The worst journey in the world

What is the worst journey you have ever made? Recent events, public and private, have got me thinking about my own worst journeys and the concept of a bad journey. (And I should point out that some of the following may not be for the squeamish — or for people eating a meal. For the same reason I shall eschew sound effects in the recording.)

In 1922 Apsley Cherry-Garrard published The Worst Journey in the World, a masterpiece of travel writing which I believe has never since been out of print. It is the account of the 1910-1913 Scott expedition to the Antarctic of which Cherry-Garrard was one of the survivors. That was a pretty dreadful journey, no question, but “the worst in the world”?

Good or bad, best or worst, these are subjective judgements. What’s good for you may not seem so great to me. What’s bad for me might seem a walk in the park next to Cherry-Garrard’s winter journey. I’ve not struggled through a screaming blizzard in the pitch black Antarctic night several tens of degrees below freezing in order to “acquire for science” (i.e. steal) some Emperor penguin eggs. I have not then failed to rescue my fellow explorers, leaving them to die of cold or starvation just a few kilometres away. I can agree, that must have been pretty bad. My worst journey doesn’t compare objectively, but it happened to me and subjectively it was so bad I still measure all my bad journeys against it.

It started well enough in the summer of 1995. The school year was over in Sweden and I’d been working in Poland, helping out on a training programme for Polish teachers of English, and was making my way back to England to visit my mother in Brighton. The weather was fine, the sun was warm and the fields and even the old industrial towns of Poland and eastern Germany were smiling. I took the train from Warsaw to Berlin where I broke my journey to be a tourist.

It was not quite five years since East and West had been reunited, just over five years since the fall of the Wall, and Berlin was filled both with reminders of the Cold War division and the rubble and reconstruction that was replacing them. I particularly remember taking the U-bahn to Potsdamer Platz (which had been one of the East German ghost stations), getting off and walking through what felt like a labyrinth of temporary passages and steps up to the surface to find myself in the middle of one massive building site. But I also walked through the Tiergarten, central Berlin’s fantastic park, and the summer sun filtered down through the leaves of the trees on the families spread on the grass with their one-time barbecues and picnic blankets and children playing. There was hope in the air.

That evening I ate a chicken dinner at a fast food restaurant near my hotel. As it happened, not a good choice. I wasn’t going to sleep long — my train was starting early — and I think being a bit nervous about missing the train kept me awake and interfered with any messages my stomach might have been sending me, because I don’t remember feeling sick until the train was underway.

It was one of those trains that pick up and drop off carriages en route. I think its final destination may have been Paris, but my carriage was going to the Hook of Holland where I had a ticket for the ferry to Harwich. It was a long journey through similar bucolic countryside and historic urban centres as the train from Warsaw, and all bathed in the same gentle June sunlight, but I was not in a state to enjoy it. Soon after we left Berlin my stomach started cramping and I found my way to the lavatory. This being a German train the lavatory was clean and functioning. I was to test it considerably during my journey, but it never failed me.

worst journey 2Although I started the journey in my seat, I ended it — certainly the last few hours — standing as close as possible to the lavatory, in the corridor by an open window, gulping fresh air and holding on to the wall hoping I wouldn’t fall, wouldn’t shit myself and that the train wouldn’t be delayed. I was so pleased when we arrived in Hook on time that I almost convinced myself I was feeling better and carried my bags from the station to the ferry terminal (not a great distance) with some confidence. After boarding the boat, however, I realised I was in a cold sweat and my legs were shaking. Seven hours at sea? I had my doubts.

I had recently agreed to my bank’s suggestion and invested in a Visa credit card. My first credit card. Oh, how I appreciated that! This was an afternoon crossing, so there were cabins available and I was able to book one — all for myself — and with a bathroom en suite. I spent the entire trip stripped to my underwear (when the fever was hot) or wrapped in a blanket (when the fever was cold), lying on the bunk or squatting on the toilet or (a new development) vomiting into the toilet bowl. To be honest, by now I really didn’t have much left in me to evacuate, but my body was determined to do its best.

It was now that I realised I was passing blood. I’m not sure when that started, but I remember observing it with a kind of detached resignation. I knew it wasn’t a good sign but I was beyond caring.

Before the ferry reached Harwich I took a shower, dressed and tried to make myself look as normal as possible. Importing a deadly pandemic virus into England? Me? Good heavens, no officer. Just a little under the weather.

