Merde in europe, p.3
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       Merde in Europe, p.3

           Stephen Clarke
 
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  3

  ‘EU to ban singing in pubs.’

  Report in the British press, 2002

  ‘WELCOME TO PLUCKS,’ Elodie told me as we walked into the noise of a crowded café.

  ‘Is that Flemish rhyming slang?’ I asked.

  ‘No, it’s a typically Brussels name. Everything is abbreviated here – except for my expenses, of course. “Plux” is an abbreviation for “place du Luxembourg”. That’s this square. It’s where everyone comes after work.’

  By ‘everyone’ she didn’t mean bus drivers, waffle-makers and window-cleaners. She meant everyone who was anyone, the cream of the crop of eurocrats. From the look of them, the city’s clothes shops were doing as well as its cafés. Same for the hairdressers and hair-removers. The gyms, too – the café was full of trim waistlines, slim calves, tight butts. Even some of the middle-agers looked in good shape, with that upright stance they get from a mixture of Pilates and exaggerated self-worth.

  ‘Shall I get you a drink?’ I offered, though I didn’t much fancy the crush at the bar. ‘What would you like?’

  ‘No need,’ Elodie said, and held up two fingers towards someone I didn’t see. ‘I have my own private waitress,’ she added mysteriously. ‘Mineral water OK? I always start with that, before deciding if it’s worth staying on for something stronger.’

  ‘Mineral water’s great. Make mine a bathtub.’

  We went outside on to the immense open terrace, and while we waited for Elodie’s mystery waitress, she talked me through what was going on around us.

  ‘The older guys in suits and the older, uptight-looking women are mostly MEPs, lobbyists or diverse civil servants. The young girls with the guys are their “assistants”. An MEP can hire whoever he wants here in Brussels, and his wife will never see her, so cute women are in high demand, especially with the ugly guys. The younger guys in the chic suits are mainly MEPs’ assistants. Their female equivalents are the same, although some of the very chic girls are stagiaires – interns – hoping to get spotted by an important man and given a hand upwards, in all senses of the expression. The not-quite-so-chic people usually want a better job so they can get really chic. The bulges in their pockets are business cards. The eccentric-looking older ones are MEPs creating a personality for themselves. There are plenty of them here tonight, because Thursday is our last evening in Brussels, before we leave.’

  ‘You only work a four-day week?’ Was there no end to their privileges?

  ‘On Thursday nights I usually go back to my voters, Paul. Well, nearer to them anyway, to Paris. But this week I’m staying here for the whole weekend, especially for you. Which means that I want you to look very different for me tomorrow morning. Get some new clothes. I’ll put them on the expense account. You can’t go around looking like a drunk English tourist, if you’re working for France.’

  I only had time to nod before one of the très chic women Elodie had been talking about strode up to us, holding two tall glasses of deliciously clear liquid, topped with slices of lime.

  ‘Bonsoir, Manon,’ Elodie said.

  ‘Bonsoir, Madame Martin,’ Manon replied.

  So Elodie wasn’t using her married name. Good move, I thought – Martin was classless and easy to remember, whereas her husband was saddled with Bonnepoire, a posh name that meant something like ‘gullible idiot’.

  ‘This is Pol Wess,’ Elodie said, pronouncing my name as the French always do. ‘Pol, meet Manon. She’s one of my assistants parliamentaires.’

  I shook Manon’s hand.

  ‘Bonsoir,’ she said, somewhat coolly.

  Manon’s straight dark hair was caressing her shoulders in that amazing ‘ceci n’est pas un style’ way that only Frenchwomen seem to manage, so that it looks as if it grew that way completely by chance and that nature is therefore a brilliant hairdresser.

  She was gazing straight into my eyes, as if to make sure I strayed no further south than her tastefully made-up eyelids and full, dark lips. She had one of those lucky faces that don’t really need make-up but look even more natural with it, if that makes any sense. Which I wasn’t, because I was astonished that Elodie had chosen such a looker as an assistant. Too much competition, surely?

  I opened my mouth to begin a bit of ‘Oh, you work with Elodie, do you?’ banter, but I must have been gawping for too long, because I missed my chance.

