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.

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Watch Foreign Ministers Sing

Germany’s and France’s foreign ministers, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Bernard Kouchner, have joined the artist Muhabett recording a song called “Deutschland”. You can watch a video clip of the two ministers singing at this link: http://www.germany.info/relaunch/politics/new/pol_steinmeier_kouchner_turkish_berlin_11_2007.html

Well… to be honest, I can’t quite discern the gentlemen’s voices, even though I can see their mouths move.

The recording is to encourage young immigrants in Germany to integrate into the country and learn German, as well as for Germans to open up to people from other cultures, we are told.

I am now very eagerly awaiting the logical follow-up: a song titled “France” where messrs Steinmeier and Kouchner sing to encourage Monsieur Kouchner’s countrymen to open up to people from other cultures, and even learn any other language than French.

If one miracle can happen, then so can the other, I like to believe.

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?

Jah Provide De Bread

I started this day wallowing in my latest download from iTunes – “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley. (The version with the Wailers. Great tune. Full roots reggae at its best.)

And then came the most surrealistic SMS (text message) imaginable on my cell phone , just a minute ago: “JAH Pressbriefing on Monday 11 June 2007.”

Now, if I had been a Rastafari devotee (which, thank Goodness, I am not), I would have considered this above and beyond a sign from above; rather, something close to an invoked Second Coming.

Especially if I had been indulging in such substances that Rastafaris tend to indulge in (which, thank Goodness, I never have and certainly never will. Drugs are the devil’s work, period.)

However, it turned out to have a full terrestial explanation, rather than the Almighty meeting the press: JAH is an EU acronym for Justice And Home Affairs, the ministers of which are meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday. The sender, consequently, was the German EU Presidency, which thankfully bombards my cell phone with information on this and that every day.

An excellent service which I will not complain about, that is. But maybe the EU should consider revising some of its acronyms a bit.

Imagine this message reaching the wrong cell phone: Hordes of dreadlocked pot-smokers stampeeding towards the EU Council building, playing Marley at full blast, dancing and prancing in religious ecstasy about getting to meet their Maker in person. (And imagine the riots when they discover that all they meet are little middle-age men in grey suits. All the ganja in the world wouldn’t have convinced even the most liberal Haile Selassie worshippers that their god had incarnated as a German civil servant.)

I have a small suggestion: Justice And Home Affairs should actually be JAHA. That, in turn, would have been extra hilarious, as “Jaha” means “oh, really” or “so what” in Swedish.

Which, in turn, might have added the extra benefit of being a more accurate description.

Green, Green Glass Of Home

Walking through the quarters around the EU institutions quickly makes you spot which buildings are part of the EU frenzy or fringe, and which are not: Just look at the windows.

For some reason, bullet-proof glass usually tends to be as green as the deep blue sea, which as we all know is green rather than blue. (Now there’s an odd sentence if I ever saw one, but I’m tired and I’m writing this on the bus to stop myself from falling asleep. That doesn’t mean that I’m actually writing on the bus, like scribbling graffitti on the seats and the walls, but on the computer, sitting on the bus. No, I’m not writing on the computer, and the computer isn’t sitting… bah. That’s beside the point. Let’s assume you get the general idea.)

Anyway.

You can walk around this area for a while and suddenly notice that all windows on a particular building has this sickly green tint to them – aha, there’s another EU institution. Is it one of the Commission’s 61 buildings? Or one of the countless embassies, or permanent representations?

The German Permanent Representation to the EU has actually managed to make quite a nice architectural feat out of it, having a clean, cream-coloured bastion that contrasts fine with the green sheets of glass. One or two blocks away, however, you find a ghastly grey blob of concrete, also with green glass. which makes the whole thing look as misfit as the colour scheme of a 1975 domestic kitchen.

Oh sure, there’s the stars-on-blue, it’s a Commission building alright.

It all occurred to me as I decided to take a stroll along the route of my bus while waiting for it after a hard day’s work today, and of course getting lost on the way and ending up having walked in a huge semicircle from the Berlaymonster on Rue de la Loi to, ehrm, Rue de la Loi just down the road. (I told you I have no sense of direction.) However, the sun was shining, the weather was nice, and I decided to continue.

Turning left onto the inner ring road gets you another experience of the same kind. First comes the Russian Embassy, which doesn’t seem to have been able to afford any bullet-proof windows at all. It looks remarkably plain and would have been indistinguishable from the adjacent residential apartment blocks had it not been for the big Russian flag and some security, although, no visible human beings on guard. Maybe they’re all in Moscow putting critically-minded journalists in prison. Who knows.

The US Embassy, though, which is just a few doors down the road (boy, would I have loved to sniff around those quarters during the Cold War) is as guarded as Fort Knox. There’s a permanent police posting outside – Belgian police, that is – and you’d better not look too dodgy walking past there.

I look dodgy. They just about stopped and questioned me.

(Incidentally, the US Embassy and Consulate are divided by a side street called Rue Zinner. Not Sinner, that is. I’m sure they’ve all heard that joke before, but I couldn’t resist it.)

