Tuesday, August 29

Wie komme ich am besten zum Bahnhof, baby?

Europe loves nothing more than a big project, something to really put it on the map. It is constantly on the look out for ideas, so if you have any you should get in touch with the European Commission. I’m sure they’d jump on it. Particularly if the US has already been there and got the t-shirt, preferably several years previously. But don’t bother calling if your idea is a common currency - some member states managed to get one introduced in 2002 – or European search engine to try to curtail the influence of google - backed with a sizeable chunk of French and German funds, Quaero is apparently a soon to be unveiled attempt to create euroGoogle – or an aircraft company to rival Boeing.

Another idea already taken, I’m afraid, is that of a European GPS system. The Galileo positioning system - named after the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (was science really so rock’n’roll that they needed stage names in the 16th Century?) - is a proposed satellite navigation system, to be built by the EU as an alternative to the Global Positioning System (which is controlled by the United States military) and the Russian GLONASS. The system, which should be operational by 2010, is intended to provide:
· Greater precision to all users than is currently available.
· Improved coverage of satellite signals at higher latitudes, which northern regions such as Scandinavia will benefit from.
· A positioning system upon which European nations can rely even in times of war or political disagreement.

Now these may all seem like perfectly legitimate reasons for a European positioning system - or they may appear like ridiculous excuses - I just think that it is a valuable opportunity missed. What Europe really should have done is to focus on the end market applications. Its where the EU could make a real difference to the lives of its citizens. Here’s my thinking:

As a well-known comedian once noted, GPS is like your wife. When things are going well and you are obeying her orders, everyone is happy. As she (for GPS is invariably female – ironic given that gender’s reputation for map reading) purrs ‘please turn right here’ or ‘straight ahead for 200 metres’ you can almost imagine her being as a deliciously restrained Mrs Moneypenny. As soon as you put a foot out of line, however, she snaps utterly and immediately, ‘I said turn right HERE. HERE. NOW. FOR GOD SAKE MAN WOULD YOU EVER JUST LISTEN TO WHAT I AM TELLING YOU AND TURN RIGHT IMMEDIATELY’. A complete battleaxe. And what makes the wife comparison even more eerily accurate is that she is normally completely wrong.

Given all of this, what the Europeans need to concentrate on more than the space satellites that provide you with your position is on the actual GPS – or Galileo if you prefer - applications installed in your car. Give Galileo an upper class British accent and have her say things like ‘ooo you naughty boy, you were supposed to have turned right there but nevermind, you’re the boss.’ Or perhaps for the German market, Fraulein Ingrid could, at the end of a successful navigation, mutter things like, ‘Reinhard, you are so punctual, have you ever been late’? Imagine the commercial success you would be looking at in the respective markets.

It is here that the Europeans can steal a real march on the Americans. Now I know the Beach Boys were full of praise for the diversity of American women but they can keep the mid-west farmers daughters and even their Californian girls if a European GPS system could give us a glimpse of sassy Sweden or sumptuous Slovenia. Picture this, you step into your car and turn it on to be greeted by the following dulcet tones, ‘hallo its Inga here, are you gonna take me for a little ride today’. Goddamn right Inga, let’s get it on.

Jeremy Clarkson is on holidays


Wednesday, August 23

famous (ahem) Belgians

It is probably what Belgium is most celebrated for. Having very few, if any, famous people. How ironic then that when the time came to elect the greatest Belgian of them all, they held two separate competitions.

Here is how the Flemish voted: http://www.degrootstebelg.be/

1. Father Damiaan
2. Paul Janssen
3. Eddy Merckx
4. Ambiorix
5. Adolf Daens
6. Andreas Vesalius
7. Jacques Brel
8. Gerardus Mercator
9. Peter Paul Rubens
10. Hendrik Conscience

And the Walloon’s: http://lesplusgrandsbelges.rtbf.be/

1. Jacques Brel
2. King Boudewijn
3. Father Damiaan
4. Eddy Merckx
5. Sister Emanuelle
6. José Van Dam
7. Benoît Poelvoorde
8. Hergé
9. René Magritte
10. Georges Simenon

As can be seen, there is very little overlap. The Flemish largely opt for their own, as do the Walloons. One more piece of evidence for those who believe that Belgium is really two countries anyway. Nevertheless, given that the split hasn’t happened (yet), the Witloof finds the lack of clarity to be thoroughly suboptimal and has come up with a very complicated manner of deciding who the single Greatest Belgian of all time actually is. The methodology, which is unlikely to keep mathematicians or those operating at the advanced end of the social sciences awake at night, is as follows:

