Merde in europe, p.11
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       Merde in Europe, p.11

           Stephen Clarke
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  ‘Secretly, they all fucking adore the EU.’ He guffawed and got the coffee-drinkers around us staring. Lowering his voice, he leant in close. ‘When my guy got elected, he made a speech: “If Britain is the mother of all parliaments, then Brussels and Strasbourg are the ugly sisters – overweight, bulimic and out of breath from gobbling too much oily foreign food paid for by our taxes!” But now he fucking loves it. They all do. Where else are they going to earn so much bloody dosh? With free booze practically every night at some lobbyist’s cocktail party? Hordes of groupies? And the chance to go back home and dish the dirt on the place, as if they’ve escaped from a concentration camp? You know, when they leave Brussels, we say they take the “Zaventem shower”. It’s named after the airport. It decontaminates them of impure pro-European thoughts before going back home. Believe me, these so-called eurosceptic MEPs are having the time of their fucking lives. If they win the referendum, they’ll be blubbing all the way to the dole office.’

  All of which put a new perspective on things for me.

  ‘I’m Danny, by the way,’ he said, tapping his badge.

  ‘Paul,’ I said, doing the same.

  We shook hands.

  Which was probably the worst possible time for Manon to catch sight of me as she arrived at the cafeteria, no doubt impatient for her latte. Or just maybe she’d decided to come and drink it with me and make peace after our little scene. A guy can always hope.

  She shot a brief ‘Oh, so that’s how it is?’ look in my direction and turned to queue at the counter. My peace offering had been declined before it had even been delivered.

  I told Danny the oyster that I’d see him around, and went to put Manon straight.

  ‘C’est un mec bien’ – he’s an OK guy – I told her. The back of her head, anyway. She didn’t turn to look at me.

  ‘To you, maybe,’ she said. ‘I know what his sort thinks of France.’

  ‘It’s not what you think.’ Well, not exactly.

  She finally turned round.

  ‘You seem to spend most of your life apologising or explaining, Paul. Maybe you should think about that.’

  ‘Let me explain why.’

  It was meant to be a joke, but she didn’t get it.

  ‘I thought you said he attached himself to you because he was drunk. Well, he doesn’t look drunk now.’

  ‘No, he’s not. But—’

  ‘Look, Paul,’ she interrupted me. ‘If you and Elodie want to plot secret policies behind closed doors, and link up with the Eunuchs, you’re free to do so.’

  ‘We’re not. Well, I’m not.’

  ‘You know what is in that file she gave me?’ I had to confess my ignorance. ‘I’m supposed to write a communiqué for her explaining why her region should only have to take a minimum number of refugees. While I’m contacting mayors to ask them to take refugees. Quelle merde!’

  ‘Well, you’ve got to believe I’m not working on anything to do with that. And you’ve got to listen to what that English guy just told me.’

  ‘Oh, putain,’ Manon moaned. Literally it’s like pute, another vulgar name for a prostitute (French has a suspicious amount of those), but they also use it as an expletive of despair or frustration.

  She walked away.

  At first I was going to stay on and buy her coffee, but then I thought: Putain, the reason why I seemed to spend all my time with Manon explaining things was because she was constantly judging me. And if she wanted to play the judge, she was going to damn well listen to my defence.

  Admittedly, part of me was thinking that it was best to steer well clear of French women with strong political opinions – I’d had a girlfriend like that before, and I never knew when I was going to offend her accidentally by liking the wrong book or wanting to live in the wrong part of Paris. But an even stronger part of me wanted Manon to know that I wasn’t some double-dealing jingoistic idiot.

  I followed her along the corridor, speaking loud French at her back.

  ‘Danny works for the Eunuchs,’ I informed her, ‘but he’s not one of them. He is in favour of Europe.’

  ‘Pff!’ she said, which at least proved she was listening.

  ‘You should hear what he just told me about his MEP,’ I said, still trailing her. She arrived at a lift, but apparently decided she didn’t want to be my captive audience in such a confined space and veered away into a ladies’ loo.

