Money Back Guarantee

Believe it or not, but the European Union does actually have a money back guarantee.

I’m not joking. The only catch is that you don’t get your money back if it isn’t working; but only if they haven’t managed to spend all the money you paid them during the last year.

Consequently, the EU is now paying back a total of EUR 1.5bn to its 27 member states, distributed according to the states’ gross national income (GNI). In other words, the most money to the fattest cats in the club, but that’s beside the point.

The full distribution list can be found here.

The EU Commission this year brags that this year’s budget surplus is the smallest ever, insisting that this is evidence of its excellent capacities forplanning and not asking too much in membership fees.

That’s one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is that they’ve been better than ever at wasting our money away this year, and that it’s a failure that they aren’t able to return much more of our money.

I’l leave it to you to decide which version you prefer.

I Am The Easter Bunny

I thought our Christmas ordeal was a challenging experience in cross-cultural communication, trying to explain to our little children the four incarnations of Santa Claus. Little did I know that I would have to become the Easter Bunny at 7 am on Easter Sunday.

Let’s recap. Our children are of Anglo-Swedish origin, and we live in Belgium. Three cultures to merge already, the latter of which we are still largely ignorant of in spite of a total of six years in this country. Our children, however, spending most of their awake hours in a Flemish school, are not.

I should have remembered last year, when we were hunting little Easter eggs all around our back yard. Another mnemonic came a few days ago in the shape of our dear little old lady neighbour downstairs, a Flemish woman with no children of her own and thus our kids’ surrogate Granny. She called me to her and snuck a large bag of little Easter eggs and candy of the same kind, with the obvious intent of helping us to repeat the act this year.

The thing is, in this part of the world, little children awake on Easter morning (I’ve never been able to figure out exactly which day it’s supposed to be) to find their gardens full of hidden chocolate eggs that have to be found. In France, these eggs are said to be spread all over the world from the Vatican’s church bells; in Belgium, for some reason I have yet to unveil, they are all laid by the Easter Bunny.

Problematically enough, however, he is not the only one who does so. Any visit to any commercial outlet of any kind this time of the year reveals that Easter Bunnies must have reproduced like, well, rabbits, because you are met with row after row, aisle after aisle, of one set of Easter eggs and candy more sugar-stuffed and unhealthy than another.

Consequently, we thought ourselves to be good parents to but the kids one large, candy-stuffed Easter egg each on Good Friday, to prevent any possible pining. But when they came home from school, they had already had a visit from the candy-dropping Bunny in their classrooms, and were thus already experiencing blood sugar levels set to saturated and rising. So we thought it good to ration the candy intake, and leave the garden chocolate hunt for Easter Day in the morning. Eager inquiries from the Four-year-old and the Six-year-old, anticipating the hunt, were met with our purportedly initiated explanations that “it’s too early yet, wait for Easter Sunday”.

Talk about making a rod for your own back.

The day before – nay, the night before – I had reason to attend to a lot of important business that kept me up late, late, late into the wee hours. Or early. Going to bed, I calculated when I would have to get up again in order to get us ready for going to Church, and decided that I could at least sleep until 8.30. Wow, almost five hours’ sleep.

How wrong I was. Ten to seven, our two little tots came bouncing into our bed – which only so happens to be the best point for getting a view of our garden – excitedly wanting to see how full of sweets the garden was. You should have seen the look on their faces when all they saw was frozen grass. Disappointment and grief doesn’t even begin to convey it.

Drowsily trying to return to the land of the living, two thoughts fought for attention from the four of my brain cells that had switched on so far

1)      Are these Belgian kiddies my children?

2)      How in the name of Pete do I get away with this?

Luckily enough, necessity is the mother of invention. I sent the kids back to bed with some half-baked explanation that it was so early that the Bunny hadn’t even made it there yet, trying to order them to sleep a little more. That is usually impossible. When the sun is shining at full floodlight strength and they are expecting one of the year’s major events, it’s as easy as drilling a mine shaft with a boiled carrot.

I then remembered that thankfully, there is a corner of our garden that you can’t see from anywhere in the house, as it is concealed behind a large shed.

