Sunday 23 April 2006

Why Brussels doesn't work

Enduring the pain of travel
Whilst I am not a jet-setter in reality, I am probably the railway train equivalent of one.
This time, I did not have to run for the train and there were enough people in the first class area for me not to have to bother about safety, security, company and over-arching awareness requiring me to sit in the other class with a first class ticket.
Strangely, the last time I did that, a man got on my coach with his own music, he started to play the guitar; in the first class area, I could have told him to stop; here, I probably would have the guitar smashed over my head.
I listened as the “out-of-tune” guitar strummed The Caterwaul featuring Banshee and Hyena in D-minor – allegro.
The things we do to endure the pain of travel.
See Brussels and weep
This time, it was Brussels (forget the spelling, it has as many variants as a meaningless anagram where s, x and l may feature, all depending on your mother tongue).
It is the capital of Europe, they say, and it probably is a microcosm of what is so wrong about Europe and nothing is happening to remedy it.
It is the where you have heard so much about the great statue and having found the statue, you are utterly under-whelmed – great is used in the context of myth not size.
I saw Europe through the use of one of those dreaded self-service station lockers.
Lucky locks for working lockers
Basically, there are three sizes with different prices; the instructions are available in an electronic panel with buttons for one of four languages – Flemish (The Dutch spoken in Belgium), French, German and English.
You put your baggage, luggage, wares whatever in, close the door and the lock engages, the electronic panel/screen then shows you the price, put in your coins and you retrieve a bar-coded ticket.
When retrieving your luggage, just show the bar-coded ticket to the supermarket till scanner and the door automatically opens.
Now that is a process that works with the technology offered.
Here be dragons of Brussels
How do you give this system a Brussels perspective?
Look at the pricing in Euros – 2.10, 2.60 and 3.10, now that is easy if you were in South Korea you could pay with your mobile, or some other system would allow the use of a money card.
You need coins here, chinking coins. Some of you might wonder, why wasn’t the pricing rounded off, well, that might be the price a committee had arrived at to balance equality of access with a break-even possibility. Really?
Okay, let us break it down with numismatics; you are allowed to use Euro coins that offers the choice of 1 and 2 Euros, then Euro-cents which have 50, 20, 10, you cannot use 5, 2 or 1 Euro-cent(s).
Big deal! You say, I’ll just put in the money and get change – Oops, it wants the exact amount.
Then put any amount above the price you need to have your luggage safe, it spews out the extra money, then everything you put in and the door opens.
Why, am I having this problem, I do not have 10 Euro-cents on me and all those prices require you have 10 Euro-cents regardless of how rich you are.
I probably have a hundreds of Euros of coins below 50 Euro-cents in a drawer at home; you suddenly wished you had installed that device that could have teleported that 10 Euro-cent coin immediately.
Aha! The smart people who designed this system probably have a coin exchanger around like they do in Amsterdam and hopefully it dispenses all denominations. Zilch!
Switch to anger management, do not hit your head against the locker, you need it to think.
Service desk, closed!
Probably, I might perchance have that elusive coin in one of my million pockets, starting with the first, none, and finally, a stray coin which must have slipped into some cranny in my baggage materialises like a gold coin out of a fish mouth.
Perspiring, exhausted, irate but determined, the last coin goes in and my baggage is secure.
Exactly, the locker is a symptom
This is the sense of frustration that greets every European, many of us are Europhile, just as we need to use the lockers, but every aspect of daily life is complicated all the more by ideas that suit every metric but the people.
The prices on the lockers could easily have been rounded off; it is easier to ask someone to change money for you than to ask for spare change.
People are more likely to have two 50 Euro-cent pieces than five 10 Euro-cent pieces.
In many senses, it shows how Europe was designed with a customer in mind, but the customer probably does not have the resources to avail themselves of the potentials.
Beyond that, many decisions are about national self-interest rather than community values, it informs why the Common Agricultural Policy cannot be reformed, nimble East-European Countries are feared by Old Europe and big countries can flout the economic rules for maintaining the stability of the Euro.
Europe is not working
The “one size fits all rules” do not work for that fact that it is a seriously unequal partnership of nations with almost nothing in common, more reason why the constitution was rejected by two of the founding nations.
Viewing Europe through a the locker regime in Brussels Central Station is probably a bit frivolous, but it also happens to be the station where a kid was murdered in a crowded place for not giving up his MP3 player. It probably informs the solemn and numerous bouquets of flowers placed at the entrance to the concourse.
Even in crowds, safety is relative and security is uncertain if you are in Brussels – that is the Ode to Joy of the Europe we live in today.
Update - July 2008
The lockers at the Brussels Central Station now takes money rounded off to 50 cents or the Euro.

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