But nobody was interested, so I boarded the London train. Where I was immediately reminded of the difference between German and British trains. This was at the very beginning of the disastrous privatisation programme that destroyed British Rail, but at this point the London-Harwich line was still part of the demoralised and deliberately underfunded though still state-owned Network South-East. The underfunding was reflected in the absence of electricity, water or toilet paper in the train’s lavatories. One of which I nevertheless took possession of.

Night was upon us. I have an abiding memory of the lights from one station after another strobing past through the frosted glass window and sporadically illuminating the interior of my smelly cell. I found hooks to hang my luggage on and I wiped off the toilet seat as best I could — it was fortunate I had packets of paper tissues bought on the boat. The toilet bowl, though encrusted, was empty. It was of the “not to be used while the train is standing still” variety — old-fashioned even in 1995 — the sort that opened to drop deposits on the tracks beneath. I locked the door, and I don’t remember anyone hammering to get in. So I coped, and the train eventually pulled into Liverpool Street station. Then all I had to do was get across London on the toilet-less Underground, catch a train to Brighton and finally take a taxi home to my mother’s. Two and a half hours, tops.

The following day Mum took me to visit her doctor who diagnosed dysentery, but not amoebic dysentery (which was good news). And then I was able to spend the next eight or so days recovering.

That was and remains my worst journey. I don’t think you’ll disagree with me that it was a pretty bad experience, but let’s reflect a little on what makes it nevertheless something less than a really bad journey; less than the worst journey in the world.

Although the journey itself was awful, much that surrounded it was rather good. It was a journey I had chosen to make, planned in comfort and organised myself. I was satisfied with my contribution in Poland, I enjoyed the journey from Warsaw, Berlin was interesting, I had tickets and credit to get me across Europe in relative comfort despite my illness, and a legal right to travel (despite my slightly feverish concern about being identified as the vector of a pandemic).

Above all, I had a home to run to and someone waiting for me who, while it might not have been the thing she most wanted to do, was still prepared to take me in, look after me and get me medical attention.

The Worst Journey?Apsley Cherry-Garrard had a worse time than me, no question. He ended up feeling at least partly responsible for the deaths of Scott and the other expedition members. Also those Emperor penguin eggs which it had been so important to collect that he’d given up more than three years of his life, turned out, when he returned, to be no longer of any scientific interest. Still, it was a journey he had wanted to take, he wasn’t forced to take it. The life he left behind he could pick up again when he returned and (as I think you can tell from his name) that life was not your common or garden lower class existence. (To be sure, the First World War came along and spoilt things, but that tragedy lies outside the scope of Cherry-Garrard’s journey, and outside the scope of point I’m trying to make.)

So let’s think of a journey that really could be described as the worst. Not only would the actual journey have to involve a series of horrible incidents, terrible travelling conditions, lack of water or food, exhaustion, illness and perhaps actual physical violence and/or convoluted bureaucratic hoop jumping. Not only would it involve surrendering yourself into the hands of strangers, perhaps professional smugglers, perhaps incompetent do-gooders, perhaps unscrupulous money grubbers. Not only would it have to have an element of moral peril: you yourself would have to put another person or people at risk, perhaps friends, perhaps relatives, perhaps the one person dearest of all.

More than this, the journey would have to be involuntary, not chosen for adventure but forced by circumstances, or chosen perhaps as the least worst of a series of bad options. And there would have to be an element of irony (this is a post-modern story it seems), so let’s imagine that journey’s end is in a country which is either directly or indirectly responsible for the circumstances at home precipitating your journey. And to add to the irony, let’s include the fact that all your life savings — a fraction of which would have bought you an airline ticket to fly you to your destination — must instead be spent on the journey you are taking by land and sea because the country to which you are fleeing (which may accept that you have a legitimate cause to seek asylum once you get there) has made it impossible for regular airlines to let you buy a ticket or board a plane so you could travel quickly and in safety.

And at the end, what? Not a homecoming. Not a welcome, not safety and security, but the coldness of strangers, hostility and mistrust — to such a degree that the dead lost along the way, the children drowned at sea, the mothers and fathers suffocated in the back of a lorry, the sisters crushed beneath the wheels of trains, the brothers frozen to death in the undercarriage of high flying passenger jets, all these seem to be happier for no longer having to suffer.

Now, that. That would be the worst journey in the world.

The worst of journeys


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Home but away

I did think I would produce a blog entry or two while I was home, but it turned out that I was away. Visiting home but away on holiday. I found I had little inclination and less time for any of this bloggety-blogging.

