Bank Holiday

Oh my. I’ve just paid the rent.

Yes, it’s late, but there is an explanation: I lost my bank card.

Some time ago, my Belgian bank changed its security solution. Nowadays, you need to feed your ordinary bank card into a little thingy, where you punch in codes hither and thither and get other codes back and forth to access your Internet bank account, and eventually, after pressing every button at least twice, you’re in. It’s all very clever and much better than the variant they used to have – and so complex it’s probably foolproof – so I’m not complaining at all.

However, it does require that you have your bank card. And there’s where the fools may prove the foolproof permeable.

Last Friday, I was going to take care of the rent and a few other things. (Yes, that was late too, but there are reasons for that as well, involving transfer of funds between different banks in different countries that I have to do every month.) However, one of those “other things” was to pay my eldest son’s football club fee,

I realised late Friday afternoon – no, it’s more correct to say that it struck me full force very late Friday afternoon – that I would have to pay the fee during that same day, or else he would not be able to play the next  match, for insurance reasons. As I had promised he would. There are some things you just can’t explain to a six-year-old, so I had to dash off to the bank before closing time.

I just about made it, storming into the bank, fumbling all over their enhanced cash dispensers (ATMs) with payment capacity, where you also have to insert your card to pay your bills. On spaghetti legs, I slunk out of the bank, thinking that I’d pay the rent over the Internet when I came home, and drove off to do some other errands.

But when I got to the shop around the corner from where we live, I realised that my bank card was missing. I left my wife and kids there and sped off back to the bank, hoping to catch some staff or other even after closing time, probably breaking every known traffic rule on the way.

I caught the staff just as they were on their way home.

“Sorry, Sir, the machine has probably eaten your card if you forgot to take it, and we can’t access it because of the time lock. Come back on Monday morning at 9 am.”

Nobody had found my card anywhere else in the bank and handed it in, so there was a 90 per cent chance it was safely tucked away in the machine’s belly. But what if someone had indeed found it and was going to have a merry weekend on my expense?

I called the Card Stop number that every cash dispenser has posted. In the middle of my call, my cell phone credit dried up.

And I was cut off.

Back into the car, speeding back the same way I came, probably breaking every leftover traffic rule that I’d forgotten to violate last time. Quick rush up the stairs, to throw myself on the phone, to the amusement of my neighbour who happened to walk by just as I darted in from the car with my hair on end and sweat spurting out of every pore.

I managed to block the card, and eventually reunited with my wife and kids, who were reaching boiling point at the shop. And after a nail-biting weekend, my card sure enough turned up safe and sound at the bank on Monday morning. Without having been raided. Now all I had to do was to wait for a new one, so I could access my bank account and pay my rent.

“It will probably be sent to you by Wednesday”, the bank people told me. OK, a bit late, but fair enough.

Wednesday came. No card. Thursday came. Still no card. Friday came. No card in sight.

On Friday afternoon, I passed by the bank to ask. Sure enough, the card had arrived – mailed to the bank.

As I finaly logged into my bank account – remember, only able to do so by having my new card – I saw that there was a message from my bank. It read:

“Your KBC Bank Card XXX-XXXXXXX-XX XXXX in the name of JONATHAN NEWTON and linked to account XXX-XXXXXXX-XX can be collected from your KBC BANK NEGENMANNEKE bank branch from 12/10/2007 on. You can either collect the card yourself at the bank branch or autorize someone else who already has power of attorney over your account to do so, using the form of attorney. (see annex to account statements) Ask for it the next time you stop in at the KBC bank branch because the card you have now will not work as of 19/12/2007. If you have already collected your card, please disregard this message.”

Thank you very much, bank. Now let me ask you how you expect me to read this message without that very card, which I need to log on to the account where the message is posted.

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.

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.

Paperwork

One fine pastime an EU correspondent has, when there’s nothing else to do, is to read the questions from Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to the EU Commission, which are published every now and then – together with the answers from the Commissioners – whenever the printing room has filled its capacity, I suppose; the latest bunch of Q and A is about half an inch thick.

Still, it’s certainly amusing reading, not least when you sense the ill-concealed fury expressed in the questions – the MEPs are a frustrated lot – and because of the just as ill-concealed attempts by the Commissioners to answer without actually saying anything.

