Merde in europe, p.6
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       Merde in Europe, p.6

           Stephen Clarke
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  Sure enough, it was a slightly rundown ordinary café where a couple of people were eating plain-looking steak and chips, and one man was reading a Flemish newspaper. Not a eurocrat in sight. Restful after the EU overdose I’d just ingested. I stashed my ID in my pocket and sat at a table on the terrace.

  ‘Un café, s’il vous plaît,’ I told a bored waitress in trousers and a black waistcoat, and after a brief conversation about what sort of coffee I wanted, I opted for what the Belgians seemed to call ‘un café’ – an ordinary cup of black coffee with, I was pleased to see, a free Speculoos biscuit perched on the saucer. I was in the mood for some comfort dunking.

  While I drank, I surfed around on the internet, checking what Ed had told me. It all seemed to be true.

  An official website informed me proudly that an interpreter for each language has to be provided at every formal EU meeting, even if there are only ten people attending. In which case, I reasoned, some of those interpreters would be talking to themselves. At some point they all had a tendency to turn Maltese.

  Delving further into the world of minority languages, I came across a disturbing story about Scotland on a Gaelic-culture website. In 2005 a British newspaper announced that the EU wanted to ban bagpipes. And it turned out that, in theory, the story was true – sort of. The paper was interpreting a new European law whereby workers had to be protected against loud noise. It applied to factories, of course, but also to staff at music venues. And so, according to a strict interpretation of the law, if a bagpipe player was planning to keep up an average sound level of eighty-seven decibels (the equivalent of standing two metres from a running motorbike) for a full working day, the music venue’s manager would have to offer staff the use of ear protectors. If the manager refused or the staff declined the offer, the marathon bagpipe session would have to be abandoned. QED: bagpipes would have been banned by Brussels.

  The disturbing part of the story wasn’t only the idea of an eight-hour bagpipe concert. It was the lengths the reporters had gone to, to misinterpret what seemed to be a useful bit of legislation to protect workers’ hearing. They’d been twisting the truth for pleasure, distorting facts like kittens unravelling a ball of wool.

  The conclusion was obvious: if the EU declared that it was illegal to put cyanide in choc ices, these reporters would say that Brussels intended to scrap the dear old English ice-cream van. If MEPs voted to stop teddy-bear manufacturers stuffing toys with asbestos wool, the story would be that the EU is run by people who don’t want kids to have cuddly Christmas presents.

  To distract myself from this disturbing thought, I took the opportunity to get to know some minority languages a bit better. They all seemed to have their online dictionaries. Naturally enough, I scrolled around in search of the swear words. In this respect, the compilers had been very thorough. Just typing ‘shit’ produced some wonderfully fruity translations in every language. And there were so many translations for ‘dickhead’ that you’d have thought Europe’s far-flung regions were full of them.

  My phone buzzed at me. It was Ed, who told me he’d had a thought.

  ‘To be fair to the French, the British will fuck you, too,’ he said.

  ‘Brilliant. Thanks for letting me know.’

  He signed off with one of his ear-splitting gusts of laughter.

  In short, I seemed to be sitting in the middle of a Belgian field with British landmines to one side, French to the other. It was just a question of who was going to get the pleasure of blowing me to pieces.

  Cac. That was ‘shit’ in Gaelic.


  ‘Brussels will give in to French pressure to force Britain to rename Waterloo Station and Trafalgar Square.’

  Report in the British press, 2003

  I’VE ALWAYS HAD a decent sense of direction. Once, on a school trip to a castle, I got out of the garden maze so quickly that I went back in and pretended to be lost, just to be part of the gang.

  These days my homing instinct mostly comes in useful when looking for the toilets in a French café. Somehow I can always sense where they are – a door beside the bar, a curtained-off corridor at the back of the room, a half-concealed staircase down into the basement. Or maybe I’ve just got a sharp sense of smell.

  Anyway, something threw my natural satnav off-kilter when I got back to the European Parliament after my linguistic lunch.

