November 4, 2012

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 (  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.

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