No issue is too trivial. Whistleblower Paul van Buitenen MEP wants to know why the EU’s anti-fraud office OLAF is so aggressively incompetent, why he doesn’t get any response to his questions, and why those who have leaked the information on OLAF’s lack of competence are being persecuted. Caroline Lucas MEP is being informed how many journeys Commission staff hade to make to the Parliament’s sessions in Strasbourg – 3,500 last year, in spite of the presence of such inventions as e-mail, fax and telephone, at a cost of EUR 2.4 million, it turns out. Out of these, 55 per cent decided they needed to fly, 35 per cent were happy to go by car, and only seven per cent were environmental-friendly enough to take the train, the response sums up, which must mean that there are three per cent of the travellers who either walk from Brussels to Strasbourg or get lost on the way.

Maybe the Commission has become so large these days that doesn’t notice if 95 people go AWOL. Don’t tell the staff. It might be detrimental to their morale.

Anyway.

The question is, though, whether Christopher Heaton-Harris MEP doesn’t walk away with some kind of prize this time, as he contributes with a fine nugget, asking how many tonnes of paper the Commission used during 2004-2006.

1,703 tonnes in Brussels and 254 tonnes in Luxemburg in 2006, Commissioner Siim Kallas patiently responds, adding figures for the two preceding years that show that the Commission is actually munching less and less A4 office paper; its appetite has dropped by some 250 tonnes during that period. The Commission recycled about twice as much, Siim Kallas adds, because the recycling figures includes paper and cardboard coming from outside the Commission, such as packaging material, publications, documents from other institutions (and, I suppose, protest letters from the general public and odd questions from MEPs.)

So now you know: The Brussels Paper Tiger is actually getting easier on the environment. But we do not know how thirsty it is, however, because the next question from MEP Heaton-Harris – “How many bottles of water were consumed by staff at the European Commission in 2006?” is met with the response “The figures… are being sent direct to the Honourable Member and to Parliament’s Secretariat [sic]”.

I wonder what the Honourable MEP intends to do with them.

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.

Brainstorming Storm

…as I was saying, before we were so rudely interrupted, yesterday offered some of the usual, amusing stonewalling amusement that only the European Union can muster. This time, the attempt was to rein in the monumentally mishandled “mini-summit” that the Commission’s chairman José Manuel Barroso called the day before.

On Wednesday, it was announced that Mr Barroso was to invite a few select heads of government to his native Portugal on 12-13 May, to look into the future and discuss a few issues of one kind or another. (You might suspect this to be a euphemism for “looking into a glass with an ice cube-cooled beverage by the poolside in sunny Portugal”, but that is of course unsubstantiated slander.)

However, a number of other heads of government were not invited, which immediately triggered questions such as “What criteria did you have when selecting the lucky charter passengers sorry, conference attendees”, or “Is this another step towards a ‘two-speed EU'”, with some members being, eh, more members than others, which the union has tried to avoid in recent years.

Amusingly enough, the outcry thus produced made Mr Barroso swiftly change his plans and strike a few people off the guest list. All of a sudden, only a few people with slightly more defined importance for forward-looking issues were now on the shortlist, such as the heads of government for the countries next in turn to take the rotating chairmanship. You could almost hear the groaning of the other ones grumpily unpacking their sunscreen tubes and swim shorts.

Of course, Mr Barroso’s spokesman, our favourite gatekeeper Johannes Laitenberger, was pressed about all this by journalists who wondered whether or not they should bother booking a flight ticket or so. (They always send him forward when they know something controversial’s coming up.) Mr Laitenberger tried his best to convince us all at the daily press briefing that this was not a “mini-summit”, merely “brainstorming”.

“What”, one reporter eventually asked, ” do you say to those heads of government, like for instance the Belgian Prime Minister, whose brains were not considered important enough to storm”?

“Mr Barroso holds ongoing talks with all kinds of people”, Mr Laitenberger responded, adding:

“I can assure you that all brains will be stormed”.

All brains? Yeaouwch. Remember this, next time you have a sudden headache: it might be the EU storming your brain. Watch out for little men in black. Look carefully under your bed before going to sleep,

Chrome, Smoke & BBQ

(That’s the best name for an album I’ve ever seen, given the image of the group, so I couldn’t resist using that as a headline for this entry. My apologies if you were looking for the CD and ended up here by mistake.)

Yesterday, I was told that Belgium was going to impose a tax on barbecues. 20 euros per event, the deal was, because BBQ adds so much to CO2 emissions and global warming. To make sure the whole thing was adhered to, the country would be monitored by helicopters with thermal sensors.