It’s an odd sort of existence we’re living, Mrs SC and myself. Away in Brussels, physically, at work and play for weeks, even months at a time; but spiritually, emotionally (and legally – for the purpose of taxation) still anchored at home in Gothenburg.

Where we are mentally is an open question.

Flying over GothenburgWe flew into Gothenburg at the beginning of August, took ourselves home and spent several happy hours enjoying the familiarity and comfort of our own four walls. Our sofa, our books, the views from our windows, the taste of cold, fresh, soft water from our tap in our kitchen. And our glassed-in balcony, especially that, where I sit to drink my tea in the early morning light, where we sit to sip our nightcaps in the soft gloaming before going to bed.

Three weeks we were there, and not a dead day. There was always something to do, somewhere to go, friends to meet, old familiar haunts to visit, changes to note. All through the long, drawn-out Scandinavian summer days and the short, somewhat cooler, Scandinavian summer nights.

Everybody we met told us how lucky we were with the weather. July, they said, shaking their heads. June, they sighed, shivering. But August – in August the sun shone. It shone almost every day we were home. And every day we checked the weather apps for Brussels and saw: cloudy, overcast, chance of rain, thunder. With what Schadenfreud we looked up from our smartphones and congratulated one another on having come home for our holidays! This, we told each other, this is what it’s really like. (Forgetting the rain and the storm and the ice in the winter, forgetting the long, dark nights punctuated by short dull days.) No, no, this, this is home.

Places resonate, especially places one has visited many times before, where things have happened and the fabric of the place is dense with memory. Here’s one such. Trädgårdsföreningen – the Garden Society park.

Caldera
Caldera
This summer it was enriched with a temporary display – in association with the open-air sculpture park at Pilane on Tjörn – of apparently abstract sculptures by Tony Cragg.

Caldera - detail
Caldera – detail
Only apparently abstract, because after you’ve stared at them for some time you suddenly see a face, a profile, a nose and lips, a chin and a forehead, and then you realise there are faces everywhere in the sculptures, smiling, frowning, gazing profoundly or blankly into the middle distance. Knock on one, hear its tone.

Points of view
Points of view
“Caldera”, “Points of View”, “Mixed Feelings”. Good titles.

I saw the sculptures my first Monday at home in Gothenburg, and again on my last Thursday. My last Thursday after sitting by the Bältespännar fountain just outside the park entrance, watching a piece of performance art being filmed.

Performance art in progressA woman dressed and made-up to look like a statue, a living statue, walking slowly, meditatively in a wide circle around the fountain past the children playing in the spray of the water, past the young families, past the schoolchildren in a group with their teacher. Followed and filmed, not just by her own two cameramen, not just by me, but also by the families, by the schoolchildren, by random passers-by with their mobile phones.

Performance art in progress - audienceAnd back in the park, that first Monday, beyond Tony Cragg’s sculptures, beyond the palm house, in the rose garden with more fountains and children playing. I sat on a bench in the sun next to a mother with her young son. As he ran about, she followed him with her eyes and sometimes her voice, calling out in a language not Swedish. An older man sitting along the bench from her asks, is that Portuguese?

She laughs and tells him, no, it’s Bulgarian.

Ah, says the man, Bulgaria. I drove through Bulgaria. I used to drive trucks from Teheran.

That’s a long way, she says.

Yes, he says, days. There was always a break at Istanbul though. This was a long time ago, back before they built the bridge. You had to wait for the ferry.

I’ve never been to Istanbul, the woman says.

It’s a great city, he says. You should go.

I miss this. Being able to eavesdrop on a conversation. I can’t do it in Brussels – unless people are speaking English or Swedish – I can only watch body language and make a guess at what’s going on. It’s quite fun, but it’s not the same.

That first Monday, when the sun got too hot, I took myself indoors, into the empty dusk of The Rose Cafe – everyone, all the sun-starved Swedes, all the foreign tourists, they were all outside. I bought a salad and sent a text message and waited to meet my friend Kristina. As I arrived in Gothenburg, so she was leaving. That first Monday in August was our one day of overlap.

Kristina Svensson's Facebook page
Kristina Svensson’s Facebook page
Kristina brought me a copy to buy of her latest book, #författarboken (#theauthorbook), and a copy to see of her travel guide to Nice, Mitt Nice.

