Supermouse has in the past, caught international coach journeys, long distance between countries. A lot can be said about the romance of land based travel, from the first hippy trails blazing with adventure, to the freedom of the open road and its neverending horizons. Big skies. In this instance – an overnight trip between London and Brussels – it was more the moth-like space, as scudding Bladerunner lights and darkened streets flew past, while Roy Orbison/ Cyndi Lauper played softly, epically into the night.
However pattern recognition may not be Supermouse’s strongest point. You know the score: something bad happens, but you try the same thing again and again in a hope it won’t – can’t – possibly repeat itself, and suddenly become this marvellous experience it was always meant to be. The time was the early noughties, back when those giveaway scratchcards were popping up in newspapers and collecting in flurries on the street, promising exciting possibilities of raining bank notes over your bed, entire home computers, phones with inter-net, a caravan holiday with Pamela Anderson, a cruise in the South Pacific or a romantic weekend in Paris, provided you rung the Premium Rate number (not at work, no!). Guaranteed win. Of course the cheapest and only option was the Paris overnight coach, after you gave away all your details for healthy distribution among sordid agencies for the next decade.
It was of course an experience to be savoured, wedged at the back of the bus with sweating, just-as-delighted immigrants between the two cities, and all their masking taped, and leaking haulage. With no chance of sleep whatsoever due to immovable seats and the long process of cross channel change of transports, coupled with virulent border checks. Barking dogs, razor wire, Hugo Boss designed uniforms, that kind of thing.
But Paree was formidablor, and indeed the City of Lights, and all was worth it for the poor, indentured labourers more willing to put up with less leg room and sleepless nights in their twenties. A much later stint on the same choice of transport was a trip to Amsterdam, but coinciding with the Paris attacks of 2016 and 137 killings that very night, unfolding on the screens of a horror-stricken ferry and numerous international phone calls, and followed up by a journey through locked down, cordoned off cities across the Benelux where the attackers had come from and rumoured to have fled to.
So more of the same on this journey, entering what is newly one of the most dangerous regions in the world for travelers and now listed alongside Syria, Iraq and the Congo as the hot new destinations not to go to by international consulates and organisations. The UK’s foreign travel advice to the country officially states from the outset that: “Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Belgium.” I had to read it twice, having assumed they meant to start off with ‘Terrorists are not very likely… to attack you, your children or cat and that your stay there will be 99.9999999% unlikely to be marred by political violence, and that 11 million Belgians live there every single day untroubled with the threat”.
The advice continues with “Attacks could happen anywhere, including on public transport and transport hubs and in other places visited by foreigners. You should be vigilant in public places.” Oh swell, a fucking bath of spiders then.
Since 2014, four terrorist attacks have killed 36 and injured 345, with another two major plots foiled – though bear in mind, one of them took the vast majority of casualties, the 2016 bombings of the airport and metro on the same day. But what makes Belgium, and more specifically, the now notorious district of Molenbeek in Brussels, such a hotbed? Well the country sits in the Schengen area of open borders, in a knot of small countries one can drive across or through within 2 hours or less, without heed or check to enter France and Germany to boot. These porous borders have allowed extremists to come and go between attacks, and hide awaiting the next one.
The anonymity of Brussels is also a point to learn from, whose neglect of Molenbeek, a working class area of 100,000, has become the perfect profile for a terrorist breeding ground – a struggling district left entirely to its own fate and representative of a city’s social apartheid. Where those of immigrant backgrounds (40%) do not get to share the same opportunities afforded to those of the middle or upper classes, or just purely White, or just purely non-Muslim backgrounds, and who complain of facing racism every day. From hate crime to quality of housing, at work to the enforced lack of any. Despite the Islamic Molenbeek community at large being staunchly against the terrorism, sympathisers can be found more easily, who will help or hide the perpetrators.
Not just Belgium’s glaring lack of social cohesion or investment has come under scrutiny, but also it’s relative lack of security infrastructure – with only about 1,200 personnel employed by State Security or its military counterparts in 2015, despite being the diplomatic capital of the world with its numerous EU, EEC, NATO and European organisations. Another 2,500 international agencies and 2,000 international firms call it home, as the de-facto capital of Europe precisely for its porous, terror baiting positioning, and despite its size. This lack of policing, both socially and with real officers, has allowed this small city to have easy access to black market arms also.
But lets forget this unsavoury starter for the time being, Supermouse is not on some foray into social journalism or ghetto fabulous tour. Molenbeek, famed as it is, is not on the Grand Tourbus intinerary. Why Brussels? Well as a snap decision for a weekend in August, it’s the cheapest and only viable option for a foreign city break. Nearby Paris, Amsterdam and even Edinburgh demand hundreds from the wallet for the imposition of such short notice. The weekend will be all Tintin, waffles, beer, frites, mussels in Brussels, art nouveau, chocolate and pissing child statues. Lets just get through the A to B bit.
And what an Odyssey it turned out to be.
Part I. The Bus.
The trip there was as expected: arse numbingly uncomfortable, hellish and awkward. Supermouse, having safely procured a place at the back (what no end seat to lie down on like last time?) discovered every seat filled, and in the nearest proximity was bizarrely almost every fellow Black or Arab person on the bus for some reason. Was this the culturally apt welcome to the divisive Belgian society to come? Are minorities more likely to turn up late? Well, turns out people with the most luggage (read: immigrants moving/ visiting between cities and laden with presents) took more time to load the luggage in the tiny, avalanche-prone hold, than the Eurotourists walking straight on with small backpacks. Thus the now luxuriantly spaced bottom deck we glimpsed before getting up here was filled with the worldly travelers of leisure, while two groups of families/ friends and all their baggage had come relatively late, to be relegated to the back of the top deck. One was a group of older Congolese men, one of whom I was sat next to and made fleetingly awkward convo with. I don’t think he liked me drumming his hat either, to wake him to the wonders of the M2. Every now and then he looked forlornly past me, at his buddies having a glass-clinking jolly two seats up.
On the other side was a group of Bruxellois ghetto girls, one nibbling KFC (at least she wasn’t flagrant about the fragrance), as talkative and infernal as they come, with the fat one periodically waking the skinny ones throughout the journey to point something out, admonish them for dropping off or announce she just had a thought about something. If a zombie apocalypse did actually transpire during the course of our epic, as it almost did the last time, I’m sure she’d be one of the first to go. And her mates finding the rope.
They were only interrupted once, by a waif of an Italian girl, the last of the last, finding a seat among them, and who made the very worst of social faux pas from the outset – assuming someone of colour is with the other people/ group of the same colour. She offered to swap seats with the young woman next to her so they could all stay together, before the group told her, no, she’s not with us either. The waif sat behind me on the back seat that cannot adjust or lean back, so I was polite enough to keep my own seat relatively straight, on a steep incline so as not to headbutt her, or ever have to look up, dreamlike during the night, into her nostrils. My older companion however had no qualms about leaning his back as far as it would go, and stretching out langourously while the poor girl behind, the excommunicated Black non-friend, sat like a squashed fruit in quiet indignity for the following 10 hour trip, thinking about dead kittens.
And so it progressed a purgatory of Tryingtosleep with one’s eyes closed and twitching for hours to zapping lights, listening to the coughs, farts and endless conversations that formed a cocoon of bus wanker misery all around. I forgot my blow-up neck pillow thing. The man in front had headphones on watching some shite shoot em up, and bellowing loudly and stupidly to his girlfriend to compensate.
