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.

Elections

26th May is election day in Belgium where voting is compulsory — or would be if anyone actually checked.

There are three elections, all on the same day, for the European Parliament, the Federal Parliament and the regional Parliaments respectively. Being an EU, but not Belgian, citizen, I get to vote in only the EU Parliament election.

The Federal Parliament is the one from which the national government is drawn, which means that we will see the end of the current caretaker administration just as soon as a new coalition is formed.

I’m not holding my breath, though. Opinion polling suggests that the Flemish separatists of the N-VA are set to end up as the largest Flemish group in the Parliament and the Francophone parties are already saying that they want nothing to do with the N-VA.

The coalition negotiations could take a while.

The joy of commuting

Normally my train journey into work takes 43 minutes. Today it took over two hours. According to my NMBS App (which, I have to say, is pretty good at keeping you informed as to the state of the Belgian railways as well as being a handy route planner) there was a fire between Brussel Noord and Brussel Centraal.

My usual train is a direct train to Brussel Centraal, stopping at Brussel Noord. So that was cancelled.

There was a train to Leuven. Lots of trains go through Leuven, and it’s in the right general direction, so on I jumped.

When I reached Leuven, the available information was telling me to head to Brussel Zuid (another detour) and take a tram. Fortunately (I think), the train from Leuven was so much delayed that, by the time it reached Brussels, the line had been reopened and I was able to go directly to Centraal station.

And when I finally walked into the office, 90 minutes late, I was informed that three people had taken the day off due to rail issues.

Bunch of lightweights.

Dropkick Murphys: Until The Next Time

The Groezrock music festival takes place every year in the Flemish village of Meerhout. The festival has been going for some time and, by tradition, is the festival season opener in Belgium.

The festival offers a range of punk, hardcore, metalcore, skapunk, and exceptional music and has become one of the largest punk festivals in the Lowlands.

This year, I managed to acquire a couple of free tickets. Better still, none other than Dropkick Murphys were headlining the main stage on Saturday.

Unfortunately for me, the tickets I had were for Friday.

This is what I missed.

Only in Belgium: The adult egg roll

More than 10,000 people search for sex toys in Walloon field

An adult version of the “egg roll” in which children search for eggs that have been hidden by the organisers took place in Wepion in Namur Province on Sunday. However, it wasn’t eggs the 10,000 participants searched for in a field in the Walloon municipality best-known for its strawberries.

Indeed it wasn’t. The aim was to find vouchers for sex toys. The event has been running for nine years and this was the most successful so far with a total of 10,000 people taking part. It’s becoming international, too:

As well as the many Belgian participants, 250 French people took parts, as well as people from the Netherlands and even Portugal and Spain.

I have to wonder about what sort of person travels all the way from Spain on the off-chance of winning a free sex toy.

When puns go bad

March is international bowel cancer month and, from VRT, comes the news that Belgian charity Stop Darmkanker (Stop Bowel Cancer) has launched a campaign to get people to encourage their friends to test for early warnings.

Since 2013 test kits have been sent out to the over 50’s every two years. The tests are designed to trace bowel cancer in its early stages. A laboratory checks whether there are traces of blood in the excrement, something that could point to the early stages of bowel cancer. There is a 90% chance of being cured of bowel cancer it it is detected early enough.

In order to encourage the 50% of Flemings that don’t bother using the test kits to do so Stop Bowel Cancer wants Flemings to encourage people they know that have received a test to actually use it.

This is all good stuff and it is obviously far better to catch the disease while it’s still treatable rather than waiting until it’s too late.

I’m just not entirely sure about calling on people to Become a shitty friend.

Become a shitty friend