In Belgium no news is good news
'One of my favourite bits about being a foreigner is that I could not care a stuff about the local news,' proclaims Tim Roux.
I am sure that this puts me at the top of Expatica’s list of the 10 Most Unwanted People in Belgium because I am certain that Expatica has a stern (if only self-imposed) remit to fascinate and delight all foreigners with the intricacies of the local politics and the compelling urgency of national concerns and events.
Sorry, but until the revolution arrives, I just don’t want to know about any of it and, it being Belgium, when the revolution arrives I probably won’t even notice it either until the taxes go up again in consequence.
It was the same when I worked for a multinational corporation. I was the Strategy & Planning Manager for EMEA (Europe, Middle East & Africa) which was a fairly political job but somehow I managed to persuade my bosses to locate me the furthest possible away from any European or national head office, in the South of France, where I could remain rigorously unaligned. The particular company I worked for had a tendency to panic and an even greater tendency to gossip. It also liked to churn its top management.
About every couple of years they replaced the MD in each country (they had over 30 Country MDs in Europe alone and another 10 or more Business MDs), and for six months prior to the appointment of each new MD everyone would congregate around the vending machines and in the restaurants speculating feverishly as to who would be their next MD and as to whether they would prove to be a good or a bad thing for them personally. As every MD’s appointment was made by what appeared to be a particularly fiendish and cynical Lotto machine, I never ever heard anyone guess correctly the identity of their next MD, and that was for something like 250 MDs’ appointments over a 27-year period as discussed by some 30,000 people. Nonetheless, the employees took the opportunity to prattle on, gasp and fret over every possibility, wasting more accumulated man-hours than it would take to send a space mission to the end of the universe and back again.
Living in the South of France, well away from any corporate vending machine or staff restaurant was bliss. I didn’t have to become embroiled in endless drivel over who would get what job. I had quite enough drivel to originate myself (misleadingly termed ‘strategic initiatives’) without having to play soothsayer with a map of Europe, flags and faces. OK, it wasn’t going to last. Sooner or later the Head of Europe was going to get irritated with my overwhelming detachment from my corporate environment and pick up a pair of scissors to cut my phone line and my salary, but until then it was as close to heaven as any corporate ‘head office’ job could be. The beach was excellent too, and the water was warm, especially for my daily swim in the bay at midnight.
Similarly, living in France, the only things I needed to know about French politics was that Jacques Chirac ran every risk of being sent to prison, that Nicolas Sarkozy stood a considerable chance of becoming the next President of France from a riveting and energising platform of a zero-tolerance traffic policy (and therefore that I should avoid that one roundabout in St. Raphael where the police sat at 02:00 on a Sunday morning breathalysing motorists), and that almost every French person I spoke to was in favour of French involvement in the Second Iraq War (whereas every Brit I spoke to was against British and US involvement there). On the international scene, not only was Jacques Chirac in trouble, but so was Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi, General Pinochet and several Latin American Presidents, a couple of South-East Asian Presidents, whoever was the Japanese Prime Minister that week, and so on. National prisons were soon going to resemble the local lunatic asylum. “Hello, I’m Napoleon Bonaparte” – “Nice to meet you, I am Jacques Chirac” – “Nice to meet you, I’m a poached egg”.
Not having seen a single French news broadcast in four years, we moved to Belgium where we now haven’t seen a Belgian one for over three years. For a man of my anti-political prejudices, Belgium is perfect. Half the time there hasn’t even been a government and the rest of the time I haven’t known the name of a single member of it. Please don’t ask me who the Prime Minister is, I haven’t got a clue. Who is the President? Is there one? I did know what the king was called once, but I have luckily forgotten his name too, and that of his charming wife.
Which reminds me of that famous story of the man who attended a cocktail party in Denmark (for the sake of argument). While circulating, he bumped into a lovely lady whom he was sure he had seen before. The lovely lady asked him what he did for a living and he explained his job briefly. He then felt obliged to reciprocate. “And what is your husband doing nowadays?” he asked her. “Oh, he is still king,” she replied.
Which is my third favourite royal joke. My second favourite one is the quip made by Alan Coren when asked to comment on Princess Di and landmines. “Well,” he said, “I don’t know much about Princess Di and I don’t know much about land mines, but I do know that you would be extremely foolish to poke either of them.”
And my favourite one? That is the one about Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain during the state visit of the President of Nigeria. It was just after the Biafran War during which the President of Nigeria had massacred rather a lot of people and the Queen was reputedly uncharacteristically uncomfortable about meeting him. Anyway, they were travelling across St. James’ Park in an open horse-drawn carriage when one of the horses farted. The Queen was suitably embarrassed. “I’m terribly sorry, Mr. President,” she apologised. The President of Nigeria roared with laughter. “That’s quite OK, Madam. I thought it was one of the horses.”
Now, if they told stories like that all the time on Belgian TV News (or in Expatica), maybe I would be hooked.
Tim Roux / Expatica
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