Then it was the joys of border control, the French side unbothered and holding a convo about snail recipes or something between the desks throughout the process, whilst the British side was more terse, its walls planted with the faces of the missing (heartbreaking pic of twin toddlers, from Tahiti), and lines of stern guards. Offset though by the ciggie-and-a-gulp fuelled boisterousness of the usual Brit ‘lads’, catcalling each other across the room and having a knees up in a queue, that you want to run away from, far into the night. But then you’d probably get electrocuted or tracked down by helicopter.
There’s a thing border control does with people of a certain background (think of the least English looking race) who claim to be British, and that’s to hold a seemingly good-natured chat while their fingers scatter alarmingly across the keyboard, checking and double checking deets, DNA and hologram lighting, and homing in on your best Home Counties accent as you chat about toast or whatever. I suppose at least it’s better than not letting you get on your flight in Moscow as they phone the consulate, bless.
But this was the first time in decades that hasn’t happened. The guy just waived me through after a simple ‘alright?’ greeting coming from me. I nearly hi-fived him.
Then it was back to The Bus of Broken Dreams. And The Ferry to Nowhere.
2. The Ferry To Nowhere.
Why is everyone running? Why is everyone looking like they’re on supermarket sweep? Are we sinking – is Townsend Thoresen about to go tits up? Worst – are we missing a fireworks spectacular over the White Cliffs? No, people are desperately scanning the joint for the very few sofas, finally pinpointed high in the drinking Lounge on deck 8, so they can sprawl luxuriantly, disgustingly horizontal. Giggling occasionally in their sleep, while everyone else wiles away the witching hours slumped like the fat paraplegics they really are in tiny chairs. Lounge class armchairs for the not-so-lucky elite, while everyone else is funneled into plastic chairs in the canteen, making dinnerless conversation with their ever-present family they know and love. Those who don’t get a seat, the groundlings, hover interminably between corridor, toilet, games arcade and shop, then back again over two hours, or hole up in the corner like a homeless person. The very last of the last, confronted with the sudden freedoms of despair, tend to lie in the middle of the floor, sometimes the bottom of the stairs. Preferably face up in an x shape.
Supermouse belonged to the middle class – the cafeteria set – but without parental faces to stare into, made do with snatching two seats from a pouncing family, and making a bed in which my legs sat while my body lay. A cross class Centaurian of the highest order. My anorak became a body bag, and the chair backs were turned from the corridor creating a hidey hole of space where I could freely pick my nose under the covers or stare at my phone time, but still I can’t get no sleep. Dodo doo dedodoodooo. It’s like trying to doze off on a fairground ride: the constant footfall and football chatter, the lurid lights every time I moved the wrong way, the lurching up and down and all around.
But soon enough it was over, and it was back to The Bus, and the last, listless miles to Brussels, where I woke after my first hour of sleeping in the crook of my shoulder, to rows of higgeldy piggledy houses and skyscrapers, each building unique, and walls of French signage. We were pulling into the northern quartier – once one of the prettiest parts of the capital but torn down to house the humongous Gare du Nord and later a new postwar Courbousien business district (of which they built, luckily, only 4 of the planned 20 tower-in-the-park monstrosities).
It was 6am in the morning, with an hour before the station’s Starbucks opened, and a good 4 hours to kill before the rest. Check in time at my hostel was at 3pm – a whopping full working day away. And supermouse is admittedly poor. And needs some sleep. I was thinking of getting off at Ghent, an hour earlier (and save me the daytripping train fare), then when realising we weren’t stopping began to look for inviting patches of grass verge in the business district.
The Gare du Nord, entering from bus level, is the empty waiting room of a de facto refugee village, many outcast from Calais’ napalmed Jungle Camp, and trying out a recently closed loophole of not needing a passport on the Brussels to Lille leg. Piles of people lined the sides sleeping surprisingly silently on flattened cardboard, a few insomniacs sat disconsolately staring off into space on a steel bench. I walked from one end of the complex to the other, feeling strangely at ease from my clothing – 90s retro all in black – made me look one and the same. It’s only a matter of time before someone launches a website called Homeless or Hipster? My torn jeans, baseball cap and puffa anorak was the perfect camouflage here, as was my lack of Whiteness in a place – unlike London – where race underhandedly corresponds with class. Supermouse could be one of the Hazara, from Afghanistan, common enough in the same social habitats of rich European train terminals: Vienna, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Paris, Rome.
If you’ve been homeless before (and if you haven’t please don’t be alarmed, it happens) you’ll get to know instinctively where could proffer up a safe place, even warm (in London my shining El Dorado came in the shape of a heated, street-level rooftop near the ICA, in Portsmouth it was a stairwell in the brand new quayside mall). The people here had conspicuously kept out of doorways, and access to any machinery or work station such as bank machines or security gates. I noticed a prime spot next to the ticket machines, but found it to be littered callously with broken glass, but finally bedded down outside a security gate that wouldn’t be used for the next few hours. Immediately some hoodies sidled up and began talking about the prone bodies to my left, which was unnerving, then proceeded to walk the room shouting in French and generally looking for response. Sociopaths – 1 in 25 of us – will find it irresistible to prey on those already fallen, which if you’re out of luck on the streets, will get to know well. I soon moved back further below which was more sparsely populated (worryingly so), but to another spot I’d checked out before, with a handwritten sign blaring its opening times in angry French. So I took my chances here, in the lobby, too near the front for warmth, and too distanced from safety with numbers, but infinitely more private. Three others shared the room, one of them snoring loudly and I realising his banishment from the main. A teenager, barely if at all 16, sat up and watched me occasionally from his spot just inside the doors, clocking me for what I was, a tourist.
I didn’t get no sleep, and bang on 8 the pharmacist came to open shop and I moved on, back up two floors to civilisation level. Here fellow travelers and backpackers arriving in from the street or more moneyed trains, slumped on benches, wary of or unbeknownst of those belowdecks, who were accessed by metro, then coach. Freshening up in the one public loo, queueing to wash faces and brush teeth (calm down! bottled water), my reward for the journey and teenage memories was splashing out on a mixed fruit tartelette at a cafe, run by one of those impressive Beneluxians speaking four tongues to a panoply of visitors (in this case on top of other ones – her French accented with African). In my book people clever enough to be fluent in 4 or 5 languages should be working in one of the EU HQs, not all night cafes.
Then it was the long wandering into town, through the tunnel, past the skyscrapers and a park. Now, one of the best pieces of advice when travelling is: get safely lost, if you see something that interests you, check it out, and if you see a park, go into it (even if you have to pay). So I back tracked and took heed, entering another world from what I’d experienced so far. There is no view without a skyscraper shouldering in, but hey, what a foreground. Semi-tropical planting interspersed with exotic notes of Mediterranean and northern European, regal French patterns and English natural styles, hidden coves, courtyards, water and statuary, all in a compact area straddling either side of a busy A road, conjoined by a bridge. These are the former botanic gardens once reserved for royalty (the new ‘national’ Botanical gardens outside the city still are, being open for only a few weeks a year to the great unwashed), complete with glass conservatory the size of a small palace and a legion of early morning joggers with those small yappy dogs you ache to kick.