  ‘How do you think les Anglais will vote?’ Manon asked me, in French.

  ‘No one knows,’ I said, trying to make my ignorance sound like wisdom.

  ‘How would you like them to vote?’ she asked, and from the way she looked at me, I guessed there was only one right answer.

  ‘Well, like you, I’ll be working with Elodie, so we’ll be on the same side,’ I said.

  ‘Yes. Well, I must return to talk to Monsieur Cholpin.’ I detected hostility in her tone, as if I’d given the wrong answer. Or perhaps she’d just read my mind. Most men probably had exactly the same thoughts when they first set eyes on her.

  ‘Merci pour le drink,’ I managed to say.

  The French usually think it’s hilarious when you mix languages like that, but she just gave a tepid smile and left.

  ‘She seems very efficient,’ I told Elodie.

  ‘Yes,’ was all she had to say on that subject, as if efficiency might be out of place in the European Parliament.

  We both watched Manon walk stylishly back through the crowd towards a short man with thinning, floppy grey hair whose suit looked frequently worn, but expensive. He was grinning up at a tall thirty-something woman, apparently deciding where to start biting her. Instead, he took a business card out of his pocket and pressed it into her hand like a precious gift. It was a strangely seductive gesture, coming from this nerdy-looking guy who anywhere else would be just a little grey man. He then grabbed the woman in an excessive hug, as though she had just won the World Cup for France’s female football team. But there was no look of joy on her face, only sufferance. He released her after a good ten seconds and she backed away, nodding politely, like underlings do in films about Chinese emperors. As soon as she had gone, he turned his hungry eyes on Manon. He was obviously quite an operator.

  ‘Cholpin was Minister of Agriculture,’ Elodie said, as if in explanation. ‘Now he’s an MEP for Normandy.’

  ‘Exiled to Brussels as punishment?’ I asked.

  ‘Ha!’ Elodie almost choked on her mineral water. ‘Pension, you mean. Two terms as an MEP and you are eligible for the full pension. Comfortable for life. French politicians get it as a reward. My team are already working on my re-election.’

  ‘A pension? But you’re only in your twenties.’

  ‘Oh, Paul, surely you know it’s never too early for a French person to start thinking about a luxurious retirement.’

  People kept wandering up and saying polite hellos to Elodie. MEPs were big-shots here, I realised. Another drink materialised in her hand, delivered by an ultra-classy guy in a sharp pinstripe. He was sickeningly slick, with a blond head straight out of a hair-conditioner advert and a suit that seemed ridiculously pleased to be wrapped around his tall frame.

  The glass he brought was wine-shaped, and Elodie accepted it with a wide smile, handing me her half-finished mineral water. So that was what MEPs’ assistants were – glorified furniture. Manon was a drinks trolley, I was the mantelpiece.

  The pinstriped newcomer granted me a brief, indifferent glance and then huddled in close to Elodie, almost literally shouldering me away. It was becoming only too clear how the Brussels class system works – no suit, nobody.

  From the snippets I heard of the pinstripe’s opening gambit, I could tell he had a faint accent – Scandinavian, probably. He was saying that he’d heard Elodie speak at some meeting or other.

  ‘I was very impressed by your argument that grow and near should work closer together, without excluding regions,’ he said, whatever that meant.

  Elodie lapped it up.

  ‘Oh, I’m so glad you agree,’ she
gushed. ‘Regions are very close to my heart.’

  ‘And I’m sure you have a very big heart,’ he said, and even without a hangover I would have felt a wave of nausea. That was a line straight out of a 1980s French film starring a Saint-Tropez lifeguard with permed hair, skin-tight Speedos and a fake-gold name-bracelet. But Elodie didn’t seem to mind. She laughed and said she was devoting her heart entirely to Brittany, no matter how attractive other regions might look.

  Wondering how long I’d be able to survive in a place where nerdy guys mauled unwilling women in exchange for a business card, and smoothies with suits could spout sub-Casanova come-ons and not be laughed at, I moved away, intending to get myself a refresher. Something stronger than water, maybe.

  My route indoors to the bar was suddenly blocked by what initially looked like a glamorous cannon.

