Looking forward to a fun Autumn

As someone who commutes to Brussels by train every day, I was less than overjoyed to see an article start with the words There is bad news for those that commute to work in the capital by train.

Infrabel, the company that manages the rail infrastructure has announced that they need to carry out maintenance work in the tunnel that goes from Brussels North, through Brussels Central (my stop) to Brussels South. The engineering work will reduce the capacity of this tunnel which, according to Infrabel, means that dozens of trains will need to be scrapped.

And then they pass the buck…

It will be up to the rail operator NMBS to draft a revised timetable.

I don’t dispute the need for maintenance work and the Brussels north-south line is in a tunnel that runs through the centre of Brussels. So any maintenance work will inevitably be disruptive.

What I find wearing is that, whenever there is any disruption or problem, both Infrabel and NMBS immediately respond by blaming each other. And sure enough…

NMBS told ‘De Tijd’÷ that it was only told about the work three months ago. However, Infrabel denies this and says that talks about modernisation work have been going on since November 2017 and numerous meetings have been held.

I have never really understood the rationale for having separate companies for the infrastructure and the trains. At the end of the day it’s all one service as far as rail users are concerned and, quite frankly, a bit more integration would be nice.

Big Art, Small Country

Belgium is set to become the home of the largest public artwork in Europe. Bernar Venet’s Arc Majeur was originally set to be installed in France way back in 1984 but was abandoned due to local opposition.

Now, the French artist will finally be able to realize his original vision for the gigantic piece of art, which has been placed across a busy highway in Belgium. Once unveiled in October, the 250-tonne steel sculpture will be the largest public artwork in Europe.

We shall have to keep an eye out for it when we next find ourselves on the E411 between Namur and Luxembourg.

Camp

This week has been a bit different as all three boys have been away at camp. They are members of a youth group and the week long (ten days for the oldest) summer camp is how they end the season.

So Eve and I delivered the twins to a field last Sunday (Macsen, being older, was part of the group that cycled there the previous Thursday).

Duvel at the Kamp

This left us wondering what to do with ourselves now that we were suddenly kids-free for a week. On Monday, we stayed in but on Tuesday we went out for sushi.

Leffe at Koji Sushi

We have been here before with the boys and, while they enjoyed the presentation they struggled a bit with the food and we haven’t taken them back. So this week seemed a good time for another visit.

I like sushi and the Koji sushi restaurant does a fantastic meal for two delivered, spectacularly, on a boat.

On Wednesday we went out again, this time to Volt, a restaurant we have been to multiple times.

Tripel Karmeliet at Volt

Volt is a reliably good restaurant and probably the only place locally that has a range of international foods on the menu.

The thing about Belgium is that, while the local food is very good, there isn’t much interest in anything beyond the borders. Which is odd given the extent to which Belgian food is a result of the country being stuck between France and Germany.

And so to Thursday when we decided to try something different and went to Het Atrium.

St. Bernadus at Het Atrium

The outdoor seating here is really nice and, while the menu is largely the usual Belgian fare they did have one addition — the Atrium Burger. I would never have believed that I could rave about a burger, but this was absolutely fantastic. It’s a sizable chunk of meat, along with a generous serving of bacon, an egg, and other stuff and it really was exceptional.

I will definitely go back for this again.

On Friday it rained and we went back to Volt.

Chimay Blauw at Volt

Today is the last day of camp and we are about to go and collect the twins. And then I shall have to make peace with my credit card.

Le Grand Depart

The Tour de France kicks off this weekend and, this year, it starts in Brussels. The race itself starts on Saturday but the events start today with the official presentation of the riders. This includes a ride-through of the city this afternoon and the police are clearing the roads already.

Stepping out of Centraal Station this morning to see no randomly parked cars and much less — and much calmer — traffic on the road was almost pleasant. They should organise this sort of disruption more often.

I’m in slightly the wrong place to see the cyclists go past but I will try to catch some of the race on TV. I say this every year but haven’t been able to find the time to properly follow the tour since I was a student — I doubt that this year will be any different.

It’s a shame because I used to quite enjoy following the race, and it is an event that really needs to be televised.

I went to see one of the stages of the Tour of Britain back in the early 90s. This involved standing around for several hours until a mass of cyclists shoot past far to quickly to make anything out.

Watching the tour on TV, with the cameras following the race, means that you can actually see how the race is developing — who’s pulling ahead, who went too soon and so on — and it can become remarkably gripping.

It’s also quite nice to follow the event with my feet up.

Class of 2019

Congratulations are in order to Macsen for having graduated from primary school. The ceremony was yesterday and, although he still has two more days of school, none of the planned activities can be described as being in any way academic.

This is going to be quite a big change, for all of us. Until now all of the pre- and primary schools the kids have gone to have been in the same town (I call it a town, but large village would probably be a more accurate description) and all of these schools have been within walking distance of home. For secondary school, however, he is going to have to travel to the next town, so September will see him navigating bus passes, cycle routes and a whole new social milieu.

