Business class travelling in Europe

travelling in EuropeTravelling in a business class or first class by air is an aristocratic experience. So, business class is basically a travel class offered by most of the active commercial airlines offering their services worldwide. Initially, it was originated as the intermediate class between first class and economy class but nowadays most of the airlines offer business class as their highest travel class full of elegance, aristocracy and luxury. You will notice the difference between an economy class and business class starting from express check in, seating arrangement, leg space, food served and their quality to the luggage collection at the end of your journey.

Now if you are looking for the best and cheap business class tickets to Europe, here is a guide for you.

Most of the renowned airlines offer a business class, basically an upgraded seating arrangement over traditional economy class accompanied by better on board service. Though, in short distance travelling, most of the carriers have removed the business class completely and offers only one type of travelling class. But again in longer route travelling, business class is offered with much more upgraded services over economy class. Types of seats provided in business class are described below.

  • Cradle seats – These kinds of seats are offered in business class. Cradle seats offer seats with almost 150-160 degree inclination with much more leg space compared to the economy classes. These are cheapest kind of seating arrangement available in the European aircraft carriers.
  • Angled lie flat seats – These version of seat offers almost 170 degree of inclination providing you almost flat sleeping arrangement. But angled lie flat seats are set in a certain angle with the surface of the aeroplane making them less in comfortable than bed. These kind of seats are cheap compared to its higher class but costlier than the cradle seat arrangement. These are a little costlier than the two business class seating arrangement.
  • Fully flat seats – This kind of seating arrangement offer business class seat with 180 degree inclination parallel to the aircraft base. So, you will feel it like a bed when inclined at 180 degree.
  • Herringbone seats – In these kinds of seating arrangements, the seats are set at certain angle to the direction of the flight. These are basically implanted in business class to accompany more number of fully flat seating arrangements of business class.
  • Cabin seat – These kinds of seating arrangement are the costliest version of business class seats, not only in the airlines of Europe, but worldwide. This special arrangement gives a business class traveller the most privacy offering you a personal cabin. Each cabin is made of a privacy panel of four feet high. These kinds of seats offer you ergonomically the best possible seat with luxury and ultimate comfort.

So, before buying a business class ticket in Europe, check the kind of seats and services offered by a certain airlines and choose the perfect for you keeping the budget and requirement in your mind.

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Living on a Porcelain Cup

Date: January 30th, 2011

A few years ago, I had a particularly memorable piano lesson. It started out like any other: I came in after school,  having just wolfed down a tuna sandwich, and, with the same kind of delicacy, hammered out my Beethoven Sonata for my teacher. Here I don’t use the word “hammered” lightly. When I played the last chord and felt the piano steady itself beneath my fingers, I looked up proudly at my teacher. But she only shook her head.

“When you played that sonata, what did you imagine?” she asked.

I told her the truth: “nothing”.

“Me, I imagined a hippopotamus at its first tap-dancing lesson,” she said.

When I left the music studio for the week, I had a new assignment for my sonata. My teacher told me to paint a picture in my head, and hold on to it while playing the piece. I was to imagine the countryside, or, more precisely, the countryside as artists used to paint it on porcelain china cups (what can be more delicate than that?). Playing the sonata would be like turning the semi-translucent cup in my hands — carefully, because one foul move would crack the porcelain. I was to start by looking at the green hills, or rather, byplaying the green hills. They would melodies, rising and falling and gently blending into each other. There were no jagged cliffs on this particular cup, dear reader, none at all. Then I was to imagine white sheep dotting these hills. I was to play the trills in the sonata like artists painted every little curl on the sheep — no detail would be smeared.

So I went home, keeping this image in my head, as if I’d lose it forever if I stopped thinking about it. I played it on my piano, again and again, until the hippopotamus lost its force, grew faint, gave me one last grudging look and disappeared from the room.

* * *

Yesterday, I went for a bike-ride around The Village. I’d had a long week of work and had to air out my head. I climbed up some stone ruins and looked at the view below. The sun was high up in the sky and cast white rays that made everything seem translucent. Translucent, yet bright. I had the odd feeling that I had seen it all before, a long time ago. There were the green hills. There were the sheep (white moving specs from afar). There were the villages riding the hills like ships do waves,  sporting their turrets against the warm winds. There was a sort of deliberate beauty in everything, as if it were… planned? Sketched and then painted?

