Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Boot Camp Survival Skills

Dan and I were watching some sort of marine corps survival training course on TV the other day (hey, we are at the mercy of Belgacom, what can I say?), when it hit me -- my time in Belgium has been a two-year long boot camp on how to survive on public transportation!

At the risk of pissing in the proverbial wind, I swear I feel that there is nothing that I am not prepared for when it comes to PT. Drive your car into a tram? Got you covered. Have a very large old lady fall into your lap where you have to grope her breasts in order to push her off of you? Can teach that course. Man craps his pants in seat across from you? Passed it with flying colors. Stuck between a glass partition and a "hard spot"? Been there, felt that. Dyslexic cab drivers? Ckech. Crazy lady dropping trou? Roger that. Cabbies that offer post-ride massages? PT101. How to drive a bus driver into a homicidal rage? Magna cum laude, baby!

So, on Tuesday afternoon when the driver of Tram 25 stopped the tram in the middle of the road and got out with a long metal stick, I wasn't the least bit concerned. I figured he was probably just trying to figure out the best way to dislodge the body. No big deal for a PT survivalist like myself. A couple of minutes of poking and prodding, and the driver got back on the tram and we started on our merry way. But I, the hardened, seasoned public transport professional that I am, knew that there was much more to this ordeal. I could tell by the tiny hairs standing up on the back of my neck. (Rookies, lesson one in PT survival training -- learn to listen to those hairs. It could very well save your life one day, or at least become a bloggable event. You heard it here.)

The tram rambled on until it came to the next stop. Although I had never been in this area of Brussels, nor had I ever been on this particular tramline, I knew that the stop was "Buyl" because, like a good survivalist, I am always aware of my surroundings (and escape routes) while using PT. As the driver pulled into the stop, he made the announcement over the loudspeaker. I didn't need French or context clues to know what was going on. While others showed their irritation by rolling their eyes and grumbling, I just laughed. I was in an unfamiliar area, pressed for time. Of course we were being kicked off the tram.

So, as I stood on the side of the tram tracks waiting for god-knows-how-long for the next tram to arrive so I could join the masses in shoving my way onto what was sure to be an already packed tram, I couldn't help but pride myself in just how far I've come in PT survival. There was a time when I would have been the only person that didn't get off the tram, riding it back to wherever it was being sent for repair, with the driver sneaking peaks at me in his rearview mirror, wondering what was going on with the crazy chick?


Sunday, March 30, 2008

Here We Go Again

This weekend we found an "invitation" in our mailbox. Looks like our presence is requested at our local police station. Maybe the staff had such a good time when we were down there 2 months ago that they just had to invite us back. We're fun that way.

Dan is convinced that they just lost a form or something while processing my residency card renewal and they want a do-over. I, on the other hand, don't share his optimism. Maybe it's because I've been down this road one and half times before. I'll let you know where I end up.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Them's Fighting Words

On my way to the tram this morning (yes, I realize that this is entirely inconsistent with my swearing off of public transportation in yesterday's post, but, the reality is that my pro-bono job does not afford me the luxury of taking a cab to and from the office every day!), this rather large, clean-cut, and relatively nicely-dressed man approached me from the opposite direction and stopped directly in front of me. He then started talking to me in French.

A little irritated that he was blocking my forward progression, but still well within the realms of good global citizen, I threw out my best "Je suis desolee. Je ne parle pas Francais. Sorry." I then tried to sidestep him to the left. He grabbed my right arm and asked, "English?" Since my purse was on the other arm, I didn’t figure him for a robber. Great, that left me with rapist! Of course, internally, I'm freaking out, but, on the outside, I’m the picture of cool, calm and collected. I yanked my arm back and replied, “yes,” while still trying to get around him.

He then asked, in English, if I knew where Place de Kambi (sp?) was. I told him no, I had never heard of it. Again, I tried to skirt past him. Again, he blocked my path. He said that he really needed to find Place Kambi. I told him that if he could give me a restaurant or a hotel near the Place, maybe I could help him, but, otherwise, I really had no idea where Place de Kambi was.