Collage of fourTrädgårdsföreningen’s rose garden is where we first met, years ago. We were both taking part in an Internet-based competition to find someone to represent the Swedish Hostelling Association for a summer reality show/vlog. Competitors, but we had similar ideas about authorial self-promotion and we pooled resources for a promo pitch. It’s still up on my YouTube site. We neither of us won the competition, which was a bit of a disappointment at the time, but we did find one another. We were both wannabe authors. Now that just describes me. Kristina is an author, a published author with four titles to her name, two of which – the two on the table – came out this year. It’s obvious which one of us had the gumption and get-up-and-go.

But I’m getting there. (He added, optimistically.)

Mixed feelings
Mixed feelings

And that was just the Monday. There was more, much more to come. Maybe there’ll be more here in a future blog post, but for now I think I’ll close.

Here’s hoping your summer holiday (or your winter holiday, if you live in the opposite hemisphere) was just as enjoyable.

Performance art in progress - through the fountain
Performance art in progress – through the fountain

Sound recording acknowledgements: Most of the ambient sound I recorded myself in the places stated. The sound of the music box playing “Home Sweet Home” at the beginning and end of the Soundcloud recording was taken from the sound track of a YouTube video posted by “Music Box” here.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The adventures of Hergé

I’m not going to pretend that Tintin was a significant feature of my childhood, but I was aware of him and his adventures. Mrs SC feels much the same, although I think her childhood exposure may have been greater than my own. I have come across some of the Tintin books (along with one or two Lucky Lukes) among the pile of well-thumbed Asterix albums in my wife’s childhood home, suggesting she and her siblings had a more French-oriented experience than my sister and I.

Here in Belgium Tintin is something of a national hero and you soon realise (if you didn’t know it already) that Tintin’s creator, Georges Remi, was Belgian. Georges Remi’s initials, reversed (RG) and spoken in a French accent become Hergé, which is how Georges Remi signed his cartoons.

Herge

There’s even a Hergé museum, which is where Mrs SC and I found ourselves on Sunday.

Like many places in Wallonia it is at one time not that far away, yet not the easiest place to get to. Located in a town called Louvain-la-Neuve. It’s a fairly short train journey from Brussels, but for us at least finding the train wasn’t straightforward. The museum has a website with instructions for “Localization”, and it advises train travellers to visit the SNCB website – this is the website of Belgian Rail.

Belgian Rail has a search function where you can input your departure point and destination (“station, stop, address”) and – in theory – get information about your train. However, you do have to know exactly where you are going. The Hergé museum advises you to “choose destination Louvain-la-Neuve”, but do so and the search engine replies: “Your input is ambiguous.” It then gives you about twenty options to choose among. There are a lot of stops at Louvain-la-Neuve, but none of them is the Hergé museum.

seagull

Our first attempt to visit the museum was scuttled by this confusion. However, we persisted and the next time we were in the Brussels Central Station we asked a young man with “Student” printed across his Belgian Rail sweatshirt. “Ah, no. What you want is Louvain-la-Neuve-Université because the museum is located next to l’Université de Louvain.” And so it was.

Louvain-la-Neuve is a rather disturbing place. It appears to have been built completely new, sometime in the 1970s, solely to house a university – the French language, Catholic University of Louvain. On Sunday morning it was giving a good impression of a film set for a rather creepy science-fiction/horror movie. One of those films in which most people have been stolen away by aliens, or turned into zombies that only come out at night, while the few who remain go about their lives apparently oblivious to the population disaster that has struck their town.

Herge museumThe Hergé museum is housed just a short walk from the echoing centre of Louvain-la-Neuve in a purpose-built, architecturally designed edifice that sits like a ship in a grassy dry dock, reached by bridges from a couple of sides. It’s an interesting building, odd angles and white with big windows. The entrance (as you can see from the photo) gives a passable imitation of an open book – one that’s been well-read and has pages coming loose. Sadly, the architecture is a wonderful shell for less inspiring contents.

I can’t say the Hergé museum is the most overpriced and boring museum I’ve ever visited. (That honour goes to a museum of natural history on Malta.) But at €9.50 per adult it isn’t cheap and though I wouldn’t call it boring, I wouldn’t call it exciting either. It certainly wants to be exciting and gets very excited about Hergé: “one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century”, it calls him. It seems Hergé had a bit of a chip on his shoulder about being a commercial artist. The museum responds to this by going out of its way to praise him for his innovation and success in the field of commercial graphics. He was a “[g]raphic designer, caricaturist, cartoonist, illustrator, storyteller… a multi-talented artist who was a perfect reflection of the twentieth century.”