Focussing entirely upon the respective top tens, 100 points are allocated to each of those toping their respective poll, 90 to those coming second, 80 to the third placed…right down to ten for those coming tenth. These scores are then multiplied by the percentage that roughly coordinates to the presumed relative size of the two main language communities in Belgium – 60% Flemish and 40% French. Finally after adding up the scores of any of those who came in the top ten in both Flanders and Wallonia we can see the following, entirely expected, top five:

1. Damiaan (92)
2. Merckx (76)
3. Brel (64)
4. Janssen (54)
5. Ambiorix (42)

So the Germans and the English went for the most important wartime and post-war figures respectively – Adenauer and Churchill. The Dutch went for another dead politician – granted he died in rather different circumstances – Pim Fortuyn. The Belgians on the other hand, although inhabiting the battleground for most European wars, opted, true to form, for someone I had frankly never heard of.

Now I am willing to admit that this says more about me than about the Belgians - I mean I thought that Emanuelle was a porn star, that Jose van Dam was a misspelling of Jean-Claude van Damme, and that Poirot and the singing nun should have been contenders for the title. It turns out that Damiaan, aka Jozef de Veuster, is the patron saint of those with leprosy and AIDS/HIV, was beatified in 1995 and is currently awaiting formal approval for sainthood. All of which helps place him above ridicule in a flippant blog.

One of the main debates in all of this was the respective worthiness of Damiaan and Merckx for the title. For a country that knows what the foreign perception of it is the temptation to vote for someone like Merckx, well-known abroad, must have been almost overwhelming. However, it appears that it is precisely the recognition of this which decided the minds of most Belgians. They would not be seen to promote the obvious candidate – the one man who most people outside of the country could readily associate with Belgium. Instead they went for Damiaan. I think that they can be proud.

Saturday, August 19

the one in which the witloof attempts to interact with his three readers

is there anything you would like to know about belgium?
or anything about the EU?

just ask the witfool (sic)
and see if he can answer you.

Manneken Pis: "I can speak!"

The Manneken Pis (www.manneken-pis.com) stunned tourists of various nationalites on Monday by speaking. Shocked visitors to Brussels’ most famous landmark reported his words to be "what are you looking at?" As men, women and children stared on dumbstruck, the Manneken is reported to have calmly continued urinating.

In an exclusive interview with your correspondent the little fella appeared determined to make up for almost four centuries of silence. Asked about his favourite tourist nationalities, he reveals quite a softspot for the Japanese. "Or are they Chinese, or Korean. They all look the same to me." He is clearer that he cannot stand the Germans. "Can anyone?", he comments, while also lambasting the Americans who sometimes obscure his view of the other side of the road.

391 years after taking his place in the rue de l’etuve it seems the little boy wouldn’t mind a change of scenery. "To tell you the truth" he confides, "I would quite like the chance to piss somewhere else for a while. I quite like the rarified atmosphere of the Sablon." He denies wanting to move somewhere closer to female colleague Janneke Pis. "I’m sick and tired of listening to tourists call her my sister, she is absolutely no relation," he says. Asked if he could foresee a romantic relationship blossoming between the two, he frostily responds "I’m six".

The Manneke’s hard cold exterior is briefly pierced with mention of his retired costume fitter. For fifty years his daily attire was chosen by the same man. Since September 2004, however, he has had to endure being dressed by a string of different people. "To be frank its embarrassing" he says pointedly, going on to lambast the city authorities for their failure to find a long-term replacement. "It’s fine for them in their air-conditioned bureaux" he squeaks.

He is not the only person irritated at the recent turns of events. The curator of the atomium is fuming at the loss of revenue at his own tourist attraction. "Its got everything" he groans, referring to his three foot nemesis, "the ideal location, and now the gift of the gab". "What am I to do with my rusty balls?"

Inside: Danes' praying for Little Mermaid to abandon her silence

Monday, August 14

Je ne comprend rien

I had a stopover in Delhi on the way back from China a few years ago. Driving into the city centre from the airport the taxi driver asked how long I planned to stay in his country.
"A day", I told him.
"One day", he spluttered, "for the whole of India? Its not enough time".

I have been living in Belgium for close to 4 years now. Sufficient, you may think, to get a good understanding of the country that put the be into benelux. I would have to beg to differ. It may be about the same size as a large postage stamp (the scale on the top of a map of Belgium probably reads 1:1) but it is impossibly complex.

