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Wednesday, 13 June 2007

I'm home, thank god

So after fleeing the scary campsite and biking for several kilometers, we finally found food and coffee and water that didn't taste scary and started the long uphill climb to Brussels. We'd been tossing around the idea of biking in the Alps, but I think that idea has now been nixed. (I could do it! I just need toe clips on my folding bike.) The route was pretty, if steep. We got lost, as is usual, since the route is often not well marked. We found ourselves and headed for the center of town. The LF 2 actually ends at a youth hostel. How well planned!

I stooped to try to find Xena' brand of dogfood and I think I restarted on the wrong street. I lost the route again, but it's ok because I know what direction center is and there's a nice bike lane on this kind of major road.

Bike lanes are useful for so many things. For instance, you can park delivery vans there. I don't know if this is normal or not for the early part of a tuesday afternoon, but the traffic was terrible in Brussels all day. Stop and go on every major road. So the delivery van parked in the bike lane means you have to very very slowly merge into traffic, pass the van and then go the half block to the next obstruction.

There was a giant flatbed truck in the bike lane. Not parked, just intruding. A roadie whizzed past it. It moved about 5 centimeters further forward in traffic and slightly out of the bike lane. I reasoned it must be planning a left turn and needed the space, but as it moved forward, it got the the left. I started around it and it started moving again . . . to the right. The truck hit Xena's trailer. I started yelling and it stopped. Xena's trailer catches on things all the damn time. The guy could clearly hear me yelling and dinging like crazy, so I started forward again. And so did he. I tried to stop, but was pushed forward about two meters. I started hitting the flatbed and screaming at the guy to stop and trying to get out of the way. I couldn't get free from the truck. People started to stop to see what I was yelling about. The guy was not going to stop until another bicyclist got in front of him. He still didn't stop the truck engine. I couldn't get the trailer free and was afraid he was going to start moving again. so I left Xena out and Nicole ran up to get the guy of the truck. A gasp went up as Xena tried to run far away. "C'est un chien!" I tied her to a tree.

Xena's trailer was pinned under the truck such that it's tire was caught underneath. The tire was destroyed. The spot where it was stuck was right in front of the truck's tire. A few more meters of the truck creeping forward and the truck tire would have caught up with the dog trailer and that would have been the end of my dog. Or if he had sped up much, it would have been the end of me.

The driver finally stopped the engine and meandered around to see what was going on. I started yelling at him in French. He pulled the trailer free and lit a cigarette and looked bored. Wanted to know what I wanted him to do about it. Why was I holding him up?

I was unhurt, the dog was ok, my bike was ok, but the one trailer wheel was dead. I said he should have to pay for it. Then he got excited. The bike line is not for bikes, it's for trucks. If you try to get around a truck and it hits you, you're at fault.

I took stock of my situation. The thoroughly bored truck driver was clearly done with the matter. He was just going to finish his cigarette and leave. I could ask him for his information and if he provided it, I would be a foreigner who wasn't even a resident of Belgium. I gave up and was ready to stomp off when a cop approached.

The truck driver spoke in Flemish with the cop. I spoke in French and then in English, saying he should have to replace the tire. The cop told me that trucks have to keep right. It's the law in Belgium. In the future, I should look out for trucks. Because, he indicated but did not say directly, they have greater rights to the bike lanes than do bikes. He asked if I had insurance. Suddenly things took another mood. Is it legal to be insurance-less in Belgium? Would they deport me? I said I had health and personal liability and he let me go.

Either Belgium really does have way too many laws, many of which are stupid, or the cop was totally corrupt. Or it could be both things. If trucks have greater rights to bike lanes than do bikes, then painting them on the ground actually greatly reduces bike safety through making false promises. I've biked in several countries. In San Francisco, in Manhattan, in Paris, Berlin, Prague, Dresden, Amsterdam. The only city that I consider too unsafe to do again is Brussels. If marked bike routes are open season for trucks, I want nothing to do with biking there.