Yeah. Right.

Seriously, the only reason Hergé is widely known – the only reason he has a whole museum dedicated to him – is because of Tintin. The tension between the man and his creation is palpable throughout the museum, and the curators are aware of it. At the very beginning of the audio guide one recorded voice demands to learn about Tintin while another promises Tintin but insists there is so much more. But there really isn’t. Not here, anyway. And actually there’s not a lot of Tintin either.

Perhaps that’s unfair. There is a lot of Tintin, but so many opportunities are missed. Considering the reason for the museum’s existence and its star attraction is not Hergé but Tintin, a beloved children’s cartoon character, the museum is absolutely not designed to appeal to children. In fact, I think the only people who might find the Hergé Museum truly gripping would be the sort of adults who collect comic books and memorabilia.

Despite the museum’s attempts to enter the digital age with an audio guide on a smartphone, the material it has is presented in a crushingly traditional way. Glass cases display objects Hergé owned; framed pictures of original strips hang on the walls… and that’s about it. Beautifully lit, spacious, architecturally designed gallery after gallery with glass boxes and framed pictures. For variety there are occasional video screens. There’s almost nothing to do but walk, look, read, listen. The relief when we found the stereoscope images from Hergé’s research collection and were able to operate the machines to switch pictures. It wasn’t much, to be sure, but in the desert of monotony one learns to be grateful for even a little variety.

Waterfront

More than this, after a short while you begin to suspect the museum is presenting a highly edited account of Tintin and Hergé’s lives – so highly edited that the same information, the same pictures, the same video clips are recycled in the galleries and the audio guide over and again. We gave up listening to the guide during what seemed to be the third run-through of Hergé’s biography, and gave up on the museum itself after the fourth or fifth gallery.

Some of the information you don’t get from the museum you can find on Wikipedia. For example, while the museum tells you Tintin started out in 1929 as a weekly cartoon strip in the children’s supplement to the Catholic newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle, Wikipedia tells you the earliest Tintin strips were right-wing Catholic propaganda for children. The first strip (1929-1930) was Tintin in the Land of the Soviets. (It is the only story Hergé seems in later life to have been embarrassed about – he never redrew it or republished it in colour as he did all his other early Tintin stories.)

The second story was not an improvement. Tintin in the Congo (1930) with its caricature Africans and paternal colonists still attracts criticism – most recently, in Sweden, when there was a big row about whether or not copies of the album should be displayed in libraries and loaned out to children.

Hergé, who was in his early 20s when he came up with Tintin, did grow more serious and more sensitive with the passage of time. Later stories starting with The Cigars of the Pharaohs (1932) and continuing with The Blue Lotus (1934) began to introduce more complex storylines and more relatively sympathetic characters, as well as developing a cleaner, more direct drawing style which came to be known as ligne claire. (This is presented in the museum.)

Tintin quiff

Although the propaganda was toned down, Tintin continued to be imbued with conservative values. The fact that Hergé went on to publish Tintin stories in approved publications during the German occupation of Belgium, 1939 to 1944, led many to conclude he was a collaborator if not a committed Nazi supporter. He was certainly identified as a collaborator by the Belgian resistance. However the fact that he was “only” drawing cartoons for children seems to have counted in his favour. Though blacklisted for a time after liberation, he was never put on trial and eventually his wartime activities were officially described as those of “a blunderer rather than a traitor”. He was allowed to resume a professional life. (This is glossed over in the museum.)

Hergé’s Catholicism also took a beating. His first marriage seems to have been less than happy and a consequence of social pressure at Le Vingtième Siècle. His first wife was the secretary of his editor at the newspaper. A series of affairs, with the inevitable accompanying Catholic guilt, was followed by a divorce and eventually a second marriage. According to Wikipedia, towards the end of his life Hergé may have been more of a Taoist than a Catholic. (None of this is in the museum – at least not in the first three reiterations of his biography that I listened to. Possibly because his second wife was responsible for establishing the museum after his death, and possibly because the museum is in the grounds of a Catholic university.)

Tintin and seagull

The museum shop and “café” between them show the that the museum has clearly identified the economic group it expects to appeal to. The shop is packed with overpriced memorabilia – mostly plastic (or even ceramic) models of Tintin and other characters from the albums. Want a Tintin moon rocket? It comes in sizes from a few centimetres high to one taller than a full-grown Belgian man (1.786). You can also buy Tintin albums in various translations (so there is something for the kids after all). You can probably get a fizzy drink or a cup of coffee in the café too, if you ask really nicely, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the bill of fare. Three course meals are what they want to sell you. We decided the museum had already got enough of our cash and went looking for something else.

