paid can also help assure you that your gift doesn't contain pesticides (because, for the life of me, I can't think of a gift that says "I love you" more than poison.)

A little more consideration put into the gift, (the way I see it,) is the best kind of Valentine's gesture you can make if you're going to make one.  Everyone wins, and doesn't that feel good?

Whether you've forgotten or not that it's Valentine's tomorrow, try to keep this in mind whenever you're buying chocolate for your loved ones or for yourself.  (Then it'll really be a treat for everyone involved.)

Want more info about how much care and attention (or lack of it) has gone into the making of your chocolates?

This site isn't a bad place to look.

This video provides a pretty clear picture.

Right then.  Enough with the preaching, bring on the warm fuzzies please.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

In which my kitchen abruptly reminds me of the laws of physics.

Normally when holding onto egg yolks I've had to separate out while baking, I put them in a little glass with a small amount of olive oil or canola oil, to prevent them from losing moisture and to stop them from sticking to the glass.

The other day I had a little melted butter left over from the lemon-curd-blueberry tart I'd made.  I figured I'd pour it around my two yolks in a small cup, stick the cup in the fridge and use the yolks in a day or so.

This morning I put the cup in the microwave because the butter had hardened in the cold of the fridge and I wanted to soften it up enough to get my yolks out.

Did I mention I hadn't had my required caffeine dose at this point?

My slowly waking mind was quickly reminded of an important physical concept as the higher moisture content in the egg yolks reacted more quickly to the microwaves than the lower moisture content of the butter surrounding them.

Expansive forces come into play where heat and moisture are concerned, and since the eggs were expanding faster than the butter was allowing them to...  Faster than you can say "Kapow!" I'd received my little physics lesson... and decided that the microwave could definitely use a thorough cleaning.

Monday, February 7, 2011

In fine form.

We were night and day this morning.

He may as well have been single-handedly performing "A Chorus Line".  I, on the other hand, had a throbbing head, and the desire to muffle him with a pillow.  Not smother, just muffle.  I sat, a dour lump wrapped in a blue bathrobe, trying to smile when appropriate from my place on the couch and to supress the urges to kill while I collected myself.

Observation number one: Never trust Beau-Frere's wine.  He may tell you it's good.  It may taste Just Fine.  Regardless, it will give you a horrible headache, because Beau-Frere likes to drink a LOT of wine so you can bet that even if it doesn't taste so bad, it's plonk.  Be polite and have a glass, but then follow boyfriend's lead and switch to Perrier.  You too can be disturbingly chipper the following morning.

Observation number two: It is gorgeous outside, including a blue (BLUE!  NOT GREY!) sky.  Why does this always seem to coincide with hang-overs?

Observation number three: It is not a good idea to drink, when you already are struggling to remain in your size 26 jeans.  Alcohol is not calorie-free, sadly.

Observation number four: Getting up the strength and motivation to go for a run on a day like today is haarrd.  But after two cups of coffee, two buns with European-style-peanut-butter-fail-spread, three bottles of water, a pain-killer, and a bowl of soup... I think I might be able to get out there by ... noon?  maybe?