In normal circumstances, I have no time for superstitions. Wives’ tales, folklore and religions can be fascinating, and perhaps offer skewed glimpses at deeper truths buried in our animal psychés, but in my opinion, you’ve got to be a certifiable nut to believe them at face value. Enjoy them, why not? Believe them, why?

All this changes when I board aircraft. On Christmas Eve 2006, Mo and I were catching a connecting flight between Washington D.C. and Florida when I made the mistake of placing my hand on the exterior of the plane as I stepped over its threshold. It was a childish, or, rather, childlike thing to do: I had the opportunity to touch something I normally wouldn’t, and though the sensation was obviously going to be exactly as you’d expect, I took the chance. Instantly, I knew in my gut that I’d doomed us all, passengers and crew, to a fiery, aerial grave.

You just don’t go touching aeroplanes, I told myself. The moisture print you’ve left will freeze at high altitude, the ice will flake off, get sucked into the turbine and then, well, we’ve all had it. At the very least, Kenny, your insatiable lust to plant your hand on the outside of the plane you’re boarding will have angered the Sky Gods, and their retribution will be swift and severe. Not to mention just, at least for you. But what of these innocents you travel with, the ones who had the self-control to keep their goddamned hands to themselves? You’re taking them down with you, and that’s not gonna look very good on your record when applying for celestial accommodation.

In the end, the Sky Gods were merciful and commuted my sentence to merely suffering the most terrifying three hours of my life. First, the stewardess announced that though there wasn’t usually an in-flight movie on this short a trip, they’d make an exception as it was Christmas Eve and show us all a VHS of The Polar Express. Duly, small screens swung down from the ceiling, one every third row or so, and the entertainment began. I’d never seen the film before despite having an interest in the new “mo-cap” techniques and the IMAX- worthy CG. The visuals, though, brought back memories of childhood, when VCRs were new and the fact that you could record stuff and play it back at your leisure (to say nothing of pausing, rewinding, scanning, reviewing and soft ejecting) was such a euphoric liberation that no one noticed or cared much about the bleeding colours and tracking-distortion. Now, though, the quality was barely acceptable, though for truly good filmmaking it shouldn’t matter all that much. Initially, I was enjoying the film well enough, despite being struck by its uncanny similarity to the opening of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, Dolphin Island, in that our young protagonist is woken in the night by the unprecedented arrival of a hugely impressive train outside his house which he boards hoping it will lead away from his humdrum life and towards adventure and excitement. But if Clarke couldn’t be bothered suing, who am I to complain?

Around the time in the film that the train starts moving again, the airborne theatre in which I sat hit the kind of turbulence that deserved it’s own movie. None of the Floridian theme park rides I was to experience over the next week could compete with the sudden dives, the near-deadly gale blows and horrendous rolls the plane would make for the rest of the journey. Mo, somehow, was asleep on my shoulder, so she was no comfort. The trolley service was out of the question as the cabin crew were all as buckled in as we. And, I don’t know if you’ve seen The Polar Express, but once the titular locomotive is in motion, the dialogue consists entirely of characters screaming, “We’re gonna crash!”, “We’re gonna hit the mountain!”, “We’re not going to make it!” and variations thereof.

Never, before or since, has my body been asked to sustain abject terror for over two hours. Lesson learned, Sky Gods. Lesson learned.

At least, so I thought. My transgression on our recent flight to Brussels was less obvious but no less stupid. We were due to depart at one twenty-five and, when we taxied up to the end of the runway at precisely one twenty-five, I blasphemed by remarking to Mo how prompt it was. How to-schedule. And that was just about it, at far as the rest of the journey was concerned.

When we began our descent into Brussels Sud Charleroi Airport, the turbulence got, shall we say, bad. The friendly antipodean pilot had warned us at take-off that there was a thunder storm forecast, but it was as if we’d crossed the terminator into night. The atmosphere around us was black.

Essentially, we, and the whole of Charleroi, were engulfed in a massive storm cloud — a dense festering glob of moisture and electrical potentiality — and the plane was taking lashes that could have been from the tail of an angry dragon.

When we started ascending deliberately, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, someone had sensibly decided that this atmospheric tantrum was the best place to turn us all into a tragic news story, but then again, now they were improvising, which is good in a jazz club, less so in an airline so stingy they don’t even provide sick-bags.

Eventually, our maybe Aussie maybe Kiwi pilot gave us an update: we were flying to somewhere in Germany because Charleroi was too stormy. There we’d probably wait out the storm and fly back to try again. I may have misheard, but I thought he’d described this new destination as 49 miles away, in which case, thought I, can’t we just get a bus back to Brussels? Presumably you’d just get on the autobahn and be there in less than an hour.