We ended up eating largely tasteless but faintly savoury waffles at a Belgian fast-food establishment in the by now slightly more awake Louvain-la-Neuve. Hardly a culinary delight, but not nearly as expensive as the food in the Hergé Café. And after that we took ourselves back to Brussels.

So that was our Sunday.

(By the way, the museum is very protective of Hergé’s copyright and forbids photography – which is my excuse for the paucity of illustrations this week.)


This week’s recording is not quite as good as I would have wished – none of my own ambient recordings were useable and the editing process got a bit rushed. Some background sounds courtesy of Freesound.org and Freesound uploaders zagi2, sagetyrtle and cris. Many thanks!

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The tiger at Lemonnier

Note: This blog entry is also available as a sound recording from Soundcloud. See the link at the bottom of the entry.

Back in November 2014 when we visited Brussels to find a place to live, we used public transport to get around. In particular we tried to time journeys between the centre and the places where we were looking. It was on one of those house-hunting expeditions that I first looked out of the window of a tram – one of Brussels’ pre-metro underground trams – and saw the tiger.

Lemonnier tigerCrouching, head turned back, tail lashing, stretched across one tunnel wall, standing out from concrete and conduits and graffiti tags. The tram was past in seconds and the tiger lost in the dark, but I could still see it burning bright in my mind’s eye. I didn’t realise where it was of course, my concept of Brussels’ geography was rudimentary. (It’s not so much better now, though I believe it is improving.) But I looked out for it when we returned to Brussels to live in January, and saw it again, and worked out where it was.

If you’re riding a number 3 or 4 pre-metro tram, or a number 51 or 82 tram, travelling south, just after you leave the Lemonnier station, look to the right as the tunnel bears right and you’ll see the tiger. I’m going to guess that it is more or less life-size. It reminded me of the tiger in the painting by Henri Rousseau in the London National Gallery, (though now I have looked again at Rousseau’s painting I don’t see much of a similarity).

Lemonier mirror 2The Lemonnier station is worth a visit in its own right. Constructed with four platforms, two catering for the pre-metro trams and two for the non-metro trams, it has places to allow travellers to cross the tracks between the platforms which I’d never seen before in an underground station. The tracks curve away through wide tunnels so you can see points and junctions and perhaps trams held back by lights. There’s much more of a feeling of an aboveground (though over-bridged) railway station than an underground station.

On the French language Wikipedia I find a sentence describing Lemonnier that suggests there is more here than meets the eye: “On the lower level, it says, “there is a ghost station, non-operational and with two more platforms.” Somewhere else – I can’t now remember where – I have read there was once a plan to build a deeper metro line through here that was abandoned, but presumably not till after the deeper station was built.

Although the Brussels metro and pre-metro are relatively newly constructed – post-Second World War anyway – there is a longer subterranean history in Brussels. It may not be as extensive or as old as London’s, but there is definitely potential here for a Belgian Neverwhere.

Lemonier mirror 1Meanwhile, the Lemonnier station is a crossroads not only for the pre-metro and trams, but also for people passing through. Aboveground, just around here, is a principally working class district that now has a fairly large immigrant community with especially many people from North Africa and the Middle East. They use the station to get to their work or schools elsewhere in the city. Many people from the western and southern suburbs also pass through here. One stop south of Lemonnier is the Gare du Midi pre-metro station that serves Brussels’ largest mainline railway station and daily brings in commuters, and visitors from Paris and London, some of whom change trams here.

It is presumably this international connection that inspired the Brussels metro authorities to invite the Algerian-born Belgian citizen, artist and musician Hamsi Boubeker to decorate the station. The walls of the station are covered with his blue and white drawings of women’s hands decorated with henna tattoos. I have occasionally (twice now) seen women with henna-decorated hands on the trams passing through the Lemonnier station, so the tradition illustrated is alive and well, which I find appealing.

Lemonier hands - pianoIf I’ve understood the Brussels metro website correctly, from 1994 an international project called Hands of Hope (Les mains de l’espoir) collected images of henna hand tattoos from 87 countries around the world. This collection then formed the basis of Boubeker’s decoration. The website notes that “for the artist” an open hand symbolises peace, friendship, openness and tolerance. (As if an open hand doesn’t usually symbolise just these things – well, certainly the first three.)

