Lorenzo & his humble friends

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool

Tag: belgium

Hard questions

In the wake of any terrorist attack the first thing to do is mourn the victims and try to defy the dreary ideology of the perpetrators.

The second thing to do is to understand what went wrong. Belgium’s beleaguered security services are once again facing intense scrutiny over how such complex attacks could happen with so much advance warning. Many times already I have spoken of the failings of a country with grotesquely complex state structures and a highly dysfunctional security system. Now those failings are turning nasty as the country finds itself confronting a terrorist infrastructure that has planted deep roots in Belgian society. Only last week, the arrest in Molenbeek of Salah Abdeslam was presented by state officials as a security triumph. Instead, I asked again whether the dynamics of the arrest represented yet another proof that Belgium was a failed state. The terrorist was captured only several hundred metres from his family home and after managing to spend four months on the run.

People who are way more competent than I am have taken the issue a bit further. U.S. officials, for instance, are bashing ‘clueless’, ‘shitty’ Belgian Security Forces for being way too incompetent to handle today’s terror threat. ‘When we have to contact these people or send our guys over to talk to them, we’re essentially talking with people who are—I’m just going to put it bluntly—children. These are not pro-active, they’re don’t know what’s going on. They’re in such denial. It’s such a frightening thing to admit their country is being taken over‘. It must be said that Belgium has never had a strong intelligence culture, as it partly relied on safety support from its neighbours; and particularly from France.

In fact, the main issue with Belgian security Forces today is not the lack of infrastructures – although that, too, is a problem – but the lack of interest in coordination. “There have been several statements from intelligence chiefs saying they barely co-operate, and that’s really sad and disturbing at the same time” a senior policy adviser in security studies told the FT todayIf there’s one thing to do now it is to enhance the co-operation of intelligence agencies in Europe.” This utter incapacity is a consequence of the Belgian political establishment, which created and perpetrated such a dysfunctional system with inept chiefs of the police staying in their place in spite of an agonizing situation that was clearly going our of control. Recent figures showed that as many as 562 Belgians have fought in Iraq or Syria. At least 124 hail from Brussels. With a population of 11 million, Belgium has sent more fighters per capita than any country in Europe to the charnel house of the Syrian civil war. Something is clearly going wrong here.

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A list of people (and things) to be blamed for this situation had been published already in November last year. Among them you will find the chief of the police and several politicians. Many of these people are still in power. These are the people who deserve our blame and might give us a clue of what went wrong, an why.

22 marzo

In un momento tragico come questo è opportuno ricordare che le atrocità contro la popolazione civile belga hanno segnato alcuni dei momenti più drammatici, ma anche più nobili, della storia europea.

Quando, nell’agosto 1914, la Germania invase il Belgio neutrale, macchiandosi di massacri, molti pacifisti di altri Paesi sentirono il dovere morale di schierarsi e partire volontari. Fra questi, in Inghilterra, il laburista Clement Attlee, allora docente a LSE, che pure aveva più di trent’anni e dunque non rispettava i requisiti di arruolamento. Al celibe Attlee, tuttavia, ripugnava l’idea che uomini con moglie e figli fossero costretti a sacrificarsi al suo posto – e su questo si scontrò duramente col fratello Tom, obiettore di coscienza –. Durante il conflitto, Attlee diede prova di eroismo, venendo ferito due volte e guadagnandosi i gradi di Maggiore. Tornato in patria, decise di dedicarsi alla politica attiva, arrivando – nel 1945 – a divenire Primo Ministro, uno dei più amati e rispettati nella storia del Regno Unito.

A nessuno di noi sarà richiesto, spero, di compiere le stesse azioni di Attlee per difendere democrazia e libertà in Europa. Il suo coraggio, la sua ‘decency’ e il suo istintivo senso di giustizia potrebbero, però, essere una preziosa fonte d’ispirazione.


Old Tom

German efficiency

When you are in Italy you will always complain about bureaucracy and very poor services. And you would often be tempted to make the case of other countries, take Germany for instance, where everything works well. I myself believe this is generally true. But there are, of course, exceptions.

Today I had to reserve an international train ticket from Brussels to Berlin. I made filled the online forms, proceeded with the payment, but never received my online ticket. I called the contact centre and I was told they would have sent me the ticket in a matter of a few minutes. They did not. I called back and this time I was told me there was a problem with their electronic system and asked me to hold the call for a few seconds, which turned out to be ten minutes – the cost of the call is 30cent/minute. Eventually, they told me I would have to buy a new ticket. I said no way, my payment already went through, it is your fault therefore you have to fix it. They apologized and told me they would have tried to fix the problem and I had to call them back. I told them they were the ones who had to call me back once the problem was fixed and I hanged up.

One hour later I receive my online ticket by email only to discover that it appears to have slightly different details than those I agreed upon when originally made the reservation. The departure station is now different from the one I picked (Brussels Midi instead than Centraal) and the price is higher (150 euro instead than 140). Of course, these are relatively minor differences; but, I thought, they represented a big blow for German efficiency. I was getting quite annoyed only to realize, eventually, that the entire system had not been managed by the German railway company, but by the Belgian one instead. Of course it makes much more sense: even though Belgium starts being nice to me, the country still remains even more annoying than Italy when it comes to the efficiency of bureaucracy and services.


