It was a trip which almost became a huge regret. The party lasted deep into the night. It was as though Belgium had won the World Cup final, and I couldn’t understand the emotion that enveloped that victory. Train loads of fans of the Belgian national soccer side (the Red Devils) thronged the Stade Roi Baudouin (stadium) in Brussels through the metro subway system, to watch their team play against Algeria on a large screen high definition television, transmitted live from Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Two 45 square meter HD screens were mounted outside the stadium and these were surrounded by food and drink vendors. Thousands gathered outside the stadium to watch the match, many in Red Devils fan attires to show their support for the team, and they stayed afterwards to celebrate with music, food and drinks, which were not free anyway. The frenzy created the impression that one was actually at the venue of the match. I had joined the soccer-crazy fans at the Stade Roi Baudouin through the metro with Ben, a Tunisian colleague who was with me on a media roundtable organised by the European Union Commission. It focused on hindrances and enhancing access to the Shenghen visa, and was rounded off at the Hotels Silkens Berlaymont the previous day. Next day after the match, I had to leave Brussels for Paris, France en route Abuja. The return ticket indicated that I had to catch a flight from the Brussels airport to Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris at 07:30am local time, before connecting a scheduled flight to Abuja same day. I made sure to wake up early that morning, in spite of the long trip to the stadium the previous day, and I later attended the victory night party at the Berlaymont. The North African side took a shock lead when Sofiane Feghouli scored from the spot, after being fouled by Tottenham defender Jan Vertonghen. But Manchester United’s Fellaini, a second-half substitute, equalised for Belgium with a looping header shortly after coming on. To add to the Algerian woe, Mertens scored the winner for Belgium when he finished off a swift counter-attack to end the match at 2:1 in Belgium’s favour. All these we watched live on the big screen as we stood outside the stadium. I was very impressed with the convenient transportation around the city through the metro. It’s easy to use and only costs 1 euro for a ticket. But on that match day, I discovered that most passengers, especially the exhilarated youths, did not pay fares to the stadium.
The metro network consists of two main lines and one secondary line. This seems small compared to Paris’ 14 metro lines and London’s 11 underground lines. But the Brussels system is supplemented by 18 underground and above-ground tram lines and 47 bus lines. There are also 20 bus lines called the ‘Noctis’ network which run at night. In Nigeria, we have no city metro yet, and the government is just coming up with the $500 million Abuja Light Rail project, which is expected to be completed sometime this year. When completed however, it will be incomparable to the Brussels metro.I had a great time making new friends at the stadium. Ben turned out to be quite an interesting character, and made the trip to the stadium a pleasant and memorable one. He mixed freely with the youthful Belgians in the train because he speaks fluent French. We changed trains a number of times before getting to the stadium, and Ben kept reassuring me to feel comfortable and not to worry about how to get back to the hotel. “Don’t be afraid, this is not Abuja or Lagos, any time we wanna get back, we will be safe and quick,” he said as he danced around with our victorious Belgian friends after the match. Gradually, I became part of the friendly atmosphere. Ben made me very comfortable, but I couldn’t leave all the spending to him. I almost ran out of cash, and never knew I was taking a great risk. It’s not like Abuja where I could easily make a call to a friend or brother for replenishment if I have a difficulty. In Europe, you learn to be “on your own” to avoid making stupid explanations on expenditure.
Back at the Silkens Berlaymont after the victory party, I packed my belongings and got set for the return trip home early the next morning. I woke up at 6:30am and set out immediately in a taxi I quickly got at the Silkens for 40 euros. I pondered over what 40 euros could have fetched me in Abuja if exchanged for naira. All the same, I paid, especially as I was almost out of cash. Midway into the trip to the airport, I realised I was a little too early, as another peep into my flight ticket showed that the Brussels-Paris flight was for 8:00am. I regretted the disruption of my dawn sleep. It was then that I realised that I had forgotten my wallet in my hotel room drawer, and the taxi made a u-turn for an additional fare. At the airport, I presented my ticket to an Air France female officer who told me that I was actually going to make the Paris trip by high speed train, and not by air as thought, or as the ticket read. I had to take another taxi or train to the Brussels Midi Train Station. The Brussels Midi station, also known as the Brussels-Midi/Zuid Station, opened in 1869, is Europe’s principal rail hub and the ideal starting point for getting to Germany, France, The Netherlands, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom. It connects travellers to the entire Belgian domestic railway network. It is easy to take a train from other parts of Europe or Belgium to Brussels, because of the frequency of trips and there are many departing cities that have trains going via Brussels to other major cities or directly to Brussels. They have domestic trains, intercity trains and high-speed trains, all operated by several different companies including Thalys, Eurostar, TGV, and ICE trains. “Quickly go downstairs, take a train ticket, or if you like, take a taxi to Brussels Midi,” she said as she took a cursory look at me, muttering a quiet “Good luck.” It was already past 7:15am. The train trip from Brussels Midi to Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris was for 8:00am. I rushed to pick a ticket at the basement, and hopped into an almost empty train for the Midi. I thought it was a few meters from the airport. But the train ride took almost 30 minutes, with stops at every station. I was alone with an old couple in the coach, and kept pestering them asking where we were at each station. The couple disembarked after a few stations, leaving me alone in the empty coach. I guessed they found me a bit of a bore. I became jittery.
Finally, we arrived at the Midi and I jumped off the train. I rolled my bag to the departure lounge where I had my boarding pass verified by another set of Air France officers, who advised me to proceed for boarding immediately at Platform 3. I mistakenly hurried upstairs to Platform 4, and had to go down again. The minutes were ticking away. Finally, at Platform 3, barely a minute after stepping into the train, it moved off on its way to Paris. It was a near miss. Inside the train, I struggled to find my seat number. A young European was fiddling with his laptop computer on my seat, and refusing to get up.But I insisted that the seat was mine. He was apparently French but spoke good English. A cool gentleman, he later quietly stood up and I sank into the seat, tired and hungry . I felt like asking the man to sit, but I was too tired and hungry to do that, especially as his own seat was a few yards away. Now seated, I asked a French speaking African seating next to me if I was actually on the train to Paris. “Going Africa? This... Paris train, yes, Paris, we going Paris,” he said. I became a little relieved and waved goodbye to Brussels, wondering what would have happened to me if I had delayed a minute longer, having to catch the next scheduled flight to Abuja from Paris, and with only a few euros left in my pocket. I learnt a lesson about waking up early and starting a long journey in time, and avoiding frivolous spending at night parties. I miss the Silkens Berlaymont and the friends I made at the after-night party, but perhaps I should have remembered that I had a long trip to make the next day.
The trip to Brussels was sponsored by the European Union Commission.
If you are happy to be contacted by a Daily Trust journalist please leave a telephone
number that we can contact you on. In some cases a selection of your comments will
be published, displaying your name as you provide it and location, unless you state
otherwise. Your contact details will never be published. When sending us pictures,
video or eyewitness accounts at no time should you endanger yourself or others,
take any unnecessary risks or infringe any laws. Please ensure you have read the
terms and conditions.