Cracker by Damian Christie

Beer and Loathing in Brussels (Pt II)

The European Commission was somewhat grander than NATO, but only in the same way that, um, Bowen House is grander than the Beehive (for Wellingtonians), or St Lukes grander than Manukau Shopping Centre (for Aucklanders). Neither is exactly a rockin’ good time. But given we were there to learn about tariff reduction, EU expansion and other such things, my expectations weren’t exactly at roof level.

I amused myself by watching my fellow Fellowship Fellows dropping off to sleep in anti-dumping seminars, then teasing them about it. Other than people falling over or catching fire, there’s very little as funny as seeing someone nod off with their head on their elbow, then watching the same elbow slip out from under them as they face-plant into the table, jolting awake with a confused and pained look. Classic.

As we left Brussels I peeled off from my classmates, having planned a night in Paris on the way back to Oxford. I had my tickets, I knew in theory where I had to go, but theory is a long way from practice when you’re negotiating the minutae of public transport in another language. My cellphone was out of credit, and outside of the UK was impossible to top up. I couldn’t call anyone if I wanted to.

Aside from deserts and jungles and possibly the polar caps, there’s nothing quite like being lost in a foreign airport, railway or underground station. Nothing looks familiar, the foreign words on your foreign ticket doesn’t seem to match any of the foreign words on the foreign signs directing you from one foreign destination to another. Time is always of the essence, which also makes passers-by less inclined to stop and help as you turn dizzily round in circles, searching out the One True Sign.

My train was close to leaving, and I still didn’t know how to find it. I felt like I was on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Phone-a-Friend was out; with dozens of options there was no point going 50/50; and everyone around me was too busy or too foreign for me to Ask the Audience. I had to rely on dumb luck.

Sometimes I can be the luckiest dumb person alive.

Much sweat, jarred nerves and a couple of hours later, I’d chanced my way through Brussels Midi, Paris Nord, Haussmann St Lazare and the evening streets of Paris. All this for 22 hours in the French capital.

I hadn’t reckoned on the beauty of the Eiffel Tower at night as the snow fell steadily, quickly covering everything. As much as I hate “doing the whole tourist thing”, there’s a good reason certain things acquire their popularity, and in the case of the Eiffel Tower (at night), it’s well deserved.

Not so with the Louvre’s two star attractions, the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa. IMHO there are better sculptures and better paintings at the Louvre – hell there are even better Da Vinci paintings – but none have the huge crowds and flashing bulbs of these two lasses.

Don’t get me wrong, I still sought them out, it would be an affectation of cool on my part to do otherwise, but when you compare the size of the flock around those two, to the one other person sitting in front of the stunning, mammoth (5m x 7m), and still pretty damn famous Raft of the Medusa, you gotta wonder.

Other than a bit of random street wandering, which I consider just as vital as seeking out a city’s star attractions, I didn’t have time for much else in Paris. I returned to the hotel to grab my bag.

I have a slightly egocentric view of the Universe, i.e. I believe everything exists solely because of me. Refining this theory somewhat, I’m increasingly convinced that whoever’s in charge of making new people for me to meet is either incompetent, or as lazy as I am.

In my lifetime I have known precisely one Parisian woman. We worked in a bar in Devonport together a decade ago, and developed a firm friendship. She taught me the stupid French phrases that I had been throwing around Paris for the last 21 hours. Being in my early twenties, I probably tried to sleep with her.

As I approached the hotel reception, the following conversation took place in Universe HQ.

“Shit! Who was in charge of creating a new French chick to help Damian check out? Murray, was that you?”

“Sorry Kyle, my bad.”

“Well what are we going to do?”

“Just use that woman he worked with in the 90s. He’s stupid, he’ll never catch on.”

And it almost worked. I stood there thinking “Wow, crazy, all these French girls look the same.” She recognised me though, and with typical French aplomb, kindly remarked how much weight I’d put on. Um, in a good way, apparently.

Okay, so we’ve all got one of those “it was crazy, I was in London and I met some guy I know” stories. But I know heaps of people in London, and there are probably many people I know who I don’t even realise are in London. So when I ran into someone in London a few weeks ago it was funny but not freaky. But this was freaky, especially as she’d only started at the hotel that week.

Anyway, all that is probably about as interesting as when someone tells you about their dreams: “And then there was this guy right, and he was standing in a field, and he was carrying a flag. And it just felt so real.” So I’ll leave it there. But I maintain it’s pretty freaky.

Many of you will have seen The Go! Team at the Big Day Out this year. I missed it, obviously, but made a point of seeing them play in Oxford last night. Wow. What an evening. If you ever get the chance, make a point of it. A great combination of quirky (my personal favourite), rocky, dancey, retro hip cool. Great live band, great album. Have a good look around the website if you're unfamiliar.