All very nice, but I’m still a city boy at heart. Oh and I forgot to mention, it was raining. Slightly, but raining nonetheless. It would continue to do so for the next 24 hours. Come on, it’s Brussels.
3. The City of Questionable Monuments
Okay, first off Brussels had enough to deal with before becoming the menu du jour of global terrorism, and that was in shrugging off its reputation as a faceless, slightly insipid city of bureaucrats. Its inelegant streets, lack of visitor profile and star attractions ensured it was not on a first choice basis, shadowed by nearby heavyweights such as Paris and Amsterdam – even postcard perfect Bruges. The latter of which I visited in my student years, and while sipping beer by the banks of the leafy canal, lined with unlocked bikes, and beautiful youth from across the globe, concluded this was EuroParadiso. A later stage on that trip, changing trains in Brussels, was marked only by the aggressive touting of restaurateurs on the tourist strip of mussels and frites, and memorable sex shop windows.
But sometime in the mid noughties people began asserting that a place with a choice of 300 beers (added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in November), that invented chips, and has the best chocolate in the world couldn’t be all that boring. For a city of 1.2 million (metro 1.8 million) Brussels also usurps the adage that it has few monuments beyond a small statue of a peeing child, and the Grand Place (a stunning square with lots to see, but little to do). It has gargantuan buildings, not so obvious despite their size, by being squirreled away into various corners of the capital.
First off the Palais de Justice, the world’s biggest building on completion in 1883, and forming part of the unholy trifecta of a rumoured Masonic pyramid, mapped out by the Royal Palace at the other end of the Rue de la Regence, and of course the pointy tip of the City Hall in the Grand Place back in town. Its large size meant the forced relocation of many of the inhabitants of the Marolles district, after which ‘skieven architek’ or ‘crooked architect’ became a grave insult in the Bruxellois tongue; and drew the attention of those worshipping totalitarian size to compensate for more human, physical disappointments – Hitler had a soft spot for the place, sending off Speer in 1940 to study the thing. It is perhaps the dark past that this building has tried to be brushed under the carpet, but by God what a huge rug that would be. The biggest building built in the 19th century is perpetually under scaffolding as they clean its vastness in a neverending cycle, a riot of statuary and pillars, bigger than St Peter’s in Rome. Its 160m wide front is 150m deep, perforated by 8 courtyards, and topped by a gleaming dome climbing to 104m, weighing in at 24,000 tonnes. It houses an impressive 253 law courts, and must function like an elegantly subdued factory line of criminals and justice. I last visited some years back, when the vast hall was filled with gigantic Chinese paintings, seemingly life sized landscapes of mountains and water hanging in huge sheets draped off the far ceiling. Like nothing you’ve ever seen.
Next up, the art deco Basilica of the Sacred Heart, one of the Top 10 largest Catholic churches in the world. It’s 300ft dome is often mistaken for the Palais de Justice (how many massive domes can a small city have?) – which I found to my detriment by walking an eternal avenue south, then discovering much later I was walking west out of the city centre instead. Like the Palais, it’s largely ignored, being a 20th Century concrete building and therefore not really worthy of historical attention. And like the Palais it comes with its own sorry baggage of negative connotations, built upon the bloodied backs (and sliced off hands) of the Congolese slave colony that Leopold II (aka as Leopold the Builder in Belgium, rather than Leopold the Bloody Mass Murderer) operated.
So vast a hellhole was his personal fief over one of the worlds largest and most populous countries back in the day, the Belgian government – after much haranguing from human rights groups – was forced to take over it’s own king’s ransom, especially after the population halved (meaning a ‘loss’ of 10 million). A trade in butchered hands had become a local currency – body parts were evidence back in base of a kill of a villager, who had failed in supplying their rubber quota, so providing a bag of bloodied hands showed your officer you’d been doing God’s good work that day. Wiser villages caught on – instead of sending out all your people to desperately hunt and tap rubber from the forest on a likely futile quest, you sent them out to chop off the hands of the next village instead, then plead with the mercenaries to take that back as evidence.
This was a world where the psychopathic governor decorated his gardens with gallows and severed heads, and ultimately inspired Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Today a neon cross glows atop this bare, hilltop heart, offering sanctuary from the rain. Well, it can’t have been all that bad – refugees fleeing Belgian Congo for French Congo returned saying it was even worse there. Thankfully for these buildings, all court records were burned before the takeover, and we’ll never know how much inconvenient blood was spilled in making them, akin in symbolism to a very fancy concentration camp in all but record.
Yes there is another big dome – nine to be exact in the shape of the similar sized Atomium that stands testament to all things sciencey, and like all great landmarks with the verve and dare to get through the planning process (Eiffel Tower, London Eye)- intended as a temporary exhibit for the 1958 World Fair but stayed after due to its popularity. It’s nine stainless steel baubles represent the atomic structure of iron crystals, holding views over the city, a sadly non-revolving restaurant, and some spirited ideas of what on earth to fill the balls with. Exhibits concentrate on the 1958 World Fair and the companies that exhibited there, many now dead. If you’re particularly into the trials and tribulations of defunct Belgian Airline Sabena, this is your place. Sadly I had no inclination to revisit this monument to all-directions queueing, and it is a bit of a trek outside the centre. Also worthy of mention is the fact so temporary was its design that before its reinforcement in 2004 it could have blown down in an 80 kmph storm, and that it’s top three balls are unreachable, ever since they found out they were utterly unsupported (the topmost one is available as it rests in the centre).
Other worthy sites of Brussels are of course the Grand Place, the exquisitely detailed central square accessed only by alleyways and easy to lose, surrounded by ornate almshouses and er, banks, but forming a space where the city can parade and display, for example the carpets of flowers every second year. I missed it by one weekend, though two central nodes of the design were up and running, and made of vegetables. They had fancy tents set up to give out flowery head wreaths to any passing children, which was awfully nice though discriminating: I had no kids to participate with despite my repeated attempts at procuring them. The place is the most beautiful spot in the city, and is jawdroppingly ornate, comparable to a large extended room of garrulous carving. Unlike the rest of Brussels it more or less dates to the same period, and marries its styles, hence the many unavoidable tourist snaps. Each building comes with a crowd of art and sculpture, in ever playful, competitive forms and turrets.
The rest of the city famously employed specific architects for specific buildings – insofar that every street is made up of a hotchpotch of differing styles and gap-toothed roof heights. This makes for an extraordinarily bespoke and intricate streetscape, but is far from grandiose. The city is undeniably early 20th Century rather than the more ornate 19th Century dominance you’ll see in central London or Paris, and has a more toned down, Mannerist style of blank walls offset by intricate corners or the odd flourish. It’s more famous art nouveau is also a must-see, though it is unfortunately as rare here as in other cities despite its stronger popularity (the movement died out as it was inordinately expensive to outfit so many bespoke carvings and organic lines against the machine age), with many of its greatest examples torn down in the last century. London thus may be less intricate but is more impressive, in scale and more blanketing style.
