Last night, Friday night, my wife and I came back to Radnorshire from Brussels, via the Eurostar. I’d never been to Brussels before, and I guess I wasn’t quite prepared for how odd a place Belgium is.
I also wasn’t prepared for how great the Magritte Museum was. There was one small black and white print of a pipe, captioned (in French, you’ll appreciate), ‘This is still not a pipe’; and there might have been one or two pictures of people in bowler hats. But you didn’t need to see this almost commonplace stuff, because what was there was wonderful, from early Dali-esque paintings, to wartime impressionism, to sculpture, through to late period, almost photo-realistic stuff.
The Magritte Museum is part of the Musees Royaux des Beaux Arts, and the main gallery was great too. Especially exciting was the fact that few of the pictures are fenced off in any way; we stood as close to a Heironymous Bosch as I can stand to any of the pictures we have at home. Maybe the privilege of standing so close to pictures like this (and the Museums collection of Breughels) made Belgian surrealism possible.
Part of the oddness of our experience of Belgium comes from trying to deal with three languages; French, Dutch, and our own imperfect English. The street maps were hard to read, because of their bilingual nature, and our tricky eyesight. We kept getting lost. Getting places by tram, which seemed a bit of a spree in the planning stage, became a bit of a nightmare. Perhaps any place that has ‘NATO’ as a bus destination is going to be a bit queer.
Food was odd. A ‘grand cafe au lait’ was usually a black coffee with a small pot of evaporated milk, but was, on one occasion, a bowl of milky coffee as big as my head, which is well big, yeah? If you want a milky coffee (and I’m afraid I do), you have to ask for ‘Russian Milk.’, which doesn’t sound very appetising. My biggest food blunder (not counting the pigs trotter thing, which was just showing off) was ordering ‘filet americaine’ in the cafe at the well-worth a visit Musical Instrument Museum. I’m a working class lad, me, by origin at least, and I still like a bit of plain cooking. So I thought that a ‘filet americaine’ would be a burger. Which it was, in way, except that it was raw. It turns out that the Belgians are very fond of a lovely tartare; ‘Americaine’ is available in all the sandwich shops as a filling. I didn’t want to appear a wuss to the waiting staff, so I ate the thing, washed down with gorgeous chips. The experience stayed with me for the next 24 hours, and it was only due to the application of Imodium that I didn’t shit out all of my internal organs.
So; Brussels; rather lovely, but very odd. We caught the Eurostar with a degree of relief, not least because I’d run out of Imodium. We were whisked back to that London; took ye Underground to Paddington with our bags straining and clanking under the weight of all the beer we’d brought back. The Paddington train at 20.11 is supposed to connect at Newport with the 22.11 train to all points north, via Hereford and Leominster, where we’d left the car. But the train from that London was ten minutes late. Of course, the last train of the night can’t be expected to wait for the actual passengers who are going to catch it, because if a train is late, the operator is fined £300 per minute. This left 30 or so passengers stranded in Newport, with no way home. A train despatcher, only ‘doing his job’, told us that taxis had been booked to take us on to our destination; it is cheaper to book half a dozen taxis, than to hold up a train for ten minutes; better that the train runs empty, and on time, and that the passengers are put into taxis.
One of the passengers lost it, badly, and started shouting at the train despatcher about how corrupt the train system is. Although most of us agreed about the insanity of the botched Tory privatisation, everyone felt that it wasn’t the train despatchers fault; that he had, in fact, done his best in the face of a wicked and stupid system. So lots of the passengers shouted at the bloke who was shouting. But the shouty man (who had two companions, one male and one female) kept shouting, and the passengers shouted at him and the train despatcher walked off, leaving us all outside the station.
Several people were very upset, because they didn’t really know what was happening – didn’t know if they were going to get home, didn’t know if they were going to have to pay for the taxis to take them to Hereford and beyond. Then six taxis turned up, and I started shouting. ‘Oi, Shouty Man’, I shouted. ‘Since you’ve driven off the train dispatcher, perhaps you could tell us who’s getting in what taxi?’ But the taxi drivers knew, luckily. There were six of us heading to Leominster; me and my wife, a yoof aged about 17, and the Shouty man and his two companons, inevitably.
It was like an old fashioned London cab, and Shouty Man and his two companions were sitting in the comfy seats, and my wife and I and the yoof were sitting in the rock-up seats, and Shouty Man and I were facing one another. And we started to talk about trains. He told me that I knew nothing about the subject. I tell him, au contraire, I know a very great deal about the subject. I present my credentials. I talk about Parallel Lines and The Ghost Trains of Old England; and he talks about a lifetime of railway enthusiasm. And ferry enthusiasm; it turns out he is an expert on the history of Sealink ferries. And Youth Hostelling, for which Shouty Man is something of an evangelist. And then his male companion chips in, and starts talking about their shared enthusiasm for the no longer extant border between East and West Germany, and how they have travelled much of it by bicycle; and I told them that I had seen the border in my youth.
Things were becoming more relaxed, and by the time we were leaving Hereford I felt confident enough to ask them why they were going to Leominster.
Shouty Man looked a bit sheepish, so far as I could make out in the uncertain light of the back of a cab heading up the A49 from Hereford to Leominster.
‘Oh’, he said. ‘We’re going to a convention.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘What sort of a convention?’
He seemed shy; odd, given that he’d been prepared to make a complete arse of himself by yelling at a train despatcher who’d only been trying to help. Odd too, given that we’d spent the hour or so from Newport to Hereford chatting quite cheerfully about Deutsche Bahn locomotives pulling British trains, and the sad demise of Sealink, and how there should be a car ferry museum in Newhaven.
‘Well, it’s a bit nerdy…’ he said.
‘Oh come on….’
‘Well, it’s the annual convention of the Test Card Circle. For people who are interested in the history of television test cards, and the music that went with it. We hold it every year in Leominster…’
‘We were only children’, said Shouty Man’s companion.’ Sometimes, the Test Card was all there was to watch.’
‘And my wife here,’ said Shouty Man, indicating his female companion,’ learned to dance to the test card music.’
And I thought how normal Belgium seemed, and what a very odd place Britain is after all.