Les gens qui ne rient jamais ne sont pas des gens sérieux

Be who you are and say what you mean, those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


I was all prepared. I had the form they'd so kindly sent me, my pay slip for the one month that was applicable, my contract, my ID card, plus my health card just in case (this is Belgium. You Never Know) and a bag full of magazines for the waiting room. I was ready.

The building was almost completely unmarked, but I only had to pass it twice, with a short detour into the carpark and a hasty check in my bag for the number before I found the front door. Simple.

As I emerged from the lift on the fourth floor and into the corridor, I found it full of people, as I'd been warned. What I hadn't been told about was the new system they'd introduced. 'Prenez un ticket Madame' a kindly soul advised me from the mass. 'Mais ou ca?' I asked (stopping myself just in time from sending her an outraged glare and spluttering 'Mademoiselle! Not Madame!'), expecting one of those machines you find in all good post offices nowadays. Even in Poland. 'Dehors' the lady continued, woefully. I went back towards the lift and found a pile of bright orange cards, with large wobbly hand-written numbers on them. Mine said 106. Oh Belgium, I thought, and went back into the throng.

A young man in a t-shirt and gelled hair came out of the office and shouted a number. It sounded suspiciously like 20. I decided to blame that on missing the first bit of what he said and him, with his Flemmish accent, actually saying 80 (vingt and quatre-vingts are easily mistakeable, especially to someone with a ticket that says 106). When he came out and said 21, I almost walked out. Then I realised if I didn't do this now, I would miss the deadline and they would never give me all that tax back. I had to be patient and get through the magazines.

A seat was vacated and for some reason nobody wanted to take it. After leaving a respectable pause, I wandered over, and plonked myself down, between Mr 35 and Mr 72. Mr 35 was reading a book in French, and Mr 72 was one of those heavy smokers who speaks through a film of phlegm and gravel, and smells like an old pub's unwashed carpet. Hence the reluctance to take the seat maybe? Maybe.

A larger, older man emerged from the office next, and asked us to kindly take our documents out of their envelopes and unfold them, ready for inspection. Well that really set the crowd off. 'Unfold them! They make us wait hours and then get us to do half their work!' cried an older lady in a headscarf. 'As if folded papers are the probem here' snorted a young father with his daughter. 'Ridicule,' muttered Mr 72. I opened my magazine and tried to lose myself in last week's news.

Soon an old man shuffled in, took one look at the crowd and shouted 'ah, NON!' A lady sitting on a bench near the entrance stood right up, offered him her seat and told him the queue was moving very quickly. 'No, but I can't wait' the old man explained, slowly, carefully. 'I am diabetic and have to take my medication.' Mr 72 snorted next to me in disbelief. The woman told the old diabetic to go straight to the front. Tell them, they'll see you next.' He shuffled to the front, past the scowls and odd sympathetic glances, and told the man at the front his predicament. He was quickly ushered in, amid a few grumbles from old men and women seated around the corridor.

The queue kept moving, and eventually I had shuffled up to near the door. Finally, I was shown to a neat man sitting behind a desk and he took all of 2 minutes to type in all my details. The computer froze twice, and even so, I could hardly believe the speed with which it was done.

'That's it?' I asked. 'All that waiting, for that?' 'Oui madame,' said the old patient tax man, 'c'est tout.'

Seeing the money arrive into my account though, now that might require a bit of a wait.

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