Brussels also suffers from the lack of any unifying street frontage, where shops openly disfigure the architecture above with heavy signage, plate glass and afterthought add ons. Much like London in the 80s and 90s, before traditional, less garish fronts and signs came back in fashion. In short the city has a great potential to become one of the most unique urban streetscapes, but loses it to personalised (read: bad) choice, grafitti and fly posters. It would benefit from a touch of local government totalitarianism. From afar one can see the good humoured jostling of styles, much less so at street level, ensconced by neon signage for pool halls, black glass, and L’Oreal models telling us they’re worth it.
I never did get to see the Mannekin Pis, a 60cm boy having a pee – he looks utterly doll sized from the street – and that was built as a tongue in cheek water fountain back in the day, despite the urban myths that he’s some hero child putting out an attacking army’s fuse or a castle fire, or a statue given in thanks from a merchant whose lost son was found happily in flagrante as depicted. Okay I tell a lie, having looked at pictures – and realising the thing is dressed up in several changes of clothing each week (a competition is held and the winning costumes put in what must be a pretty dire, grasping museum) – I walked past that nondescript grey fountain many times, without looking. It keeps getting stolen. In 1963 a group of students from Antwerp held it hostage and tortured him mercilessly until more money for orphanages was procured, and apparently there are several rival statues across the country, some of which vie for supremacy by claiming to be an older original. One similar statue a few streets away is Jeanneke Pis, the more ‘relaxed’ female equivalent set up in 1987 for gender balance, and a lure to paedos the world over, because Belgium isn’t enough already.
Other Bruxellois attractions include the Royal Palace, Cathedral, large churches and museums dedicated to single artists or exhibitions, such as the excellent Magritte Museum or House of European History in the EU Quarter. They are however not as prominent as larger monuments or museums in sister cities, and don’t garner as much international attention. A new kid on the block however is Train World, easy to dismiss as the territory of transport enthusiasts, but apparently highly rated on TripAdvisor by many entirely normal, functioning people who have friends and kitchens and everything. This new museum is pretty much the Scharbeek Train station, and is an all sensory experience, described as a ‘Train Opera’ on its website, with snazzily spotlit wagons and engines from all the ages, where one can drive or sit in style, blow the whistle and even stay in the attached youth hostel made up of unchanged wagons or the swankier hotel made up of luxury carriages. You get the free run of the place, not dissimilar to London’s Transport Museum, but with bigger, updated spaces, choices and lights. This actually came to feature on my list, much to my surprise – until I watched the promotional video on its website.
The opening feature of a middle class Belgian family skipping through the station, is wrecked by Granny as she walks into the ticket foyer. Apparently she is as impressed and jaw-dropped into heaving silence by a clean ceiling and a wooden kiosk as she would be the diamond mines of Mars – you can practically hear her thinking privately to herself ‘ Mon dieu! I thought this would be just smoky old carriages and mechanics! What a stupid, out-of-touch fool wife I am, indeed.’ She takes the prize, along with her strikingly similar twin Jon Voight in Anaconda, for the golden teacup of overacting.
Her performance can be viewed nightly here, till the end of time:
As can her fleeting cameo with Hollywood
Anyway, enough of Snakes on a Train. I stationed myself for a bit near a gorgeous art deco cinema that provided free wifi from where I was, to lose a few hours as any despondent teen on a street corner, staring into a handheld black hole while I waited out a heavy shower. The streets were almost utterly devoid of life, but for two street sweepers having a fag I almost talked to, but hey my Inner Briton won through in the end. But then it was time for lunch, and anywhere I could recharge the phonage, leaking data into the ether. Everywhere with vaguely Belgic food charged upwards of 17 Euros for the plate of fine looking gravy laden stodge, and I just wasn’t in the mood for chips, a bit like how people can sometimes not be in the mood for sex. I settled on the cheapest option called WokUp off a pedestrianised shopping street in the centre.
4. Customer Service
Supermouse ordered in his best broken French, and the cashier put it through on the till, then just stood there expectantly. He didn’t say a price. We planted roots looking at each other like gunslingers. I finally had to look over at the till to see, and paid over a 20 Euro note for an 8 Euro meal. He only gave me 7 Euros until I made unhappy noises in French. No apology.
-What makes me think he did this on purpose is that (regardless of me being an obvious tourist):
1. He didn’t tally up/ tell me the price, rather obviously I may add. He just stood there like a big bearded lump of Belgium.
2. He gave me change for 15 Euros. A 15 Euro bill does not exist – and even if I’d given him a tenner and a fiver (which noone would do as it was 8 Euros), he would have to have given me the same fiver back. This is the most incriminating point,as Poirot would have surmised, with a little skip of his womanly behind.
3. He kept the till open, as if expectant of the off chance that I’d notice and cause a fuss – which I did.
One of three seems suspicious, all three is downright criminal – the fat thieving fat bar steward fat fathead. As is traditional with my Great British heritage, I smiled politely, thanked him, and proceeded to plot his and his family’s downfall with a strongly worded letter to his superiors that I’ll probably burn. The meal itself was utterly uninspired and bland, forking out 8 Euros (nearly 13), which for me is a lot for a packet noodle without the sauce, but at least I did get to charge my phone. Such 21st Century joy.
By now, believe it or not (where did the time go?) it was time to check-in. I made my way to my allocated hostel, the Sleep Well north of the Bourse – one of the closest and newest to the centre, but later that I discovered (from a passing vagrant) was near a semi-sex district and its edgy ‘characters’. Well check-in was absolutely GLACIAL, an all day affair. The Italian people, kids in tow, in front of me spent a good 20 minutes asking questions, filling in forms, looking for luggage, losing children, asking about the composition of air, and generally keeping the queue healthy and long, two lines in fact by the end of their all family inter sensory experience. I’d given up by then and was retiring on a big beanbag of dullitude in the foyer. I rejoined after boring looks of hatred at the lead witch and spitting at the baby when they weren’t looking – but soon realised it wasn’t entirely their fault.
The next guy took up 9 minutes somehow, while a second queue that had been patiently waiting for 15 minutes finally got the man to do two things at once – and hand over a key that had been sitting in front of him the whole time, after which everyone started swarming around getting their luggage out of a locked cupboard. There appeared to be a pattern developing, and I began, in my abject boredom, to turn my attentions to what was behind the desk: watching the concierge as one does a creature of rare and exotic brilliance.
Okay imagine your nan using the internet the first time, typing on the computer with one finger and constantly looking up at every move to check and double check it’s still there on screen. Imagine her searching methodically for letters on the keyboard like she’s doing a complex chess move. Now also imagine she’s blind – see her picking up any item from the desk – a card, a pen, a sheet of paper, and she feels it for a second, as if checking it’s really in her hand, before putting it to use, very slowly and carefully in case it ignites, disappears or transmogrifies into a fish. Reading something means she headbutts it and smears her head across the sheet. Okay he didn’t do this last one – but begad he was S-L-O-W. Possibly on some kind of spectrum. He was utterly incapable I realised of making a decision, or doing more than two things at once, or thinking about doing two things at once, as demanded by any service facing job. I could see his screen, and yes, it did look marginally complicated, but the rate at which he clicked the buttons was like watching a scared child pressing random buttons, one of which would unleash demons onto mankind.
