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.

When cows fly

My Dad’s a bit deaf, so we have to be very careful with our diction when we’re talking to him, especially if he’s driving or distracted or even being driven distracted.

He mishears a lot of things.

For instance, if I was chatting to him in the car and I said something like, “Hey, Dad, have you heard the song ‘When Doves Cry’?” he might say back to me, “What? Did I hear that cows fly?” Those who know my Dad IRL know that he’s mad about cows, and has most likely never heard of Prince, so on this imaginary occasion at least, his mistake could be attributed to a phenomenon known as selective hearing, which he actually does suffer from also – as most men do.

Let’s park the imaginary Father faux pas for the moment because I did ask him a question in the car the other day, and it was about cows flying. “Dad, have you heard they’re flying cows on planes now?”

“Ha?” he said, so I repeated myself and then I elaborated a little further, “Well, I’m after reading somewhere that Ireland plans to fly 900 cows out to Belgium in 2021.”

I thought this was madness – imagine one cow on an aeroplane, let alone 900. I couldn’t do it. The plane would have to be massive to fit all of those cows… I pictured them on a Ryanair flight, just for my own amusement, thundering up and down the aisles, tails swinging, shite spattering against the windows, the smell, the chorus of cacophonous moos mingling with the noise of the engine – no, cows on a plane would not be a good thing.

Dad’s more realistic take on the whole thing brought me back to earth with a bang. “They fly cows in and out of Ireland all the time,” he scoffed, “and especially now with Brexit, they’ll be flying even more, oh they would.”

“But not 900 cows on the same aeroplane, Dad? Surely that’s impossible. Don’t you find it hard enough moving six cows up the road from one field to the next?” He heard that alright. Dad is very aware of my disapproval of his cow-moving techniques and the lack of forward planning that goes into them. It would honestly take an entire separate blog post just to explain how woeful he is at communicating to his human helpers – his children/wife/brother-in-law/sister/neighbours – which gap they must stand in to prevent the cows going off course.

“They have special planes for them,” Dad said in the same kind of excitable, high-pitched tone he uses to have football-related discussions. I’d hit a nerve. “They build the planes ‘specially, and it’s only calves that are a few days old that are sent over because they need them on the continent for breeding…”

“Yes, but why don’t they put the cows on a big ferry or something, you know, like an aircraft carrier? They might be less afraid, and they’d have more room.” I thought I was being very reasonable; I like to think of myself as a sort of Temple Grandin figure for Galway cows. (Google her; she’s like a cow choreographer, a savant engineer, and pioneer of kinder, more modern cattle-farming transportation techniques.)

In my opinion, one of the greatest animal-welfare problems is the physical abuse of livestock during transportation…. Typical abuses I have witnessed with alarming frequency are; hitting, beating, use of badly maintained trucks, jabbing of short objects into animals, and deliberate cruelty.

Temple Grandin

With one dismissive hand, Dad waved away my grandiose, Grandin-esque notions, “Will you stop, sure the cow isn’t afraid. It doesn’t know it’s on a plane!” He might have rolled his eyes, but I was looking out the window forlornly thinking of all the cows who would be forced to make that stressful plane journey to Belgium in the new year.

Teagasc, the Irish Farmer’s Association, and my Dad might think it’s a fine idea to fly hundreds of cows across a continent in a metal box, but I think it sounds like a recipe for disaster. I just hope that ‘Operation Moove,’ as it’s been dubbed, doesn’t give Michael O’Leary any bright ideas. If he had his way, there’d be a 500 lb Friesian sitting behind you on the redeye from Shannon to Seville. I don’t think the farmers would like that.