Helicopters! Which would of course leave a far heavier CO2 footprint than your cookout! (No, wait, choppers can’t leave footprints. That sounds like a decent title for a Christian album, though. Footsteps In The Sky. Like another completely brilliant Christian album title by Graham Kendrick may years ago, Footsteps On The Sea. But that’s beside the point.)

Anyway. Some brief investigations showed this to be an April Fool’s joke in the Belgian region of Wallonia, however, that for some reason wouldn’t go away.

“We have repeatedly denied this information, which is nothing but an April Fool’s Day joke. But we never imagined it would create such a fuss”, a spokesman for the local government of Wallonia told RIA Novosti.

That’s the second time in half a year that a Walloon prank has gone haywire. In December, the RTBF television channel created a War-of-the-Worlds-style hysteria when it broadcast a bogus report that the other main region, Flanders, had broken off and formed a country of its own.

In both cases, you can laugh at the dupes. But there is some reason why so many people readily believe such things to be true: somewhere, it is enough in line with mad political decisions to be credible enough.

That is perhaps the reason for the host of myths that surround the European Union. I will spend a few blog entries over the next week or so dealing with some of the most outrageous ones; be sure to check back here regularly for some happy slapping of your favourite EU conspiracy theories.

Waiting For Clouseau

I was going to tell you some funny episodes from today’s events at various EU institutions, but that will have to wait until tomorrow, because for most of this afternoon and evening I have been busy with all the miserable aftermath that came with the discovery that someone had broken into my car when I was away downtown, stealing the CD player I had as a gift for my graduation, with a CD in it that I had for my latest birthday.

(If someone offers you to buy a JVC KD-G332EX with the serial number JV20332UE07124, it’s MINE.)

This little surprise awaited me where my car was parked, right behind a police station on the far edge of Anderlecht, as well as the owners of a number of other vehicles in the same parking lot, which were subject to the same fate.

So, obviously, you go to that police station to report the crime. And what do they do? They call the police.

Seriously. I’m not kidding. I and the children, whom I had just fetched at school, sat and waited for about half an hour at a police station, waiting for a police patrol from another police station to turn up so I could report a simple crime.

This oddity was explained when that patrol eventually made I there. It turned out that the police station where I was waiting belonged to the highway police, apparently only authorised to go after cars and not human criminals.

“You would have thought”, I murmured between clenched teeth to the policeman who did not only speak French, “that your car would be safe when you park it behind the police station”.

“Oh no”, responded the policeman, “they’re only the highway police, they don’t even look there”.

Now, you must remember that Belgium used to have a few different fragmented police forces until a few years ago, merged only after the inefficiency of that system proved itself in its epical failure of capturing the Devil of Charleroi, aka paedophile/psychopath Marc Dutroux. But, apparently, the new, purportedly unified police force has yet to merge with itself.

“I thought all this was reformed”, I said in a voice intended to be frosty enough to make snowflakes fall in spite of the +33 C we are currently experiencing here.

I didn’t get an answer.

The CD in the player was the latest by the Belgian band Clouseau, world famous all over Flanders but sadly unknown in the rest of the world, a duo which I hope to write something nice about at another occasion because they’re really good. They take their name from the dim-witted inspector in the Pink Panther movies, and I hope to be forgiven for recalling that character in the light of these current events.

Anyway. OK, I thought. At least I’ve got insurance.

Or so I thought.

My insurance broker kindly informed me that the insurance I have paid hundreds of euros for every year basically doesn’t cover anything, save for liability and legal aid in case of an accident. Moreover, when I asked him in the somewhat animated fashion that was the inevitable result of such a revelation why on Earth he couldn’t have mentioned that or offered me something else when I signed up, it turned out that you cannot insure a car against theft, glass damage and fire in Belgium, if the car is more than five years old. So, if they had done away with the whole car, I would have simply been stranded. Lucky me.

“Excuse me”, said I, “but that’s just not good enough. Can’t you hear how stupid this sounds?”

“That’s how it is in Belgium”, said the broker.

So, now we know. If you’re poor enough not to be able to afford a brand new car, you have to anticipate whatever money you do manage to earn to become cannon fodder for the rampages of any airhead for a lowlife who cannot be bothered to get a proper job.

Upon drawing these conclusions, I asked my friend JD whether I should use a hacksaw or a screwdriver to lobotomise myself.

“That depends on whether or not your head is older than five years”, he responded laconically.

I Saw An Eyesore: Welcome To The Luxembunker

Having recovered from my Luxemburg odyssey, I must deliver on my promise to tell you the story on what the EU ministers are doing there three times a year.