Henna tattoos seem to have originated in north Africa so it must be a comfort to people far from home to find a little piece of the Maghreb here, underground in Brussels.

Lemonier mural 2Having found out so much about Lemonnier’s official artist I was curious to see if I couldn’t discover a little more about the Master of the Lemonnier Tiger. I also wanted somehow to get a picture of it. Although I wandered about the station taking pictures of Hamsi Boubeker’s art (and a few candid photos of some of the passengers passing through or waiting for trams), I couldn’t find a good, safe, legal place to stand to get a picture of the tiger. It is simply too far along the tunnel.

Perhaps whoever painted the tiger has also painted other, more accessible graffiti elsewhere? I know that several Brussels graffiti artists have produced multiple works, some of which survive for weeks or even months, but I’ve not yet seen anything that looks like it’s by the same hand as the tiger.

Eventually, I asked for advice on the Belgium section of Reddit. I got some encouragement from a couple of users and was pointed in the direction of a Facebook page dedicated to Brussels street art. I had hopes, especially as there was an e-mail address, but whoever is on the other end of the address wasn’t interested to reply, so that was a dead end.

One suggestion from Reddit was to try and take a photo from the window of a stationary tram. Unfortunately no trams terminate at Lemonnier any longer and so a stationary tram is hard to find.

What else to do?

Well, whoever made the tiger must have got in to do so somehow – and plenty of other people are clearly entering the tunnel to tag the walls – but is this something I could do? Besides, to take a photo I’d need to have a bit of distance. I couldn’t take it standing in the same place as the artist who painted the tiger, that would be too close

Lemonier hands 5On the opposite side of the tunnel from the tiger I could see a path along by the side of the track. It led from the platform and a gated barrier. The gate is usually locked (I’ve pushed it) and carries a warning sign: “20,000 volts!” But one day when the tram I was travelling on passed through Lemonnier, I glanced at the barrier and saw the gate was open.

I had an errand and couldn’t get off the tram there and then, but on my way back I got off and saw the gate was still open. Okay, as you know I’m not always completely law-abiding, and besides the gate is open and there is no obvious No Entry sign, just the warning. I take out my camera and walk through the gate, along the path and into the tunnel until I am almost opposite the tiger. Here I find I’m standing in front of highly reflective window. I’m fairly sure this is one-way glass. Not really knowing if anybody is watching me from behind, I wait for two trams to pass, line up my shot and take four pictures with different exposures. There’s no point in using a flash as I’m too far from the tiger – besides I don’t want to inadvertently blind any tram drivers. I try to hold the camera as steady as I can and hold my breath when I press the trigger. Then I carefully walk back to the station, up onto the platform and board the tram that’s just pulled in.

I won’t say that I felt like I had been stalking a real tiger, but I certainly got an adrenaline kick and had to sit still and breath deeply for a couple of minutes.

Then of course came the inevitable disappointment when I saw the pictures on the computer screen. Even the best one does not really do the tiger justice. It’s the picture I have, and I’ll publish it, but perhaps it’s better anyway just to glimpse the tiger in the tunnel.


Acknowledgements: Thanks to Reddit Belgium users xor2g and utopiah for advice and encouragement as mentioned in the text. In the audio version (follow the Soundcloud link) I recorded the ambient background sound at Lemonnier myself on the morning of 14 July 2015. Extra sounds are from the Creative Commons database of sound effects at Freesound.org. The sound of the tiger growling comes from Soundmary“Tigers roaring”. The sound of a North African wedding party comes from keina_espineira“Moroccan wedding”.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Break the law – sliding door

Note: This blog entry is available as a sound recording from Soundcloud. See the link at the bottom of the entry.

I don’t usually break the law, but there are laws (against murder for example) and then there are laws (against crossing an empty street when the traffic lights are clearly showing a red man).

To be fair, I’m not even sure if the latter is really a law here in Belgium – though you’d think so. Perhaps (as in Sweden) it’s just custom that keeps Belgians standing at the curb-side waiting for the lights to change. Either way, crossing against a red man is something I do weekly while I’ve never committed murder and I hope I never would.

A couple of weeks ago I broke another law, and now I’m paying for it.

Let me start by saying I really like public transport in Brussels. I think it’s quick and reliable and if it’s crowded at certain times of the day and on certain routes, that’s only to be expected. The night service doesn’t look very good, but as I’m not a pubber or a clubber that doesn’t bother me. However…

My jump cardThrough June I was using what Brussels Transport calls a “jump card”. It’s an electronic passcard that you can load with five or 10 journeys at a time and then use to get about on the trams, the buses and the metro. I wanted to see whether it was cheaper for me to use a jump card than to buy a month’s season-ticket as I’m not travelling on public transport nearly as frequently as Mrs SC.

