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.