So I put on a suitably troubled face (which was the one thing this morning that took the least effort), went to my grim-faced little dear ones laying in their beds and told them that I was going outside to take a closer look, just in case.

The thermometer said –0.4 C.

Well, then at least I could wear a winter jacket large enough to conceal the sack of candy from the Secret Hiding Place. Out I went, after first ripping open the little bags that these eggs come in, so as to be able to act quickly once out there.

I felt like someone out of a Biblical parable as I stood there in the garden, spreading little candy eggs like a sowerman. There must be a sermon illustration in all this. Hope the neighbours weren’t watching, but then again, they probably would have nodded in sympathy.

Next, stage two of the Deception: I took a deep breath, rushed inside, and dashed into my kids’ bedroom feigning excitement.

“I found them! I found them! They were in the corner! Come and have a look!”

Grumpily and drowsily, the kids reluctantly arose to come and see. The Six-year-old looked in some disbelief, wondering what those empty bags accidentally sticking out from Daddy’s pocket were all about. My and my wife’s acting skills were stretched to their limits as we boiled up yet another lie about them being some old trash that I was about to throw away.

I eventually managed to pour my children into suitably warm clothes, and get them outside, where they would only be able to see the candy from right behind the shed. You guessed it: the day was saved.

However, as I stood there repeating that the Easter Bunny must have been in a great hurry, why he left all the eggs in one corner of the garden – all in the name of making the illusion complete – I did wonder how I was going to reconcile the fact that I had begun this year’s largest Christian feast day by trying to systematically violate the Ninth Commandment (or Eighth, if you’re a Catholic or a Lutheran).

Better get to Church, I suppose. My alarm clock just went off 15 minutes ago.

 

 

Swimming Pool Monster

One of the really great things about Belgian schools is that they teach the children to swim, with weekly swimming lessons from age six.

Our six-year-old is soon capable of swimming without support pads, I annouce proudly. But it has now occurred to him that it is possible to slip under the surface and drown, so, this morning, he was a bit afraid of today’s trip to the swimming pool.

We reassured him that there are guards trained to throw themselves into the water and help if anything bad happens and so on – and then his four-year-old brother decided he wanted to join in on the comforting as well, with the following helpful comment:

“Don’t be afraid, its just the sea monster”.

Ho, Ho, Ho

Growing up in an Anglo-Swedish family living in Belgium at least has one advantage that my children will eventually discover: You get Christmas presents over and over again. The only problem is that you don’t quite know from whom.

The Belgian tradition is for children to get their presents from Sinterklaas/St. Nicholas on December 6, and since the Sint, as he is commonly known, frequents the schools around that date, there is no way for us to try to ignore that tradition. (And it would be pretty harsh for the kids to come to school on that day and be asked by their friends “so what did you get from the Sint, then?”) So, already on December 5, our four- and six-year-olds put out a shoe each with carrots in them – for Sint’s horse – and awoke the morning after to find that the Sint had been there to put presents there in return.

Then, the Swedish Christmas starts officially on Christmas Eve, which is the day every Swedish child gets their presents – in fact, that is the main day of Christmas in Sweden. As we have that tradition firmly engraved in us, that is of course when we will have the next Christmas present flurry. More gifts.

The day after, Christmas Day, is traditionally the day when British children get presents in their stockings. Our kids have thus already put their stockings up, so it will be difficult to avoid even more presents then.

Well, if that sounds complicated, we haven’t got to the whole Santa business yet.

The Belgian Santa – the Sint – is not a merry figure from the North Pole; he is a skinny bishop arriving in a boat from Spain. The fact that he lives in sunny Spain rather than the freezing North isn’t so much the result of any modern-day timeshare condo programme, but rather a remnant from the years when Belgium was ruled by Spain and everything came from there. He is accomplished by Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”), a jester-looking chap dressed in medieval clothing who is usually depicted as a blackface minstrel… a seriously politicaly incorrect caricature of an African man, probably in some way stemming from Moorish influences in Spain. He is the one who actually administrates the gift distribution; now there’s another interesting ground for debate over who’s the servant and who’s the master, by the way, but that’s beside the point.

