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A Vendor in Brussels

 Aluma (Sweden) 01 February 2019

When Swedish Street Paper Aluma asked one of their vendors, who wishes to remain anonymous, to attend the European Union’s Conference on Poverty in October 2009, he jumped at the chance. Arriving at the event believing that he was there as a representative of poverty, the Aluma vendor’s illusions were soon shattered as he discovered that the conference was more about gaining publicity rather than making a difference. The vendor shares his experience in the Belgian capital – from his views of the media circus of the Conference itself to the perils of shiny new shoes and long distances. (1270 Words) - By Aluma Vendor



 Courtesy of Aluma

Aluma (Sweden) - When, last October, Aluma asked me to represent the magazine at an EU conference on Poverty in Brussels I felt both honoured and excited. On the other hand I was filled with a deep sense of unease. Of all the cities in Europé where not to be with only a few hundred kronor and no credit card, Brussels must come pretty high up the list.

Nevertheless, 8p.m. five days later found me at Brussels airport, dressed in the best clothes I could muster and a pair of shiny black shoes I was wearing for the first time, which were to cause me much pain over the next 24 hours.

My previous knowledge of Belgium was fairly superficial and amounted to the following:

The country consists of the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French speaking Walloons.

It has for hundreds of years been the favourite place for the European superpowers to fight their battles.

It has been ruled by France, Spain and Austria-Hungary, only becoming independent in 1830.

One of their kings, Leopold II (1865-1909), was the most despised monarch in Europe. Having taken over a part of Africa, then known as the Belgian Congo, he embarked on a regime of near genocide, stripping the country bare of every resource with a rapacity which caused revulsion even in those imperialistic days. Not only that; every penny went into his own personal pocket.

In other words Belgium seemed somewhat of an enigma to me.

Less of an enigma was Brussels airport. You don't realize how far you have to walk to get out of a major airport until your shoes start to rub. By the time I reached the underground I was walking with a pronounced limp, my face twisted in pain.

The Brussels underground was unlike any I'd seen before. The middle-classes and above were entirely absent. I was dressed in as business-like a way as I could manage, carrying a Dell computer hold-all (merely functioning as an overnight case) and walking as though I were passing over burning coals. Had I been carrying a sign proclaiming `PLEASE MUG ME´ the picture would have been complete.

After one hour and twenty minutes I emerged intact and started walking to the hotel.

1500m later, at the hotel´s reception desk I was sweating like a sock-full of cheese (7 degrees in Malmö, 16 degrees in Brussels) and my feet were about to burst into flames. Having confirmed my pre-paid reservation they then demanded 600kr deposit (as I had no credit card) against possible expenses for the telephone and mini-bar. Luckily Aluma had leant me 1000kr emergency money or I would have been sunk. Needless to say, once in my room, the shoes were the first to go.

That night, after a long shower, I set the alarm on my mobile for 6.30a.m. I slept a dreamless sleep, awakening refreshed to the sound of the alarm. However, one thing caused me deep concern. I took it as read that Belgium is on the same time band as Sweden but the digital clock, inbuilt into the TV said 7.30. I immediately reviewed the possibilities. A) They were in a different time zone (surely not) B) Belgium doesn´t use the daylight-saving system (frighteningly possible) C) the TV clock had not been adjusted to daylight saving (please!!). I shaved, dressed and packed, and then, like a man possessed I shot down to the restaurant.

It was just opening. Hallelujah! It was only 7.00a.m.

Stopping only to alert the desk that if they wanted to check that I hadn't left the phone on the Australian speaking clock, or attempted alcoholic suicide via the mini-bar, this was their chance; and could I have my (or rather, Aluma's) 600kr back, please.

I had to check-in at the conference centre in two hours maximum, and I had no idea of how long the journey might take. Back at reception I produced my maps and begged guidance. 30 minutes later I stood outside the buildings of the European Commission, and what a bleak prospect it gave. No trees, no plants at all, just nameless edifices with rows of flagpoles, but as there was no wind, even they added to the gloom.

An old woman with a begging cup in one hand and a harmonica in the other, was playing a simple, repetitive melody outside the EU Commission building, but everyone seemed to ignore her.

The conference was due to be opened by a speech from our own Foreign Minister (Ms Wallstrom), however due to a critical meeting of the European Council, across the road this was not to be.

Looking at my 390 fellow delegates as they set up their `state of the art´ equipment, I soon realized I was in a media event.

The word `conference´ turned out to be somewhat of a misnomer; it materialized as a series of presentations by each member of two panels of four people; one before, and one after lunch. Although time was allowed for questions from the floor, `schedule overrun´ meant that this was severely limited.

Panel 1 was made up of a European commissioner, a sociologist, and two professional statisticians; and they did their best.

It was, in all honesty, not the passionate `stuff´ to get anyone `ripping up the furniture´ in `righteous indignation´. It seemed as limp as last week´s lettuce. By their own admission it held no big surprises.

I felt like Samuel Johnson, when asked by a fellow diner what he thought of the meal as they walked home from a dinner party.

`It was a fair enough meal; but not a meal to ask a man to!´

The whole event seemed like a lame PR exercise in order to get the media `on-board´, all presentation and little substance, and certainly not worth shipping people in from the four corners of Europe.

By a perverse irony the lunch certainly was `a meal to ask a man to´. I could honestly say it was the second most impressive buffet I have ever seen in my life; with a choice of juice, wines or champagne to swill it down with.

Although the EU has an international reputation to maintain and journalists are known to expect a generous spread on these occassions, one cannot help but feel that a conference on Poverty is not the place to score such a dazzling own goal.

Having to leave early to catch my flight I determined, despite the pain to walk up the hill and gaze upon the Triumphal Arch and Exhibition Halls built by Bad King Leopold using some of his Congo `pocket-money´. Reflecting on what a chequered and battered history this little country has had I couldn´t help but feel it deserved some recognition as the seat of the EU Commission.

As for the Commission itself; yes, it's a huge unwieldy monolith which grinds on at seeming snail´s pace through mountains of procedure and protocols. Nevertheless I did get a feeling that its heart is generally in the right place, and certainly its stomach.

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