It’s a truism that Belgium is the dullest country in the world. The weather would give the UK a run for its money; skies of the slate grey variety and endless drizzle compete for room with bracing wind and fog which comes in off the north sea much as in, say Glasgow or Morecombe.
The people, so we are led to believe, are a dull bunch of quasi-French bureaucrats who love nothing more than creating rules about the bendiness of bananas and tending to their ironically waxed moustaches.
Of course, there is a grain of truth in all these stereotypes, but if you are willing to go the extra mile – most notably away from the tourist traps of Brussels and Bruges – you will discover an open-minded and dare-I-say, hip country that warrants a week of anyone’s life. The fact that (just about) everyone speaks English and it’s only two hours from St Pancras also adds to the feeling that a trip to Belgium is a trip to ‘another Britain’, but a bit more continental.
Ever been to Amsterdam and thought, “well, this could be a nice place if it wasn’t for all the narcotourists and sex shops?”… Welcome to Ghent. Ghent manages to be both a picture-postcard medieval town with canals and cobbled streets and also a lively student city with a nightlife famous for its outrageous music scene (the infamous clubnight Breakcore Gives Me Wood was founded here) and its all-night pub crawl marathons.
Competing for the prize of ‘capital of Flanders’ is Antwerp, a slightly more modern, sophisticated city with some of the finest art nouveau architecture in the world and a pavement cafe and restaurant culture which is some of the finest in Europe. On top of this, Antwerp’s fashion scene is still very much at the cutting edge, with students travelling from places like Japan and New York to study with the greats of Belgian design.
Belgium’s history of weaving, architecture and art goes right back to medieval times, when the low countries were the richest seafaring nations in the world. The modern artists and fashion designers are continuing a legacy which stretches back from the bande dessinee of Tin Tin through to the Northern Renaissance and the guild houses of the high Middle Ages. Not only were Magritte, Rubens, Van Dyck and Bruegel all Belgian born, but the rich merchants of Antwerp and Bruges were also the main collectors of fine art from Holland, too. Some of the the innovations which Belgians contributed to fine art include the artist’s self portrait, the use of oil paint and even the idea of secular art itself.
No guide to Belgium is complete without the mention of the cuisine. While the seafood delicatessens of Antwerp and the haute cuisine restaurants of Brussels take some beating, I’m quite content with some (double fried) Belgian chips washed down with a strong (trappist) beer.
Just as the art, textiles and beer industries in Belgium have a long and illustrious history, so too, it turns out, does the European Union. Charlemagne was born in Liege in the 8th Century and went on to unite Europe as the leader of the Holy Roman Empire he created. The rest, as they say, is history.
What is it with Europeans and castles? Why did they have to build so many? Why are they so big? And why, as I once overheard an American tourist say in Edinburgh, did they have to ‘build them so goddam far from the train station?’
You build castles for lots of reasons, but mostly:
1. To show off, of course.
2. To protect your family from invaders intent on the whole rapin’ ‘n’ pillagin’ thing.
3. To Live out your powdered-wig-wearing-fantasy of being Louis XIV, even though it’s, like, 1895 and you’re German.
4. Because you’ve just decided ‘I am the REAL pope and that charlatan in the Vatican will have to come and get me if he wants to argue the toss’.
5. Because you’re mad (see 3. and 4.)
So, dear armchair traveller, here is a not very exhaustive and extremely biased (but awesome!) list of the best European castles.
5. Conwy, Wales
Welsh castles were mostly used as places to avoid the Welsh. Marauding hordes intent on pillaging your women and raping your livestock are best avoided, let’s face it.
4. Carcassonne, France
Even the throngs of shouty middle class Anglais on Range Rover powered booze-and-fromage-athon holidays cannot ruin this one. Strictly speaking, Carcassonne is a fortified town, but whatevs.
3. Versailles, France
Built by this mad guy who wore powdered wigs and thought he was Louis XIV or something… oh, hang on…
2. The Alhambra, Spain
In spite of being strict Muslims, they chose to name their castle after a pork product and a piece of underwear. Go figure.
1. Kalemegdan Fortress, Serbia
Anyone foolish enough to attempt to mess with the Serbs had better have a game plan for this bad boy. It’s been fought over by everyone from the Romans to the Nazis. They even have a US stealth fighter plane they shot down, in the castle museum. Rad!
Here are three ways you can get a proper degree from a reputable university without burdening yourself with debt for the rest of your working life and without buying a fake degree certificate from a spam email company in China!
1. Outsource your degree: Go European
With British fees reaching an eye-watering £9,000, isn’t it time you looked elsewhere for a degree? Our neighbours in France and Germany pay as little as £300 a year for their fees and, as EU citizens, Brits are eligible for studying abroad for the same price. If you study on the continent, you could save yourself around £8,700 a year. Just think of the number of pints of watered-down beer and tickets to see second rate Indie bands you could buy with that!
