Saturday, September 26, 2009

Brussels Pouts II

I survived another visit to Brussels, this time to negotiate not one but two grants. The work part of the trip went quite well, and I think I pulled off an unprecedented feat of coming out of there with more money than we requested when we arrived. Brussels itself remains unimpressive. Eurosnobs who complain about the American capital should look at Der Spiegel, and I don’t mean the German periodical. Brussels does not deserve to be the capital of Europe, which has so many cities that are far more glorious, beautiful, and tourist friendly. Their grand plaza is feeble by European standards. The monuments in DC are more open, accessible, and impressive. DC is not my favorite city for various reasons, but I vastly prefer it over Brussels. Indeed, one of my gripes about DC, the unbridled bidirectional racism, was gone when I was there last year for the Neuroscience conference. It was a totally different experience talking to black people there, who were stunned and oddly grateful that we elected a black president. Two taxi drivers actually thanked me, and said they felt like it was all one country now. Of course, bro, I told them. Sorry it came as such a shock. It should have happened decades ago.

Brussels has much of the snobbery of Paris without the history to back it up. That requires a very selective interpretation of French history, but we can go with it; just ask any Parisian. Food in Brussels is good, but quite overpriced; for the same amount of money, you can get two equally tasty and unique meals in neighboring countries, or six of them in some Eastern European countries. Their mass transit system is so bad that it gave me flashbacks to living in Atlanta. The air circulation is terrible, and hence the underground metro is hot, smoggy, and dusty. The ticket vending machines do not accept coins or bills. To be fair, this is true of many other ticket vending machines. For example, both Schipol and Amsterdam Centraal Station have only a few machines that take coins, and you always see tourists milling around, confused and sometimes frenetic, before they work this out. Paint them red, or put flashing lights on them, or something. But the ones in Brussels’ Centraal Station are worse; they also do not accept credit cards, or even my European funky Maestro card, or yet another European card that I never use and keep in my backpack for just such an occasion. I think the only acceptable form of payment is telepathy, and then only in Flemish, Dutch, or French. Rush hour is as bad as anywhere I have seen. Taxis are pointless. The trains and metro lines are late. Worse, they do not adapt accordingly.

And so it was that I was on platform 6 at Bruxelles Centraal Station with a ticket I purchased from a human after a very long line. That human, and monitors displaying departures, directed me to platform 6 to catch a 17:02 to the airport. At platform 6, there was another monitor that said the train at 17:02 went to the airport. One would think that boarding the train at that platform at 17:02 is a good idea, especially if you can see no other trains on that platform or anywhere near it. I was nonetheless suspicious, being no longer a virgin Eurotraveller, and tried to find a conductor or train employee to confirm. Although the train and the platform were packed beyond any reasonable limit, I found no such person. So I boarded the train, which left at 17:02. So far, we seem to have many cues I did the right thing. But, sure enough, by the time the train got to Braine-Le-Comte, I realized it was the wrong one. I got off and explained my situation to the very polite Belgian train attendant, who gave me a free ticket and a printout of how to get back. Sure enough, the train that returned to Brussels Midi was late, yet the train leaving there to the airport was not. I eventually made it, and ran pathetically to the Lufthansa desk. Expert’s tip: if at all possible, when sweaty and pitiable and late, go to the desk with the oldest person you can see. Go for the most senior person possible. I did this and told the man (whose nametag said supervisor) there was a flight leaving at 19:55. I knew this because my boss was on it. It was 19:20. I was doubly stunned that he gave me a ticket, and did not charge me for it. I made it just in time. The only fun part of this was the look of surprise on my boss’ face. She asked what happened. I was sorely tempted to tell her that I changed it just so I could talk with her about work, but I told her the truth and the rest of the trip was straightforward.

I went to Brussels by flying Lufthansa to Munich, then Belgian Airlines to Brussels. Lufthansa gave me a free sandwich, candy bar, and drink (they even had the option of free wine or beer), even though the flight from Graz was only an hour. The flight from Munich to Brussels was 30 minutes longer, but we got nothing except a menu trying to sell food that looked worse.

Munich airport has an appropriately secluded entryway in their mens’ bathroom, like most airports. No casual passerby can see inside. You have to go in, turn left, turn right, and then you’re in the sink area, and another turn to the urinals. There you find further proof the Germans really do have a sense of humor (they just hide it well, much like their chancellor). All urinals have a little fly painted right at the appropriate aiming point. It’s really fun. You really feel a sense of accomplishment, even though nothing happens when you win. How much more would it cost to rig a fly that blinks or buzzes or melts or something when hit? Or maybe you win tickets like in skee ball, or a siren goes off, or something? So many good ideas on this blog, and only four readers.

This could also be handy for potty training. Indeed, though there are more bloggers than flies, I am probably the only one who can honestly say that he directly inspired a toilet training book. The Toddlers’ Potty Book was written for me, because of me, and was a modest source of income over the years for my mother. And I can still use the potty today, even though the book mentioned neither urinals nor flies. The book was republished many times, which might lead smartass readers to wonder why I needed a potty book when I was in college. Hey, we all learn at different speeds, alright?

M√ľnchen fly
(not to be confused with Munching fly)

The Lufthansa sections of Munich and Frankfurt airport are excellent. They are well maintained, with clean padded seats and nice lounge areas. They have machines with free coffee and tea, and free newspapers, including several German ones and some English ones, namely the International Herald Tribune and USA Today. I first discovered this after transferring from Chicago, then buying coffee and an IHT. This annoyed me, of course, but the whole situation is probably far more annoying to the vendors there, who likely lose a lot of loot to Lufthansa’s largesse. The IHT used to be one of my favorites. A few months ago, they announced a new look (and price). Apparently, they decided to further jack their profits by firing much of their proofreading staff. I now catch an average of 2 typos per paper, when I formerly saw about none. Look, you greedy bastards, when you’re marketing toward intellectual snobs, avoid trivial mistakes. This blog has fewer typos than your paper, and I don’t get paid a dime for this. Get some copy editors in honor of William Safire, whose love for language leapt off every page and danced through my cortex many times. I don't know how many existing and new words I learned from him, as well as engaging verbifcations of existing words. Don't let future IHTs devolve in to a four letter word that he could surely have anagrammed.

My cellphone pic of a Bruxelles metro stop - not during rush hour, not a major stop, not even a transfer point.

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