In Belgium

Halfway through a ten-day house exchange, and it’s a rest day, sitting around the house listening to the rain. Rest days are much to be enjoyed following days of getting out and about, either into the melée of Brussels or the frantic road system. Rest days renew the dissipated spirit, refuel the knackered body, prepare for the affair of the holiday to begin again. You might have got the impression that I quite like them.

It might  a bit unfair to rough up the habits of Belgian drivers for they are not quite as the French. Within minutes of entering the roads you have a car up your backside as you obey the very reasonable 50 km suburban speed limit. Not so the locals, who treat speed limits, unless policed, as reference points from which to indulge their boy-racer persona. I was wrong, they are as bad as the French.

Brussels has had a bad press, largely due to their having torn down so much of their architectural heritage in the 1960s. Despite that, in parts it has a lovely Parisian feel, supported beautifully by the predominant language of French at which we are not bad, at least ordering food, buying stamps and the like. There are rewarding quartiers to explore, sinful beer to try and don’t you just love the transport: efficient and cheap, at least the latter beating London. Best of all is coming home to an exchange-house that clasps you unto it, sets you down in the quiet, soothes the fatigue of older age.

Yesterday we drove to Leuven, drove rather than on the tram/train/bus as planned, not only for Suzanne, who has attempted too much after her operation, but also for me with this blasted plantar fasciitis that has persisted for months. Appearing in the square above the car park we were greeted with one of the modern sounds of summer: the banging together of racks of chairs preparing for a rock concert. Another victim of the wars (it’s beginning not to matter which) when the Germans razed lots of the old town for no apparent purpose, Leuven is the country’s oldest university town (1425).

Towards the end of the stay, we visited the town museum where I expected my eyes to glaze over with exhibits of bits of Flanders cloth or spiky mediaeval helmets. Instead, your 10 euros bought four floors of weird arrangements of children’s blocks on tables, pointless films of Indian dancers, pictures (and not many of those) of bits of rope or hairy carpet, and most disconcerting of all a three-act play with two child-robots talking in an American accent to projected films of pole dancers. We did not stay beyond the first act.






Free Beer

The Dublin Jack on Lan Kwai Fong in Hong Kong is patronised mostly by those seeking home-reminding pints of draught bitter and you-know-what stout. Philip, whom I had just met at a client’s, took me there on a warm April evening in 2002. He was interesting, not only because he was a young techhead with ever-changing life objectives – both qualities beyond me – but also have you ever met an Ulster-accented Chinese man? Well, he  was your man.

The pub doors were bursting, drinkers of all ages, sex and colour spilling on to the pavement. Entry was guarded by a young Irishman in a white shirt, tie and black trousers. Hands up, he stopped me.

‘Would you be having an invite?’


‘A private party it is, in there, and only by invite.’

‘Well, we don’t have one but this is a pub, we’re bloody thirsty, and we have come a long way.’ Two out of three, but he didn’t know that, so cross fingers.

‘In that case, you must be going in. And the beer’s free,’ said the guard, looking to and fro in fear of witness to such dereliction of duty.

Free beer? And such was the case, you only had to jostle your way through the press to the counter for ready-drawn Kilkenny or Guinness, sweep off one of the many foaming glasses, and hey presto!

Outside as I handed over a pint, I asked Philip, ‘Is this a dream?’

Unblinkingly, he accepted this unheard-of occurrence phlegmatically. ‘What do you mean?’

For all his Belfast brogue he was at heart Chinese, expressionless even in the face of serendipitously gratis grog. But for me, whilst we supped outside in the tropical evening and our glasses emptied, I pondered about whether I could get back in to this Shangri-la.

‘Do you think we can try it on again?’ I asked him, who had been drinking alongside me in more or less silence.

‘Why not?’ Which was about as far as his excitement got.

‘I’ll go,’ I replied, even though it was his turn.

Barring the way was a different Hibernian, a little older, but again with the white shirt and business, ‘Would you be having an invite?’

‘Er, I was in there a little while ago.’

‘Sure, in that case, I must have let you in before.’ Yes, that was exactly what he said.

And so the beer flowed free for Philip and me, and at a might-have-been fifty Hong Kong bucks a pint, it was among the sweetest I ever tasted.

Some hours later, I took the night flight home to Sydney. I never saw Philip again and like me, I don’t suppose he came across free Guinness again.