Why Are We Here?

The Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter today puts its finger on a sore spot: Why have an EU Summit right now at all?

The whole idea of inserting a third summit each year was part of the Lisbon strategy, intended at boosting EU competivity, a (traditionally) unsigned editorial notes. However, it has turned out that the EU manages to boost its capacity for increased competition power perfectly well without the politicians telling people how to do it, thank you very much, and the spring summit is increasingly becoming a bit of a yawn generator. Even Sweden’s Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, concedes on his blog that “this meeting with the European Council will possibly not go down in history as one of the very biggest”.

However, Dagens Nyheter fumes (to the general amusement of my Swedish colleagues here at the EU Summit press room, who have spent the morning speculating who actually wrote the vitriolic editorial in question – the writer was more or less officially identified as Barbro Hedvall), the EU cannot back down from holding spring summits now, because that would be seen as a loss of prestige and – more importantly – a source of speculation about why the leaders wouldn’t want to meet each other, especially who didn’t want to meet who.

I’m not so sure I agree with the criticism. After all, it is never a bad idea that people – especially at high levels – get together and talk. Even if they currently may have little to talk about, there might come other times when having an institutionalised forum may be crucal, instead of wasting precious energy on procedure and formalities. After all, that is what the EU is all about – defusing possible points of conflict before they flare up.

And therein lies a PR problem, because it is always difficult to sell to the general public that we have avoided conflicts to the point where they never happened. “What conflicts?” we EU citizens ask, oblivious to the long and bloody history of our part of the world, where war between the people groups now represented at the negotiation table was the norm, not the exception.

I do realise that the bloodless summits require lots of travelling, security arrangements, and so on. But I’ll take that over war every time.

For Exit, Don’t Follow The Green Sign

Finding an emergency exit from the European Union no longer involves following any green signs – at least not in Sweden, where one of the two heads of the Green Party has stated that she no longer agrees with the party’s line to demand that Sweden leavs the Union.

Maria Wetterstrand broke the news today, claiming that the EU’s environmental work has been a deciding factor, as well as its shift from a ‘rich man’s club’ towards including a number of more or less impoverished nations in Eastern Europe. In spite of her flagrant break with the party’s official standpoint, she will continue to be the co-leader of the party (Miljöpartiet de Gröna), which prides itself of a dual leadership

While I am contemplating which is the bigger surprise – a complete U-turn by one of the fiercest EU critics in Sweden, or the fact that she will be able to continue to lead a party with which she disagrees on such a crucial issue – the Swedish EU Minister, liberal Cecilia Malmström, couldn’t resist the temptation to muse at the shift in standpoints in a recent press release.

“I welcome Maria Wetterstrand’s turn on the EU issue. The exit demand that Miljöpartiet advocates is not realistic and not something that is asked for among the citizens either and not among Miljöpartiet’s voters either”, she writes with an ill-concealed smirk.

‘Vultures’, I chuckle, as I raise my political binoculars to spot them circling over what may very well blow up into ferocious in-fighting within Miljöpartiet, one of the EU minister’s political opponent parties, which also happens to be one of the key parties that (according to poll after poll) will likely dethrone Ms. Malmström’s government in the next general election in 2010.

There’s nothin’ like a good political brawl.

I’ve Got A Flat

In British English, the above headline means “I have an apartment”. In American English, it means “I have a flat tire”. Well, you’re right on both.

I don’t know what it is. But are car tyres generally of worse quality today, or have we completely gone mad when it comes to chucking debris all around us? For the first 15 years or so of holding a driver’s license, I only had a flat tyre three times. Two were on ancient tyres that surprised me by holding out for as long as they did. And oh yes, there was one other that never blew, but where the cord had split and would have blown up on me any moment. But apart from that, nothing.

Since moving to Belgium in 2004, I have now had four flat tyres. But my boss, who lives in the West of Sweden, seems to have had the same experiences lately, with tyres going like balloons on a kiddies’ birthday party.

In at least two of my cases, nails have been involved. (And no, they did NOT come from my garage floor.) On one of the latest, we discovered at least three or four nails when the tyre was removed from the rim. So what’s going on here?

Either we have a fierce and foul competitor, who is conspiring against us at Foodwire and blowing our tyres at night. Or the tyre industry has decided that we all change tyres too seldom, and have collectively impaired their quality accordingly. (Any anti-cartel authority out there reading this?)

Or we have just all become careless when it comes to littering.

Oh bother.

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.

Second Attempt

Time to brush the cobwebs off and get seriously started for the spring semester: this evening, I will attend a prolonged briefing on all things expected to happen in the EU during the forthcoming six months, a briefing estimated to go on for about three hours.