It’s actually pretty simple. Luxemburg tried to grab the position as seat for the then EC institutions in the beginning of the Union’s history, but the squabbling among the member states meant they couldn’t agree on a formal decision. Meanwhile, Brussels happily offered the institutions to locate there instead, and so Luxemburg found itself snubbed. Having the various minister groups’ monthly meetings there in April, June and October, is the consolation prize for the country.

For this purpose, they are refurbishing a huge white monster for a congress centre, which, in good EU tradition, is taking its time to become finished – the latest forecast for its opening is for 2012. Meanwhile, the minsters are convening in what can only be described as a tin can.

This picture (right) shows what this place, the Kiem Conference Centre, looks like from where the delegates enter. The two shiny metal tubes sticking out on either side are not some inventive central vaccuuming system, but corridors leading to different parts of the premises. And no, the black building to the left is not still under construction; that’s actually what it looks like. Either designed to have the heat insulation on the outside, or just heavily soundproof for reasons I can only imagine.

Here’s another view of this complex, which apparently has won some sort of architecture prize or another; a factoid that only reinforces my already firm conviction that in order to become an architect, you absolutely, positively need to be stark raving mad.

My friend and colleague Patrik, well known to readers of this blog by now, refers to the Luxembunker along the lines of ‘a closed institution for the confinement of politicians’.

That is certainly an impression that is greatly amplified by one observation I made at the rear security perimeter. As you can see on this next picture (right), the steel fence is topped by a few rows of barbed wire.

And, as you can see, these barbed wire rows actually tilt inwards, which can only mean one thing: They are not there to keep people from getting in… but to keep people from getting out.

Quite frankly, I was at first convinced that this place was a prison, or possibly a closed institution of some kind.

Some of you will now immediately make a connection between the latter and the EU, which, of course, is little else than malign slander.

But what are you suposed to believe, when this sight is what meets you? This next picture (below) shows the side facing the entrance to the press centre. (No, you don’t have to climb the ladder in the middle of the picture to get there; all you need is to get through a gap in the perimeter littered with barbed wire and manned by a security guard.)

In the press centre , you have the obligatory wall-to-wall carpets, but little else. The rooms are made up of cubicle modules. Unpainted wooden columns support the steel roof. In the briefing rooms, where ministers meet the press, the wall-to-wall carpets continue up the walls. You could probably keep walking and suddenly find yourself hitting the ceiling by mistake.

Those walls are so grey that some Eurocrats probably blend in easily; maybe it’s intentional, to provide camouflage in case the media gets too intrusive. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there are Eurocrats in grey suits still left behind in there by mistake. (“Has anybody seen Leonard??” “-I’m right here!” “-Where?Step away from the wall so we can see you!”)

I feel sorry for Patrik, who is a TV reporter, and who has to try to make them stand out against that backdrop enough to be visible on-screen.

But, in contrast to the press centres in Brussels, you have to pay for the privilege of working in this warehouse: the deposit for the right to surf the Internet, sit at a long table, and use a telephone which you can’t call outside Luxemburg with (now there’s a definition of local calls if I ever saw one), is 15 euros. OK, you get it back when you leave, but that requires you to check out, which I have already talked about.

The food on sale is as overpriced as any given BMW, the most overrated car on the face of the Earth. Luckily, there’s a large shopping mall just across the road.

But it’s such a shame that such a beautiful, clean and picturesque city as Luxemburg should be littered by such an eyesore.

Let’s just hope it gets recycled into the can crusher by mistake next time the rubbish truck swings by.

Ulysses The Deskjockey

Perhaps it’s just as good that a couch potato like me, whose main movements at work are across wall-to-wall carpets within the EU’s comfortably padded cells for press centres, gets his shoes dirty with some foray into the real world every now and then.

As I said, the trains were on strike and I had told Belgian TV that I’d go home. However, I then decided to make an attempt to get to Luxemburg after all.

By one of these neat little coincidences in life that you might thank God for, I had bumped into my friend Philip at the strike-ridden Gare du Midi station. He had been given a plane ticket so he could go see his girlfriend in California, but couldn’t get to the airport. I had told him to try to get to the North station instead, where it might be easier to get an airport train or bus.

So, having weighed my options, I decided to try that myself; maybe I could get somewhere from there instead.

