Sitting in the Eurostar departure lounge, my life is Groundhog Day. There's the 6.57 to Maidstone. The 7.03 to Charing Cross. The 7.13 to St Pancras. A gust of wind. A dog barks. Enter the van. Hello Felix. I'm in France, yet I can see my house from where I am sitting., The realisation that everyday I can see two countries from my living room window.
Having never been to Brussels, it feels bizarre to live only 90 minutes by train from Belgium, but never going. It's also unusual to stand on Folkestone beach and get a signal from the French SPR Mobile Phone Carrier. So out of the house at 6.30, up the stairs, and by 6.50 I am in officially French territory, having passed through passport control, and trying to buy a cup of hot chocolate. I mean, I'm in France now, why would I need English money? With a £5 minimum card transaction, I buy a sandwich I don't need (but find I need later).
Arriving in Brussels, even though I have never been there before, it seems very familiar. I find my way through the Metro system with ease, book into the Hotel Retro (Hey, man gotta have some class, even if it is relatively cheap),. It is next to the Botanical Gardens, which seems very oddly similar to The Overlook Hotel maze. And in the evening, explore, with a walk at dusk through the city centre, the Grand Place, before finding by chance, both the Tin Tin Museum, and the miniscule Mannequin Pis. The walls seem to be decorated by local artists, so 6 storey murals of Belgian characters – such as Tin Tin, Captain Haddock and Milou / Bobbi the dog adorn random corners with no warning, as well as “Bluescarves” - or Smurfs. On the way back to the station after meetings, I have to take a Double Decker train, of which there aren't any in the UK, so I break my Double-Decker-Train-Virginity at the grand old age of 40, because I MUST. You only live once.
I don't get to see the Atomium as I run out of time, but that gives me a reason to come back another time.
Sadly on the way back, arrival is spoilt. I show my passport at Brussels, and am given the whole “Stand still and look at me” by British Passport control. My passport is only 18 months old, and all I've had since then is a shorter haircut. Off with belt, coat, phones, wallet, put your whole life in this grey box NOW, and “Abuse Will NOT Be Tolerated”, even though they simply do not get that the whole process is a pointless and theatrical exertion of authority and control over the innocent. Still, if you've got nothing to hide, nothing to fear eh?
After this, and arriving at St Pancras, several hundred people queue at Passport Control. Show your passport, again. Queues. Fill in boarding cards. Why are you here? How long have you been? Where have you come from? Why? I have to show my ticket, and my passport a second time. At Brussels, for example, when you disembark, you go through a gate and you're on the street. Here, I have to queue to be interrogated by my own, distrusting country, which is demonstrating a bit of power. It doesn't make me want to visit the UK very often. It's not welcoming. It's no message to send to the rest of the world, that even to get into this hallowed* paradise you have to queue and plead to be let back into your own country. Britains just not that great, and the weather is pretty damn rubbish, really. It's the typical unfriendly welcome I have come to expect. Still, America is even worse, which explains why I haven't been there for seven years. Brussels is a lovely city and I think I will be going more often.