If I Only Had Some Eau De Cologne

I’m back after the Cologne experience… half doubting that I actually made it.

I was supposed to get up at an hour yesterday morning previously unknown to man, and take the bus. Well, I got up alright, but then my stomach decided to ask me for an encounter of a kind which will be of no interest to you, I hope, that kept me from getting to the bus.

I tried waking my wife up to drive me to the Metro, but to no avail. Few people have the same capacity for comatose sleep in the wee hours, and it as just as good that I was unable to contact her because who knows what ditch she would have landed in on the way back. But luckily, my neighbour was going to work very early that very morning, and I htched a ride with him to a suitable bus stop, only vatching the last possible bus to the Gare du Midi station by throwing myself across the heavy rush-hour traffic of a thoroughfare in complete darkness.

I hurried into the train station and realised that I needed to withdraw some money as well. Racing around the entire station area  revealed the ONE cash dispenser (ATM) in the entire station area at the diametrically oposite side of it to where I was. I did make it, strangely enough, and even had a few minutes left to walk back towards the platform at a normal pace… only to glance up at the informaition board that my train had been CANCELLED.

“This doesn’t begin very well”, I thought.

Complaining at the information desk, of course, was completely pointless. Even an apology was beyond their imagination.

“It’s the Germans who haven’t sent us the train. You’ll have to complain in Germany”, they said, shrugging their sholuders and raising their hands in the gesture, which I have come to detest, which means “I don’d know and I don’t care“.

They did, however, book me and all the other passengers fro that train onto the next one. Two trainfuls of passengers on one train, thus. You imagine the rest.

At least, I did get some work done while waiting, and the next train, which was one and a half hours later, was only delayed another 20 minutes. (“Signal failure”, they call it. I don’t believe one whit of that. I’ve heard “signal failure” being blamed so many times on different trains in different coutries that I believe it’s the standard international rail excuse for anything from the driver being late due to hangover, to the train needing to stop to let the guard go buy a doughnut).

Anyway.  Thus two hours late, I tried to break into the Kölnermesse. Which was easier said than done,because the entire fair has moved a bit (I kid you not) and the whole area is a huge construction site. When I eventually found the entrance, I realised I had entered on the opposite side to where one of the two press centres was. Which was where I needed to start.

“OK”, I thought, “I’ll just look through some of the halls on the way, I have to do that anyway”.

Now, the Kölnermesse is the size of Wisconsin, with about 17 exhibition halls each large enough to accommodate the collected fleet of British Airway’s aircraft. “Some halls” means trekking rather than walking – with my portable newsroom across one shoulder.

Correspondingly flat-footed, I eventually reached the press centre. It was closed. The other one was at the diametrically opposite side to the north of the area.

Same kind of expedition once again, this time across and through different halls, getting lost in about every one of them because they have changed the entire layout logic of the fair. All the time thinking what on Earth I was going to write about all this.

I did eventually reach the other press centre where I could start working, with feet the size of Yorkshire.

That is where I was reached by the news, from my wife, that we had received some unjust fines from the Flemish authorities for services we are not supposed to pay for.

Like I said – it didn’t start very well.

However. I decided to make the best out of the situation, and work myself around the area by focussing on the Swedish exhibitors it was my main task to cover. It worked. There was a lot of good and interestng material evolving from there, and I felt increasingly encouraged by the minute.

Last on yesterday’s programme, as I said, was a Swedish event in a restaurant off the Rhine (or maybe more accurately on it), across the river and well away from the trade fair area. I did reach it on time thanks only to riding a bus across the Hohenzollern bridge, which I so loudly scorned in a previuls blog entry as being the most unnnecessary ride etc etc (I did walk across the bridge on my way to the fair, though), and taking a taxi the last bit. I carefluuy calculated how long I would be able to stay before having to leave to catch the last train home.

However… I never had a good grade in maths.

I left the event in good time, I thought, and asked the staff to help me call a taxi just to be sure. That’s when I discovered that calling a taxi in a city crammed full with people visiting the same trade fair as I had was slightly challenging. To say the least.

They could not reach the switchboard.

I waited a little too long… and then decided to start walking, It was longer than I had expected. It was dark. I was loking for taxis to flag down – but there were none. Oh yes, there’s one. He didn’t see me. It’s dark and I’m wearing black. Oh dear, I’m standing in the middle of the road trying to catch the cab and there’s a car coming straight at me. Better jump out of the way.

The train was about to leave NOW.

I ran with all the heavy bagage that you accumulate at a trade fair, soaked in rivers of sweat, gushing sweat that would have raised the Rhine water level by a few feet. A glance to the left – there’s a taxi leavng a restaurant and it’s for hire! I all but threw myself across its bonnet (hood), ripped the door open, and landed in the passenger seat without looking if anybody else was there. In fact, by then, I wouldn’t have cared; I would have just sat on the lap of anybody who would have happened to be there and simply hijacked the taxi.