Really, though, I didn’t want to push my luck with another takeoff and landing. I’m scared of heights generally, and though I can handle, and actually quite enjoy, flying, I consider extra take-offs and landings to be somewhat pushing my luck. We landed smoothly at Weeze Airport to await further developments, and I felt that that was quite enough flying for one day, thank you very much.

As I took the opportunity to queue for the toilet, a fellow passenger pushed his way past the line and confronted the cabin crew. He’d seen his luggage being removed from the hold and demanded answers. The stewardess kept her cool and admitted that she knew as much as he, and he pushed back past the toilet queue, shaking his head. I took his luggage situation as a good sign.

Within seconds of me entering the toilet, we got the official announcement that weather at Charleroi hadn’t improved and we were to be coached back to Belgium. I, alone, was relieved. Half the passengers were on their phones, presumably explaining their delay to whoever they were supposed to be meeting in Belgium, all of them blaming “bloody Ryanair”. The greatest trick the Sky Gods ever performed, I believe, is convincing the world that they don’t exist.


Our plane at Weeze


Because we were improvising, the Germans made us go through passport control, just to be safe. That took a while, but it was time we could well spare as on the other side there was nothing to do but await the hastily-arranged coaches. At least, that’s what we all assumed; there was no one coordinating, inspiring more grumbles of, “Typical, bloody Ryanair.”

This baffles me. If these people were so au fait with the sub-standard service of Ryanair before this trip, why patronise them again? I’ll tell you why: because Ryanair is air travel for the poor and the stingy, which is a genius business model and a genuine benefit to lower middle class humanity. Mo and I shopped around for flights to Brussels and, frankly, wouldn’t be able to go were it not for Ryanair’s insanely low (basic) pricing, which is half what it took to drive us both to Somerset and back recently. You pay for Ryanair, you get Ryanair. You could always go to Largs, so shut the fuck up.

Having followed the herd out of the terminal building, I eventually broke and went back in to ask the girl at the info desk if we were all doing the right thing: just standing around outside, waiting to be rescued. She cheerily confirmed that we were all doing exactly the right thing and I returned to a hungry Mo outside, who was guarding the luggage and lamenting the lost ideal of being in Brussels by six to hit the bars.

After at least an hour, I killed two birds with one stone by ordering two hot dogs, simultaneously addressing our hunger and summoning the coaches, meaning we had throw half the dogs away.

All the time we’d been waiting, we’d been watching the storm approach from the west. The pitch-black cloud still fell all the way to the ground, and the regular lightning flashes did nothing to illuminate its interior — it was a thick, heady brew, and coming up fast.






The approaching storm


No sooner were we ensconced in the buses than it swept over us, the airport, the whole area. Ten minutes’ drive later and the buses had to stop for fear of being blown over. When it finally calmed enough to continue, a tree — a big fucking tree! — had fallen over the only road out of the area, at a perfect perpendicular. I can be so accurate because a call went out for all able-bodied men to disembark and collaborate on the Problem of the Tree.






This is about teatime.


The Problem of the Tree was seemingly insurmountable, on account of it being a big fucking tree, until one elderly but spry Scottish gent found his calling in coordinating our efforts. Were this WWII, this dude would’ve run a tight unit, no doubt. I, of course, did everything he said; everyone did. Remarkably quickly, we’d pulled off all the (fucking big) upper branches of the tree and heaved them off the road, leaving only the trunk, which was folly to even consider touching. There was enough room now, though, for traffic to slalom through, and we returned to our buses to a deservèd hero’s welcome.

A few of the cars which had formed a queue into the distance of the tree-affected road started to slip past and got on their way. The coaches were actually on a side-road and would have to pull out into this queue to continue. I began to fear that there would soon be no one left in the queue who’d know that it was by the sweat and skelfs of the coaches’ parties that the road was cleared at all, but it all became academic when the fire brigade turned up and blocked the road again while they chainsawed the trunk into manageable pieces.

When the traffic started moving again I began to think that “someone” ought to go and point out the side-street-coaches’ contribution to the Problem of the Tree; “someone” being anyone but me, because I feel uncomfortable in confrontational situations.

Before I could muster the courage to march up to the German officials, the bus moved, finally on its way to Charleroi Airport.

Not long into the journey, Mo half-joked that the driver could be persuaded to take us directly to Brussels, rather than the remote Charleroi. I suspected that Charleroi was so close that it wouldn’t matter.

Mystic-like, I watched the skies, knowing from years of driving up and down the M8 that vapour-trails can reliably betray the location of an airport in beautiful, dispersing patterns. The sky was quiet.

On schedule, though, an aeroplane car park hoved into view and I nodded sagely at Mo. Except that it was Liege Airport. At least we were in Belgium, but Charleroi was obviously still some distance.

