Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Wed 26 January - Trains

Last year's stats are in and they make grim reading for Belgium's trains. Just over 14% of trains were late in 2010. By late, they mean reaching its destination 6 minutes late. I have a real problem with this. Isn't late, later than the time advertised? When I wrote a letter to every newspaper in Britain a few years ago complaining about the punctuality of a certain train in the south west of England, I was informed that a train has to be more than 10 minutes late in order for it to be counted as actually being late.

Now, if I turn up 5 minutes late to catch my train, it will probably have since departed. I missed my train because I was late. But, if a train departs 5 minutes late in Belgium, it is actually on time. I'd love to know what the Germans would class as late. I recently watched a report about the "Bullet" trains in Japan. They are rarely more than a minute late. In fact, they are delayed on average by as little as 6 seconds. Ridiculously efficient.

Belgium's trains fared even worse in rush-hour periods: 16% were late during the morning rush-hour, and 21% late for commuters coming home. I have to say, my own experience of them has actually been very good (this comment will curse me in the months ahead no doubt). I'd estimate that for the route I use, they've been on time at least 90% (possibly more) of the time.

And that concludes my geekiest blog entry yet.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Mon 24 January

Tens of thousands (50,000 according to the organisers, 34,000 said the police) of Belgians took to the streets of Brussels yesterday in a march they'd labelled "SHAME." A chance for some people to vent their anger and dismay at the country's ongoing political inertia. By all accounts, it passed in good spirits. There were some rather amusing placards too: "We want beer, frites and a government." Sadly, only two of those were possible. And my favourite: "Blah, blah, blah, act now." Exactly.

What was most impressive was that this march was put together on the back of a Facebook campaign by 5 young people which gathered momentum in the space of just a few weeks.

What was also noticeable from the coverage in today's press was the number of young people present. Many of them knew that their actions were perhaps "a little naive, and unlikely to change much...but they felt they had to do something." Many let it be known that what was happening was having a damaging effect on both communities, be it French or Flemish. Yesterday, they stood as one to condemn the politicians who have so tragically let them and their compatriots down. The leaders of most of the main political parties were also in attendance. I'm amazed they didn't get lynched.

With regards to a possible solution, a student of mine recently told me that he believes that Belgian will eventually become a federation, split along linguistic lines. He believes the model it will emulate will be Switzerland. The latter being formed of several self-governing cantons, with either German, French or Italian spoken in each. Switzerland as a nation state still exists, but within it are the autonmous cantons who seem to do fine by themselves. I guess the set up of America also provides some comparison.

This way, Belgium remains a country, with each canton doing as they wish. The only (major) stumbling block is of course what to do with Brussels: part of the Flanders canton (remember, it is in Flanders, but with over 80% of people being French, and not Dutch, speakers, or to form a new one altogether.

It was the first time I had heard such an idea. Sounds pretty plausible too.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Thurs 13 Jan - The Belgians Strike Back

Looking at the political stalemate in this country, one doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. Or just be thankful I'm not Belgian! I've been a little surprised that people here have been so muted in their response to this charade. At the very least, I expected to see the odd march or two.

Instead, Belgians have begun to adopt a very British approach and poke fun at it all. Deal with it through laughter. A well known Belgian actor has urged his fellow citizens to stop shaving until a new government is formed. I expect to see a lot of beards very soon then. A few demonstrations have been organised in Brussels over the next couple of weeks, promising to be light-hearted affairs. A journalist's rant posted on YouTube has become a hit over recent weeks (only in Dutch I'm afraid, although there is a version with French subtitles).

And, rather magnificently, a website has been set up, which counts down the days left until Belgian officially breaks the world record for time taken to form a new government. The current holder at 289 days, and one known for having its own problems here or there, is...Iraq!!

Vive La Belgique!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Thurs 6 Jan - Sun 9 Jan 2011: Amsterdam

Final leg of our mini-European tour. C and myself had been invited to lunch on the Sunday in The Hague by some Dutch relatives who she had never met before. So, we decided to combine it with spending a few days in Amsterdam. I've only ever been there once before, and that was for a friend's 21st. Needless to say, I didn't do any of the things I wanted to. Can you really see a bunch of 21 year old male students visiting Amsterdam and going to the Anne Frank House together? No, neither can I.

This was the chance to make up for that wasted opportunity. The weather was predictably crap (isn't winter in northern Europe so damn depressing. The sun just goes into hibernation from November until May), so we took advantage of the "I Amsterdam" pass which, for €49, allows you to visit a huge number of the cities finest museums, galleries, canal houses, have unlimited use on public transport, do a boat tour, and much more, all in the space of exactly 48 hours.

I think I worked out that we would have spent the equivalent of about €110 had we paid for everything we saw in this time, thus more than doubling the value of the pass. Never been to so many galleries in my life.

I finally got to appreciate what a wonderful and, damn right cool, city Amsterdam is. I wonder how many Brits who visit it actually pay any attention to its delights, or whether most never venture beyond the red light district (fascinating though it is) and the coffee shops. It does cosy, brilliantly. Everything seen from the outside looks so warm and inviting. You find this in Scandinavia too. Must be the weather.

The boat tour took in the many neighbourhoods situated alongside the canals. A proper, long, canal walk will wait until a return visit, and warmer weather. It really is one of those cities you just can't imagine being unhappy living in. And then you have the Dutch people themselves: tall, fair, handsome, and thoroughly lovely in every way. They also speak English (perfectly) with the best and most endearing accent by anyone I have ever heard.

A city to rival Paris? A couple more visits to both to come up with the definitive answer.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Friday 31 Dec - New Year's Eve

Did very little this evening. Partly because I'm knackered from all the travelling we've been doing recently (for which I will and rightly deserve zero sympathy), partly because what exactly am I supposed to do on New Year's Eve in Mons? Our two friends who live here were away, and the other people we do know we don't know well enough. Or they have families.

And partly because New Year's Eve is another occasion when you're supposed to "do something," ideally, something big. And when I feel forced into doing and feeling something ("yeah, be happy, smile, it's New Year's Eve, let's party..."), I tend to react against it. Surprise, surprise.

Anyway, I did actually wander to the Grand Place to see how Les Montois like to celebrate it. Last year, I remember seeing fireworks coming from the Grand Place area so agreed (albeit under pressure from C) to see them this year. Fireworks. Another thing I just can't get excited about. How many bloody fireworks displays do you need to see in a lifetime? Yes, I've seen some amazing ones (in Spain), but I don't need to see them again and again.

So, there were around a hundred people milling about. Some with alcohol in their hands, some wearing sparkly things on their clothes, others with their faces painted. And then someone began a countdown (I made it to be only 11.56pm on my watch!). And then...nothing. A few kisses exchanged between friends. A few people shouting. A bit.

Everyone looking around, slightly embarrassed, thinking that maybe they missed something. Maybe something was happening behind their backs. Or in the next street. A few bangers were let off in the middle of the street. Bit of colour here and there. And that was that. The official New Year's Eve damp squib.