A broad in Belgium

They called it an Innovation Council Summit, but it was more like a sort of Eurovision for business people.

Except instead of latex leotards and Lordi, there was pinstripes and pencil skirts. In the end, it all seemed little more than a song and a dance.

For two days in late November 2021, several hundred of Europe’s smartest, most productive and most capable people gathered in a motoring museum (yeah, random right?) in Brussels.

And who was in the thick of it all but myself!

I wheeled up outside the rather unorthodox venue having been escorted by my aunt (more on her later, as she said she reads this blog occasionally) – I’m nothing if not well connected.

This being continental Europe, the people here were well organised, multi-lingual, mostly tall, slender and beautifully dressed. The seniors weren’t dinosaur crocks either; they had grey hair and gravitas. The youth weren’t callow and track suited – they were dressed for success. Everyone meant business moving around the area with intimidating efficiency, ignoring the cars which looked to me like glitches in the Matrix.

I didn’t know where to go. A nice man took my temperature at the door. “You’re a bit hot,” he said, concerned. “But go ahead.”

I proceeded through the main arena like Kate Moss at a cattle mart. After a stare at all the vintage cars and an unsuccessful eavesdrop for Irish accents I made my way upstairs to the stage where a beautiful man was raving about innovation.

He held a microphone and walked back and forth, commanding the stage. I’ll have whatever he’s having I thought. After some panel discussions about innovation and tech, I plucked up the courage to get a drink of water. The only problem was the damn machine was automated, and I couldn’t get the water to stop. I must have looked like Father Ted when he got lost in the bra shop. Luckily the water stopped before there was a noticeable flood.

At lunchtime I went outside to a park bench and ate the sandwich I had made that morning at the hotel. I had made it in full view of the dining room as I ate my breakfast. Over the course of my two day trip, I pilfered shamelessly from my hotel’s breakfast buffet. Sandwiches and pastries wrapped up in a napkin did me for lunch and dinner. I was determined to make the ‘all expenses paid’ thing stretch as far as humanly possible. Was this how it felt like being from Cavan?

As a rule, when the Irish go abroad they always meet other Irish. I was no different. Right before I was due to arrive at Business Eurovision I phoned my aunt after successfully ordering a decaff americano – served in a glass!! – and told her I was a short walk away from her house. Would I call in? An offer she couldn’t refuse… (or an offer she couldn’t turn down). This was my first time in her house as an adult, a beautiful townhouse typical of the Europeans. Not Irish Europeans, the Continental ones. The stylish ones, which I was seeing everywhere on the Brussels streets with their muted palettes and sharp tailoring. My aunt gave me a lift to the venue (after we bade adieu to my uncle, a retired journalist) during which she had to dodge several e-scooter riders. “These things are everywhere. People just pick them up, use them and leave them in the middle of the street,” she gestured around. Us Irish people are more for your analogue pleasures – a bike, or a simple walk. It doesn’t matter how assimilated an Irish person becomes in Europe; nothing beats a brisk walk up the Booster hill. (That’s a reference for my aunt who says she reads this blog sometimes when she’s putting off doing the hoovering.)

In the evening, I dodged the hoardes of speedy e-scooters to go back to my hotel and file some copy. Ideally, the byline would have said “by our girl in Brussels” but that might have been over-egging it. Me getting free stuff was not the story here. I made a cup of tea and went to sleep ready for an earlier start the next day.

The following morning I checked myself out of the hotel and legged it back to Business Eurovision where I was informed I would be meeting with a real-life Irish MEP. OMG! When I eventually got face to face with the MEP I tried not to stare at her like she was a sea lion doing a very impressive trick with a ball on her nose. Getting starstruck by politicians isn’t a good quality in a journalist but I can’t seem to not stare at them whenever I meet them in the flesh. I spent most of the interview internally shitting a brick, which is as uncomfortable as it sounds.

I can’t remember whether or not I shat the brick in the end, but I did decide to venture further into the city centre of Bruxelles in the hope of finding a quality waffle. My bosses said I should try a waffle and as they’d never steered me wrong before I added it to the list of ‘must dos’ – after the actual Business Eurovision which I was being paid to cover.

