‘Ladies and gentlemen, it’s the captain speaking and I’d like to wish you a very good morning. We are just starting to fly over Belgium. We have thirty minutes to go before landing at Heathrow airport.’ By the time the Qantas cabin crew had finished its announcements, we were over the North Sea. Such is the size of Belgium.
With a team packed full of talent, I bet £ 10 on Belgium to win the World Cup. At the time of writing they are into the quarter finals, after a heroic victory over Japan.
I mainly travelled to the country for work, visiting Procter & Gamble in Strombeek Bever, near Brussels’ Zanvantem airport. I also met with a colourful character from Carlson Wagonlits Travel in Brussels. It is true that the beer, chocolate and moules frites are excellent. Sitting with a beer in a ridiculously shaped glass in the Grand Place is a pleasure. Bruges, which we visited as a family on the way back from Germany, is a must on anyone’s Europe in three weeks itinerary.
On July 20th, 1999, Jane and I flew from Milan to Leeds Bradford airport via Brussels, for our wedding in nearby York. Was this an early warning sign that I could be tight – we flew on points – or was it perfect planning because of the airport’s proximity to York. Sorry for the digression. Sabena was the national airline, and I used to imagine the destinations in the former colonies, on the departure board. The Belgians had the hard core colonies like the Congo.
The trains were old, the last time I visited. Parts of the city looked quite shabby. Problem is that Belgium is, or perhaps better said was, overshadowed by hyper-efficient, blueprint country, The Nedderlands, as the linguistically gifted Dutch call it. Then the loud, northerly neighbours didn’t qualify for the World Cup finals. It all changed.
Belgium, like Switzerland, is a country where you need a lot of patience to listen to railway and airport announcements, what with the Flemish, French and English. Antwerp is the centre of the global diamond trade and is apparently beautiful, as are the hills of the Ardennes.
So, if you’re tempted to bash Belgium, hold off. Don’t say that we have cattle stations five times the size. Don’t compare them endlessly with the Dutch. One of my pleasures at Vodafone was travelling to Brussels on Eurostar in just over two hours, and to be in a customer meeting alongside a monopolistic telecoms provider.
Belgium will win the World Cup, just you watch.