Suddenly I started to giggle, and looked down at my hands and feet. I had flown from Vancouver, to what I thought was a lost and faraway place, only to discover that it was never really that far away.

And with that, dear reader, I’ll say goodbye for the week. But if you look closely, you might be able to find me on that porcelain cup, standing beside the rosy-cheeked shepherd and his hut.

Yours truly,
The Curious Cockroach

Airplane Stream of Consciousness

Time: 5:31am
Temperature: -56°C
Ground speed: 643.74km/h
Location: 36,000ft above Greenland

1 of 9 hours:
The excitement begins! Going to live in a little village in France for eight months!  Can’t wait to finally see the village for myself, instead of just stalking through it on Google Earth!
First thing on the agenda will be to find that stop-light I’ve been reading about on The Village  website. Not that there’s anything special about the stop-light, except the fact that it is the only stop-light in the entire commune. How cute! Yeah, I’ll bet it’s a really cute stop light. Wearing a little beret or something French like that. Yippie!

1 ½  of 9 hours:
A lady in tight jeans and stilettos just walked by on her way to the bathroom. On every flight there’s always at least one or two people who doll themselves up, for the sole purpose of making us grubby sweat-pant wearers look worse. That’s okay. We’ll see who will be smiling in eight hours.

3 of 9 hours:
I cannot believe they’d show True Blood on television here! What about the children on board? Tuned in right in the middle of ultra violent vampire sex scene, just as lady in black stilettos walked by again. And gave me a judgmental look and everything. As if she had just caught me streaming porn onto one of these teeny televisions. As if that were even possible! As if that wouldn’t completely mess up the airplane signals!

3 ½  of 9 hours:
Extreme boredom. Too lazy to read. Too uncomfortable to sleep. Too groggy to think of anything deeper or more intellectual than my own boredom. Worst part is: also too afraid to turn on teeny television.

3 ¾  of 9 hours:
Never mind, can still sustain intellectual thought: I wonder if the President of France is on this flight?

It’s not as unlikely as one might think. My sister and her boyfriend once shared a first-class compartment with none other than the President of Honduras himself. And the man with whom her boyfriend asked to switch seats turned out to be the Minister of Security. Perhaps a plane-load of Honduran politicians is less likely to be shot down if they are interspersed with civilians. And if Honduras insulates its elite with common folk, why shouldn’t France?  Yes. Of course! Gold. I love these intellectual moments.

On second thought, why would anyone want to shoot down a France-bound plane anyway?

4 of 9 hours:
Plane shaking like mad. The pilot announced that we’re experiencing some turbulence over Iceland. Just remembered that I have an acute fear of flying.

4 ½ of 9 hours:
Plane still shaking like mad. Bloody Iceland. First the volcano, now this turbulence. It’s like they mean to be a poor sport and ruin airspace for all of us. Plus I keep on pondering that civilians-as-insulation theory. Terrifying thoughts running through my mind. Will not dare write them down, for risk of being kicked off plane. Mid-air.

Absolutely must calm down. But how? Will now try to count the clouds outside.


New thought. I heard somewhere that the airplane bathroom is actually the safest place to be during a crash. Maybe it’s one of those counter-intuitive things like breakfast being good for you. Or maybe I’m just being silly?

Yes, absolutely silly.

5 ½  of 9 hours:
Just returned from seventh trip to the bathroom. How lovely – dinner is being served. (Food always takes my mind off fear of flying/death).

The flight attendant handed us trays with neat little pre-packaged meals. My elderly seat neighbour gave her package (and its wrinkly contents) a look of complete disgust, as if it had just offended her in some way. She turned to me, probably expecting me to stand up to those chicken strips and force to put on a prettier face. But all I said was that the packages looked much like the microwaveable meals some of my ex-housemates used to live on – and as far as I knew, they all survived the year. This didn’t seem to cheer her up though.

6 of 9 hours:
Why, oh why, is True Blood still on???

8 ¾ of 9 hours:
More turbulence. Pilot seems to think that now is good time to land.

Was it takeoff or landing that was the most dangerous part of a flight? Rats. Fear of flying resumes. I’d meditate, if it weren’t for this turbulence and this inner panic.

Terrifying thoughts running through my mind again. If I make it out alive, I vow to become a French citizen and vote for Sarkozy in the next elections. And the ones after that.  (Unless Sarkozy himself doesn’t survive the crash. Gah! Gaaaaaaah!)

9 of 9 hours:

Landing a success. Hurray!

