Cracker by Damian Christie

Beer and Loathing in Brussels (Pt I)

I’ve just returned from a class trip to Brussels, visiting the European Commission and NATO.

Unless you have pressing business with either institution it’s not a trip I would advise. Beer and mussels aside – which are just as abundant in more interesting places such as Antwerp, or even Vulcan Lane – it’s drab, drab, drab.

It’s the Canberra of Europe.

Having wandered in London, and flitted about Venice (more on that in a future post) I had thought cool old buildings were de rigueur in the Old World. Not so.

NATO is a point in case. It’s no small irony that the headquarters of Western defence during the Cold War looks like the absolute epitome of 1950’s Soviet bloc design, complete with pillboxes, checkpoints, armed guards and razor wire. The architecture isn’t so much uninspiring, as a unique example of soul-destroying brutal nihilism. The overall effect is not entirely unlike being hit by a big grey truck with a copy of Kafka’s The Trial sellotaped to the front.

We were later informed the complex was indeed built during the Cold War, but was originally intended to be a military psychiatric hospital. Well blow me down.

After surrendering our passports, cameras, cellphones and will to live, we were ushered inside.

Inside was less oppressive, but no more impressive. Renovated in seventies-office-meets-regional-airport chic, it wasn’t exactly the secret military complex kind of vibe I’d hoped for. No tables flipped over to reveal hi-tech world maps. No men in bio-suits studying banks of radar screens, and no master villains stroking white Persian cats while spilling their plans for world domination. If any of this was inside NATO, it wasn’t in the Media & Visitors’ Centre.

Instead, a small store sold newspapers, cigarettes and NATO merchandise. For €60, you too could be the proud owner of a NATO-emblazoned towelling robe. I immediately thought of NZ's own “International Man of Mystery”, DPF, who I'm sure would consider it rather fetching and may indeed place it high on his Christmas list. Just leave it behind if you’re planning on heading to the Middle East.

Despite being charged with security for the Free World, a large sign hung above a row of hooks: “NATO accepts no responsibility for coats left here”.

Nor is OSH a high priority. As our speaker informed us, rooms (such as ours) with an "A" in the doorway, identified the presence of a little treat I like to call “asbestos”. He assured us his frequent cough was just the end of a nasty cold.

The briefing was fairly innocuous. No classified information was imparted (like I’d tell you if it was). I recall thinking three things:

1. I wish I’d consumed more coffee at breakfast.
2. Shit the US spend a lot on guns.
3. Was I amused, disturbed, or both, by the speaker’s Freudian slip in referring to “the war in Iran… sorry, Iraq”?

After a few hours we left, and other than being oddly transfixed by a small door wedge with the name “Lange” written on it, I was generally unmoved in emotion and opinion.

If you’re in Brussels for a day, I’d probably give the group tour a miss.

Stay tuned for Part II, in which our intrepid hero visits the EU, spends One Night in Paris and still manages to arrive home in time for tea…

For those with time to kill on a Friday, watch this supercute and very clever music video. A JCB, in case the video isn’t completely obvious, is a brand of construction machinery.

“Still bored?” as Popbitch is wont to say? Banksy produces quite possibly the most amazing stencil art/vandalism I have ever seen – in the sense that it’s clever, funny, political and artistic, and it’s all over the place here. There’s a very nice hardcover book of his work called “Wall and Piece”, published by Century, which an imprint of Random House, so it might be available in New Zealand. In the meantime, give the website a good going over for pictures such as these.

Ka kite ano.