Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Cody Rogers - Brussels, Belgium

Cody Rogers is a senior at the University of Utah studying Political Science. He is currently in Brussels, Belgium participating in an internship through the Hinckley Institute of Politics.

The Day Transportation Went Down

Public transportation is extremely convenient in Brussels and throughout most of Western Europe. I rely on it to get to work everyday and to and from various other activities- dinner, meeting up with other interns, and traveling to other cities. It's not always right on time and sometimes it even comes early, but in general the buses, trams, and metro in Brussels are pretty reliable. That is, until the entire public transportation network decides to go on strike and you realize just how much you and everyone else in the city rely on public transportation.

Last week, I woke up at 5:20 AM like normal. Working in the Public Diplomacy Division of the U.S. Mission to NATO means early mornings compiling and sending out news clips before everyone else arrives so that they know about the major issues being reported on. The earliest bus leaves at around 6:15 AM, and I try to make sure to catch that one when it is my turn to do the news clips.

As chance would have it, I slept through my alarm on Tuesday and had to rush out the door and make a mad dash to the bus stop. I still managed to arrive, I thought, before the bus. I sat at the bus stop for about 15 minutes and came to the conclusion that I had missed the earlier bus and was just going to have to wait for the next bus out to NATO headquarters, which didn't come for another 30 minutes. I am usually the only one crazy enough to be waiting for a bus that early, so it wasn't all that unusual that I happened to be the only one waiting at the stop.

I should also mention that I must either look like I know what I am doing (not true- I must fake it well!), or I look at least somewhat European (I think it's the scarf I bought in Luxembourg- all Europeans wear a good scarf!), because I get asked for directions on almost a daily basis. And on an almost daily basis, I let someone down when they realize that I don't understand them and can't give them directions in French or Dutch.

As I was waiting for the bus to come that day, a lady came up to me and started speaking to me in French. I thought, "Here we go again." I let her finish before letting her know that I didn't understand what she was all. I said, "I don't speak French, I am sorry." She looked a little frustrated and kept talking to me so I tried to understand what she was saying. She said something about the tram (think light-rail). I thought, "Hmm, she is looking for the tram stop. Lucky for her, I know where the tram stop is." So I said, "The tram stop is there" and pointed in the direction of the stop.

Again, she looked a little frustrated and I was doing the best I could but had missed something. She said (in broken English this time), "No tram. Bus! Bus!" I thought well the bus stops here and I told her, "Bus here" (pointed to the ground) "Tram there" (pointed to the tram stop). She said, "No, no, no!" I could tell she was getting even more frustrated and kept thinking that either this lady really needs to get somewhere and thinks that somehow I am going to be able to help her get to wherever it is she is going or she really wants to talk to me.

Finally, she said (again in broken English), "No Bus!" (waves arms back and forth) "No tram!" (waves arms again and pauses trying to think of a word to convey what she wanted to say) and shouts, "Aggression!" while waving one hand in the air. I thought, this lady is trying to tell me something, what is it? No bus? No tram? Aggression!?

Then it hit me. "There's a strike!?" I said and she got excited and said, " tram." I've heard of public transportation strikes before and this would be my first one. I realized I only had 20 euro with me and that wouldn't be enough to pay for a taxi into work. So I start to walk/run home to get some more money. I called my boss while I was walking to let her know what was going on and why I was delayed.

When I crossed an avenue, I looked back down the street only to see a bus coming. I turned around and made another mad dash to the bus stop, playing a human game of frogger trying to recross the avenue again, determined not to miss this bus now. As I was running, I passed the lady who had a confused look on her face and thought, "That lady lied to me!" I got to the bus stop and realize it's bus 64, not the 65 which is what I needed. I thought, "Well, maybe the lady was right. There is a strike, but only certain lines are affected."

So I hurried and checked out the 64 line on the bus stop's map and saw that it would get me going in the right direction to NATO. As I boarded, I asked the driver in English (really, most people speak English in Brussels, but I must have found the only two who didn't that day), "Is the 65 running today?" to which he responded, "This is bus 64." Ugh, just not my day. I got on anyway, thinking it would be better safe than sorry.

I rode for a while and forgot what stop I was supposed to get off on and ended up getting off at a stop which of course doesn't have a map next to it like most bus stops do. I was in an unfamiliar part of town, and I had no idea which direction I should head. I started retracing the bus's route, hoping I could hop on a bus that would take me back to the area I knew. Eventually, I came to another stop which had a map and realized I wasn't all that far away from NATO, so I decided to walk the rest of the way.

It took me about 30 minutes to walk the rest of the way, and I ended up getting into work just after 7:30 AM. At about 8:40 AM, we got an e-mail advising us about a city-wide public transportation strike...yep, after most people had probably found out on their own. As the public transportation was not running, traffic was awful throughout the city and it took some people a couple of hours to get to work -
even in taxis - and that was after they realized no buses were coming. The way home wasn't any better, but luckily I caught a specially scheduled transport van from NATO into the center of the city but it still took an hour and half to get even close to downtown and then I had to walk the rest of the way home.

The strike luckily lasted only one day and things were back to normal by the next. When I told people I had been able to catch a bus, they were shocked because it was apparently supposed to be a complete, city-wide strike. I don't know if the driver of the bus I rode just didn't get the memo or decided to do his route anyway, but I was grateful he decided to drive his route that day. I realized several things that day: 1- Maybe not everyone who is trying to talk to me in French/Dutch is asking for directions; 2- Public transportation strikes are why Europeans are skinny; 3- I really rely on public transportation as do most people in the city, whether or not they actually take it.

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