I mean, of course landing was a success. Nothing could have possibly happened, what with the President of France (plus entourage, undoubtedly) on board. How did I ever come to have such silly thoughts? Especially on my way to a cute French village with a beret-wearing stop-light?

Life is jolly. Especially when one is alive.

Signing off,
The Curious Cockroach

Hello, France

[Note to friends and family: I might be a little late in posting this, but I had to post my Brussels journals first. Otherwise I would have had to reverse the order, and that would have been confusing. I think.]

Location: French village
Reasons for being in French village: 1) am angsty 20-year-old, 2) am sick of living in parents’ leaky, smelly attic  3) am sick of discovering new fauna in attic every day, 4) am not particularly keen on raccoons and pigeons discovered in attic, 5) raccoons and pigeons in attic not particularly keen on me, either, 6) oh yes, and will be teaching English to French children

Right. So I’ll be living in rural France for the next eight months of my life. Believe me, it’s a bit of a shocker to me too.  A year ago, upon my return to Vancouver from my exchange abroad, if someone had told me I was going back to the Old Continent so soon, I would have stepped my foot down, furrowed my brow, and said:

“Now, hold on a minute there, sir. What’s the use of all this hopping around? How can I even begin to replenishing my sushi deficiency with so little time back in Vancouver? And to leave those mountains, rivers, and glistening skyscrapers again? Unthinkable! Just let me be. I insist this is a joke!”

Then came a particularly cold and rainy Vancouver evening.  I was sitting in my parents’ attic, staring at a blank Word document on my computer screen. Pages and pages of research on the 1898 Hague Peace Convention lay on the floor — limb, scuffed-up, and totally unwilling to transform themselves into an essay. It was going to be a long night.

A few hours later, I was about to stuff a hand-full of coffee beans into my mouth when my computer made an all-too-familiar noise. Yes! Mail! There was a tart little message from my university.  Apparently the French Ministry of National Education was recruiting English language assistants. Apparently they were still doing placements in Southern France. And what was more, was that at that exact moment, destiny turned its trick and sent a particularly offensive whiff of pigeon droppings my way.

Suddenly my mind became blank. All other considerations vanished, leaving one thought behind:  “wouldn’t it be nice to go away somewhere?”

So I did. I went away somewhere. Though that “somewhere” turned out to be in the middle of nowhere.

My cherished readers, welcome to a new chapter in The Life and Times of the Curious Cockroach. Hereon you’ll find reports on my life in deepest, darkest rural France. I write to you from a village that I’ll be referring to as “The Village”. Why not use the real name? Because if my neighbour finds out I am (or will be) blogging about her pet ferret to 21 countries, imagine the scandal that would ensue. And there’s only one pet ferret around so I can’t just say it’s someone else’s ferret.

Stay tuned.

The Curious Cockroach

Dinner Party for the Exiles

“I’m convinced that there’s a little cockroach in all of us. The part of us that is determined to survive. The part of us that adapts to new surroundings and circumstances. The part of us that stays hidden during routine life, but springs to action when there is a disturbance…”

The Inner Cockroach,
April 28th 2009

Location: Brussels, Belgium
Emotional state: pensive/amused

I attended a rather curious dinner party yesterday evening. The guests weren’t jolly as they usually are (or pretend to be) during dinner parties. They weren’t wearing colourful clothing, and there was not one seductive cocktail dress in sight. Wine was being poured into elegant glasses, but the lips that sipped the wine were not relaxed, they were tightened — some were even trembling.

When I arrived, the guests were all sitting in a circle in the middle of the living room. They looked up at me as I stood at the doorway, clearly offended by my bright floral-print dress and the bag of chocolate pretzels in my hands. Smiling awkwardly, I reached for the party invitation in my pocket and gave it a quick glance:

“Our journey in Brussels is about to come to an end! Come celebrate and say goodbye, before we’re all gone!
Dinner, drinks, and games!
May 29th, 19:30, #1697 Rue du Pain Perdu”

So I was at the right place. And I did actually know these people. The look of doom on their faces simply made them difficult to recognize at first. I pulled up a chair beside my South African friend Margaretie, and wrapped my black shawl around my shoulders. The dinner party conversation resumed.

“I feel like I’m being kicked out of this country. It’s completely unfair!” Margaretie said to the group.