However, the Swedish Santa – Jultomten – is a reformed and overgrown gnome, who lives alternatively at the North Pole or – more often – in Rovaniemi in Finland (although there have been some attempts to relocate him to Mora, Sweden). Not only does this bearded and obese character appear on Christmas Eve: he usually turns up in person, handing out Christmas presents from his sack, usually at the very moment when Dad has popped out to buy the newspaper. Jultomten has nothing in common with the Sint at all, except for being clad in red and handing out presents.

Then, the increasingly americanised version occuring in English-speaking countries, Santa Claus, of course lives at the North Pole, but sneaks down the chimney at night between Dec. 24 and Dec. 25 while the children are sleeping. to fill their stockings.

You’d think that our biggest problem is that we don’t have a chimney, but it gets worse still.

Putting all these things together means that we have to try to explain to our kids why this figure first appears in their school in full visibility, then sneaks in at home here at night, then changes clothes completely, gives Zwarte Piet a vacation in the middle of their busiest season, puts on 30-40 kilos in 18 days and relocates to the far North before turning up here again in full visibility, only to sneak in back here again the very night after to pop a few extra gifts down the kid’s socks that he could just as well have given to them the evening before.

The other day, we went to the local British store, where we buy all things English. There, the children had the chance of meeting Father Christmas, the fourth incarnation of this seasonal fiction, who is the English version of Santa (but ethnologically not entirely Santa Claus either).

“Is Zwarte Piet with him?” the Four-year-old asked expectantly.

Help.

A Saint That Isn’t One

Today, Sweden celebrates one of its most peculiar traditions, which we of course will highlight here in Brussels as well: Sankta Lucia.

On this morning, young people in Protestant – and secular – Sweden dress up to stage the arrival of the Catholic saint, in a depiction that has nothing to do at all with the saint in question and has other roots and meanings as well. Of which most peole have little idea.

Heading a candlelit procession is a girl in a white robe with candles in her hair, symbolising (but not symbolising) St. Lucia of Syracuse, Italy, which is certainly not the reason why she is usually portrayed by a girl with long blond hair and other Scandinavian (but definitely not Italian) features. However, she historically doesn’t portray the saint, but an angel, of which there is no more mention and people usually haven’t heard of these days at all, but whch is from where she gets the candles, because while they are said to remind the secular Swedes of how St. Lucia lit up the catacombs to raise the spirits of the Christians hiding there in pre-Christian Europe days, they are actually intended to depict a halo as there is no record that St. Lucia ever illuminated the hideaway Christians’ lives in such a manner.

Along in the procession comes a group of similarly white-robed girls, with candles in their hands (but not in their hair, which is important), and boys without candles but wearing Merlin-the-wizard-style paper cones on their heads depicting them as “starboys”, the symbolism of which is unclear except that they are not wizards, and sometimes boys dressed as Santa Clauses, although they are less Santa Clauses and more of the red-dressed gnomes that are the origins of the Swedish Santa variant Jultomten, who by the way lives in Finland or at the North Pole but not in Sweden. And then of course the Gingerbread Man.

The procession sings a Swedish translation – with words that were actually incomprehensible to the standard use of Swedish already when they were written – which is a translation of the Italian folk song “Santa Lucia”, a widespread standard tune in Italy which is not about the St. Lucia at all, but about the quarters in Naples called Santa Lucia, in the original language sung by a fisherman who longs for his home there after a long hard day out on the Mediterranian Sea. Other songs are sung, too, all with the general message that Christmas is eleven days away, for those who are unable to work that out from their calendars, although Christmas itself is actually twelve days away by the Lucia day, but Christmas starts in Christmas Eve in Sweden –  which is not officially a holiday in the country, in spite of it being more observed than most holidays which are official.

Oh, yes, and sometimes they sing about St. Stephen, who in Sweden is percieved to be a stable hand who was stoned for alerting king Herod – whose horses he was tending – that the Star of Bethlehem had risen and Christ had been born, in spite of the fact that the Bible mentkons him as being stoned by a mob some time after Christ’s crucifiction, that is, three decades later (with no mention of horses); consequently, the song is exclusively about Stephen giving the horses water and riding one of them himself, and of stars twinkling in the sky, with no apparent internal connection at all.