It being continental Europe, I was expecting sustainable, efficient public transport networks with stops all laid out in such a manner that even I, an eejit, could understand and follow. My experience with the electric buses of Brussels was… mixed. I hopped on one going right to the centre, which took around 30 minutes from where I was stationed in the thick of European society. My stop was the last one and I must have been doing a bit of gawking out the window because I was rather unceremoniously told to get off the bus by an invisible Brusseler bus driver (busseler?) who roared “Zhe Ter-min-oo!” for my benefit. That was me told. I was too shocked to say anything other than “Sorry, shite, I’m sorry,” as I poured myself and all belonging to me on the street.

Abrupt bus drivers aside, I spent a very nice few hours walking around the cobblestone streets behind the Big Palace with the Lion head statues on the pillars. I think a king lives there but I couldn’t be sure. He didn’t come out to receive one in any case. Fine by me. I declined to put my snout to the gates as there was some guards standing around waiting for something. (Anti lockdown or mask protestors I guessed). I got took some photos of funny statues and got a waffle from a man of Maghrebi extraction who offered me a choice of toppings: Nutella or caramel. Oh, the dilemma! It was Hamletian! To be or not to be… I went for caramel. For a change. It was delicious; I ate it in the street and I normally consider myself too delicate and too Patrician for such indignities. (I’m much more comfortable using automated water machines around dignitaries.)

Later on, it was touch and go getting the bloody bus to the airport to check-in for my return flight. Buses don’t all arrive on time, even on the continent. A valuable lesson learned there. As I folded myself into the plasticy seat on the Ryanair flight home I thought of all the highlights of my brief little journalist’s sojourn: my name was misspelt; I met interesting people; I ate bread; I drank coffee; I had a waffle in the winter air; I was continental; I saw my aunt; I didn’t put my hand in my pocket; everyone and everything was nice to look at.

All in all? Douze points.

The Italian job

“It’s amazing how interested they get when there’s a few punt involved,” my Mum said to my Dad (showing her age).

The two of them were having a good laugh at my expense, as they do whenever the opportunity presents itself. Today’s opportunity was my uncharacteristic embrace of the Euros and soccer-spectatorship.

It was only a brief embrace – it started around 8pm and it definitely won’t last until midnight because Belgium’s bowing out of the competition at the quarter-finals stage means all bets – or all my bets, at least – are off.

It was fate and a fiver that brought me and Belgium’s soccer team together tonight. I drew the team in a sweepstakes competition at work, which involved me paying a fiver ‘for the craic.’ It wasn’t a very high risk payout so I went for it, all in.

Drawing Belgium, my better informed colleagues informed me, was good because Belgium are good at soccer. Well that’s good, I thought, I won’t pay them any attention for fear I might jinx them.

But I had to watch the quarter-finals didn’t I? The television was on and I stretched in front of it, sealing Belgium’s fate and waving farewell to my fiver.

The game progressed and those Italian feckers got their goals, and some lad from Belgium also got one – when I wasn’t paying attention incidentally – although that could have been about 85% of the game so they can’t use that excuse.

I began to get invested in the game-play. (Game-play is an expression I can imagine Eamon Dunphy coming out with in his lovvaly broad Dubbalin brogue). And not just financially.

The language got a bit colourful. Numerous four-letter words were associated with the Italian people, who on mature reflection, are a fine bunch who have contributed so much to the world like pasta, pizza, coffee, fashion, Leonardo DaVinci and those Renaissance fellas, myths, flirting, opera, Dolmio days, and who could forget bunga-bunga.

(What has Belgium done? Colonised the Congo and Rwanda, chips with mayonnaise, posh chocolate, the European Parliament. Meh.)

Thoughts of these Italian greats didn’t dissuade me from shouting abuse at the Italian goalie who delayed his kick outs stalling for the final whistle to blow. The same goalie, who I’d been feeling sorry for a few minutes earlier when he’d taken an elbow to the ribs. In my defence, I thought he was the Belgian goalie and was showing some solidarity.

(How are you supposed to know which end is which? It’s all the same field to me.)

Anyway, I was quickly disabused of any notion I was to feel sorry for this Italian diving goalie when the camera showed the Italian manager, a neat man with a two-tone badger hair-do, who looks like a Tory who cheats on his wife, acting worried.

It was all over then, a few seconds later. I’ll never forget my time in the trenches with Lukaku (me auld flower), Doku, and the other one who looks like Prince Harry. I wish them well. I still don’t know which one the goalie was, but I bear him no ill will despite the fact his two mistakes cost me a fiver and my reputation, which is only a little bit cheaper.

Allez les Belges! Our Dolmio day will have to wait.