The weather is still awful, but I finally admit I really like Brussels. Of course, the city is doomed because of all the problems I have mentioned in previous posts, but looking back at the last three months here I recognize at the end the good things far exceed the bad ones. I refer to the random indie events, the huge parks, the three official languages, the vintage clothes, the jazz concerts, the Turkish community, the Ethiopian bars. And, hey, living in the poorest part of town is actually not bad at all.



The poorest part of town

Use-it, which provided me the means to go around Brussels since my arrival here last summer, is an admirable example of what can be plainly defined a very good idea. It would deserve another post. For now, I will simply share with you the description of the square where I live, as I just realized it was also part of the map:

The roar of cars makes it hard to imagine, but not so long ago, this was the peaceful village square of Sint-Joost-ten-Node, a little town just outside the city walls. It was in this village that all the rich Brusseleirs had their holiday houses and came to hunt. Right now, Sint-Joost is the poorest municipality of Belgium (average income: €7.954, average income of Belgium €15.535), and it has the highest percentage of people without a job (34%). But it’s also the town where people from 153 different countries live, as you see from the colourful shops, bars, and restaurants around the square of this densest and smallest (1km²!) of Brussels’ 19 towns. When you take the Pacificatierstraat / Rue de la Pacification, pay close attention to the houses. Suddanly the crazy mix of languages, colours and shapes disappears, and you’re in a street where all the houses look pretty and the streets are clean and empty.


La hulpe

After last weekend with Iris, yet another beautiful break with the Lithuanian crew – and a bicycle.



All the credits to Mindo for the stunning photos.

Hiking on a highway

I spent last weekend in Brussels and Lorenzo asked me to write some lines for his blog.

Brussels is an interesting city, ugly yet beautiful at the same time. It is fascinating how a city which embodies the great European dream can be so depressing – at least, the new European part looks depressing. No statues of liberty in this city welcoming new people. Literary terms occurred in my head: Brussels seems like a weird paradox to me. Its exterior can be seen as some kind of awkward metaphor for today´s situation of the EU, as viewed by many people: the old part I found quite beautiful, while the new buildings taking over the city looked threatening. Sometimes, content is not enough – it should be expressed in tangible objects to make a strong case. Inspiring architecture would be a good start.

Anyway, there has been enough talk about this topic and certainly on Lorenzo´s blog. Because let´s make room for another cliché here: it doesn´t matter where you are when you are with friends. I discovered some universal rules about true friends during my visit, which I can apply to all my best friends:

  • they are hanging out with interesting people;
  • they are pursuing great things in life;
  • even hiking on a highway after taking some wrong turns is fun.


Iris, in Stockholm now.

I am a beer-sipping expat

In Brussels it has rained consistently for the entire duration of this year. This turned the press corps even more whiny than usual about the city. In fact, it looks like I am not alone in flanking this city. As put by the Wall Street Journal, “beer-sipping expats and whole Facebook pages love to moan about Brussels life”.

Meanwhile, the newspaper translated into common jargon the Commission’s country-specific recommendations for Belgium, with suggestions like: “the traffic jams are so bad you are wasting 2% of gross domestic product”; “you guys are really uncompetitive”; and “you guys have the most unfairest tax system”. The article, which you can read here, is basically a list of Belgium’s problems taken entirely from the Commission’s recommendations, available in all the country’s official languages. The article, of course, does not compare Brussels to London or Paris (although The Telegraph did a while ago, and Brussels won). But it provoked an interesting debate on Brussels, which continued on twitter with the hashtag #ceplatpays, which was used for positive and creative news about Belgium. These include:

  • moules-frites at Place Jourdan
  • comic book murals
  • Archiduc
  • the triumphal arch in the late afternoon
  • septante and nonante
  • Tripel Karmelit
  • the Turkish shop down the street
  • the eccentric old ladies in Grand Place


Elio di Rupo

Simone é il ragazzo che si sporge accanto a Elio di Rupo nella foto qui sotto, che ho rubato dal suo profilo Facebook.


Simone scrive: Forse il Belgio non è il paese migliore del mondo, però il fatto di avere un primo ministro (Socialista) omosessuale e figlio di immigrati gli restituisce un’immagine di civiltà che sarebbe giusto avere anche in Italia. Giusto. Eppure: qualche settimana fa parlavo con un professore di Anversa che mi spiegava che Elio di Rupo può essere primo ministro nonostante l’essere originariamente italiano, socialista ed omosessuale grazie a un complicatissimo gioco di equilibri. Tant’è vero che i suoi indici di gradimento sono molto bassi, credo attorno al 30% se non meno. Due terzi degli elettori belgi non vorrebbero che di Rupo fosse il primo ministro del loro Paese. Eppure il sistema politico belga é talmente frammentato che vince chi sa creare equilibri variabili attraverso improbabili alleanze con gli altri partiti eletti in parlamento. Come in Svizzera, tanto per capirci. Una cosa che in Italia la gente chiamerebbe inciucio. Al potere siede chi é  capace di trovare i migliori compromessi e giochi di scambio, non chi piace alla gente. Tanto che del governo di Rupo fanno parte sei diversi partiti: un guazzabuglio. Non é necessariamente un male. D’altra parte in Italia, dove generalmente governa chi ottiene più voti, la gente ha votato e continua ostinatamente a votare in massa per i migliori piazzisti, non per i migliori politici.