The Lucia procession also serves coffee and saffron-filled buns with raisins, lussekatter, all of which is considered essentially Swedish even though neither coffee, saffron nor raisins are possible to produce in the country.

All of this is enough to make any Swede teary-eyed and sentimental, and considered a funamental element of the Christmas season. We shall take our kids to one evening version of the event arranged by the Swedish Lutheran church, but not by any of the Catholich churches in this officially Church of Rome country, later this evening – the ‘evening’ part being essential as the processional requires an outside darkness of the kind prevalent in Sweden this time of the year – which is held this year in the Dominican church, even though we usually attend an evangelical church in another part of town.

Did you get all that?

No? Well, while you try to work out all of the above, I think I’ll go and have another lussekatt. I baked my own last night. They turned out delicious. Especially when dunked in hot cocoa, which is not in the Lucia tradition at all but a tradition in my family.

Just to complicate things a little, that is.

I Found It! At Last!!

Oh, please, please, please, click on this link:
http://www.shibumi.org/eoti.htm

It’s not dangerous, obscene, violent, or anything else. Just funny.

How To Shop Without Money – Legally

Oh, this is rich, literally speaking. Gazet van Antwerpen today publishes the story about Norbert Verswijver, who managed to shop for EUR 48,511 – but only had to pay 60 cents. Legally.

The explanation is that he used a number of discount coupons serially. He brought a bag full of coupons to the Blokker supermarket, all promising 20 percent off this item or 15 percent off that. All fine and dandy, but nobody had thought about that they could be used in sequence.

Norbert Verswijver simply bought any item that had an offer of a percentage discount associated with it – and then pulled out another percentage discount coupon to get a discount on the discounted price he was supposed to pay. And so on, and so on, until the price was down at zero, or anywhere close to it.

Mr Verswijver claims to have read all the fine print and intends to take Blokker to court, if they decide to back off from their offers, as they are currently trying to decide what to do with the customer.

He has already pulled a similar stunt at another supermarket, Match, which offered a EUR 4 discount on deep frozen products to anyone buying four products. Match hadn’t thought about that this would also cover items costing less than a euro a piece, so Mr Verswijver gathered up all the pots of chervil he could find, four of which costing only about three euros, and managed to amass refunded cash to such an extent that he was able to walk away with EUR 6,000 worth of deep-frozen products paid with nothing but paper coupons and one five eurocent coin.

The whole story is found here (in Dutch).

Nukenight

I really like Newsnight on BBC 2. It’s a very competent programme indeed. In fact, you can watch the latest programme here.

However… I didn’t know its journalistic effervescence was of such a dimension that Britain needed to protect its atomic weapons from the show. But judging from this little gem for a headline on the BBC News website shown in this screenshot… it seems that the Ministry of Defence has had reason to lock up its nukes whenever the Newsnight team was in the neighbourhood.

Maybe someone did go ballistic about that thing about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after all.

Grave Men

I just read on Reuters that a cemetery in Australia is training its gravediggers to save lives of mourners who collapse from grief and may need first aid. (Read the full story here.)

Excuse me… but isn’t that putting yourself out of business – or more frankly, digging your own grave?

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?

…”Bubba Shot The Jukebox”?

Some times, even I wonder how I come across some of the weirder sites in my Bookmarks list. Here’s a true and hilarious gem that I found recently:

http://www.downstream.sk.ca/country1.htm

“I Gave Her the Ring, and She Gave Me the Finger”… classic.

Wait, I’m Just Going To Finish Laughing

Yesterday, the Swedish Minister for Enterprise, Deputy Premier etc etc Maud Olofsson was going to chat online with the readers of the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet. The chat was scheduled to 13.00. However, when people at the local newspaper Västerbottens-Kuriren read about that, they realised that this was exactly when the minister had been interviewed by their reporters. In her home in the North of Sweden. That is, hundreds of miles away from Aftonbladet’s newsroom.

It turned out to have been Ms Olofsson’s press secretary who had responded to the readers’ questions. In the minister’s name. Claiming to be the minister. The minister, or is it her astral body? Photo by Johanna Jansson.

