YN Y DECHREUAD
It was some time in February 2005 that one of my best friends from University, Rhys, announced to the world that on the forthcoming 23rd April he and his Miss Right, Gretchen, were to be married. I was delighted and honoured to be asked by the happy couple to be best man, even if I wouldn't get a chance to prove it.
When they told me that the ceremony was to take place in Columbia, South Carolina, in the bosum of Gretchen's family, I was even more delighted and honoured. I like the USA and for the most part I like Americans too. I don't need to be asked twice to go there, so armed with the appropriate invitation I set off in search of the necessary papers.
Now, getting a visa for the USA is easy, you might think. Well, you would, if your name isn't Eric Hall. Give me the simplest of tasks, and fate will find a way of complicating it out of all recognition. "Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory" as my old snooker partner Dave Whittaker used to say. Not of course that I would contribute to this scenario ... "Perish the thought, Eric" - ed ... but there you go.
Anyway, so many things happened and so much had to be done, that of necessity much of the story previously told has been somewhat ... er ... truncated. So at long last here is the full version.
And to quote Bilbo Baggins from Lord of the Rings,
"But I will now tell the true story. And if some here have heard me tell it otherwise, I ask them to forget it and to forgive me".
First thing I did was to go off to my friends at Connections (yes, another company with a recommendation from me) to sort out an air ticket and some car hire. I reckoned that if I hired a car for 10 days, I could have a quick drive from the airport to the wedding, and a nice, long, leisurely drive (leisurely drive! Pah! Just wait until you read further on!) back to the airport afterwards.
And I duly left half an hour later with a ticket allez-retour from Brussels to Washington DC, and two weeks of car hire, for the grand old sum of 690 Euros (yes, you did read that correctly - SIX HUNDRED AND NINETY EUROS (or four hundred and fifty quid). So I have to drive a couple of hundred miles further, and spend an extra day or two in Great Satan. So what? You can also understand why Connections merits a link from my page too, at that price.
The visa was relatively straightforward, given what was to come later. I telephoned for a form and it duly arrived, and I duly went to fill it in. But the form asked for me to confirm that I had a Belgian identity card. Which I didn't.
So I phoned them up for some clarification, and they told me that I needed an identity card to be issued with a visa in Belgium. I asked if I could go to another country to apply. Of course I could, if I had the relevant national identity card or proof of residence where no identity card exists. So that was ruled out. Bugger.
Now, to get an appointment, you need to make a telephone call - and you have to pay 15 Euros for this. Talk about cheapskates - they are not content with the 80 Euros for the visa (did I tell you about this?) they want you to clear their foreign exchange deficit by paying for an appointment. Anyway, I decided I'd have the appointment and go ahead and argue my case. I had nothing to lose.
Surprisingly in fact astonishingly the very morning I was to go for my appointment, I received a summons to present myself at the commune's offices. So I did, on my way into town, and at the commune I was presented with my Belgian identity card! Fourteen months I'd been waiting for this, and it comes this morning! "This must be an omen" I reckoned.
Armed with my letter of invitation to the wedding, proof that I can support myself during my stay, proof of my payment of 80 Euros for the visa, and brand spanking new i.d. card etc etc, I duly presented myself at the American Embassy. After a brief desultory interview with some women, during which the only document she looked at was the proof of payment, I was told to come back in two days time.
Two days later, back at the embassy, my passport was returned to me with a shining new 10 year visa therein. Any time I want to go to Great Satan within the next 10 years, I can just hop on a plane without any further ado.
THE DRIVING LICENCE Part l
Next problem was my driving licence. It's one of those old British paper things that fold up into a plastic wallet, and no-one ever sees it from one year to the next. When I took it out at the car hire desk in Canada in 2003, it fell out in three pieces. I made a mental note at the time to replace it but what with procrastination being my strong point, I put it to one side. When I took it out once Rhys invited me over (and when I realised that I needed to hire a car) it fell out in about 7 pieces. Time to get a new one.
This in itself posed three problems.
When my Belgian identity card came through, I reckoned it would be quicker (and more correct) to obtain a Belgian licence. So off I trotted to the British Consulate to have the pieces of my licence certified, so I could apply at the local commune.
