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.

Going Viral: The difference a century makes

So far, 2020 is terrifying. 

Amid the near-constant talk of coronavirus since the year marking a new decade began, it is perhaps a small comfort to know that our ancestors endured another pandemic in 1918-1919 – and in much more difficult circumstances.  

In May 1918, shortly after the end of World War One, the ‘Spanish Flu’ hit Ireland and devastated us. By then it was already devastating other countries; to say nobody was prepared is an understatement – many of these countries were only beginning to recover from a major war.  

Ireland, while neutral during the war, was perhaps even less prepared for such a public emergency. We were a backward country still trying desperately to be fully rid of British rule – albeit with little success. Our location in the middle of the Atlantic – right beside the UK – left us vulnerable and isolated away from our European friends on the continent.  

Unsurprisingly, the 1918 pandemic killed over 20,000 people in Ireland alone. Worldwide, the figure was closer to 100 million.  

One of my grandfathers was born in 1919. He died just after the new millennium in 2000 aged 81, having lived through what was arguably Ireland’s greatest period of transformation.  

He was a toddler when the Irish Civil War began; a young man during World War Two; a middle-aged man with a large family to support when Ireland finally began to modernise during the 50s and 60s; and an old man by the time the tech boom arrived here in the 1990s.  

His wife – my grandmother – lives in a nursing home not far from the house they spent their lives in. She is in a high-risk category for coronavirus; residents of nursing homes and over-70s account for something like 90% of all coronavirus-related deaths in Ireland.  

‘Nanny’ – for that is her name to me and all her many other grandchildren – has had no visitors for weeks on end now.  

My aunties bought her a very basic mobile phone so they could call her and talk to her remotely. Nanny is almost 90, and while she is as smart and sharp as she was when she was younger, she will never be one of these ‘tech’ people.  

The internet came too late for my grandparents; they didn’t and they don’t understand it. Nor do they wish to. “Everyone has one of them phone-ens,” Nanny often says if she catches one of us furtively checking it in her company. Although she has been forced to admit our phones are useful when we Google the time her favourite programme is on TV.  

Her children all have smartphones; my Dad is in his early 60s and would not be without his. He uses it for work emails, Facebook, and WhatsApp. He’s a demon for funny videos, which he watches on full volume without earphones.  

I have had a smartphone since the age of about 15, but the age parents are willing to give children internet access is getting younger and younger.  

Most parents of small children will probably think nothing of their little ones playing on i-Pads or playing other console games to keep them quiet during the lockdown.  

It is remarkable the difference a generation makes. 

Compare the present lockdown to the response of Irish people over one-hundred years ago. Not many people knew about viruses in 1918; hygiene standards were poor and medics didn’t have any of the resources we have today.  

It is a testament to our ancestors and their strength and forbearance that they managed to survive the 1918 pandemic and have children that continue to live through this pandemic. Their children will survive it, too, if we treat our elderly with the respect they deserve.