Lorenzo & his humble friends

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

Tag: bruxelles

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.

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Old Tom

Brussels again

After The Hague and Rotterdam, today I have been in Brussels. Tomorrow I am headed to Berlin and after that I might roll down to Prague, before returning to Florence for good.

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So here we are

I am sitting in the airport in Pisa and waiting for my flight to Brussels. I realize only now that I am in the exact same place as I was six months ago when I flew here from Brussels for my interview.

I am grateful, and I mean it truly, for being as happy, or even happier than I was back then. I have the rare fortune to do exacty what I like to do. But even more than that, I feel blessed for having met so many incredibile people along the way. In Belgium, Slovakia, and then here in Florence I got to know some extraordinary persons. Some are now among my dearest friends; others will soon be. I couldn’t ask anything more than this. The sun sets down and once again I take off.

Stuff I’ve been reading before moving here

It took me a while to get over the notion that I wanted to go and live in Florence and I’d only just become resigned to my lot there when the local football team radically evolved to reach what supporters consider a surely to come first stage in the Italian championship that has yet to begin. All in all, it’s been an unsettling couple of months and my appetite for books has been grossly discontinuous.

Back in February in rainy London, when sitting my interview at King’s College, I bought a few books. Most of them were political essays and I never had the guts to read them. The only purchase that really appealed me at the end was a collection of stories that accurately recall the grey atmosphere of Victorian London. Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes looked life a safe harbour to protect me from the perils of deviated political minds writing about social capital and individualism. However, I did not manage to read it all. Good old Sherlock turned out to be a harder read than I expected, some fifteen years later the last time I discovered it as a child. (Furthermore, talking about Sherlock Holmes, I seem to remember that I used to like A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles much better than this one book).

Arthur Conan Doyle once said that Edgar Allan Poe’s stories were “a model for all time“. As to honour this connection, and in a sense of guilt for not having finished the book, I started Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the only complete novel by the famous American author. I finished the book in a few days but, well, to put it simply I would not recommend it.

I would, instead, recommend another book I read when in Brussels, between March and July. Stoner was a present from my father. It is difficult to find anything special about this plain psychological investigation of the university career of an imaginary character who engages a consuming struggle against the apathy that surrounds him. This is a hell of a sad book; yet, I it is also a powerful story that made me – more- willing not to compromise, to pursue my passions, and to be coherent.

Talking about coherence, I did not finish two other books I got as presents from Stefania and Iris. I intentionally left Charles Schulz’s Ce la possiamo fare, Charlie Brown! unfinished, as I enjoyed to progress little by little, reading a couple of strips every day. I still have to finish it. Dimitri Verhulst’s The Misfortunates was a bestseller in Belgium. Iris brought it to me as a present when she came to visit. Ironically, the book is about alcoholism and wild parties, something that was completely alien to our habits when Iris and I spent time together in Canada. The whole concept of the book is hilarious but – as for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, there isn’t any story behind it, just a series of short novels which, at the end, all look alike. For this reason I never managed to finish the book. I did, however, adored the one chapter entitled The Tour de France, in which an extraordinary drinking competition is created by one of the characters. In line with the famous bike race. 19 stages with 5km equal to a standard glass of alcohol, meaning that “even a reasonably short stage of 180 kilometres would involve drinking 36 standard glasses of alcohol. Against the clock“. There are even three jerseys to earn: “the yellow jersey was for the leader and eventual winner…the greenn jersey for the explosive sprinter: the neck-it king. And the polka-dot jersey could be captured in the mountains, where you proceeded by guzzling strong drinks like whisky and vodka“. This brilliant idea will soon be translated into practice, as soon as I will find the athletes ready to accept the challenge (Alvise, TLA, Joe, Andrew, Fabio, Mindo, Stefano, James…?).

Perhaps because of a sense of childish curiosity, just before leaving Belgium I felt the urge to read Herge’s Les Aventures de TinTin: L’Ile Noire. I suppose I cannot really consider this comic novel as a book. I did, however, manage to finish it in only one day – quite surprisingly, as it was in French, a language I am still far from mastering.

Back in Italy I read Richard Ford’s short novel The Womanizer. This is a light, yet insightful, read about men and infidelity. During my relatively short trip to Slovakia I decided to dig deep into Czech culture. I read Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Other Stories and there isn’t much to say about it: I did not understand much of it, I did not like it, and I gave up. Diluded and in need of something to read during a 7-hour ride on the train, I found an English library in Bratislava and I bought Milan Kundera’s Slowness. I adored it and I read it all the night before taking the train in the hostel. So on the train I had nothing to do. To avoid the same mistake, on my way back I bought Kundera’s Immortality, which is much longer than the former. I finished it one week later, when travelling with Stefania. In this period I eagerly consumed four books in a row. It must be said that on our way we stopped in many libraries and bought an enormous amount of books. I managed to read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, a collection of Celtic Tales and a biography of John Fitzgerald Kennedy; and none of these is particularly worth a comment. I only started, and not finished, Henry Thoreau’s Walden: Life in the Woods and Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: the West and the Rest. Thus far I will limit myself to saying that these two books have one thing in common: they both come with an heavy subtitle.

Sigh

Ana andata via. Sto faccendo le valigie. Nostro B n B chiuso.

Mindo

Overwhelmed

Mindo, Ana, Roberto, Giulia, Matic, Vaida, Xavier, Moe, that are those with whom I have spent the last 24 hours: I will carry your generosity with me.

Who said we lived in Brussels?

Mirano is a dodgy club just in front of our house in Brussels. Mindo and I will forever remember the unique style of Mirano clients queuing in front of the gates on Saturday nights. A few days ago I realized with astonishment that one of the few music albums I bought was recorded just there. The name of the album is, in fact, Live in Mirano – I reckon I could, in fact, have made the connection a bit earlier on time. It is one of the four albums recorded by the Belgian alternative rock band Ghinzu that I discovered in Ireland in 2009 and kept on listening since then.

Talking about nice/funny discoveries, Giulia showed me a series of 12 episodes on life in the Eurobubble which is available on YouTube.

 

The title pretty much speaks for itself. This is a nice farewell video to conclude my experience here in Brussels. But if I have to speak about Belgium, then there’s more. Like most of the people, I knew very few things about Belgium before I moved here. I knew they had beer, chocolate and were the home of the EU, but I certainly did not image this country is as crazy as it is. Just to say: Belgium has the highest density of roads and railroads in the world and because of the quantiy of lights, the Belgian highway system is the only man-made structure visible from the moon at night. If you are interested in this weird country, you should probably have a look at this clip Daniel showed me back in 2012.

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.

Brussels

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.