But then comes another fortress, which is covered in more green bullet-proof glass than any other building, making you wonder which country has its embassy or representation here. Iran? Israel? North Korea?

No – it turns out to be the seat of the local government for the City of Brussels. Which, for some reason, feels threatened enough to clad itself in more armour than a medieval knight, and certainly more than the Embassies of Russia and the United States put together. But maybe the Brussels gov’t is an emerging superpower, who knows.

They even have far more protection than the Belgian Ministry of Defence, which is just around the corner, and which doesn’t even seem to have any live human being on guard, let alone a security perimeter. But then again, the Belgian arned forces, luckily enough, don’t need to be too busy nowadays.

After The Coffee Break, We’ll Save The Rest Of The World

Speaking about press briefings, I must add a note about Thursday’s lengthy press briefing on the upcoming EU-USA summit on 2-4 May. The whole briefing was off the record, so I can’t go into too much detail. But you’re not missing much, because it was frankly as exciting as watching paint dry.

However, what did make it worth attending was watching one of the spokesmen for the German presidency, suit-clad, stone-faced and serious-looking, list the issues within the field of foreign policy that would be on the agenda:

“Ze Middle East, ze Israel-Palestinian situation, Lebanon, Syria, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Darfur and Russia, international terrorism, organised crime, and weapons of mass destruction”.

By then, muffled giggles had started spreading among the journalists in the European Council’s press briefing room in Brussels (where the whole thing was shown live on-screen via CCTV as the original briefing was held in Berlin).

Consequently unaware of the amusement he was causing in Brussels, the poor spokesman made a short pause and added, in an unchanged serious voice:

“I’m not sure all of these will be discussed”.

Duh.

Good thing, then, we must conclude, for the rest of the world’s dictators, criminals, thugs and villains, that the summit is only TWO days long.

PS. Speaking about villains: I wrote this in the reception lobby of a car glass service in Drogenbos, where I had to waste a lot of time watching my car having the window replaced that some faceless thugs smashed in pursuit of my car stereo yesterday. To add insult to injury, it now turns out that the car glass company can’t produce such a window on short notice, so I have to satisfy with a plexiglass dummy TAPED there and come back once again another day for the real thing. All the hassle, all the time wasted, all the frustration, just because of someone who couldn’t care less about other people’s hard-earned belongings! If only THAT could have been on one agenda or another, I murmur selfishly.

Don’t Mention The C-Word

Still no name in sight concerning who held the pen when putting the Berlin declaration into text. Bah, I knew it! It was probably the product of a committee, or written by Frau Dr Merkel herself. Just when you thought it was going to get entertaining.

Anyway. As always, it’s a fun sport to sift through the layers of political science nonsense to see what is not in the text.

One such thing is to read the penultimate paragraph in the declaration and see how they wriggle around trying to avoid using the word “Constitution”. Germany wants one, the French, Dutch, British and other assorted people do not, and the general sentiment in most other countries seems to be “let’s not ask” for fear of getting the wrong answer.

Having a Constitution for the EU is the final nail in the coffin for national supremacy, and the cradle for a European superstate, the reasoning behind that goes. (I’m not quite sure how something can be both a nail and a cradle at the same time, but that’s beside the point.)

So, in order to make everyone happy, Ms-Dr-Merkel’s-secretary-or-whoever-the-unlucky-fellow-was-who-had-to-write-the-final-draft had to try to write “let’s get us a Constitution before 2009” without actually writing “let’s get us a Constitution before 2009”. The resulting euphemistic acrobacy can be enjoyed ->here<-.

Christianity was also deined access in the final round, in spite of heavy lobbying on its part by especially the Poles, at least for a mention.

I’m a Christian by choice and deepest convincement, but still quite divided on whether or not Christianity should be in such a declaration as this. True, Europe is founded on 2,000 years of Christian ethics. This is an historic fact and nothing to try to hide, and then Turkey can rant as much as it likes about the EU being a ‘Christian Club’ to divert attention from its chronic inability of learning to spell the legend h-u-m-a-n r-i-g-h-t-s.

On the other hand, throughout those last 2,000 years, every attempt to impose Christianity from the top in society has ended painfully. The simple reason is that true Christianity lies in the heart of the believer and cannot be commanded forth. And my freedom to advocate and exercise my faith can only be guaranteed in a society that also guarantees others the freedom to refrain from doing so. Freedom, by definition, involves the right to make one’s own choices.

“One Nation Under God” works in the US, where a large number of people voluntarily confess some sort of faith, and there is no history of religious oppression. But in Europe, I’m afraid a similar statement would only provoke a generally negative counter-response. And that is exactly what I, as a Christian, want to avoid.

In other words: If you want to reach Europeans with the Gospel, you’d better avoid conjuring up collective memories of state churches controlling all aspects of life, memories of which lie just beneath the surface.

Not to mention that the true Gospel includes the freedom of option for each individual to reject it.