“HAUPTBAHNHOF BITTE, SCHNELL, SCHNELL!!!!” I roared, in a tone of voice borrowed from the Captain in the marvellous film “Das Boot” where he is trying to get his submarine to escape heavy bombardment from Allied aircraft, and slammed a fiver in the driver’s hand. It had the desired effect, for he took off through the Cologne night traffic at a speed that somehow made me think of Henri Paul, Dodi al-Fayed and Lady Di. Especially since I, for once, wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, in order to be able to throw myself out of the cab.

Throw myself out I did, indeed, and zoomed into the station,  fellow passengers elbowed to the right and left in my wake. It was departure time. Where’s the train? I can’t see it listed! Quick, is there a train number on the ticket? Where is the ticket? Oh for crying out loud, I can’t find the ticket!

I looked up through wet and misty glasses at the announcement board. Oh, there the train was. With an accompanying notice.
“Train to Brussels delayed a few minutes. We apologize.”

Apologize?!?! I would have kissed their feet.

I have very vague memories of the train ride itself. Only that I landed at home very late at night, to a nice cup of tea and the company of my Mrs.

Am I the star of some candid camera reality show or something?

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Base, To Be Avoided

It seriously grieves me to add another company to the sorry list of companies here in Belgium that treat their customers like trash. Who sit on their bottoms doing nothing while their services are down, and who honestly expect their customers to be grateful that they answer the phone at all after 6 pm.

In a nutshell, that’s the sum of today’s haggling with the cell phone company Base, which I made the mistake of signing up with a few years ago. Today at about 11.30 am, I paid them money online to top up my account. As of 9.52 pm, the money has still not reached my account, and the “customer service” has informed me that they won’t do anything about it until tomorrow because their technicians went home at 6 pm.

With the result that I can’t make any calls on my cell phone, and have been unable to do so during the whole day.

Little did it matter that I did both call and e-mail during the day, before their technicians fled. Little did the argument mean to them that a professional phone company will keep working until the problem is actually solved, rather than dodging off and keeping their customers waiting until they can be bothered to show up at work again. Little did it mean to them that they are sittig on my money right now, without giving me the service I pay for, which in my book is equivalent to stealing.

And don’t expect any compensation, mister. Oh, want to complain? Write a letter to our legal department, was the answer I got.

I’m asking myself: How much more money has vanished from my account?

And the worst thing of all is that they seem to think that this is a good way of conducting business. “Call Belgacom”, they said, “this time of day and you will get a little music and a message saying that they don’t take any phone calls after office hours”.

Progress? Ho hum. Belgacom, the former state monopoly, makes dinosaurs look youthful and virile in comparison. A dead dog can give better customer service than Belgacom. But that’s not what I pay Base for; it’s for a service that is actually in the neighbourhood of the 21st century.

But judgng by their replies today, I should be grateful that they would actually lower themselves to pick up the phone at all.

I grieve, because I like this country so much that it is painful to watch the people here earning themselves a bad name. But sadly, very very sadly, this is only one more example to add to the list of service business companies who behave as if they were government officials whom we should all revere, admire and respect, and tiptoe around so as not to disturb them during their very busy day.

It grieves me seriously to find once again that the idea of The Customer Is Always Right  still has to make any impact in this country.

I’m seriously thinking of switching to a supermarket chain’s GSM service. At least they don’t pretend to have any customer support.

Please, Mr. Postman

It seems as if the mail strikes in Ghent have finally come to an end. And as predicted, they now have a truckload of mail to deliver, giving them an even worse workload, the protest against which was the reason why they went on strike in the first place.

Actually, so much undelivered mail has piled up that the Ghent postal service has had to take on no less than 40 extra temporary staff to clear the backlog.

Seems like it would have been a better deal for all involved to agree peacefully before it went to industrial action.

Phoney Belgacom!

Following a few recent comments here on this site, I must share the story of how we got our phones.

Or, should I say, how we eventually got our phones.

Or “How many Belgacom people does it take to install a new phone line? Answer: I don’t know, I’ve lost count.”

Before moving here from Sweden in 2004, we of course tried to arrange things on beforehand. The option we could find then was Belga-“In Space, No-One Can Hear You Scream”-com. After just a few calls, we actually got in touch with a friendly woman who promised us that everything would be taken care of.

Or so we thought.

We came, we unpacked, we had no phone. We called. Ehrm, it would take a few weeks. OK, we’ll wait.

Came the day of installation, came no installation man.

We called. Ehrm, “normally he should have been there yesterday.” Duh. No excuses. New appointment.

Still no phone.

Came new appointment, came Installation Man, came disappoinment. Installation Man would not install. “Ehrm, sorry, the cable in the street is too bad.”

“?” said we. “The house has just been built!”