So, my turn at the consulate counter. I pulled out all the bits and arranged them together.
"I can't certify this" replied the clerk at the counter.
"Because I can't see that it's from the same document"
"Oh yes you can. Look! All the lines run together, there's the same driver number on several pieces of the form. Everything you need"
"But I can't see it!"
After a few minutes of this, it was obviously time to try a new tack. "Okay - go and fetch your superior!"
And a superior (metaphorically speaking) duly arrived. And she flatly refused to do anything. What with the intervention of someone else in the queue (who was told quite firmly to "*@!+ off" by yours truly - I was in no mood for playing silly buggers) and whatever, we got nowhere. This led to what is called a "frank exchange of views", mostly on the part of yours truly, and the superior went off and hid round a corner.
I wasn't standing for this, and I wasn't going to take it lying down either. Next stop was the British Embassy, to lodge a formal complaint. Which I wrote out and asked to be photocopied.
"There's no-one here to do any photocopying - it's lunchtime. You'll have to wait for an hour" said the receptionist.
"I bet there would be someone if you wanted a knitting pattern or your kid's homework photocopying" I replied (I was on the warpath by now).
I sat down and started to read a book. I always take a book with me in situations like this. The parents of a friend used to take sandwiches and a thermos flask with them. If you demonstrate that you are prepared for a long seige, then the opposition usually crumbles soon enough.
Just to make sure, there is another tactic that you can employ. And always with totally devastating effect.
After about 15 minutes, a girl walked in and asked if she could see someone or other. Before the receptionist could reply, I piped up "You're wasting your time asking. If it takes her (the receptionist) an hour to photocopy a page of A4 for me, it's going to be a week on Thursday before she'll make an effort to see if the person you want is in the office"
The girl got to see her contact witin 5 minutes, and at the same time I received my photocopy. This tactic of public humiliation of a company can work wonders. I remember back in the early 1980s when the "Norwich Union" Insurance Company was taking its time over a claim. A personal visit didn't move them, but when I said to a potential client
" I wouldn't pay your money over to this company. They are really quick at taking it off you, but they take forever in giving it back"
my file was attended to in seconds.
I also had a visit from the superior officer from the Consulate, who had tracked me down around the building. She took the opportunity to harangue me even further. Never mind, I simply added an extra paragraph to my formal complaint, and when I returned home I sent a copy to the Diplomatic Services Head Office in London. Not that it did any good. They undertake to reply within two months, yet that was March 2005, this is June 2006, and I'm still waiting.
Another thing I did was to telephone the DVLC in Swansea. I talked to them about my licence, they confirmed my details, and said they would fax it to the British Consulate. This they duly did, and I went back to the consulate two days later, where the Consulate duly certified my licence as well as the fax from the DVLC.
Next stop was the commune here in Jette, but they couldn't see me for a week. So plan B came into force.
THE DRIVING LICENCE Part ll
I was travelling to Eastbourne in the UK on the Friday for a weekend, and Eastbourne is near Brighton, both of which are on a direct line from Gatwick where my plane was landing. So, having "arranged" a UK address, I landed at Gatwick on the Friday morning, took the train to Eastbourne, alighted at Brighton and went to the DVLC. There I told them that my licence was "lost or destroyed" and filled in all the forms for a new one. I handed them a photo and they asked for a photo identity, so I showed them my passport.
"We can't accept this" replied the clerk
"Oh God. Here we go again"
"Well, it's not issued in the UK" (it is in fact a British passport issued by the Belgian Consulate).
"What's that got to do with it?"
"Well, I can't accept it. Sorry"
"It says in the leaflet that you will accept a British passport. This is a British passport"
"Yes, but it's issued abroad"
"Well, firstly, any embassy anywhere in the world is sovereign territory of the country to which it belongs, and secondly, where does it say in any of this paperwork that you don't accept it?"
After a further "frank exchange of views" I got to see the officer in charge, and we started again.
However, I'm nothing if not a persistent sod, especially when I have right on my side (and sometimes even when I don't) and after 15 minutes of ... er ... interesting discussion, they agreed to process my application.
