The Cake Was Awful And The Champagne Was Gone

I promised you an update on the Portuguese fiesta at the EU Summit… Well, easily done: The cake was awful and the champagne was gone.

The feast was to commence at 1430, but it only so happened that France was suddenly announcing its press conference to that very time as well. I thought I might go and get a glimpse and a feel of Monsieur Sarkozy, and in any case I wasn’t going to stay for that long. Or so I thought.

The room was packed well beyond its capacity, the heat from people and TV spotlights reaching corresponding levels, and oxygen had run out already before I arrived. I stood and waited, and waited, and waited. Eventually, I the floor started swaying under my feet and I realised I was about to faint, so I managed against all odds to find a free seat. There, I promptly nodded off, only to awake a few moments later to the buzz of a text message arriving in my cell phone and realising that absolutely nothing had happened. An hour and fifteen minutes had gone by and still no Sarkozy. (And no, he hadn’t come and gone while I was dozing).

The text message informed me that there was going to be a press conference with the Swedes immediately, and since I work for a Swedish news organisation, I decided for that to more important. After all, the Swedes usually do turn up on time and all that. So, I went up to the next floor in the EU Council bastion, and waited there together with the entire Swedish press corps for another quarter of an hour or so, before Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s press secretary arrived and informed us that the whole thing was postponed because all the headsofstatengovernment were still in their meeting.

I took a lift back down to the press centre, gleefully passing my French-speaking colleagues on my way, thinking that they’d probably remain sitting there until who knows when, oblivious to the fact that theman they were waiting for still hadn’t risen form the conference table yet. Good time then to have a bite and a sip.

Or so I thought.

It turned out that the champagne had all been consumed by then, by my thirsty colleagues, in spite of alarge group of them being stuck in the Fench briefing room (and another contingent in the German next doors). There were some sweaty pieces of cake left, which I sampled. Some dried-out excuse for a fruit cake, completely clad in what is best described as something between jelly candy and conserved fruit. It felt like eating dried packaging foam with glazed chewing gum.

Blah.

Sunny Portugal

Portugal is trying to put on a charm offensive after being slammed by numbers for insisting on flying all the EU leaders – and Gordon Brown – to Lisbon yesterday just to put their names on a document.

Or so it seems, at least. The Portuguese Presidency is trying to woo journalists here at the EU Smmit’s Press Centre, where I am writing this, by handing out Christmas presents. Everyone gets a windproof jacket with the legend “eu2007.pt” in large letters across the back, unusually enough, together with a book about Portuguese points of interest. Supposedly intended to make us Brussels-based reportes sit around in the standard Belgian winter weather of fog, dark, and ice water pouring from a grey, grey sky, and dream about an Algarve getaway, no doubt.

Quite unusual for a gift, actually. Normally, the Presidencies at most hand out straps that you are supposed to hang your press badge on,  or something of the same 1/magnitude.

Moreover, this afternoon, they have promised to “close with a bang”, as a text message described it some moments ago.

“The Pres. invites you for a Portuguese Xmas cake and a sparkling frong 14h30 at the press centre/main hall”, the message read.

As far as the jackets are concerned, you could always suspect that they just had an extra stockpile lying around that they couldn’t get rid of before ending their presidency. If the same goes for the cake remains to be seen in a few moments – I shall be back with a report.

However, to prove that I have not been bought by this bribery attempt, let me direct you to this wonderful butchery of the Lisbon signing madness, penned by Times journalist Ben Macintyre, who pretty much saw the same thing as the rest of us watching the event online but who describes it far better than anyone else:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article3048452.ece

Happy reading, it’s well worth the extra moments.

My Child Scored! Give Me Another Drink

There was something about the football game table. You know, the kind where you have little wooden footballers on sticks. Not that it was old and shoddy, but that it had ashtrays. Yes, plural. Not one, but four built-in ashtrays; one in each corner.

This is hardly anything that would make most people raise their eyebrows the way I did. But, having lived for many years in Sweden, I’m still used to the mix of athletics and smoking or drinking being a complete taboo. And when I say complete, I mean complete, man.

