When I picked up my rental car in Brussels the clerk asked where I was heading. I told him Liege and he said, “Oh, you’re going to the French part of Belgium. How’s your French?” I told him that it had been a while, which, as I would soon learn, meant that I had pretty much forgotten everything except some important phrases like “where is” (insert some place like the bathroom), “I would like” (insert something or just point), “please”, “thank you”, “thank you very much”, “do you speak English”, and the ever popular—not kidding as this is the phrase that after a few years of French class that has stuck with me—“I’m going to the beach. And you?”
Although I picked up the rental car early in the morning I had no intention of using it for anything but storage until that afternoon. A colleague was arriving in six hours and I had told him that I would give him a ride to Liege. My intention was to park the car in airport parking using it as a place to store my luggage. I would then take the train to downtown Brussels, walk around the Grand Place and take in some museums, then finally take the train back to the airport to pick up my co-worker. However, as I left the rental lot and blindly drove for a little looking for parking I ended up on a highway. Instead of wasting more time backtracking I decided to just drive into Brussels and skip the train.
Driving through Brussels was like taking on any large, crowded city except with strange street signs and markings. There were plenty of directional signs to Grand Place and to help navigate the traffic I just picked someone in front on me who seemed to be going in the same direction and followed their lead. I finally ran across a parking garage (car park) next to Grand Place and settled the car into a spot for a few hours. Unfortunately, museums in Brussels are closed on Mondays, so I just walked around taking things in.
But this is a story about adventures in driving, missing cars and navigating a city where English is not always spoken. So, we will skip a description of Brussels and fast forward back to the airport to fulfill my carpool duties.
We left the airport a little after 4PM which I hoped was soon enough to miss rush hour, but that was not to be. I am used to people doing excessive lane changes in heavy traffic, but Belgium has turned it into an art form. The vehicles all around were stuck in this intricate dance of constant movement from lane to lane leaving mere inches between them while maintaining constant forward motion—no stop-and-go.
We finally left the heavy traffic behind and I dropped my colleague at his hotel without incident. It was then my turn to find my way to a hotel in the heart of Liege that another co-worked had picked. As I left the highway and grew closer to Liege proper, the roads turned more into the small, crowded chaotic mess that I have come to expect from older European cities and villages. This time rush hour was actually more comforting as traffic was moving slowly and it was easier to just go with the flow. All traffic rules seemed to go out the window, but it felt much safer as it was done at a crawl. The thing that struck me was that even though people were pushing their way into places there was no horn honking or yelling. Instead it seemed like if you needed to go somewhere you made a way and if someone made a way in front of you that was just them getting where they needed to go—no big deal. I have on more than one occasion seen a light turn green and while the way was clear the car closest to the intersection didn’t move. After a few seconds someone might give a lite tap on the horn. That really seemed odd to me given how aggressive people seemed to be driving.
I am pretty comfortable these days with letting people find a spot in front of me and I am also comfortable with pushing my way from point A to point B. So this sort of driving agreed with me as it seemed that there was a pretty good balance of being courteous and extending that to others. The problem I had now is that the GPS (SATNAV) was giving me all sorts of directions that were hard to interpret without taking my eyes off the road.
In Liege, there are lots of places to drive at weird angles or across lanes that are for busses only or things you think are an alley but are a road or things that you would think are walking paths that are really for cars or people just block what the GPS says is a path and you have to find a way around. Plus in some cases it will say “roundabout” when it is just a T-section. (I finally learned some more about how to spot what is considered a “give right-of-way” intersection to a “you have right-of-way” one. Yes, an intersection and not a roundabout.)
So I finally got to the hotel and while it had an area for maybe four cars in front of it, they were all blocked. There were some small signs with a P for parking and an arrow back the way I had come. So I managed to do a U-turn and head back down, but there was no parking. Unfortunately as I turned around to try again I found that the road back up was one-way, so ended up branching off down a hill thinking I would just circle back again.
That was not to be the case as I was dumped onto a major road down a big hill on another one-way street going in another direction with no side streets in sight to take me back up. The streets were still crowded, but I managed to get to a red light with enough time to tell the GPS to guide me to the last place in my search history.
At this point it turned into a game of Pac-Man. This GPS unit left a trail of dots marking where I had been and then kept giving me advice that I thought I followed, but then had me going on the same route to make a U-turn. So I gobbled up a bunch of dots that I had already left (except that they didn’t disappear as I passed over them).
Whew, finally I made it back to the hotel and while the front was still blocked this time I had a plan—park on the street and work the rest out later. There was a clearing a block down, but there were big, universal “no parking” indications painted on the street, (a circle with a P and a slash through it). So I skipped that. Then a few feet later there was a two-car gap in parking with no street or curb markings that would indicate “no parking” so I pulled in there.
It was a couple block hike back up a hill to the hotel, but things seemed good to me. The person at the front desk addressed me in French and this is where I realized that my French was crap, but he switched to English. I asked if it was OK to park on the street and the person checking me in said something like “Yes, OK”.
The next day I was going to drive and we walked down to my car—except it wasn’t there. My co-worker said something about what if it got towed and that is when I looked around and saw a tattered sign on the gate next to us with a P in a circle and a slash through it. Yup, I had parked in a no parking zone.
My co-worker had used the hotel to valet park her vehicle, but could not find the ticket. While she went to look for it I asked the concierge where I could get my car. There was still a language gap, but not as big and he said something about it must have been me that caused the police issue yesterday. I started to connect the dots now. In the Brussels airport there are security checkpoints just to get in and then there are soldiers in full gear walking about. I didn’t think about it too much as I have seen that before in the UK and Amsterdam, but in retrospect I had to get special permission from work to fly into Belgium. Then the concierge started asking me questions about my nationality and if I had a passport. This is where it got real. No question now that I had parked in the wrong place with a rental car, but what was next? Did I cause some international incident?
The concierge gave me a couple addresses to search for my car. I decided to go to work and deal with the rest later. After lunch a co-worker who knew a little more French than me drove me to the first address and engaged the clerk. After a bit he sent us to another address that I joked was probably a firing-squad. Both trips were weird in that the GPS/SATNAV unit took us in weird places in weird ways. The person who was driving had spent a lot of time in Liege and kept saying that he had never been this way before. We saw what I think is the “upper class” with strange and regular trees lining roads to the ghetto.
We finally made it to the next place and the person we met did not (or claimed to not) speak any English. This is where my French would have failed me totally and I realized that I was totally out of my element. My co-worker strung some things together and I think I now have 30 days to pay a 200 Euro fine. The car is back and I told my co-worker that I would make it to the office on my own.
But I still had to get back into work. The GPS took me all sorts of ways and stressful situations until finally getting me to the office. Then the lady letting me through the gate and I had another language barrier. But then she said “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” and without thinking I said “am bissel.”
As they would say in the UK, we “sorted” it out.