Flying to another European capital for the day makes me quite the worldwide traveller, I suppose, which would explain why I didn't enjoy the experience very much.
To get to Brussels, I flew on Ryanair to Brussels South Charleroi Airport, a contradiction in terms like `military intelligence' or `London Luton'. Charleroi Airport is just like a bus station, except with fewer bus services, which was a bit of a pain when it came to onward travel. To get from Charleroi to Brussels you get a transfer coach which is timed to coincide with the occasional Ryanair arrivals and which costs Ten Of Your Earth Euros.
I had made the mistake of assuming that I'd be able to get money out of a cash machine when I arrived, which would have worked fine if Charleroi's single auto-teller had any money in it. As a result I had no cash to pay my bus fare, until I realised -- little helped by the surly bank official, though at that time in the morning everyone is surly -- that the bank was open and was in fact able to change money, but by the time I'd established that this transaction was possible and completed it, I'd missed my bus and had to wait over an hour for the next one.
I suppose this is an argument for the single currency, but it's equally an argument for never getting on an aeroplane at half-past seven o'clock in the fucking morning and being completely incapable of rational thought when it arrives. The one advantage of flying at such a ridiculous time was that I was able to catch a little bit of sleep on the 'plane, which probably enabled me to stay -- barely -- awake whilst ensconced in the throbbing heart of our great European democracy.
By the time I got to the European Parliament (optionally referred to as the `Europarl' in 1984-speak) I'd wasted about three hours, most of the time being spent in the company of a crowd of overenthusiastic American tourists who perhaps thought they were taking their last chance to see Old Europe before Donald Rumsfeld `liberates' it. In any case their verbose enthusiasm did not help me to cope with early morning travel.
The Parliament itself is an enormous building from the `monumental shopping mall' school of architecture: marble and mirrored glass, and security guards in silly hats. That said, it would be hard to claim with a straight face that it's any worse than our own Victorian-gothic monstrosity. Horses for courses, I suppose.
(It is also equipped with at least one statue of unique and -- at the risk of making a value judgment -- horrid design: a bronze depicting a woman wearing a nightshirt holding up an enormous euro symbol while a number of male heads grow out of her free arm. Or at least, that's what I think it's supposed to be:
That said, there's a statue of great parliamentarian and, uh, noted military dictator Oliver Cromwell outside the Palace of Westminster, which is hardly an aesthetic improvement and certainly in worse taste.)
Getting in to the Parliament requires all sorts of searches and X-rayings and slightly baffling interactions with the security guards. It took me a while to determine that the impassioned gesticulations of one of the guards -- let's call him Captain X-Ray -- were intended to convey to me that I'd dropped my keys and should pick them up. (For this service, many thanks; returning to Cambridge only to discover I couldn't get in to my flat would have been exceptionally irritating.) I suppose this illustrates why my general strategy for dealing with security people -- walk obliviously and purposefully away as if I really know what I'm doing and their concerns are no concern of mine -- is not always a good idea. Also they were probably armed. Whatever. (Another tip: sharing a language with the security people is probably a Good Idea. Naturally, I studied French for many years at school, but it doesn't seem to have had quite the educational effect that I'm sure was intended. Here would be the point to insert a long rant about GCSEs and `dumbing down', if I were so inclined.)
The security is, I guess, fair enough, though a cynic might suggest that typical European reactions to news of a terrorist attack on MEPs might be open astonishment followed by apathy.
The Parliament is huge -- our European representatives get two offices each, one of which is allocated to their staff of one or two assistants -- and the building is generously equipped with lifts, photocopiers, and notices imploring MEPs to please not steal any more cutlery from the restaurant. (Each photocopier is also supplied with an enormous stack of forms for reporting `photocopier incidents' -- I guess these must have been for when the photocopier breaks down, though I suppose it's conceivable that a form was supposed to be filled out for each incident of photocopying. The Parliament uses so much paper that it has its own brand....) From the upper floors of the building you get a fantastic view, but unfortunately it's a view of Brussels, which seems to consist chiefly of building sites. The old joke--
Q. How many people work in the European Commission?
A. About half of them.
certainly can't be true of those who are planning new buildings for Eurocrats....
I won't bore you with any details of the actual process of lobbying; suffice it to say that this was quite stressful, especially since the majority of MEPs seem to take the end of the week off and trekking around the building only to find them absent is a pain. I wasn't able to see any of my constituency MEPs, for instance, which was pretty poor going.
Returning to the UK was relatively painless, largely I think because I had time -- finally -- to get a coffee before catching my flight. (By that time I was acutely aware that my general crankiness was probably connected to the fact that I'd had no time for any caffeine all day. Bad move.) Happily my plane landed after the recent blackout and I expect Stansted wasn't affected other than peripherally anyway.
My recommendations: if you want to see the throbbing heart of our great Euro-democracy, go to Strasbourg: at least that's a pretty town. And don't just go for a day. And don't economise on the coffee....
In other news
Suckdot extracts the links -- the only even occasionally useful content -- from Slashdot, so that you never have to see the offensive colour scheme or inane, stupid commentary. Also available as an RSS feed for those using aggregators.
Surprising RSS aggregators, unlike most of the technical contributions of the ``'Blogosphere'', are actually quite useful, though they are hamstrung by the crappy specification of RSS and the fact that typical web site administrators are too lazy to generate correct RSS anyway. Part of the problem is that RSS must be XML, because that's the current fad; a more sensible format would have been plain text with lines of year, month, day, hour, minute, URL, title, description. Even the most doltish of web log software authors could hardly get that wrong.
Anyway, here's my headlines aggregator, which I've been meaning to package up for a while. It emits HTML. See the README in the tarball.