Perhaps it’s just as good that a couch potato like me, whose main movements at work are across wall-to-wall carpets within the EU’s comfortably padded cells for press centres, gets his shoes dirty with some foray into the real world every now and then.
As I said, the trains were on strike and I had told Belgian TV that I’d go home. However, I then decided to make an attempt to get to Luxemburg after all.
By one of these neat little coincidences in life that you might thank God for, I had bumped into my friend Philip at the strike-ridden Gare du Midi station. He had been given a plane ticket so he could go see his girlfriend in California, but couldn’t get to the airport. I had told him to try to get to the North station instead, where it might be easier to get an airport train or bus.
So, having weighed my options, I decided to try that myself; maybe I could get somewhere from there instead.
Arriving at Gare du Nord, I was met with the same sight as at Gare du Midi: one single information booth, a mile-long queue of stranded travellers, and signs saying sorry, no international trains because of the strike. (There were a number of domestic trains there, though, so I do hope Philip made it to his flight. “Fly away, Phil… be free”, if you’ve seen “Cars”.)
Anyway. I had talked with my colleague Patrik about perhaps riding with him, but eventually decided not to because he was planning to stay overnight in Luxemburg and I wasn’t. But now, I had, ehrm, thoroughly changed my mind. I called him on my cell phone.
“I was waiting for you to call”, were the first words I heard.
I was more than welcome to hitch a ride. If I could just make it to their office.
It only so happened that the easiest way to get there turned out to be on a brand new tram line, making its first trips today – I must have been on the third or fourth departure of Line 25 ever. It was so new that it didn’t even seem to have learned to find its way, or so it seemed, as we were soon stuck in the perpetual vehicle gridlock that is known as Brussels traffic. Good thing that I had, for once, started early.
Arriving at the stop as instructed, I started my search for the offices of the Swedish Television. I thought I had a clue. I didn’t.
Patrik called, telling me not to hurry because he was late, too, as his bus had got stuck in the traffic. Surprise, surprise (Not).
I got some directions. Now, you must understand that the address spelled out to me was in French, and that I nearly failed French in high school. And it was spoken into one mobile phone and received by me on another mobile phone. To the backdrop of the morning traffic.
Another explanation for what was about to happen is that I am officially completely liberated from any sense of direction whatsoever.
So, having checked the two-by-four-metre billboard map in front of me, I set off. House number 95. Hm, the numbers start at 12 or something. OK, I’ll walk. And walk. And walk. Scorching sun. Sweaty shirt. Shoe size steadily increasing.
Some 10-20 minutes later – at last, number 95. Wait a minute. No sign of Swedish Television here.
I’m not calling again. After all, I’m a man, and there’s this thing about asking for directions. Wait, I have an idea. I’ll call directory inquiries and ask. Oh no, I’ve used up the phone card, another little walk to the cash dispenser.
Since Belgium is divided sideways, longways, thisways, thatways and some ways you wouldn’t imagine, there are three different numbers to call for directory inquiries, depending on whether you speak French, Flemish, or English. I called the one number I could think of, and a voice answered in German.
I hadn’t finished asking when the voice interrupted me. “No no, you must dial 1405 for inquiries in English”, she said. In perfect English.
I dialled 1405, but an automatic voice in my phone told me “You are not allowed to dial this number”. I’m not joking. I tried it twice.
OK, maybe it was that other street I should have walked. Another little promenade in the heat and sun, arriving almost full circle back to where I begun. At 95, there was still no sight of any TV newsroom, only the Embassy of Equatorial Guinea. I pondered for a moment whether I should ring the bell and ask for political asylum. Luckily, Patrik called again before I fell for the temptation.
“Where are you?”
I tried to explain to him that I had been at the advised address, but that there was no sight of his company. Oh yes, they were supposed to be there alright. Oh no, I have been right outside and gone somewhere else! OK, I’ll start all over again.
Just check the billboard map once again.
I had turned my perception of the whole thing upside down. I had walked in exactly the opposite direction.
The TV office was at number 95, alright, with at least two or three coloured signs brightly announcing its presence there. I thus understood that Patrik must have thought that I had completely gone either insane or blind, when I’d made some unwisecrack on the phone about “microscopic letters”.
We did eventually get to Luxemburg. I’m not sure how, because I fell asleep in the car.
Fast-forward to the same day’s evening. There was supposed to be a decision by the EU ministers on how to save the world’s eels, and we journalists waited, and waited, and waited. I called home. My wife was alone with two tired kids. The train strike was over, but when I checked the timetable, I realised I needed to get on the 20:24 train or get stuck in Arlon until early next day. I told her. She was not happy. To say the least.
Finally, two disillusioned Germans materialised to inform us that there wouldn’t be a decision after all. Case closed. Finito. Too bad.
That was about 19:55.
Right! Grab a bus and scoot down the hill from the European quarters to Luxemburg’s train station, conveniently located at the exact opposite side of town. Oh wait a minute, for some reason you have to actually check out of the conference centre where the meeting was held. And of course, it was all taken care of by a new apprentice, who had his supervisor talking him through the whole thing, step by step.
Come ON, before one of us dies.
Dash out to the bus stop. Next bus is 20:05. No, don’t start walking, Jonathan, you don’t know where to go. The bus should arrive at the station… well, some time around a minute after the train was to leave.
The bus was late.
Easy now. At least it’s a nice sightseeing.
SMS on the cell phone, about two minutes before arrival. “Negotiations about the eels have started”. Wait! Didn’t they just say that it had all broken down? Do I have to take the next bus back again?
By then, I decided I had had enough of eels for a decade or twenty-two. Two nanoseconds before arrival, I managed to send a message asking what was going on. The bus arrived at the station at 20:24. I scampered across the street to the serenade of angry car horns. I zoomed through the station. Yess! The train is late! Wait! There’s another one too! I made it!
I must have looked like a convict on the run from an asylum, as I – sweaty, adrenaline spurting out of my ears, hair in all directions, panting – roared to the conductor “C’est pour Bruxelles??”, pointing at the train bearing big large signs saying “Bruxelles-Midi” all over.
“Normalement, oui”, he responded, sanguinely.
Another SMS: Sorry, you’re right, the eel thing had collapsed.
The train arrived in Brussels some time before midnight. I pondered on how on Earth to get from central Brussels to my home here in the village outside town, now that the last bus had gone, and eventually decided to take a chance there’d be a metro taking me to the station from which it’s only a 45 minute walk to my home.
It did take 45 minutes alright, during which I wrote this whole story in my head. I arrived home an hour into the 17th of April, my 38th birthday.
Happy birthday to me.
I will never eat an eel in my life.