All of this, and the story isn't anything like ended either.
THE DRIVING LICENCE Part lll
Back home in Belgium, I finally made it to the commune. The woman there looked at all the papers and said "ahh - over 50. You need a medical" and with the State's Chief Medical Officer too!
At this stage, I was glad that I had put plan B into operation. I have a horror of medicals, what with having been neatly stitched up (figuratively speaking) by a medical board not so long ago. Nevertheless, I was here and I'd started so I'd better get on with it, so I called up for an appointment.
The date they gave me was about two weeks after the date that I was due to come home from the USA. That was clearly no use so I told them so. After a lot of talking, they gave me one (an appointment, that is) for the next week. I still had a few days after that for my licence to be prepared, and the commune said they needed only a couple of working days to prepare the licence.
Next goal was to have an eye test and a heart examination (yes, and I did sit up studying for the eye test). Having made a few enquiries, I rang up the local hospital. They offered me a date which would have been after the first date they offered me for the medical, which would have been four weeks after the date on which I was due to return home. Clearly no use. So I explained that I was to have my medical the following week. The silence told its own tale. When they recovered, they offered me a date a few days hence.
So having got the medicals out of the way and armed with the appropriate certificates (obviously, if it's still drawing breath it can have a Belgian driving licence), I made my way to the Chief Medical Officer's office. One thorough examination later, "Congratulations, Monsieur Hall. Passed A1. Would you like the Heavy Goods licence, the Bus licence and the taxi licence too?". What do you think? Do bears live in the woods?
THE DRIVING LICENCE Part lV
Back to the commune, and I handed over all the paperwork.
"Come back on Wednesday to pick up your licence"
"Are you sure it will be ready? There's nothing further you need to know? I can't tell you how important it is to me, and I'm travelling the next day"
"Don't you worry about a thing. It'll be here"
So, quite relaxed, I went home. There was an e-mail message awaiting me.
"Your UK licence has arrived. But if I post it, it isn't going to get to you in time."
Logic told me not to bother - I'll have my Belgian driving licence in time. Intuition, however, is something else. And I'd learned to live or die by my intuition.
"Look, get DHL to come and send it urgent next-day delivery"
"Blimey! That'll cost you a fortune"
"Don't care. I feel some bad omens lurking around"
Next day, DHL arrived with a driving licence (huge sighs of relief all round), and the following day I went to pick up my licence from the commune.
"I'm sorry, Monsieur Hall" said a different lady "There's a problem"
"But your colleague assured me that there wouldn't be one - that everything was present."
"Yes, but that was my colleague. She's not here and I didn't understand completely your British licence, so I need clarification from the Ministry. I've been trying to contact them all morning but they aren't answering the telephone."
As if to prove the point, she called them again and again and no-one responded. After a while, it was evident that no-one was ever going to reply, and it was getting close to closing time.
"I'm sorry Monsieur Hall. You'll have to come back tomorrow"
"Tomorrow's no good - I'm on an aeroplane at some ridiculous early hour."
"Well, what shall I do?" she wailed
Under my breath I muttered a suggestion that she would have found physically impossible (I'm a real swine when I'm annoyed), and walked out. What did I care? Plan B had worked after all and I had my UK licence to keep me going.
STANDING ON THE RUNWAY - WAITING FOR TAKE-OFF
Thanks, Nik Turner
Armed with a 10-year visa from Great Satan and my UK driving licence, off I set to the airport. My persuasive powers on the delightful Tainea or my good friend Paul having failed, I'm going alone yet again - but never mind. Better no volunteers than ten pressed men, I reckon. At least Tainea gave me a bikini to change for her if I were to pass by a Target shop on my way around. I wonder if I'll get the chance to try it on her?
Brussels National Airport is all modern, fake marble, fake wood, fake plastic, and totally cluttered with booths and desks and check-in counters - most of which are always empty. A truck-bomber's dream, the road surface is separated from the glass departure lounge by a plastic bollard or two. Twenty-five tons of Semtex through that window into the departure lounge on a busy Saturday morning in July, what with the arrivals lounge directly underneath and the typical shoddy Belgian ... er ... construction, and it would be "Goodnight Vienna" for thousands.