To recap, taking an average 9 minutes to process one transaction means it takes one and a half hours to do ten people. It took 45 minutes to get to and through with me (luckily most of the queue had given up), without any of the ubiquitous info on the hostel such as the free breakfast place and time, where my room actually was, check out times or services offered etc, that I had to work out after. This was not an old, blind woman from the 1910s, but a well dressed, conversant man in his thirties, looking completely capable of drinking out of a cup without a straw. When a guy rocked up asking for a towel, he gave it to him for free, asking him to pay later when checking out as it just wasn’t possible to deal with it while the phone rang. And so the rabbit tunnel opened up of when and where and how the visitor could pay as he was staying 4 days (despite the till being right there). The man evidently couldn’t even work out change ad hoc, if he was in the middle of another transaction, but would happily make it even more complex than either option should be.
Later I looked at reviews of the place and every now and then there was someone completely unhinged with disbelief at how long it took to check in or out, or make any kind of desk interaction here. People who had had the luck of running into our resident Frankenstein. Later my room-mate told me his virginal experience took out a whole hour of his stay, and the guy in the lift I shared, clutching his freebie towel, said his last run-in was so slow, that two other employees had to come along to ‘speed things up’ (read: take over). Personally I think if he wasn’t on the spectrum, and those weren’t his carers, they should be charged with crimes against the 21st Century.
The room proved to be clean, but darkened, with a menacing lump on my bed. Someone had already taken it – a middle aged man face down in his Y-fronts – who waved me away to another bed. Turns out the old geezer was now taking up two beds, the fat fuck. Later while he was out, a young American turned up to share our room but found the last bed already in use too. Whereby much underhand, non-confrontational fussing ensued with several trips to reception, and to cut a long story short the selfish gimp got kicked out of his previous spot and had to make up two beds in order to go to sleep ha ha haaar. Then we set his hair alight and stabbed him.
The city is absolutely fucking impossible to navigate, especially with Supermouse too poor to use the live phone maps, and stuck with analogue 3D paper things that fold out and flap in the wind. Every street has two names, one in French and one in
Dutch – sorry Flemish. Sometimes seemingly unrelated. Also the streets change names at every other intersection or curve – thus looking for a spot on the map means you may have to weed out 5 other foreign tongued representatives on the same patch. Or adversely the street will dodge in and out of other streets and turn corners, disappearing and reappearing at will with the same name. I would pore over the maps (one larger, one in more detail) for ages, advertising my tourist out-of-town credentials, just to find out where I was, then find out where I was going purely by recognising street layouts rather than trying to follow the name caterpillar. To boot not all streets were physically named, lacking signage on the corners, or obscured by some important public announcement for tampons or energy drinks.
Oh and the density of thoroughfares was mindboggling with the amount of blocks (hence two varying versions of the map, one for main thoroughfares and one blizzard-like, almost unusable artist’s impression showing detailed ratruns and side streets). Some blocks were only a few houses in area, creating more and more roadage or alleyways. Add on top the layer cake of overlapping pedestrian tunnels, underground streets and overhead bridges, plus sections of town cordoned off for a festival, and the fact there are so many alleys some of them are too small to be named on the map – as in they can’t possibly fit the double barrelled monikers into fonts so tiny, so are just a blank stretch. Case in point: to walk from the Grand Place in a diagonal to the next square a few hundred metres away, the Place Fontainas one has to navigate an ‘almost’ straight path southwest:
Grand Place de Bruxelles/ Grote Markt > Rue de La Tête d’Or/ Gulden Copstraat > Rue de Marché au Charbon/ Kolenmarkt > cross Rue du Midi/ Zuidstraat > turn right and reenter Rue de Marche au Charbon/ Kolenmarkt > cross Rue du Lombard/ Lombardstraat > turn left and reenter Rue de Marche au Charbon/ Kolenmarkt > cross the triangle of streets (Rue du Jardin des Olives/ Oliveteenhof/ unnamed on either side, so take the second exit) and follow it to Place Fontainas/ Fontainasplein.
Don’t worry you’ll get used to it. Like one gets used to prison, or pteranodon attacks. For the first time in my life as a geographer, I see the startling relevance of grid plans and postwar bulldozers.
So Brussels is one of those places you grow to love and hate, and it’s meant to be endearing for it, and not schizophrenia inducing in any way. This is a place so close to beautiful, so close to unique, so close to worldly. Its panoply of jumbled styles, streets and character is however offset with a large amount of emptied, can kicking spaces and districts, and a dose of boredom. It’s wealth of architecture disfigured and hidden by shop frontage, or plains of concrete and bureaucracy. Its culture and history obscured by modernity, and globalisation, while its globalised inhabitants enshadowed by loss of opportunities and ghettoisation. Its creativity, so evident on so many corners is still lost in the reduced size of the market, fitting for so capital a region but also so small a city.
One thing that did stand out a mile was the street art – and not just any of the ubiquitous stenciling, urban portraits or playful landscapes – but edgy, as in EDGY. A child being brutalised by knife-wielding, forceful hands above the shops, a headless, handless torso bleeding down the side of a tower block, a giant, puckering arse hole on an old factory. This is the kind of amazing shit that exposes the rest as merely illustrative, pacifying and pretty – by dint of its public nature – as any Hallmark greeting card. So what if a homeless drunk is holding a cute little robin on his finger, or war child a heart balloon? How very twee madam. Now look at that great big mural of a prostitute, legs askew, masturbating from a rooftop, like a giant fucking spider. That Marjorie, is street art.
It’s also a telling sign at the progressiveness and tolerance of the local councils that none have been removed despite the artist’s anonymity and resident’s complaints. Some long suffering Bruxelloises in Saint-Gilles (including the Catholic Institute opposite) fling open their curtains each morning to an 18ft cock, though must be said its’ charm grows on you as a talking point at dinner parties and family get-togethers.
My huge zigzagging walk through the city passed a festival of sorts, with some atmospheric crooning despite the bass, in the typical dark, sensuous tones the French like to sing in a way they think is infatuating. I could see perfectly from a vantage point surprisingly close to the stage, much closer than the paying audience, despite our little crowd being on a hilly pavement just outside the closed off area. A whole district had been cut off, which led me to fumble some more with the maps, like a barge in full sail/ pteranodon attack, climbing sudden hills, steps, and overpasses and into tunnels, roundabouts, market places (food from every corner, another crooner belting it out to a small crowd beneath the overhanging stalls), skirting palace gardens (hushed, dusky atmosphere, and yet another far off crooner, this time mega sized and booming through the trees not unlike an unseen God, who maybe got a bit tipsy at the picnic), empty squares and urban meridians, and culminating in the southern district of Matonge as the sun set. – So-named after its Kinshasan counterpart, and almost as lively and mixed. Brussels, when the sun is up, must be a seriously summery place, buzzing with song on every corner, peppered with languid city gardens, fountains, markets, boom boxes and epic street loitering.
African businesses dominate in Matonge -though residentially not so – it’s an ethnic collection of high streets that lure their community clientele to shop and work, rather than to sleep there, and one of those ‘up n coming’ areas pioneered by the creative crew and estate agents for areas with evident poverty or a history of rioting. Crossing from the important elegance of the Avenue Louise, one enters a crowded district of neon shopfronts, corner stores, independent eateries (both boutique level swanky and more down at heel ‘family run’), art nouveaux stand-outs, night shoppers, hustlers, diners, hipsters and solicitous dealers that cater to the steady footfall, spreading out in arterial waves from the busy main street that leads from the metro station.