“Sorry, we’ll send someone over.”

Still no phone.

Came new appointment once again, came Two Other Gentlemen. One fat and sturdy, one crooked and skinny. Sturdy Man invoked an impressive collection of technological wonders, including one apparatus of unknown properties that he swung hither and thither across the pavement. Finally, Sturdy Man say, “This is Spot.”

Upon which Skinny Man, who until then had been sitting and watching Sturdy Man, produced a spade and started digging.

Maybe Sturdy Man wasn’t trained to handle such an advanced piece of equipment as a spade.

Skinny Man finished digging, Sturdy Man performed unknown and unseen miracles in hole, Two Other Gentlemen left.

Still no phone.

Came new appointment once again again, came New Installation Man. New Installation Man installed. New Installation Man left. We had a phone.

So did our neighbours. Our phone, that was.

It took some time to figure out that each time someone called us, the phone rang in our neighbours’ apartment. And if we and our neighbours lifted our recievers at the same time, we could talk to each other.

We like our neighbours. But maybe this was taking it a bit too far.

So we made a joint phone call to Belgacom again. Got to speak to 3-4 other people, got to wait again and again. Got to listen to waiting music again and again and again. Over and over and over again.

Came new appointment again again again, came Third Installation Man. Shock, horror: Third Man actually managed to sort out the mess.

We now had our own phone.

After some two months, after five different people visiting ous, after countless hours trying to get in touch with someone at Belgacom, after countless hours wasted, and after speaking to who knows how many different people at the Belgacom offices.

We promptly changed to Telenet – three years of flawless service.

I still get the creeps whenever I hear Belgacom’s musical jingles on TV.

Shutdown, A Survival Guide

Today was one of those days that you might call Survival Day here in Belgium. It’s a public holiday – the day after Pentecost – which means that all is closed. Complete shutdown.

Fine, I certainly think people need time off. But when it goes over more than a normal weekend, life suddenly becomes an exercise in Urban Survival.

Cash is first. Cash dispensers (ATMs) usually dry up on day three of any given long weekend, in central Brussels usually on Sunday nights I am told, so the first thing to do is to raid the hole in the wall. I normally don’t like to carry a lot of cash around for security reasons – cash in my wallet is in great danger of being spent – but since I’ve had quite a lot of problems with my VISA card lately, you can’t rely on your card being useful.

Then comes food and supplies. Supermarkets are usually shut on Sundays, basically with no exceptions when it comes to the usual chains, and they remain as shut on extra holidays. At the same time, all family will be in to eat every meal at home, you might want to get a little extra this-or-that for your extra time together, and oh maybe someone might drop by as well. So, next thing is to work out your prep list and try to foresee all the variables that come with having kiddies; for instance, sudden surges in milk consumption.

(I have many times considered buying a cow, which would take care of the need for mowing the lawn as well, but it probably couldn’t keep up with the demand in this family. In fact, I was delighted when we first moved here to see that our farming neighbour had three cows just across the fence, and I quickly asked him in my lousy Dutch if we couldn’t buy milk directly from him. He burst out laughing and laughing, and then gave me a basic biology lesson explaining why a cow without a calf doesn’t produce any milk. OK, I thought, I’m a city boy, fair cop; but then it turned out that he’d been sharing this amusing story about those crazy city-folks for foreigner newcomers with half the village.)

Then you need to make itiniary plans. Belgium has roughly ten million inhabitants, but I can assure you that there are at least twenty million cars out on the motorway around Brussels alone during any given rush hour during normal workdays. During long holidays, the Belgian roads are little else than oblong car parks. So if you plan on going somewhere – get out early. And no, traffic doesn’t get lighter during the day because everyone else would be heading out early too – we’ve tried that; the less said about that day, the better.

This time, I thought I had it all worked out. Every food storage area in our apartment was properly stocked. We were staying at home to relax. I had the cash I needed. But of course we ran out of milk anyway, and then, well, er, there’s no easy way of saying this, but… ehrm, let’s just skip the reasons, and say that we ran out of toilet paper, and leave it at that. And when you do, especially for the very reasons that cause you to run out of such items, you simply must go and get more.

Luckily, we have by now mapped the waterholes for such events. There’s a lovely little shop down in central Sint-Pieters-Leeuw called (simply) Deli Traiteur, which has assumed the mission of staying open whenever everyone else stays shut. It’s great business for them, and they’re pretty well stocked as well. AND they’re always nice and friendly. AND the shop is neat and inviting. AND they always happily take my VISA card.

I just checked their web site and it turns out that they have more than twenty branches all over Brussels, all with generous opening hours. I haven’t visited them all, of course, but if they’re as good as the one we go to, they’re well worth being your first call in case of holiday horror. They’re a bit expensive, which is why we don’t shop there regularly, but on a shutdown day, it’s worth every cent. Bedankt!