No wonder no-one takes these terrorist threats seriously. The only reason there are not more "incidents" is because the "terrorists" can't be asked. I'm sure that the west is making up all of these terrorist stories.
Almost two years after I wrote this, a couple of guys crashed a car into Glasgow Airport in just the scenario I had described. But they used gas cylinders, which is why it wasn't as spectacular as anything I would propose.
Upstairs from the departure lounge, at the far end of the corridor past the shops and the travel agency, there's a really enormous coffee lounge with an excellent view across the airport.
So up I went to see what was happening, and the first thing I had an excellent view of was all the fog. It wasn't like this back in the centre of Brussels, only out here at the airport. I hope it's not going to linger - I have a bad time on aircraft as it is, and what with a long wait and a foggy piste for take-off, this isn't going to do my nerves any good at all. I just keep on remembering stories about Italian airports in 2001. Where's the coffee?
From this cafe, there's always a good chance to take a good look at the other end of the piste. So I piste off to the other end to have a quick butcher's, and all of this didn't do my nerves much good either. I hope all of this luggage isn't going to be coming with us. There won't be much room left in the 'plane for all of us if if it does.
It did remind me of the story I heard in the 1970s when SABENA (Such A Bad Experience, Never Again) inaugurated a flight from Brussels to Singapore. They prepared this magnificent poster that read
"Breakfast in Brussels - Supper in Singapore"
Not to be outdone, some wag wrote underneath in thick black pen "Luggage in Lisbon."
Cue another coffee.
So one good coffee later, I passed through the passport control and made my way down to the far end of the terminal to the "special area" where all the passengers for the high-security flights congregate.
My stroll down the walkway was accompanied by this aeroplane on the left. It looked like it had had what we called in the old days a "twenty quid flash-over", like something that had been parked up in the desert for 10 years, bought in a hurry and pressed into service. Click on the image to enlarge it, and see what I mean. Closer inspection revealed that it was like a flying chavmobile - complete with stick-on stripes. Surely this can't be my plane?
As I walked down the gangway, it out-accelerated me (now that's a worrying thought - the fact that up until just now it had been taxiing so slowly that I could keep up with it), passed around the end of the terminal walkway, and taxied up to the gate where I was told that my flight would be.
Yes, that's my 'plane - obviously the expendable one so that another Richard Reid can set fire to his shoe, only in the toilet this time so he can finish off the job in peace, and blast everyone into oblivion, taking me with them. They knew all about me, and they would stop at nothing to finish me off, even if it meant taking 249 innocent passengers with me. But they wouldn't waste a good 'plane - an old banger would do.
Now that is another thing. Why did Richard Reid set fire to his shoe in the passenger cabin where he could be so easily overpowered? If he had really wanted to crash that plane, he would have set fire to his shoe in the rear toilet, right by the bulkhead and where he couldn't be overpowered by anyone. The destruction of the plane and all its passengers would have been assured. The whole Richard Reid affair stinks.
And it was on this depressing note that the attendant called us forward to take off into the unknown in the general direction of Washington Dulles Airport. It's with this link that the great adventure starts.
Anyway - now I'm back. All I have to do is edit up these gulp 530 photos and gulp 3 cassette tapes of notes, and we'll be in business!
So, where did I get to on my travels? Well, there was
Yes, as you can see, I'd been a really busy boy. But I failed miserably in my attempts to set another world record, this time from Washington Dulles Airport. In fact I only managed 2820 miles in the 12 days I had the car. What a wuss!
Finally, what song or piece of music am I going to retain as a souvenir of my visit? Well, seeing as how I had no CD player for most of it and had to listen to whatever was playing on the radio, I'm going to choose a song that didn't even feature in the journey, but sums up exactly what memories I retain of North Carolina.
Yes, North Carolina is "a place you only dream of, where your soul is always free" and seeing as I have "let you see this place where stories all ring true", then in my opinion, North Carolina was summed up by The Outlaws in seven words - "green grass and high tides for ever". Nothing is truer than this.
And if you arived here from the top, you probably missed the easy way into the site. The easiest thing to do now is to go directly to the page where I take off for Washington Dulles Airport