I collected myself and my belongings and walked a few meters to a café and ordered two hot chocolates. Oh my gods, my dog almost died. A woman there came up to me and said she'd seen everything and offered to be a witness. I said the cop said I was at fault. She said I was most certainly not. I told her what the cop said the law was. She became frustrated. Belgian laws! Too many of them! All so stupid!

The café waitress brought out to coffees and then realized she had gotten the order wrong and started to apologize profusely. I can't say how little I cared. I tried to explain why I didn't care at all, but it didn't come across so well.

The doggie ride was not going any further, so we chained it to the bike rack in front of the café. With two or three days in town, it should be possible to get it repaired. We started walking towards the tourist info. Slow going pushing the bikes along while Xena pulled every which way on her leash. Her two flaws are barking outside of churches and pulling on her leash. I couldn't get mad at her though. She had almost been flattened.

We went by a gay travel agent. I went in to ask if he had a list of gay bed and breakfasts. He could do me one better and book me a room! But with a dog? This was a city!! No hotel in the city is going to take a dog! Maybe I could try the tourist office.

So I continued on my way to the tourist office. There were four hotel rooms in the entire town. Congress was in session, so all the other rooms were gone.

Belgium has a ludicrous number of congress people. 74 in the upper house. Hundreds in the lower house. They have more representatives on the federal level than does the United States. Not per capita but in absolute numbers. The Routard reports that Belgian's number of ministers per capital is far and away the highest in the world. Note to Belgians: this is why you have too many laws and they're stupid. It's ok to have a giant government, just make it a bureaucracy in the French style. You have too many lawmakers!

Anyway, two of the hotels were hostels (no dogs) and the others were three stars and quite pricey. The helpful woman called a bed and breakfast booking service for me. A dog??!! while we went back and forth, I decided to get one night at the three star. She went back to book it and it was gone. There was nothing at all in the city. The best option was camping 7 km outside of town.

Normally, I would whine a little about having to camp 7 km away, but I would do it. But this was impossible! I have no dog trailer. How am I supposed to transport everything out to the campground?

I went to confer with Nicole and proposed taking a train home, getting things repaired at home and then taking a train back and continuing our journey. We pondered for a while and then got some beer in a cozy bar and then decided that was a fine idea. We went looking for dinner, but it's high tourist season. I had mediocre salad. Then we went to the train station, passing little public green squares, filled with foxtails. They really don't like dogs in Brussels. They're francophones, but they're not French.

We purchased tickets and nicole went to retrieve the dog trailer from where it had been left. I started repacking and folding things to get them on the train. Pull the bags off the bikes, fold up the bikes, etc. I had a bunch of yogurt and 2 kilos of oranges in my food pouch. I looked over and say a homeless-looking guy sadly holding a can of beans. "Avez-vous faim?" I asked. Are you hungry?

I gave him the oranges, the yogurt and some laughing cow cheese. He was incredulous. How could I just be handing over so many oranges? I explained that I was in a wreck and going home, but he was still in disbelief. Soon, all the hungry folks in the train station had oranges. And came to talk to me while I waited for Nicole to return. Wow, my dog is cute, is she mean? Can I help them make rent this month? Maybe a few coins? Are these bikes valuable, I bet they're valuable. Can I try on your hat? Are you travelling with your husband? Every damn indigent for kilometers around was coming by to hassle me. Never give two kilos of oranges to a homeless person unless you're leaving the area right away or else you're asking for trouble. Because if you can afford to just walk away from so much food, clearly there are other things you can afford to walk away from.

After Nicole had been gone for about an hour, the guy cleaning the floors told me that I had to move everything. Great, two people' stuff and me. I left Xena tied to my bike and pushed Nicole's to a new spot. Then I was getting some bags to move. I tried to keep one eye on each pile of stuff. And I saw one especially pushy panhandler grab Nicole's bike and start wheeling it out of the station. "Hey!" I yelled, running towards him. "That's my bike! That's my bike!" My hat flew off my head. A woman who had just seen me move the bike turned to stare. "I was just looking," he said. "Look with your eyes, not with your hands!" Some guy tries to make off with a bike and I'm quoting my mom at him. (God rest her soul, I couldn't post this if she were still alive.)