“They can’t do this to us!” said Margaretie’s American boyfriend, crumpling his napkin into a pulp, “sure our student visas are almost expired, but that doesn’t make us criminals! All this bureaucratic jungle we have to get through, just to sleep a few extra nights in Brussels. I’ve tried all sorts of things. I’ve tried internships. Got one at the European Commission. But even that had to end…”

“And the black market won’t get you too far, either,” piped in a curly-haired girl that I did not know.

“This is our home. They’re exiling us from our home,” Margaretie said with great sorrow in her voice.

A heavy silence descended on us all. We sat huddled in a circle, looking down at the floor for what seemed like a very long time. Then the host must have had an internal panic attack because he stood up abruptly and started offering everyone food in a nervous (and somewhat violent) manner, saying “now, now everyone! Have some olive skewers! Or pumpkin pudding! Or parsley pastries! And remember, dinner, drinks, and games, people!”

* * *

Walking home that night, I realized that I had just been in the presence of a very special batch of exchange students. The kind who are very much in tune with their inner cockroach.  You see, just ten months ago, they arrived in Brussels from all corners of the world. They looked completely lost, they had forgotten what brought them here. They wandered around Brussels like exiles, trying to find some sign of familiarity… when, behold! Their inner cockroach woke up. It started bustling around like mad, creating familiarity where there was none before. First came the favourite grocery store, then the favourite laundromat, coffee shop, food market, park, even the favourite park bench, and finally the favourite people. Somehow Brussels grew cozier. Like Margaretie said, it became home.

Now the year abroad is almost up, and these poor souls are to be exiled once again. Never underestimate the power of the inner cockroach, dear Reader. It can help you, but it certainly can pinch, too!

Brussels Food Markets: Some Serious Research

Location: Brussels, Belgium
Number of days since last beer-tasting session: 43
Emotional state: very serious, studious
Reaction to emotional state: empowered
Eyebrow behaviour: furrowed, could cut through diamonds

Dear Reader,

I, the Curious Cockroach, feel that I need to get down to business sometime or another. After reading my previous posts, one might have the impression that I don’t do anythinguseful here in Brussels. How can I rave on and on about some rotating toilet seat, and, worse still, my latest attempts at conceptual art, when I am supposed to be here to study? Is this, or is this not, an academic exchange?

It is, it most inevitably is. But I can reassure you that I have indeed done a fair amount of studying while in Brussels. Studying serious — no wait — worldly things. And after a considerable amount of research, observation, and experimentation, I dare say that in some domains, I’ve become somewhat of an expert. Which is why (brace yourself) I’ve dedicated this post to sharing with you a fraction of my accumulated knowledge of the city’s outdoor food markets. You’re welcome.

The food-market system

On any day of week, you can stumble upon a food market in Brussels. At first these markets may seem to pop up magically, when and where they please, but eventually you’ll learn that the food-market system functions with a clockwork-like precision. All is planned, orderly, reliable. A market may be small, with two or three vendors, or it may be a monster sprawling across an entire neighbourhood, across roads and railways, interrupting all land and air traffic within a two-kilometer radius.

Each market is like a living being. It expands, contracts, grows a limb here and there, and has its own set of complexes and vices. Over the years, it develops a certain character as a function of the clientele it attracts. So if you live in Brussels long enough and are a food fanatic like The Curious Cockroach, markets cease being just markets. They become, oh, so much more!

The Midi Market: commotion

Schedule: 06:00 – 13:00, Sundays
Location: poor immigrant neighbourhood surrounding the Gare de Midi (South Train Station)
What you’ll need: a map, a pair of earplugs, reusable bags, and a cart with wheels
Warning: this market is not for the faint of heart

Behold! Rumour has it that this is the largest market in Europe. Here you can find just about anything: vegetables, spices, exotic fruits, books, undergarments, squid, Moroccan movies, fabrics, and organs you never even knew existed.  It’s a feast for all the senses: for your eyes, there are the bright colours and patterns; for your ears, there is the chant-like dialogue emanating from the vendors  (“one-euro-one-euro-one-euro for kilo of onions! Mademoiselle, Mademoiselle, one-euro-one-euro-one-euro!”); for your taste buds, there are the freshly-fried Morrocan crêpes filled with feta and delectable olives; for your nose, there is the curious combination of all sorts of odours (the smell of fried chicken from the tent to your left, the smell of urine from the concrete wall to your right); and for your sense of touch, there is the crowd of shoppers pressing against you on all sides. Be careful, because in such a state you might easily be hypnotized into buying copious amounts of … well, just about anything!

