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

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Les Belges

This is just excellent.

It immediately conjures up images of serious looking joggers, heading for the little tents that are dotted around the park, and then emerging with numbers pinned to their t-shirts and a cornet of frites in one hand. Genius.

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Friday, May 08, 2009

public speaking, ah the joy

I've done another toastmaster's speech, and got another best speaker award. This is what I intended to say, although I went off script somewhere along the way and came up with a completely different ending somehow. Ah well, my knees didn't knock this time, and I even found myself almost, but only almost, enjoying it. Weird.

European Elections 2009: Why WE should be promoting them

Living in Brussels, the administrative centre of the European Union, I suspect a lot of you know that the European elections are taking place in June. They are the only transnational elections in the world, they take place every five years, and this year is the first in which citizens of all 27 current EU member countries will vote over a few days for people to represent them at the European level.

Turnout for the European elections is notoriously low - less than 45% in the 2004 elections, and people suspect that this year's turnout will be even lower, thanks to the current crises and peoples' discouragement and mistrust of politicians.

I would like to explain why I think we all have a role to play in promoting the elections and making sure that those in our home countries, who do not have the benefit of seeing Brussels and experiencing the work of the European institutions right here every day, get out and vote in June.

The first reason I would like to explore in favour of voting in the elections is that it is your opportunity to influence not only what happens in your country, but in your region of the world. It is about seeing the bigger picture, finding solutions that benefit not only those in your street, your town, your country, but Europe as a whole. The EP is the only directly elected institution in the European Union. It is your opportunity to shape the way Europe develops in the next five years.

The second reason some might decide it is important to vote, is to ensure that they are not highjacked by Euro-sceptics, who are trying to destroy what has been built up over the past fifty years. In England this weekend I saw this poster. It is clearly against the European elections, and comes from a party intending to use the EU system in a negative and destructive manner. There is no information about the positive effects felt in the UK as a result of being part of this European Union. No complex argumentation about what the benefits might be, just a focus on the perceived costs. Populists and Eurosceptics are forecast to take a bigger proportion of the vote than ever before. If you are unhappy about this, then this is your chance to ensure they are not given more power than they deserve.

The third reason might be that it is not only your democratic right, a right that people all over the world have fought for, but your responsibility to take an active part in shaping Europe. The parliamentarians have a role to play in shaping European law, which affects national legislation in many areas so has a direct impact on European citizens' daily lives. It also monitors the work of the other European institutions - the Council and the Commission. It is our chance to ensure the right people are making sure the right decisions are taken.

Other reasons might be that you want to boost the number of female MEPs, you don't like the current MEP representing you, you think tax payers' money should be spent more carefully... You might want the EU to show more leadership on climate change, to play a more responsible role in the world, to fight against discrimination and injustice... Each individual will have a different reason that makes it meaningful for them to vote.

Look at the candidates, read the parties' manifestos, find out the date of the elections in the country where you are registered to vote. The European Parliament website has loads of resources and has been set up to help make it easier for you to take part in this election. Check it out and make your choice. Then tell your friends.

Whatever your reason for finding the European Union important - and I hope you all have at least one - I hope I have managed to convince you of the necessity to get out there and vote, and to convince all your friends, relatives and colleagues to do the same.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

identity cards

I turned the corner and spotted door number 8. The door I'd been directed to, to pick up my shiny new electronic Belgian carte de sejour. There was a ticket machine so I took one. 724. I looked up at the screen. 728. Oh Belgium.

A lady was standing with her young child and I pointed at the door. 'Vous allez ici aussi Madame?' I asked. She looked at me, blankly, and a man I hadn't noticed sitting behind me cut in 'it's chaos in there.' he said. 'they're all in foul moods.' I sighed and a newly arrived older woman went up to the ticket machine and took a useless ticket.

'I don't know whether we shouldn't just go in' she said to me. 'This lady was here first' I said, pointing at the lady with her baby daughter. The seated man nodded. 'Go in!' the new arrival advised the mother. The screen flicked to the next number - 729. 'Go ahead' we said to the mother and child. She looked at us wide-eyed and pushed open the door. When she didn't come out immediately we took it as a good sign.

A woman walked down the corridor and towards the door purposefully. It was clear she was an employee and as the number system was helping nobody, I decide to tell her about it. 'Pardon Madame...' I started as she opened the door. 'There's a little wait' she announced, loudly, and shut the door firmly. I turned around, mouth open, to the older lady who had sat next to the man. 'They're a miserable lot these people' she said 'don't even try.' 'What a shame' I said. 'You work with people every day and you can't even be pleasant. It would make the day pass more more agreeably.'

The screen buzzed and the next number was shown. I indicated for the man to go, but he waved me away 'no, I'm a complicated case. They'll come for me. You go ahead.'

I opened the door to find the mother and child sat in front of a desk, and three employees standing across the desk from her, looking at the screen with concerned expressions. One looked up as I entered, and asked me to wait. I stod awkwardly by the door, wth no option but to eavesdrop on their conversation.

'She's got a Belgian passport.' one said
'But she speaks no French?' another asked
'No French, English, Spanish, Portuguese or German' the third explained. I couldn't help but be impressed. Usually the workers in administration buildings speak French and Dutch and look at you with scorn if you try any other language.

The first employee turned to the mother, sat quietly and patiently as they fussed around her. 'Tu veux quoi?' she asked loudly, flapping the passport in her face. I contained the urge to explain that if someone doesn't speak a language, it is generally not a question of upping the volume and being obnoxious before she understands.

'Well I don't know what she wants' the shouter said, 'let's move her and wait for Claire to come back from lunch. She might be able to speak to her.' She turned again to the lady. 'Viens avec moi.' The lady looked up at her, still not understanding. 'Toi!' the lady shouted, pointing at her 'viens!'

It never ceases to amaze me how officials turn to the familiar form of you 'tu' to try and show someone their place, even if they don't understand. Something in my face must have shown my contempt for the way she was treating the lady, because the employee looked at me briefly, turned back to the woman and pulled her up gently by her arm. 'Venez madame. Il faut attendre ici.'

The second employee went back to her seat and waved me over. The third employee buzzed the number screen and the older woman who'd joined us in the corridor came in and took a seat where the incomprehending mother had sat.

I handed over my papers, and as the employee was looking for my card, I heard the conversation at the desk next to me.

'What's your first language Madame?' the shouty employee asked the older woman.
I could almost hear her bristle. 'French!'
'Yes, but your native language. You see we can't understand this lady. Maybe you could speak to her.'
'Well where's she from? Africa's four times the size of Euope you know.'

My papers were put down on the table in front and the emplyee dealing with me joined in the conversation next to us 'Ghana, she's from Ghana.'

'Huh, well, I'm from Ethiopia. A long way from Ghana. They speak English, didn't you try with English?'

The employees confirmed that they had tried with English, and listed again the other languages she did not speak. 'She only speaks her dialect. How she got a Belgian passport I don't know...' the first employee said.

I was handed my card, told to keep my PIN safe and that was that. As I let the room, the lady from Ethiopia was trying to talk to the lady from Ghana. She was just looking at her, not understanding a word, her daughter hanging on her arm.

I looked down at my card, and tried to imagine it. In a foreign land, trying to do a task you can't explain, people shouting at you in a language you can't make sense of. I wondered who she was, and how she came to be in Belgium with its grey skies and rude officials.

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