Brussels – Last Take

This morning the conference started at 9am with a motivational type speaker (Roy Sheppard). He did a session on how to make people like you; how to be the life of the party.  Better described would be ‘How to take an introverted, boring actuary and become an interesting person’. Quite a challenge in 60 minutes. I think he failed. Some people liked him. I lost interest after 20 minutes and did my emails instead. Paul would have lost interest after 10 minutes, Marcus after 5 minutes.  That session was followed by two workshop sessions. The first one was on Stem Cells which was quite interesting especially since Mom has experienced the benefits of it. The amazing thing is that they none have 4 human trials running (in clinic trials is the medical term) for Stem Cell drugs. Most of them are focussed around diabetes and if they are successful it could wipe out diabetes as a disease.  That would have a phenomenal affect on mortality of humans and better living for many millions of diabetes sufferers.  The other session I attended was false advertising. The session sounded interesting on the programme but it was terribly boring and eventually 3 of us gave up and left. It was so technical only Louis (our Gen Re guru actuary) would have understood what was going on.

After lunch we left for the airport by taxi. My second taxi experience was pretty similar to the first one. This guy looked like a Serbian drug dealer and I reckon he was trying to flee the police when he picked us up. He used two lanes through the tunnel he was driving so fast. I had visions of the paparazzi chasing us in the tunnel and dying in a mangled wreck of Mercedes taxi (oh no, wait that was what happened to Diana and Dodi not a nobody like me).

The airport was again very spooky. When we entered the first bank of check in desks were totally deserted. What is it with Brussels? Does no one use the airport? We were the only people at passport control, the only people in the duty free shop (when in Belgium at least buy chocolates … all my favourite people are getting so you’ll have to wait and see if you make that list), the only people going through security.  I know you don’t believe me so I took a photo of the airport to prove it.  And in case you think that is a person at the very end, it isn’t.  It really is the weirdest feeling being in a airport like that. It is a ghost airport.

I am now back in civilization at Heathrow airport. I am flying back to Johannesburg tonight, in Johannesburg for business for the day and then back to CT.  I will be back posting again next week when Helen and I head to Nassau. Watch this space.

 

Brussels – Take 3

Last night we had the gala dinner. These affairs are generally rather dull so the organisers had some wandering magicians to entertain us.  The one guy came to our table and did a card trick and as hard as you try to see what he is doing you can’t. 10 people at the table all watching him and not one of us saw how he did it. The most impressive thing he did was ask one of the people at the table to hold the pack of cards. Then he told us he was in fact an illusionist and really he fools us into seeing whatever he wants us to see and that she isn’t really holding a pack of cards at all. She immediately opened her hand to protest and show him and (of course) she was holding a perspex block instead. How he managed to do that in front of us all is ridiculous. And it wasn’t even the end of the evening when we could have explained it away due to the alcohol drunk at the table.

The dinner was pretty ordinary. I guess it is pretty hard to cater for 900 people (having never done it myself yet). But what surprised me is that they served Quail as he main course. It is surprising because where do you find 900 quail to serve at a dinner? And how much more must that cost than chicken? And why would you serve it anyway as it has the smallest drumsticks and thighs I have ever seen or eaten? And how many people would have been offended to eat it? I have concluded that the Belgians are a little crazy actually.

As you can see I did manage to overcome my software issues overnight so I could add a few photos of Brussels and the conference centre. The conference centre is the one on the right. Looks impressive but once inside isn’t. The other photo is of the old city centre and where my hotel is located.

The one thing I can compliment the Belgians on is their breakfasts. The waffles were ok at breakfast but the pancakes are simply superb. I am a pretty good pancake maker (I am good at most things of course) but things are much better than anything else I have eaten. I was trying to see how I could sneak a few into my pockets to bring back home. And the raisin loaf … well that I could write a whole blog post on by itself. I am a bit of a raisin loaf connoisseur and again these guys know how to make raisin loaf.

I have to get off to the conference now. It finishes today and I have to leave before the closing session in order to catch my flight back to London in time. If anything interesting happens I might post again from the airport tonight. Otherwise you will hear from me again next week as Helen and I are going on a hardship business trip to Nassau, Bahama’s (fortunately Hurricane Sandy is now long gone).

And thanks to the one additional Twitter follower … you know who you are!

 

Brussels – Take 2

Now that I have spent a full day in Brussels I feel adequately informed enough to express some views on Brussels. Excuse me for not doing that yesterday.