This excellent service is offered twice a year by the Swedish EU representation. In keeping with the Scandinavian tradition of openness and transparency, all their top experts in all policy fields line up to give an informal presentation to all Brussels correspondents for Swedish news media about what can be expected. Yielding notebooks full of almost legible notes, and at least a chance to be prepared for what will be coming up and who to talk to then. And a few good bites to eat as well (I’ll be back on that issue).

This time I might actually get there; last time I tried was a week ago. I got all prepared and ready and was about to go to the event, when I – for once – was wise enough to take a quick look at the calendar… only to discover that I was one full week early.

It’s nice to be on time and the Scandinavian mentality usually has little time for tardiness, but arriving a week in advance would have been a little over the top.

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.

The Princess And I

Friday’s press conference with the Swedish Prime and Foreign Ministers offered a rare opportunity to chat for a moment with the Swedish Crown Princess Victoria as well.

(I say that with the sort of feigned disinterest that befits a journalist who wants to appear as if he is constantly rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty of this world. The awkward truth is that I spend a lot of time in the privacy of my working chambers at home, but don’t tell anyone, will you).

Princess Victoria has been a virtually constant intern at the various levels of Swedish government, preparing for her forthcoming role as Head of State, and had just spent a week serving at the Swedish permanent representation to the EU. There, she kept a low profile, but was still admitted to the Summit as a minister, and allowed to sit in on even the most sensitive of deliberations.

She was not part of the concluding press conference, merely there as an observer. Consequently, she snuck in along one wall after the press conference had started, together with assorted members of the Swedish delgation, and sat on one of the chairs lined up along the wall around the large conference table around which we journalists and the ministers were distributed. It only so happened that she sat right behind me.

There I was, slumped belly-up in those extremely comfortable chairs designed for hours and hours of intra-community haggling, and as the full truth of the event dawned on me, a few TV cameras were already pointing my direction to get a glimpse of the Princess behind me. With me in the forefront, due to the camera angles likely making me appear even larger than in real life, and with my ‘deployed vehicle airbag’ prominently positioned.

In other words: those TV pictures would have showed the future Queen of Sweden only partly visible, peeping forward behind by my big fat tummy.

I checked – it seemed that the TV people were wise enough not to use those images. I call that professional discretion.

The Economist worries about whatever she was doing there, oblivious to the fact that she as Queen will be chairing the Permanent Foreign Comittee of the Swedish Parliament, and thus has every reason to be well-informed from the start. I don’t, because after the press conference, a few of us of course took the chance to exchange a few words with her. She seemed genuinely interested and started questioning us about how we work at these events, in a way that was either professionally faked or professionally inquisitive. While not being much of a royalist, I must confess to havng had a very positive impression of how seriously she seems to take her role.

However, I do regret missing the obvious question that we journalists shared (but didn’t ask her then either) last time she was a Government intern visiting Brussels: “So, how does the Ambassador take his coffee?”

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.

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.

Swedish Paedophile Scandal: At Least Something Is Happening

There is some hope after all. The Swedish paedophile scandal that I wrote about yesterday may lead to some sort of investigation after all.

The Swedish Chancellor of Justice (JK), Göran Lambertz, will open an inquiry into why there was no there was no legal charges raised for abuse or minors when the scandal was first exposed 30 years ago, the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation’s radio news reports. This follows the allegations in the compensation claim from the legal representative of the two former child prostitutes, 14 at the time, that there was reason to prosecute the girls’ customers but that this was waived due to political concerns.

If I am right, this means that the JK will have to look closer into exactly which factual basis there is that former Prime ministers such as Olof Palme and Thorbjörn Fälldin were in fact among these customers. I sincerely hope that the JK will do so, and that there will be a thorough, total and impartial investigation.

The latter is more difficult than it seems, beause Sweden is a small country where anyone in top official positions quickly find themselves entangled by various bonds of loyalty to other top-ranking officials, simply because the circuits people move in at such levels are so small that a creation of a close-knit establishment is inevitable. Moreover, Olof Palme was all but canonized  in Sweden after his murder, and still holds an immaculate position where very few serious attempts have been made to unveil the semi-official and rumoured darker sides of his legacy.

But let us hope that the JK takes his mission seriously – and puts the well-being of the girls first.

Olof Palme Suspected Of Paedophilia

Today, I was supposed to write something fun about Christmas. But I cannot. Yesterday, the most hushed-down scandal in Swedish history resurfaced again, and it fills me with such grief. It is a story that is on par with the infamous Belgian paedophile scandal, with the only difference that the cover-up has succeeded in this case.