  It was a tall woman a few years older than me and dressed to impress, with a gunmetal-blue business suit and a blouse that seemed to be having a bad top-button day.

  ‘Bonsoir,’ she said.

  ‘Bonsoir,’ I replied.

  ‘Sharker,’ she said, or something like that. ‘Sharker Yar Miller.’

  ‘Pol Wess,’ I said, joining her in the fashion for badly pronounced names.

  ‘Vous êtes l’assistant de Madame Martin?’ she asked, in accented French.

  Aha, I thought. I’d only been on the scene a few minutes and already I’d been spotted. I told her that I was indeed ‘travailling avec Madame Martin’.

  The lady’s friendly interrogation went on for a couple more minutes, rather like a TV panel game where a contestant has to work out the identity of the mystery guest. After a few questions, she knew everything I was willing to tell her.

  ‘Et qui êtes-vous?’ I asked her. In reply she gave me a short list of initials and abbreviations that I was clearly meant to recognise, ending with the only words I really understood – ‘public affairs’.

  ‘I like your style,’ she added. ‘A parliamentary assistant, but not too chic. Low-key, cool. There should be more like you.’

  ‘Merci,’ I said, not that I deserved her compliment in the slightest.

  ‘So what’s your job exactly?’ I asked. ‘Public affairs?’

  ‘No, very private ones,’ she said, and raised her eyebrows as if to imply that this really was an outrageous come-on. I couldn’t believe it. Did everyone in Brussels attract groupies so easily?

  I was trying to work out how to respond when I caught sight of someone over her shoulder. It was a guy with a dark, well-clipped beard who seemed to be eyeing me distastefully. Maybe this Sharker was his girlfriend.

  He nudged another guy standing next to him and they both gave me a stare. The second guy nodded, as if in agreement with something unpleasant being said about me. I saw that they were wearing almost identical conservative suits and name badges. It looked as though they were deciding whether to expel this intruder who dared to chat up a classy woman while not wearing visible ID.

  ‘Who are they?’ my new female friend asked. So it wasn’t her bloke after all.

  ‘I don’t know. But I think I’ve seen the guy with the beard before somewhere.’

  ‘Not surprising. They look like assistants, too. You’ve probably seen them in the Parliament building.’

  ‘Yes,’ I agreed, even though I’d only spent about fifteen minutes in reception.

  ‘Never mind them, let’s get a drink,’ she said, ‘and you can tell me how you’re enjoying Brussels.’

  ‘Oh, it’s been very interesting so far.’

  As we weaved our way towards the bar, she grabbed my hand so that we wouldn’t be separated in the crush, and I guessed that things were about to get even more interesting.

  I’d split up with my Parisian girlfriend about a month earlier. Amandine was a business student who’d been working for Jean-Marie, Elodie’s dad. We got on really well at first, but then Amandine accepted a job in Shanghai, which kind of Peking-ducked our relationship (that’s Chinese rhyming slang, of course). She asked me to go with her, but I was too scared of turning into a desperate expat wife, and elected to stay in Paris.

  We Skyped for a month – one of us usually waking up, the other going to sleep – but soon it began to feel artificial, and we both agreed that there was no point in prolonging the downward spiral.

  So in the Plux café, when this glamorous woman started hitting on me, I was not exactly unreceptive. She was very attractive, and quickly proved that she could be amusingly bitchy. She knew enough about the men in the bar for me to understand that I wasn’t her first flirtation by any means, but she was never sordid or boastful about it. She was recently divorced, and getting a bit of revenge on the male gender, I gathered.

  Her name, it turned out, was Šárka. She was originally from the Czech Republic, she’d been in Brussels for eight years and been married to a eurocrat from Marseille. Hence her excellent command of French. The only gap in her linguistic knowledge was that she seemed to think I was French, too, and I didn’t bother to deny it. If I’d admitted to being anglais, she might have started asking me about the referendum, as they all did. And anyway, if she wanted a Parisian playboy for the evening, who was I to disappoint her?