The people you see at this market are fierce shoppers, in the midst of a serious weekly affair, so do them a favour and get out of their way. Don’t go around all dewy-eyed trying to take pictures of every olive that rolls your way. But you’ll be glad to discover that there are other markets in Brussels that are suited for that very purpose.

The Châtelain Market: extravagance

Schedule: 14:00-19:00, Wednesdays
Location: Place du Châtelain, a boho-chic neighbourhood (and a bit of a celebrity hot-spot, too)
What you’ll need: time, fame, money, and lot’s of it

Still recovering from the Midi Market? Phew! Now you can breathe deeply, take out that camera, and relax. At the Châtelain Market, the produce is a veritable art-form:  it’s meantto be scrutinized and photographed. The fruit and vegetables here are not just organic but glistening. The delicate Liège waffles are made right before your eyes. The French and Italian sausage is to die for.  But despite all of this, the Châtelain regulars aren’t really here to shop. What a silly idea, going groccery shopping in an expensive suit! No, they’ve just finished a hard day’s work and they’re here to unwind with a glass of wine, good company, and an oyster or two.

The Flagey Market: moderation … with a twist

Schedule: 07:00-13:30, Saturdays and Sundays
Location: Place Flagey
What you’ll need: a moderately-sized basket, a moderately-sized wallet, and, if you happen to have one in your disposition: one child. The cuter, the better.

Is the Châtelain Market too expensive for you, and the Midi Market too chaotic? Then you’ve come to the right place. Here at Place Flagey you’ll find all the elements that make for a nice, wholesome market. There’s a waffle van, a honey stand, a cheese stand, a vegetable and fruit stand, a rotisserie truck, and one or two vendors selling flowers. Here the shoppers stroll around with their woven baskets, stopping to chat to each other here and there. And once they are done shopping and chatting, they go lounge at one of the cafes surround the square, or go feed geese at the Ixelle ponds, or simply go home to make brunch. Personally I’ve tried each option, and quite approve of them all. It’s a lovely market – European quaintness at its finest.

There is, however, one thing to add. At the outskirts of the Flagey market, right at the edge of the Ixelle ponds, there’s a sight that might catch your eye. Overlooking the jolly bustle of the market like a lonely kid at a playground, there stands a sorry-looking metal kiosk. At first glance it looks like the type of place that sells cigarettes and dirty magazines — certainly not somewhere you’d let your children go. But first impressions can be deceiving, dear Reader, because at this particular kiosk there is a long line-up of people. All sorts of people. The young, the old, the locals, the tourists, each of them patiently waiting their turn. And inside this tiny kiosk, you will see a thin balding man. Bustling, yelling, and furiously frying, he is one of the legends of Brussels, a man whom some secretly call The Fry Nazi.

Oh yes. Here you can taste none other than the best fries of Brussels — if the Fry Nazi let’s you buy them, that is. There is a strict ordering procedure to be followed, just like the one described in the infamous Episode #116 of Seinfeld: “no extraneous comments, no questions, no compliments.” Just place your order in perfect French, give the man exact change, and wait patiently. A well-behaved child firmly placed on your hip may prove to be a key advantage. Should you fail, you risk walking away from the kiosk empty-handed and traumatized, with your back aching from the hour-long wait.

Sometimes, when the planets are aligned a certain way and the wind conditions are just right, none of the above rules are enforced because the Fry Nazi happens to be in a good mood. Heck, you can go crazy and even ask him a question or two. As long as it’s fry-related.

Research conclusion

So you want to learn about Brussels and the locals? Go visit the markets. Repeatedly. Laboriously. With a keen eye for observation, and a keen tongue for consumption. You’ll be surprised at how much you learn. I mean, isn’t that what an academic exchange is all about?

Self-Discovery, One Morning at a Time

Written: February 2nd, 2009
Location: Brussels
Note: here the word “morning” is used loosely

It’s 3:20pm, and you’ve just rolled out of bed. You squint your eyes against the sunlight.  You massage your aching head. You hobble over to the bathroom for some water, and catch a look at yourself in the mirror. You jump back, startled at the sight. You forget why you’re in the bathroom in the first place.

Gradually your eyes become accustomed to the light, and you start to regain normal function. First order of the day is finding your pants. You wade through the piles of clothing in your room, slowly, arduously, clinging on to your floor lamp for support — here you can easily be mistaken for a sloth climbing through the thick jungles of the Amazon.