The scandal in essence is that there is reason to believe that two Swedish Prime ministers during the 1970s, the internationally known Olof Palme, and Thorbjörn Fälldin, were customers at a network of prostitutes which involved underage girls. In other words, should the allegations be true, these men were paedophiles.

And not only them. The investigation – hushed down as it is – involves a long list of top politicians and celebrities of the time. Some 70 names have been mentioned.

The girls, around 14 at the time, have now grown up, and yesterday, they held a press conference where two of them are demanding compensation fron the Swedish state.

But it doesn’t end there. As I have mentioned, there has never been a proper investigation of these matters. Olof Palme lied to the entire Swedish people when he denied that the then head of the Swedish police, Carl Persson, had written to him to inform him that his Minister of Justice, Lennart Geijer, was frequenting prostitutes and could therefore be subject to blackmail – especially since some of the prostitutes were from the Communist bloc. Mr Persson’s note was disclosed in the daily Dagens Nyheter in 1977, but Olof Palme could see from the way the article was written that the paper did not have access to the note itself. Olof Palme very aggressively denied that the note had ever existed and called the whole thing rumours and worse, but in 1991, the note was declassified and confirmed that Mr Geijer was in fact buying sex.

Why Olof Palme put his entire career at stake to lie so blatantly – about something he likely knew was true – remains an enigma; he was murdered in 1986 and took his secrets to his grave. But the fact is that the former prostitutes yesterday repeated that he would hve beneone of their customers. Did he lie in order to protect himself?

Worse still, his Minister of Justice – Mr Geijer – was trying at the time to decriminalise paedophilia (yes, it’s true). Thank God he was stopped, but that further adds to the sleaziness of it all.

Meanwhile, the girls – several of whom have identified top politicians as customers, independently of one another – descended into personal problems and drug abuse, frustrated about the massive cover-up form the establishment. They have never budged one inch from their story; they insist to this day that what they allege is true.

The whole thing has resurfaced from time to time in Sweden, but has just as regularly vanished from the headlines again and led to no repercusisons at all. Only one person has ever been tried and found guilty, Sigvard Hammar, a marginal figure who was a TV journalist as well as a paraplegic and thus less into the circles of power, who also openly admitted abusing underage girls. But he was sentenced for procuring, not for abusing minors.

There is much more to say about this disgusting, nauseating, stomach-turning, sinister, evil, deprave, vicious mess. How Dagens Nyheter’s source, criminologist Leif G W Persson who worked for Carl Persson at the time, found not only his desk but his entire room emptied the day after Dagens Nyheter broke the story. How the cover-up in 1977 was orchestrated by people involving the then Chief Constable of Stockholm, Hans Holmér, the same police officer who later made a complete mess of the murder investigation of Olof Palme – for whatever reason. How Thorbjörn Fälldin before the Swedish Parliament in 1977 stated that the entire list of suspects must have been false simply because his own name was on it – and how the Swedish nation chose to believe him.

And how an unknown number of young girls had their lives ruined by the men in power that were supposed to provide their ultimate security.

So, will there be a proper investigation this time? At present, it doesn’t seem likely. The story has already been moved to the back pages, and it seems that the whole thing will once again be ground down into the bureaucratic machinery.

…Speaking About Singing Ministers

Here’s a lovely gem showing the Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt attempting a session in the recording studio as well, circa 1987. (What is it with foreign mnisters and their singing careers?)

If you have problems with the link, use the URL http://youtube.com/watch?v=Nc0_CpiQCdU

It’s in Swedish, but still hilarious – especially when he stops after a few lines saying “There’s something wrong here!”

Darkness

I’d forgotten how dark it gets in Sweden this time of the year. The Swedish practice of placing lamps in every window suddenly makes sense, and offers some redemption, but agan, I was reminded of how hard it gets to you to live for such a long time as the winter season is with so little daylight.

However, illumination as an art form is developing steadily; the view of the lighting over the Stockholm Globe arena from the plane as we were approaching the airport was one of the major aesthetical experiences during the whole 36-hour journey, actually.  Indeed, there are still plenty of those cold, ghastly 1970s style plastic boxes with built-in flourescent lamps around, which pass for illuminated signs and which almost killed good old neon some 30 years ago, but hopefully they will eventually become extinct.

