Alex is finishing up work for the day on Thursday and instructs me to meet him at Place Lux.
Place Du Luxembourg is the square outside the front entrance of the European Parliament. When we had been doing the stage there, from every Thursday onwards this would be crowded with trainees and parliamentary assistants enjoying happy hour, and then the many other subsequent hours that seemed happy thereafter.
Considering how many trainees and assistants there are between all the European Institutions, the square would be literally filled from one side to the other with young and remarkably attractive Europeans. And somehow, me. In fact towards the end of our traineeship, Brussels had been forced to re route buses, as negotiating the throng had become far too difficult a task.
For that reason it was a bit of a shock when, as I walked towards the square at about 5pm, the place was empty. Alex messaged to say his work was closer to Troon, the metro stop from where I had just came. I cursed Brexit for destroying everything good in this world, and made my way back.
I had been looking forward to seeing Alex, not just because he is a dear friend, but because if I ever needed genuinely informed insight into the political situation in Belgium and beyond he always had the answers. I also wanted to understand the effects of Brexit, first hand, on this side of the English Channel.
Last time I saw Alex he had visited me in Scotland and was the assistant to Seb Dance, a Labour MEP who now lives in infamy as the man brave enough to call out Nigel Farage for being the lying, rubber-faced chew toy he is during a committee meeting. Viral doesn’t cover it.
To my horror, the first effect of Brexit hit home when it turned out Alex was no longer in that previous job role, but had changed career to consultant and lobbyist. He had jumped the gun and left Labour, knowing his job would be coming to an end in March. But it wasn’t, was it, and Alex was dismayed, when yet another Brexit extension was put into effect, this time till Halloween.
“And not the last, mark my words.” I’m informed.
In short, my idiot Brexiteers, the May government has made it clear they do not want a hard Brexit. It’s not happening. Chiefly because they know it’s disastrous and a ridiculous thing to aim for. Everyone knows this. Except Brexit voters, who let’s face it, know very little outside their tiny spheres of pointless existence. The sooner we just revoke Article 50 and do what the British are amazing at, specifically moving on and pretending bad things never happened, the sooner we can all get on with our lives.
(I just like to add that May resigned yesterday. I’m confident in saying which ever lunatic put in to replace her will either destroy the UK, or won’t be able to break their way out a wet paper bag. Either way, yet more disaster looms.)
Although he doesn’t mind discussing it, Alex informs me he’s tired of the entire discussion. I can only imagine, so I let him off the hook. We go for Lebanese for dinner, where I am rudely reminded of another side to Alex, the human hoover.
Alex has eaten at this restaurant before so I let him take the lead ordering us a number of tapas style small plates to share. The devious bastard suddenly takes a fond interest in my life, how I’ve been and how the trip is going. I suddenly realise that all the food is disappearing at a stupefying rate, as he looks up and asks another question. Not this time Alex, not this time. I dive into the remainder with a fervent vigour.
Like all good friendships, after a few beers it’s as if nothing has changed. We reminisce on the stage, and plan the rest of our weekend.
And, so it was, that I was forced to attend a low division Belgian football match. And I’m pretty sure I did football wrong.
For a start, Saturday was cocktail day, when I chose to make my Belgian inspired Negroni. I may be wrong, but I always understood football was to begin with piss warm weak lager and smashing up a bus stop.
We instead settle into our second Negronis as I finish editing my video, and try and steel myself for what is to come. It is not yet midday, and we have skipped straight to the late night spirits. So far actually, I’m on board.
What else wins me over is that the game is taking place in Bruges, which if you haven’t been, or seen the film, is an absolutely beautiful medieval town in the north-west of Belgium. It’s also where the College of Europe has one of its campuses, where Alex studied after the stage.
I get a fun day of tourism, I tolerate the tedium of a football match. Could be worse.
It gets even better. In Bruges, we meet a couple of Alex’s pals and retire to a craft beer bar, as we await the arrival of a few more. Belgian beer is amazing. Craft beer is amazing. Belgian craft beer is very delicious. Up until my time in Belgium six years ago, I had been happy drinking normal lager like everyone else. In attending a beer festival in Leuven, I discovered how great beer could be.