  No problem. I began talking through the door, translating as best I could the funny stuff that Danny had just told me. I had a few problems with the bit about Brussels gobbling oily foreign food, but I think I summarised the gist. I also promised her that I was as horrified by the Eunuchs as she clearly was. We were on the same Eunuch page.

  Still no reaction from inside the loo.

  The absurdity of the situation reminded me of something I’d stumbled across on the internet that same morning while compiling my blurb for Elodie. It was about a campaign to harmonise male and female toilets. Some woman MEP for Bavaria was campaigning to abolish urinals, which, she said, expose female cleaning staff to the danger of being confronted by male exhibitionists. This MEP wanted cubicles for everyone, and was gleaning major support from German men, lots of whom apparently prefer to pee sitting down. German even has a special word for this, I learnt – the Sitzpinkel.

  I delivered my one-word punchline through Manon’s toilet door and waited. I heard footsteps. It sounded as though she was coming out. The door opened.

  ‘Très intéressant,’ I was told by a middle-aged lady I’d never seen before in my life.

  Smiling to herself, she walked away and left me feeling a total Sitzpinkeler.

  As the door swung closed, I saw that it was a two-cubicle toilet with a washbasin in the little lobby area.

  ‘Is that true?’ Manon said when she emerged a moment later, smiling ever so slightly at her victory.

  ‘Yes, der Sitzpinkel. Or maybe das Sitzpinkel. I don’t know.’

  ‘No, I mean all that about your friend’s Eunuchs? The stupid speech, secretly loving Brussels and everything?’

  ‘Yes,’ I confirmed.

  ‘Then maybe you can buy me that latte after all.’

  We went back to the colourful chairs and actually had a friendly chat. Manon apologised for blowing up at me, I sympathised for the shitty way Elodie was treating her, and after a couple of minutes we even got to the life-story stage.

  I told her some tales about my time in France, leaving out a few of the romantic entanglements, but letting her know that I’d recently broken up with a girl who’d buggered off to work in China. Obviously I didn’t use the word ‘buggered’, because I was speaking French, which has no literal translation for this bizarre English concept. I just said Amandine had departed, which made her sound like a train.

  In return, Manon told me that Elodie was her third MEP – her second as a full assistant. Before that, she’d been one of the ambitious interns trawling Brussels for business cards. And no, she stressed before I could be tactless enough to ask, she hadn’t had to earn jobs on anyone’s casting couch.

  She, too, had recently emerged from a relationship.

  ‘He was a Greek journalist,’ she said, ‘and ironically he did keep borrowing money from me, and then getting annoyed when I asked him to repay it.’

  ‘So this was one Grexit that was welcome,’ I said.

  ‘Yes, and I’m enjoying my independence,’ she said. I guessed this was a hint that she wasn’t in favour of a Brentrance into her life.

  She asked me how I really felt about the potential Brexit, and for once I decided to answer seriously.

  ‘Honestly, I can’t decide,’ I said. ‘I know Britain is being invaded by war refugees, but that doesn’t seem to be caused by being in the EU. I know that the southern European countries’ economics are as stable as their plumbing, and we often have to deal with their shit. But maybe we’d have to do that anyway, even if we weren’t in the EU. All I really know is that I’m based in France, so if Britain
leaves, I will probably have to start queuing up for a residence permit again. That would be hell.’

  Manon examined me with her large, lively eyes, obviously wondering whether I was being serious. But I was. Call it petty, but don’t most of us think of politics in these personal terms? Will this or that policy guarantee me a job? Will this referendum force me to endure the horrors of a French government waiting room?

  ‘Well, I’m glad you’re not one of the Brexiteurs,’ she said. ‘They’re so absurd. You know what they’ve been trying to do, just to annoy us?’

  Well, yes, I did – ban oysters – but I shook my head.

  ‘For example, they have been trying to make it obligatory for all queues in Europe to follow the British system,’ she said. ‘You know: “Cashier number three, please”.’ She did a good imitation of the food shops at St Pancras station. ‘They say Britain is the only country that knows how to queue.’