Monthly tickets cost €49. Jump cards cost €14 for 10 one hour journeys – and you can switch vehicles in order to complete a journey or even make a round trip on one ticket if you’re quick. (I know now it isn’t quite worth it – and not just for what happens below. I ended up spending slightly more in June using the jump card than I would have done if I’d bought a monthly card.)

Back to the story. A couple of Wednesdays ago I hopped on a tram to go up to town to meet Mrs SC after her day at work. I only realised when I was on the tram (when I registered my jump card) that the card had expired. From the sensors in the trams, you can’t tell how many journeys you have left. At least, as far as I know the machine will only pling to tell you your journey has been registered or buzz to tell you your card is empty. I try to keep a countdown in my head, but I was surprised when the machine buzzed at me – I’d obviously lost count.

Now, there is nowhere on a tram – or on a bus or a metro train – to renew a jump card. You have to get off and use a ticket machine, but ticket machines are not always available. There was one at the stop where I boarded my tram, but although I looked I didn’t see any at any of the stops we passed through on the way into town.

So I carried on to my final destination, thinking I could fix it there. That was a mistake.

Barriers 1My final destination was the Rogier metro stop. Here two metro lines, two pre-metro lines and two tram lines all meet and cross one another – for Brussels it’s quite a major interchange. There are three levels, a large central hall on the middle level and numerous exits, and no way to get out without passing barriers where you have to show a valid ticket.

I walked around inside the station for some time looking for a ticket machine, but the only ones I could see were all on the other side of the barrier.

The barriers are not waist-high turnstiles like in London or Stockholm, they are man-high sliding doors that open and then close with the speed and viciousness of a guillotine. I saw how some people in my predicament pushed behind somebody who did have a valid ticket and slipped through before the doors shut, but I simply didn’t have the brass neck to try and do that. In the end I phoned Mrs SC, who was waiting for me above ground, and got her to come down and let me out.

She showed her monthly pass to the machine, the doors opened and I dodged through in the wrong direction. The doors detected me and slammed shut much more swiftly than I’d bargained for and caught me a blow on the side of my chest. I got through, but it hurt. The doors then snapped open and I think there was an alarm (I honestly can’t remember). We walked away as fast as we could with my dear wife putting as much space as possible between her and me. (He’s the criminal. I don’t know him.)

A part of me was thinking of security cameras and how we’d surely been identified and would soon be scooped up by the transport police, while another part was saying: Take it easy, this is Belgium, not Singapore, and quite enjoying the adventure. My side hurt though.

We still had to get home. We re-entered the station another way and now on the right side of the barriers, I loaded my jump card and we walked through like law-abiding citizens.

Barriers 2I wondered a little what went through the heads of the authorities when they set up the system at Rogier – and it’s similar in several of the other intersection metro stations in town, I’ve been looking. The system is designed to punish rather than teach. Not putting ticket machines inside the barriers at the stations makes it impossible for travellers who’ve made an honest mistake to put the situation right by buying a ticket at the end of their journey. I would have.

I’m guessing the punch in the side the sliding doors gave me was also intentional. The doors closed so much faster than they do when they let people through the right way.

Perhaps I should say the system is designed to punish and teach. I certainly feel punished. My ribs are bruised and I have difficult breathing deeply especially when I’m lying down. Two weeks later, it’s easing up, but the first few days after the punch were difficult. On the other hand I’ve now bought and charged a monthly card and check my wallet every time I leave home to make sure I’ve got it with me. So, yes, I’ve learned my lesson. But I still don’t think physical punishment is good educational practice.


As a coda to the above, I’m making this an audio recording, posting the recording on Soundcloud and including a link here so you can hear me as well, should you wish. You’ll know I succeeded if you see an audio player somewhere in the post. Anyway, to make the recording a little more interesting I decided to record some ambient sound on the tram and at the station. I especially wanted to record the sinister sound of the sliding barrier doors as they swish open and snap closed. Sadly, I have to admit, they make almost no sound. Consequently, in order to get the right sense of menace, I’ve included the sound of a guillotine at the appropriate momnent – thanks to the Creative Commons database of sound effects at Freesound.org and the creator Glaneur de sons.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.