Arriving at Gare du Nord, I was met with the same sight as at Gare du Midi: one single information booth, a mile-long queue of stranded travellers, and signs saying sorry, no international trains because of the strike. (There were a number of domestic trains there, though, so I do hope Philip made it to his flight. “Fly away, Phil… be free”, if you’ve seen “Cars”.)

Anyway. I had talked with my colleague Patrik about perhaps riding with him, but eventually decided not to because he was planning to stay overnight in Luxemburg and I wasn’t. But now, I had, ehrm, thoroughly changed my mind. I called  him on my cell phone.

“I was waiting for you to call”, were the first words I heard.

I was more than welcome to hitch a ride. If I could just make it to their office.

It only so happened that the easiest way to get there turned out to be on a brand new tram line, making its first trips today – I must have been on the third or fourth departure of Line 25 ever. It was so new that it didn’t even seem to have learned to find its way, or so it seemed, as we were soon stuck in the perpetual vehicle gridlock that is known as Brussels traffic. Good thing that I had, for once, started early.

Arriving at the stop as instructed, I started my search for the offices of the Swedish Television. I thought I had a clue. I didn’t.

Patrik called, telling me not to hurry because he was late, too, as his bus had got stuck in the traffic. Surprise, surprise (Not).

I got some directions. Now, you must understand that the address spelled out to me was in French, and that I nearly failed French in high school. And it was spoken into one mobile phone and received by me on another mobile phone. To the backdrop of the morning traffic.

Another explanation for what was about to happen is that I am officially completely liberated from any sense of direction whatsoever.

So, having checked the two-by-four-metre billboard map in front of me, I set off. House number 95. Hm, the numbers start at 12 or something. OK, I’ll walk. And walk. And walk. Scorching sun. Sweaty shirt. Shoe size steadily increasing.

Some 10-20 minutes later – at last, number 95. Wait a minute. No sign of Swedish Television here.

I’m not calling again. After all, I’m a man, and there’s this thing about asking for directions. Wait, I have an idea. I’ll call directory inquiries and ask. Oh no, I’ve used up the phone card, another little walk to the cash dispenser.

Since Belgium is divided sideways, longways, thisways, thatways and some ways you wouldn’t imagine, there are three different numbers to call for directory inquiries, depending on whether you speak French, Flemish, or English. I called the one number I could think of, and a voice answered in German.

I hadn’t finished asking when the voice interrupted me. “No no, you must dial 1405 for inquiries in English”, she said. In perfect English.

I dialled 1405, but an automatic voice in my phone told me “You are not allowed to dial this number”. I’m not joking. I tried it twice.

OK, maybe it was that other street I should have walked. Another little promenade in the heat and sun, arriving almost full circle back to where I begun. At 95, there was still no sight of any TV newsroom, only the Embassy of Equatorial Guinea. I pondered for a moment whether I should ring the bell and ask for political asylum. Luckily, Patrik called again before I fell for the temptation.

“Where are you?”

I tried to explain to him that I had been at the advised address, but that there was no sight of his company. Oh yes, they were supposed to be there alright. Oh no, I have been right outside and gone somewhere else! OK, I’ll start all over again.

Just check the billboard map once again.

Oh no.

I had turned my perception of the whole thing upside down. I had walked in exactly the opposite direction.

The TV office was at number 95, alright, with at least two or three coloured signs brightly announcing its presence there. I thus understood that Patrik must have thought that I had completely gone either insane or blind, when I’d made some unwisecrack on the phone about “microscopic letters”.

We did eventually get to Luxemburg. I’m not sure how, because I fell asleep in the car.

Fast-forward to the same day’s evening. There was supposed to be a decision by the EU ministers on how to save the world’s eels, and we journalists waited, and waited, and waited. I called home. My wife was alone with two tired kids. The train strike was over, but when I checked the timetable, I realised I needed to get on the 20:24 train or get stuck in Arlon until early next day. I told her. She was not happy. To say the least.

Finally, two disillusioned Germans materialised to inform us that there wouldn’t be a decision after all. Case closed. Finito. Too bad.

That was about 19:55.

Right! Grab a bus and scoot down the hill from the European quarters to Luxemburg’s train station, conveniently located at the exact opposite side of town. Oh wait a minute, for some reason you have to actually check out of the conference centre where the meeting was held. And of course, it was all taken care of by a new apprentice, who had his supervisor talking him through the whole thing, step by step.

Come ON, before one of us dies.

Dash out to the bus stop. Next bus is 20:05. No, don’t start walking, Jonathan, you don’t know where to go. The bus should arrive at the station… well, some time around a minute after the train was to leave.