  ‘They haven’t tried getting served in a London pub recently,’ I said. The last time I’d had a go, the queuing system was to wave your money at the barman and shout, ‘Oy, over here!’

  ‘And they have been trying to force every hotel in Europe to provide “tea-making facilities”, as you English call them, in every room. Honestly – and they complain about wasted European money!’

  I tutted disapprovingly at my errant countrymen, though I had to agree with that last policy. Why should any hotel guest be deprived of a wake-up cuppa, even if it is French tea that needs to brew till lunchtime before it gets strong enough to drink?

  ‘I don’t understand people who stay in Europe just to cause trouble, or who campaign for years to join the EU and then campaign to get out. It’s not just a waste of money, it’s a waste of life.’

  Clearly Manon was more of an existentialist than I’d imagined.

  ‘You know, if the Brexiteurs win the referendum and Britain leaves the EU, you might not get that residence permit so easily. France might just throw out all the English immigrants,’ she said. ‘We’re pretty mad at you for refusing to take your fair share of the Middle Eastern refugees. So we might deport you all. You’d be condemned to stay in Brussels,’ Manon added in a lighter tone, and her smile made me think this might not be an unpleasant exile. ‘The question is: Would Elodie prolong your contract? I mean, that language study isn’t going to take you very long. Does she have other things that you can do for her?’

  I considered this for a moment, and then suspicion hit me like a Belgian beer glass bouncing off my skull. Disappointment churned my entrails even more efficiently than the beer itself.

  I thought: Please somebody tell me that Manon isn’t Šárka the lobbyist all over again. Surely this cosy chat wasn’t just a way of getting me to reveal why Elodie always wanted to talk to me behind closed doors? Did no one ever stop lobbying, job-hunting or plotting in this bloody place?

  ‘Talking of work, maybe we should get back to the office,’ I said.

  ‘Yes.’ Perhaps Manon picked up on my sudden unease, because she looked me right in the eyes and said, ‘You know, Paul, I’m really glad you’re not working with those Eunuchs. Their hypocrisy makes me sick. I’m so relieved you’re not one of them.’

  At any other time I might have said, ‘Eunuch, moi?’ in a falsetto voice. Or anything jokey that made it sound as though we were on the same team. Now, though, Manon had steered us straight back into Brussels’ game of badges.

  Back at my desk, I was spared any awkwardness because Manon had to go and attend the presentation of some award or other, with its associated drinks and nibbles. She seemed to realise that something was up, when all I did was half-turn in my seat to say goodbye and give her one of those workmate smiles you put on for a split second when you know you have to.

  I was still feeling peed off that what had felt like a genuine rapprochement had fallen flat, like a Belgian waffle that blackens in the waffle-maker instead of rising up, all golden and fluffy.

  While we’d been exchanging life stories, it had been great. She was fun to listen to as well as a total hottie, and I’d really felt that getting closer to her could have been one of life’s more golden, fluffy experiences. But then she’d come over all conspiratorial and our shared waffle moment was over.

  Merde, as they say in Brussels, in twenty-odd languages, plus dozens of dialects.

  I got back to my Art Nouveau palace after work to find that Jake had been there. He’d done some food shopping, but sadly this consisted of a giant sack of coffee beans. Very useful – the apartment didn’t even own a coffee grinder.

  I messaged him to find out what he was up to, but he didn’t reply. So I nipped out for a hot dog (which tasted as though it might actually have been made with canine by-products), and then settled down to watch a Bond movie.

  As usual, 007 didn’t know if the babe he found in his bed was on his side or the opposing team. The thing about Bond, though, is that he always beds them first and asks their allegiances later. You never see James Bond staying home alone, curled up in front of a Bond movie.


  ‘Brussels wants to ban British barmaids’ cleavage.’

  Report in the British press, 2005

  THE CAPITAL OF the European Union is a vast bureaucracy with so many moving parts that the organisers have clearly had problems choosing different names for them all. There is, for example, a Council of Europe as well as a Council of the European Union and a European Council – all different bodies with different functions.

  There’s also the European Court, the European Commission and dozens of European Committees. All those ‘EC’ initials – no wonder they changed the EEC to the EU.