He then asked me if I was from England. “No,” I said. At this point, I had managed to get past him, but, to my chagrin, he started walking backwards next to me. With a death-grip on my purse, I tried to put as much distance – both forwardly and laterally – from the man as possible. Right about then, I started thinking that maybe the guy was never looking for Place de Kambi and that, perhaps, he was just looking for a reason to approach me. I started to get a little weirded out.

Not to be deterred by my curt response and fancy side-stepping, he then asked me if I was an American. “Yes,” I said, “I’m from the States.” This is where what would have otherwise been just another uncomfortable encounter on a Brussels street for Cindy turned into a bloggable event. He started pointing at me and yelling, “You are the daughter of George W. Bush! You are the daughter of George W. Bush!” Needless to say, it caught people's attention.

Now, I’ve purposely tried to keep this blog non-political, as I’m sure that there are plenty who don’t share my views, nor would they care to read my rants (except, for maybe my Daddy and my Aunt Pat who most certainly share my rant-slant), but, c’mon, them’s fighting words! The way I figured it, W's approval rating in the States is hovering around 30%, give or take a few evangelicals. All things being equal, I think it is fair to say that public opinion of him in Europe is much, much, much, much lower. And this lunatic (the guy on the street, in case you are confused as to which one I'm referring) is accusing me of being related to him (the other lunatic, in case you are confused as to which one I'm referring)!

Granted, I was tempted to stop and defend my honor, but, if anything, I'm learning not to engage the crazies. So, I just kept walking. I did, however, do that little waving motion next to my head that the French do that looks like you are screwing in a light bulb (for the longest time I thought it was just nice people waving at me until someone clued me in that it was actually French hand signals for "that beyatch be crazy!") Apparently, this particular hand signal is gender-neutral. Good to know, good to know.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

I Shit You Not

I. Hate. Public. Transportation. There, I said it. How very politically incorrect of me, especially in the non-green sort of way. This morning, I vowed to never again take the metro in Brussels. Or, at the very least, never sit in one of the seats again.

I would like to take you all back to the blog posting, Mind the Crack, where I posted about the crazy lady that got off the metro in front of me and immediately dropped trou and used the bathroom. Looking back, I guess I should have given her props for at least waiting to until she got off the metro to do her business.

This morning, I picked up the 1B line in the direction of Stockell. Somewhere between Gare Central and Arts-Loi, the guy sitting across from me literally shit his pants. I'm not sure if it was voluntary or otherwise, but, he definitely experienced a bowel movement, whether you attribute it to irritable bowel syndrome, spastic colon, fecal incontinence, anal leakage, or whatever. Trust me, from where I was sitting, I was more concerned with the effect rather than the cause.

Needless to say, those of us in the immediate vicinity of the guy cleared out like cockroaches in a tenement housing when the lights go on. (Okay, so, technically, I've never actually seen cockroaches in tenement housing, or, for that matter, even been inside a tenement house, but, I've got cable and a vivid imagination.) Gagging, I made it to the back of the train, positioning myself as far away from Mr. Crappy Pants as possible. I kept staring at him, trying to find something that would have clued me in that this guy would evacuate his bowels on public transport. But, I had nothing. Not one single thing. From where I was standing, he looked absolutely normal, assuming, of course, you weren't looking at the brown stain on his jeans.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Latest Lessons Learned

Top 10 Things We Learned While Dan Was Hospitalized:

10. Time spent in the hospital is a lot like dog years.

9. The curtain dividing a shared hospital room does nothing to drown out the sounds coming from the patient in the other bed, be it snores or those sounds that naturally follow the administration of an enema. If your roommate does need an enema, chances are it will be given 30 minutes before dinner is served, pretty much ensuring that the guy will go to the toilet (that would be the portable one placed just on the other side of the dividing curtain!) while you are eating dinner.

8. Smells travel through curtains.

7. Whoever put the deposit in for the remote control gets to call the shots as to what will be watched on the only television in the room.

6. The Dutch game show, Blokken, can be quite entertaining, even if you have no idea what is being said.

5. When it comes time to place your order for the next day's dinner, don't opt for the "bologna." It is made from horse meat.

4. Job was a sissy! Apparently, lack of privacy, lack of sleep and lack of food is all that is needed to create the "perfect storm" conditions for Dan to turn into the devil!