There are seven parliament's for example. The House of Representatives, the Senate, a Parliament for Flanders, one for Wallonia, another for Brussels, a sixth for the German speaking stamp edge in the east, and finally one for the French speaking community, which appears to be to link the French speakers of Wallonia and those in Brussels (French speaking but surrounded by Flanders). Quite how these institutions interact with each other is anyone's guess. Not even the Belgian's seem entirely sure. The only certain thing is that it has led to an incredible complication of all aspects of daily life. Parliament's exist to legislate, so you do the math.

In July of 2003 , young Flemish politician Vincent Van Quickenborne was appointed Secretary of State for Administrative Reform/Simplification. His task: cut red tape, make the country comprehendable. Van Quickenborne enthusiastically took up the challenge, announcing several initiatives aimed at 'ridiculous regulations and pointless pedantry'. His department launched the website www.kafka.be to track progress. Claiming (as of August 2006) that the job is 82% done, it contains such gems as the Kafka Index and 'Absurdity of the Month'.

By far the greatest innovation of the campaign, however, came when Van Quickenborne decided that he needed to set a personal example: he would call himself Q. The man decided to simplify his own name. James Bond fan's may consider it sacrilege but you can follow Q's exploits on: http://www.staatssecretarisq.be/

If the Belgian's can barely get to grips with their own country, what chance does the outsider have? If the question appears rhetorical, that is because it is. The outsider is shafted. Without hope. Puzzled. Bemused. Lost. Literally.

When we moved here 4 years ago, we hired a removal company to transport our few possessions to our temporary residence in the outskirts of Brussels. As he loaded the last bits and pieces into the van, we gave the poor man directions for when he arrived in Belgium.
"You'll be arriving from the South, so take the ring of Brussels, direction Antwerp, exit for Liege", we explained, forgetting that the Israel Palestine conflict is probably less intractable than the fight over what language should be used on road signs around Brussels.
"Righty O", he chirped, " see yiz on Tuesday so, about 4ish".

6 o'clock Tuesday evening. Still no sign of our belongings.

6.15. Nothing.


6.45. The phone rings. "What the f*ck is going on?" screamed the clearly panicked voice on the other end, "I have been around this f*cking ring so many times I'm beginning to get dizzy".
"Calm down, calm down" we chorus, like a couple of scouse anger management therapists, "where are you?"
"If I knew that, I wouldn't be f*cking calling you."
"Just tell us what you can see on the signs."
"Well, I was heading towards the exits for L-i-e-g-e, but then it just f*cking dissappeared. Now I am going towards some place called L-u-i-k!"
"It is the same place".
"Don't be taking the piss out of me now, I'm really not in the mood".
"We're not, just follow Luik, then take the first exit for a place called Sterrebeek".
"Don't hang up on me", he screamed, clearly believing at this stage that he would rather have taken his chances with the Bermuda Triangle.
"We're here, don't worry. Just follow L-u-i-k, everything will be fine".

Some Belgian cities are easily identifiable in both Flemish and French: Genk is Genk no matter which way you look at it. Brugge and Bruges are not too disimilar. You shouldn't get too confused between Brussel and Bruxelles. Most, however, are less readily comparable and around Brussels where you are moving between French, Flemish and bilingual areas, this is crucially important. Antwerpen = Anvers. Gent = Gand. Mons = Bergen. And, of course, Liege = Luik.

As he rolled up the driveway, 15 minutes later, mobile phone still pressed firmly to his ear, he stammered, "that f*cking k-e-t-t-l-e better be on".
“Belgians wake up to discover that they actually enjoy living together”

Belgians went to sleep as usual on Thursday evening last, muttering insults about their compatriots. They awoke, Friday, to sweetness and light. “It reminds me of Woodstock”, commented one man, who skipped off whistling the tune to All You Need is Love before he could be asked his name. He looked Flemish, noted somebody, failing to adjust quickly enough to the new environment in which the language barrier fails to matter.

Initial reports suggest that the new spirit has infected each of the language communities, as we refer to them out of nothing more than habit. “I think that the last fifteen years of increasing political independence of the regions should be undone” was the initial reaction of Geert from Aarschot. “Absoluut” agreed Yves from Brussels, promising that he would follow his first public utterance in Flemish with an actual conversion of mother tongue. Nobody from the German east of the country could be found for comment. All Eurocrats had already left for the weekend and probably couldn't care less anyway.