And so, I have had Negronis, Bruges and craft beer. If all football days were like this, I could be a convert. The last of Alex’s friends arrive and they all seem completely at odds with my experience of football, certainly in Glasgow, perhaps because they can cope with conversing using words and coherent sentences. A far cry from the sectarian, “stabby” lunatics I’ve become accustomed to, these football fans are all charming and erudite, friends Alex has made over his 6 year career in Brussels. The company is good, and the beer is excellent. At this point, I’m actually ready for football.
But then, football happened.
The trip to the football stadium was by taxi, and as we disembarked, I wondered where all the crowds were. We bought tickets and made our way into the stadium.
I noticed a couple of things upon arrival. It was remarkably cold and I was horribly under dressed. Also, for a professional game of football, attendance was sparse.
In fact, in a stadium that could house close to 30,000 football fans, it seemed a push to suggest there were more than a couple of hundred in our stand.
Songs then started. Songs I did not know. And songs I had no idea how to blag. I awaited the laminated handout containing lyrics and sheet music but to my horror it never came. How people learn these songs without rehearsal and music to follow is beyond me. Still. We could drink beer in the stands, which I understand is another no no in the UK. So well done there Europe.
For some, 90 minutes is a rather short period of time. To me, it felt as though time stood still. People scored goals, it was hard to follow. To be honest, it looks like TV coverage is far superior to being there in person, those camera guys are way better at following the ball. Plus TVs tend to be in really warm places.
I must say the fan base of Saint Gilles were a very upbeat group of people. I don’t think they stopped singing for the full game, while the supporters of the other side, confident of their team’s superior football skills, seemed to stir very little in their sporadic groups throughout the rest of the stadium.
By the end I think I recognized a couple of the chants. I didn’t know the words but made noises that sounded about right. No one seemed to care.
By the end of the game, it looked like our team were pretty bad at football. The other team were two goals ahead. Pretty low numbers considering both sides had had 90 minutes to have a go at it. Plus, at this point, our team suddenly decided to begin participating. Which makes you wonder what the point of all those other 80 minutes were.
As I understand it, what happened next wasn’t very normal. Our team decided to score a goal in the 82nd minute. Then they scored a second one in the 90th minute. Now I was pretty sure everything was supposed finish at that point. Certainly I’d hoped so. But apparently they get another five minutes, probably because football seems to never end. Anyway, our team Union Saint-Gilloise decided that this was the appropriate time to just win the game, so we could all go home. So they did.
Due to boredom, but also because I just had a weird feeling about it I actually managed to film the last goal getting scored, here it is.
I’m sure if I liked football, or understood it, or liked the team I was there supporting, this would be ace. Actually, joking aside, I’m pretty chuffed I got the goal on camera, clearly everyone thought it was excellent. Meanwhile next time, I think I’ll bring a scarf.
We wandered back to the train station and picked up some terrible Belgian lager on the way. This felt more appropriate to the sport we had been watching. I’ve been sitting here while writing this trying to remember what happened next, but it’s all a bit blurry. We definitely got the train back to Brussels, but after that I really don’t remember what came next.
Anyway, the next day was one of brunches, hangovers and shandies, so it was probably fine.
The train to Paris was to be mercifully short on Sunday night, but sadly convincing Belgian people in customer service to be of any use has always, in my experience, been impossible. Because I got horribly lost, I missed the first train I was attempting to take.
I was then informed the next one was full. With an hour to kill before a third train that I actually managed to book a ticket for, I went and waited on the platform anyway. Upon enquiring, a train guard informed me the first train I’d enquired about was not full, seats were available, but I’d have to go and buy another ticket.
There is a point, when, if a human asks you for something that it is well within the remit of your job to perform, you should do it. Furthermore, you are well within your rights to go out of your way to help those people, especially if they are friendly and polite.
Belgians do not feel this way. Belgians seem almost honour bound to do the exact opposite of what would make the situation better for everyone involved. It genuinely feels like some kind of cultural knee jerk reaction. I am not a fan. My next stop was Paris. How bad could the French be?