The conference officially started last night.  It is only a 5 minute walk from the hotel. The ladies were complaining about the cobbled streets and high heels. Wasn’t an issue for me though. Crossing the road was especially when I thought it was a one-way road and only looked the one direction before crossing. Fortunately wasn’t a problem because clearly Brussels must be a very unsafe city at night because there was only one car driving on the road and it came from the direction I was looking in. (This morning they were about 10 cars during the rush hour so I had to remember to look both ways.)  Still wandering where all the people are in Brussels. At lunch time today I went back to my hotel to do some emails/phone calls and 2/3rds of the shops were closed. In fact I have yet to see a shop open except the Belgium Beer shop next to the hotel (we would call that a bottle store in SA).

The start of the conference was quite good except that there was no where to sit for dinner.  They had tables out but those could only accommodate about a third of the people present.  The key note speaker was a journalist (Paul Mason) and I was surprised at how nervous he was for someone who is on television regularly. He stuttered and stammered his way through the talk. Good content though. For those technologically advanced people reading the blog, I am now on Twitter and so if you want to follow the exciting developments at the conference then you can follow me.  My Twitter name is @ptactuary (go on Marcus I know you will).

After the keynote there was a ‘Taste of Belgium’ which was actually a chocolate fountain which you could dip cheese under. And Belgium beer on tap. I was tired after having been woken up for breakfast at 4:30am on the plane so I went to bed.

The Belgians know how to do breakfast though. Pancakes and Waffles for breakfast.  What more could you ask for?! My kids would have loved it.  I did. Definitely having those again tomorrow.

Full day conference today. Paul will be proud of me as I only missed one session and that was on Solvency II (and who really cares as that is now postponed until 2016). If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry, it isn’t important unless you’re an actuary and then I consider it unimportant anyway. The sessions have been very good in general except one of our competitors marketed themselves in their presentation which I thought was very poor taste for an industry conference. I also spoke today so that is out of the way.  Good turnout for my session (more people attended than had signed up) and seemed to get a good response (sorry you weren’t there Jules I don’t think I did justice to your slides).

Belgians are clearly not good engineers or planners though.  The conference centre is the worst I have ever been two. The venues are miles apart (no really miles is correct). It can take you at least 15 minutes to walk from the one venue to the next. Worse than walking between lectures at UCT. And only 1 escalator between floors. Ever seen 1 escalator and 1000 people trying to go up simultaneously. You would have thought that by now they would have figured out how poorly laid out the conference centre is. And then to get to the upper floors (because the exhibition hall is on floor -1 and the other venues are on floor 3 or 4) you have to walk up stairs.  No escalator. There are some lifts but they are so small they can take about 4 people at once and there are only 3 of them. Similar logistics problems at lunch today when the queue for lunch was about 100 people long.  Fortunately I got there early so I managed to finish eating before most people even had their food.  You would swear that they would have figured that out already.

Weather was overcast and raining most of the day. Still around 7-10 degrees C. Gala dinner upcoming. Go to go and put my suit on.

PS: Was trying to add some photos but couldn’t because of software upgrade issues. Will try to again tomorrow.

Brussels

I never planned to blog this trip but there is so much to say that I thought I would anyway.  I am in Brussels for a few days for a conference (another exciting actuarial one). I usually don’t blog my business trips as they tend to be to London and back and I now consider London my second home. But a trip to Brussels is a little unique.  I am actually here for the UK Life Conference. Go figure – a UK conference held in Brussels. Probably especially arranged for the Euro skeptics. I believe the real reason is that it is much cheaper to host here than in the UK. I guess that says something about the attractiveness of Brussels.

I flew over from CT last night and I got a major fright when the guy facing me (business class seats  on BA alternate front and back so the passenger next to you looks directly at you) introduced himself by name to me. I was so stunned that my first thought was I know the guy but once I got over that thought (I didn’t), I realised he was expecting my name in return. Didn’t he know that I don’t want to speak to a stranger for the next 12 hours? I want to eat dinner, watch my movie and go to sleep. Fortunately there is a screen between the seats and I purposed to ensure it went up immediately I could do it. That did cut him off from talking to me the whole night (fortunately). For those of you who think I am anti-social, I promise to leave it down during my next trip and also to talk to the person looking at me.