The bus was late.

Easy now. At least it’s a nice sightseeing.

SMS on the cell phone, about two minutes before arrival. “Negotiations about the eels have started”. Wait! Didn’t they just say that it had all broken down? Do I have to take the next bus back again?

By then, I decided I had had enough of eels for a decade or twenty-two. Two nanoseconds before arrival, I managed to send a message asking what was going on. The bus arrived at the station at 20:24. I scampered across the street to the serenade of angry car horns. I zoomed through the station. Yess! The train is late! Wait! There’s another one too! I made it!

I must have looked like a convict on the run from an asylum, as I – sweaty, adrenaline spurting out of my ears, hair in all directions, panting – roared to the conductor “C’est pour Bruxelles??”, pointing at the train bearing big large signs saying “Bruxelles-Midi” all over.

“Normalement, oui”, he responded, sanguinely.

Another SMS: Sorry, you’re right, the eel thing had collapsed.

The train arrived in Brussels some time before midnight. I pondered on how on Earth to get from central Brussels to my home here in the village outside town, now that the last bus had gone, and eventually decided to take a chance there’d be a metro taking me to the station from which it’s only a 45 minute walk to my home.

It did take 45 minutes alright, during which I wrote this whole story in my head. I arrived home an hour into the 17th of April, my 38th birthday.

Happy birthday to me.

I will never eat an eel in my life.

Warning, Warning

I shall end this working week, Friday the 13th and all, by warning you of the world’s biggest killer: Dihydrogen Monoxide. A chemical compound which takes thousands of lives each year, yet is used in industries and homes alike.

To quote from a petition circulated a few years ago:

“Dihydrogen monoxide… is the main component of acid rain… may cause severe burns, contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape”, yet it is used “as an industrial solvent and coolant… as a fire-retardant… as an additive in certain ‘junk-foods’ and other products”.

Scary? Read on.

Covering the food industry and related issues, I am daily inundated by various reports about health effects, or, more commonly, dangers caused by this-or-that substance. In some cases, fears may be well-founded, but the alerts are more often than not offset by counter-reports weeks, months or years later. Sometimes item x is good for you; next week another report claims it makes you ill. That is why I rarely, if ever, write on such reports, unless there is massive reason to do so. More often is it relevant to write about the effects on sales and public worries that such reports have caused.

Moreover… it is only too easy to fall for sloppy research, if you’re simply a journalist with no scientific knowledge. There is every reason to be cautious.

That’s one reason why the EU, and national authorities, try to examine all evidence for or against various food items before banning or recommending them. One such question currently underway is whether cloned food should be allowed for human consumption within the EU.

That’s an issue that worries a lot of people – but on the other hand, it’s technically all about copying an organism already proven safe. So, is it dangerous… or is it just our emotions that cause our gut reactions to avoid it?

So, still worried about the dangerous chemical Dihydrogen Monoxide, and prepared to sign up to call for its ban? Then read more here. This is a site I check regularly, and would like to recommend you to do, too.

I especially like the last paragraph about how a California muncipality almost passed a law banning the substance.

The Berlaymonster

I promised I’d write something fun for Easter about this little cottage in the middle of the EU quarters. So, here we go.

If anyone wonders why on earth Brussels ended up being the seat of the EU and the “capital of Europe”, you’re in good company. The fact is that the EU doesn’t quite know either. The formal decision was taken as late as in 1992.

Since the very beginning in 1957, there hade been the usual squabbling about who should be given the honours to host the institutions. France, Germany, Luxembourg, or somewhere else? The inability to take a decision meant that the institutions were housed wherever they could find lodging. That is one of the reasons why the EU Parliament ended up having its sessions in Strasbourg, France: they got to borrow the premises of the Council of Europe, an organisation that has nothing to do with the EU and should not be confused with the European Council.

Confused? It gets worse.

Belgium decided to lobby hard to get the institutions there, and eventually in 1968 built the EU this neat little colossus in shining grey concrete, called the Berlaymont. The EU (which was then known as the EEC) was thankful and put its Commission in it. Without buying it.

However, on one fine day in 1991, someone discovered that the building was full and flowing over with asbestos, a neat little fibre good for both preventing fires and causing lung cancer. The very next day, the Commission consequently moved out to another building nearby. Meanwhile, the entire Berlaymont was to be gutted.

That’s about the time when I first saw it in real life. EU reporting in those days continued to include images of reporters in front of this building. So I came there on rainy day in 1995 to have a look for myself… only to find the entire thing empty with the exception of the odd construction worker.