I parked myself in the the famous Soleil d’Afrique, a popular Congolese spot run by a bevy of the local teenage beauties and a battleaxe of an older Belgian proprietress. Shared tables (horror of horrors) pub bench style, but inside, by the window I got my own little space – well, being the only person inside how could I not – while the great and beautiful lorded it out on the pavement cafe. The proprietress hovered around the order desk to my right, barking at her feline minions like a prison guard, then switching every now and then to say something exceedingly polite to me in a wispy voice tinged with throat cancer. Although my French accent is great, my grasp of the language is not, especially when they talk back. Thus, I’m often mistaken as a fluent speaker, and I try and go along with it as far as possible before the whole charade collapses. I just nod, smile, occasionally curtsy, say merci madame, (entering proffered cars if I have to), as I did every time her great shining eye of Sauron came my way, a reply which would make her occasionally freeze and toddle off to the kitchen. Probably asking if I wanted more chilli, or sex, or cat milk.
It came to a toss up between Senegalese Yassa (lemon chicken) or peanut sauced wings on a mixed plate with Rwandan samosas (as far as I could tell the same as the Indian version but less spice), a mound of rice, sweet and sticky fried banana plus fried plantain. I chose the latter, and it was lovely and moreish, though not exactly fine dining, more Mama’s Own. The street was alive, constantly flowing with people from all walks, despite the late hour, and my eerie was perfect for spying creepily and judgmentally on passing strangers, aka people watching. A manicured, middle aged couple who looked like visiting Eurocrats sat right outside my window, oblivious, the woman nibbling at her chicken legs with knife and fork, and her partner eviscerating it with oily hands and chomping teeth. At some point a fat drunk came asking for change, causing them to shake their heads and apologise profusely in the way nice middle class people do to mark themselves out as willing victims, and who finally allowed him to grab one of their legs before lurching off to the next table. Grabbing the chicken legs to go munching on that is, not to cop a feel of the good lady wife, though I’m sure that would have been on the cards any minute longer.
Then it was time to retire, make my lonesome way back to the hostel on the other side of town using the metro filled with partygoers and nighthawks, and wishing I had some nice Belgian friends to hang with, possibly snort lines off their calf leather dashboards and a fireworks tour of their family estate in Schlossburgerijken. But alas, it was to bed, and I was out like a light. Tomorrow would be a daytrip. You can exhaust Brussels in a day as much as it can you.
Ghent. Pronounced Hhhhhhhhhent or sommat like that. Fell asleep on the train (loads of room, classy like), and woke up in Bruges, which is like on the other side of the country, a whole 15 minutes away. Panicked I managed to inveigle my way back onto another train going the other way (beware the difference between Ghent and Genk, two towns on polar sides, millions of miles from Brussels), calming myself from the situation of being lost on a foreign train network and somehow being trapped on a one way to say, Belarus or something, without your passport or proof of Britishness. Or being fined a thousand euros for not having a valid ticket, and the tradition of being prosecuted naked in the local law courts, with criminals eyeing your purty mouth. The usual Brit-abroad scenarios conjured up in sleepless nights and tentative pauses before stepping off the plane.
Note to self: Belgium has the same conniving set-up as the UK with half the trains devoted to empty, bowling alley aisles, designer seating, open champagne bars, pet creches and mini golf playgrounds to entice people into setting up mortgages for First Class, while the other half’s crammed with the baggage, stains, screaming kids and neck tattoos of the non-Ladies and Gentlemen sitting on the bottom deck of the Titanic like doomed sardines. It also eats hats, left forlornly behind on warm seats. It was heartbreaking.
Ghent is lovely. But almost too idyllic. Straight out of the main train station (designed by the local taxi boss and conveniently located a good few km from the centre) I began to walk into town, following a strip of neverending shops in the glorious morning sun, baking already by 11, and gradually getting more and more historic and beautiful in architecture. What was disconcerting however was the utter lack of streetlife, cars or open businesses. Sunday must be a major deal here, and I’ve heard rumour how on the continent everything shuts down, even the electricity and pigeons. This was it, the great State of non-Emergency, by law.
I was looking for food, getting a pastry from the only open shop (probably Black market trading), a sweet little bakery near the station. Okay truth be told there was a speakeasy 7-11, too, surreptitiously selling me elderflower fizz. But beyond that, and for the next 2 hours I was alone like a Chernobyl tourist, but with better buildings.
They were gorgeous, one street approaching the canal/ river filled with houses with their dates painted on, from the late 17th/ early 18th Century – their styles morphing in line with the change of century, and their ground floors normal run-of-the-mill shops. In London that rarity of age would have preserved it rather than being handed over to a cooking supplies store or a branch of WH Smith. But then in London it would have also probably been gutted into a home for the super rich, and entirely taken out of the public sphere forever. There were loads of cool looking independent shops and eateries, with enticing menus and interiors glimpsed from behind the glass – and entirely closed. But I’m sure would be buzzing on any other day, making the town more of a city.
On reaching the first square, a few pedestrians turned up, with some posh people sunning themselves at palatial cafes. We all stopped to watch an entertaining argument between a teenage, wrong-side-of-the-trailer-park yoof, low on his bike and studded with tattoos, buzzcuts, clinking gold, oozing ethnic minority and piercings, who had stopped to reply back to one of those old, slightly tragic widowers who have nothing better to do but check things are being adhered to in the neighbourhood, such as keeping to correct lanes or stopping at lights, or tying ones laces together. The young man had challenged the older, who huffed himself to full height in tailored suit, and dawdled shakily forward – a bit sad as we could see he was scared and about 103. But when it became clear the yoof was not going to do anything but argue, the old geezer started to rant, safe in the knowledge of his public self righteousness, and I ended up feeling sorry for the chav being told off repetitively in front of all. We clapped at the end and threw stones at the kid, until he drew out a machete and chased us.
I reached the city centre, now full of sudden crowds of tourists, snapping a legion of medieval, baroque, Gothic and Leopoldian monsters of towers, turrets, gargoyles and lacy intricacy. One scene I snapped, lined up from the bridge, took in a vista of three – no four, towers aligned in a row, and one of the few places in the world to allow such a picture postcard without a zoom. One remarkable building leading up to a grand cathedral, was much more recent – probably in the last few years, and looking much like a wonky roofed barn. It stood on stilts and created an empty, cavernous space as an approach to the Gothic finery. I wan’t sure what the use for it was other than a gargantuan bus shelter but it looked fab and dynamic (rather than fighting with the surrounding historicism it complimented it, albeit a little outlandishly), and was probably used as a community gathering spot or marketplace. The streets were full, the sun was out and the crowd chattering – yet still not an affordable eatery in sight. I mistakenly sat at one great looking outdoorsy place only to realise my intended meal was a child’s one, hence only 15 Euros. In the end, after much embarrassed apologies, backtracking and forays down emptying streets I had to answer my growling stomach and settled for a goddamn kebab, the only thing I could afford. Though the Moroccan Merguez sausages were nice, it’s not what I had in mind, which was more on the Moules et frites, or Great Big Belgian Stew a la Ghent which, by all offers I had passed, came attached with the Queen of Belgium as your waitress and some diamond plates.
