Thursday, May 3, 2012

Is the secret in the diet?

There's a long-standing theory in my family that one's mood is directly related to the food one consumes. In other words, a healthy well-balanced diet will lead to a happy, intelligent and reasonable person in a jolly old mood.

So is that were the Belgians went wrong?

It's not long since I got back from Japan, where I felt that I was surrounded by the most polite, curious, hard-working and considerate people at all times. And of course the Japanese diet is widely considered to be the most healthy in the world with its fish, tofu, rice and often nine portions of fruit and vegetables per day.

So how can the poor Belgians possibly be expected to keep up on their waffles, chocolate, chips and beer? The poor devils have no choice but to be ignorant, selfish, beaurocratic and unhelpful. They just have to scowl and bear it.

A Belgian diet?

Hints at Groezrock

Some of this culture had managed to leak into the weekend's festival, although of course it was impossible to realise it at the time - my natural assumption was that these things were symptomatic of a less-than-perfect festival organiser:

1. Signposting. On arrival, we approached the gate only to be told that we would first need to exchange our tickets for wristbands at a different location. Where was this location? Back where we had come from, at a small unmarked kiosk. Everybody at the entire festival must have followed our same exact steps. And at the unmarked kiosk, oh no, no, you're too early for the festival wristband. You'll have to take a camping wristband but retain your secondary ticket and come back in the morning.

2. Queuing - you had to queue for the cash machine, then queue to purchase drinks vouchers, then queue separately for food vouchers. Only then could you join the queue for food or drink.

3. Just 'avin' a larf - on the first day, I approached a food counter, waved my vouchers and stared at the staff on the other side for a full 8 minutes before they confessed they weren't open. And later I approached a food counter with no queue, under a sign with a picture of felafels and asked for, uh, felafels. The woman told me I had to join the half-hour queue next door and buy them from her colleague. While she stood there failing to sell any paninis.

In Brussels

Brussels seemed like a nice city, with an Art Mountain a pretty square lined with traditional buildings. We had a beer in a cafe that employed a freakishly talented waiter, able to mentally record and relay 20+ food and drink orders with perfect accuracy.

After I said goodbye to my companions, I marched off in search of a youth hostel. My plans were 1. Stumble across one (there were plenty of hotels so why not?), 2. Find a tourist information spot or similar and ask for directions, 3. Charge my phone somewhere and look them up.

Well plan 1 wasn't going so well - I marched up and down a number of streets with my rucksack and started to tire of it. Equally there had been no luck finding tourist info so I moved quickly onto Plan 3.

Walking through the gay hub, an exuberant young man tried to call me into a dingy corner bar. I stopped and peered insight for electrical sockets. The man asked if I'd like a drink and I replied "I'd love one, if I can plug my mobile phone in!". The man, named Kim, passed my request on to the surly landlady who simply shook her head without looking up from the beer glass she was polishing. I sighed and explained my quest. Kim immediately lit up and told me he knew of a great Auberge round the corner and that he would walk me there.

We chatted as we walked and Kim was immediately apologetic about "his people". He had a strong belief that his countrymen were cold and without humour, and confided that he was desperate to escape to Barcelona. I was incredibly grateful for his kindness in taking me to the hostel and tried to buy him a drink but he was gone as quickly as he'd appeared.

That evening I walked into the city centre and took some photographs. I seemed to be surrounded by grumpy faces and stubborn elbows, and had to push my way through a crowd of people who took no notice of me "excuse-moi"-ing my way through. I found a supermarket with the longest queues I've ever seen - in fact before long I'd learned that the technique was to enter the store and join the queue immediately. This way you could pick up items for your basket as you followed the line up and down aisles. Certainly no-one would allow you to browse the items alongside their bit of the queue. I witnessed several people, mostly mothers with buggies, smuggling items out rather than queuing to pay... and many, many more just leaving with nothing, choosing their freedom over nutrition.

In Bruges

I resolved to move on the next day. Capital cities are often unrepresentative and anyway, Colin Farrel had filmed an amusing film in this medieval city near the coast. So I packed my rucksack and caught a train.
On arrival in Bruges I was once again baffled by the system. The train station is out of town so buses run to the centre. But there were queues, ticket machines, bus stops and LCD screens, none of which seemed to relate to one another. Eventually I just pushed my way onto a bus, a technique employed by the locals. It worked.
A pretty van selling waffles in Bruges
At the hostel I was cut off halfway through saying "I have a reservation -" by the emotionless request "passport". This turned out to be fairly typical customer service. When I asked for a launderette I was told "over the bridge", a direction so vague in a city with at least 9 bridges that it took me an hour to travel the 1.5 miles to it. On arrival, I discovered a machine that exchanged €1 coins for tokens. I abandoned my laundry and bustled into a nearby bar who explained curtly that I would have to buy something to get change, so I swallowed an overpriced orange juice. I poured my money into the machine and got the tokens but guess what? No laundry detergent. None in the machines, none for sale, none without walking 2 miles to the supermarket and buying a whole box. My clothes had to rely on whatever suds had stuck in the machine's tray.

The final straw

Two days later I packed up again to move to the Netherlands. I queued up to buy a ticket at the train station but the man in front of me was clearly having some sort of trouble, so I approached the counter next door when it became available. "Oh no, no, that's an international ticket - you have to see my colleague next door". While he sat back in his swing chair, his fingers interlaced across his ample chocolate-and-beer-filled belly, watching the clock tick.

Perhaps it really is the perfect base for the EU.

1 comment:

  1. Oh dear. Sounds a bit like 8 hours in central London to me! ( ; Best of luck the best place is more pleasant for you darling. X