As a little irrelevant twist, our local Deli Traiteur this time was displaying a set of premium spices from the Swedish company Santa Maria – in a display box with all text in Swedish. Quite a strange sight. Which you won’t get to see here, of course, because I forgot to take my camera as usual.

(By the way, there’s a famous news photographer in the US, also named Jonathan Newton. Maybe all the photographic DNA from the gene pool of all Jonathan Newtons has been sucked out to him… that would explain one or two things. Any other Jonathan Newton out there who is as bad at taking pictures as I am who can confirm this?)

Great News!

The three public transport bodies in Belgium have agreed to introduce one single card, that will entitle to travels on all oublic transport in the entire country. Now that’s great news, and something that a number of other countries have yet to even think of!

That means that I can actually take the bus that stops some 300 metres from my doorstep to the metro some three kilometres away, without having to buy two tickets. That is in theory the case today (although you can go around it if you remember to buy Brussels public transport tickets in advance, because you can use them on the Flemish buses in the outskirts of Brussels, whereas the Flemish bus tickets are not valid on Brussels buses, trams or metro trains.)

The only catch is that this new unified ticket is to be introduced “towards 2010”.

Hm.

That means it will probably take another 20 years or so until it actually works. Nice idea though.

Disinventing Service, The Belgian Way

Belgian people are usually very friendly and nice when you meet them privately. We have many good friends here whom we appreciate very much, and who have been great blessings to know. So it is therefore extra tragic that as soon as you put a Belgian behind a counter or in any other service function, s/he turns into Basil Fawlty.

These last few week, I have had cascades of bad experiences of that kind, each of which is a story on its own. I have had to call, call, call, call, shout, yell, rant and rave at a car glass company to come and fix my car’s broken window as they had agreed to do (they finally turned up in the middle of the night), I have been scorned by checkout staff at my local supermarket for being a paying customer, I have been rudely told off by waiting staff for complaining that we didn’t get what we ordered at a restaurant – and had another argument when trying to explain that I wasn’t going to pay for food that I didn’t receive – and to round it off nicely, today, I had someone at the call centre of the famous Belgian rail company slam the phone down on me (after him being rude and generally disinterested) when I called and asked why their Internet booking system didn’t seem to accept any Visa cards (yes, there was enough money on them, yes, we did try several different cards).

Previous experiences include being yelled at by a toilet lady because my brother-in-law from Sweden, who only wanted to use the public lavatory, did not speak French; and the whole story about when it took Belgacom five visits and numerous calls to do such a simple thing as connecting a phone – at one point, they managed to hardwire us with our neighbour’s phone – is a story in itself that I hope to share some day.

My friend‘s tale of having to threaten a local appliances chain with legal action in order for them to hand her computer back to her after repairing it – her own computer – is a story she’ll have to tell herself.

I just can’t fathom this. More often than not, people in such functions act as if their jobs were so below them that their customers are, too. They take an attitude of being some sort of Government officials, before whom you’d better take your hat off and bow down in humility, for them to lower themselves to even hearing your request.

In fact, I have even found that it works better if you play Opposite World with them: if you as a customer constantly apologise to them, things work better.

The idea that we as paying customers pay their salary just doesn’t seem to enter their heads. Rather, they seem cross with us for keeping them at work, rather than sitting at the local pub drinking Hoegaarden on the taxpayers’ expense.

I know that this is a harsh way to say things. But during my total of about five years in this country, I have been so rudely treated so many times by so many different people who were supposed to be customer-friendly that I most certainly see a pattern. This just doesn’t happen in other countries. And I feel that it is time to speak up.

I do not want to be treated like a piece of dirt just because I’m getting my groceries. All I want is my groceries. You don’t even have to smile or say hi, like many don’t here, just check my stuff out and let me pay and I won’t bother you any more. But as soon as they make a mistake or mess up, they get angry with me.

In other countries, the customer is always right. In Belgium, the customer is always wrong.

There are some fine examples of the opposite, and I hope to one day be able to publish my own Good Brussels Guide of companies and shops who treat you well. But far to often to be acceptable in any way, you get the opposite. And that’s just not good enough.

Some 30 years ago, it was all the same in Britain. We British treated our customers like garbage, to our everlasting shame. We used to handle complaints by shrugging our shoulders and say “Sorry, I don’t know”; “sorry” here generally being used in this context meaning “I don’t know and I don’t care“.

But then came Basil Fawlty, and Monty Python’s Parrot Sketch, and we saw ourselves and how awful we behaved. We moved on.

You’d hope that there would some day be some Fawltieckxe Toren/Tour des Fawltieckx on Belgian TV, but frankly I doubt that it would do the trick. Basil Fawlty is quite an ordinary figure in Belgian everyday life, and I doubt very much that people would get the jokes at all… because his behaviour seems to be considered quite normal here.

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