The fact that there were only a few workers in sight should have set off some alarm bells. Unfortunately, neither I nor those footing the bill got the message until someone suddenly checked their calendar and realised that quite a number of years had gone by.

In fact, it was only in 1996 that they came up with the final plans on how to do the work. Thus, it took five years only to produce the blueprints. Must have been some mighty drawings.

By then, the consortium in charge of the work had assumed the optimistic name “Berlaymont 2000”, but don’t you think that nine years were enough to complete it.

Someone else counted the costs and that wasn’t very fun reading either. By then, the EU had finally agreed to pay for the renovation by buying the building at last, which cost the Commission exactly 552,879,207 euros. The land the building stands on was purchased for an additional 1 euro; I am not sure whether or not that is included in the above figure. (But I assume that there were fierce negotiations over those last seven euros.) To be paid over 27 years.

How did they end up in that mess? Well, for a start, they couldn’t just knock what was now being known as the “Berlaymonster” and start all over again, because the entire area is a Swiss cheese perforated with road and rail tunnels. (Having demolition cause the horrible excuse for a train station next to the EU quarters cave in and implode would have been a tremendous gain for mankind, though, but that’s beside the point.)

But there was also talk about fraud and mismanagement on part of the contractor, who turned out to have been bankrupt from the very start – and, according to some reports, financially connected with the building where the Commission was being held hostage. (Now there’s an incentive for procrastination.)

It wasn’t until 2004 that the Commission could finally move back in. By then, the EU had worked its way through four Commissions, including the one that had moved out.

What the about 3,000 people working there found was quite a hi-tech spacecraft, though. Blinds have been fitted all over the facade that swivel automatically depending on the sunshine, the climate control is beyond description, and they’ve even managed to put a bit of paint on it here and there.

One of the stranger features, though, is this boat-like add-on on top of the wing closest to the Schuman roundabout. This is where the Commissioners meet every Wednesday morning. I sometimes wonder if its shape is intended to enable it to double as a lifeboat in case global warming and melting polar caps finally drench the low countries up to the 14th floor where it sits. Maybe that was what got them to start talking about climate change after all.

In the four floors underground, we, the lower standing life forms known as journalists scamper around in search for news in the undergrowth. Speaking about symbolism, you might say, although we are pampered with some of the best press services imaginable.

The only problem is that the Commission employs another 18,000 people, who cannot be fitted into this billion-euro thingy. That’s why they occupy another 60 buildings around town… and counting, as the EU grows.

Worse still, this is not the largest EU building in town. The Council has a castle across the street that’s about twice the size, the Parliament (which, remember, holds most of its sessions in France and has its secretariat in Luxembourg) has recently built an ever-swelling behemoth close by, the size of which I have still yet to comprehend, and only the other month was there yet another office block opened in the same area. Etc, etc, etc.

So… there’s probably reason to say “to be continued”.

Time for Easter now… have a happy one and let’s hear again next week.

Fish’N’Ships

“What’s that on that picture, Great-Grandpa?”atlantic_cod.jpg

“Ah, that’s fish, a kind of animals without arms or legs that used to swim around in the oceans when I was young, children. We used to eat them.”

“Like jellyfish?”

“Eh… not quite.”

“Tofu?”

This is the kind of conversation I do not wish to have with my great-grandchildren. Neither do the European Commissioners, who in about an hour from when this was written (on my laptop travelling on the Brussels Metro by the way) will present their latest attempt to save the world’s free-living fish.

They have tried over and over again to persuade fishermen in the Union what the former Commissioner Franz Fischler used to say: In order for there to be fisheries, there must be fish. But for some unimaginable reason, fishermen and –women have been completely incapable to comprehend this simple equation.

Time and time again, the increasingly frustrated European Commission has tried to slash the amount of fish that can be dragged out of the waters, and every time, protests have made the politicians in the Council to coward away. And then the EU gets the blame for not acting enough.

Protests about what? “Ooooohh, we’ll have to scrap our boats, oooooohhh, our livelihood is threatened, oooooohhhh, our heritage is in jeopardy, oooooohhhhh, our picturesque fishing villages will die”, moan the fishers.

Of course all this will happen – if they don’t cut back their fishing quotas. Which they utterly refuse to accept, because all that is in the long term. Instead, they push the ministers they have elected to take stupid decisions that will satisfy them in the short term.

Basically as clever as trying to get warm on a cold day by peeing in your pants.