The twins are going to see a fair bit of change as well. Although they’re still at the same school for another three years, the school is due to be renovated, remodelled and largely rebuilt over the summer.

September is going to be interesting.

Squelch

We had a bit of a storm last night. And it struck, inevitably, as I was walking back from the bank. In fact is struck so hard that I was almost knocked over by the horizontal wall of water that hit me.

On the plus side, being on foot meant that I was able to easily navigate around the tree that had fallen across the town’s main road.

Once home, I discovered that the noise had awoken one of the twins and he was being reassured by his mum. The mood instantly lightened when I walked in, because seeing a drenched dad squelch into the house is so funny that all fear is forgotten. So I squelched a few more times provoking enough laughter to awaken the other twin.

At this point my sympathetic partner mentioned that she had heard the outdoor furniture being blown around, her bike was still outside and, since I was wet already, could I go out and check.

Squelch. Squelch. Squelch.

It doesn’t look like there was any significant damage — a few branches were blown down and the terrace is a bit of a mess, but if that’s the worst of it then I won’t complain.

I have to admit that I saw a lot less devastation this morning on the way to work. The roads were reasonably clear and the trains were running, although delayed because one of the lines was closed.

The weather forecast is predicting more rain tonight but, thankfully, not another storm.

Interesting times

Belgium went to the polls on Sunday and, this being Belgium, nothing is quite that simple. As well as the EU Parliament elections there was also a vote for the regional parliaments and the federal governments.

Overall the results were similar to those for the local elections last October, with the mainstream parties losing votes to the Greens and the far right Vlaams Belang. This is going to make for some fraught negotiations going forward.

Of the various elections, the European Parliament vote is probably the least interesting. Flanders returns 12 MEPs, of which Vlaams Belang returns 3, having taken one seat from each of the N-VA (centre right, separatists, now down to 3 seats) and the liberal OpenVLD (down to two seats). CD&V (centre-right), the Greens and the socialist sp.a are all unchanged on two, one and one seat respectively.

In the Flemish parliament, the Vlaams Belang have done frighteningly well to win 23 seats out of 124 (a gain of 17 seats) Both the Greens and the far left PVDA have both seen gains — coincidentally four extra seats for each, which puts the Greens on 14 seats and the PVDA on four, and in Parliament for the first time.

That said, the N-VA remains the largest party by far and a three party coalition with them, the CD&V and the OpenVLD would have a comfortable majority.

In Brussels, the one place in which both Flemish and Francophone parties campaign, the Greens are the big winners. I am not going to attempt to guess at what sort of coalition ends up running the city, but I suspect that we can look forward to fewer cars and a more pleasant walk to the station.

And then there’s the federal parliament, which is where things really do become interesting. Again the Vlaams Belang and the Greens are the big winners at the expense of the more mainstream parties. It’s generally the case that Flanders tends to vote centre-right and Wallonia tends to lean to the left and this is reflected in the fact that the largest and second largest parties are the Flemish N-VA and the Francophone Parti Socialiste (PS) respectively. And now they have to form a coalition.

In the last parliament we had a four party coalition of N-VA, CD&V and the Flemish and Francophone liberal parties. This time around, though, the size of the Vlaams Belang prevents these four parties from achieving a majority.

It should be safe to exclude the possibility of the far right getting into government as long as the cordon sanitaire holds — which it should. Gwendolyn Rutten of the OpenVLD has already ruled out any sort of agreement with the far right and I don’t see either the socialists or the greens being willing to do a deal with them. The N-VA have been a bit more equivocal about the far right, but if no-one else is willing to let the Vlaams Belang near at the levers of government then any hopes they they might have are dead in the water. As such, the size of the far right contingent merely adds to the complexity.

Being the biggest party, the N-VA will get first crack at forming a coalition. But the francophone parties don’t trust them — to the extend that the PS have said that they won’t go into coalition with them at all and several members of the francophone liberals of the Movement Reformateur (MR) saying that they don’t want anything to do with Theo “Thickie” Francken.

It’s possible that the N-VA might be able to bring around the MR and hammer out a coalition of with the liberal parties, green parties and the CH&V. An agreement between the N-VA and Greens is unlikely, but not completely outlandish — these two parties tried to form a coalition in Antwerp after the 2018 local elections, although the talks eventually fell apart — but any such agreement would take a long time in coming.

And if the N-VA can’t hammer out an agreement, the PS will have a go at forming a coalition. The numbers are there for a six party coalition of socialists, liberals and greens but whether such a coalition will manage to survive a full five years is anyone’s guess.

Maybe it wouldn’t need to.

After the 2010 election, the Belgian parties took 589 days to form a government. This time around, they may well take longer.