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?

Safety And Gare Du Nord

As I have previously mentioned, WordPress – the host for this blog – shows you a bit about what people have searched for when they found my blog. (They give no clues as to who has been visiting the blog, they just show the search words.)

Anyway. One of the latest searches that has driected an unknown reader here is “is brussel area around gare du nord safe”.

Well, I’m sorry if you didn’t find anything on this blog about that, so I’ll give you a straigh answer instead: No.

There is no such thing as “safe areas” in a city the size of Brussels, and the area around the North Station (Gare du Nord/Noordstation) is notoriously sleazy. In fact, the same goes for the Central Station (Gare Central/Centraalstation), where a teenager was murdered some time ago for his MP3 player, and the South Station (Gare du Midi/Zuidstation), a bunker which is the shoddiest, dirtiest, sleaziest, ugliest, creepiest excuse for a station I have encountered. (I usually change from metro to bus there on my way home from the EU quarters; yesterday, I spent over half an hour there waitingfor a bus, so believe me.)

The Gare du Nord area used to be where the prostitutes went in search for their clients, and the usual criminality that comes with such garbage accompanied it. In recent years, the area has been cleaned up considerably, but I’d still be cautious going there, especially after dark.

This isn’t a problem confined only to Brussels; in any major city, keep your wallet in your front pocket together with your passport, and if you’re really smart, carry an extra wallet with some petty cash and a few fake credit cards that you can hand over if the worst comes to the worst. Avoid carrying large sums of money. Be cautious responding to strangers in public places. Etc etc, just plain common sense really.

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.