The picture was compounded by the fact that the battered but smoker-friendly football game table was – and still is – wasting away in a corner of the private pub that my eldest son’s football club has just by the side of the football pitch. There, the parents can happily sit and comfortably booze away, while their five- and six-year-olds struggle along in the October cold, rain and dark outside.

Such a mix of sports, very young children, alcohol and smoking will usually make most Swedes faint, and would have been completely inthinkable there. In fact, even having brewers sponsoring a football team – which is the standard procedure here – would have Swedes rioting outside, and serving alcohol on private premises where little children learn football would probably result in calls to the local police. To draw a comparison for any of you American readers, this would have been the equivalent of having a private adult film shop next to the soccer pitch.

Same thing when we are invited to the yearly parental meeting at the school which both our six-year-old and our four-year-old attend. The parents are usually served a welcome drink – we get a choice of wine, champagne, or juice – and can have a happy sip or two before touring our kiddies’ rooms and listening to their teachers.

Belgians think nothing of it. Swedes would have launched a full investigation. On Governmental level.

In fact, I was supposed to attend an event at a Swedish school tomorrow (I won’t, for other reasons, but that’s another story) which is completely and utterly aimed at anyone old enough to be of university age. Not a minor in sight, I can assure you. But on the invitation, the school had still found it necessary to print – in large, bold, capital letters:

“SMOKING IS FORBIDDEN WITHIN THE SCHOOL AREA!”

And this wasn’t even in Sweden, but in London.

Every country has its taboos, and every taboo has its reasons. The Swedish taboo surrounding alcohol comes from the fact that it is the country where you have to empty any bottle you take the topo off. I mean, when I read about my felow Britons complaining about the noise around pubs late at night, I just sigh and think “you ain’t seen nothing yet, pals”. Living close to the centre of a large town in Sweden, as we did before coming here in 2004, meant Ragnarök every Friday and Saturday evening. Noise ad nauseam, vomiting in the bushes, people urinating anywhere and everywhere, and hardly a sober person in sight. In a country where booze is only sold in restaurants and special state-owned shops, that is. Here, where it’s all sold freely at the supermarket, and we have five pubs within five minutes’ walking distance from where we live (it used to be six until just recently), you virtually never see anyone visibly intoxicated.

If anything, the Belgians take a more pragmatic stance.

“It’s our biggest source of income”, a friend and parent of another kid in the same football team told me when I raised the issue of the soccer pub.

“The main team plays in such a low division that there’s only about 100 spectators at the matches, but afterwards, everyone gathers together for a drink”, he said with a chuckle.

It’s Official: Commissioner Reding Likes Champagne

Today, I can disclose a breaking news item: EU Commissioner Viviane Reding likes champagne.

This was announced by her spokesman Martin Selmayr today, as it became virtually clear that the extra charge you pay for calling and receiving calls on your mobile phone when travelling between European countries will be drastically slashed, in time for the summer holiday season. The EU Parliament’s Industry Committee today voted in favour of cutting these roaming charges by about 70 per cent, and if all the rest goes according to plan, the new rules will come into force in July.

“I just spoke with Commissioner Reding, who is in China, and informed her about the vote, and I can tell you that she opened a bottle of champagne after hearing about the vote”, Mr Selmayr told the amused journalists.

After a few general, more or less critical questions about the matter itself, someone in the press gallery asked:

“Um, an important distinction. Did the commissioner actually open a bottle of champagne?”

“Again, I’m surprised about your skepticism”, Mr Selmayr smurked. “If you knew Commissioner Reding, you would know that she would never miss such an opportunity”.

You can watch the whole thing by clicking here; choose “Thursday 12/04/2007”, scroll down the page and click on “12:46:01”. The all-important question about Ms Reding’s drinking habits comes at  12:53:26.

Of course, given the fierce fight the EU has put up to ensure that nothing produced outside of the Champagne region in France can be called “champagne”, one must assume that Ms Reding was able to get a genuine bottle on location, or had brought her own supply (however she managed to get that past security). Arrggh, I should have asked some kind of spanner-in-the-works question about that. Sorry, I didn’t think of that until now.