  Added to the problem of names, there is the question of roles. We hear a lot about the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council of Europe taking decisions. But who has the last word on what becomes European law?

  Personally, I don’t have a bloody clue.

  And, quite frankly, as I walked through the early-morning streets towards my meeting at the Commission, I didn’t really care. All I had to do was go in there and get a juicy list of twisted news stories about Europe from the man at DG Communication, and then report back to Elodie. She wasn’t asking for a flow chart of the whole organisation.

  Call it a lack of conscientiousness, if you want, but in my view life is too short to try and understand the exact workings of the European Union. Unless, of course, you want to make it your permanent profession, which, to judge from what I’d seen so far, was a fate I preferred to avoid.

  On the large roundabout outside the Commission building I saw my first political action of the day. A group of about two dozen men and women were waving flags and banners and chanting slogans I couldn’t understand. Most of the guys had dark facial hair, and the women wore headscarves, so I guessed they were of Middle Eastern or North African origin. Libya, maybe, Syria, Tunisia or Egypt. Or one of the old southeast Russian republics. I didn’t recognise the flags, and the banners were calling obscurely for ‘ACTION NOW’. I just hoped for their sakes that the badge people, who were wandering into work carrying their coffees, cases and phones, knew what the protest was about, otherwise it all seemed to be a waste of time.

  There was a small flood of grey-suited men and women flowing into the Commission building, which was an intriguing three-winged tower, a cross between a giant glass propeller and one of those spiked traps that resistance fighters used to throw on roads to puncture tyres.

  It was impossible to see what went on inside because all the windows were covered by sunshades, making it look like a fortress defended by rows of arrow slits.

  To get into the Commission I had to walk past a long line of flagpoles, all flying the blue EU standard. It felt as if I was arriving at a stupendously clean beach.

  My badge got me as far as a reception desk, where I gave the name of the guy I was due to meet – an Englishman called Peter Marsh. Strange, I thought, a Brit working in the press department of the place that the British press lo
ved to denigrate. But then again, who better to unravel the devious workings of the British journalistic mind?

  While I waited for him to come down and fetch me, I had a quick nose around. There was a stand for a freebie newspaper, clearly a Brussels-only publication, to judge by its headline: ‘Wave of outrage over dismissal of European Digital Single Market director’. Here was one wave that seemed to have passed the rest of the world by.

  I also saw evidence that there were some older badge people. At the Parliament, most of the non-MEPs were youngish, but here I saw career bureaucrats who’d obviously been around the block a few times. Some were dressed ambitiously in sharp suits and zingy ties, or bright heels for the women, but there were plenty of creased-looking office workers, strolling comfortably through a job for life towards a cosy pension.

  My man arrived, jacketless, his badge bouncing on a shirt with just a touch of purple in its whiteness. A maverick touch to show he was in the press section, no doubt. He had the almost-shaven haircut that only Eastern European ex-soldiers and Brits seem to adopt in office life, and a firm handshake.

  ‘Hello,’ he said. ‘Peter.’

  ‘Hi, Peter. Paul,’ I replied.

  ‘All we need is a Mary,’ he said. I didn’t know why. Probably a generation thing.

  ‘So you’re working for the enemy, then?’ he went on.

  ‘The French, you mean? Oui, temporarily.’

  ‘What are they saying about the referendum?’

  ‘That the opinion polls are too close to call.’

  He seemed satisfied with this.

  We chatted as we walked to the lift, and I tried to detect his accent as he ran me through his CV. There were a few grains of Liverpool in there – the way he pronounced ‘work’ as ‘where-k’ – but most of it had been filtered out by twenty years of where-king in Brussels, straight after uni. And even more than Danny the oyster man, he often paused before words, as if sifting around for the right language.

  Peter’s office came as a pleasant surprise. The corridors here were much wider and plusher than at the Parliament, as if Europe wanted to be more attentive towards its permanent staff than towards short-term MEPs. His desk was in a large, bright open space shared by four people facing each other companionably. Again, nothing like Elodie’s cramped, divide-and-rule enclave.

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