As if that were not enough, the amount of fish that can legally be caught – which, remember, is already way too much to ensure that stocks will recover – is only one competitor for the quickly depleting stocks. Another is huge illegal catches. And yet another is human stupidity.

It turns out that much fish is being thrown back into the sea – dead, that is – because fishers’ quotas have already been filled. Or if they’re simply of a kind that the vessel that catches them does not have a quota for. Now, these quotas were put there in the first place to stop too many fish from being killed, but when fishers have filled their quotas, they thus tackle (sic!) the problem by killing even more fish.

Cod, one of the most endangered species, has already become extremely rare, and I for one have only seen it at one restaurant recently. At our local supermarkets, it’s gone. Period. Worse still, fishes used to replace cod – like pollock and hoki – are also becoming equally rare.

Environment groups warn that there is a very real risk that our great-grandchildren will only know of jellyfish in the seas and tofu on their plates. Whether or not the European Commission can come up with something that can change this very alarming trend is something you will read about in Foodwire.

The EU As A Football Team

Among the more peculiar attempts to raise some sort of festive mood in the adent of the European Union’s 50th birthday was a recent football (soccer) game between Manchester United and a team named Europe XI at the Old Trafford. The announcement of this led to some amused questions by journalists, and EU Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen found it necessary at at least two different press conferences to repeatedly underline that the Commissioners themselves would not take part in that team. To the general dismay for those of us who might have wanted to see Mr Barroso et consortes get a good tackle or so.

Anyway. This spurred my imagination into thinking how the EU institutions would perform as a football team.

First, there is no manager. There is a collective of 27 people all trying to influence coaching, but they can only give general directions, mostly in the neighbourhood of “Strategy: Put ball into goal“. They take turn organising the training, which means that strategy changes every six months.

Second, there is a captain, but he can only propose what to do. The decisions are taken by yet another body of 27 managers, the composition of which changes depending on whether we are talking which way e.g. the goalkeeper or the forwards should go.

Third, the supporter club insists on having opinions about everything and anything, but does not have the power to really change much. And a number of members in the supporter club cheer for opposing teams or want their team to be dismantled altogether.

Fourth, because of the constant infighting within the team, it has set up its own court to settle disputes between them. This doesn’t stop some of them from grumbling that they’d be better off leaving the field altogether, maybe joining another team. However, there’s really no established way for such transfers.

Fifth, outside the dressing room are a number of other players wanting very badly to get on the team, and they are usually let in without much further ado. Except one, because it refuses to seek professional help for its sado-masochistic tendencies. This leaves the field increasingly crowded with players who keep running in all directions, sometimes charging towards their own goal.

Sixth, everybody keeps shouting their opinions in their own language. Since they cannot agree on using a comon one, the field is even more crowded by an army of translators, who have to follow their every step. Since things sometimes get lost in translation, the left forwards insist that everyone should use their language.

Seventh, the team spends considerable time arguing against the referee, in spite of the real risk of being sent off the field.

Eighth, it is plagued by hooligans, many of which believe there should be no game altogether, or even that the entire sport should be abolished.

In other words – sounds just like Arsenal.

(For those of you who wonder: The match ended 4-3 to Man U.)

EUuuuuwwww

Warning: If you are sensitive or easily grossed out, please do not read this item.

Sometimes trawling the Net for news can lead you into the strangest of side tracks. While scanning the headlines in today’s papers, I found myself reading about the guy who is currently swimming the length of the Amazon river (actually, I was reading this). And from there. I ended up reading about one of the more intricate perils that threaten his quest, which you can watch another account of here. (about 4 mins video)

As I was reading this pelvis-centered real-life horror story in increasing terror, there was a sudden BUZZZZZ in my pocket. I probably leapt up a few feet in mid-air, and only just managed to save my laptop – which was actually on my lap – from crashing to our stone floor, frightening my wife who wondered what on earth was going on.

It turned out to be an SMS. Since the ring signal on my cell phone is rather weak, I keep its silent alarm – a vibrator – on permanently. And so my phone was trying to tell me that I had a new message that said something or other about the development at the EU’s transport minister’s meeting.

Well, at least I can blame the EU for scaring the living daylights out of me.

But I think I should get another cell phone.

Currently Listening

My feet is my only carriage

So I gotta push on through

Everything’s gonna be all right

Everything’s gonna be all right

 

Everything’s gonna be all right

Everything’s gonna be all right

 

–Bob Marley, “No Woman, No Cry