  I put it down to a disorienting uncertainty about Elodie’s intentions – the most disorienting thing of all being that I suspected she was actually being straight with me. It sounded as if she really did want to talk up the importance of Britain’s minority languages to persuade people to vote ‘yes’ to Europe.

  And if I got the feeling she was also playing a private poker hand to get funding for Breton, that was her own business. What did I care about a few extra road signs in western France?

  In any case, I was in such a daze that my first attempt at taking a lift to the sixth floor delivered me to a beige corridor that was familiar, but simultaneously strange. Same mind-numbing colour scheme, slightly different positioning of the big trunks outside the offices.

  And when I walked along the row of doors looking for Elodie’s nameplate, I came across a flag stapled to the wall. It was a gay-rights rainbow banner, printed with the slogan ‘No to C0 2’. It made me wonder: didn’t gay people need carbon dioxide? Wouldn’t they all suffocate?

  The name on the nearest door was German, and when I peeped inside I saw a bearded guy in a faded T-shirt standing by a table with an empty mug in his hand, clearly trying to choose from a veritable tower block of different herbal-tea boxes. Here was an MEP who spent his expenses healthily. A tea for every micro-mood.

  It obviously wasn’t Elodie’s corridor, so I travelled back down and took one of the lifts on the opposite side of the lobby. Sixth floor again, but this time I ended up on a gigantic landing full of art. The walls bore huge abstract paintings in a style probably known as euro-splodge, and the central floorspace was taken up with what looked like a partially constructed hangman’s gibbet. A shame it wasn’t finished, I thought, because it would have been a good way of getting rid of the artists.

  This landing didn’t lead to Elodie’s office, either, so I went back down and – still applying the standard stubborn male’s principle of never admitting we’re lost – headed further afield to some other lifts. This trek took me past a wall of MEPs’ mailboxes, ranged country by country, none of which seemed to have a lock. Very trusting. In my building in Paris this would have meant no one ever received a single parcel.

  After yet another wait for yet another lift, I arrived at a sixth floor that also wasn’t Elodie’s. It did, however, feature a wall plaque bearing the universal promise that salvation is at hand – a drawing of a steaming teacup.

  The cafeteria was an open area dotted with brightly coloured seats – lurid green, lemon-curd yellow, disco orange, psychedelic turquoise – an airport departure lounge from a 1970s film. There were a few people having coffee, most of whom my already trained eye recognised as assistants – dressed-down twenty-somethings with badges. A couple of them stared at me in my suit, wondering perhaps if this overdressed newcomer might be influential or useful in any way.

  I got myself an energy drink, which quickly provided me with the courage to call Elodie and explain my plight. When I described where I was, she gave a sigh of despair and groaned, ‘Mickey Mouse.’ A very French insult, I thought, the symbol of decadent English-speaking capitalism.

  When Manon turned up a few minutes later, she made it obvious that I hadn’t got into her good books by calling her away from her desk to come and rescue me yet again. The charmingly vulnerable male was apparently not her thing. Maybe she’d watched one Hugh Grant film too many.

  ‘Tu fais exprès?’ she asked me, meaning was I doing it on purpose? This could have been interpreted as a mild rebuke, except that I knew the full form of the question in French, which often starts with ‘Tu es con ou . . .’ – Are you a twat or . . .

  ‘It’s the only way we can have a private talk,’ I said, but my attempt at French-style smoothness only made her roll her eyes. Very pleasant eyes, but less so when being made to imply you’re a knobhead.

  ‘Yes, I know, I’m a Mickey Mouse,’ I said. She didn’t understand, and when I tried to explain, she shook her head and told me that it was the nickname given to the cafeteria, because of its tacky furniture. This of course only made me feel more of a Mickhead.

  ‘Let me get you a coffee,’ I offered. ‘I’m sure Elodie doesn’t give you many breaks.’

  She defrosted a degree or two.

  ‘Thanks, an espresso, please.’

  ‘No sugar?’ I guessed.

  ‘Yes, please,’ she said. Surprise, surprise. So she had a sweet spot after all.

  I came back with the coffee and a glass of water, and she nodded her approval at this extra touch. Bloody hell, I thought, two right moves in a row.