3. I have no idea what they make, but nurses are underpaid. Way, way, way underpaid. (Along those same lines, quality health care does not have to cost a fortune! There is something to be said for socialized medicine.)

2. Dan makes a horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible patient.

1. We are so incredibly blessed to have such loving and supportive people in our lives. Thanks so much for all of the calls, the emails, the texts, the cards, the flowers and the prayers over the past couple of weeks. We could have not have gotten through this without you guys!

Weather Wise

Today is March 21st. It is the second day of spring, which I know for a fact to be true because of yesterday's Google doodle. Today, there was sun in Brussels. It was sandwiched between hail and snow. It is days like this that remind me just how far I have come since my rookie days in Brussels when I didn't know that you should never leave the house without a coat, gloves, umbrella and sunglasses.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Bells on the Bus Go Brring Brring Brring

For 10 days in February, I was holed up on the Spanish coastline, chasing some sun. I figured with a name like "Costa del Sol", it would be a good place to start. Not so much. According to the concierge at the hotel, it was some of the worst weather he had seen in a long, long, long time. He was flat-out amazed at the amount of wind and rain pummeling the coastline. I, on the other hand, wasn't surprised at all.

One stormy day, I decided to head to Malaga to check out Picasso's birthplace and museum. One would think, given all my (mis)adventures on public transportation, that I would take a cab. One would be wrong. I opted for the M110, the local bus marked "Benalmadena to Malaga". The way I saw it, I spoke passable Spanish, the bus stop was directly in front of my hotel, and the museum was the last stop on the route. All things considered, what could possibly go wrong? Well, let me break it down for you.

I hopped on the bus with a big smile and a twenty euro note and asked the bus driver, "Malaga Centro?" I've found that this is really the best approach to take when you have absolutely no idea where you are going - ask the guy driving. In this case, he replied, and this is a direct quote, "si, but it is only 1 euro 25. Do you have anything smaller?" Yep, this was going to be a piece of cake.

Generally when travelling on public transportation in a foreign country, I try to get the seat closest to the driver. In this case, I snagged an aisle seat, front row, right side of the bus. I considered it a win-win situation. Chances were pretty good that no one would want to crawl over me to get to the window seat; I could see the driver, and, more importantly, the driver could see me, which meant that the odds of him telling me which stop to get off were leaning heavily in my favor.

The bus driver was, by far, the happiest guy I have seen working in a public sector industry. Absolutely nothing phased this driver -- not the traffic, not the weather, not the old Brits (which, by the way, from what I can see, make up almost the entire population from Benalmadena to Torremolinos) who held the bus up while they were digging for their fare or bus passes, not the road construction, which was B-A-D bad. I even caught him humming a time or two.

Well, just as I had anticipated, when we reached the last stop at the Malaga bus station, the Happy Driver turned around and said, "this is you." Muchas gracias, senor! I hopped off the bus and immediately decided that it was not the day to see Malaga. The rain had picked up, the wind was raging and, quite frankly, I did not want to deal with the weather hassle, let alone sacrifice one of my new umbrellas.

So, decision made, I jumped on another bus, this one marked "Malaga to Benalmadena." As before, I approached the bus driver, this time with 1.25 on the ready, and asked for a "billette." Unlike before, I did not get a ticket. Instead, I got what would probably be best described as a Spanish verbal smackdown. Tapping deep into my Tex-Mex Tijuana Spanglish, I was able to discern that, apparently, when boarding a bus in Spain at the station, one needs to purchase a ticket at the booth and not on the bus. Good to know. But, I also learned that if one keeps pushing the buck 25 back at the driver, and the line starts to seriously back up, the driver will, eventually, take one's money. Pick your battles, people, that's all I'm saying.

As before, I took the seat on the first row, on the aisle, door-side of the bus. Even though there was no chance in hell that this particular driver was going to give me the heads-up on my get-off stop, old habits are hard to break. I settled in and watched as the bus started to fill up.

It was obvious that this driver did not enjoy anywhere near the job satisfaction as his colleague, nor did he share his same sunny disposition. He rarely acknowledged anyone, unless you consider "rapido" a greeting. He cut people off in traffic; he yelled at other drivers through his window; he cursed when he didn't make the traffic light. Basically, he was just an all-around nasty man.

