In about an hour, the U.S. is going to square off against Belgium in the World Cup to try to advance to the quarterfinals. In honor of the occasion, I thought I would share with you my own, humble, American encounter with the Kingdom of Belgium. Let’s jump in the wayback machine to the time when…
I had gone to work at a new job for a company with a pretty extensive international presence. Don’t worry, I’m not going to bore you with any more detail than that. The important part is that, not long before I started there, the company had acquired another company which was headquartered in Brussels, Belgium.
My boss, the company’s CFO, was getting the distinct feeling that the Belgian company’s finance director wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about having new masters to answer to and was going to be difficult about it. As the new guy with supposedly “fresh ideas” he decided that I should fly over to Brussels and meet with Jean-Marc, the aforementioned finance director, about these concerns and to convince him that, like any living organism conquered by the Borg, it would be better to allow oneself to be assimilated than to resist.
In other words, this was going to be a difficult conversation and my boss wanted no part of it so he gave it to the new guy because fuck me. At the time, though, I didn’t give a shit about any of that because I WAS GOING TO BELGIUM. IN EUROPE. ON A MISSION. LIKE JAMES BOND. These were the actual thoughts that I had. Hey, I was a Jersey boy who’d never stepped foot outside the border so forgive me.
Anyway, newly minted passport in hand (when I was interviewing they told me that international travel might be necessary so I should have a valid passport), I packed a bag and booked a business class ticket on the red-eye from JFK to Brussels. I was seated next to a lovely Belgian co-ed returning home for the winter break from her studies in the classics at Cornell. We drank and laughed and talked through the night like old friends and one-time lovers. After landing, we parted at the airport with a hug and promised to stay in touch. We never heard from each other again. Moving right along…
I was staying at the Intercontinental hotel which was situated in the city center nearby to what was to become the home of the then newly-formed European Union’s parliament building which was under construction. So far, so fucking awesome. I arrived by taxi from the airport, checked in and napped until dinner time where I got my first taste of real French cuisine. I wasn’t due in the office until the next day so I got to wash that down with a couple of martinis. James Bond indeed. The other thing that made it feel almost like a movie: everybody spoke English. The cab driver, the hotel clerk and concierge, the restaurant servers, it was like the way Hollywood eventually dispenses with the subtitles and just has everybody speak English with an accent. With a full stomach and a slight buzz I fell deeply to sleep intending to be well rested for my meeting with the recalcitrant Monsieur Jean-Marc the next day. And that’s where the fun begins.
The following morning I had the front desk call a taxi for me to take me to the address carefully printed on a slip of paper I’d been carrying in my briefcase since I left New York. Clean shaven and in a new suit, I climbed into the back of the taxi and expected to be chauffeured carefully and respectfully to my destination. Yeah well, somebody decided to change the script. Just like in every other major city in the world, traffic on this workday morning was horrific. The taxi driver gunned and braked and swerved and cursed, loudly and in French, as he tried to make his way toward my destination: L’Arsenal at Avenue Messerschmidt. I hung on to my briefcase and the handle of the car door and hoped that either my insurance or the Belgian government would cover my medical bills in the event of an accident.
Finally, he pulled the car over, turned around and asked for 6 Euro. Stunned momentarily, I stared back at him for a couple of beats then I looked out the car window then back at him and said, “this is it? L’Arsenal?” Guess what? That’s right, he didn’t speak English. WHO THE FUCK HIRED THIS GUY TO BE IN MY MOVIE? He pointed up through the glass of his windshield at the street sign on the corner where he’d pulled over which read, “Avenue MESSERSCHMIDT.” I reiterated, “but is this L’Arsenal?” He merely pointed back toward the sign and then down the avenue and asked for 6 Euro. Okay, I figured, I’m sure it’ll be obvious which one of these buildings is the right one and I pulled 6 Euro from my pocket, paid him and got out of the cab. No sooner had he pulled away from the curb to rejoin the frenetic flow of traffic than I thought, “what the fuck did I do that for?”
I heaved a sigh, shrugged and started to walk down the avenue. But not before turning around and shouting ASSHOLE in the general direction of traffic. Then I walked. And walked. And walked some more. And I kind of wanted to cry a little bit too, I’m not ashamed to say. James Bond, my ass. I literally had no idea where I was or if I was even close to where I needed to be. But I continued to walk.
And then, I saw him. Like something straight out of an old Hollywood musical: a street sweeper. I swear to god: a guy, dressed in white coveralls, pushing a large trash bin with wheels on it and carrying a push broom. I didn’t think those people existed in real life, but there he was. He looked to be about sixty. He was bald and heavy set and I was so happy to see him. I walked up to him quickly and in horrible, broken, high school French said, “Monsieur, monsieur, s’il vous plait!” and then, nothing. I couldn’t think of anything else I knew how to say in French. He looked at me for a moment with a slight smile on his face and then I remembered: the little slip of paper! I pulled it out of my jacket pocket and handed it to him. He read it and understood. “Ah,” he said, then he held three fingers up in front of my face and pointed down the avenue. He did it twice to make sure. I smiled at him and said enthusiastically, “merci!” I took back my little slip of paper and started to walk again. For a moment, doubt crept across my mind. Did he mean three buildings? Three blocks? THREE KILOMETERS? But I kept walking. Eventually, I was going to get there. Now I knew.
Sure enough, three blocks from where I left Monsieur street sweeper, an office park appeared across the avenue fronted by a gate in which the words L’Arsenal were inscribed. At last. I ran across the street, found the building I was looking for and entered the lobby. After being verified by building security, I took the elevator up to the offices where I was shown by the receptionist to the Jean-Marc’s office. I immediately apologized for my lateness and told him he wouldn’t believe what had happened to me. He sat patiently while I recounted the entire morning’s adventure and when I was finished he shrugged and said through pursed lips, “welcome to Brussels.”
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