You never do find your pants, but you unearth plenty of other note-worthy objects along the way. You find a cobblestone in your handbag, for one. Curiously enough, it looks just like the type of cobblestones that line the main square of Brussels. Curiously enough, you were at the main square of Brussels last night. Oh. And then it all starts coming back to you: your intense beer-tasting session … your new exchange friends … your failed attempt to speak French … your second beer-tasting session (you’re a fierce cultural explorer, after all!) …  your astronomically successful attempt to speak Finnish (or so you thought) …  your public declaration that you’ve always wanted to be an archaeologist and you can’t imagine doing anything else in life … hence the cobblestone?

Now you’re all alone in your room, but you still blush. You look around at your surroundings, as if seeing everything for the first time. The first few months of your new life abroad have flashed by in a blur.

In the life of the typical exchange student, there comes a moment of realization. At some point between your arrival at the airport and the fiasco at last night’s bar, you’ve changed. You’ve come to a country of perfect strangers, and the usual constraints (parents, everyday responsibilities, strict drinking laws, etc) are conveniently located back home, thousands of kilometers away. Perhaps you’ve blossomed. Perhaps you’ve withered. Or perhaps you’ve become an entirely different creature altogether. And it seems like every day you wake up to discover a new and exciting part of yourself. This morning it was the Closeted Archaeologist. The day before that, it was the Closeted Political Activist. Tomorrow morning it’ll be something else entirely.

Now, dear Reader, I offer you a selection of personas  I discovered while living in Brussels. The list may or may not be exhaustive. Parents: you can stop reading here.Colleagues: ditto. Grandparents: thank goodness you don’t speak English.

The Closeted Philosopher
Email to long-distance boyfriend:

I miss you Gilligan. There is a giant party going on around me. I just talked to a philosopher. It was sad, very very sad. I am sad, Gilligan. You think I’m an optimist. I am. But only because I know that life, in itself, is very sad. La vie, en soi, est tragique. Tragic. The only way to fight its intrinsic tragedy is to be optimistic. Maybe that makes a person naive. Maybe I am naive. But how is it so that I know that life is sad yet still fight against it. How is it so?

Yours (but for how long?),

The Closeted Poet

Another email to long-distance boyfriend:

Hips don’t lie
I want you like pie
You’re my type of guy
And that’s no lie

I’ll cover you with rye
And do it like Bill Nye
(The Science Guy)
And till then, bye bye.


The Closeted Conceptual Artist
Email to sibling:

Oh my god. What the f*** went on last night. Woke up this morning, room looked like explosion at the spaghetti factory, clothing and books and dried pasta everywhere. And get this: in the middle of all this mess, my desk is spotlessly clean. As in, wiped-down-with-soap-and-ammonia kind of clean. There’s nothing on the desk, except: one dried anchovy, three strands of human hair, and one post-it note with my own handwriting on it, saying: “Dear Roachy: I will always love you. Love, Roachy”.


And with that, dear Reader, I will be signing off. There’s a cobblestone in urgent need of reburial.

So You Think Cobblestones Are Charming?

Angry Letter to Mayor of Brussels
Written: February 1st, 2009 at 3:34am
Reason for being written: tripping over cobblestone 17th time since arrival in Brussels
Intended to be sent: February 2nd, 2009 at 9:00am
Reason for not being sent: had second thoughts when read it sober next morning

Dear Sir,

We hope this letter finds you well. We understand you have been keeping busy this month, dealing with the dairy farmers’ strike and all. We imagine it isn’t easy concentrating on your work as Mayor of Brussels, what with the tractors circulating around city hall with life-size plastic cows taped to them. We would hand-deliver this letter to you, but fear that we would become one of those unfortunate souls we read about in the papers, who get drenched in sour milk and are forced to endure the running commentary emanating from inside the cows.

Today we have an equally pressing matter to bring to your attention: it is that your entire city is paved with cobblestones. Now now, we understand that tourists love that “old” look. In fact, we were just as charmed by the stones when we arrived in Brussels five months ago. After numerous incidents, however, we regret to inform you that cobblestones are:

1) a menace to public health,

2) an impediment to a lady’s dignity, and

3) dare we say, a matter of national security.

Public health. Allow us to tell you the story of a fellow exchange student named Harry. Last week Harry had been walking beside his new female acquaintance, trying hard to woo her with some new expressions he had just learned in French class. He had always been diligent about watching his step, but at that moment—as I’m sure we can all understand—rogue cobblestones were the furthest thing from his mind. The result, Mr. Mayor, was a trip, a fall, and a head concussion. We won’t even begin to describe the psychological troubles that followed.

