In the Cockpit Tongue-Tied and Hopping

In the Cockpit

Tongue-Tied and Hopping


Cheap sausages, bad hangovers and muddy fields forged the new Imperium

Brussels, Belgium
July, 2002

Brussels is a fun, thriving dynamic city with a modern outlook that lives at ease with its ancient centre. Away from the central marketplace they manage to preserve the medieval feel of the old streets, by populating hundreds of tiny bars and restaurants with old-world footpads and purse-cutters in their traditional costumes of wine-waiter and maitre d'hotel.

There's a storm of change raging through Europe. It started with the end of the war and the birth of the new Europe, but it picked up velocity a hundred-fold in the last few years, with Brussels right at its centre. The new Europe! All the great languages of the Europe have taken hold here, French fighting it out with Dutch as English sneaks in its time honoured way: hordes of English and Americans who can't be bothered learning another language. You can work year-round in some companies now in Brussels and learn no more French than it took to buy the bus ticket that got you there in the first place.

Don't step in the carrots

With so much going on, Brussels can be an interesting place to be. All the language and culture meet in a dizzying spin of bars, clubs and restaurants that fills your belly with fire and thunder until you think that you too have been infected with the new dream of Europe. And then you realise, you've been drinking the beer.

Beer! It's all about beer! The lambic beers, the wine beers, champagne beers, Gueuze, Diabolo, Hoegaarten, there are three hundred varieties to sample from 2 to 12%, and they all taste good. So good that you wake up the next day with a vague memory of your brilliant plan for the new Europe, and nothing but mush between your ears and enough gas to fuel Holland for a day. Much of this seems reflected in the average European Directive coming out of Brussels.

And so, what else? It's up and off you go to Waterloo. And try as you can, you just can't avoid the pun.


Most foreigners come to visit Waterloo, I guess, because it's famous, and come away with the profound, spiritual feeling that comes with seeing a very large field. Sometimes, with tractors. I saw a large English student group, puffed and footsore, tooling along a laneway after their teacher, wanting to ask what on earth they were doing here, but not quite daring to. After all, this is Waterloo. There was the song. The film(s). The countless books, streets, railway stations, church windows. It must be important. This big field. With the tractors sometimes.

Most historical sites have the advantage of having something there, a context. When you go to the Pyramids or Windsor Castle or the Great Wall of China, there is something there to look at, to put you into the correct frame of mind. You can see how very interesting, or very long, or very pointy it all is, and so on. But at Waterloo there is nothing except a giant mound to mark the exact spot the Prince of Orange got a slight nick, an event about as significant as me rolling this pencil off my desk, now. If you visit Waterloo, you must know your Waterloo.

But that is why it is so exciting! It's all there, just as it was! You can look down the gentle slope of Mont St Jean to see the Middle Guard advancing to their destruction, to La Haye Saint to see the Union flag torn down and then replaced; you can walk along the track to where Ney led the cavalry to charge three times onto the allied bayonet squares; wander along to Hougoumont farm to see the Scots and Coldstream Guards hold the burning building to the last; and finally gaze over to La Belle Alliance where Napoleon stood and watched his final throw of fate expire against him. It's all there, just as it was.

Eye of the Storm

Brussels is at the heart of the new Europe. I have mixed feelings about the new Europe. For a long time the European Union existed to maintain peace and build trust among the ancient enemies of Europe by building unbreakable economic ties, a laudable goal.

That is to say, the Luxemburgers set the European Union up to prove they exist, the French joined to dump all their seediest wines on Germans, the English joined to spite the French, the Germans hoped to meet foreign exchange students and instead found all their girlfriends dancing with mambo hipped latinos, the Italians joined to be mambo hipped latinos, to Spanish to wander around in a confused huddle, the Dutch to learn to ski, and the Irish to build grandiose road schemes from somewhere you wish you hadn't been, to somewhere you'd rather not go, all at someone else's expense, and all named after obscure little grafters from Ballydemuck. In other words, a charming pile of graft and bickery, the usual result of good intentions.

For a time as the union busied itself with normalising economic matters across Europe. The Italians were puzzled by English chocolate, the French threatened by German sausage, the Spanish overwhelmed by the American banana, and the Irish hoped someone else would cook. The Commission, the workhorse of Europe, would issue decrees: English chocolate was to be renamed brown vegetable matter; bananas would be used instead of sausage where practicable; the Irish should live with their mothers. The Italians remained confused.

But in recent times, the Union has strayed from economic concerns and into the realm of social issues and national politics. That was inevitable. When you store masses of professional administrators in one small Belgian city, men and women who by their very nature like to manage other people, who like to believe they know better than others how everyone should live, it's not suprising that they should have become bored with the price of peanuts and started to delve into wider issues, to seek more power, more political integration. With themselves at the centre.

Roma Victoria

Brussels is the new Rome. It is the home of the power centre of the union, the Commission, an intricate bureaucratic machine that rivalling any imperial machine, and housed in a vast new imperium: gigantic, mirror glassed palaces, splendid forums, and a bureaucracy stamped with its own new importance and power. For they have the money. The multinational euro is a wonderful thing, allowing travel across borders without the fiddly change, but look at history: where the money goes, the politics follows. Britain gained the second empire during the Seven Years war, not with armies but with money. It had the best banking system in the world, everything else followed.

This year, the union voted to grow again, conquering new territory in the east like Trajan sweeping across the Danube, not with Roman legions this time, but offers of cheap mambo lessons, execrable wine and standard length bananas.

It seems to be working. The Poles, Czechs and Hungarians can't wait to join, and you wonder why this method of expansion has never been tried before. Imagine how history might have gone if earlier conquerors, the Ottoman Empire for example, had come not with Janissary armies, but with an offer: listen lads, you can have a Bertie Ahern superhighway, and all the brown vegetable matter you can eat! And the best bit is, you retain full self government! (Except that we tell you what to do.)

And they've gone for it. Ireland, had to ratify the treaty, and did so even at the cost of its own further political dilution. Which makes the position of Sinn Fein and the Northern irish Republicans interesting, as they are now struggling to leave a small beleagured island nation and join a huge multinational empire.

At least its got decent beer.




Grand Place






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How I got around:
Ryanair to Charleroi.