Reaction from the political classes has been unanimously positive. Early speculation had suggested that the big losers from the new environment would be Vlaams Belang. However they no longer exist. A person who used to be referred to as woordvoerder, but never porte-parole, muttered something about “slight embarrassment”, adding “désolé!” Belgian Premier Guy Verhofstad told the assembled press corp, “it is the culmination of my life’s work”, and declared it yet another national holiday. Members of the few surviving opposition parties cried, possibly of happiness.

Urgent plans were being made for the re-unification of the Catholic Universities of Louvain-la-Neuve and Leuven. Professors in Louvain-la-Neuve were making plans to sell the ‘city’ to a multi-storey car park magnate.

Analysis P9: Thirty five mile daisy chain built round previously disputed Brussels a sign of the new age.

Monday, August 7

language problems

An evening meal in a local Italian eatery highlights the important difference between le (pain) and la(pin).

It is self-evident I suppose that if I simply learnt the local languages, I would have less difficulty speaking them. The problem is that fall into so many pits while attempting to speak that learning just seems hopeless.

I suppose you could call it entertaining. Take a recent visit to an new Italian joint not far from where we live. I ordered a pizza parmigianno, feeling reasonably confident that I had fully comprehended the menu:

Pizza Parmigianno, pizza avec tomates, aubergine et parmesan

I had reason to be extra confident when you consider that the each dish was spelled out in three languages, one of them my own:

Pizza Parmigianno, pizza with tomatoes, egg plant and parmesan

Tucking into some of the starchy bread on offer, I launched into a long discourse about the fact that as far as I was concerned the English for aubergine is aubergine. The Americans, as always, bore the brunt of my criticism for egg plant appearing on menus all over my adopted city, and probably well beyond.

I was still ranting as the waiter arrived with our dishes, a hefty steak for her, the so-called pizza parmigianno for me. I immediately caught the unmistakeable waft of copious amounts of garlic. Apparently emanating from my plate. Now if there is one thing I can stomach less than Americanisms, it is garlic. Dracula probably prefers it.

Having shed my plate of the most obvious shards of the offending vegetable (the garlic not the “egg plant”) I tucked in. A bit less than three-quarters of the way through, offended by the smell of my own breath, I had to admit defeat.

As the waiter arrived to clear up he asked whether everything had been to our satisfaction.
“C’était très bon”, smiled Barbara.
“Oui, ca était”, I confirmed.
He looked suspiciously at my plate and said something along the lines of ‘yeah right and by the way there is no way that they’ll believe me in the kitchen when they see what you’ve left over’.
Being over polite, I racked my brains for something to blame rather than the cooking style. “C’était a cause de la pain”, I stuttered eventually.
“Pardon?”, he said clearly puzzled. I ploughed on; “La pain, c’était a cause de la pain”.
“Ah oui, vous voulez le ramener pour le chien, peut-être?” he joked, hastily departing.

I turned to Barbara, who was grinning in an smug trilingual manner. “LE pain”, she scoffed, “bread is masculine”. I mulled this over. “I just blamed the rabbit didn’t I?”

“Man in the moon distraught over Belgian power cut”

The man in the moon has urged the Belgian authorities to act quickly to restore full power to the country’s highway lights, Russian cosmanauts reported Wednesday. Fresh from their latest moon landing the Ruskies painted a bleak picture of the psychological state of the moons sole dweller. “He is listening to a lot of Tom Waits up there, I fear for the future” commented Yuri, first commandant, adding that a copy of REM’s Man on the Moon had brought only “a faint hint of that old cheeky grin”.

“He is fed up just looking at just the Great Wall of China” commented the Omsk native, who was keen to add that the MotM encourages ambitious wall building in general. “You get a lot of time to talk on those cold lunar evenings” he commented coyly, “the MotM has often told me of his disappointment that Hadrians Wall hasn’t been extended”.

MotM is reported to “love the comical Belgian driving”. “He is fascinated by spookrijders” reports Yuri, who tells us that MotM just wishes that he could see more of the secondary road network. “We told him about the ‘priorité a droite’ and he thought we were pulling his leg” chips in the clearly well travelled Sergei, gravitational pull expert and flight deck controller (see Who Can Blame Him? on page 9). The love affair with the Belgian highways is tempered somewhat by his dislike of the extensive use of tunnels, we are led to believe. Displaying undeniable eye for detail, the moons first citizen is also reported to have complained about the lack of highway between Aalter and Knokke.

Overall, however, he commends the Belgian road system, prays for a speedy restoration of full power, and in common with many in Flanders’ first city, “can’t wait for the ring of Antwerp to be completely finished”.

Inside Exclusive: Michael Jackson to Moonwalk on the Moon in extraordinary bid to cheer moon man up.