  Any French person could tell instantly that I was English (they often say that we Brits have a ‘lazy tongue’ when it comes to pronouncing their guttural sounds – and doing certain other things, too), but in Brussels no one seemed to speak any language perfectly. Even the English bloke in the bar had spoken laboriously, weighing his words as if choosing from a multilingual dictionary in his head. My French accent probably had the same effect on Šárka, because half of my conversation consisted of pauses while I agonised over the right verb conjugation or strangled vowel sound.

  After about three drinks, Šárka nipped to the Ladies, and a flushed-looking Elodie came over and grabbed me by the arm.

  ‘I didn’t know you could speak Czech, Paul,’ she said.

  ‘You know her?’

  ‘Of course. She is very good at making influential friends.’ She raised her eyebrows meaningfully at this last word. ‘Be in my office at eleven tomorrow, OK? Well dressed and without a – what do you call it? Overhang.’

  Elodie looked slightly drunk herself, and I noticed the Nordic god hovering in the background. I wondered if she wasn’t intending to indulge in some groupie action, too. Though in her case it wasn’t clear who was going to be the groupie.

  ‘Well, you take care of yourself, Elodie,’ I said, in a way that was meant to convey a bit of moral disapproval. I mean to say, only a year earlier I’d helped to cook her wedding supper. Had all those sea bass died in vain?

  ‘Oh, I am always careful,’ she said, which wasn’t exactly what I’d meant.

  She swanned off back to her blond admirer.

  The gregarious Šárka squeezed towards me, exchanging brief pleasantries with several people along the way, and arrived back smiling. I was still holding her glass, but she crinkled her nose at it.

  ‘Why don’t we go and get a drink somewhere more peaceful?’ From the look in her eyes, I didn’t think she meant a coffee machine in the deserted Parliament building.

  ‘Sure,’ I said, downing the last of my white wine and feeling it zing against my gums.

  We walked out of the square and into a side street where she stopped to show me an alarming poster. By the door of a building marked ‘Studios Intimes’ there was a mosaic of photos, all of them lurid flashlit shots of empty bedrooms. Most were decorated with four-poster beds, mirrors on walls, velvety bordello furniture. The poster announced that the place was open from 9 a.m. to midnight and accepted all known credit cards. Shagpads for hire.

  My first thought was ‘Nine in the morning?’ and my second ‘Can I afford to pay for the room?’ But to my relief, Šárka told me that this was where the truly unsubtle people came for their rendez-vous.

  ‘We are fifty metres from the Parliament. They want to be seen. We are going somewhere much more discreet.’


  Now I knew for sure this wasn’t just a wine-tasting invitation.

  Just around the corner there was a newish office building with a main entrance encrusted in company name-plaques. Šárka held an electronic key to the entryphone and the door clicked open. The small reception area was empty, but I saw cameras blinking at us from the ceiling, and wondered whether the security company got a kick out of seeing Šárka come in with a nocturnal visitor.

  We went up in the small lift, like two people heading for a civilised business meeting, only Šárka’s faint smile giving any hint that something more was in store. I was genuinely surprised that she was interested in me. In the lift’s mirror, my reflection looked exactly like someone who’d recovered from a raging hangover but hadn’t found the energy to shave, or bothered to check that his shirt collar wasn’t sticking up crazily on one side. I straightened myself out, as though it would make any difference.

  Another electronic keystroke got us through a featureless wooden door and into Šárka’s office. She turned the lights on and I saw a smart but uninspiring room – large metal-framed desk, brand-new leather swivel chair, orderly filing shelves. The only thing that livened it up was the giant poster on the wall. It was a map of Europe, headlined with a bright-green company logo, and showing various European countries partly coloured in with the same green as the logo.

  There was, I now noticed, one other thing jollying up the office – a long white couch, where Šárka was already sitting. She reached into a small fridge by the couch and pulled out a bottle of champagne.

  ‘Brussels bubbles?’ she said in English, and pointed towards a small battalion of glasses standing on a table by the door. I guessed a lot of drinking went on here.

  I fetched two tall-stemmed glasses and sat down beside her on the couch. She handed me the bottle to open.

  ‘Don’t worry,’ she said, reverting to French and calling me by the intimate ‘tu’. ‘You know what they say: what happens in Brussels stays in Brussels.’

 
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