Aftonbladet is furious and has demanded (and received) an apology for having been “fooled”, as the editor in charge of the online edition puts it. Now there’s an interesting flip of mind, by the way, as the paper in question has a solid, dubious track record for fooling its readers every day, but that’s beside the point.

Anyway. The story could have ended there, but has since been compounded by the press secretary’s hilarious attempts to explain the whole matter away. Asked by the media magazine Dagens Media “But it wasn’t Maud Olofsson chatting”, she delivers the following gem for a response:

“Indirectly, it was, but of course I was the one pressing the keys. But it was Maud’s words”.

New Agers usually use expressions such as “chanelling” for this phenomena, whereby dupes are automatically writing messages from alleged spirits. But little did I know that such powers had also been extended to Cabinet members and their press secretaries.

This, though, opens up unexpected possibilities for eco-friendly government: Instead of jetting all the ministers in from their constituencies, just put a press secretary with psychic powers in the same room as the Prime Minister. “I now invoke the Defence Minister…” And what about the EU circus, where ministers, officials, MEPs and assorted bureaucrats are shuttled and shuffled across the European chessboard on a daily basis? They could just meet by telepathy, even doing away with the need for energy-intensive computers.

Remember where you read it first.

YMCA In Finnish

Just when you thought you’d seen it all… here’s a fine example of what state TV entertainment used to look like in the Nordic countries a few decades ago:

The real highlight comes about one minute into the clip… I shall say no more…

Beer

I couldn’t help but post this video clip here as well, which I first found on my boss’s blog. Absolutely hilarious!
(EDIT: Silly WordPress doesn’t let me embed the player… click on this link instead: http://www.metacafe.com/watch/833113/miracle_beer_diet/ )

Peace Police

I was rolling on the floor laughing, literally in tears, last night upon hearing the explanation why the police in Iceland are not armed: They have made an agreement with the local criminals that if they won’t carry arms, the police won’t either.

Is there such a place in the known universe?

Who Would You Like To Pay To Not Work?

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t mean “who would you like to bribe so you don’t have to work”. Rather, who would you like to pay to make them stop working?

That’s an interesting dimension of the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy (one which is due to be done away with today by the way), which BBC correspondent Mark Mardell happily explores in a great blog post which you can read by clicking here. Since it’s already posible to pay farmers for not cultivating parts of their lands, he argues, why stop there? Why not pay other professionals for not doing their jobs?

For instance, I could think of quite a number of politicians, whom I would be quite happy to pay for them not to do any more work.

Oh wait a minute… I already do.

Oh, bother.

Euromyths Revisited

Just discovered that there’s been a broken link since April to the great compilation of Euromyths I wrote about in this blog post. So, here it is again. Oh, it’s so nice I’ll post it twice, in plain text too: http://ec.europa.eu/unitedkingdom/press/euromyths/index_en.htm

Come On Baby Light My Fire

Thursday’s press conference at the EU Commission revolved largely – after a nice gesture by spokesman Johannes Laitenberger of reading out an official condolence in Italian about Luciano Pavarotti’s death – around commissioner Günter Verheugen’s sex life.

Believe it or not, Eurocrats have such areas of life, too. And in the case of Mr Verheugen, it’s quite a vivid one or so it seems, for he has been rumoured to have an affair with his chief of staff Petra Erler since last year.

Um, not only rumoured: there have been pictures taken of the two of them hand in hand on a beach in Lithuania – naked.

The matter is slightly complicated by the fact that Mr Verheugen is said to have intervened to ensure that Ms Erler was promoted to her current high-paying job (which she accesed on, of all days, April 1 this year). And by the fact that Mr Verheugen happens to be married. To someone else.

On Thursday, reporters again started asking questions abaout all this, against the background that Mr Verheugen’s wife is now quoted to have asked for a divorce. The defence line was as always: Mr Verheugen’s private life concerns no-one but himself.

As commendable as such a stance might seem at a first glance, it becomes very troublesome (to say the least) if private life interests begin influencing professional decisions. A previous commissioner, Édith Cresson, had to resign for doing exactly what Mr Verheugen is now being accused of: employing a lover at a high-paid job, regardless of formal qualifications.

