Belgium Isn’t Working

(As transcribed from handwritten notes that I scribbled on a tram this morning.)

I thought the other day that I ought to write something nice about Belgium. After all, all said and done, I do like this country very much.

Then – I was stranded by a sudden strike.

This time, it was the train personnel that decided to walk out  – on the very same day that I was going to take the train to Luxemburg to cover the EU Agriculture Ministers’ meeting there. (Why on earth they have to meet in Luxemburg a couple of times each year, instead of Brussels as is customary otherwise, is another story. I have a limited daily capacity for rants, so that’s for another day.)

The train staff is upset with all the violence they are being exposed to, for which one can have some sympathy. Exactly how this will change by quitting work for a few hours is something I have yet to comprehend, though.

Only recently, the firefighters at Brussels International Airport (aka Zaventem) walked out in protest against who knows what, bringing the entire airport to a standstill. And on and on it goes, strike, strike, strike, and such have the state of affairs been ever since I first came to Belgium in 1995.

While I cannot entirely blame the rail company for their staff walking out (although I’d like to), I do blame them for their complete lack of customer care in moments like these.

The ticket office at the station I was to depart from – Gare du Midi – was shut, visitors being met by a short notice saying there’s a strike, sorry. All of us stranded passengers – including people like myself, who had already bought and paid for our tickets, were referred to ONE (1) tiny information booth, manned by a hapless young woman who could only shrug her shoulders at our questions.

I asked if there would be any train to Luxemburg today. She said she didn’t know, probably not.

I asked how long the strike would go on for. She said she didn’t know. (I later found out reading Metro.)

I asked where I could get my money back. She didn’t know, but handed me a general complaints form.

I asked why the ticket office wasn’t open. She said it was because the staff hadn’t been able to get to work because of the strike.

What complete and utter rubbish. How come, then, that I and so many other people could get to the station? And if they knew about the strike since last night – which they did – why didn’t they drive, walk, take the tram, bus, or even bicycle to work?

No, this rather gives the impression that the SNCB/NMBS was too much of a coward to face its paying customers, and that its staff decided to give themselves a day off to bask in the unexpected summer weather we’ve had here for the last few days.

Expecting people will put up with being treated like cattle.

Excuse me, SNCB/NMBS, but we don’t.

This is the kind of nonsense that went on in England 30 years ago, I explained to a TV team from RTBF, which interviewed me as I had made my second attempt to squeeze some information from the (dis)information booth. The UK has come a long way since then, but Belgian workers still can’t seem to be bothered to show up for work of the weather’s too nice.

Eventually, in spite of having told the TV crew that I’d have to head for home, I was bailed out by my friend and colleague Patrik, correspondent for the Swedish Television, who let me ride with him.

Seems like driving is the safest way, after all, to be sure that you will actually get where you are going.

So much for eco-friendly travel.


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