Stockholm is also increasingly being cleaned up. Each time you go there, you notice a little something that adds to the general improvement of the total environment. Places are being refurbished, stores are shaping up, and it is now full possible to get a very good meal on the go, compared to when I used to live there in the mid-90s when fast food basically only meant hamburgers or dead-dog style hotdogs. Trendiness has hit the foodservice sector full force, and you can now expect to get a Thai chicken in a paper box from one end of the Central station and round off with a pot of 57-variant coffee and a carrot cake (yum) the size of Virginia at the other, should you need a snack between trains.

(Speaking of food at the Central station in Stockholm by the way, I was overjoyed to notice that the horrible, run-down, neglected and insolent excuse for a restaurant that used to be on the first floor overlooking the main hall – it was commonly known as Hyllan – has finally kicked the sick bucket, fried its last old slipper, passed on, gone to see its accountant, expired, ceased to be, joined the culinary choir invisible as it rests (hopefully) in peace at the scrapheap of catering. It was an ex-restaurant already in the early 1980s, and has been no more for many years before its closure. I should really have celebrated in some way. E-mail me some champagne will you.)

However, the main darkness that hits you is of another kind. It is that of the many poor and – probably – mentally ill that you see digging around in trash cans and rubbish bins looking for something useful; easily identifiable by their ragged appearance. I won’t say that you never see that in Brussels, but maybe the contrast between them and the general cleanliness of Sweden makes them stand out more than they do here.

I’ve seen many seedy areas in Belgium. I could take you to locations which even a rat would shun. I have seen beggars and street kids in the so-called “capital of Europe”. But never do you see so many bin-diggers here as you do in Stockholm.

It’s so sad that a country that prides itself so much about its general welfare can’t be bothered to help these people.

My Child Scored! Give Me Another Drink

There was something about the football game table. You know, the kind where you have little wooden footballers on sticks. Not that it was old and shoddy, but that it had ashtrays. Yes, plural. Not one, but four built-in ashtrays; one in each corner.

This is hardly anything that would make most people raise their eyebrows the way I did. But, having lived for many years in Sweden, I’m still used to the mix of athletics and smoking or drinking being a complete taboo. And when I say complete, I mean complete, man.

The picture was compounded by the fact that the battered but smoker-friendly football game table was – and still is – wasting away in a corner of the private pub that my eldest son’s football club has just by the side of the football pitch. There, the parents can happily sit and comfortably booze away, while their five- and six-year-olds struggle along in the October cold, rain and dark outside.

Such a mix of sports, very young children, alcohol and smoking will usually make most Swedes faint, and would have been completely inthinkable there. In fact, even having brewers sponsoring a football team – which is the standard procedure here – would have Swedes rioting outside, and serving alcohol on private premises where little children learn football would probably result in calls to the local police. To draw a comparison for any of you American readers, this would have been the equivalent of having a private adult film shop next to the soccer pitch.

Same thing when we are invited to the yearly parental meeting at the school which both our six-year-old and our four-year-old attend. The parents are usually served a welcome drink – we get a choice of wine, champagne, or juice – and can have a happy sip or two before touring our kiddies’ rooms and listening to their teachers.

Belgians think nothing of it. Swedes would have launched a full investigation. On Governmental level.

In fact, I was supposed to attend an event at a Swedish school tomorrow (I won’t, for other reasons, but that’s another story) which is completely and utterly aimed at anyone old enough to be of university age. Not a minor in sight, I can assure you. But on the invitation, the school had still found it necessary to print – in large, bold, capital letters:

“SMOKING IS FORBIDDEN WITHIN THE SCHOOL AREA!”

And this wasn’t even in Sweden, but in London.

Every country has its taboos, and every taboo has its reasons. The Swedish taboo surrounding alcohol comes from the fact that it is the country where you have to empty any bottle you take the topo off. I mean, when I read about my felow Britons complaining about the noise around pubs late at night, I just sigh and think “you ain’t seen nothing yet, pals”. Living close to the centre of a large town in Sweden, as we did before coming here in 2004, meant Ragnarök every Friday and Saturday evening. Noise ad nauseam, vomiting in the bushes, people urinating anywhere and everywhere, and hardly a sober person in sight. In a country where booze is only sold in restaurants and special state-owned shops, that is. Here, where it’s all sold freely at the supermarket, and we have five pubs within five minutes’ walking distance from where we live (it used to be six until just recently), you virtually never see anyone visibly intoxicated.

If anything, the Belgians take a more pragmatic stance.

“It’s our biggest source of income”, a friend and parent of another kid in the same football team told me when I raised the issue of the soccer pub.

“The main team plays in such a low division that there’s only about 100 spectators at the matches, but afterwards, everyone gathers together for a drink”, he said with a chuckle.

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.

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.