New to Brussels

Arriving in Brussels was lifestyle changing.

First, if you can bear it, a bit of background.

My politics are left leaning – though there was more of an energetically significant tilt in my earlier years.

Of course me and my friends read The Guardian, opposed the Iraq war, a couple of them went on holiday to undiscovered bits of the Balkans, that sort of thing.

Nick worked at the Ministry of Defence.

They (my friends) said ‘He does what?’ and ‘Are you sure?’

But age brings a softening of approach so I let him into my life – at first he was rather bemused and bemusing but always good at turning up with, and opening bottles of wine, which made him (rather warily) accepted.

Anyway to cut a long story short after about a year of muddling along in separate places but with generally together-ish sort of lives, he got the chance to go to Brussels and asked if I wanted to go along.

So there, I found myself.

He was now Chief Executive of the a new ‘Agency’  and I was, to use the Belgian official description of someone living with, and largely off, someone else, his concubine.

I was also effectively Mrs Chief Executive – not a role I was used and, having watched the diplomatic and military wives, a role I realise I was not very good at.

I can honestly say I did not visit the sick, befriend his staff, go to children’s parties, hold coffee mornings or any of the stuff I should have done.

But I did have to do the dinner party and cocktail party circuit. (I am pretty sure that at first Nick feared that I would have secreted about my little black dress, a small CND placard and would slip away to the ladies room only to come back and brandish it.)

Did you know that you have to have placements at dinner party – a seating arrangement which means the most important man sits next to the hostess and his wife (or in my case concubine) next to the host? No nor me.

The form is that the host makes a short speech at the start of supper and the most important person – never actively designated but as everyone knows their place and he is sat next to the hostess, it is understood – makes a short thank you speech at the end of the meal. All new to me.

After all, dinner in my life meant your mates, food, wine and, oddly enough for Peckham, we tended not to go in much for placements and speeches.

Nick was more used to this kind of thing but sometimes despite his tutelage and practise, we got it wrong.

We went to this dinner party and it was the early days so when we arrived late I apologised profusely to the hostess and she said not to worry as the cooker was playing up so things were delayed.

I looked at her, so perfectly calm and serene, and said I thought she was taking that very well  – I would have been in the kitchen, red faced and panicking and wondering if sandwiches would do.

She smiled and said the staff were simply marvellous and all would be fine.

Staff!? Staff!? Blimey.

I should have remembered the form was that once we had all sat down Jean-Paul ( the host) would make his speech but I chose the moment he coughed a gentle alert to silence, to reach across the table, pick up the pretty menu card (oh yes, they have them too, unlike Peckham) and say loudly to serene hostess Marie-Francoise, ‘ These are pretty. Are they IKEA?’

Later, Nick regaled the dinner party with how hopeless I am at sailing and generally unsuited to this fantastic way of spending time.

I was sat next to an irritating bore so was not in the best of moods as Nick rattled on, engaging the rest of the party with my inadequacies.

After a bit, I told the collective dinner party that our first sailing holiday would have been greatly improved if he had not spent the whole time telling me how great a sailor his wife was, the places he and his wife had sailed to etc etc.

There was a stunned silence. ‘Have we in our midst a concubine?! And a stroppy one at that! Quel embarrassment.’

Nick was the most important man in the room so he knew he had to make the speech of thanks but he always forgets the French do cheese before dessert. He does not approve of that – being of a certain age, class and British.

So, when cheese is nearly over, I can see him thinking of warm witticisms and thanks and I try and warn him through surreptitious eye contact but of course he is still glaring at me because I ruined his sailing stuff and ignores me.

And so, he makes his pretty speech to a shifting, shuffling group of dinner guests and Jean-Paul smiles wanly and say, ‘ Eh bien et maintenant dessert.’


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