  ‘Sorry for losing myself,’ I said. ‘It’s all these lifts. I tried all of them. You know the English word “weightlifting”?’ She nodded. ‘I’ve invented a new sport – lift-waiting.’

  ‘Is that what you call English humour?’ she asked.

  ‘Apparently not.’

  At this Manon actually smiled. A flash of warmth that made me want to make her smile again somehow.

  ‘Working for Elodie can’t be one of the easiest jobs in Brussels,’ I said.

  It worked. I earned a smile.

  ‘Yes, the only job in Brussels that might be tougher would be finding accommodation for all the refugees,’ she said. She flashed yet another smile at me. This was turning out to be a bumper harvest.

  ‘God, yes. That would be a real job de merde.’

  ‘Thanks, because that’s what I’m doing.’

  ‘Seriously? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean . . .’ Me and my big feet again.

  She waved away my apologies and explained that Elodie had given her the task of contacting every mayor in Brittany – meaning the 1,270 leaders of the local councils of every city, town, village and hamlet in the region – and asking them how many refugees they could house.

  ‘Lots of them are sympathetic,’ she told me. ‘They offer temporary shelters in empty houses or salles des fêtes. But some of them use it as an excuse to let me know their theories on ethnic cleansing and racial superiority. Especially when I tell them that the idea is to try and create permanent facilities, because people from the Middle East and the southern hemisphere are going to be flooding in for decades. Or, as Elodie puts it, “les salopards ne vont pas nous lâcher”.’ The bastards aren’t going to leave us alone.

  ‘Charming,’ I agreed. ‘And you’re the only person doing this for the whole of Brittany?’

  ‘Yes, I have that honour. The other MEPs say they don’t have the personnel.’

  ‘And are you the only assistant working for Elodie?’ I asked.

  ‘You haven’t met Cédric?’

  ‘No, who’s he?’

  She stared for a moment as though I might be feigning ignorance.

  ‘Her husband’s cousin. He’s in the office on the other side of Elodie’s. When he turns up.’

  ‘What does he do?’

  Manon shrugged, which can be a French way of saying they don’t know, they’re not going to tell you or it’s just not worth talking about. Expressive things, French shrugs.

  What a team of assistants Elodie had hired. A cousin by marriage – Cédric; the daughter of one of her dad’s squeezes – Manon; and an old friend – me. She was clearly determined to keep the EU’s money in the family. I wondered if all MEPs did the same. Perhaps it was the only way to count on people’s loyalty.

  ‘Well, if I can help in any way . . .’ I offered.

  ‘Thanks.’ She laughed. ‘If you’re learning Breton, maybe you can write some emails to the more racist mayors and give them a few local insults. Though you’ll have to be careful who you insult – the worst ones vote for Elodie’s and her father’s party.’

  A thought occurred to me.

  ‘You’re not a member of their party, are you?’ I asked.

  ‘Why shouldn’t I be?’

  ‘Well, frankly you don’t look like the kind of person who believes that Napoleon was a saint and that drink-driving should be classified as part of French national heritage.’

  Saying all this in French would normally have been way out of my range, but I’d seen a comedy sketch taking the pee out of Jean-Marie’s election campaign, and this was how they’d summed up his party’s manifesto. It wasn’t out-and-out racist, it just harked back to a France where all the men wore berets and all the women stayed at home and cooked bœuf bourguigon. It was nationalism as sugary as crême brûlée.

  Manon granted me yet another smile.

  ‘Thanks, I’ll take that as a compliment. But if that’s what you think about Elodie’s party, how can you work with her?’ Touché.

  Secrecy prevented me telling Manon that I was dealing with a much wider issue than drunk French farmers being allowed to kill themselves on the roads.

  ‘I believe in defending minority languages,’ I said.

  ‘Ah yes, the rights of Bretons and Scots to make pancakes in their own patois. That would fascinate anyone.’

  ‘And I need the money,’ I confessed. ‘Elodie’s an old friend of mine from Paris. In a way she’s doing me a favour by taking me on. To be honest, I’m not really qualified for this kind of work.’

  ‘From what I’ve seen of the way Brussels functions, you’re not the only one,’ Manon said.