It had gone ten by the time we got there. Six hours late. We were tired, we were grumpy and the ticket machine wanted fifty euros to take us to Brussels on a combined bus and train ticket for services I couldn’t be sure were still running. I wanted to speak to an actual person, so into the bustling terminal building we pushed, eventually finding the friendly info-desk girl who directed us to the shuttle bus service. This bus went direct to Brussels Midi, which, from the maps I’d seen, was about a half-hour walk from our hotel. The train-bus-combo took us to the closer Brussels Centrale, but there was the hassle of the transfer and, like I say, who knew if they were still running?

The safest bet was the shuttle bus, so we got in line for tickets. There was a bus every half hour and the next was at 2245. Before we could get to the front of the queue, though, it was announced that it was full. 2315 was now when we’d be leaving and Mo grew somewhat anxious.

We’d had a lasagne brunch at Prestwick Airport at around 1100 and half a hot dog each at Weeze around 1700, and when Mo’s blood sugar gets low, she has a tendency to look on the dark side.

“They’ll’ve given our room away,” she said.

“They can’t do that,” I said, “we’ve paid in advance.”

“They can,” she insisted, “and they might.”

I don’t know what she was imagining, but she’d given me an image of dragging luggage around an eerie and foreboding Brussels at 4am, the night silence broken only by the occasional gunshot, begging scummy dosshouses to take us in.

“Shall I give them a call, let them know we’ll be late but we’re definitely coming?” I asked.

She just shook her head and chuckled grimly at my naïveté. Addressing the middle distance she said, “They’ve either given it away or they haven’t. There’s nothing we can do about it now.”

You can generally have a constructive and sensible argument with Mo at any time other than those times when she’s obviously inventing nonsense. Then it’s best to shut up and wait patiently for her to eat something. In this case, having to wait an extra half hour was something of a blessing as we had the time to have a half pint and packet of crisps each in the airport’s bar. After her second mouthful the atmosphere had reversed and she was cheerily telling me how they couldn’t give our room away as we’d already paid for it. It was a good point that I obviously hadn’t considered.

We took our good moods out to the bus stop to find the coach sitting there. Mo produced our tickets but before we could say anything the driver held up his index finger and announced: “One!”

“But we’ve booked,” cried Mo, waving the tickets.

The driver presented his finger again. “One!”

It was only after he’d driven off that we learned that he was taking his full-but-for-one coach to Luxembourg, though I thought no better of him.

The Brussels shuttle replaced the Luxembourg coach at the bus stop and I double checked with the driver that it was for “Midi”. Not “Brussels Midi” as would have been sensible to ask, but just “Midi”. I suppose I was trying to sound familiar, but it simply doomed me to willing the bus furiously to follow the signs for Brussels at every junction, as we could conceivably have been going to the “Midi” of anywhere.

I didn’t mention any of this to Mo, whose mood had crashed again when it became apparent that there were so few passengers on the 2315 shuttle that the driver had decided to hang around and mop up the 2345 people too (of which there was none, of course). I couldn’t see what difference it made really, other than letting the proper 2345 driver go home early, but Mo was not happy with the further delay and the possibility of being on the wrong bus was a concept too far, by my judgement.

We alighted at Brussels Midi at around 0025, and although the map had suggested the walk to the hotel was reasonably short, and pretty much in a straight line, we got a cab to avoid any further adventures.

The driver had predicted 10 – 12 euros to get us to the hotel, which seemed reasonable enough. Not long after we started out, though, the cab ride quickly proved itself invaluable as the twists and turns he took, and the sheer distance we covered revealed that we’d have been forever in getting to the hotel, if we’d ever have made it at all. It came to 12 euro right enough, too.

In an act of corporate generosity and human charity so rarely seen these days, the Scandic Grand Place had kept our room for us. They also sold us 4 cans of Stella for 2 euro each. The room was nice, the bed was comfortable. I had already forgotten about the Sky Gods. Ridiculous concept.

We drank our beer and slept.




50° 50.919 N 4° 20.935 E

By Kenny Park

Kenny Park, pro video editor in Avid and Final Cut for over a decade.

3 thought on “Brussels I: Half the Fun”
  1. Dear goodness, it sounds like you guys had one hell of a trip. Brussels sure made you work for the privilege of being allowed inside its hallowed walls (or possibly ring road).

    Hope you’ve recovered enough to enjoy your holiday and I will make an offering to the Sky Gods to ensure you get home safely.

    Also, I loved the post itself; has anyone told you that you’re a fabulous raconteur?

  2. Thanks, Raj. One of the saving graces of misfortune is the story it adds to your arsenal. Arse being the operative, of course.

  3. Excellent post! Quite an adventure and written incredibly well.

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