He left and I got the rest of the stuff moved. The floor cleaner asked what happened and I told him in French and then he sort of lost interest. Is it an anti-foreigner thing or an anti-francophone thing? No cops were called. It probably would have been my fault. Other people have the right grab unlocked bikes or something, I'm sure.

Nicole returned and as I was explaining what had occurred, the would-be thief returned and asked me for money! "adieu misseur!" I said at him, very loudly. He wanted to know if there was a problem. There certainly was. I shouted at him that he should go away and that I didn't want to speak with him. This was loud and in French and in the middle of a crowded railway station in a Francophone area. And . . . nothing happened. He didn't go away. No security fold appeared. The cleaning guy ignored everything in favor of his cleaning.

In the Netherlands, there would have been a small army of cops there within a few moments. They're not aggressive, they just come quickly after shouting.

But no cops came and instead of going away, he pulls out a giant folding knife! He didn't unfold it, but showed it to me surreptitiously, like a secret threat. He was skinnier than I am, walked with a cane, and one of his legs was artificial. I was pretty sure I could take him, knife or no. I switched to English and just started aggressively swearing at him. Not waiting for backup but ready to kick his ass.

Let's review my day so far. I had run away from a camp site straight out of an 80's horro movie. My dog had been caught under a truck. I couldn't get a hotel room. This asshole tried to steal my bike. And now he's showing me his knife in such a sneaky way that at first I thought he was trying to expose himself. I would have fought him, no question.

When I was in Prague recently, I spent an unfortunate amount of time around the train station in the middle of the night, trying to get a cab. Almost everybody there was carrying a knife, ready to shank each other. I saw some guy slapping a homeless man. But none of this was pointed at me. (Having a dog is sometimes very helpful.) But now, in the first world, in a supposedly civilized country, some asshole is threatening me with a knife in a crowded area and I'm shouting at him, clearly about to smash him and nobody is paying it the slightest heed. He finally wandered off, with several angry f-bombs echoing in his ears.

I guess if I wanted the cops to come, I should have tied up my dog where she would have barked.

Anyway, Brussels is the sketchiest place I've ever traveled in the first, second or third world. Corruption is widespread and immediately obvious to the most casual observer. The traffic is terrible and dangerous (good luck meeting your Koto obligations, Belgium). The train station is less safe than NYC's. Fuck that shit. I'm not going back. Brussels fucking sucks. And I think I know why the Flanders bike routes maps are out of print. I am so done with Belgium. I used to think it was a lovely mingling of Dutch and French culture, but instead it's just the worst of both coupled with a severe inferiority complex. The border region is nice, some people are nice, but overall, it's crap.

The high point of my day was buying a very average loaf of bread and seeing somewhat decent produce in a grocery store. If you like Francophones and food culture, don't bother with Belgium, just go to France. If you like Nederlands culture or beer, just go to the Netherlands where they're actually laid back and cool.

Ok, the musical instrument museum is cool, but for the most part, there's so much assine cultural resentment that it severely impacts the rest of the culture. Not worth the effort of biking there, certainly not worth my day today.

Grrr

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

les -- so so sorry to hear about this. Ok, so now you have first hand experience. Did I ever tell you the worst concert production I ever had was in Belgium? It was amazingly lame and rude. And I didn't even get paid for 3 months, after much hassling -- and this was the Flanders Festival -- huge official event. The problems were blamed on fighting between French and Flemish. Also, when Francis Marie Uitti and I went across the border from Holland on bikes, suddenly the maps were all wrong. When I told Dutch people about it, they just laughed, yes, that's Belgium. It is like a third world country, you know it is very poor. I was able to have fun in Brussels only because of Charlemagne Palestine and his partner Aude Stocklet. They took me out for French food and took care of me. :-( xxx e

Graham said...

Holy crap. I'm glad you guys got out all right.