She brought the entire Santer commission down with her. It was the first time a Commission had to resign prematurely.

(“It would have been more of a problem if he had had a relation with the chief of staff of another directorate-general”, remarked a colleague to me to mutual chuckle as we were sitting in the press room listening to the verbal duel.)

Everybody knows that this is potentially Commission-toppling material, which is the reason both for the persistent questions from the journalists as well as for the stonewalling attempts from Mr Verheugen.

This stonewalling yesterday became farcical, as the spokesman maintained that nothing had changed since this summer, when the matter was highlighted last time.

In the middle of the grilling, as questions about conflict of interest and violation of various EU Treaty articles were reaching boiling point, there was a sudden BZZZZZZZZZZZ sound filling the press room: The fire alarm went off.

Everybody started laughing.

“That’s certainly not the first time that happens”, remarked another colleague frostily to explain the reaction; “the same thing happened when they were grilled about the same thing during the summer”.

Creative use of equipment intended to fight hazards stemming from overheating, perhaps. Or maybe an automatic response to the overuse of verbal smokescreens.

Well, at least we weren’t sprayed with any water from the sprinkler system.

Maybe next time… or then they’ll just bring the water cannons in.

Yess, Yess, Yesssss!!!!

My new hero within the world of journalism is named Mika Brzezinski:

(Press to play)

I wish more of our colleagues would display similar courage.

(Thanks to Jacob for the tip.)

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.

Vultures

This week is Summit week, when the European Union’s Heads of State and Government (I almost typed “Hades” instead of “Heads”, now there’s a Freudian slip if I ever saw one) gather to adopt a Constitution taht isn’t a constitution or whatever. And already, the vultures are gathering.

Literally. Flocks of Spanish Griffon vultures have flown north in search for food, because they are unable to find any at home since Spanish farmers have stopped dropping cattle carcasses in the open. A flock was recently seen in Ghent, not to far from Brussels.

So. Why Belgium? Why (almost) Brussels? Why right now, when the Hades Heads of State and Government are here too? Why right now, when flocks of journalists are here as well? Why at the very summit which is desperately trying to, ehrm, revive the EU Constitution?

I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions.

Debriefing

Speaking of strange e-mails from the EU, today I got one titled “VIP CORNER: MANDELSON DEBRIEF ON MEETING WITH CHINESE MINISTER MR BO XILAI AT 15H45”.

No, I don’t know why they have to write everything in capital letters either. (Maybe they have taken the NIGERIA LETTER CORRESPONDENCE CLASS IN ADVANCED COMMUNICATION.) But that wasn’t the strange thing, but the fact that Commissioner Mandelson apparently needed debriefing after meeting the Chinese minister. What, did they expect the meeting to be that traumatic?

Upon opening the letter, it now emerged that it wasn’t Commissioner Mandelson who needed debriefing – now, it was suddenly us journalists who needed debriefing from this, seemingly, very distressing event, Commissioner Mandelson being the counsellor.

I’m not sure why they are so afraid of the Chinese Minister. But maybe they all got scared when he said his name:

“Boo”.

“Converts To Rasta”

This is getting worse and worse.

After writing yesterday’s blog post, today, what do I see? A press release about two companies who have decided to, quote, “convert to Rasta”.

Well, not quite. The full heading reads – translated from Swedish –  “Maritemi AB and Provobis Holding AB convert to Rasta shares.” And, for those of you who thought that our dreadlock friends have floated their faith on Nasdaq or so: Rasta, in this case, is actually the name of a Swedish roadside restaurant chain. (Which does not serve any Ital food, by the way; the name is derived from the Swedish word “rasta” meaning “to rest”.)

That’s probably a fine illustration of how you can derive a totally misleading message from a sentence, if you do not understand the context, the social and cultural setting, the background, and so on. As has happened, sorry to say, with many interpretations of the Bible, as a prime example.

Not least by Rastas, who have founded an entire religion on such misunderstandings.

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.