  ‘But from the way you keep calm when talking to Elodie, I think you’re probably very well qualified,’ I told her. OK, blatant flattery, but in my experience the guy who said flattery will get you nowhere was an idiot. ‘Have you worked with politicians before?’

  ‘Occasionally,’ she said, getting back to scoring points for evasiveness. ‘Now shall I show you where someone has hidden your office?’

  As Manon led me briskly back through the maze of lifts and corridors, she took a call from Elodie, who seemed to be asking where the hell we’d got to.

  ‘He said he needed a cup of tea,’ Manon replied calmly. ‘He’s English, after all.’

  It was becoming increasingly obvious that Manon was very fond of taking the pee out of guys. Or out of me, anyway. Not that I minded. On the contrary, call me a masochist, but I have to admit it’s something I’ve always liked in a woman. That little flash of intelligent mischief in their eyes as they have a dig at you always makes me want to come back for more. As long as they don’t resort to outright insults, of course, which was why Elodie and I didn’t stay lovers for long. She was the kind of woman who, when it suited her, used jokes and insults the way Joan of Arc used her sword, to beat men down from the battlements and show them who’s boss.

  ‘Sorry to put the blame on you,’ Manon said when she rang off. ‘It just seemed to be the simplest option.’

  ‘Yes, it usually is.’

  ‘Good, I’ll remember that,’ she said. I think she was joking.

  For a moment I thought Elodie had been fired and ejected from the building. I’d only just managed to memorise the route through the Parliament building to her door, and now it seemed that it hadn’t been worth the effort.

  Her office had been efficiently swept of any proof of her existence. Her desktop was bare, the doors on her shelving cabinets had been shut and her laptop charger lay dead on the floor. There wasn’t even a phone in sight.

  ‘She always does this,’ Manon said. ‘Very secretive.’

  There was only one clue that someone had been occupying the office – a large white envelope lying on a small table by the door. Manon handed it to me, and I saw that it had my name scrawled on it, and a brief message: ‘No time to wait for you.’

  Inside was a sheet of paper and a credit card in Elodie’s name. I looked to Manon for enlightenment, but she just did another one of those annoying Gallic shrugs. No help there.

>   The paper was a printout giving the address of a Brussels ‘hôtel de ventes’ – a ‘sales hotel’. What the hell was that? My first implausible thought was that it must be a polite Belgian way of saying brothel. Was Elodie taking the pee?

  ‘Ce n’est pas un . . .?’ Something made me censor my question to Manon. It was all a bit embarrassing.

  ‘Un quoi?’

  ‘Un . . . bordel?’

  Manon gave a joyous laugh.

  ‘You’re not serious? Is that English humour, too?’

  ‘I’m serious,’ I assured her. ‘What’s a hôtel de ventes?’

  With a single sentence she made it clear that I was a bit of a dork, and maybe a bit of a sexual obsessive, too. Hôtel de ventes, it seems, means auction house.

  Which I might have deduced for myself if I’d read Elodie’s instructions at the bottom of the page, below a map showing how to get there. She had written ’10 a.m. tomorrow, use credit card to buy lot 34’, underlining the lot number three times. ‘Call me for PIN number.’

  I showed the note to Manon, who pulled a philosophical face, as if I’d picked up a newborn puppy and it had peed all over my new trousers. Yes, she was implying, this is the sort of thing that Elodies are well known for.

  ‘But where is she now?’ I asked.

  ‘Probably in a “meeting”,’ Manon said, doing the speechmarks thing with her fingers.

  I frowned my incomprehension.

  ‘A Friday-afternoon “meeting”?’

  Now Manon’s fingers clawed the air as if they were carving the speechmarks in stone. This was turning into a French mime festival.

  ‘Oh, you mean . . . ?’ I tried to suggest sex without moving my hips.

  Manon congratulated me for my brilliance, or perhaps for my subtle hips, with a nod.

  ‘With . . . ?’ I did my best to mime a tall, slick Scandinavian with bouncy blond hair. Marcel Marceau would have been proud of me, because Manon nodded again.

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