Promising start, not so promising end. I almost missed Brussels. Everywhere was history, art and bon vivante, just not so accessible on a Sunday. I walked back to the main square, and lo and behold, another much larger square opened up, studded with cheap, good looking Belgian food in Bavarian bierhaus structures, staffed by winking models. Stew a la Ghent was everywhere.
FFS Tintinland. I scuffled my way across the bridge, getting tired already of the tourist pizzazz and dearth of local life… only to come across local life. In spades. Turns out every fucker in town is at a big fuck off street party, held this very weekend in summer, with a veritable labyrinth of alleyways and backstreets holding a neverending bric-a-brac fest (known as the Patershol market), interspersed with song and dance, freely flowing beer and wine, kids amok, books stalls and art galleries. Ohmisweetwaffleygod. I have to say, having traveled the world, this was a snapshot of society at its best – community everywhere you looked, welcoming outsiders as well as family, safe, vibrant, child friendly despite the alcohol, cheap despite the classiness, inhabited despite the city centre location, livable despite the history. Everyone seemed to know everyone, and I made a friend for a few seconds, being approached by a sozzled old lady in a crammed church courtyard, who gave me her drink – spiked I’m sure. She was leaving a local choir (an indy band in competition round the corner), with freebie food and endless communal tables, trying to chat to me in garbled Flemish before her husband came along and bundled her into the boot.
This Watchtower scene of social nirvana I realise is where all those infamous Belgian taxes end up, and strive for. The country has the highest income tax in the world at 42% – going toward the creation of a safe, laissez fair society (despite all the state support), open to all if not exactly mollycoddling them. Leaving people more or less to their own devices, albeit given a helpful hand in social security, almost-free healthcare and education, including university. This is when Belgian society can go awry however – its openness can, for example, be exploited by crime or terrorism, it’s live-and-let-live attitudes can lead to the political neglect of entire communities of the less well off and vulnerable, despite the contribution. It seems it just needs better planning. And yet through all this, the country, in contrast to its size, still manages to punch well above its political weight – having secured itself as a capital of a whole continent for starters, and enjoying an enviably high standard of life in education, culture, healthcare and economic diversity. This is the kind of country that can struggle to fill a central city street or club on a weekend, but holds the largest music festivals in the world, where it’s local cuisine can be summed up by a handful of dishes, but is studded with more Michelin stars per head than any other Western country. It is a dichotomy. And it seems this stems from the fact the last step of the process often appears missing: historic buildings protected through the ages, but let go to graffiti, fly postering, advertising and plate glass in the last instance. Poor communities propped up with funds but with little end direction, and little to face for the future except more state dependence. Where an exciting panoply of events, movements, sights and institutions is not garnered by a single vision or plan. A remarkable society sullied (as in all societies) by those who fall through the net; a proud history distinguished only by a dictatorship or two, a society as equally riven as united – or united by its divides.
It works the other way too. Belgium, for a small country lacking in a global profile other than infamous bureaucracy, famous dishes people think are French, and slightly un-PC but adorable comic characters, is very, very diverse, as unique and independent as its architecture, each home different from the next. Myriad art movements, cuisines, peoples, languages, music, old and new institutions, architecture and history in the making, on every street corner yet mostly unknown beyond these narrow borders, all in a tight-knit ball of a country, sedate on the outside, riddled with rabbit holes on closer inspection.
To sum it up Belgium is a bit like a large operation downsized. It does indeed have its pool of talent, but with limitations from sheer lack of size, yet finding itself the capital of something much larger. It’s a bit like your family suddenly finding out they’ve inherited Apple, and in management also. Your mum, who’s normally in charge of the household strings and does a lot of the shopping at Tesco becomes Director, while Dad, who’s the main breadwinner having worked in office admin for 30 years, and is an amateur gardener to boot, becomes CEO to direct where the company grows. Your sister Laura who got a B+ in her AS Level Art, gets to be the Creative Director Designer of Everything, and Auntie Julie who works in Boots is Head of Sales And China And Stuff. You really like Radiohead (never missed a gig), so that sensitivity puts you in charge of HR, communications and all the staffing, while your 12 year old nephew Axel, who’s pretty good at Streetfighter gets to manage, design and make the tech.
And they more or less make a good job at it to boot. Okay Laura did have a meltdown or two, your emails had to be sent twice each time to different OS’s, and Axel spent a bit too much time ‘researching’ Tekken with his mates. And the workers occasionally went on strike, especially after you forgot the holiday pay to the cleaners, many of whom come from the previous company you took over. -But more or less the firm stayed afloat and the employees stayed loyal (though mum and dad are fighting again and have split the brand in two). Apple still progresses forward, spawning myriad products old and new, and still a great place to work.
I sometimes wonder how all this multitudinous life and culture is quietly being lived in one place – and missed by everyone else in the world. It may have its workplace battles, but Belgium is quietly glorious; it grows on you.
It was time to head back. I’d developed a migraine and was missing a bed in a dark hole. Alker / Alkie Seltzer XS btw, does the trick like no other, coupled with a smooth, almost too speedy train ride to snooze in. Back in Brussels I picked up my baggage from the locker station, then proceeded to loiter my way toward the night time pick up. I headed back to the hostel, and dozed in their snazzy common room despite having checked out a day ago. There’s nothing like the luxury of boredom sometimes, when everything has been go-go-go for a while.
I made my way out to find somewhere to eat – having forgotten it was Sunday night and thus a cardinal rule to break curfew. I might as well have gone out looking for Sasquatch. I’d left it too late, past ten – and the only place that was open in the dense web of streets outside was a posh looking hotel dining room on the pedestrian shopping strip. Which of course was merely pretending to be open, with all its menus, candles and tables laid out, and me sitting there like a lemon before the waitress informed me it was a work of fiction. Learning a culture, or getting to know a place can be an infuriating process – you learn through mistakes most of the time, and you can’t slap people. I hunted down a few neon signs, only to find they were bars, a sex shop (do places still have those?) – or worse an utterly empty reception, and immaculate red tables in rows, with a single proprietor slumped lazily in the corner. Not a menu in sight this time. No drinks behind the bar, no computer or stationery at the desk. It was of course a front for a brothel, the cheap rooms upstairs frequented by the genuinely poor and transient, as well as the workers of the night (and day again). I was told because one of those immensely dodgy looking people in faded sportswear and red rimmed eyes approached yelling if I wanted something? What was it I was looking for? And in English – which of course means you simply MUST admit to being able to understand if you do. FOOD I said – no drugs, no women, and he told me what was what, and where to go, bless him. Not the next street, but the street after that. He punched his chest: ‘I’m one of the good ones’.
No gang or accomplice or nest of vampires lay in wait round that corner, but there was indeed a fast food Mexican wrap place. Very swanky looking, whose clientele were made up of a few young tourists from the hostels, and the multi-ethnic yoof of the city having a quiet chat and a phone charge in the free portals. The sofas though were cordoned off in case we all got frisky suddenly and started dancing on them. I put my order through to a direct and speedy young woman – and as mentioned before, my French is quite convincing – but I have trouble understanding the blur of words they stream back. I switched to English and her demeanour softened, she even managed a smile. Brussels is one of those rare, rare places where tourists aren’t quite subhuman yet. The wrap was good, but nothing to wri…
It was time. The hour. The bit I was dreading, but now welcome to just get over and done with.