Yuck

I think I’ll use gloves next time I go shopping. Consider this information from one of my favourite sites, which you can read all about if you click here:

“According to a four-year study conducted by the University of Arizona’s Environmental Research Lab and sponsored by Clorox, grocery carts are veritable petri dishes teeming with human saliva, mucus, urine, fecal matter, as well as the blood and juices from raw meat. Swabs taken from the handles and child seats of 36 grocery carts in San Francisco, Chicago, Tucson, and Tampa showed these common surfaces to rank third on the list of nastiest public items to touch, with only playground equipment and the armrests on public transportation producing more disgusting results. In terms of playing host to germs and bacteria, the carts are far worse that public bathrooms…”

And to think of all the unpackaged foods you put in contact with the carts. And to think of how my children sometimes lick the handles.

Howard Hughes was right after all.

The Teletubbies Cometh

Among yesterday’s most amusing moments in my microcosmos was when a Polish journalist asked the EU Commission’s press spokesmen at the daily press conference what comment the Commission had on Poland’s decision to investigate whether Teletubbies are propagating homosexuality.

“Does the Commission believe that the Teletubbies are of a bad influence on young children?”, the Polish journalist asked, audibly with her tounge firmly placed in her cheek.

“The Commission believes in the freedom of the media”, was the short answer, accompanied by roaring laughter from the press gallery.

Because, yes, this idea, which was first suggested by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, has been revived in Poland, where child ombudsman Ewa Sowinska was to investigate Tinky Winky’s sexual orientation. The collected evidence for these allegations are:

1) Tinky Winky is purple.

2) Tinky Winky carries a handbag.

3) Tinky Winky’s head antenna is vaguely shaped like a triangle.

That’s it.

It may be laughable, especially when you start asking yourself in which ways any gender is associated with the Tubbies – for all I know, they could all be girls – or whether they are capable of having relationships with each other of such a nature that would make homosexuality, according to its biological definition, possible. But Ms. Sowinska took the whole thing very seriously and was to consult psychologists and their likes in order to reach at a verdict.

Today I heard that the whole investigation has been dropped. Congratulations, Polish taxpayers.

That leaves us Christians as the only ones still associated with this barmy statement. I do not know even where to begin being angry with all this.

Not only because of the very idea of having my faith connected with what is best named paranoid conspiracy theories, and not only because it attempts to curb free speech – even if this had turned out to be a gay lobby agenda, the rights for gays to promote their ideas is still my right to promote mine – but also because there is so much more worse garbage out there which is openly poisoning children’s minds, and where it is evident every day that the children copy what they see – in terms of violence and aggressive behaviour.

In fact, I have even had to remove a channel from or TV because our kids spent too much time watching cartoons that were clearly intended for an older audience, as they began learning violent behaviour from it. It took me about 45 seconds to exercise my right to choose in such a way, without having to call for government assistance. And another few minutes to explain to them why it is bad to hit people. Problem solved.

And therein lies probably the most ridiculous thing about all this. If you are uncomfortable with a flannel doll wearing pink, carrying a handbag, and having a triangle on its head, then, for crying out loud, switch to another channel or remove it from your dial. No-one is holding a gun to your head and forcing your kids to watch it.

I Don’t Remember

I Don’t Remember, I don’t recall/I got no memories of anything at all…

I’m quite sure there is something I’ve promised to do on Saturday, but I just can’t remember what it is!! Isn’t that scary when it happens?

I have a flashback memory snippet of me being asked to do something, then turning to my wife to double-check that there wasn’t anything else going on on that day, and then accepting. But what was it?

Readers of this blog must be getting worried about my mnemonic capacity (or, rather, the lack of it) – just think of this, and this, and some other blog entry that I’ve forgotten.

I bought a couple of upgraded RAM memory sticks for my stationary computer the other day – no, I haven’t forgotten to put them in, I’m just waiting for the heatsinks that I ordered separately – and that made me wonder why on Earth I can’t order some extra RAM for my brain as well.

However, at least you have an explanation for the periods when there are no new entries on this blog: I’ve probably just forgotten to write something new.

Now, there was something else I was going to say about that… oh bother.

Ja Vi Elsker Dette Landet

Life in Brussels is far from only the usual vortex of EU and Belgian culture. Far from it. Rather, it’s a mix and a mosaic and a melting pot, all at once. So it was only half unexpected that we should get invited to celebrate Norway’s national day last Thursday.

