We went on a courier run to Waterloo in Belgium on August 22nd. Because we went on holiday the next day, this is the first opportunity I have had to write it up.
We got up at 4am and after a cup of tea, walked down to St Pancras. The streets were virtually deserted until we reached Kings Cross station. The station was still closed and a few early passengers sat or lay dozing in the entrance. St Pancras, in contrast, was in full swing with queues for the Eurostar.
We submitted to the usual baggage examination and passed through the metal detector. I couldn’t remove one of my rings but the gate alarm didn’t sound. Then our passports were barely scrutinized by an officer of the French Frontier Police. All we had to do now was to sit and wait for boarding to begin.
At this time of day, travellers are mostly business people but there are also some families. Unlike the inland railway service, it is not necessarily more expensive to travel by Eurostar at “peak” hours.
As proof of this, we are travelling first class on the outward leg, simply because on this departure, first class is cheaper than standard class. Work that one out! The good thing is that breakfast is included in the ticket price.
On her phone, Tigger not only has the Eurostar seating plan but also maps and itineraries for our journey.
The Eurostar will take us to Brussels and there we will catch a train to Waterloo. According to the map, we should be able to walk from the station to the client’s office.
That’s in the future, however. For now we sit and wait for boarding to commence.
We boarded the train and found our seats. We have a nice little table for two near the exit of coach 8. Next to us, the group of 4 seats is unoccupied and a stewardess invited us to “make ourselves comfortable” by moving to them but we are sufficiently comfortable where we are at our little “Brief Encounters” table.
The breakfast menu included two options, one hot, one cold. I happened to mention to the stewardess that I am vegetarian and received an unadvertised vegetarian option: omelette with peas, mushrooms, tomato, spinach and potatoes! A vanilla yogurt, bread roll, croissant, jam, orange juice and coffee completed the line-up. Oh, and an apple.
As we breakfasted, the Kent countryside streamed past the window and then sudden darkness indicated that we were in the tunnel. I wonder what Brunel would have thought of this engineering feat.
We emerge from the tunnel. Morning is coming up over France with pale golden sunlight piercing a light grey cloud cover. We run towards the sunlight, heading for Brussels.
Tigger thinks the French electricity pylons look like owls. She watches for cows, to see whether they are “sur le derrière” or “sur leurs chaussures”, positions which apparently forecast bad or good weather, respectively. We are glad to see that most are “sur leurs chaussures”. Let’s hope the promise is fulfilled.
Our phones have switched over to French networks, but different ones.
Our phones change again as we cross into Belgium, but again on different networks.
We arrived in Brussels at 9am local time – an hour ahead of UK time. The first job was to find our connection. The man in the enquiries booth had a heavy accent. I thought he said “Quai 22” and repeated it back. “Oui,” he said, but it turned to be 21. Not to worry; we found it. While waiting for the train, we stepped outside to photograph Brussels.
The train arrived and we climbed aboard. A notice in French and Flemish asked passengers to show their tickets “spontaneously” so when the inspector came we were as spontaneous as we could be. He seemed unimpressed.
We reached Waterloo later than we expected so decided it was safer to take a cab. The station at Waterloo is a small suburban one and there is no taxi rank. The ticket clerks gave me some phone numbers to ring but, fortunately, a solitary taxi was hovering so we took it. The driver had to ask the way and got lost a couple of times but we finally reached our destination.
When I said before that a back-up document had been sent overnight, I had misunderstood. Our document was the only one and it was therefore essential that it get through and be delivered by the deadline. A lot of money rides on these things. This of course added a certain tension to the proceedings as success or failure depended entirely on us.
The recipient was an agent for Tigger’s company and he was on tenter hooks, not knowing whether the document would reach him in time or not so when we arrived with it, there was relief and celebration. They were moreover amazed to learn we had made a day trip from London to Waterloo to ensure safe and timely delivery.
We couldn’t tarry to receive too many plaudits as we had asked the taxi to wait and he now took us back to the station. We had 40 minutes before our train so went for a wander. Waterloo seems a pleasant town but small. The inhabitants (including the taxi driver) are proud of it and value their connection with Wellington’s famous battle.
The taxi driver assured me that there were nice hotels and eateries in Waterloo but I think if we do come back to Belgium, we will probably stay in one of the bigger cities.
I am impressed by the friendliness of the people. They are chatty and helpful. Waterloo, at least the part we explored, seems solidly francophone so I had no problems dealing with people. They seem to like my supposed “Swiss accent”.
On the train back, we encountered the same ticket inspector. He recognized us and didn’t bother looking at our tickets depriving us of a chance to be spontaneous. But he did say goodbye to us at Brussels.
We now set out looking for lunch. Brussels seems obsessed with fish. So many cafes and restaurants have little else. We eventually settled for a small cafe called La Plume – De Pluim which was advertising omelettes. Well, today is Friday and you know what Friday is. Yes! Friday is Omelette Day and today it was a Belgian cheese omelette with chips (“proper chips”, too) and… well, of course, mayonnaise! But then, in België, you’ve got to have chips and mayo, haven’t you? And we started with a minestrone soup, so don’t let anyone say we don’t eat healthy.
Our train leaves at just after 4pm but we have to check in no later than 3:30 so the uniforms can X-ray our rucksacks and laugh at our passport photos.
As it was now 2pm and beginning to rain outside, we decided to spend the remaining time in a cafe. We looked in vain for a Starbuck’s and chose a Haagen-Dazs. I chose a coffee but Tigger made the mistake of ordering tea. The waitress brought her a glass of warm water which was allowed to cool when she went off to look for their box of tea bags. The result was a glass of warm, slightly discoloured water. But we did at least manage to get cold milk, not hot. Win some, lose some.
At 3pm were went to check in and go through the now familiar routine of stripping down to the essentials while your property goes through the X-ray machine.
They allow access to the train no earlier than 20 minutes before departure so at 3:45 the rush and crush to board began. We easily found our seats – in standard class this time – and settled down for the journey home.
My impressions of Belgium? These were generally favourable. The people we met were amiable and helpful. For example, on Waterloo station coming back, I needed the toilet. There were none on the station. I went across the road to a cafe-bar and asked the lady if I might use the toilet. Permission was willingly given, offers to buy a drink refused and thanks smilingly waved aside. Try that trick in a London pub and you are likely to receive a very different response.
One thing I have to criticize is the dreadful habit of men urinating practically anywhere. Any passageway, underpass and even doorway serves as a urinal and the whole place stinks like a neglected toilet. How a principal European nation in the 21st century can tolerate this state of affairs is beyond me. Apart from health issues, the implied disrespect for the community and slovenliness of behaviour should have condemned this practice to oblivion long ago.
One cannot get a full picture of a country on a hurried trip such as this – though I came on a longer visit some years ago – so we will perhaps come again one day for a more leisurely exploration.