I transferred through Heathrow airport to Brussels which was relatively painless as these things go. As we got onto the flight to Brussels a mother with 2 youngish (younger than Chloe) children realised that the one daughter had left her backpack in the terminal. Snot and trane (sorry foreigners – use Google translator if you need to). Fortunately the cabin crew went back and found it for her. Then the lady sitting next to me gets on and starts rummaging through her bag in desperation. The more she rummaged, the more desperate she became. I thought she must have lost her cellphone, passport or something like that. But no.  She finds it and a big sigh of relief she pulls out a box of snacks to eat and promptly starts nibbling away. Then out comes a shoe box (yes out of same bag) and I am thinking what now? She opens it up with a flourish and inside is her knitting.  A kid walks past and loudly points it out to his parents that there is ‘a weird woman knitting out of a shoebox’. My thought exactly but I just didn’t articulate it well (or not at all). Then she suddenly curls herself up on the seat and goes to sleep and snores most of the way to Brussels.  It takes all types to make the World go around (in fact it doesn’t). In case you were wondering she wasn’t old (read into old whatever suits you).

Landed in Brussels to what the captain described a ‘lovely day’. By that he clearly meant 7 degrees C outside with low level cloud but not raining yet (because it did rain about an hour later).  The airport looks like it is just being built. When you exit into the terminal building it seems as if the place is deserted. Not a sign of a person until you hit passport control (and that took about 15 minutes to walk to that).  Had my first run in with a Belgian official at customs. I exited through EU channel (because I came from London).  Only to be stopped and told that since I actually came from Cape Town I had to go through the other channel. This resulted in me walking backwards to where I started, selecting the channel right next to the one I had just walked through and then walking right past the officious lady and through the exit. What was the point of that? Probably an EU regulation and seeing as Brussels is the seat of power they had to enforce it.

When I exited I found all the other people in Brussels outside the terminal that were missing from inside it. And then I wondered whether I had in fact arrived in Brussels because it could have been Mecca actually given the demographics of the people in front of me in their thousands (yes I am not exaggerating). Then I remembered seeing an Ethiad plane and realised that these people were indeed meeting the Pilgrim’s on their return.  That and the fact that I saw a bar selling Stella Artois jolted me back into believing I was indeed in Brussels.

I took a taxi becuase trying to work out which train to take when everything is in 4 languages just seemed like too much hard work for a Sunday. The people in front of me didn’t want to take the driver that was first in line. I thought they preferred the Mercedes Taxi to the VW he was driving. I took him and off we sped. Then I realised that they were probably locals and this guys reputation proceeded him. Before we left the airport road system he was driving at 110 km/h and I swear the sign I saw said 60 km/h. We had to use all 3 lanes on one bend. Was the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Brussels? Had I gotten on board with a retired Thierry Boutsen (if you’re old enough to know who he is)? After 4 times peeling my face off the front seat (at least his breaks worked) and twice off the side window (due to G-force on the cornering), we made it to the hotel ‘Royal Windsor Hotel’.

I attempted to check in only to be told that check in was 2pm. I wanted to ‘freshen up’ as the ladies would say (by that I mean change my shirt and put on some deodorant). I asked if there was no way I could get the room before 2pm and she said no. I said not even 1 minute to 2pm and she smiled and said no. Probably another EU regulation. I went to have some lunch in the bar instead. As I was in Brussels I thought I better go for the Mussels only to be told that they had run out. What? In Brussels, run out of Mussels? (There’s a limerick in there somewhere). Finished lunch at 1:50pm and thought I would try my luck and see if I could get a room and incredibly even though EU regulations say check-in time is 2pm I got my room at 1:50pm. Someone from the UK probably has to pay a fine now (no one else ever pays fines in the EU).

The hotel is meant to be 5-star (http://www.royalwindsorbrussels.com/).  I think to get 5-stars in Europe it is just based on having a large fluffy towel in the bathroom and a bathrobe behind the door. The guys who do these hotel websites need serious commendation. How to do take a room that is 3m x 3m (yes I measured) and make it look big? I took a few minutes to find the TV because that was even tucked away in the corner cupboard. And the bed is so soft I can feel the floor through it. The plumbing has not been re-done since the war (first WW that is). The pressure is so poor that a shower is useless unless you’re into trickling water over your body. The bath took 20 minutes to fill. Probably another EU regulation about water pressure in hotel rooms.

All this to write and the conference hasn’t even started yet.  Sorry there aren’t any photos. I was scared I might breach an EU regulation.  I haven’t been to Brussels for about 26 years. Now I remember why I haven’t rushed back.