If you’ve got an A-level in a certain country’s language, that’s more than adequate for acceptance to study in the country. WIN!
‘But I can’t speak a foreign language!’ I hear you cry. That’s OK – you don’t always have to! Many Nordic countries, plus Belgium, Holland and parts of Eastern Europe have large numbers of degrees where all tuition is in English. This is especially true of Business Studies, Science and IT-related courses.
Beer money saved: £26,100
Fun factor *****
Difficulty rating **
2. Distance Learning
Everybody knows that an Arts and Humanities subject is all about the reading and not about the lectures. Some Arts students will find themselves shelling out £9,000 a year for the privilege of having 6 one-hour lectures a week, plus a couple of 17-to-a-group tutorials with an inexperienced PhD student.
Just about every University out there offers a distance learning programme, where you walk away with a certificate from UCL, Durham, wherever, but for a mere snip of the price. If you really miss the personal contact, find someone locally to teach you one-to-one a couple of hours a week. Most Postgrads and even many professors will happily teach you privately for £30 an hour.
Beer money saved: £21,000
Fun factor **
Difficulty rating *
3. PhD by publication
Finally, we come to the PhD. That piece of paper which you sweat blood to write in order to call yourself a non-medical Doctor. If you’re serious about becoming an academic/getting tenure/getting paid to talk crap/pulling young hotties forever, you need to spend four years sweating blood over a PhD thesis, drinking coffee, trying to avoid daytime TV and sucking up to your supervisor, right?
There is another way: PhD by publication. Write some academic articles, get them published, then submit a portfolio of published work to a PhD panel who award you with a PhD based on publications.
What we have here is basically a time-saving hack for anyone looking for a career in academia who is quite good already and doesn’t fancy paying £20,000+ for a piece of paper to tell people how good they already are.
Think of it this way: PHD + writing, say five articles will take approximately 7-8 years of your life. Writing five articles and turning them into a PhD will take approximately two years of your life. Also, while your contemporaries busy themselves writing an endless PhD thesis and watching the Jeremy Kyle Show, you have a PhD AND five publications under your belt. Who do you think will be the most employable?
What are the pitfalls?
You’ve got to be good. Very good. Good enough to have your articles accepted by reputable, peer reviewed journals. Not everyone can do this, but it’s not clear that sitting and writing a thesis for five years will make you any more capable of doing it afterwards, is it?
Beer money saved: £15,000
Fun factor ***
Difficulty Rating *****
It’s been a while.
Two blog posts ago, and a lifetime ago, I moved to the country.
I said: “I used to write blogs about politics and cultural theory and digital society when I lived in the city. Now, I’m afraid this blog is going to turn into a combination of country lifestyle tips and folksy new age ramblings. Sorry about that.”
What I didn’t realise is that I would give up blogging altogether.
The truth is that moving to Dartmoor has had a profound effect on me. I had no idea this was going to happen, believe me.
But it has.
You see, the thing is: Journalism, or at least the semi-humourous blogging I (used to) do, requires a certain amount of… sarcasm, insightful put-downs, critical snarkiness and general negativity to make it work.
It also requires you to have your finger on the pulse, if only by reading Reddit or Facebook.
And I no longer have it in me.
I am too full of the joys of nature, too far-removed from everyday concerns. My husband and I have built our own little anarchist utopia and the only politics I’m interested in now is permaculture. Revolution disguised as gardening, maaaan.
There’s no point in me uploading lifestyle or gardening tips, as I’m a complete novice myself. So, really, that’s it. As for those New Age ramblings, I now work for Blinkist, a German startup that specialises in summarising self-help books, so writing about self-helpy stuff in my spare time sounds too much like work.
In an odd turn of events, though…
I have started writing psychedelic magical realist poems on romantic themes like death, paganism and nature. They go down well at the local poetry night. I even got invited to read some at a local festival.
Publishing poetry online is a bit of a mine-field. So, if you are interested in seeing any of it, send us a mail at kerrysmallman at hotmail dot com for the time-being.
In the interests of keeping the blog alive, I’ll post photos from time to time of my travels in Devon and Cornwall.
Thanks for reading,
Although a small town in terms of population, and renowned for its pretty colleges, Oxford is a surprisingly gritty, urban town once you get under its skin. We were living right on the Cowley Road, with its kebab houses, music venues, sex shops and student pub crawls, so it felt pretty much identical to, say Ladbroke Grove or Brick Lane at street level.