A lady’s dignity.
As you may have noticed, undesirable substances such as mud and rainwater  tend to accumulate under loose cobblestones. These substances sit there, in the cobblestone cavity, mixing, mingling, brewing into a swampy consistency, until a pedestrian steps on the cobblestone, and—SPLAT!—the entire ecosystem (frogs and leaches included) is unleashed  right onto her favourite stockings. Mr Mayor, it is already very difficult for outsiders to keep up with European style and elegance. Loose cobblestones make the task all the more daunting.

National security. Last week, we witnessed two tourists giddily taking pictures of cobblestones when one of them unearthed a stone and plunked it inside her handbag. We overheard her saying: “Oh, George will just die when he sees what I’ve brought back for him. He’s got a whole collection of these things from all of the European countries, displayed on our mantelpiece!” Mr Mayor, it seems you have foreigners running around the city armed with four-kilogram stones. Who knows what they might do with them, in a fit of rage?

We trust you will find a suitable (and, dare we say, sustainable) solution to this problem. Repaving the entire city is most likely the best one.

We have cc’d the Brussels Exchange Students’ Union as well as the Brussels Microscope.

Thanking you in anticipation of a reply,
The Curious Cockroach and like-minded friends

The Mission, the Weapon, the Toilet Seat Extravaganza

Written on December 2nd, 2008, at 6:01pm
Location: bathroom stall, super posh Brussels restaurant
Emotional state: indescribable

Here I am: standing in a bathroom stall with marble floors, clutching my boyfriend’s love letter in my hand, watching with complete awe as the automated toilet seat before me rotates while cleaning itself and perfuming the air, and wondering if the ten or so American CEOs in the private dining room outside are aware of the fact that I’ve been hiding in the bathroom for the last twenty minutes. My eyes are glued to the technological display before me – imagine flashing lights, whistling noises, and the occasional rose petal blown forth – and I feel a mixture of happiness (boyfriend’s letter), wonder (auto toilet seat), and panic (CEOs outside). Oh, and I’m a tad drunk.

(Ten hours earlier)

The Mission

The adventure of the letter/toilet seat/CEOs began, like many exciting things do, during my 8:00 am microeconomics lecture. I was just about to fall asleep on my seat neighbour yet again, when – just my luck! – my phone began to vibrate. The call was from some long and foreign-looking number. Fortunately the professor was busy picking on a student at the other end of the lecture hall, so I was able to slip out unnoticed. Very bad, I know.

The call was from someone with a noticeable Boston accent, who introduced himself as Mr. Johnson. Mr. Johnson told me he used to work for the U.S. Ministry of Health, and now works for the International Institute of Catheter Research. He also informed me that he was in Brussels for a two-day conference titled “Thermoplastic Elastomers: Use and Abuse in Catheter Insertion Techniques”. He said all of this in a quick and nonchalant manner, as if I already knew these details and my memory just had to be refreshed.

Mr. Johnson gave me instructions to meet him and his colleagues in the center of Brussels, and join them for dinner after the conference. As Mr. Johnson told me, he himself had been given instructions: to hand-deliver a letter to me.

“A letter from…erm…whom exactly? From the American government, or the International Institute of Catheter research?” I asked, utterly confused but slightly amused.

“From someone far more important: my nephew,” he said.

There was a lengthy pause.

“You know, your boyfriend.”

The Secret Weapon (of a Confused Dinner Guest)

Within a few hours I found myself sitting in a private dining room of a posh restaurant, surrounded by frighteningly accomplished people. Most of them were CEOs of pharmaceutical companies, some were catheter researchers and designers, and others were … well, I never quite understood what they were. There were multiple courses still to come, and the conversations around me were already becoming astronomically difficult to follow. Plus, Mr. Johnson seemed to have forgotten about his assignment.

So how does a clumsy eighteen-year-old like me keep afloat in such company, you might ask?

Let me introduce you to what I call “The Secret Weapon (of a Confused Dinner Guest)”. If you are ever in the presence of a complex breed of human beings who have very little in common with you (in age, education, occupation, accomplishment, etc), and they happen to start telling you about their careers, and you happen to be thoroughly lost but have chosen to play along, this Weapon might just be your saving grace.

