Belgian Crisis: Bet On The Split

While the Belgian government is today wriggling over the constituency issue of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) which once again might throw the country into a government-less limbo and renewd chaos, you can play an online dead pool game to predict when Belgium will cease to exist. The prize: your weight in Belgian French Fries.

“The symptoms are pointing towards a terminal disease”, unknown pranksters write as they invite you to bet on when Belgium will die. You can place your bet by clicking here: http://www.wanneergaatbelgiedood.be/

The organisers promise to give the winning prediction his/her weight in frites, the Belgian invention that has travelled the world under the name of French fries; yet another example of how this country has failed to gain a profile of its own. (The world apart from the UK, that is, where Belgian French fries are called ‘chips’ and chips are called ‘crisps’, because we love to confuse things, but let’s not get technical now).

Predictions range (as of yet) from today’s date, May 8, to July 1, 2013. “Flanders first!! then the frites…!” writes Mathias, who put that date down, while “Better late than never” is the verdict from Eric de Bel, who anticipates the split at September 17 this year.

I refrain from casting a vote, being an impartial journalist.

Meanwhile, the Belgian government is amking another attempt at forcing a vote in Parliament over the BHV issue. The government is at a 50-50 per cent chance/risk of having to resign shold things not go their way, which would mean that the executive body that was so painfully forged dduring nine months of anguish will have stayed in power for only two months. Since that govermnent almost never happened, and was the end of the road or a lengthy consitutional crisis, the resulting problems may prove too difficult to overcome, and early predictions on the demise of the Belgian state may therefore prove correct after all.

Stranger things have happened.

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Supersize Tuesday

As most of you are aware of, today is the (in)famous Super Tuesday in the US, when a large number of states hold their primaries and when it could be de facto decided whch two candidates will stand against each other at the November election.

However, it also happens to be this year’s Mardi Gras, or Fettisdagen, or Shrove Tuesday, when you are either supposed to put on enough fat (hence the “Fat Tuesday” of the two former) or seek abolition for your sins (hence “Shrove Tuesday” for the latter) before Lent begins tomorrow, starting with Ash Wednesday when I suppose you are supposed to don sackcloth and ashes in fasting and repentance.

Remembering my previous blog post, there is probably quite a bit of repentance necessary for most of us Westerners; seeking absolution for our oppression of the Third World would be a very appropriate thing to do. But today is the Fat Tuesday, when we will be indulging in semlor.

Our British heritage should really prompt us to fatten ourselves with pancakes today, but we do that so often otherwise that there’s no point in that. (And I just read that it is now considered too dangerous to arrange pancake races anyway, in these days of the nanny state. Maybe by next year pancakes will have been outlawed too?)

But semlor is a peculiar offshoot of he Swedish cuisine which is gulped down in hedonistic quantities in that country, and revered by expatriates in foreign lands as well. It is simply a wheat bun, filled with marzipan, the top cut off to form a lid under which generous amounts of whipped cream are squirted, and dusted with powdered sugar. It was traditionally served immersed in hot milk as well, but that seems to have waned over the years.

You can buy them everywhere in Sweden this time of the year, but in our case, we have to bake our own. Which brings us to the interesting hunt for marzipan in Brussels in February.

Last year, I didn’t think much of that as any problem. I remembered having seen huge stacks of marzipan blocks at our local Ikea, and just assumed that it would be available all year rund. We invited some Swedish friends, most of them in their first year here and in need of some consolation to get through this day of tradition, and I set out to get the ingredients at the last minute as always.

However, by the time I got around to it, the marzipan was all gone, being a seasonal thing for Christmas only. It was then I re-discovered how difficult it is to bake in Belgium.

I have come across that before. I’m used to baking my own birthday cakes and the like, but I have discovered that it is virtually impossible here in Belgium. Ingredients are notoriously hard to find, and cost a fortune of you do. Ready-made cakes, however, are reasonably priced, so we have got used to the plastic taste over the years and begun buying instead of baking. But of course, you can’t buy semlor.

It seemed that marzipan was not a commodity made available to the general public at all, once I started looking for it in the supermarkets. Which is very surprising because most of the gourmet chocolate houses, which Belgium is known for, display a wide variety or artisanal marzipan goodies as well. (Do the candy makers have secret contracts? Clandestine deliveries late at night?)

And at Christmas, there are no limits to marzipan-based sweets being sold, including a very popular one that is supposed to depict the baby Jesus made from pink marzipan.

I’ve always thought it to be seriously blasphemous to chew up a pink candy baby Jesus, and I was hoping not to have to resort to using a leftover stock of such items, but with the evening arriving and the guests drawing close or the other way, desperation was at a peak and rising.

Finally, I did find some other leftover Christmas candy and the problem was solved. This year, I have stocked up on marzipan from Ikea… and forgotten to invite any guests.

Oh bother.

The Cake Was Awful And The Champagne Was Gone

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

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

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

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

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

Or so I thought.

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

Blah.

To Reset Day, Press Which Button

It’s not even 10 am this Monday morning and it seems that everything has gone wrong already.

I’m not going to bore you with the details. Let’s just say that I would like to reiterate my request for a Reset button to be used on such mornings, to have them rebooted.

Where do you file such a request? Is the EU capable of introducing one?

Nooooo… It’s Not Fair!!

I need to do something DRASTIC about my life!

(FYI: I was born in 1969.)

Ghosts In The Machine

One of the more eerie things that happen whenever EU ministers meet is the Commisson spokespersons’ habit of suddenly materialising in the press room, seemingly out of nowhere. You’re sitting there by your computer, deeply immersed in one important world problem or another (such as whom to poke next on Facebook), and suddenly you glance up and there they are, surrounded by a group of journalists frantically taking notes.

You quickly get up and join the crowd and find yourself getting a number of bits and pieces of inside information from the meeting itself, which is held behind closed doors. The Commission spokespeople are present at the meetings, and can therefore give tell you exactly what is going on. Those spokespeople who have worked as journalists themselves before switching jobs are the best, since they’re used to verbatim note-taking. Their information is one of the reasons why it is always better to cover the councils on location, rather than trying to do it from home.

However, you can’t help but wonder exactly where they come from. They literally seem to crawl out of the woodwork (or concrete, rather), or materialise out of thin air. Do they have a Star Trek-emulating beamer, able to just zap them into any place? Or are they in fact astral bodies? Are they at all present at the meetings, as I have assumed so far, or are they just invisibly hovering around the delegates, reading their notes or perhaps even their minds? Are they spying over my shoulder as I write this? Or do they only manifest themselves when enough journalists collectively start longing for some news? Are we thus able to invoke them on other occasions too?

The latter would be of a particular advantage, because they’re never there otherwise when you really need them.

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?