The connection point was our friends Mark and Sigrid. He, being a British gentleman, wanted to surprise his Norwegian wife by taking her to the huge celebrations held at the Scandinavian school and Norwegian/Swedish church on her country’s national day, and had asked us secretly beforehand if we wanted to join in. After all, my wife is Swedish, I am half Swedish, and the children are a fine blend. Scandinavians all around, kind of.

Norway may not be in the EU, but has a representation that is so close to the Berlaymonster that the Norwegian flag is the first foreign flag you usually see in those quarters. What’s more, Norway is also an enthusiastic member of NATO, whose world headquarters are not far from where we go to church. So there are plenty of Norwegian people in Brussels, certainly enough to whip up a respectable bash.

I’m always in for a decent party. Great idea, we said, and on the big day of syttende maj, we set off.

The festivities had been announced as largely consisting of games for the kids, activities for the kids, fun for the kids, lotteries for the kids, hot dogs and soft drinks and anything else that can be creatively smeared on clothes, and everything else that, when combined with one four-year-old and one half-past-five-year-old, inevitably will induce wall to wall washing machine use. So, being fairly experienced parents and used to Swedish outdoor activities, we therefore collectively donned what is known in Sweden as “oömma kläder” (not-so-easily-ruined clothes).

Little did we know that we would be in for a shock.

Upon arrival, after the usual erroneous driving, we were met by National Pride Embodied. I kid you not: Everyone was wearing his or her absolute best. Not their Sunday best, that is, but their Very Best, the near-sacred garments that are kept for once-a-year events.

Every man in sight was in a suit and tie, all the way down to the smallest children. That is, with the exception of the majority of the people, who were instead decked out in their carefully crafted national dresses, painstakingly hand-sewn down to the last stitch, of the kind which you can see on the picture here (no, it’s not from the Brussels event, because of course I forgot my camera). All the way, of course, down to the smallest children.

My wife was wearing slightly less casual attire than the rest of us. I, wearing a black leather jacket and black jeans, asked my wife if I could hide behind her. My wife was offended by the very idea that I thought that I would be able to hide behind her.

The ambassador spoke. (And the people were asked to remain silent while he did so). The national anthem was played. (And the people didn’t have to be asked to stand to attention and sing, hands on hearts, tears in corners of eyes). The people marched around the courtyard in a procession. (And everyone cheered from the depths of their hearts).

Flags were waved everywhere with the pride that can only be mustered by a nation that only became fully independent in 1905.

Incidentally, in that year, the country they became independent from was – Sweden.

That in itself would have been enough to make us feel as popular at the celebration of that independence as bacon sandwiches at a Bar Mitzvah, but to add insult to injury, we suddenly discovered that we had managed to top off our oldest son’s jeans, sweater and gym shoes outfit with a cap with the word “Sweden” in large gold letters across the front.

We had him turn it back to front. The rear band of his cap had the word “SWEDEN” printed on it in large gold capital letters. We tried combing some of his hair over it. We regretted his latest haircut.

And then, the final insult: I had to take my youngest son to the bathroom – when you gotta go, you gotta go – which turned out to be inside the main building. We got inside. My son went into a cubicle. So did I. And then I discovered that the whole men’s room had large – large – windows facing the front courtyard. Outside those huge windows stood the brass band, solemnly playing Norwegian nationalistic music. In front of them stood the entire Norwegian Brussels colony, solemnly listening.

And solemnly watching.

And behind the brass band, remember, my four-year-old and I – citizens of the former occupying power – were peeing.

Luckily, there was no diplomatic crisis as a result. Thanks to the Norwegians themselves, whose other defining characteristic – apart, as we now have painstakingly learned by trial and horror, from national pride – is a deep, wide and profound sense of general friendliness. They didn’t chuck us out – on the contrary, they made us all feel very welcome and have a very good time.

So it was easy for us at the end of that day to agree with the first few words of the Norwegian national anthem: “Ja, vi elsker dette landet” – “Yes, we love this country”.

And be happy that I had decided to put the jeans with holes on both knees in the laundry bin the day before.