I loved the cosmopolitain edginess of East Oxford and am sorry to say I even liked it when it went all hipster and gentrified. I was, after all, a city girl. Cities were fundamentally places where people could be themselves. They were exciting, vibrant and culturally rich spaces where people from all around the world could come together and enjoy the pure excitement of living.
Having grown up in a rural environment and indeed having fled this said environment aged 18, I never thought I’d return to the countryside. I remember as a teenager longing for escape from small towns and small town people with their tiny horizons and inconsequential lives. My urban travels included living and working in Edinburgh, London, Calais, Berlin and Oxford.
But then, on a whim, my husband and I decided to move to the countryside. There was not really any grand plan. At all. We just kind of got bored of the Cowley Road and wanted to maybe get a bigger house and maybe have kids someday and maybe Bristol was cooler than London these days, anyway, so why not look at Somerset?
Six months later and here we are: Deepest Mid Devon. In a beautiful old house with an enormous garden. We’re on the edge of a little village with one shop, one pub and two buses a day to Exeter. But I can’t say we have regretted it for one second.
It’s like a weird mental cleansing to be here. Literally everything and everyone I care(d) about is gone. It’s like a dream, but in reverse. It’s like waking up and seeing reality as it for the first time. Being here has peeled away the layers of mental sediment which have accrued over time. Old cultures, beliefs, education, habits, prejudices, expectations, hopes, fears, certainties, familiarities and routines are gone. There is only the vast, untamed wilderness of Dartmoor, the activities of foxes, squirrels, herons and pheasants (all passing through my back garden) and the everyday, basic needs of keeping warm and gathering food.
I watched a film about Permaculture the other day. In it, a man said that you can never feel depressed in nature. Nature is eternally optimistic. Mushrooms send out billions of spores, flowers and trees pollinate, creepers creep, trees stretch and salmon leap. They have limitless hope.
He said that you can never feel depressed in nature because you have reached rock bottom. The earth – mother nature – is the ground, the solid foundation, there can be no let downs or disappointments here. The only way is up. And the only way to live is to simply be.
I used to write blogs about politics and cultural theory and digital society when I lived in the city. Now, I’m afraid this blog is going to turn into a combination of country lifestyle tips and folksy new age ramblings. Sorry about that.
A new ice-cream parlour has opened opposite my house and it’s a bit grim. It’s a chain, apparently: Basingstoke, Plymouth, Oxford… There’s nothing wrong with the place, really. It’s just the branding: The name, the signage, the pink and black and red and white interior.
The owners are clearly ignorant of the rules of the game. The rules are: A bit hipster, Scandinavia-meets-Pacific-North-West, wooden tables, exposed brick, white tiles, beards, tattoos… It’s not that difficult. Even fucking KFC has started doing it now. It’s in the marquee in British Bake Off, for fuck’s sake.
Now I’m all for originality and I have as big an aversion to that nebulous group we call hipsters as anyone, but let’s be realistic. We are living in an age with a new, weird kind of fascism: The homogeneity of global, urban consumer taste is all-pervading and to open a shop with a pink and black interior is to advertise your “otherness”, or at least your cluelessness, to the urban customers you wish to entice.
I’m not sure exactly when it set in, but somewhere in this millennium, everybody started thinking alike. The subcultures which had previously defined young people and kept them apart from their elders subsided. Vintage clothing further blurred the generational gaps. Here’s a disturbing fact: A 16-year-old’s record collection now contains 40% of the same tracks as a 60-year-old’s.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, the last of the proper grannies died: Those ladies who wore nylon dresses, ate salad cream and disapproved of ‘living in sin’ and ‘the gays’ were no more. In a recent EU survey, 99% of Britons said they wouldn’t mind if a gay couple moved in next door. Europe-wide, this figure is well over 90%.
In urban areas in the Global South, western liberal values like gay rights, marriage for love and women’s rights are in the ascendency, thus breaking down the cultural peculiarities which made the world a much more diverse place twenty or even ten years ago. Meanwhile, global super-brands from Apple to Beyonce stalk the earth for new markets, sucking more and more consumers inexorably into their crowd-pleasing thrall.
In the age of big data, governments and corporations are increasingly able to design according to the wishes or predispositions of the crowd. “Crowdshaping” involves using personal data drawn from the people inside a defined physical area to shape and reshape their experience. For example, town planners make traffic lights which change according to real time traffic data, or DJs play songs taken from the audience’s home computer playlists.
Which is to say that the present and future of our society is a tyranny of the majority. It is a society where we are closely monitored, and everybody thinks and acts alike. Meanwhile, Germany dominates Europe economically and Scandinavian aesthetics rules culturally. Sounds rather like the Third Reich. But with hipsters.
Which kind of makes me want to hang out in the ice-cream shop just on principle. But I bet they don’t even have fucking WIFI.