As more and more people got on the bus, I got to feeling a little guilty about blocking the window seat. I decided that if an old person got on the bus carrying something heavy, I would slide over. That was my deal -- old and carrying something heavy.

I don't know who tipped the devil off to my internal bargain, but, sure enough, a couple of stops later, this old man got on the bus, literally dragging a huge green duffel bag. Curses! I slid over. Since the duffel bag would have blocked the aisle, the man wanted it on his lap. Being the good global citizen that I am (okay, to make myself feel better about hogging the seat), I leaned over and helped him put his bag on his lap. I also slid as far to the right as I possibly could, crossing my legs to give him even more room, which meant my knees were now smashed up against the side of the bus. Small price to pay to ease the guilt.

As the bus navigated through the various pothole-ridden roads and construction zones, a pattern emerged. The bell would ring, the driver would look in his big center mirror (with a very irritated look on his face), the bus would pull over at the next stop, and people would get off. It was Pavlovian beautiful.

We left the city center and entered the motorway, where the bus picked up cruising speed. Now, I don't know why there are bus stops on the Spanish motorway, but, there are -- lots of them. As before, the bell rang and the driver, looking irritated, pulled over at the next stop. But, unlike in the city center, this time, no one got off. The driver, looking even more irritated (which I didn't think was humanly possible), waited for a break in traffic and then merged back onto the motorway and started picking up speed.

We jostled down the road for a couple of more minutes and then, brring, brring. The driver once again pulled out of traffic and stopped at the next stop. Once again, no one got off. The driver glared at us from his center mirror and shouted something in Spanish, which I didn't catch, but, from the look on the faces of the people around me, it must have been a real gem.

Just as the bus was accelerating to merge left back into traffic, brring, brring, brring, brring, brring. At this point, the driver is not watching the road - at all. His eyes are fixed on the center mirror, trying to catch whoever it is pushing the button. The rest of us on the bus are looking around trying to do the same thing. Personally, I had my money on the young guy with the cammo jeans and the white jacket with the Ipod wires dangling from his ears. He just looked way too nonchalant, in a very cocky sort of way. If anyone was going to kick Cujo, it'd be him.

We had gone about a mile or two before the bell went off again. The driver pulled over. No one got off. At this point, the driver was well on his way to a ruptured aneurysm. Part of me admired anyone with the cajones to jack with this guy, but another part of me was mortified that he was going to make all of us pay - dearly. From where I was sitting, we were one gun shy of a CNN reported incident.

By now, it is getting pretty damn uncomfortable on the bus, largely because of the maniacal way the driver kept glaring at us from his rearview mirror. He had stopped cursing several stops ago, and, quite frankly, I found his steely silence even more disturbing. The old guy seated beside me started shifting in his seat, moving closer to me, in, what I presumed to be, an attempt to dodge the driver's direct line of sight. I, too, did not want to risk making eye contact with the driver, so I looked down at my lap. And, that's when I saw it. The little red thing. The little red thing that my knees touched every time I moved. The little red thing that goes brring, brring, brring!

I've only experienced paralyzing, mind-numbing fear a couple of times in my life and this was one of them. Fortunately, survival skills kicked in. I knew I had to get off the bus, immediately, but I couldn't exactly push the little red button now, could I? Instead, I jumped up and yelled "proxima por favor", "proxima."

The bus driver pulled over. I got out. I walked the last two miles to the hotel, in the pouring rain, without an umbrella, singing to myself, "the bells on the bus go brring, brring, brring," and thinking about winning the battle, but losing the war.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

I Miss My Phone

My brand-spanking new Treo 750 smartphone has gone the way of my wallet. (I'm really starting to take this personally!) Fortunately for me, the person who took it was kind enough to leave me my credit cards, my ATM card, and my driver's license, all of which I had been keeping in my phone case because I was without a wallet. (The credit cards were turned in to the reception at the hotel as being "found" in a corridor -- no word on how they got out of the phone case or where the phone was at!) Now, I am reduced to using an envelope from the Torrequebrada Hotel in Costa del Sol, Spain, with a big piece of tape on the back, as a wallet. Tres trendy!