The Oddyssey Part VII
The bus was gonna be late. The company kept sending an automated text to tell us – first 10 mins, then 30 mins, then radio silence, to ratchet up the tension. The crowd waited restlessly behind the huge looming bulk of the darkened Gare du Nord, seatless and apprehensive. Every time a coach turned up a hundred heads would swivel as one in the dark, like creepy meerkats, and follow its route down the street. One turned out to be a false flag, parking itself round the corner and getting everyone to chase it futilely before the driver, fending us off with a pitchfork, started shouting it was for Rome or Taipei or somewhere. Not London, doyenne of the civilised world.
The bus finally turned up in a bad mood from the start, the drivers shouting at the people too busy trying to get their luggage in the hold to form a proper queue (two lines were needed, one for luggage, one to check the papers before getting on). It was each against everyone else, you versus the world. One woman walked to the front of the door queue from the side, and noone challenged her because she looked like someone who would want you to. Satisfyingly the driver wouldn’t let her on as she had two tickets and her husband was trying to put a small boat in the hold, so couldn’t be present – only those physically with their tickets would be allowed to board. She tried no less than three times the same trick, as if he’d magically forgotten what she looked like after 15 seconds, before she started shouting what was his problem and that she had been at the front of the queue the whole time, and he was letting people on in front of her. He shouted back just as vigourously. I sensed this was gonna be the general theme for the rest of the night: shouting, tired people, frayed nerves, stress, loneliness, regimentation, suspicion and darkness. The demon of border crossings was well and truly with us again.
The theme continued inside. A posh looking mother and her two small boys had managed to claim the best seat in the house, surrounding one of the front tables, when someone asked if he could occupy the last seat. She shook her head obstinately – obviously a ghost had taken residence there, and would continue to enjoy the last comfy space for the entire journey. I stared delicate evils at her and could see her going defensive, her face becoming a mask of mother bear intent and hidden weapons at the ready. But it gradually lessened, then faded into fatigue and humanity as the bus started up, then began the drive to the distant ferry port. Sometime in the night I dozed off on some empty highway.
Sometime at about 2am some Mancunian decided to make a braying call about his extension to every friend he could find on his phone, about six of them. One of those people who are so loud, and so overtly confident about how very wrong they are you hesitate to react, and thus forever miss your window to shut the fucker up. Every person on the bus awoke, and listened intently to the wonders of his new conservatory, then some gossip about some saggy arsed work colleague who was ill, and the weather, in that order. Who the fuck is up at this time to listen to this shit? Us, evidently. At some stage I think he got strangled and it was back to the streets with no name.
We awakened with a bump, onto an almost identical ship, with the identical set up as last time – splayed bodies, wandering souls, excited kids, desperate parents – except this time the thoughtful, heedful staff had closed off the entire cafe’s seating area with a line of chairs, leaving 80% of the passengers to wander like mall rats without a mall – I mean, who want’s to straighten up a few hundred plastic chairs every 2 hrs eh? I managed to bag a two-seater round a minuscule table in a row that lined the corridor, along with the lucky few, that fell into deep, ponderous sleep to the constant sound of people walking past. Ah, back to my teenage years again.
A change in ante woke me to find a huge queue all around – the ferry was nearing Dover, just in time for the sunrise. As the black windows lightened to reveal the endless ocean, numerous African families became entranced, many of the kids – and adults, as if seeing the sea for the first time. They watched, crowding round the windows, the kids running back and forth, and creating breaks in the Berlin Wall of chairs that the adults tentatively but satisfyingly swarmed through, lulling into occasional silence as the undeniable beauty of the white cliffs hove into view. I wondered romantically if it was the first glimpse of Blighty for some, and what future generations would stem from this moment. I know for some, it would be through the gap in the door of a truck belowdecks. Some people were clamped in private cocoons of silence to the far windows, staying until even the queue had walked off to rejoin our vehicles.
I felt the need once back on the coach, and waited patiently outside the loo door as people got on. After about 10 minutes I suspected noone was in, and asked the driver’s assistant, who went apopleptic with disgust that I had chosen now to go, and not on the ferry, and that the loo was blocked, and how my psychic abilities were frankly disappointing. But yeah, I’d spent that precious time bagging a seat I couldn’t leave, and queueing up after mister, and so what, I shouldn’t have to explain myself, and I have every damn right to go looking for monkeys after leaving the monkey market if I wanted to. But I just went, ‘okay, thanks’. He stopped then to look at me through his specs with the kind of silent hate reserved for people who just ran over your cat, an especially creepy few seconds. Then followed me as I turned and walked back to my seat, remonstrating to my back, and all passengers around how he couldn’t be-lieve I had had all that time. At that point I turned and told him, you know what, he didn’t need to tell me off about it. He then went to the front, venting to the driver like a spoilt child, and one that must have had many, many years of being bullied for his specky, whiney ways. The driver sighed resignedly, then went to make a tired announcement that the loo was blocked, and to tell the passengers they had had ample time on the ferry. The woman on the other side of the aisle, then went: ‘what the fuck is his problem?’
Indeed. Where to start, other than to say, this is a microcosm of the West, of capitalism, of Brexit. Those who can only afford to globe-trot in bus style will be treated accordingly, all you huddled masses, where we can get away with servicing you in ways we wouldn’t dare with the middle classes, on our coaches, our ships, our tannoy systems and cordoned off eating establishments. I wouldn’t dream of tarnishing the good name of the carrier that so exemplifies the sliding scale of customer care to money parting, to remind us of our social contracts in life. But FLIXBUS, booked through the Megabus website, happens to be a Europe-wide transportation fitting specialising in either humans or livestock – I can’t quite remember – and that made the most of native German deregulation in 2013. It is slowly, inexorably taking over as a monopoly over 80% of the national market already, and just bought Megafuss, with a shining face turned toward the rest of the continent. Its drivers, so attentive and projecting to their customers, work long hours for low pay in the magic scale of subcontracting services that cannot reasonably be fulfilled. They also have to clean the buses or sell snacks during what is deemed “free time” to avoid exceeding limits for time at the wheel.
I look at the coal dead eyes of the Megabusman, hand picked as the brand model from the bleak Northern townships of England, and see in him, his perpetually smug smile, his back-of-the-bus stature, all that is writhing and unkempt beneath the skin of our so-called communities, pulled across like a yellow balloon. As Megabusman wends his way through the dense history, thousand faces and mineral tongues of the exceptional continent, its teeming cities, echoing antiquity, efficient institutions, and modern largesse like so many crowded layers to wade through, that beaming potato smile will forever enshrine itself as an unchanging icon of the place, this great reef in a panoply of style and friction.
May Megabusman forever be remembered, if not long may he live. May his little cap float innocently over the riverine multitudes clammering below the grate, like a feather on the Kent tide. May his beatific smile haunt our marbled dreams like a glowing jellybaby of rumination. May his blue-black eyes always grace our collective memory, penetrate our perceptions, like the ever seeing, ever knowing face of stone idols impervious to our struggle. Oh Europe, you, temptress of the West with your unlimited autobahns and chocolate fountains, I do like your style. At times edgy, at times shit, at times glorious, at times deeply consoling, but always beautiful and strange. Europe, you absolute slag you.
Got to the end? What do you think? Is Brussels a microcosm of the West? What other place would be an epitome of Occidentalism?
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