Say, your seat neighbour has just informed you he is an Arterial Catheter Orclospeditian. You have no idea what this means, and it not the time or place to fully admit it. So here’s what you do:

  • Look very zen.
  • Conceal your inner panic.
  • Begin with a simple “Tell me …”, and then leave your neighbour in suspense as you take an unhurried sip of wine or bite of duck confit.
  • Look your neighbour straight in the eye, lean in a little bit, and say very meaningfully: “… what does that involve, exactly?”

If your delivery is just right, your neighbour will never guess you are asking “What in hell is an Arterial Catheter Orclospeditian?”, but might interpret your vague inquiry as something along the lines of “Say, mate, do you perform catheter orclospedics with natural rubber or synthetic materials?”

And there you have it. While your new acquaintance delights himself in answering your question, you have a good five minutes to either figure out what is an Orclospeditian, or plan out your escape route.

The Escape

By now I’m sure you’re wondering when the aforementioned automated toilet seat comes into play. Let’s just say that by the time Mr. Johnson slipped me the letter, I had already used The Secret Weapon so many times that all those “unhurried sips of wine” began taking a toll on me. I could no longer remember anyone’s name or the details I had learned about them. The horror!

So I did what a lady does in distress – I took refuge in the bathroom. I read the lovely letter, gathered my senses back together, and by the time the toilet seat had done its circuit around the bathroom stall, I was ready to enjoy the dinner anew.

Mission accomplished. (Phew!)

Monsieur Duivelszoon: Nuclear Scientist, Landlord, and Man of Mystery

Location: apartment bedroom in Brussels, as far away from electrical outlet as possible
Fun Fact: “Duivelszoon” means “son of the devil”

While I was making carrot soup in the communal kitchen today, Monsieur Duivelszoon (the landlord) popped by the house after work. He was wearing a suit with black polished shoes. I hadn’t seen him for a good few weeks, and last time he had been wearing the exact same outfit.

We had a lovely conversation. Monsieur Duivelszoon told me, with much enthusiasm, that he was a nuclear scientist by day “and landlord by night”.

I inquired as to why he felt the need to rent out a student house, when he already had such a fulfilling career. He glanced at one of the soggy carrots I had been mashing in a bowl, and simply said “I just love young people!” Then his pocket started emitting a “Damnation Alley” ringtone, so he had to run. (As I had just found out, this meant that Monsieur Duivelszoon’s fellow nuclear scientists were onto something big, and were paging him). I didn’t have a clue what “Damnation Alley” was about, but it sure was a catchy tune.

The next morning I came down to the kitchen to have the rest of my carrot soup before going to class. A couple of sleepy housemates were already there, smoking by the doorway and using their coffee cups as ashtrays. I told them that Monsieur Duivelszoon had made an appearance yesterday, and that told me how much he loved young people.

“Yes!” said Enrique, and took a puff of his cigarette.“And previous week he say to myself: ‘I love how young brains works.’” Limited as Enrique’s English comprehension may have been, what he said was actually quite likely.

“He loves how young people’s brains don’t work, more like!” exclaimed Georgette, who was always the lefty politically-minded one of the bunch.

“Why else rent out overpriced rooms to students, and then refuse to come in and fix the damn cupboards and replace the light bulbs once in a while?” she said as she jabbed her cigarette into her cup one final time.

Georgette wasn’t exaggerating. Monsieur Duivelszoon was indeed a slippery character, who would only answer emails that had to do with going out to the student pub or visiting his vineyard (I never did understand how he got grapes to ripen in the Belgian climate, but I suspected he fiddled around with grape genes as a hobby). Any emails concerning light bulbs, the broken cupboard doors, or how the shower above my room leaked right onto my electrical outlets, he would simply ignore.

Then he would reappear weeks later, still wearing a suit but with his hair slightly disheveled, and say something like: “how are my lovely students doing? Sorry I’ve been so unavailable lately. Been called down to Tbilisi, you know, they needed me to avoid another Chernobyl all the sudden. And to think, just when I was about to pop by and fix these cupboards.”

But as soon as the word “cupboard” left his lips, his pager would ring Damnation Alley again and he would be skipping out the door before we got a chance to open our mouths to protest.

At times Monsieur Duivelzoon drove us mad, yes, but inadvertedly he helped unify us. All fourteen of us. Because no matter where each of us came from, or what our habits and beliefs were, death by leaky shower/electrocution was something we all wanted to avoid. And quite understandly so, no?